Can we be compassionate to all creatures of this Earth?
Many know Leonardo da Vinci as the Italian Renaissance genius who painted the Mona Lisa. Few are familiar with Leonardo’s moral views. Not only was he a generous humanitarian, he also cared deeply about animals.
One of his earliest biographers, Giorgio Vasari, tells us that Leonardo was “fond of all animals, ever treating them with infinite kindness and consideration.”
Vasari recounts stories of encounters Leonardo had with bird traders in the market. On such occasions, Leonardo would often buy birds, and then release them into the sky, as he could not bear to see an animal of the air confined to a small cage. Leonardo’s compassion, however, was not restricted to birds. He abhorred cruelty towards any animal.
The Italian explorer Andrea Corsali reported in a letter to his patron that the members of a people he came across on a trip to South Asia “are so gentle that they do not feed on anything which has blood, nor will they allow anyone to hurt any living thing, like our Leonardo da Vinci.” Leonardo himself wrote that, rather than being the king of all animals, man is the king of all beasts, as he has made his gullet “a tomb for all animals.”
From this, and other historical evidence, we may conclude that Leonardo was an ethical vegetarian. He refused to be a party to the unnecessary killing of animals, repulsed by the thought of other sentient beings having to surrender their precious and unique lives for his palate.
This view was radical in Renaissance Italy, but has since been adopted by an increasing number of people, including philosophers, who have provided it with a rational foundation.
The animals we eat or use otherwise are like us not only in that we too are animals, which is merely a matter of biology, but also in ways that are morally important. They have a unique psychological presence in the world, and they are capable of experiencing pain and pleasure. Their lives can go better or worse, from their point of view; what happens to them matters to them. They have beliefs and desires, and some of them are even self-aware and can use certain forms of language.
There seems to be no difference between all human beings and all non-human animals that could justify the superior moral status we normally ascribe -- rather conveniently -- to ourselves. If that is true, and if we owe equal respect to all human beings, then we must extend the same respect to other animals as well. At a minimum, that means that we should stop using non-human animals as a source of food.
Saying goodbye to meat and other animal products is not only good for animals, but also for our health and the planet. Plant-based food can help reduce the prevalence of diseases such as diabetes, heart diseases, and some cancers, and producing it puts much less strain on the environment than the production of dairy, eggs, and meat, particularly beef.
Not only is animal agriculture highly inefficient in terms of land use, with soybeans, rice, corn, other legumes, and wheat yielding significantly more usable protein per unit of land, it is also a serious source of water pollution, and as a waste of water in general.
For example, it takes 4,664 litres of water to produce a portion of beef, but only 371 litres to produce an entire plant-based meal. Animal agriculture further generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transport combined, and is a major contributor to world hunger, as only a fraction of the calories fed to farm animals are returned in the form of edible flesh, eggs, or dairy -- calories that would benefit much more people if consumed directly.
Factory farming, which is on the rise in Bangladesh, is particularly harmful to our health, the environment, and the animals involved. Animals in factory farms are kept in conditions that are often horrific, and endure serious health problems that arise from these conditions, just to be violently killed at a young age.
None of us would want such a life, so why impose it on others, given that we can easily live healthy and fulfilled lives without eating meat? If you are still looking for a New Year’s resolution, this is a question you might want to consider.
You care about peace and justice, you are compassionate, and you abhor violence. You know, if you are candid with yourself, that your fridge is, but should not be, a morgue, and that your body is, but should not be, a graveyard. Have the courage to follow your heart, and be a catalyst for positive change. Say “no, thank you” to meat -- be radically kind.
Rainer Ebert is a Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Dar es Salaam, and a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. He can be reached at www.rainerebert.com.