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Jul 28 2008

The ethics of food-1: Confessions of a meat eater

I am an omnivore. I eat everything. Of course, ‘everything’ is not quite as inclusive as it sounds. Like all people, there are some foods that I dislike for their taste and there are others I avoid simply because I have not grown up with them and so they do not form a part of my usual diet. Since I am also not adventurous in terms of food, preferring to eat familiar foods over the unfamiliar, the range of things I eat is rather small. But there is nothing in the normal diet of people around the world that I could not and would not eat in principle.

In particular, I eat all kinds of meat. At the very outset, I might as well admit that I feel guilty about this aspect of my diet. The moral and ethical case for vegetarianism has for a long time seemed to me to be unassailable, and the fact that I have not adopted this diet can be put down, at least partly, to addiction to the taste of meat. Human beings have been carnivores for a long time in our evolutionary history, and our bodies seem to have evolved to both like the taste of meat and be able to absorb animal protein and make it a part of our diet.

Meat eaters who worry about this try to find ways to justify the practice. One argument for justifying meat eating is that we are who we are because we ate meat for so long in our history. Thus eating meat is an important part of our heritage as it were, and is thus ‘natural’. To abstain from eating meat is to deny our essential nature as carnivorous animals. After all, other species of animals also kill and eat other animals, so that way of life is part of nature. If eating meat is an important part of how we came to be, why should we deny that heritage?

But that evolutionary history does not justify the practice. There are many things in human evolutionary history that we share with other animals and though many animals do kill other animals and eat them, that in itself is no justification for us doing so since there is no imperative that we must take our moral cues from other species.

This is especially true now, since we know so much more about food and have available so many nonmeat alternatives to our diet that can provide us with the same nutrients that meat does. Not eating meat does not pose an insurmountable hardship for people in the developed world where a variety of food is available in abundance.

Another reason that I eat meat is sheer laziness. Being a vegetarian takes more effort than being a carnivore. The buying, preparing, and storing of vegetables, fruits, and cereals for a balanced diet that gives the same range and amount of protein as a meat-based diet takes more thought and effort. But laziness is hardly a noble reason for continuing this practice.

So vegetarians win the moral case over meat eating quite easily. The argument for veganism (avoiding even dairy products like milk and eggs and other foods that can be coaxed from animals without killing them, and avoiding the use of animal hides such as leather) seems to be more debatable. If you are not harming the animal, is there anything morally wrong with eating what it produces?

The argument can be made that even with milk and eggs we are still exploiting animals, using them for our own ends irrespective of their own needs. That is true, but one wonders how far one can take that exploitation argument. Is the use of animals for labor also a form of exploitation to be condemned? Is the keeping of animals for pets for the pleasure that gives us also exploitation?

It is sometimes argued that to be a true advocate of animal rights and avoid any form of exploitation, then one should also avoid the use of all animal products, such as wool amd leather, not use any pesticides, and not use animals and animal products even for research.

This argument is sometimes used against vegetarians and vegans, to suggest that to be fully consistent as demanded by them is to be unrealistic, that in the normal course of our lives that we cannot avoid killing animals. It is pointed out that all agriculture, especially modern large scale agriculture, cannot take place without the killing of animals, either directly because they are considered pests that destroy crops or accidentally by ploughs and combines running over small animals that happen to get in the way, or indirectly by commandeering the habitats used by them causing them to eventually die from lack of food. And what about killing vermin that cause disease?

But this is a weak argument, pitting the perfect against the good. To accuse vegetarians and vegans of hypocrisy because even they cannot completely avoid some complicity in the killing of animals is an ad hominem argument that merely seeks to avoid conceding to them the moral high ground, and serves as a device to assuage the meat-eater’s guilt and to avoid feeling morally inferior. The fact that vegetarians and vegans may not be able to live up to the extremely high standards that they themselves set does not lessen the force of their argument that eating meat seems like an avoidable wrong. It cannot be used to justify the deliberate killing of animals to satisfy our needs. Even if we cannot eliminate animal killing, at least reducing the scale of it is a good thing.

But while the case for veganism is debatable, there was no question in my mind we can all live without killing animals for meat and would probably be much healthier to boot. But while that conclusion still holds true in almost all cases, I have come across other arguments (to be discussed later in this series) that suggest that under certain very limited conditions eating meat might be morally justifiable.

POST SCRIPT: Health care in Europe

Last week, NPR ran a good series of stories comparing the health care systems in individual countries in Europe with what is offered here. It is incredible to me that Americans put up with such an awful system whose main beneficiaries are the health insurance and drug companies and select physicians.

12 comments

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  1. 1
    Savannah

    Mano,

    It might be possible that your reasons for discussing this are influenced by reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” but if you haven’t read it I’d highly recommend it.

    This book served as a sort of tipping point for me to make the final push into vegetarianism. I had been considering it before, but had found the claims of PETA-like groups about animals being just like people a little hooky. The reasons I finally decided to commit to a mostly vegetarian decided were mostly environmental. Michael Pollan points out in his book just how damaging industrial farming is, especially the continued use of corn to feed animals that have no business eating corn.

    One more thing I would add is that once you start eating a vegetarian diet you discover that it is actually just as easy as eating meat. My husband and I love the fact that we no longer need to worry about contaminated cutting boards and knives when preparing our meals. Lentils and beans are also much cheaper than even poor quality meat.

    Thanks again for the interesting discussion and I look forward to the rest of this series.

  2. 2
    Mano

    Savannah,

    Good guess! I have read Pollan’s book, and it did trigger the investigations that led to this coming series. I will be writing a lot about what Pollan’s book says in the future.

  3. 3
    Sam Rees

    So..Maybe I have never heard a good argument. But why is it morally wrong to eat meat? I grew up on a small farm. We raised chickens, pigs, cattle. They grazed, we gave them hay and corn/oats to supplement their diet. As much “free range” as you can get, its just how you raise a good animal. Some were pets, and others we butchered and put in the freezer. It just seems odd to me that there is an issue with this. Why do vegans and vegetarians have the moral high ground?

  4. 4
    Jared

    Sam,

    It seems that your experiences with farming have given you a good perspective of what keeping animals CAN be, but unfortunately for the vast majority of animals slaughtered for their meat, it is nothing like what you describe.

    If all farming was done in the way you describe, then I would probably never have decided to stop buying meat. However, practically the only way I can acquire meat is through the industrial meat industry. If you are familiar with what goes on in these slaughterhouses, perhaps you can see why some people might argue that the kind of treatment animals are subjected to in these plants is unethical.

    There are other reasons that people feel that they have a moral obligation to not eat meat. Meat is an expensive commodity, but due to corn subsidies its price is artificially lowered in the US. Thus, when we buy meat we aren’t really understanding how much it costs to produce that meat. While the family scale farming you describe is sustainable for millenia, industrial scale production of meat is not. By continuing to consume meat at current levels in America, the hidden costs to society stack up. Many people choose to stop eating meat to ‘do our part’ to get this problem under control.

    A lot of the ethical imperative comes from these lines.

  5. 5
    Mano

    Sam,

    Jared has taken the words right out of my mouth. The conditions you describe on your farm come close to the very limited conditions that I hinted at at the end of my post, and which I will elaborate on later. The sad fact, though, is your farm is a rarity.

    I will discuss in future posts the arguments as to why those who avoid eating meat have the high moral ground.

  6. 6
    dave

    Greetings

    I am also looking forward to the rest of this series. I have also struggled with the moral dilemma of eating meat. While this has been on my mind for many years (and I did go vegetarian for nearly 2 years) the issue resurfaced with the viewing of the disturbing documentary titled, ‘Earthlings.’ You can view that at google video if you desire:

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-1282796533661048967

    One of the problems with vegetarianism is the issue of B12. I’ve discovered a lot about the topic and I’ll add them to a later post.

  7. 7
    Rian

    I think this falls under the personal choice side of things. I have no particular moral compunctions about eating meat from a factory farm regardless of the treatment of the animals and freely do so. I don’t even mind eating meat that has been shot; venison, pheasant, squirrel (yes, squirrel, it’s tasty), and rabbit have graced my dinner table.

    If you choose to live your life where you do not eat meat or use products from animals, that is your own business.

    I’m not sure though that you’d necessarily be healthier. Sure, it can’t be good to eat all the additives that go into a cow, but that cow’s going to provide you with a good amount of things that your body uses.

    I choose to eat meat. Speaking of which, my chicken’s done, so I’ll talk to you later.

  8. 8
    Josh Friedman

    Here’s my opinion:

    Economic and health issues aside, the moral issue involved with eating habits is about drawing lines. The fact is the we cannot survive off water and rocks, we MUST eating living organisms to survive, but what organisms are acceptable to eat and which are not? I think, as a society, we have already agreed for some time that it is not acceptable to eat Humans. After that, the lines become blurry. Some eat all meat, some non-red meat, some only fish, and some only plants. How are these lines drawn? Do we decide what is acceptable to eat by appearance of suffering? By organic structure? By genetic makeup? There’s not as much difference between plant and animal DNA as most think, and recent studies have shown that plants in fact do have a rudimentary nervous system and may in fact feel pain!

    So personally, the most clear line I see is between humans and everything else, so I draw it there, I will eat any meat. I don’t fault others for drawing their own lines where they do, and I expect that others will not fault me for my choice.

    That being said, I have made a concerned effort lately to limit my meat and other animal products to organic and local grown/raised for both my own health and for the environment.

  9. 9
    Jeff

    In my opinion, a person isn’t a serious environmentalist until they become a vegan. http://www.emagazine.com/view/?4264&src=QSA113

  10. 10
    Cindy

    I’m a medical researcher (and a meateater). Medical research is basically made up of animal research, and human research that takes advantage of previous animal testing. And I believe it’s highly unethical to test a drug on a person, when you can test it on a mouse. I also think it would be unethical to stop medical research and trade animal suffering for human suffering.

    If I had to give up one, I’d give up meat long before the research that I do. And we actually have a few ethical vegetarians in the lab. (And of course we’re governed by all sorts of regulatory laws that we’re glad to follow.)

    But we have to deal with animal rights activists, who in one case at UCLA, firebombed a researchers home, and in a case at UC Santa Cruz, tried to break down a professor’s door during her child’s birthday party. Since PETA indirectly funds some of these criminals, I don’t think they really have any moral high ground to speak of.

    To me, this seems like one of the biggest concerns since there’s so much at stake for medical progress. Animal rights groups don’t tend to attack meat eaters (since there’s lots of them), or large companies, but instead attack professors (and some grad students) because they’re easier targets.

  11. 11
    Dean

    “In my opinion, a person isn’t a serious environmentalist until they become a vegan. ”

    I don’t 100% think what I’m about to say, since there are certainly rational reasons to be an environmentalist. But I have to agree with some people who state that environmentalism is approaching becoming a religion. Just compare that statement to the following:

    “In my opinion, a person isn’t a serious Jew until they start eating kosher.”

  12. 12
    Jared

    I think a common mistake is to treat vegetarianism as an absolute–as something that you either are or are not. Few people would say that you can describe everyone as either a liar or a non-liar. It’s generally well agreed upon that lying is immoral, and it’s something many people avoid doing most of the time. Of course, you do run in to people who are very zealous on one side or the other.

    Likewise, if you can see reasons that reducing the amount of meat that you eat is ethical, then it would be desirable to do that. You might, for example, say to yourself that it is ‘more moral’ to not buy any meat when you are grocery shopping.

    This is why I think it is silly to say things like “it is a personal decision to be a vegitarian”. Of course it is! But that doesn’t really tell us anything new. A more important question is whether or not we are justified in attaching moral weight to an action.

    Organizations like PETA are perfect examples of how aligning yourself along a specific ethic says nothing about your ethics overall, and how presenting everything in black and white can lead one to terrible hypocrisy. It is disgust–akin to what Cindy describes–for the actions of groups like PETA that kept me from seriously considering reducing my meat intake for many years.

    Likewise, I agree with the frustration Dean expresses about dogmatism in environmentalism. Dogmatism leads people to say ridiculously over-simplified things like “a person isn’t a serious environmentalist until they become a vegan.” However, technically sharing the trait of dogmatism with religion doesn’t include it in the class of religions. Dogmatism is just an undesirable trait that manages to weasel its way into all manner of things.

    (For the record, the emagazine article Jeff links to IS important. I wasn’t contending that.)

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