“If you were starving, you’d eat it”
Would I? It’s a pertinent statement, even a direct challenge, leveled at those who choose not to eat meat… There may be some who are determined to argue that they wouldn’t take another life to sustain their own, no matter what the circumstances, but this sounds like a claim from a well fed mouth. Given desperate days, in a situation we hope we will never know, I would argue that even the most steadfast and gentle amongst us would find it within themselves to kill and eat a creature to preserve their own life. To walk away, conscience in tact, would be wholly irrational, against instinct and nature. We are just human animals, the will to survive is innate.
So in answer to our earlier question – if I was starving, would I eat an animal – then I could only reasonably respond that yes, yes I probably would.
My carnivorous friend might sit back, satisfied (perhaps even smug) that I have conceded their point, but have they really made that good an argument against a vegetarian or vegan diet? In admitting that we might eat meat if pushed to our limits, I don’t think that we undermine our moral stance. It’s an argument designed out of context – there’s a reason that we have such a hard time imagining ourselves into that scenario, and it’s simple – we are experiencing its antithesis. We’re not starving – far from it. We are thriving in a prosperous and fat bellied society, rich with luxury and choice. Morality is one such luxury.
The opportunity to make moral choices isn’t a given in human existence. It seems that morality has little place in matters of survival – to ask whether we would eat meat if we were starving isn’t really a moral question. It’s a practical one – when under threat we employ cold reason and rationality to keep ourselves alive. If there’s an aggressor – we attack it, if there’s a weakling – we drop it, if there are mouths to feed – we find a way to feed them. It’s even been theorised that evidence of empathy and community are just further self serving functions – safety in numbers and combined efforts proving most the effective mode of survival. Whether we are looking at the first tribes, or groups and individuals across history who have found themselves on the cusp, human beings act in all manner of ways when they are desperate that wouldn’t be considered morally permissible from our armchairs. I don’t think these actions should be judged morally at all. Its simply not a moral playing field. There are numerous psychological and physiological factors at work, far more predominant than conscience and guilt, to the point of eclipsing them entirely.
Thankfully, most of us have left savagery and desperation far behind. We have a choice, but with that choice comes moral responsibility. In our society we opt to kill animals every day, not in order to survive, but for mere pleasure. We should ask: Without consent, are we ever justified in taking pleasure that is derived from suffering? Are we obliged to make a different choice?
A friend recently suggested the idea of contextual vegetarianism and I think he may have a persuasive argument. In a bad situation, do what you need. In a good situation, do what is right.
What would happen to our contextual morality if another human being had the misfortune to cross the path of a starving man? Would we eat him too?