I’m an animal lover. I have two very spoiled dogs and a long history of pet ownership ranging from reptiles, rodents, cats and farm animals. In high school I was a member of Future Farmers of America and showed poultry at the state fairs. My parents owned a hobby farm populated with cows, goats, pigs, geese, ducks, chickens and one very fat turkey hen named Tiger. I was showing Tiger at a fair and stopped for dinner at a sub shop. I got a turkey sandwich. As I ate my turkey sandwich looking at the turkey I had raised from an egg and had trained to follow me around, I heard a little voice say, “Isn’t that a little cruel to eat in front of your pet?” Being 17 or 18 at the time, I wasn’t exactly a deep thinker and excused the thought due to the fact that I had no relationship with the turkey on my sandwich.
The animals my family raised were never eaten by us. Sure, we sold them knowing they would be butchered, but our hands were clean. But as I grew older and started reflecting more on life, often while eating, I thought of the cows that I’d named and sold to market. I could never have killed one of them. I don’t think I could enjoy eating them even if someone else had butchered them, but here I am eating a hamburger. I’d outsourced my killing. Did that make me morally superior or inferior? I would never pay someone to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself, so how could I outsource my dirty work. I decided around 27 years old to stop eating beef because of the time I’d spent close to cows, learning how curious and gentle they can be, each with their own unique personality. Later I questioned what made cows special, other than the fact that I like them. We had a pot belly pig that liked a good scratch and treat. It is widely acknowledged pigs are intelligent animals, so pork fell off the menu.
The little voice said: “Why only beef and pork? Isn’t that an arbitrary line drawn by nothing but your feelings?”
My hypocrisy was glaring and I decided I would eat no mammals. An arbitrary line to be sure, but we are mammals ourselves and that seemed fair at the time. So another year goes by eating fish, poultry and the occasional reptile when I thought back to Tiger the turkey and remembered eating that sandwich and the little voice reminding me that I wouldn’t have killed any turkey. Well, I enjoy fishing and have no shellfish allergies so pescatarianism here I come. Finally I could honestly say that although I was hiring someone else to catch and provide my food, I would be willing to do it myself. I remained on that diet for several years and continued enjoying animals through zoos, aquariums, nature walks and television programs. I love nature shows. I find any animal fascinating. The way they live, breed and hunt. Watching lions hunt on tv as a child I always rooted for the gazelle to get away. As I got older I realized that the lion needs to eat too.
Little Voice: “Is the lion an immoral creature because it hunts?”
Only the most rabid PETA person would say yes. So if the lion is not immoral for hunting, why did I myself consider it immoral? Because I have agency? I can choose not to kill. I have empathy. I can image what other people and animals feel.
Little Voice: “What about the bass you love to catch?”
That, I told myself was different; they aren’t a higher animal.
Little Voice: “They fight for their lives. They want to live.”
Fine, fish off the menu.
Little Voice: “What about shellfish? They didn’t evolve those hard defensive shells for no reason.”
Fine, all animals off the menu. Are you happy now voice in my head?!? I’ll go vegetarian!
Little Voice: “Cows are slaves to dairy farmers.”
Fine, vegan! Good enough for you conscience?!?
Once again, I was watching a nature program, this time about wild tobacco plants. Tobacco plants produce natural pesticides to protect themselves from insects and when exposed to a new pest that is resistant to their chemical warfare, they evolve a new pesticides in a never ending evolution of defense. Not only do tobacco plants fight to live, they send a message to other tobacco plants with the design for the new pesticide. The plants have empathy, they shared their hard work so the species could survive.
Little Voice: “Seems like plants want to live as much as bass.”
Fruit? How about that brain? You got anything against fruit? I’ll go full Jainism! Not to offend any Jainist reading, but if you look into evolutionary history, that fruit isn’t meant for humans. The reason that ripe fruit changes color is to signal birds that it is ready for them, not some local primate. Prior to color vision development in primates, only birds could see the color change and the plants were offering a tasty snack to the birds in exchange for spreading seeds far and wide. If a monkey ate the fruit, the distribution would be limited, so plants, specifically peppers, developed capsaicin in an effort to discourage mammals from eating their precious seeds. Birds, fish and reptiles don’t have capsaicin receptors. This was a limited chemical attack aimed at mammals, including us.
Little Voice: “So animals don’t want us to eat them and plants don’t want us to eat them, what are you going to eat smart guy?”
I thought about it. Single cell organisms that use photosynthesis and have no defensive mechanism? They aren’t even harmless! I’m sure, little voice in my head you are familiar with the great oxygen event. You must, you know what I know! Those little light consuming bastards wiped all other life off the planet with poisonous oxygen! As I gained control of my addled mind, I began to think about how a small organism changed an entire planet and took my attention from the very small to the very large; our universe.
The universe is big place and the vast majority is empty and yet filled with danger; vacuums, extreme cold, radiation, black holes and burning balls of gas. The universe is racing to reach it lowest form of energy through constant expansion and organisms are fighting the flow of energy seeking its lowest state as the heat death of the universe approaches. Microbes to man are engaged in a Sisyphean challenge of rolling a rock up an energy hill, forever. In that context, living is fighting. It is the ultimate fight club with no holds barred. Our ancestors came down from the trees and developed efficient locomotion to pursue game; a unique shoulder design that allows for projectile weapons such as slings and arrows. We learned to use fire to make meat more digestible and with that calorie boost our brains grew to develop even more complex hunting schemes and weapons.
Little Voice: “Does that mean YOU can do whatever you please with no consideration for life?”
No. Humans are still cursed/gifted with sentience. We are not bound strictly by evolution. We can make choices about what and how we eat.
Little Voice: “Are animals nothing more than property?”
That is a debatable question for another post, but let us assume yes, animals are property AND in need of special consideration. Just because animals are a food source doesn’t mean we can’t still show empathy. With these revelations my diet expanded to include animals once again, but with a wider consciousness. I thought, what is the most ethical way to procure food? A shallow thinker may conclude a vegan diet hurts no animals. I already posited that plants may not want to be food, but conceding that point, growing vegetables isn’t harmless. The land where soybeans and kale are grown had to be cleared and the native animals displaced. After the animals and non-commercial plants are eradicated, the land needs constant protections from animals trying to eat the crops and plants invading the inviting soil. A clear battle line is marked at the edge of the farm and pesticides must be applied which kill not only pest but other harmless insects.
The veggie farm is just another arena in the fight club of life. Cattle ranches and poultry farms have the same issues but with added ethical considerations of living conditions for the animals. Buying cage free and free range is an option but still the animals aren’t wild and the land still managed. Commercial fishing has it own set of issues such as long net vessels catch the target fish for market, but also thousands of fish with no food value.
Little Voice: “There ought to be a law!”
There oughtn’t, I counter. Everything comes with a price, including ethical farming, fishing and ranching. I choose to pay extra for what I consider to be the more ethical methods, but not everyone has room in the budget to make those same choices or has the same set of values as I do.
Little Voice: “Clearly hunting is the most cruel. Everyone knows that.”
Not so fast my imaginary friend. Recreational hunting is limited to only certain times of the year and subject to bag limits for native animals; on private land you can target invasive species year round. In both cases, the land is left in a natural state so all non-game animals and plants can live without molestation. Only a few of the game species are harvested so the majority is left to thrive and the sacrificed few aren’t wasted by responsible hunters, since the meat is eaten and the hides turned into trophies. Sport fishing is the cousin of hunting, where limits are set and only a sustainable number of animals taken during certain seasons. Hunting and fishing are the most honest ways to procure meat in my opinion. The hunted have a chance for escape and ethical hunters give fair chase to the animal. The cow has no chance for life beyond the ranch and may even see the rancher as a friend who provides food, until led to the abattoir.
After years of self reflection and deep though, I have made peace with the little voice in my head. I try to eat sustainable fish, free range/cruelty free animals and this year I plan to buy a lifetime hunting/fishing license for the state of Florida, so I can supplement my diet with what I consider the most ethical meat source. I would grow my own vegetables too, but it turns out I don’t have much of a green thumb or patience for weeding. How is any of this of interest to libertarians? Libertarianism is a governing philosophy, not a moral code. Where the debate comes into play is how government regulates use of public lands for hunting, seas for fishing, animal cruelty laws for ranching and regulation of herbicides/pesticides/GMO for farming.
As libertarians, we can debate how heavy the regulatory hand should be. No FDA? I’m listening. No FWC? I think they provide a valuable service of ensuring native species aren’t over hunted on public lands. A better solution would be selling public lands to private conservation groups and have private regulation. Mandate cruelty free food? This is where my standards for myself and the law come into conflict. I chose a diet that I believe to be ethical, but as a libertarian I would never force others to make that same choice. If enough people would choose to pay the price difference the market will provide cruelty free alternatives. As the market grows, prices should come down. In the end, it is up to each individual to make peace with that little voice in their head.