Because We Can

By Cyberquill 07/11/201215 Comments

In a 2004 interview, a contrite President Clinton reflected thus upon his escapades with Monica in the White House:

I think I did something for the worst possible reason: just because I could. I think that’s the most, just about the most morally indefensible reason that anybody could have for doing anything.

And in his 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama took a dig at Republicans for voting no on every bill “just because they can,” i.e., for the most morally indefensible reason that anybody could have for doing anything.

Of all the flimsy justifications for the consumption of meat by humans in areas of the world where alternative sources of nutrition are available aplenty, the “nature” line of argumentation boggles the mind the most. In essence, its subscribers are saying that behaving like predators in the wild is OK because they can.

On the one hand, many people pride themselves on belonging to a more highly evolved and civilized category of beings than all others—religious folks, in fact, tend to view themselves as created in God’s likeness and hence belonging to an entirely distinct league from animals—but when it comes to selecting their dinner, all pretense of humanity, as distinct from being an animal, falls by the wayside and their moral code suddenly resembles that of a tiger in the Tundra more than that of a supposedly “human” being.

Yes, nature is a place of awesome beauty and perfect balance. Nature is also a place of unspeakable cruelty, where the strong vanquish the weak, where the sick and injured stand no chance, and where higher sentiments such as mercy or compassion—to the extent to which they may be present at all—do not figure too prominently in shaping the actions of its inhabitants.

In a word, nature is a state of affairs where the strong will take whatever they want with zero compunction and no consideration whatsoever for the suffering of the parties injured in the process, simply because they can. If I like your babe, I’m gonna hit you over the head with a club.

Therefore, to justify our behavior by pointing to “nature” as a guide seems awkwardly at odds with our notion of having attained to a more elevated stage in evolution relative to our cave-dwelling ancestors and to members of the animal kingdom.

Nature … is what we were put in this world to rise above. (from “African Queen”)

If nature were such a desirable state, why would we need laws or a constitution? Of course, we wouldn’t. Laws and a constitution are measures to establish a civilized society, as opposed to a natural society. By definition, “natural” conditions—i.e., the strong lording it over the weak as they please—are those conditions that automatically take over in the absence of a fairly sophisticated system specifically designed to counteract them.

Brutish behaviors such as rape, beatings, and enslavement—all merely variations on the theme of the strong doing whatever they want to the weak because they can—are extremely “natural” phenomena in a sense that they’ve been rampant throughout history all the way up to and including modern times. Yet few of us, I hope, would defend these behaviors on account of “naturalness” as a function of their recorded frequency. Any truly evolved human being will recoil at them, not happily join in because they’ve been going on all over they place.

Likewise, to defend the systematic slaughter of sentient creatures by invoking “nature” and to refer to humans residing at the top of the food chain is simply a way of banging our chests like troglodytes operating in reptilian mode and exclaiming Because we can!

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  • Richard

    Life is an unceasing struggle against the forces of Nature, so to that extent conscientious abstention from meat-eating can be said to be natural. We would not have become as we are, though, without competition for survival.

    Civilisation and its paraphernalia can be said to be a subtler form of self -interest of the strong who recognise they cannot survive against the cooperative efforts of the masses. That cooperation is possible only because of the large brains which are the result of natural selection.

    Yet I would rather say that an ordered society and refraining from harming others is spiritual and not of instinctive origin. I therefore accept the line of your argument.

    It is of genuine concern, however, whether the removal of competition will eliminate survival and adaptation to changing conditions. Animals that cannot compete become extinct. Can Man really take on the very force of Nature that made him as he is without becoming extinct? Even civilisation has failed to eliminate war. In fact it has made it more threatening and and all-consuming.

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

      To deliberately raise and then slaughter billions heads of livestock every year has nothing to do with competition for survival, and man isn’t depleting the oceans because he needs more room to live under water. 

      Of course civilization is a form of natural self-interest. Ultimately, every choice and every behavior can be said to be natural, or else it wouldn’t be occurring in the first place. Most people’s natural reaction when they see a furry creature is to go “awww” and want to pet it and play with it and protect it, not eat it. If you put a hungry child in a room with an apple and a live bunny, the kid’s natural instinct will hardly be to eat the bunny and play with the apple. And many people who have no qualms about eating lamb chops would recoil at the thought of those chops stemming from particular lamb they’ve personally interacted with in the past. 

      Witnessing the slaughter of an animal would disturb most people, even if they consume meat on a regular basis with no second thoughts whatsoever. But nobody gets disturbed when watching a carrot being ripped out of the soil and cut in half. This also speaks volumes about our natural impulses.

      So yes, compassion is a natural human instinct, too. In fact, our natural tendencies are all over the place, which is why such an impressive capacity for compartmentalization is required to sit down for a steak dinner and feel good about it.

  • Richard

    And will the animals you preserve be the ultimate means of Mankind’s extinction?

    I merely pose the question.

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

      Your question may be a valid one with respect to game and wild boars. Most animals that humans consume, however, were specifically domesticated and raised for the express purpose of human consumption, so we can’t make the argument that we’re somehow protecting ourselves from creatures that exist solely on account of human intervention.

  • Richard

    Raising beef is an ingenious way to compete with wolves for the same prey. Humans ultimately prevailed.

    Protective instincts for certain animals such as bunnies or wide-eyed baby deer derive from parents’ concern for their offspring, who would otherwise fall victim to predators. They are written into our genetic make-up in order to perpetuate the species -- the selfish gene.

    As you say, all things may be explained as natural processes and you thus have an impossible task if you seek to justify vegetarianism in a condemnation of Man’s use to the full of his capacity for survival.

    You have obscured your appeal to moral imperatives by a sweeping generalisation about religious “folks” as if to be religious precludes vegetarianism or acceptance of the essentials of Darwinism. I suggest that some religious people are allies in your cause and that the only logical way to proceed is to admit the existence of a higher intelligence -- the one you refer to as “God” -- whose purpose extends beyond the processes of evolution to questions of conduct. Even then you are left with moral dilemmas and conflicts to resolve. Would you, for example, condemn a famine-ridden family of a Masai warrior for cutting flesh fom their single cow?

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

      The famine-ridden Masai family may have to eat a cow to survive. We don’t.  Moral dilemma resolved. 

      • Richard

        My reaction to those beautiful big blue eyes on Masai cows is to want to say, “Aww,” and pet and play with them. Famine is a flimsy justification for chopping pieces off to eat. How can you say it is right to raise a cow merely to feed a Masai family and perpetuate their tribe? Where will it end?

        • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

          And in order to survive while trapped on the ice, the Shackleton crew ate their dogs and their deceased comrades. 

          Famine is no flimsy justification for slaughtering cows. What’s flimsy is to invoke situations where a genuine dearth of alternatives exists in order to justify one’s own meat consumption at a time and in a place where alternative sources of nutrition are in plentiful supply. 

          • Richard

            We are in accord on the question of eating dead bodies.

            Now perhaps you will explain why the welfare of a living human is to be preferred to the welfare of a living cow.

            • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

              My anthropocentric hardwiring tells me to value human over non-human life, particularly when it comes to genuine either/or situations that few of us ever find ourselves in.

            • Richard

              You value human over non-human because you can.

            • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

              Yep. And sorry about the prolonged famine in the London area that forces you to eat meat in order to stay alive. Perhaps some day plant-based foods will be available in your neighborhood again. 

  • Testazyk

    Well said.  And it’s even worse.  Endangered species (e.g., the NZ long tailed eel) are killed and sent overseas to be made into pet food.

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

      Unlike most of the pseudo-dilemmas habitually invoked by the typical meat eater and laid at vegetarians’ door, usually attended by a superciliously victorious smirk, the production of pet food (whether made from endangered species or not) presents a real moral dilemma for which there exists no good solution. For just as most people who eat meat do so solely driven by an emotional attachment to their dopey lamb chops and meatballs, i.e., not to satisfy a genuine need, most pets are being held solely for pleasure. So in order to stem the pet food slaughter, should we stop having carnivorous pets? Not let the existing ones starve, of course, but phase them out. Tough one. 

      Personally, I’m not a big fan of pets to begin with. Not because I don’t want to hug and play with every cat and every dog I see—I most certainly do—but because for every happy pet there are hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of unwanted ones wasting away in shelters or perishing in the streets. So the overall amount of misery humans produce by maintaining the institution of pets far outweighs the amount of joy and happiness pets bring. On balance, people’s desire to have pets causes more suffering than joy by a staggering margin, and that’s not even taking into account the extra amount of cruelty necessary to produce pet food.

      • Testazyk

        Interesting question.  I’m inclined to agree with your last paragraph. 

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