I used to – and still do to some degree – feel it’s hypocritical to eat meat unless one is prepared to kill the animal oneself. While I have killed fish to eat in the past, I couldn’t see myself killing a sheep, horse or cow, or even a duck. Speaking of which, it was actually a couple of ducks that made me decide to be vegetarian – but I’ll save that story for another time.
Truth be told, I wasn’t a vegetarian for very long, but those two ducks did cause me to spend time reading about the issue (of eating meat), discussing it and giving it a great deal of thought.
The Morality of Meat
I used to think that if people had to kill animals for their meat, there would be a lot more vegetarians. The problem is, a lot of people do kill animals, and most of our ancestors did, and yet the vast majority of them did not become vegetarian. I think the reason for this apparent paradox is that the (source of the) meat we eat has become abstract. Cuddly stuffed teddy-bears, cartoons with talking animals, and wildlife shows where the prey always escapes are part of the problem, in that we have projected ethics onto a system to which ethics do not apply. The brutal reality is, a lion killing a zebra or even an alligator killing a child is neither moral nor immoral, neither ethical nor unethical.
I’ve heard vegans say, “meat is murder”. Again, a lion which kills a zebra is clearly not committing murder. So then vegans believe that humans are the only living things for which it is immoral to kill and eat other living things. To say that humans killing animals is immoral or murder, but that animals killing animals is not, is to say that humans are not animals. Ironic, since most vegans believe in the ‘one-ness’ of nature, that we are no better than animals; and yet by saying there is only one animal (i.e. humans) which can be guilty of murder when it kills another animal, they are saying humans are outside nature with a special role and distinct set of responsibilities.
I read a story recently, in which a woman tells of a child eating turkey soup. Upon finishing the soup, the child said, “Thanks, turkey.” While some found this story a good example of ‘enlightened meat-eating’ and ‘out of the mouths of babes’, I found it disturbing. The turkey did not offer its life up for that child, no more than the buffalo offers its life up to the crocodile. Indeed, given the opportunity, the animal might have turned the tables, as many animals in fact do. Seeing life in this way distorts reality, makes us feel good about things which are intrinsically neither good nor bad. (It reminds me of someone who was thankful for homeless people because they collect all the recyclable bottles and therefore help the environment – but I digress.) Should an alligator be thankful for a child, does a child willingly give itself up to such an alligator in some act of generosity on our part? This, again, is the projection of our ethics onto the system of life in order to make us feel better, but it perverts the truth.
Coming to terms with our world, ecosystem and life-system is important, but it has to be on honest terms, facing reality, not making more or less of it than it is. Be thankful for abundance and sustenance, but don’t be thankful to animals which died. If anything, I think a sense of mourning is a more appropriate, healthier attitude.
Dustin Bajer wrote in his article The Ethical Carnivore (which was on permacultureschool.ca but appears no longer to be online), “In truth, to say that it is ok to eat vegetables but not animals is to anthropomorphise one kingdom and not another.” Some people say they only eat things which “don’t have a face”, which is a strong illustration that we anthropomorphise our food, and we identify and empathise with life which is like us, and disregard all life which does not remind us of ourselves: There’s no difference between a mushroom and a stone, as far as we are concerned, because neither remind us of ourselves. Indeed, most people who eat by this ‘face-rule’ would refuse to eat an oyster if they opened it only to discover that, by some freak of nature, it was shaped exactly like a human face: This goes to show it’s not about eating non- or less-sentient beings, it’s about not eating things which remind of us ourselves. And don’t even get me started about the billions of yeast you send to a fiery death in the oven!
Furthermore, the assumption that “food without a face” comes to us at no cost to things with a face, is wholly false.
Dairy products (milk, butter, cheese, yoghurt) come at a huge price: cows must be pregnant every year or so in order to keep producing milk and, since dairy cattle are uneconomical to raise for meat and males are unable to produce milk, millions of male calves are shot immediately after birth. If you drink milk or eat cheese, you are responsible for the deaths of male calves.
Eggs, for example, lead to the mass destruction of male chicks in shredders, because they cannot produce eggs and are otherwise unnecessary.
So if you are going to stop eating meat for ethical reasons, then vegetarianism just doesn’t cut it.
But if you think veganism is the solution, you’d be mistaken. Even veganism does not avoid the realities of Earth’s life-system. Besides the fact that growing crops leads to the deaths of countless ‘pests’, including insects and rodents, fertilisation leads to deaths of fish and amphibians, tilling the fields and harvesting the grains leads to vast numbers of animals dying, from rabbits to burrowing owls to recently-born fawns. These deaths may not be “done in your name”, but they are nevertheless a direct or indirect result of living.
Furthermore, veganism is only possible globally as a result of industrialised agriculture and some degree of pest control. It’s impossible for people – especially in colder climates – to grow all the plants necessary to provide all the nutrients and proteins containing all nine essential amino acids.
Reading comments on various forums, it would seem some are even apologetic about living, as if the only real answer to save the Earth is to wipe out all humans. As if any animal which gets the curse/blessing of a conscience, suddenly has no right to live anymore. I know the motives are laudable, but the reasoning and conclusion are seriously flawed.
Take heart: You will be eaten too! When you have finished your mortal journey, your body will return to the bottom of the food-chain, and you will be consumed by plants and animals of all sorts, from inside and out (yet another reason not to be cremated!). But those creatures eating you will not mourn your death, nor have any sense that their actions have moral implications, because in fact they don’t have moral implications, just as the steak on your plate. In a way, you could say that at least the steak on your plate had the ‘benefit’ of you pausing for a moment, contemplated a life given, and mourned.
You, along with every other life form on Earth requires the death of other life in order to live. Not wanting it to be that way, doesn’t change it. You can’t project a human ideology onto a system (life in general) which is neither ethical nor unethical, it simply is. To stop it, you’d have to eliminate all living things, which hardly seems better than eating some of them, and being eaten ourselves in the end, does it?
Aside from my projection of ethics onto a system where ethics do not apply, I think, for me, the most disturbing aspect of eating meat is the industrialised (and, for most in the West, abstract) way in which it is done, turning living creatures into objects. I once heard the director of one of the world’s largest abattoirs say that it was their job “to make sure an animal had a very good life followed by one very bad day.” I couldn’t help a blurt of laughter at the absurdity of the remark, but it also struck me as cynical and respectless. Eating meat may not be an ethical issue, but how we produce and consume it is.
Being able to empathise with pain and suffering, means we should strive to minimise it when we kill animals for food. A good line to draw would be that we should not kill any animal which we cannot kill immediately, and as painlessly as we know how (whales, which are dissected alive, are an excellent example of animals we should not kill for this reason – as well as many others). I believe we also have a duty to protect endangered species, and not to kill indiscriminately or wastefully. And I believe we have a duty not to waste any kind of food, but especially when an animal’s life has been given for it.
Aside from inhumane methods of food production, I am also against killing ‘for pleasure’, medical and cosmetics testing and other forms of animal torture.
The only difference between an omni-/carnivore, vegetarian and a vegan, is that you draw the line as to what living organisms it is acceptable to kill, and which not, in different places. But, in fact, in all cases sentient beings will – indeed must – die in order that other life can live. Much as I wish the life-system on Earth worked differently, it doesn’t, and I – like all living things – am an integral part of it.
The bottom line is, all life consumes life in order to survive – except for perhaps for some single-celled organisms at the very bottom of the food-chain -, and all food that we consume results directly or indirectly in the deaths of animals and other forms of life. It may be a very hard thing to accept, but we cannot just will it away, as much as we want to: Our curse as humans is that we are conscious of being conscious, we are aware of what killing means, and we feel deep empathy for the things we kill to eat. But the system of Life as a whole – the way all living things interact in order to survive and propagate – is what it is. To project morality onto the system of life, is akin to projecting morality onto the weather.
I strive now, as a reluctant carnivore, to purchase meat that came from animals which have had good, outdoor lives with sufficient space; been treated and fed in a responsible and sustainable way; transported as little as possible during life; and slaughtered in the most humane way – preferably not in a ‘factory’ setting and certainly not by the slow out-dated methods such as ‘halal’.
Whatever you eat, but in particular when you eat meat, pause to recognise that an animal has died. Respect, mourn, enjoy, celebrate. To paraphrase Gregor Unkhoff, owner of a seasonal game-meat shop in Kreuzberg, Germany*: You need to think about what you put in your mouth. It should only be toothbrushes, boyfriends and good food. And “good”, in this case, means not only tasty, but also responsible.
copyright © 2013, 2017 Scott Owen