This argument seems to grow on trees in our groves of academe. However, the fruit is poisoned, best left unbitten. But judge for yourself.
Suppose you are a good swimmer and a man drowning before your very eyes isn’t. You could easily save him, but should you?
Not necessarily, according to Dr Michael Plant, philosophy don at Oxford. For, according to some moral philosophies, eating meat is a mortal sin. Hence, if the drowning person is a carnivore, he doesn’t deserve to live.
On the contrary, you have a moral duty to watch him sink. After all, writes Dr Plant, “It seems universally accepted that doing or allowing a harm is permissible – and may even be required – when it is the lesser evil.”
Being a philosopher, he correctly ignores the practicalities involved. Yet these are worth a moment’s thought. Let’s say you ponder life while sipping a beer on the beach. Then you see – let’s add a touch of sentiment to the discussion – a child thrashing and splashing about some 50 yards from shore, screaming “Help!!!”
Your first impulse is to jump in but, on general principles, you desist. Some preliminary work is required first. Hence you scream back: “Do! You! Eat! Meat?” There’s the danger that all you’ll hear in reply will be a gurgling sound, but at least your philosophical conscience will remain pristine.
Lest you may accuse Dr Plant of self-interest, his idea isn’t just impartial but also potentially self-sacrificial: he himself is a meat eater. Here’s a man with the power of his convictions, a rara avis these days. Good to see that young people do have principles after all.
However, as a logical corollary to his proposition, you’d be morally obligated not just to watch a carnivore drown but also to push him off the pier if he wouldn’t jump of his own accord.
All you’d have to do is close your eyes, think of the herds of livestock you’d be saving from this reprobate’s murderous appetite – and push as hard as you can with both hands. After all, “some moral philosophies” say that killing a man is a lesser evil than eating a burger.
Assuming that Dr Plant agrees with Jacques Maritain’s definition of philosophy as a science of first principles, he must believe that our founding code of first principles, the Bible, contains a thou-shalt-not commandment not to eat meat.
It doesn’t though, quite the opposite. Thus, for example, Genesis 9: 3: “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.”
Animals, therefore, are created strictly to serve man, and, according to Aquinas, himself no slouch at philosophy: “There is no sin in using a thing for the purpose for which it is.”
Now, I realise that Dr Plant may not derive his notion of first principles from the same source as Aquinas did. In fact, that’s the way to bet – he is, after all, a modern Oxford don. I even suspect his definition of philosophy in general and of first principles specifically may differ from Jacques Maritain’s.
To be fair to him though, even first-rate Christian thinkers also pondered the morality of carnivorism. C.S. Lewis, for example, devoted many an essay to the subject of animal suffering and, implicitly, meat eating. Now, accuse me of irreverence to the great man if you will, but I genuinely believe Lewis’s brilliance was wasted on this issue.
My own approach to it, along with many other dilemmas preoccupying the modern mind, comes from another, admittedly cruder, discipline: advertising. It’s encapsulated by the acronym KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Any thought starts from a premise; it’s the foundation on which an intellectual structure is built. The structure then acts as proof of the foundation’s integrity, its ability to prop up a sound thought. The KISS principle suggests that certain premises are best left alone – even if the resulting superstructure (dread term) doesn’t seem to totter.
Dr Plant’s philosophical speciality is eudaemonia, the theory of happiness. Hence I’m sure he could use his evident mental agility to make a valid point in favour of, say, necrophilia.
Even I, tragically lacking the benefit of formal philosophical training, could make a good fist of it. For example, I’d start by saying that, although necrophilia is technically criminal, it’s by definition a victimless crime. Raping a corpse isn’t the same as raping a living, breathing woman: she will hate the experience, but a corpse won’t mind.
On the other hand, the perpetrator will enjoy the act, be the happier for it. Thus the sum total of happiness in the world will be greater as a result and, on balance, this has to be a good thing. There you go, a plausible eudaemonic case made. Long live necrophilia, even though I’m not sure the slogan works semantically.
You may or may not be capable of punching logical holes in this argument. You needn’t bother though: this structure had no right to be built. The premise shouldn’t even be pondered: remember KISS and just say that the practice is degenerate and so is anyone who takes it seriously. Then start thinking about things that really matter.
“I argue that,” continues Dr Plant, “if meat eating is wrong on animal suffering grounds then, once we consider how much suffering might occur, it starts to seem plausible that saving strangers would be the greater evil than not rescuing them and is, therefore, not required after all.”
And I argue that the conditional clause at the beginning of his statement should be dismissed out of hand, even though the wonderful C.S. Lewis didn’t. Let’s just KISS and make up.
P.S. The other day I wrote about the plight of the Irish priest who dared describe homosexuality as a mortal sin. He found himself on the receiving end of slings and arrows, to which Taoiseach Micheál Martin has now added his own: “In my view the language used was not the language of Christianity, and certainly would seem to me to be the language of exclusion as opposed to inclusion.”
I agree with Ireland’s PM: the language of exclusion is un-Christian. Here’s another example of such heathen invective: “Now do ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and the platter; but your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness.” Clearly, whoever said that had no clue of what a Christian should sound like.