Last month, I wrote an article about the ethics of fishing. It received almost 100 comments. A few people pointed out that fishes eat other fishes; since they eat other animals, as do plenty of other predators, why shouldn’t we?
A few weeks ago, I was swimming in the pond at the Institute for Humane Education. One of my favorite things to do in the pond is take photographs of the many frogs and dragonflies (and then share them on Facebook). This particular day, I debated whether or not to bring my camera into the water. After all, I’ve taken dozens of photos of the frogs and the dragonflies. What would be new to photograph? But I brought the camera anyway, and indeed there was something new. I took this photo of a green frog swallowing another frog (probably another green frog since those are the only frogs we see in the pond right now), and I found myself thinking about those comments about fishing. Here was a perfect example of the predatory reality all around us. Why shouldn’t we be full participants in such predation, given that we’re omnivores?
This is why: basing our behaviors on those of other animals is a slippery slope, and can be dangerous, silly, and potentially just self-serving. If I am right that the green frog in this photo is eating another green frog, does that mean we should be cannibals? My dog Elsie loves to eat poop. Should I therefore eat poop? Elephant seals have harems and control their multitude of much smaller female mates aggressively, seemingly raping them repeatedly, and attacking other elephant seals who try to mate with any of their females. Does this mean that men ought to have harems, rape women, and attack other men who threaten their dominion?
Humans have the capacity to make decisions based on our ethics, not simply our desires, and throughout human history, we have codified our morality. Every religion and every society, theistic or not, has its list of ethical principles designed to help us humans avoid succumbing to brutality, cruelty, jealousy, greed and hatred, and live harmoniously with compassion, love and kindness.
So to me, the fact that falcons prey on rodents, that some frogs eat other frogs, that cats are carnivores, and that most fishes eat other fishes does not mean that I should cause harm and death to other animals by eating them if I don’t have to. Unlike falcons, frogs, cats, and fishes, I can choose.
I try to live by the MOGO (most good) principle and do the most good and least harm, not only to myself, but also to other people, other species, and the environment. It’s for this reason that I have chosen a vegan diet that is primarily organic and often locally produced (very locally in the summer and fall because I grow much of our food in my garden).
I feel very fortunate that I have the ability to choose what I eat and to do so based on this principle. Many others around the globe don’t have such choices, and if I had to eat other animals to survive I would do so, just like an Inuit or a Pacific Islander. But I don’t have to. And so my answer to those who ask why shouldn’t we eat animals since other animals are predators is simply this: because (most of us) don’t have to. Why should we cause suffering and death to other sentient animals simply because we like the taste of them?
Given the reality that our rapacious appetite for animal flesh is also rapidly destroying habitats, causing the extinction of myriad fish species, polluting the environment, and wasting food that could otherwise feed the one billion people around the world who don’t have enough to eat, justifying our animal consumption based on observations of what other species do seems foolhardy.
Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and dynamic resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education, and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given a TEDx talk on humane education and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.
Image courtesy Zoe Weil.