I bumped into this webpage today, again reminding me of the ever-elusive issue of cruelty towards animals.
Where one draws the line of cruelty is subjective. One may go to the one extent of saying that nothing -- absolutely nothing -- should get hurt by what one does. Or he may choose the other extreme, saying, nothing that I don't 'know' as cruel death, is to be considered cruel. Both the stances have pitfalls. The first one has the oft quoted pitfall of considering plant-death as cruel, and hence, farming is cruel. On the other hand, the second one has the pitfall trying to explain why killing humans for food should be considered cruel. In fact, one doesn't need to go so far, since, the scene of Indian non-vegetarianism is rife with contradictions. Some people consider it OK to have fish, some draw the line after chicken, some after mutton. Beef, pork etc. are out for some people who, otherwise, neither swear by religion, nor give a second thought before relishing a mutton recipe.
There are unpleasant discussions between people arguing about whether indeed killing plants isn't as cruel as killing animals. After all how do we know that they don't feel pain and fear? What is the nature of this knowledge of ours? After dwelling shortly on themes of touch-me-nots and chemicals which flow in plants in response to physical stimuli, the problem eventually drifts into the dubious realms of epistemology!
And there are contradictions in human nature too. From my own experience, the most soft hearted creature I have ever met was this Muslim girl in my earlier office whose diet included everything that moves by itself. And the most aggressive of creatures I know are those who observe vegetarianism with Brahminical austerity. For one, I am not sure that my giving up meat-eating at an early age against the remonstrance from my family was a sign of my docility. Going through the unpleasantness of explaining myself everywhere, getting into ugly arguments every now and then with those who took my ethical vegetarianism as a personal attack on their non-vegetarian habits -- all these needed a determination bordering at arrogance. It was nothing short of a war against my circumstances. So much for the saying that vegetarian diet breeds peacefulness. I have met vegetarians with extreme conceit, laziness, greed, ...and every vice vegetarianism is supposed to protect you against. I am really not convinced that there exists any positive correlation between human nature and vegetarianism.
Then, is it a subject about which there's no constructive thought possible? May be people will/should continue with whatever food habits they inherit from their parents. I feel that's a very natural and just criterion for choosing one's food habit. We indeed have our eating ways too well-drilled in our basic nature. By basing our choice of our pallete on such general principles as 'cruelty and kindness' would be a mistake on this present day. The basic nature of 'cruelty' isn't known too well today. If tomorrow's philosophers do figure it out for us, only to find out that any kind of food is indeed based on a cruel act, will we have the guts to stop living?
Or is 'cruelty' such a big unknown? I feel, all philosophical problems are nearly unsolvably difficult when we try to solve them in general. But are exceedingly simple when we try to answer for ourselves. For it's very easy to know if what we are eating is due to our sense of righteousness, or is it because we are afraid to face an obvious question lest it makes appeal on us to give up our gluttony. I think, we should all face the question at our very personal level but we shouldn't argue with anyone. For all we know, asking someone to give up something he loves without sufficient convincing could be as cruel as killing. But examining our beliefs, our faiths, our personal sense of right and wrong, is not cruel.
The only prescriptive statement I would make here is that we should, in solitude, give these questions some thought. We needn't talk about it to anyone. But think, we must. Even if we are able to accept to ourselves that some item we consume is fundamentally a product of cruelty to someone, even if we mayn't be in a position to give up consuming it, or even to openly proclaim our finding, it'll be an act of momentous courage.