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You Are What You Eat

April 15, 2011

Growing up, you inherit all kinds of views and ideas from your parents. One of these I got from mine is eating meat. It’s not exactly on the fringe, views-wise, but it was nevertheless passed down to me. And being my unthinking self, I never thought about it much until in my teens. Back then I never saw many moral/ethical (God, I’ll never learn the difference between those words) issues with it. Even so, I made a vague prediction about how I’d be a hardcore, meat-truck-burning, slaughter-house-wallraffing vegan by the time I reached 30. I’m not there yet, but as with other things I’ve thought about it more and more critically.

Not to say that my parents just accepted these views without a second thought. I’m not sure but I think they might have pondered the implications and moral aspects. My father grew up on a farm, so he has never had the view that is so easy to slip into when you only buy meat from the store; the view that of course we know that it’s made from animals, but we don’t really think about it, never contemplate what a slaughter must be like.

He probably got to know the pigs they slaughtered when winter came and still he eats meat. But it’s not callousness; he’s mentioned how terrible it was to kill kittens (this was before neutering was wide-spread) and how you would never let them see their siblings die but separate them for the deed.

But this isn’t new. Since the dawn of man we have known in a very literal and first-hand sense that the animal once was living and breathing much like ourselves. Hunters always knew and farmers always knew. It’s quite recently we’ve disconnected production from consumption.

Is this what it is? Is it because we no longer participate more in the care and killing of the animals that we start to question the moral right to eat them? Feels ironic. But it might be something to this. During our early years we mostly only get to know anthropomorphised animals via children’s shows. (I seem to remember pork consumption dropped significantly after the premier of Babe.)

Anyway, these two posts got me thinking about all this again.

I realised what I’ve probably known all along; that the question could instead of “why should you go vegetarian/vegan?” be “what right do you have to eat meat?”

There is sometimes talk about animal rights. What are those rights? Definitely not the same as human rights. Hardly anyone wants to give animals the right to vote or marry or become fighter pilots. The rights discussed seem to be almost exclusively the rights not to be mistreated or even killed.

The “mistreated” part most people agree upon. We seem to agree that animals can feel pain and emotional stress. Even an avid meat-eater would probably agree that the animals should be treated well while they’re alive, even if they obviously feel there is nothing wrong with eating them afterwards.

(Of course there are exceptions to this as well; I had a classmate who explicitly said that it didn’t matter how badly animals were treated since “they’re going to die anyway.” He felt that only humans have souls, and therefore animals were basically meat machines. I agree on the meat machine part, but I feel it applies to people as well. Nothing special about humans – at least not in that regard.)

There are degrees of everything; some people eat no meat, but fish. Some people eat nothing that is the product of animal husbandry, even if it’s things like milk or eggs. The reason I predicted myself becoming a vegan is that I tended to see things very black and white. I try not to anymore, but I still feel that the reason for not eating meat would be a moral one: to not exploit their freedom. And to drink their milk or eat their eggs would just be a weaker form of the same kind of exploitation.

But the reason we can even have the concept of “happy cows” that we still eat is that there are not that many animals that seem to have an understanding of slavery and death. Cows don’t understand that they’re going to be killed for their meat. If they did, there would be cow-riots everywhere. This is the reason I feel uncomfortable with the killing of whales. From what I’ve read whales could very well have a real understanding of their own mortality. They would perhaps also know what slavery is.

“So it’s OK to use creatures as long as they don’t understand they’re being used?”

I’m glad you asked that. It does seem like a conundrum and no two ways about it. It’s basically saying “what they don’t know won’t hurt them.” (Well, except for the whole dying part.) I’ve always found that to be a bit iffy. To me, moral right and wrong can’t be a matter of what you get away with.

On the other (or whatever number hands we’re up to now) hand: Why should we have qualms about killing animals when animals do it all the time? Well, firstly, we generally don’t kill the same animals that would eat us. Secondly, it’s not about what morals they have but what morals we have. We should treat others as we want to be treated, not like they treat others. Or something.

Even so, this is an argument I found compelling for a long time. If animals should have the same rights as we have, shouldn’t then we have the same rights they have? That is: our being omnivores, shouldn’t we have the same rights other omnivores have? To kill to eat? Or should we somehow counter our nature and take “the high road”? Occupy the higher moral ground, because we alone can do that?

Saying that is to say that we alone among the animals have the capacity to act morally. And is that not in itself an argument for treating animals any which way we want? Perhaps. But to what degree? And should we exclude humans from this? Or should those we find morally superior be allowed to keep others like slaves? How do we then decide who is superior? It’s a slippery slope no one wants to take.

When it comes to animals, however, we readily accept the notion that we’re superior to them. Is it because we are or because all (social) animals make a difference between themselves and everyone else? One could argue that all animals look out for their own species first, so why can’t we do the same?

It always seems to come back to the question of whether a) we have a greater capacity for moral behaviour than animals do and if so b) if that higher capacity binds us to act a certain way, even when contrary to “nature.”

But for the longest time the nature of our species has been defined by our culture. All our tools are externalisations of bodily functions. So perhaps we should not concentrate on what is in our “nature” but what is in our culture. Or rather: our nature is to leave biology behind. It always has been.

Still I eat meat and never feel bad for it. Such a hypocrite.

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2 Comments
  1. Once again you attempt to over-analyze something simple: if you don’t want to eat meat, then don’t eat it. If you do want to, then go ahead. The need to justify stems from the fear of having to explain yourself in front of other people, which isn’t a problem if you’re like me and simply not care. Or I try to.

    • I do think it’s kind of important to at least try to morally justify one’s actions when they have an impact on other living creatures. But maybe that’s just me.

      And I don’t think it’s simple.

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