The spread of this piece around the internet attests not to its quality but to the consumer demand for such an argument. We live in a time when the contradiction between a feeling towards consuming meat and our practices is becoming increasingly prominent, and it is normal that people look to a solution which makes the solution look like a modified form of the status quo.
In short, the argument is that meat raised in terrible conditions, which today accounts for nearly all meat, is not acceptable, but that we need not refrain from killing and eating animals fully because essentially animals are solar energy, and meat is a part of human culture.
We might try to dismiss the popularity of the argument, even if we agreed with its substantive point, as a kind of pathology of aversion towards the recognized real problem. After all, it only defends a very specific form of meat consumption, one which refers to a tiny minority of the meat consumed, and one which is priced out of availability from most consumers. The fact that so little meat is consumed in this way suggests there is something disingenuous about the popularity of the argument – at least 90% of meat eaters, to in their actions agree with this will have to substantively modify their behaviour and often eat vegetarian in reaction simply to the lack of availability of acceptable meat.
I would make this point, but maybe it is better to do an analysis rather this is a pretty terrible argument. Just in case you haven’t seen it, I’ll cite it here:
eating meat is ethical when one does three things. First, you accept the biological reality that death begets life on this planet and that all life (including us!) is really just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form. Second, you combine this realization with that cherished human trait of compassion and choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain and/or meat.
The fact that in a certain perspective animals are merely solar energy doesn’t imply anything ethical, because it is not an ethical fact but a descriptive theoretical fact which is true from a scientific perspective. Unfortunately, scientific description doesn’t allow a passage to normatively – no amount of describing the world in terms of the interchange of atoms and energy tells you what form of interchange is right, this always requires a supplement of felt knowledge (which we could call psychological or phenomenological). This isn’t to say that science can’t be terribly useful in ethical questions, but only in clarifying implications from normative facts which are essentially not in themselves scientifically descriptive.
To clarify this further and add an example, we might say that if we take for granted that animals are solar energy, we might also take for granted that humans are animals (an obvious scientific fact so often left out from scientific description regarding questions regarding food animals), and that therefore humans are solar energy. And if specifics of human culture can justify the use of solar energy stored in animals into human food, then human sacrifice and consumption can be justified. But this is clearly absurd, because insofar as ethics is concerned with universal propositions then the consumption of humans by humans can’t be ethical as by instantiating itself it takes away the possibility for human consumption by those humans consumed. Any serious argument in favour of the consumption of animals must draw a boundary between what animals are acceptable for consumption and which are not, and there are various ways that this can be done.
For example, you could make an argument stemming from an affirmation of a certain form of humanist tribalism. We could say: humans in order to survive must band together and draw a strict in-out group distinction, and extend moral consideration to those in the in group while using those outside purely as a means. I think this argument can seriously be considered when thinking about human history of enslavement, because while I would want to always condemn the enslavement and killing of people and non-human animals for the use of an in-group, I also recognize that the establishment of non-tribal or less tribal groups (perhaps reaching an ideological high point in the as yet poorly fulfilled UN declaration of human rights) seems to have progressed via the establishment and strengthening of more tribal group. An example of this which I would be quite sympathetic to would be the role of the nation in anti-colonial resistance – which I would hope that the liberated colony might move from national consciousness to consciousness, and the state-of-mind required to oppose the oppression of the settler might reveal to itself its own one-sidedness when the anxiety of threat passes. Of course, the anxiety of the threat often does not pass, but instead constantly re-inscribe itself as a social pathology to prevent the undoing of existing power relations and the apparent danger of the end of nationalism, which is not simply apparent to those who hold power in the revolutionary institutions which would need to be reformed again to be adequate to a truly post-colonial situation.
To speak more explicitly about food animals, and in quite a different way, we might think that the enslavement of non human animals was a necessary part of the emergence of civilizations. The use of an animal to pull a plough was quite important at some times, and the use of flocks to turn solar energy into food people can eat in a situation where agriculture or gathering isn’t an option might be a requirement for human life in some circumstances. But what is essential to me about these examples is that these needs have passed – we no longer need animals to turn grasslands habitable, and we no longer require the labour of the ox to pull our agricultural machinery. Thus, the continued enslavement of animals is an example of a cultural decadence, a continued in-out difference inscribed long past its point of usefulness or requirement for the social welfare of humankind. The consumption of animals shares something essential with ideologies of national liberation movements which, having succeeded, maintain through the productive of apparent conflict the in-out group distinctions that might have been required during the liberation itself.
But what if, in fact, the presence of this argument in prominence across the media and internet actually speaks a different truth than the one it tries to articulate. It is not insignificant that it becomes more and more unacceptable today to defend the current realities of meat production. This nightmare, barely hidden under the surface, has been largely unearthed by vegan propaganda like Earthlings, as well as more mainstream critical films like Food Inc. More important than its epistemic unveiling however is the way people today not only know, but can’t deny to know this nightmare. The objective existence of knowledge in peoples minds is never enough to break a standing contradiction – that knowledge must become social and contested in third spaces, and this is what happens as a precondition for articles like this one.
The reason why this unveiling is revolutionary, rather than simply attesting to some incremental progress is that the internal logic of the contradiction doesn’t bear out the conclusion at which the argument arrives. The assertion that animals are simply solar energy (unlike human animals?), if it has any moral significance at all, is simply to exclude animals fully from the realm of considerability. In other words, it is not actually an argument for treating animals better, it is only the old argument in favour of not considering their feelings or interests at all. This more explicit formulation of an in-out distinction has the virtue of clarity and honesty, and its disappearance is a sign of the inability of meat eaters to with honesty affirm their moral position – the position of the meat eater can only be maintained today by a kind of internal hack job, one must at the same time believe that the feelings of animals matter, but not matter enough not to kill them. But if animals have interests and feelings that matter, then it follows that to kill them those interests have to come into a contradiction with the feelings and interests of another being whose feelings and interests matter. This happens in conflicts – you might argue you must kill your enemy because they will kill you. And this might happen in pastoral societies – you must kill the animal because otherwise you will die. But this doesn’t happen today, today we kill animals for pleasure rather than survival. There is an uncanny similarity between the way we treat animals, and the way conquering powers treat subjugated peoples, and defend their right to treat them this way. In the future I’ll write an entry tracing these similarities more explicitly by comparing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the vegan-vegetarian-meat eating controversy.