The Fellowship of Life
It is perfectly true that nature is based upon mutual predation; that one life can only sustain itself by taking and feeding upon other life; that the most conscientious and consistent of vegans is a life taker just like any other living organism in nature. After a now lengthening life of confronting this problem, I have to admit to total agnosticism. How can a universe which is based upon such mutual conflict and predation originate from, or lead back to, a benevolent origin? The Christian solution lies in a doctrine of a damaged universe, diverted from its original perfection by the sin of man (which an omniscient deity could easily have prevented) and then redeemed through the Son’s atonement. Yet the Genesis story makes it quite clear that pre-fall man ate plants, and that the general constitution of the world was even then based upon mutual predation; and that even after the eschatological consummation of the Second Coming the lion will eat straw like the ox. Both, that is to say, will exist upon plant life which they will, like man, take in order to live. More wisely, perhaps, but still without satisfying the mind, Buddhism does not concern itself with origins but concentrates upon release from suffering for the enlightened soul while continuing to accept the mutual life-taking involved in any conceivable organisation of the planet.
The dilemma is inescapable: the greatest saint is a predator and all vegetarians kill something in order to live. Nature, however, is not cruel: cruelty implies the infliction of suffering with a conscious purpose. Ruthless nature is, beyond doubt – as any who saw that remarkable film on the life-cycle of turtles will have had horribly borne in upon them; but it is not in that sense cruel until we rise in the evolutionary process to self-conscious man. Man is the only creature capable of cruelty: of the infliction of suffering for his own need or gratification. It is in that sense that man is the prince of predators; in that sense that he has prostituted his superior intelligence in order to gain his ends at the expense of not only his fellow-men but of his fellow-creatures below him in the evolutionary process.
Now, granted that no man can sever himself entirely from his essentially predatory condition – for which he is not responsible – what he can do is to reduce his predation in every way he finds possible. The most obvious and important way to do that is to cease to kill to eat; and that is the raison d’etre of vegetarianism, and its only justification. A killer crab cannot abstain from destroying baby turtles, but man can. In that way he shows himself truly human, by conscious choice of a better way of life. In doing so, he need not fall into the odious superiority into which some vegetarians – usually those who have not thought profoundly about the true nature of their way of life – do indeed fall.
After 25 years as a professional in animal welfare, I am deeply cognisant of the extent of man’s exploitation of animals, but unfortunately I can construct no even theoretical way of life for man which will avoid altogether the infliction of death and suffering on animals. It is therefore up to us to show our humanity – in both senses of the word – by living to the utmost of our capacity a life of compassion. Compassion involves, indeed, the prevention and alleviation of suffering; but it also means suffering with, and includes denying ourselves those things which are based upon the sufferings of others. We cannot change the nature of our world: we can work to change the behaviour of man.
Peter D. Turner
With thanks to the Vegetarian Society: www.vegsoc.org
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