Is it morally consistent for people to eat animals in circumstances when doing so is not necessary for survival? I am not interested in the separate question of what people should or should not do in these circumstances, but simply whether the common act of eating animals coheres with our society's basic moral assumptions.
Recently, I conducted an experiment. I showed a few of my carnivorous comrades a delightful video of puppy torture. I will spare you the explicit details; basically, it involved a puppy, high-heeled footwear and a lot of stomping. Unanimously, they expressed outrage, with shouts of "That woman should be shot!" and "How could anyone do that!" Judging from their reactions, I detected that my friends lacked an appreciation for refined humor. Perhaps the most rib-tickling facet of our exchange was that our lips were still moist with the succulent juices of pulled pork sandwiches from Letchworth Dining Hall.
What exactly do my friends have against the woman in the videoclip? It seems that they were upset by the fact that someone would subject an animal to suffering for merely her own pleasure. Surely, it would be absurd for me to attempt to defend her actions by citing them as necessary, so instead, I explained to them that the suffering of the puppy is negligible.
"The puppy in the video is really just a thing, and as such bears moral significance comparable to that of a cell phone," I posited. "We should not be fooled by how cuddly they are into thinking that puppies are anything more than unconscious cell-based robots that respond to external stimuli in such a way as to resemble the pain behavior with which we are familiar. Though their nervous systems appear to share certain structural similarities with our own, they do not have the capacity for conceptual thought, and thus, since they cannot think abstractly, can have no sense of self. Animals are just too simple to actually suffer in a way that should matter to us."
One of my friends responded that the same argument was made by Nazis to advocate the slaughtering of the mentally handicapped, and could be similarly adapted to support modern treatments of individuals who are disabled or underdeveloped. According to the argument, infants cannot suffer as severely as adults, and to be fair, pigs and puppies would fall between toddlers and mature humans.
If we are not comfortable with the unnecessary harming and killing of innocent puppies and babies, then there is no non-arbitrary reason for tolerating, or worse, supporting, similar deeds being imposed on other species of comparable intelligence with a comparable capacity for suffering.
In conclusion, I encourage everyone to go ahead and eat animals because they taste good, and stomp puppies because it's fun. To judge my hero Michael Vick for the pleasure he gets from smashing dogs while eating bacon from pigs that are as deserving of rights as dogs is simply inconsistent. If you like KFC but condemn people who torture puppies, you are a hypocrite.