Why I am not a Vegetarian

11 03 2014

veg murder

Being an unashamed Progressive Socialist Liberal type, I have a great many like-minded friends in my social circles. Among them are a fair quantity of vegans/vegetarians who have made their dietary choice on the grounds that, as they put it, “Meat is murder.” I understand their reasoning. I simply don’t agree with it.

It would be nice if that were the end of it, and we could agree to disagree without rancor. Unfortunately, as with many choices made on moral grounds, the folks making the choice feel that they are duty-bound to evangelize. Like religious folks convinced they have a moral obligation to impose their beliefs on the rest of the world, this creates a good deal of social dissonance.

I suppose I am guilty of the same thing. I believe in social equality for assorted “minorities”, such as gays, non-whites, and atheists. (actually, non-whites are rapidly out-growing their minority status, although they still lack a proportional share of power and opportunity). I approve of imposing on others my view that, for example, a dark-skinned person should not be denied a job because the employer does not like dark-skinned people. I believe I am working for the cause of justice by insisting that all citizens conform to my sense of what justice is in this case.

No doubt the proponents of anti-abortion laws, and even anti-gay laws, feel the same way. Similarly, animal rights advocates are driven by conscience to decry the horror of killing animals for meat. There is not much difference between an anti-abortionist waving photos of dead fetuses around in an attempt to ram home their point, and animal rights advocates waving around photos of animal suffering.

For the record, I am of the opinion that if you don’t approve of abortion, don’t have one, if you don’t approve of gay marriage don’t get gay married, and if you don’t approve of eating meat, by all means go cruise the produce aisle. But in a very real way, that is just slippery slope thinking sliding down to If you don’t approve of slavery, don’t own one.

So, what is a conscientious Progressive Socialist Liberal type to do? Throw up their hands and say, “Oh, it’s all relative, and defining moral laws is futile.”? I don’t think so. I think a very sound argument can be made for the very real and substantive difference between If you don’t approve of gay marriage don’t get gay married, and if you don’t approve of slavery, don’t own one.

It has to do with suffering. At rock bottom (and with only a few aberrant exceptions) all living things share in common that they wish to avoid suffering. If there is a universally acknowledgeable evil, it is misery. The reason those photos being waved around by the antis and the advocates are effective is because they depict suffering, and we all react to that (again, with only a few aberrant exceptions). This gives us a foundation off of which to work.

There is very little evidence that gay marriage causes any suffering (putting aside the anguish of those who disapprove of it), and substantial evidence that it does a great deal of good. Slavery, on the other hand, causes an immense amount of unambiguous suffering, and very limited good. So there.

Now, to return to the issue of vegetarianism. The eating of meat, something which our species evolved to do, has undeniable benefits in terms of nutrition. The moderate consumption of cooked meat is healthy and can be quite pleasurable. However, our means of supplying meat for human (and pet) consumption is appalling. Animal rights advocates do not exaggerate the amount of suffering that goes into factory farming. A direct deduction is then made: Because animals suffer, we should not eat meat. That, I contend, is not a valid conclusion.

What we should change is the way in which we raise and harvest meat animals. Suffering should be eliminated as much as possible. An animal should be allowed to grow, flourish, experience joy, and if possible, pass on its genes before it dies. That seems fundamental. In the natural world, that is about the best a creature can expect. There is no expectation of living to a ripe old age, and most creatures can expect to be killed by another creature for food at some point. This is the bargain Nature has struck with Life, and it has worked quite well for as long as Life has been around.

If the taking of life is an issue, then harvesting carrots is as much murder as butchering chickens. What makes the life of an animal more important that the life of a plant? Perhaps because it is conscious; an animal can feel pain and a carrot does not (as far as we know). Then that is the issue, not its life. We are back to suffering. If its death is quick and painless, then killing an animal is no more immoral than picking lettuce.

It could be argued that depriving a creature of life is depriving it of experiencing happiness. But how many cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens would be born if we did not ultimately expect to eat them? Granted, we could harvest their wool, eggs, milk, and so forth without killing them. Some would still be raised and given the opportunity to experience life. But their numbers would be much fewer. Is it better never to be born at all, than to experience a short but pleasant life? Is it more moral to allow pigs to go extinct, or to revert to a feral state where wild predators will do the killing instead?

Yes, we need to change our eating habits and expectations. Meat should not be cheap and plentiful. Its price should reflect the true cost of raising it humanely. Our farming methods should be sustainable and compassionate. Refusing to buy meat and produce derived from factory farming and destructive practices can help bring about change. I support that heartily.

But I am still going to eat meat. When we hatch a brood of chickens, we are going to collect and kill the roosters and they are going into the stew pot. Prior to this, they will have grown up pecking and scratching around the yard, being chickens, enjoying a life they would not have otherwise had if we did not raise chickens. If a farmer raises up pigs or cattle, lets them muck about in the sun until they come of age, breathing and playing and eating and otherwise enjoying life, then quickly and painlessly ends their lives, I will buy the meat he offers for sale.

There. Having logically gone over my reasons, I would hope that idealistic vegetarians no longer suffer under the misapprehension that my disagreement with them is simply a matter of willful ignorance or indifference to the plight of animals. My awareness is quite adequately raised, thank you. You may fancy yourself righteously superior to me if it pleases you. In that, you have much company among the religious zealots who smugly consider themselves saved while I will burn in Hell.

As for the rest of you, who grant the same respect to me that I grant to you even though we might disagree, let’s see if we can unite our efforts in other ways to reduce the suffering of all creatures. Goodness knows there’s plenty of it out there.

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8 responses

11 03 2014
heretherebespiders

Totally, 100%, agree. I feel just as bad killing an entire carrot as I would if I had to kill an entire chicken. I am not being sarcastic, I promise – I grow from seed and it does suck to take a plant’s life. I feel no guilt over picking blueberries :)

I am lucky to live in Ireland where all the meat (and veg) is labelled with the country of origin, if not Irish – and with the name and location of the farm if it is Irish. I can, if so inclined, go visit the place my chicken or eggs come from. And I have visited a local beef farm – sorry for the link but it is on topic – http://heretherebespiders.com/2014/02/10/i-got-to-meet-some-cattle/

I am not happy with the way most of America gets their meat. But you do have a choice to not eat it, or choose a good farm. In this day and age, surely you have to have some method of finding out where the meat comes from? If not, that needs to change too.

12 03 2014
justinegraykin

I think it’s no coincidence that the American food industry has vigorously resisted thorough labeling practices. If people really understood what they were eating and how it came to be on their plate, they would be revolted. I am fortunate in that I live in a relatively rural area where it is easy to find organic, sustainably and humanely raised meat and veg. It is expensive. It ought to be. Life should never be cheap.

And thank you for sharing the link. I urge my readers to follow it. The photos are wonderful.

12 03 2014
heretherebespiders

Thank you – I dislike posting links to other people’s blogs – I’m not a good self-promoter! But it was quite apt. My friend actually hurts over his job (family farm) and I wanted to give him proof that he is a good person and does a necessary job with the utmost care.

Ireland is tiny. Not even 5 million people here – probably a larger number of sheep and cattle! Our land is wet and not very warm, and the terrible economy we have suffered over the last few hundred years means there are more Irish outside of Ireland than in it. But if it means we can still do proper animal husbandry (what a terrible word!) then I can’t say I mind too much. I think EU regulations have a lot to do with it, too – if all of Europe can get together and do this, why can’t the USA? That said, the EU regs also mean carrots and potatoes, etc, that aren’t “pretty” never get to the shops. I do wonder what happens to those ugly veggies.

11 03 2014
Laura Fry

Oh dear, is this post due to my vegan mushroom soup? I think you and I think very much alike on this, and, although currently I prefer to be vegan (mostly – there are those Graykineggs) and feel great in the process, the issue is and ought to be how we treat other species in their lives. Buddhists would disagree – and I won’t speak for them – because of a different read on suffering and living beings. Mel, this is one place, I think, where you and I make different choices but are of one heart. Being an atheist and a Christian I have found is another, although one of these days we should see if we can explain it. Thanks for the thought of this!
One issue of animals raised for meat I don’t think you spoke to and that is land resources for growing populations. It just takes a lot of space to raise cows for meat in any sort of humane way, and this is one reason I’m staying away from beef. I don’t want to bump up the demand side of that equation.

12 03 2014
justinegraykin

Heck, no, Laura, I loved the soup! And I made a point of ending the piece with a mention of those who aren’t self-righteous about their choices, specifically with folks like you in mind. It’s good you mentioned the Christian/atheist thing, because this is another place where I feel there is mutual respect and no hostility at all.

I did touch very lightly on the issue of sustainable farming, but didn’t go into detail because I wasn’t speaking to that aspect of it. I was specifically addressing folks who make the choice for moral reasons, and whose attitude implies that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is immoral and in need of education.

11 03 2014
Trisha Wooldridge

I’d love to see an overhaul in U.S. meat production. The whole procedure is extremely wasteful.

That said, I have no problem eating meat. I do my best to buy stuff that’s local and humanely slaughtered…but that’s actually quite hard to do in a city. And on any type of tough budget. I’ve tried doing vegetarian–with proper research and a lot of protein–for periods of time and I feel absolutely ill and weak on that diet. I do believe there is some truth to studies that show some people’s body type just functions better on animal protein. We know that’s true for obligate carnivores–growing numbers of cats not on meat-centric diets have medical issues, for example.

Of course, unless you’re spending the same on your kitty (or doggie) as you are for yourself, that presents another issue in trying to support only humanely slaughtered meat products. (Though, while cats are obligate carnivores, dogs can be more omnivorous and that’s still good for them.)

12 03 2014
justinegraykin

The waste is appalling as is the squandering of life and natural resources. I’m totally on board with those who avoid commercial meat for those reasons. And, like you, I cannot go vegan for health reasons. The dietary hoops I’d have to jump through to get what my body needs without eating meat would be absurd, especially since I’m a person who doesn’t like spending a lot of time in the kitchen. The fact is, our species evolved to thrive on an omnivorous diet, including meat. Some folks have adapted to a meatless diet, and seem healthier and happier for it. Good for them. The rest of us have to deal with the metabolism our genetic heritage gave us, which includes a need for meat. Although probably much less meat than we Americans are accustomed to eating.

But your observation about the expense and difficulty of getting meat raised humanely is accurate. Pretty much out of reach of the urban poor. Only a complete rethinking of how we supply food can solve this problem.

14 03 2014
Mary Jolles

I’m with you in the belief that humans are carnivores and that it is natural for us to eat meat, but that we should pay more attention to alleviating animal suffering when raising and slaughtering them. You might be interested in Temple Grandin’s work as a designer of cattle pens– she had this very much in mind in her designs. All said, I think we eat way too much meat. Also, the public has been persuaded that the processed meat they buy from stores is “safe.” In reality, I find most people are extremely ignorant of basic nutritional and dietary facts about food. Salt and sugar have become the two items that “flavor” food for people. Anything else doesn’t taste good to them.

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