Debating empathy at the dining table

If alleviation of pain and care for all animal life are the defining standards of civilisation, there are higher chances of a more equitable society and fewer wars.
Philosopher Peter Singer would
argue for vegetarianism by
defining good as that which
produces the greatest pleasure
for the most, and the minimum
amount of pain for the fewest.
If care for all life is a standard of
civilisation, we should consider
killing fewer animals.
Philosopher Peter Singer would argue for vegetarianism by defining good as that which produces the greatest pleasure for the most, and the minimum amount of pain for the fewest. If care for all life is a standard of civilisation, we should consider killing fewer animals.Photo| Wikimedia Commons

Last fortnight was Eid. There was the usual trolling and the slaughterhouse visuals, the purpose of which was to show Islam in a bad light. Few pointed out that a majority of Indians eat non-vegetarian food. The argument for vegetarianism is neither religious nor political. It is about the fact that humans are in control of their diet; and, therefore, they are in a position to inflict less pain on other animals. I make this argument not as a complete convert, but as an aspirant.

Humans in various stages of standing upright have been around for 2.5 million years now. We had more massive jaws and a different digestive system then, and could eat raw meat. Hunting games involved teamwork, and we learned how to cooperate and invent weapons.

About a million-odd years ago, we could control fire and cooking was invented, resulting in softer food, which gradually altered the set of jaws and our digestive tracts. Nevertheless, we are essentially a carnivorous primate. So what’s the argument for avoiding meat or at least minimising its consumption?

Utilitarian thinkers like Peter Singer would argue for vegetarianism based on the Benthamite principle. It defines good as that which produces the greatest amount of pleasure for the maximum number, and the minimum amount of pain for the least number.

Professor Singer includes animals like fish, chicken, pork and cow in those numbers. In Singer’s scheme, humans are also animals, but ones with an evolved consciousness and, therefore, capable of more responsibility in their approach to pain and pleasure for all. Singer holds humans responsible for the well-being of all other animals.

The current Indian prime minister is vegetarian. The Hindutva politics he represents generally puts out the idea that they consider the cow a holy animal. Yet, depending on which survey you read, India is placed between the second and fifth position in the world as a beef producer and exporter.

In ‘Untouchability, The Dead Cow, and The Brahmin’, B R Ambedkar states: “That the Aryans of the Rig Veda did kill cows for purposes of food and ate beef is abundantly clear from the Rig Veda itself… The Rig Veda (X. 91.14) says that for Agni were sacrificed horses, bulls, oxen, barren cows and rams.” Later in the essay, he writes: “Overridden by ritualism, there was hardly a day on which there was no cow sacrifice to which the Brahmin was not invited by some non-Brahmin. For the Brahmin every day was a beef-steak day.”

But once the Vedic period got over and the Brahmins had to preserve their identity against the onslaught of new trends, beef eaters became untouchable. Abstinence from meat became a mark of distinction.

As I said, I am not a diehard vegetarian, nor a Brahmin. But I am beginning to see the merit in a modest kind of vegetarianism, or Brahminism, if you will.

A cow is a large animal with a centrally developed nervous system. It experiences emotions like love, fear and physical sensations like pain. The animals are transported across long distances to slaughterhouses in awful conditions. Their slaughter itself is extremely painful.

One argument against eating beef is not the holiness of the animal and its association with some of the Hindu deities. It is that we are inflicting great pain on an animal for food when we have other, less bloody options. This applies to other animals we consume. Pork, lamb or chicken. Because of our discretion—we do not prefer dogs or cats—we may think we are more civilised. But this position is relative to the culture we live in.

Contrary to rumours, Indians can be a cruel people. In Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, more than 97 percent of the population have no problems eating something non-vegetarian at every meal. Fish included. It has been scientifically proven that fish are capable of experiencing pain.

The question though is not the eating, but the killing. Do humans consider only their pain valid? Or are all animals in the food chain worthy of being protected from pain? This is a complicated question. Because if humans consider themselves exceptional, they have little obligation to the nature around them. Indeed, by the same argument of exceptionality, an American life could be seen as more valuable than a human life in India or Sudan.

Humans are contradictory creatures. Unlike other beings, we are capable of feeling pain in the abstract. Empathy. We see a movie and cry though the characters are not real. We help a dog in distress or haul a cow out of a swamp. Then we go home and eat whatever is at hand.

The evolutionary argument justifying this daily massacre is that though the human brain is only 2 percent of the body weight, it consumes 20 percent of the energy, and that animal proteins are a more efficient food source. But does this argument hold in the face of plant-based options? Or lab-generated meat?

The real argument in favour of vegetarianism is that it leads to a more tolerant world. If alleviation of pain and care for all animal life are the defining standards of civilisation, there are higher chances of a more equitable society and fewer wars. It looks to me that it is on the dining table that we continue to decide how to live or die.

(Views are personal)

(cpsurendran@gmail.com)

C P Surendran | Poet, novelist, and screenplay writer.

His latest novel is One Love and the Many Lives of Osip B

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