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Appall your grandchildren!
It's the price of progress
I eat meat. More chicken than beef or pork, and not every day. I don’t feel guilty about it, exactly, but I do know that sentient beings die to satisfy my taste buds, and I tend to avoid exposés about the conditions under which they are killed. I realize that substituting soy or other legumes for meat would be easier on the planet, reducing water demands and carbon-dioxide emissions. Occasionally I’ve cut out the meat, but I could tell my body wanted what it was missing. So I reasoned that it wasn’t my fault that humans evolved eating meat, and I went back to enjoying my roast chicken and barbecued brisket.
I suspect that one day my grandchildren or great-children will wonder how I could do such a thing. In fact I hope this comes to pass. Because it will mean, I think, that food technologists will have figured out how to make meat in laboratories that is indistinguishable from meat from slaughtered chickens and cows. And in that new day, the moral and some of the ecological side-effects of meat-eating will have disappeared. “You tore apart dead animals with your teeth?!” my descendants will say, while eating lab-produced hamburgers.
This is how moral progress has historically come. Life on earth involves tradeoffs; what is good for one species or group is bad for another. To live, we humans have to kill; even vegans kill plants. At certain times and places, humans have killed other humans to eat. As a species, we’ve decided that cannibalism is no longer necessary, and we’ve dropped the practice.
Human sacrifice, sometimes connected with cannibalism, was common in many cultures, which believed that the gods had to be propitiated lest they loose famine and disease upon the earth. Quite likely, some of those involved in the sacrificial rites, if only as observers, had moral qualms, thinking they wouldn’t want to be the ones having their beating hearts cut out of their chests. But the practice seemed necessary, and so they looked away and kept quiet.
In time human sacrifice fell out of favor. New thinking caused people to find other explanations for famine and disease. As the perceived necessity of human sacrifice diminished, the evil of the practice grew more glaring, and it was abandoned.
There’s not much evidence that the members of the post-sacrifice cultures were more moral as individuals than their forebears. They probably weren’t more honest with friends or kinder to their children. But it’s not unreasonable to say that their cultures had grown more moral by the collective decision to quit the ritual killings.
Something similar can be said about other practices once common but now forbidden. Infanticide of girls routinely happened in cultures that favored sons. Nomadic societies often abandoned their elderly. Slavery was ubiquitous and unashamed for millennia. We’ve dropped these practices - or consigned them to shadowy corners of societies - not because we’ve grown more moral as individuals, but because our cultures have found alternative responses to the needs they addressed.
We moderns don’t sacrifice humans for ritual purposes, but we still kill in large numbers, with the approval of our cultures. We call the practice war. Almost every culture known to anthropology has treated war as necessary, at least at times, and nearly all still do. Historically, many cultures have glorified war, making heroes and chieftains of their warriors. These days cultures tend to treat war as a necessary evil, even if they continue to celebrate their war heroes.
Will war go the way of human sacrifice? Will countries figure out how to resolve their differences without resort to arms? There is some evidence that this change is already taking place. The annual number of deaths in battle per million people in the world has gone down dramatically since the mid-twentieth century. But the early twentieth century looked pretty peaceful, too, and then came the two deadliest wars ever.
If our children or grandchildren do find alternatives to war, they will have accomplished perhaps the greatest overall good in human history. Countless millions will live full lives who would have died prematurely. Energy and resources that would have been devoted to destruction will be made available for construction.
Those future generations likely will look on their ancestors - us - as benighted, corrupt or downright evil, for treating war as acceptable. They will shudder when they think of us in that regard.
Speaking for myself - and for their good, if not that of my posthumous reputation - I say: Let the censure come!