Morals, laws and meat

Debates with my Daughters

Dinner table debates at the Pai household increasingly result in the two teenage girls rolling their eyes at the primitive moral standards of their opinionated father. They believe that their parents — especially their father — need education in appreciating music, discerning fashion, accepting proper social norms, using the internet properly, deciphering what they consider modern English and, quite obviously, in saving the planet. Sometimes, I think they have a point. In any case, I hope sharing some of these conversations with you, dear reader, will serve a greater public purpose and win you over to my side. 

Some time ago, Airy, the younger of the two girls and the rebel star of the family, declared that she wanted to turn vegan. After reading and some reflection, she had come to feel that meat and milk products involved avoidable cruelty to animals. Anticipating parental resistance, she argued that as a citizen of India, she enjoyed the liberty to choose what she wanted to eat and offered to cite the articles from the Constitution that guaranteed those rights. 

She raised two good questions here: one moral, and the other constitutional. The moral argument, as made out by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is that “eating animals is cruel, unsustainable, and unethical, and people should make the switch to vegan eating.”

The counter to it is that the human species has been a meat-eating one, across the world, for most of its history and this makes it as natural for us to eat meat as to eat plants. The late K T Achaya, a Bengalurean, has written about the very meat-eating history of Indian food. You could visit the Institute of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine (I-AIM) in Yelahanka and pick up their translation of Raghunatha Suri’s 17th century treatise, Bhojanakutuhalam, which has some mindblowing non-vegetarian recipes. 

If we were to abstain from eating living things, or dead things that were once living, we would have nothing to eat at all. We should plead guilty to charges of cruelty, though, for no matter how natural meat-eating is, killing animals involves taking a life by inflicting pain on a sentient being. While sustainability is a matter of technology and practice — we can improve on that front — cruelty is currently unavoidable. Does this make meat-eating unethical? Or does the fact that it is natural for us to eat meat invalidate such concerns?

Michael Shermer, who advances the case for moral behaviour determined by science and reason in The Moral Arc, argues that the arc of our moral universe is expanding and over history, “we have been steadily—albeit at times haltingly—expanding the moral sphere to include more members of our species (and now even other species) as legitimate participants in the moral community.” 

I conceded that veganism might be a superior ethical position, but, I told the girls, I choose not to be at the leading edge of the moral arc. And if they wished to be, they could do so after they turned 18. I will wait for cellular agriculture (‘lab grown meat’) to make cultured meat available before our moral arcs can converge.

This brings us to their fundamental rights, which I discovered, is an interesting question. To what extent can I, as a parent, abridge them? Fundamental rights are enforceable against the state, not against other citizens. But there are provisions in the penal code against wrongful restraint. In practice, Indian courts will support the parent’s decision on dietary preferences. They might even support the government’s orders on what adults should eat. I would win, I told Airy, if she takes the matter to court against me, through me. The moral victory, though, was hers.