The Best Possible Argument
Someone wants to eat meat with a clear conscience. He is shocked to hear of the terrible living conditions in which animals are kept prior to becoming "meat". He agrees with you that his habit does not justify such harm to chickens. He even knows that a vegetarian diet can provide him excellent nourishment. In short, it's not easy to keep one's conscience clear. He thinks for a moment, worried, and suddenly proclaims to you in relief: "We're all part of the food chain!" (or: "But that's the circle of life!", or: "That's nature's way!" and so on). Convincing? Certainly not - unless one wants, wants very much - to find an excuse.
Chain of Production, Circle of Consumption
In biology textbooks and popular nature books are often found charming illustrations, in which all the forms of life are connected by a chain of arrows, teaching us who eats whom: Plants - Herbivores - Carnivores - Bacteria - and then back to Plants; a perfect circle, wherein each has its own place. Humans too have their own place (ultra-carnivores, of course), and should we try to remove them from this place - we would be upsetting the natural order of things. Not only that, but in the mere deviation from the natural order, we are exhibiting arrogant alienation towards our animal kin! This is all well and good, but it's a bit hard to see how this natural chain of arrows accommodates climate-controlled henhouses, battery cages, antibiotics, cargo trucks and streams flooded by slaughterhouse waste. The time has come to wake up, after tens of thousands of years of domestication and over a hundred years of industrial agriculture: the exploitation of animals for food is an act of pure dominance, completely distorting mutual ecological relations. It is a system of producers and consumers, determining the existence and destruction of animals as if they were inanimate industrial products. The only connection this system retains with nature is as an agent of destruction: polluting and wasting water, destroying earth, eliminating vegetation areas, and promoting the extinction of wild animals.
The Hunters Raided (the Nearest Supermarket) at Dawn
There are those who insist that eating meat is a necessary expression of Man's nature - the nature of the hunter. And for evidence: when people go hunting, they discover in themselves the authentic lust of the hunt, repressed by the stifling cloak of urban society. But when do they go hunting? And how? Armed with a supermarket cart and a credit card? Is Man's true nature revealed by thawing a plucked, frozen chicken from the freezer? Or perhaps by fanning the flames of a barbeque?
If That's Nature, Give Us Culture!
The "food chain" argument tries to convince that meat eating is natural to Man, and therefore morally good. And what's the connection between "natural" and "moral"? Purely coincidental: our views concerning natural phenomena vary according to our values. If, for example, "natural" means enjoying the fresh air, living a long life and co-operating with others - then "natural" is good, and we will strive to fulfill our natural tendencies. But if "natural" means suffering from disease, constantly fighting our neighbors and dying young - then "natural" is bad, and we would all prefer to go against nature.
For the Nature of Man is Evil and Good from His Youth
Still, maybe Man is a bloodthirsty predator by nature - one who smells the deer in the field (or at least sees the plastic billboard ad for hamburger) and immediately feels an uncontrollable urge to fulfill his primal nature (to grab a sharp instrument and stick it in the meat)? Or maybe - as others say - he is actually a noble-souled angel, who hears the cry of a kitten in the field (or behind the gas cylinders in the yard) and immediately feels an urge to fulfill his primal nature (to pet, to feed and to adopt)? Yes and yes. Some people are of the former type, some of the latter. And more importantly: some societies cultivate cruelty, and some cultivate compassion. The potential for cruelty and kindness is in all of us, but its realization requires a certain cultural background, a learning process. Therefore there is no point in asking if people are "predators" by nature. The only relevant question is what they choose to be.
Who Enjoys the Good Life in Nature?
When do people insist, in the face of all practical evidence and rational arguments, that there is "something" in nature after all, "something" which cannot be denied, our true essence, the natural order of things - and that's that? Very simple: when they have something to gain from such a depiction of the balance of power between themselves and others. When you are the one trampling the other - and enjoying it - it seems very natural to you; why bother thinking that there's another way? But when you are the one being trampled, you will prefer thinking that things could be done differently: "It is not our true essence, which makes others want to eat me; it's just someone who wants to eat me; me, my essence is to live."
The Nature of the Wealthy Western Man
There are those who are more - much more - inclined to use the "natural" argument as a justification for harming others. These are the power-holders of society, who like thinking that their power was granted by nature. Therefore it is not surprising that high class white, western men have been - and continue to be - inclined to use this argument more than other groups. Before the movement to abolish slavery marked its victory, it was rare to find a western person who did not justify the mass murder and enslavement of Africans, under the assumption that slavery was natural ("Always has been, and always will be!"), and that the whites' control over blacks stemmed from the nature of the two groups ("Blacks are inferior to whites"). Before the feminist movement matured, it was rare to find a western man who did not justify the financial, cultural and physical oppression of women, under the assumption that the roles of the sexes were natural, and so was their inequality. Excuses of this kind have not disappeared from society. Above all, they survive in claims that the oppression of nonhuman animals is natural to both Man and animals - the same animals that Man tortures and kills.