Is It Right to Kill to Eat?

Is it right to kill another being for food? Welcome back to part 6 of our series on the ending of life. Today, we are exploring the moral permissibility of the killing of another being for food. Generally, when we discuss killing for food, we talk only about the killing of fish, birds or other animals for meat. Yet this is misguided. As the Janist’s, Manicheans and others knew, plants are also living beings. Sure, they are alien to us and other mammals, but nevertheless, “because plants are able to respire, metabolise, reproduce, and die, they are living” (Arumugam, 2014; Tobias, 1991) beings too. In addition to these core functions, biologists have discovered that plants can effectively sense and respond to the world around them in a way analogous to the senses of sight, smell and hearing (Gabbatiss, 2017). This agency or ability to actively influence the world around them means that we cannot ignore plants in discussing the taking of life. Thus, when we discuss killing for food, we are talking about killing any living being, plant, insect, or animal.


The Problem

Now, it is obvious (unless you happen to be a devotee of Inediaism) that eating either plant or animal matter is essential to the continuation of life. This necessity, coupled with the existence of the myriad of microscopic lifeforms living on every conceivable surface (Frischkorn, 2017), means that we and likely every other being are incapable of existing without killing or harming other beings in some way. Thus, life is, in a way, a Hobbesian war of all against all. This cruel necessity presents the moralist with a conundrum that can be solved in one of at least three ways.


The Western Method

Firstly, we can solve the problem like those in the western tradition have usually done. We can say that morality does not involve beings other than humans. Animals and plants are not moral beings and are fundamentally inferior to humans. As such, all things exist for humankind’s exploitation and benefit. Examples of this method can be found in the Judeo-Christian tradition in passages such as that in Genesis (9:3) “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything”. And in the Greco-Roman Stoic tradition with Cicero stating in De Legibus (page 102) ‘that both plants and animals exist for man’s use’.


The problem with this approach is that it places no natural limit on the exploitation of other living beings. All other beings except (and sometimes including) humans exist only for the individual’s benefit under this method. You can fish an ocean bare or hunt a species to extinction and still have done nothing morally wrong.


The Eastern Method

The second way of reconciling the need to harm another living being to survive is extant in the eastern tradition and the modern vegan movement. These disparate groups generally accept that plants and animals are alive. But also recognise that some harm is necessary for survival. These groups seem to follow a harm minimisation method based on a variegated hierarchy of existence, generally with humans at the apex. The assumption that underpins this moral conception is that the moral choice is the one that minimises pain to other beings.


This idea is found in the Dharmic religions such as Hinduism (Hindusim Today, 2007), Buddhism (Schmithausen, 1991) and Jainism, where plants are recognised as being alive but less conscious or ‘awake’ than humans. This lower level of consciousness is assumed to result in plants, fish and insects experiencing less pain than animals. PETA (People of the Ethical Treatment of Animals) expresses this idea fairly succinctly, saying that ‘We don’t know if plants feel pain, but it is necessary to harm plants to survive. And that in any case, fewer plants will be harmed if you eat them then if you fed them to another animal first and then kill it for meat’.


The problem with this approach is that if you accept the immorality of killing living things in general and accept that plants are living beings, it becomes difficult to be satisfied with the pragmatic solution of killing one class of being because it would be inconvenient not to, but not killing another type of being because it is easier to live without eating them. Inevitably, this approach leads to moral dissatisfaction as just doing less harm is not the same as doing no harm. This moral dissatisfaction can be seen in the increasing strictness of many moral vegans’ diets.


The Jainists can be seen to have taken this approach to the logical extreme, endeavouring to do the absolute minimum of harm to every living thing, plant or animal. Going so far as to ‘avoid eating vegetables that grow underground as to harvest them generally requires the uprooting of plants, which hurts them and the micro-organisms around their roots. Avoiding cooking at night to avoid inadvertently killing insects attracted to the light of the fire and trying to harvest grain and fruit only when they are ready to fall by themselves or ideally have already fallen’ (Hindusim Today, 2007). However, the problem remains that, fundamentally, you cannot both live and not harm other living beings. Some level of infliction of harm is an essential predicate of life.


Another problem with the ‘do no harm’ approach is that it inevitably presupposes a negative metaphysic. This is inevitable as if harming other beings is ‘bad’ and life cannot exist except by harming other beings, then the logic suggests that life itself is ‘bad’. This negative view of existence can be seen in the Hindu doctrine of the “four recurring problems: birth, disease, old-age, and death” (The Heart of Hinduism, 2021), and the Buddhist conception of the four noble truths that equate to an understanding that all life involves suffering (Nan Tien Temple, 2021). It is a small wonder then that the Dharmic religions see an escape from the cycle of existence and, by extension, suffering as the ultimate aim of life.

The Third Way

The third way to approach this problem is how Codist philosophy does. Unlike both the eastern and western traditions, we recognise the absolute equality of the value of all living things. The plant, the animal and the micro-organism all have an equal right to life. Yet, we also accept that for one being to live, another being has to suffer or die. To us, this is seen as an unavoidable absolute of existence. Instead of lamenting that suffering is an essential element of existence, we accept it as the price that must be paid for life.


For us, as will have become clear if you have read the previous parts of this series, killing or harming other beings is morally neutral in Codist philosophy. The act of killing or harming either a person, a plant or an animal is neither right nor wrong in and of itself. Instead, it is the consequences of acting or not acting that make it morally right or wrong. We use the Moral Decision-Making Framework described in The Code to examine the likely consequences of each choice. Looking to see if the outcomes will be positive, negative or neutral to us and our families (RP1’s), and if the consequences will be harmful to our communities. In each case, a negative outcome for either our families (RP1’s) or our communities is only allowed if it is essential to avoid a worse outcome.


For instance, if a lion kills a sheep to eat, it does not do wrong as it is necessary for its survival. In the same way, if the sheep in protecting itself kills the lion, it would be as morally correct as when, by eating grass, the sheep harms a plant. In both cases, the acts by contributing positively to its long-term survival are morally right.


This third way straddles the line between the eastern and western traditions. Under this tradition, unlike in the eastern ones, no food source is prohibited from exploitation. Yet, unlike in the western tradition, a sustainable limit is presupposed due to the prohibition on harming your own or your communities’ long-term interests. Under the Codist conception, an individual would be right to kill or harm a fish, a tree or any other being whenever it was in their long-term interest to do so. Conversely, they would be wrong to harm any being when to do so would harm their or their families’ long-term interests.


This means in practice that, taking fishing as an example, you are morally right to fish only in a sustainable manner, i.e. up to a level where the overall fish stocks remain stable. Up to this level, the additional food, money, etc., which you can gain by catching each extra fish, supports your families and communities’ long-term survival. Once you exceed the sustainable catch limit and fish stocks begin to decline, each additional fish taken actively harms your family and your community instead of promoting your survival.


This analogy extends to all types of extractive enterprises involving plants or animals. It is morally right to exploit the natural environment, farm, log, etc. Provided that we are aware of the impact that we are having and that we collectively limit the harm we are doing to below the level where it will harm our long-term interests. But remember, it is not just up to the farmer, fisher or logger to ensure that their actions conform to this standard. Each of us, in the choices we make of what food we eat and what products we use, contributes to the setting of this collective standard through the creation of economic incentives for producers. Our moral duty to promote the long-term welfare of our families and communities is active, not passive. Therefore, each of us must use our own logic and reason to determine the correct path.


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