The claim that something "symbolically supports tyranny..." is not a claim about the act in itself, but a claim about the meaning of the act. Your vegan friend may see troublesome meanings in the act of eating artifical bacon flavored chips or wearing fake fur. But not everyone does, and there is much ambiguity and complexity about what things mean. To take another example, I have friends who will not marry because they think that "marrying symbolically supports an institution that oppresses women." I don't doubt that marriage has historically oppressed women, but I think marriage has multiple meanings (commitment, family, for example) and any decision whether to marry or not needs to take all these meanings into account. Back to the fake fur: Personally I prefer fake fur that looks fake, so that I don't make unnecessary enemies or set a bad example. Your friend is so passionate about veganism that he focuses on one set of meanings.
It seems to me that in order for an agent to act rightly or wrongly, morally or immorally, s/he must be capable of having the concepts of right and wrong, moral and immoral: consequently, it seems to me that if certain animals were discovered to have the ability to have such concepts, then and only then could it be said that those animals were capable of right or wrong, moral or immoral actions. This is, it seems to me, an empirical question--albeit one that we may be unable to answer. But the mere behavior of animals does not, it seems to me, manifest the possession of such concepts.
Good question! If one could not imagine oneself slaughtering an animal for food under any circumstances, then perhaps one should reflect on whether one's reluctance stems from a realization (deep down) that there is something morally disquieting or even wrong about killing animals for food. Still, the reason for the reluctance might rest on non-moral grounds (due to a childhood accident, one cannot stand the site of blood) and reflect a deep personal preference (perhaps one cannot imagine ever being a plumber or sanitation worker, but one still believes that the vocation of being a plumber or sanitation worker are good and vital for society).
Flipping the question around, though, it might be noted that even if one can conceive of oneself slaughtering animals for food, and doing so happily, that alone would not be a reason to think that such slaughtering is good or morally permissible.
You are right that a longer life is not necessarily a happier life, but there are other things that go with longer life that are probably relevant to your question. I am not sure what the exact statistics are, but I see to recall that feral cats (felis domesticus) have an average life span of something like two years. The question is, what is the quality of those two years, relative to the very long average lives of cats that live as household pets? In addition to the factors that you mention, how should we think about the quality of life of an animal that has to be:
- Constantly alert to the danger of predators (feral and domestic dogs, coyotes, etc., who will kill cats for amusement or food).
- Depending on the environment, constant risk of accidents with automobiles.
- Constantly in search of food, with starvation and malnutrition always serious risks--especially if the cat should suffer from some injury that prevents it from hunting or scavenging effectively.
- Constantly plagued by fleas, worms, ticks, and other parasites, with no hope of relief.
- Constant (often injurious, and sometimes deadly) fights with rivals for territory and or opportunities to breed, with the attendant risks of infections and subsequent disabilities.
- The near-certainty of an early, violent, and painful death.
To be frank, the lives of feral cats look to me like exellent examples of Hobbes's old line about what human lives would be like in what he called a "state of nature": "nasty, poor, brutish, and short."
Moreover, I also seem to recall that, unlike dogs, which were bred for their qualities as pets, cats "domesticated themselves" because of the benefits to them that came through association with human beings.
At least in the case of cats (and I suspect that similar cases can be made for other companion animals, and even perhaps for some animals kept for human uses other than as pets) the quality of life issues do not at all support the idea that it would be better for the animal to live in the wild.
Of course, it depends on how one defines 'person'. If one defines person as an organism with a human genome, then dolphins can't be persons and human fetuses are persons. But personally, I think persons are conscious creatures that are able to think about their own and others' mental states, to represent and understand what they feel and believe, hold dear and hold true. Such self-awareness seems to allow one to represent oneself as a person, as separate from other persons, as continuous through time, as having a future self with interests that should be considered now. These capacities, I believe, are also what make persons autonomous and responsible in ways that non-persons are not. While there are important boundary conditions for personhood, so defined, it may involve many capacities, each of which is possessed to varying degrees, so it may be hard to delineate clearly which creatures count as persons and which don't, and to delineate exactly when an infant becomes a person. (I also don't know whether language is required for any of these capacities or is instead enabled by them.)
So, dolphins are persons if they are conscious (surely they are) and also self-aware in these ways. Some evidence suggests that dolphins, like apes (but not monkeys), have the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror and to represent mental states ('theory of mind'), not to mention their basic language skills. These tests seem to be reasonable ways to get at the capacities I'm suggesting are the grounds for personhood.
The answer will depend on what your reasons are for not eating meat. For instance, I do not believe that eating meat is wrong because killing animals is wrong. Rather, I believe it is wrong to cause suffering to those animals we have good reason to believe can feel pain and suffer (unless we are justified in believing that the suffering will relieve more suffering, as is the case with some animal experimentation but is almost never the case with eating animals). So, I try to do what I can to avoid supporting factory farming, which is a manifest case of causing unnecessary suffering. I am not as good as I should be about this commitment. For instance, if I am in a situation where I have to choose between eating factory-farmed meat and not eating (or having to go to great lengths to eat), I tend to eat the meat. If I am served meat and the only way to avoid eating it is to throw it away, I will eat the meat (otherwise, one might even think the animal's pain was even more useless than it otherwise would be?). So, if you could have gotten another sandwich and someone else would have eaten the turkey sandwich, then you would have been more consistent to take a non-meat option.
The more general problem is that our individual actions in these cases (and across all our food-eating choices) are unlikely to have much of an impact on the problem of factory farming. It will take collective action to get our society's practices to change. And the best way to make that happen will involve convincing others to stop eating factory-farmed meat. Here, I wish I did more than I do.
I think less is more when it comes to explaining why it's wrong to use animals for food. Animals taste good, but that's too trivial a reason for imposing serious harm on them--suffering and death. (As I'm sure you know, in intensive farming laying hens suffer in many ways, and for each layer, a male chick is killed right off the bat. The layers wind up being killed when they stop producing eggs efficiently.) It really doesn't take any fancy talk about rights to see the problem--it's essentially a matter of balance. Great harms can only be justified by great goods--and the pleasure of egg-eating is not a great good.
If you were to make this argument, you might encounter a dismissive attitude that says animals don't count at all, so there's no need for balancing harms and goods. But that attitude is pretty superficial--people tend to give it up when you talk to them about their cats and dogs. No doubt they would taste good too. You might also encounter the thought that it must at least matter more how we treat people. I think you can concede that, and still make your case for veganism, as I argue in my recent book Animalkind: What We Owe to Animals (forgive the plug).
(Full disclosure: I think the case for giving up eggs is strong, but it isn't easy to do it. I have only made it as far as vegetarianism.)
I think you would really enjoy a new anthology from Wiley-Blackwell--Hunting. It is written largely by and for hunters, and looks at the sort of ethical questions you raise in a way you will find hospitable.
I think hunting is extremely difficult to justify. Though once necessary to obtain necessary nutrients, clothing, etc., killing animals to obtain these things is no longer necessary. It doesn't really help justify hunting/fishing to eat what you kill, if you could have eaten something else.
Even assuming it was necessary to eat meat, it would still be problematic to engage in killing as a recreational leisure activity--which is what hunting/fishing are for most people. If the main goal of sport hunting/fishing are having fun, and food is just a byproduct, something odd is going on (as I argue here). But now getting to you question...
Hunters who are concerned about fairness at least see animals as "subjects" instead of merely as "objects." That's all to the good. Fair hunters will probably kill far fewer animals. But should they really think in terms of fairness? Hunting an animal is not a sport involving two competitors, since the animal doesn't participate voluntarily and has no idea what's going on. In a competition between two humans, fairness is mutually beneficial, but that's not necessarily so in the case of hunting and fishing. The "unfair" hunter at a hunting ranch will lure a tame animal to a hunting station, and then shoot him at close range with a powerful rifle. The "fair" hunter might chase a terrified deer for miles, and then shoot him from a distance with a bow and arrow, so the animal dies a slower death. The extra "fairness" in the second case doesn't benefit the deer, and in fact harms him!
I agree with you that all hunting is not equal, and if one is going to hunt, one should do it "the right way." But the right way, it seems to me, is just less wanton and more humane, not necessarily the way that involves concepts of fairness imported from human sport.
Many see themselves as in need of protein and or without the time to go vegetarian. They also regard their own lives as much more valuable than the lives of say chickens. Some also argue that animals eat one another and that the food chain is part of a natural process. I do not agree with this logic but that to my mind is how the reasoning goes.