“Kicking, squealing Gucci little piggy”
I think meat tastes great. I love me some buffalo smothered chicken wings. It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without Turkey. I reside near a Bobby’s Burger Palace, and live in constant fear of the tastiness made to order inside. The only real meatballs are made with beef, and there is a reason why steak, when cooked right, only needs potatoes to become a meal in itself. The only thing better than a ham sandwich is a pulled pork sandwich, and the only thing better than that is bacon.
And killing other animals to fulfill these simple pleasures of mine is utterly wrong. I’m a vegetarian in thought, but not yet one in practice, though I’ll get there one day (maybe). I’m just short of being a meat addict, which is to say I’m probably like a lot of people. However, my inability to ban meat from my diet has not led me to retreat into weak justifications and poor rationalizations.
At the time of writing, The Atlantic is running a story on its homepage about self-reformed vegans and vegetarians. People, as the article’s subheading explains, who now , “firmly believe foods from animals can be both healthful and ethical.”
People turn from meat for many different reasons. The two main ones stem from concerns over either health or morality, though there are also those who have also stopped eating meat in order not to financially support the environmentally destructive practices of most industrial size ranching operations.
The article in question has a person from each group. Nicolette, “gave up meat as a freshman biology major after hearing that beef was deforesting the Amazon.” But later, after witnessing traditional, pasture-based farms came to believe that eating meat was not incompatible with maintaining a sustainable environment.
Tovar, out of compassion, became a vegetarian and later a vegan. However, after later moving to rural New York, Tovar came to the realization that “all food has its costs.” Protecting harvests meant killing other pests, from insect to mice, so that even being vegan was not a bloodless activity. Tovar also felt healthier after adding meat back onto the menu.
Finally, Joshua swore off meat after reading Jeremy Rifkin’s Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of Cattle Culture. Later though, Joshua grasped the following,
“I realized I didn’t have a problem with meat. I had a problem with the inhumane practices of the commercial meat industry. Once I saw how things could be done, I was happy to support the farmers who make our business possible and profitable.”
The rest of the article goes on to articulate how industrial agriculture practices need to be altered in order to deal with animals in more humane ways. Nicolette Hahn Niman (the author of the piece), also argues that diets incorporating animal meat in suitable amounts are healthier than strictly vegetarian or vegan diets. But no where does Nicollette or the other converts in her article seem to grapple with the morality of carnivorous behavior.
Once raised, these ethical dilemmas are not easily whisked away. It’s not enough to simply assert that killing animals is, “ethically defensible — provided we refrain from causing gratuitous suffering.” Why it is that we should only concerns ourselves with “gratuitous suffering”, I’m not sure, because Nicollette never digs any deeper into the issue. Rather she is comfortable relying on the following delusion,
“As any attentive observer of nature knows, life feeds on life. Every living thing, from mammals, birds, and fish to plants, fungi, and bacteria, eats other living things. Humans are part of the food web; but for the artifices of cremation and tightly sealed caskets, all of us would eventually be recycled into other life forms. It is natural for people, like other omnivores, to participate in this web by eating animals.”
Look, there are arguments for eating animals that are both legitimate and vigorously reasoned. The circle of life is not one of them. Many predators kill other predators over food, reproduction, and general dominance. This is also “natural.” But this observation hardly serves as justification for humans behaving this way toward other humans. And indeed when some of the basis tenets of morality are explored, like doing no harm, it becomes clear that what humans understand of morality is not gleaned from nature, which, as Jeff McMahan notes, is marked by “a vast, unceasing slaughter.”
“Our own form of predation is of course more refined than those of other meat-eaters, who must capture their prey and tear it apart as it struggles to escape. We instead employ professionals to breed our prey in captivity and prepare their bodies for us behind a veil of propriety, so that our sensibilities are spared the recognition that we too are predators, red in tooth if not in claw.”
The most bold and least supported claim advanced by Nicollette is the notion that by simply killing animals in a humane way, and only as needed, our actions are not immoral. Even if her ultimate conclusion is true (I don’t think it is), it would require a much more probing analysis of why the relative suffering of an animal in life carries so much more moral weight, and requires so much more moral condemnation, than the fundamental outlines of their existence. Why does the manner in which they are slaughtered matter more than the fact that it occurs, and that they are bred for it. Surely reducing suffering is a powerful and compelling moral principle. Is unilaterally ending another creature’s life not also something to be avoided? Is untimely death not also a form of suffering?
Of course, there are deeply anthropocentric reasons to question meat eating as well. With the amount of starvation and hunger that remains in the world, how feasible is it to breed and raise animals, who consume many more calories than they ever give back in the form of meat, so that we can eat them? I’m not raising this issue as a matter of foreign or international policy, but to call into question the breezy attitude with which we often justify murdering other creatures and stripping the flesh from their bones.
I expect many people share my appetite for meat, but won’t share my moral revulsion with the practice. That’s fine. But I would hope their reasoning would amount to something better than “well the other animals do it.”
It’s one thing to have never held these beliefs and argue against them. Another to have been vegan or vegetarian, but changed ones attitudes for health reasons. It’s completely ridiculous to call breeding animals for slaughter a form of respect simply because the living conditions are pleasant while they last.