How do atheists justify eating meat on an ethical basis?

As we all evolved from common ancestors, and atheists reject the idea that we have god given dominion over the other animals, what ethical justification is there for not considering then suffering of other species?

It seems that to discriminate on the grounds of species is just as arbitrary as to discriminate on the basis of skin colour, sex etc.

I base my ethics on minimising unnecessary suffering and death and promoting well being and happiness. What are others ethics based upon?

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For what its worth, hardly anyone i know actually thinks of morals/ethics as a literal list of rules, say like what you see in many religions. The idea that ethics could (or should) be boiled down to a checklist of behaviors divorced from their specific context is one of the more subtle, unhealthy contributions of the abrahamic religions to our society. 

But most folks i know think of ethics more like very broad goals: try to reduce harmful impacts, try to respect people's boundaries and give them opportunities to consent to personal experiences, if we encounter opportunities to improve others lives try and take them, etc. Hence the comment below on how ethics in a practical sense (and really law as well) is a messy, non-binary, imperfect-but-still-important thing.

Not sure if this helps, but maybe i should clarify a more general idea:

I don't actually believe that behaviors can be easily summarized as ethical or unethical, rather i believe that our behaviors have ramifications on other creatures we share space with. Most impacts have harmful and beneficial effects on many creatures. But that's just kinda life: the messy process of weighing a complex bucket of ethical factors to pick what would be the best course of action overall. 

So taking this situation, i consider it partially unethical to let oneself waste away from malnutrition, especially if one is a member of a larger community (which most humans are!). But i also consider it partially unethical to gnaw on someone else. And the devil is in the details as they say, and in determining how i feel about a particular creature eating another particular creature in any given moment i'd weigh in things like, the degree of nutritional benefit versus alternatives, the sentience of either creature, the pre-death suffering that might be experience by the creature, the environmental impact of the creature's life/death, etc.

I'm a meat eater but am conflicted over the way we treat animals.  I was all fired up and wrote a letter to the editor when 100 people were protesting some cats and dogs being put down by animal control a couple of years ago.  Never new it got published until yesterday when I accidentally discovered it on two different sites.This got me all fired up again and I was going to drop it into the pet debate about cats and dogs - then decided to start a discussion about god giving dominion over other animals.  I see John has already done that.  So here is my raging letter.  Activists Stand Hypocritical .  If that link doesn't load this link loads faster and has more context Animals in Canada

My friend (named John as well) who inspired me to write the letter two years ago from talks we have had at work wrote me this yesterday after I sent him the links and it bears repeating.

"Believers" have this notion that "man", made in the image of god, stands separate from nature and that animals are here only for his use (food, clothing, amusement, companionship, medical/cosmetic research, etc.).  This idea insulates believers from the inhumane way we treat cows, chickens, pigs and other "mass-produced" farm animals. They no longer have any empathy for animals, and this is another reason why I became an atheist.

@Russell I read your letter and agree entirely. I am unused to forums and have been surprised with the responses of many atheists to the issue. I am beginning to think that maybe one main incentive people turn away from religion is to avoid the moral (albeit daft) implications of being a believer. I thought that rejecting religious morals meant people would work out their own set of ethics/morals. I have and it is simply based on not causing unnecessary pain and suffering. Being an atheist I realise I am not created in the image of God with dominion over the other animals and that I am related to the other animals. I see no reason at all not to give consideration to the interests of any creature that is capable of feeling pain and suffering.

People try to come up with justifications based on intelligence, etc but these are just arbitrary.

“The question is not, "Can they reason?" nor, "Can they talk?" but "Can they suffer?”
Jeremy Bentham

Self-interest is a powerful reason for turning a blind eye to unethical practices - just look at the slave trade that was condoned by the masses not all that long ago.

I think we must take on the implications of evolution for our moral behaviour too. In doing that we can show that atheists can live moral/ethical lives, aspire to do better and are not a bunch of self-serving lunatics theists would portray us to be

John Major,  I knew you would feel dismayed by the majority opinion on this site.  Do keep in mind the many of us here who DO share your point of view. My opinion is that humans vary greatly in their ability to experience empathy.  This will be quickly denied by atheists who have a dominionist view of the natural world.  

Happy Earth Day!

I guess I'll have to.

@Hey Dogly. I know that self-interest has a powerful infulence and can bring about the kind of blinkered unfeeling, unthinking approach John D has been good enough to demonstrate above. LOL

Thanks, annet!

Animals eat other animals. I live near the mountains and a cougar killed and ate my precious cat, Freddy D. Butthole. Now I have taken it upon myself to exact my revenge on all animals, even herbivores (or as I call them, "enablers"). That cow would shoot your mother in the face if it had the chance.

Ha! Awesome


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