I'm not a vegetarian, but should I be?
You see, I know all living things are related and I can make a case for all living things being respected and having the right to life. I understand and can follow the logic of Richard Dawkins' illustration of why we should accord our great ape cousins at least some of the rights we grant ourselves. For those who haven't read this, it goes as follows:
Suppose you could hold hands with your parents, and they with theirs, and that you could keep doing that back through time to several million years ago back to the ancestor we shared in common with the other great apes so we have an unbroken sequence of humans, proto-humans and apes, at what point would you say this generation should have full human rights but their parents shouldn't? The only logical answer is to say they all should have because at every generation the difference between them and their parents is indistinguishable. There is no point at which there was a sudden change of species and so never any basis for assigning different legal rights.
Now reverse that process and come forward in time to each of the great apes. If the common ancestor had full human rights, where in the chain up to the other present day apes would you take them away? The same logic applies: there is no point at which you would have any basis for making that decision.
So why don't modern apes have human rights?
That's Dawkins' argument, and I can't see any flaw in it. But I also can't see why it's restricted to the apes. Why does it not apply to all the simians, to all the mammals, to all the cordates, to all animalia, protozoa, plants and fungi? Exactly the same argument applies. We can form the same imaginary line of ancestors going back as far as we wish and then forward again up the line of another species.
So, simply taking that legalistic argument which is the basis of my knowledge of how we are all related and all part of life on earth, I can't see why I shouldn't be a vegetarian. But I also can't see, based only on that argument, why I should eat plants either. In what sense, and at what point in the above argument did they cease to have rights?
And at what point in those sequences did cannibalism change into whatever the opposite of cannibalism is. (Actually there doesn't even seem to be one so I'll coin the term 'annibalism' for the act of eating another species.)
So, clearly that argument is flawed somewhere.
The flaw is that we are trying to apply human morals and cultural ideas of rights to other species who may have no such notions because there has never been a benefit to them to evolve the means and mechanisms for developing them. Even if they did have similar ideas, there is no reason they should be the same as ours; it would be arrogant to presume they should be.
Evolution, and so the existence of these different species, depends to some extent on them eating other species and other species eating them. Without this there would not be different species in the first place. So, a better biological argument for not being a vegetarian is that it's unnatural. We evolved because we eat other species.
That's one argument, but I think a stronger one can be made by looking at the history of the megafauna and flora in Europe, Australia, North America, etc. The evidence is not conclusive but, in all of those areas when modern Man first appears on the scene, there is evidence of a mass extinction of many of the larger mammals and birds, and sometimes of plants like trees. One explanation is that humans hunted these to extinction or felled the trees for fuel or for agricultural land, or even by exterminating an essential species needed to propagate the plants.
There is also a counter-argument that it was climate change which was the more important factor and climate change which also made human expansion possible, though this merely seems to include human expansion in the argument for climate change so humans don't escape entirely scot-free from a share of the blame. We only need to look at the recent history of the North American buffalo and the passenger pigeon to see examples of it.
Look now at the vast herds and flocks of cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks, goats, etc. which now cover so much of the land? Where would these species be if they had not been both good sources of meat and fairly easy to domesticate, and where would we be without them? The probability is that we would still be hunter-gatherers, just like the people who helped exterminate the other megafauna, and would have exterminated these species as well by now.
Where are the large herbivours of post-glacial Europe? Several of them are living on our farms.
From the point of view of the genes of humans and of sheep, for example, it has suited both sets of genes to form an alliance. There are now vastly more sheep and vastly more humans than there would ever have been without this alliance. Because we eat them, sheep have survived a probable extinction some 25,000 years ago.
The last argument for vegetarianism is that slaughtering an animal for food is cruel and inhumane. Let's look at this a little closer.
Firstly, everything which lives will dies eventually. For a wild animal there are several ways to die. None of them are pleasant.
Every animal which doesn't die from an accident or from disease will either be killed and eaten or die slowly from starvation and dehydration due to old age making it impossible for them to eat or drink.
Many animals which die from an accident will die because of infection, in other words because of bacterial action and poisoning often involving the formation of a large and painful abscess. Most badly injured animals will actually be killed and eaten of course, as will most old and infirm individuals and those that aren't will usually starve quite slowly.
Evolution has never produced a nice way of dying simply because a dying animal can't pass on whatever is making the process less unpleasant. There is nothing which natural selection can select for because dying pleasantly doesn't help an animal survive. In fact, dying unpleasantly is more likely to do that because it is an incentive to avoid it.
None of these methods of dying is better than being killed in a slaughter house, and not even by being killed by having its throat cut. Being killed by humans for food is probably one of the least unpleasant ways of dying. This is quite simply an indisputable fact of life, unpleasant though that thought might be.
So, help me out here. Is there a strong argument for vegetarianism which I haven't covered here, and is there a counter-argument I haven't rebutted it with?