The assumptions that this essay rests upon are related to my world view or ontology. I have discussed this at some length in earlier essays, so this will be fairly brief. There are two ontological assumptions that currently contend with one another. One basic assumption is that matter is primary and all else arises from it. The other contending assumption is that consciousness is primary and all else arises from it. Briefly, I take the meaning of the word consciousness to be closely related to awareness of the subjective impressions, feelings and thoughts that arise from experiences. There are other positions that fall between the two assumptions above. They also, in my opinion, represent a pair of contradictory assumptions. I know of no empirical way of deciding between these two positions. Therefore, to chose is to take a leap of faith. I chose to make the assumption that consciousness is primary. I chose to make this assumption because it provides a wider range of possibilities in understanding and explaining the phenomena encountered in the world. It is perfectly capable of accounting for all the material phenomena embraced by materialism while leaving room for non-material phenomena.
In my view, living organisms are the vehicle through which consciousness is expressed. I subscribe to the hypothesis that consciousness is a fundamental and universal aspect of our reality. Thus, living organisms don’t generate consciousness; they receive it just as a TV receives a signal and then expresses it through images and sound. No one watching a program would think that the TV is generating the program. The different expressions of consciousness through organisms is in part determined by the complexity of the organism and the complexity of the consciousness that its nervous system can sustain.
This now brings us to the question of food. By implication, the above says that any living organism that you consume is, to some degree, a vehicle for universal consciousness and therefore has some capacity for subjective experience. We humans belong to Phylum Chordata and the Class Mammalia. Thus, one can consider all mammals to have a closer biological relationship to one another than to organisms falling into other classes. Generally speaking, mammals are complex organisms that one would expect to express a significant quality of consciousness though variable within the class. This isn’t to argue that there might not be a similar quality of consciousness expressed in members of some other classes. However, as mammals we have a sense of the quality of our own consciousness and therefore some basis for supposing that other members of our class possess a quality of consciousness not unlike our own, though of less complexity. This is not a precise way of thinking about comparative qualities of consciousness but provides some footing for considering comparative qualities among members of the Class Mammalia.
Thus, as a first cut, one might consider eliminating mammals (e.g., cattle, pigs, lambs, etc.) from one’s elective diet. The basis is that mammals probably have a subjective quality of experience such that using them as food animals causes an unacceptable level of suffering. The next cut would come with another member of the same Phylum (Chordata) as mammals, which is the class Aves (birds), e.g., chickens, ducks, turkeys, etc. The third cut takes us to the class Osteichthyes (fish), e.g., trout, bass, salmon, etc. There are other classes within the Phylum Chordata but these examples should be sufficient to get across the idea. It is more difficult to make a decision about classes other than that for mammals in our phylum. Whether one decides to draw the line at mammals, birds or fish is a personal decision.
Of course, regardless of where one draws the line on meat animals, the use of animal products such as eggs and milk products seems entirely acceptable, on the grounds used in this essay, as long as the animals contributing these products are treated well. There no doubt will be readers who would not exclude any class of animal from their diet. For these individuals, especially, I would offer the advice given by a North American shaman. Whenever one consumes food of any type, you should express your gratitude to the source of the food for its sacrifice. Further, that all living things should be treated with respect and spared as much suffering as possible.
Even if one continues to consume mammals, one should consider carefully the source of the food, how it was raised and how it was slaughtered. Most meat animals today are reared under poor conditions, including a diet that is not natural to them, including hormones to stimulate growth, antibiotics to ward off the risk of infections that result from the rearing conditions and brutal processes for slaughtering the animals (illustrated in this movie). All of this has a potential impact on the health of the individual who consumes the food so produced. We are all familiar with the adage, you are what you eat.
If you want to explore the range of life on this planet, I would suggest that you might find this website of interest: https://www.earthlife.net/