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Eating our Friends

  • ROGER SCRUTON

The consensus among the monotheistic religions has been that animals exist for our purposes and that we are entitled to use them, domesticate them and eat them, subject only to God's inscrutable dietary laws.

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Like much else that was once the prerogative of religion, the treatment of animals has now become a matter of ordinary morality, with no shortage of sermons directed at the hunters, fur wearers and carnivores from the puritans who cannot abide the sight of sinful pleasure. The conflict over eating animals has indeed become a test case for moral theory in Western societies, not least because of the vigorous campaigns conducted by Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher who has applied an uncompromising Utilitarianism to the problem, concluding not merely that much that we do to animals cannot be defended but that our entire common-sense morality, which elevates human beings above the other animals, is founded on a mistake. In confronting the opponents of hunting, fur-wearing and meat-eating, therefore, we soon find ourselves exploring the grounds of moral judgements, and the nature of the beings who make them.

Unlike the other animals with which we come into regular contact, we are self-conscious, our thoughts involve 'I'-thoughts, 'you'-thoughts and 'he, she, we and they'-thoughts. Because of language, and the intellectual structure that language makes available, we do not live, like other animals, in a 'world of perception', to use Schopenhauer’s phrase. Our thoughts and feelings range over the actual and the possible, the probable and the necessary, the past and the future, what is and what might have been, what will be and what ought to be. Upon these very basic facts — which can be summarized in the traditional philosophical way, by saying that we are rational animals — other and more remarkable facts depend. Unlike the animals, we have moral, aesthetic and religious experience; we pray to things visible and invisible; we laugh, sing and grieve; are indignant, approving and dismayed. And we relate to each other in a special way, through the give and take of practical reason, and its associated concepts of justice, duty and right. Human beings are actual or potential members of a moral community, in which each member enjoys sovereignty over his own affairs, so long as he accords an equal sovereignty to others. The concepts of right and duty regulate such a community, and ensure that disputes are settled in the first instance by negotiation and not by force.

In discussing the rights and wrongs of meat-eating, we encounter the deep divide between us and other species twice over. First, there is the fact that we are moral beings. And then there is the related fact that eating, for us, is not what it is for the other animals. A person's encounter with food may be an occasion of festivity and celebration; it may also be deeply unsettling, compromising, and humiliating. Eating has in every traditional society been regarded as a social, often a religious, act, embellished by ritual and enjoyed as a primary celebration of membership. Rational beings are nourished on conversation, taste, manners and hospitality, and to divorce food from these practices is to deprive it of its true significance.

Rational beings rejoice less in filling themselves than in the sight of food, table and guests dressed for a ceremonial offering. Their meals are also sacrifices, and anthropologists have occasionally argued that the origin of our carnivorous ways lies in the burnt offerings of ancient ritual. Only rational beings make gifts, and it is the giving of food, usually as the central episode in a ceremony, that is the core of hospitality, and therefore of those actions through which we lay claim to our home and at the same time mutely apologize for owning it.

In the fast-food culture food is not given but taken, which is one reason why, in such a culture, nobody is properly 'at home'. The solitary stuffing of burgers, pizzas, and 'TV dinners'; the disappearance of family meals and domestic cooking; the loss of table manners — all these tend to obscure the distinction between eating and feeding. And for many people vegetarianism is a roundabout way of restoring that distinction. Vegetables are gifts of the earth: by eating them we re-establish contact with our roots. They offer a way of once again incorporating food into the moral life, hedging it in with moral scruples, and revitalising the precious sense of shame.

I don't think there can be any vindication of meat-eating that does not engage with the deep feelings that prompt our dietary habits, and which also forbid them. Although I do not think that there is a compelling moral argument against meat-eating, I do believe that the onus lies on the carnivore to show that there is a way of incorporating meat into a life that respects the moral and spiritual realities, and which does not shame the human race, as it is shamed by the solitary 'cave man' gluttony of the burger-stuffer.


In the fast-food culture food is not given but taken, which is one reason why, in such a culture, nobody is properly 'at home'. The solitary stuffing of burgers, pizzas, and 'TV dinners'; the disappearance of family meals and domestic cooking; the loss of table manners — all these tend to obscure the distinction between eating and feeding.


Animals bred or kept for our uses are not honorary members of the moral community — as pets or 'companion animals' are. Nevertheless the use that we make of them imposes a reciprocal duty to look after them, which spreads forward from the farmer to the slaughterer and from the slaughterer to the consumer, all of whom benefit from these animals, and all of whom must therefore assume some part of the duty of care. If these animals were moral beings then we could not, morally speaking, make use of them as we do — just as we cannot enslave human beings or breed them for food. And if the life of an animal bred for food were simply one long torment, the only relief from which is the final slaughter, we should certainly conclude the practice to be immoral. Utilitarians might disagree — since a utilitarian can justify any amount of suffering, provided the greater happiness is achieved by it. But that is one of the things that is wrong with utilitarianism. Moreover, until we have specified duties, moral judgement cannot begin, and duties cannot be assigned by the Greatest Happiness principle. Their ground lies in the past, not the future, and they cannot be over-ridden merely because some good can be achieved by disobeying them.

To criticize battery pig farming as violating a duty of care is surely right and proper. But the argument does nothing to condemn other livestock practices. There is surely scope, here, for some comparative judgements. Consider the traditional beef farmer, who fattens his calves for 30 months, keeping them on open pasture in the summer, and in warm roomy barns in the winter, feeding them on grass, silage, beans and maize, attending to them in all their ailments, and sending them for slaughter, when the time comes, to the nearby slaughterhouse, where they are instantly despatched with a humane killer. Surely, such a farmer treats his cattle as well as cattle can be treated. Of course, he never asked them whether they wanted to live in his fields, or gave them the choice of life-style during their time there. But that is because he knows — from instinct rather than from any philosophical theory — that cattle cannot make such choices, and do not exist at the level of consciousness for which freedom and the lack of it are genuine realities.

Animals raised for meat are, for the most part, gregarious, gentle and dependent. They are unhappy in isolation, and emotionally dependent on the proximity of their kind. In the winter they must be sheltered; in the summer, if they are lucky, they are out to grass, or (in the case of the pig and the chicken) free to roam in a place where they can hunt for scraps of food. Human standards of hygiene are alien to their nature, and their affections, unlike ours, are general and transferable, without tragic overtones. Such animals, tended in the traditional way, by a farmer who houses them together in the winter, and allows them to roam in the summer, are as happy as their nature allows. Assuming that their needs are satisfied, only two questions arise in the farmer's mind, which is when and how they should be killed — for that they must be killed is evident, this being the reason why they live. Death is not merely a moral question. There is an economic aspect which no farmer — and no consumer — can afford to ignore. And I suspect that those who believe that it is immoral to raise animals for meat have in mind the moment of death, and the economic calculation that prompts us to cut short a life in its prime.

Here the metaphysical distinction between humans and other animals once again comes to the fore. Human beings are conscious of their lives as their own; they have ambitions, hopes and aspirations; they are fatally attached to others, who cannot be replaced in their affections but whose presence they feel as a need. Hence there is a real distinction, for a human being, between timely and untimely death. To be 'cut short' before one’s time is a waste — even a tragedy. We lament the death of children and young people not merely because we lament the death of anyone, but because we believe that human beings are fulfilled by their achievements and not merely by their comforts.


When animals raised for their meat are properly looked after, when all duties of care are fulfilled, and when the demands of sympathy and piety are respected, the practice cannot be criticised except from a premise — the premise of animal rights — which I believe to be incoherent.


No such thoughts apply to domestic cattle. To be killed at thirty months is not intrinsically more tragic than to be killed at forty, fifty or sixty. And if the meat is at its best after thirty months, and if every month thereafter represents an economic loss, who will blame the farmer for choosing so early a death? In so doing he merely reflects the choice of the consumer, upon whose desires the whole trade in meat, and therefore the very existence of his animals, depends.

But what about the manner of death? That it should be quick is not in dispute. Nevertheless, there is a distinction between sudden death and death preceded by terror, and to the conscientious farmer, who has looked after animals from day to day, living with them and providing for their needs, this terror is not merely unwelcome but a betrayal of trust and a dagger of accusation. Livestock farmers therefore prefer to see their animals despatched suddenly and humanely in the place where they have lived, by skilled slaughterers who know how to kill an animal without awakening it from its soporific routine.

Livestock farming is not merely an industry — it is a relation, in which man and animal are bound together to their mutual profit, and in which a human duty of care is nourished by an animal's mute recognition of dependency. There is something consoling and heart warming in the proximity of contented herbivores, in the rituals of feeding them, catching them, and coaxing them from field to field. This partly explains why people will continue in this time-consuming, exhausting and ill-paid occupation, resisting the attempts by bureaucrats and agribusinesses to drive them to extinction. Anybody who cares for animals ought to see this kind of husbandry as a complex moral good, to be defended on the one hand against those who would forbid the eating of meat altogether, and on the other hand against those carnivores who prefer the unseen suffering of the battery farm and the factory abattoir to the merest suggestion of a personal risk.

The life of the cattle farmer is not an easy life, nor is the relation between man and animal always as harmonious as it appears in the thousand children’s books devoted to life on the farm. Nevertheless, as with all forms of husbandry, cattle farming should be seen in its full context — and that means, as a feature of the total ecology of the countryside. Traditional livestock farming involves the maintenance of pastureland, properly enclosed with walls or hedges. Wildlife habitats spring up as the near-automatic by-products of the boundaries and shady places required by cattle. This kind of farming has shaped the English landscape, ensuring that it retains its dual character as producer of human food, and complex wildlife habitat, with a beauty that is inextricably connected to its multifarious life. In this way, what is, from the point of view of agribusiness, an extremely wasteful use of land, becomes, from the point of view of the rest of us — both human and animal — one of the kindest uses of land yet devised.

I have abbreviated the story. But it could be expanded into a full vindication of livestock farming, as conferring benefits on all those, the animals included, who are part of it. When animals raised for their meat are properly looked after, when all duties of care are fulfilled, and when the demands of sympathy and piety are respected, the practice cannot be criticised except from a premise — the premise of animal rights — which I believe to be incoherent. Of course, the result of raising animals in this way will change the character of meat-eating, which will become not only more expensive, but more ceremonial — as it was before the battery farm. The animal brought to the table will have enjoyed the friendship and protection of the one who nurtured him, and his death will be like the ritual sacrifices described in the Bible and Homeric literature — a singling out of a victim, for an important office to which a kind of honour is attached.

Such it seems to me would be the life of the virtuous carnivore, the one who is prepared to eat only his friends. The real force of the vegetarian argument stems, I believe, from a revulsion at the vicious carnivore: the meat-eating character as this has evolved in these days of gluttony and indulgence. And it is entirely true that the indifference of modern carnivores to the methods used to reduce the cost of their habit is a morally repulsive characteristic against which it is wholly natural to rebel. The repulsiveness is enhanced by the solipsistic fast-food culture, and by the removal of food from its central place in domestic life and in the winning of friends. From Homer to Zola meat has been described as the focus of hospitality, the primordial gift to the stranger, the eruption into the world of human conflict of the divine spirit of peace. Take all that away, reduce meat to an object of solitary greed like chocolate, and the question naturally arises: why should life be sacrificed, just for this?


I believe, however, that there is another remedy, and one more in keeping with the Judaeo-Christian tradition. We should not abandon our meat-eating habits, but remoralize them, by incorporating them into affectionate human relations, and using them in the true Homeric manner, as instruments of hospitality, conviviality and peace.


As I indicated, this question has a religious dimension. From the point of view of morality it has a clear and rational answer: namely, that the life that is sacrificed would not exist, but for the sacrifice. A great number of animals owe their lives to our intention to eat them. And their lives are (or can easily be made to be) comfortable and satisfying in the way that few lives led in the wild could possibly be. If we value animal life and animal comfort, therefore, we should endorse our carnivorous habits, provided it really is life, and not living death, on which those habits feed. From the point of view of religion, however, the question presents a challenge. It is asking the burger-stuffer to come clean; to show just why it is that his greed should be indulged in this way, and just where he fits into the scheme of things, that he can presume to kill again and again for the sake of a solitary pleasure that creates and sustains no moral ties. To such a question it is always possible to respond with a shrug of the shoulders. But it is a real question, one of many that people now ask, as the old forms of piety dwindle. Piety is the remedy for religious guilt, and to this emotion we are all witting or unwitting heirs. And I suspect that people become vegetarians for precisely that reason: that by doing so they overcome the residue of guilt that attaches to every form of hubris, and in particular to the hubris of human freedom.

I believe, however, that there is another remedy, and one more in keeping with the Judaeo-Christian tradition. We should not abandon our meat-eating habits, but remoralize them, by incorporating them into affectionate human relations, and using them in the true Homeric manner, as instruments of hospitality, conviviality and peace. That was the remedy practised by our parents, with their traditional ‘Sunday roast’ coming always at midday, after they had given thanks. The lifestyle associated with the Sunday roast involves sacrifices that those brought up on fast food are unused to making — mealtimes, manners, dinner-table conversation, and the art of cookery itself. But all those things form part of a complex human good, and I cannot help thinking that, when added to the ecological benefits of small-scale live-stock farming, they secure for us an honourable place in the scheme of things, and neutralize more effectively than the vegetarian alternative, our inherited burden of guilt.

Furthermore, I would suggest not only that it is permissible for those who care about animals to eat meat; they have a duty to do so. If meat-eating should ever become confined to those who do not care about animal suffering then compassionate farming would cease. All animals would be kept in battery conditions, and the righteous vegetarians would exert no economic pressure on farmers to change their ways. Where there are conscientious carnivores, however, there is a motive to raise animals kindly. And conscientious carnivores can show their depraved contemporaries that it is possible to ease one’s conscience by spending more on one’s meat. Bit by bit the news would get around, that there is a right and a wrong way to eat; and — failing some coup d'etat by censorious vegetarians — the process would be set in motion, that would bring battery farming to an end. Duty requires us, therefore, to eat our friends.

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Acknowledgement

Roger Scruton. "Eating our Friends." Right Reason (May 26, 2006).

This article reprinted with permission from Roger Scruton.

The Author

Roger Scruton is a research professor in the department of philosophy at St. Andrews University, a visiting scholar of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, and a senior research fellow in philosophy at Blackfriars Hall in Oxford. He is a writer, philosopher and public commentator who has specialised in aesthetics with particular attention to music and architecture. He engages in contemporary political and cultural debates as a powerful conservative thinker and polemicist. He has written widely in the press on political and cultural issues. He has held visiting posts at Princeton, Stanford, Louvain, Guelph (Ontario), Witwatersrand (S. Africa), Waterloo (Ontario), Oslo, Bordeaux, and Cambridge, England. Professor Scruton has published more than 30 books including: Notes from Underground, The Face of God, The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope, Beauty, Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation, I Drink therefore I am, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, The Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Political Thought, News from Somewhere: On Settling, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy, Sexual Desire, The Aesthetics of Music, The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, A Political Philosphy, and Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life. Roger Scruton is a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2006 Roger Scruton
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