Monday, September 28, 2009


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.


Graham Broad said...

This early update brought to you by mid-morning hunger pains!

amy said...

I have on my bulletin board a piece of advice from Michael Pollan. "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Dorotea Gucciardo said...

When I was a kid, my parents went to the butcher once a year and came back with stockpiles of beef (well, veal -- baby cow is infinitely more delicious than grown-up cow).

Anyway, I went with my mother once to "pick" a cow. The slaughterhouse reminded me greatly of an episode of the Simpsons - cows walk into one end of the building; packaged meat gets piled into delivery vans on the other side.

Anyway, she had me "pick" the cow. I was about 13 at the time. There was a room full of them, and my mother and I walked around and examined them. I chose the baby we were going to take home - in pieces, mind you - and the butcher prepared it.

I couldn't watch it be slaughtered, but I did hear it. At the time, I remember that it bothered me. But when my mom prepared pasta bolognese later that evening, I was the first to take two helpings.

Looking my food source in the eye and being willing to eat it has never really bothered me. I've watched pigs have their throats slit and then bleed to death; I've killed a chicken, gone fishing, etcetera. In fact, I prefer the process to just going to the grocery store and seeing random chicken breasts in a cooler. I don't know anything about them.

There's nothing wrong with eating meat. And, given the proper circumstances, I'd definitely eat your kitten. I generally don't eat "cute" (although cows can be rather endearing); but if it meant survival, I'd go straight for the jugular.

David said...

Interesting post, Graham.

First of all, poor Hawkins. I'm sure he never expected to have people weighing in on whether or not he'd make good eating (we might have to fatten him up first to really consider it).

I think one of the major setbacks that prevents more naturally raised animals from being sold in grocery stores is that to most people the difference in taste isn't worth the increase in price. Lets face it, with so many people settling for frozen dinners, I doubt they can discern the difference between a factory raise and free range chicken. For some people it is a moral choice, but I think for most it is probably a price choice. That may be sad, but I'm sure anyone who has gone through university has sacrificed quality to get a cheap piece of meat before.

Dale and I actually watched an interesting British series on this subject called River Cottage by British chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (how British is that name?) It might be of interest to you if you ever have time. He is a bit odd at times, but he takes the notion that killing an animal is not something to take lightly. He raises his own animals, sees them slaughtered, and uses basically every single part of them to make sure there is no waste. He is quite a champion of making moral choices when it comes to what we eat.

Personally, I feel no moral qualm about eating meat, but I do have problems with what the animals are forced to endure before they arrive on my dinner plate. Hopefully more people will get informed and these practices will be minimized.

Anthony said...

It's good to see your putting so much thought into the issue of dinner. I think you make a good point when it comes to those that are willing to eat a slaughtered animal but cannot deal with the idea of seeing it die. To that point I myself have never been squeamish about the idea of watching an animal die. Not because I enjoy it, but because I know I eat a slaughtered animal nearly everyday. Back in Canada I actively hunted deer, turkeys and fox. And since I've been in Korea I've been to my sister-in-law's father's farm where I participated in personally killing, skinning and cooking my own chicken. It's quite a sight watching an animal die by your hand knowing that in a few hours you'll be eating its flesh. But if anything it gave me a revelation similar to your own. One should be willing to know how the sausages are made. I now do, and still eat meat regularly with no plans to stop. Thankfully though I'm against the death penalty so that's one event I won't have to witness :/

Cheers From Korea!