For this, my fiftieth post, I promised to turn to the eternal question, the one that has bedeviled human beings since the first of our protohuman ancestors vocalized a thought, namely: “What’s for dinner?” I wonder how you would feel if I told you that Dawkins, pictured on the left, was on the menu.
Did that thought fill you with revulsion? It did me, because I rather like the little girl, even though she bites our feet and tracks slightly moist kitty litter onto the bed in the morning. But, really. Why not eat her? Why not brain the little sucker, bleed her, skin her, cut her into parts, hang her up to let her age (the meat we eat is decomposing, you know - after all, rigor mortis makes for tough chewing), then joint her, and cook her up in some olive oil, sprinkled with rosemary, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper? Yum yum. Why make pets of some animals, but imprison, fatten up, slaughter, and then chomp down others? Intelligence cannot be the dividing line — she’s is not very bright, trust me — so why should cuteness be?
I have been troubled by this question for some years now. On what warrant do we claim the moral right to select certain animals for food and lethal medical experimentation, but not others? I have no satisfactory answer to the question. Clearly the mere fact that something benefits us does not make it moral. I long ago concluded that higher-order primates, our evolutionary cousins, must absolutely be left alone, regardless of any impediment it puts in place to scientific research. We share something on the order of 98 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, for example, and I can locate no rational defense for performing experiments on them, or for making them perform circus tricks for us, that, were we to be consistent, wouldn’t also apply to certain human beings with cognitive impairments.
Anyway, dinner. About a year ago, my wife and I made a quite conscious decision to become flexitarians - consumers of a mostly vegetarian diet who aren’t dogmatic about occasionally eating meat. We reduced our consumption of meat, poultry, pork, and fish from about six dinners per week to one, and did the same with lunches. (Breakfast was mostly vegetarian anyway.) Some flexitarians would say that we need to go further still, which is why I prefer Mark Bittman’s term “lessmeattarianism” to describe our diet. We did this for a variety of reasons.
First, we are utterly convinced that industrial meat production is cruel to the animal and environmentally damaging. On these grounds alone, there would be sufficient cause to stop or hugely reduce meat eating. Add to that the following fact: the average steak or piece of pork or poultry from the supermarket, shrink-wrapped onto styrofoam, doesn’t taste like anything - it's basically a dead delivery vehicle for spices and sauces. Might as well save the money.
When we do eat meat now, we try to select it carefully from those rare vendors whose practices, we believe, are more ethical and ecologically sustainable, and which result in a better-tasting critter. (We have abandoned our former favourite fast-food, sushi, altogether: either it’s fake, the seafood equivalent of McDonald’s — that bright red tuna is dyed, people — or real but involving endangered fish flown in from the Pacific, in which case it’s environmentally catastrophic.) I realize that some vegans in particular would rebut that we are therefore simply reducing the amount of murder that we’re complicit in, but, as I’m constantly reminding my moral relativist students, the number of corpses one generates does matter.
Our second reason for reducing meat consumption concerns matters of health. While we’re convinced that there’s no particular evidence that eating meat generally is bad for your health, the enormous quantity of meat that most Westerners eat almost certainly is, if only because it comes at the expense of other things that are good for us, which is to say, plants. The dismissal of vegetables as "food's food" used to be a joke around our house, but no more, and people who don't eat them would be amazed with how good they taste if you prepare them properly.
And what has been the consequences of all this? Well, for one, we’re better and more imaginative cooks. I’ve lost 14 pounds by this expedient alone. My resting heart rate is down. My blood pressure is down. My cholesterol is down. Our grocery bill is down, too - by about one-third per month.
But, for me, at least, there’s something lacking. An important point of any personal ethics is that you should never ask someone to do something that you wouldn’t be willing, in theory, at least, to do yourself. (Educators take note.) Therefore, I feel that it’s rapidly coming to the point where I’m going to have to get my hands dirty or else give up meat altogether. That means that I either have to try hunting or at the very least witness the slaughter of a cow, pig, or chicken first hand. I made this point earlier when I discussed the death penalty - that people who support the death penalty, it seems to me, have an obligation to support public executions or at the very least must witness an execution sometime. The people calling for blood, I said, don’t get to shield their eyes from it when it’s spilled. And the people eating the flesh of animal shouldn’t get to pretend that it’s something other than what it actually is.