Sunday, December 6, 2009

On eating meat

Lately, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that I eat meat. If you don’t share at least some of this discomfort, you either don't read enough, or have a really narrow conception of animal rights. Because unless you’re extremely scrupulous about where your meat comes from, you’re eating animals that are treated in ways you should find appalling. There’s also the questionable ethics of killing animals (e.g. pigs) whose cognitive differences with young children are largely just linguistic. I’m not trying to moralize, especially since I’m not even a vegetarian (yet?), but I’m trying to figure out when the animal rights movement will finally enter the mainstream of society or reach a tipping point. Right now its advocates repeat the kinds of things I just said, but are, on the whole, reluctant to excoriate anyone for eating meat. If enough people become vegetarians, I suspect a large portion of the population would follow relatively quickly. But how will we get to that point without a little moralizing?

When I consider the vegetarians I know, I realize I don’t even know why most of them are vegetarians. For ethical reasons, or environmental? Public/personal health? Other? Maybe they don’t like to talk about it, and I don’t blame them. No one wants antagonize family members over Thanksgiving dinner about the turkey. No one wants to be Lisa Simpson to Homer’s big BBBQ. But I suspect there are large swaths of people who—consciously or not—avoid thinking about the issue entirely, but would greatly reduce—or eliminate--their meat consumption if they encountered moderate social pressure. These people, like me, know or can be convinced that what’s going on in the meat industry is detestable, but don’t change their behavior because they don’t identify with a larger movement and don’t consider their individual actions consequential in its absence. At least that’s part of my lame excuse, the rest being covered by inconvenience, social and dietary. If people were more vocal, not just about the abuse of animals but also about their vegetarianism, I think a lot more people would join them.

A lot more people would dislike them too, people who may or may not agree on the moral question, but really don’t want to be pushed to change, and won’t do so without a lot of social pressure. Hopefully things will change politically too. Until a few minutes ago I didn't even know about Proposition 2, which passed in CA last year. So things aren't so black and white. But as noted here (about halfway down the page), it will be impossible to raise the sheer quantity of meat we consume without resorting to unsavory methods.

How much blame do I have to shoulder here as someone who claims to see a wrong in the world, but does little to correct it, even in my own behavior? [For the record, I’ve--almost entirely--stopped eating the swine-based meats, and plan to start buying the expensive, humanely raised meats, though I haven’t talked to my lovely awesome roommate about this yet. So there’s still plenty of blood on my hands.]


  1. Ooh, I'm so excited that this has become a topic of interest. A few thoughts in no particular/coherent order:
    -You don't need to eat meat; there's enough gazpacho for all! (It's tomato soup, served ice cold)

    -This exact argument was made by Michael Pollan (for environmentally friendly actions, not vegetarianism, but the idea is the same) -- we (or you) should make a point of riding your bike to work (or whatever) not because it will make any particular difference in and of itself, but because it will create a social environment that encourages change (or, more accurately but less nicely, punishes lack of change).

    -Recognizing that, I guess many vegetarians are hoping that just by being living examples, they'll encourage their peers to at least think about their actions. Is this a ridiculous cop-out? Yeah, probably! Speaking from experience, the primary reason we aren't hugely vocal about our choices is not wanting to make other people feel uncomfortable or "judged". But without that aspect it's not actually a very coherent life choice (except to mildly alleviate one's own significant, endless liberal guilt!) And actually many meat-eaters are dismissive of vegetarianism to the point of outright mockery. The most common response I've gotten is something along the lines of, "but meat is so delicious, ha ha!" I know that meat is delicious, I'm just not convinced that we have an entitlement to enjoy deliciousness that exceeds the costs it imposes.

    -So it's interesting that you think maybe people need to be pushed a little harder -- do I now have as great or greater a responsibility to make all my peers think harder about meat-eating than I do to avoid it myself? (The impact of ten of my friends eating less meat would be greater than my giving it up entirely, after all!) This can quickly veer off into a whole discussion of the level of obligation any of us has to alleviate suffering -- shouldn't we all be donating 90% of our incomes and volunteering every day and donating our kidneys and doing everything else possible? Where are we allowed to draw the line past which we can't reasonably be called hypocritical and selfish?

    -What's that extra B for?

  2. All good points, especially the first one, but especially....(how many times do you think i can get away with making that joke? hope someone else watches the simpsons)

    with the respect to the second and second-to-last points, two quick thoughts. i think eating meat is different from driving a car, or not donating to charity or whatever since one is more closely connected to the actual perpetration of harm, whether it is treating an animal cruelly, or killing it, or both. Of course, people disagree about whether not doing good is equivalent to doing harm, but intuitively, at least, it seems different to people. (this just reminded me of a great study i did online once about moral intuitions, essentially asking how much money you would have to be offered to do some reprehensible things, [like kick a dog in the face, hard] but i can't find it right now...)

  3. That's sort of true, but I still think it comes down to alleviating one's personal guilt rather than actually reducing harm, since one person's abstention from meat very likely doesn't result in any fewer animals being abused or killed. (If anything, it just results in more food being wasted, meaning your total consumption is actually greater!) This gets to be a pretty depressing topic if you think it through too much. (I suspect this is why many people have not really considered vegetarianism)

  4. Words to live by:

    Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
    -Michael Pollan, "In Defense of Food"

    It's not just eating meat that's costing us, but also our high-carbon diets. From the bananas we import from goodness-knows-where to the disgusting amount of packaging we so readily insist on, our food choices go beyond harming other animals simply because we eat them--we're harming other animals by changing their environment.