Much(read “too much”) has been said on the issue of consumption of beef. Politicians have found fresh material for their mud slinging competitions. Citizens of the internet have found a new issue to make memes on. The “responsible and politically aware” youth has found a new topic to rage on. Out of job actors and wannabe authors of national bestsellers have found a new topic to write “open letters” on. And last but not the least, I have a found a topic to write on.
Scriptures have been quoted, famous leaders have been quoted, legal passages have been quoted and retired judges of supreme court have been quoted. Clueless as always, I think its mildly amusing and highly unfortunate that whenever we are faced with a moral dilemma that doesn’t offer a simple solution, we swiftly turn to passages in old and dusty books and words uttered by old and rusty men(Is that anti-feminist?) for the answer. I am not going to do the same. I will take facts and use my own judgement to come up with an answer. Opinions, no matter where they come from carry an inherent bias and should only be treated as cues to guide us along the right path.
The primary question isn’t which animal is sacred and which is not. The first question that needs to be answered is, whether it is at all moral for human beings to consume animal flesh. At the outset, I would like to declare that the human anatomy is perfectly adapted to consume meat. We have canine teeth and a short small intestine like carnivores. At the same time, we have molar teeth and our jaws can move sideways, just like herbivores and the pH of our stomach is slightly higher than those of carnivores. Hence, we are omnivores, that is, we are well suited to consume both “nuts and meat”. Now that I have got that out of the way, lets get back to the point.
Our ancestors have been consuming meat since a long time and even today, there are populations in distant locations like tribes in south america and Eskimos in Siberia whose diet largely consists of animals. But, that is mainly because they do not have access to other sources of food since large scale agriculture is almost impossible in these locations. But, we have a choice. Most of us living inside the constructs of the modern “civilized” society have access to non-animal sources of food that can satisfy all our nutrition requirements. So, is it then, unethical for us to kill these animals for their meat? Honestly, I do not have a satisfactory answer to this question. My personal belief is that it is not unethical, not because I cannot give up meat but, mostly because, I have a lot of friends and family members who can’t and they are perfectly good people. And frankly, our(meaning all life forms’) existence is enough to cause distress to other forms of life and it is inevitable. Sure, we should try to minimize it but, there is no way we can completely eliminate it.
However, it cannot be denied that the present mode and rate of consumption of animals, especially in developed western societies is unsustainable and extravagant. The reason for this is that, most of the meat that we eat now-a-days is either purchased from shops or supermarkets or cooked in restaurants, out of our site. This disconnect between the consumer and the consumed might explain the lack of empathy. I believe that if we eliminate this disconnect, people will develop more environment-friendly and sustainable eating habits. A good way to minimize the distress we cause to animals would be to do away with the present methods of industrial scale mass rearing wherein animals and birds are kept under extremely cruel conditions. There should be strict guidelines dictating the conditions that need to be maintained in these facilities.
Now, we need to answer the more nuanced question of whether or not the flesh of all animals be treated the same. I believe that there is no absolute answer to the question. What one chooses to eat is too personal a question to have a generic answer that applies to everyone. This is a choice that would be affected by the environment that we live in and the kind of exposure we have had to animals. For example, if I have spent most of my childhood with a pet dog, then, I would not be very eager to consume dog meat, however delicious it might be. It is usually considered inhuman to consume animals that are domesticated because it is expected that having spent time with these animals we should have a soft corner for them. That is why different societies, according to the pattern of domestication, have different norms for what flesh is considered and what flesh is not. This might be a reason why consuming beef is frowned upon in the Indian society. Similarly, consuming the meat of animals that cause us harm like animals that destroy crops and carry diseases (rodents and insects) or live in filthy environments (insects, crows and even dogs in some parts of the world) is considered a social taboo. This is most probably due to the evolutionary instinct of our ancestors to avoid potentially rotten or disease causing flesh.
I would like to add that I do not agree with the oft-cited explanation that claims that all life is equal and hence, if we are fine with consuming the meat of one animal, we should be okay with consuming the meat of another. All life is not equal. If it were so, then, I can extend the logic to claim that cannibalism should also be accepted. But, most of us would find that idea absurd because, we as human beings, form emotional connections with other human beings and hence, the idea of consuming another person’s flesh is just appalling.
In conclusion, I believe that, like everything else in life, it is best if what one considers edible and inedible is left to that person. Of course, depending the prevalent conditions, society would come up with certain rules and it has the right to do so but, these rules should not be hard and fast. In other words, keep your eyes off of my plate.