Dear Ethical Vegetarians,

I was musing the other day about morality. I was thinking about how stretchy and subjective and arbitrary it is. I was considering how desperately most people want to believe that morality is something fixed and objective; that our moral code is progressing towards some final, utopian state; that new laws of morality are discovered in the same way that the laws of physics are discovered. One of the prime draws of religion is a crystallized moral code.

And we love to hoist ourselves onto the high horse of Western Values Circa 2016 and gaze down haughtily, aghast with horror at the ignorance of the past. It's like when you find an old computer in your parents' attic, bring it down, and turn it on just so you can laugh and shake your head in disbelief at the antediluvian design of Windows 3.1.

The centuries seem filled to the brim with objective wrongness. It's hard to fathom how everyone could be so wrong for so long. The Egyptians used slave labor. The Greeks were pederasts. The Romans left deformed newborns in the woods to die of exposure.

Imperialism. Caste systems. Discrimination of every kind. What a brutish story it's been. How stupid, superstitious, and ignorant people used to be.

Thank God we live in the year 2016. But where does morality go from here? Extending access to rights has been popular recently. If that trend continues, the defining moral struggle of the 21st century may be animal rights- especially ending the slaughter of animals for food. 

Vegetarianism may become what abolitionism was to the 19th century. But if we decide to grant these rights to animals, it will be because we chose to, not because it was inevitable, the rights were inherent, or because it was objectively correct to do so. And to which animals will we choose to grant rights?

Most of us already choose to grant special rights to certain animals. I let Mr. Piffington dress up as Obi-Wan Kenobi and watch as many episodes of Castle as he wants.

Most ethicist proponents of vegetarianism see it as the end of anthropocentrism. But it would just widen the circle, which would still have humans at its center. Humans care most about the lifeforms that are most like us. This can be seen in the various degrees of vegetarianism and its related movements. Many Westerners, otherwise comfortable with eating large amounts of meat find the consumption of certain animals disconcerting, either because of the animals' intelligence as in the case of monkeys and dolphins, or due to the animals' traditionally close relationship to humans, e.g. dogs, cats, and horses. Pollotarians abstain from red meat (mammals) only. Pescatarians draw the line at fish. Others refuse to eat anything with a central nervous system. Still others have decided that it would be immoral to eat any life form that had a mother. Vegans don't eat or use any animal products. All arbitrary distinctions. All anthropocentric.

Even the hardest-core, tree-cuddling, eco-warrior, mother-Gaia hippy-vegan slaughters countless defenseless plants every week. That might sound like a joke, but seriously- who decided that mobility and a central nervous system qualify you for rights while other living beings are to be subjugated as a means to human ends? Anthropocentric human beings who just happen to be mobile and have a central nervous system, of course. For some people it comes down to pain and suffering. But once again, that's an arbitrary, anthropocentric hurdle to require life forms to clear. You're essentially telling the carrot that it has to be like you to enjoy a right to life, while ignoring the plurality and denying the validity of the carrot experience. It also implies that eating meat is perfectly ethical assuming you can sneak up on a cow and kill it instantly.

Assuming we make the arbitrary distinction between plant and animal life, things get even messier when you start to consider the mutual exclusivity of just every animal's right to life. If every gazelle has the same right to life as a human, and it is within our power to prevent the lion from eating the gazelle, do we not have the same moral imperative to rescue the gazelle that we would also have if we knew a child was in danger of being eaten by a lion? Murder by direct action, or allowing a murder to take place through inaction amount to the same thing. If we truly believe that every animal has an equal right to life, human intervention in every link of the food chain is an inescapable eventuality. We'll have to force-feed lab-grown meat and tofu to every carnivore and omnivore on the planet before our poor consciences can rest in peace, knowing we're doing everything within our power to reduce suffering, and then we'll have to supply every creature on earth with contraceptives to prevent the resulting overpopulation.

Mutual exclusivity also exists between insects and the crops we grow. Even organic farms use pesticides (naturally-derived ones of course) or insect traps. You can't grow kale without killing. I wonder how many vegans consider the unintended consequences of their vegetable consumption. What happens in a world in which humans have decided that morality extends to insects? Do we watch as bugs lay waste to our crops, pushing the world towards famine? Do we send everyone out into the fields with tweezers to gently remove every individual bug? Would an accidental crushing be due cause for manslaughter charges to be brought against the clumsy tweezer wielder? The ramifications of a world of rights that includes every animal tangles up ad absurdum into an inextricable Gordian Knot.

Morals don't descend from the sky. Morals are created by man in man's image, just like his gods. Murdering children is frowned upon by most cultures, but there's no natural law against it, obviously. People do it all the time and lightening doesn't strike them dead. Morals are a purely practical matter. Extending morality to more than a few animals would be mindbogglingly impractical. Trying to extend morality to every human is already a mindbogglingly complicated undertaking. Sometimes it's enough to make you want to give up, rip off your clothes, howl at the moon, and live in the lawless wild where might still makes right like nature intended.

That awkward moment when you try to argue animal rights from human rights and instead realize that human rights are arbitrary and contrived as well. It's like trying to hoist yourself up by a branch and the whole tree falls down. If there weren't a patchwork of cultural injunctions, social taboos, legal distinctions, and the threat of familial retaliation protecting these delicious homo sapiens, no one would think twice about eating the freshly-packed long pigs above either. And you know the Aztecs would have eaten the vegans first.

Be progressive. Or don't. Just don't delude yourself into believing that we're progressing towards a more perfect understanding of a natural science. We're experimenting with different relationships and power structures via trial and error. We've found some arrangements that seem to work out better than others given our current circumstances and preferences. That's all.

Regardless of what we do, a thousand years from now our ancestors will be looking back at us, thinking exactly the same things that we think of people from the medieval ages. They'll have reversed course on many of the things we think of as inviolable now. They'll find things repulsive which we currently cherish-

"Can you believe that they used to let people select their own sexual partners a thousand years ago? And the left-handed were allowed to own property! They thought the arrangement of the furniture in their homes and businesses dictated their destiny and Capitalism was the best economic system they could think of. Children weren't even allowed to work. Can you imagine? It's all so incredibly barbaric. Thank Ford for Empress Blue Spruce; may she grow myriad rings and bear many cones."

Sebastian Braff


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