There are two primary reasons why people turn vegetarian - health and humanity. Not being medically trained I can't really comment much on the first one except to say that it's a bit of a grey area as although humans have certainly evolved to get nutrition from meat they can happily sustain a meat free diet with no obvious health issues. The argument that we are omnivores is invalid – we have evolved to eat meat certainly but we do not need to eat meat to survive and to survive in good health.
This lack of negative consequences from eating a meat free diet invites the question – Why do we choose to eat meat if we don’t actually need to eat it? And is there a moral implication in us making such a choice..? This morality rather than any health implications of following a vegetarian diet is what I am interested in today.
So - health aside, do we have a moral obligation not to consume living creatures for human sustenance? Or to put it in slightly more emotive terms - Do we have a right to sacrifice the life of another living creature solely for our satisfaction and sensory pleasure? Many vegetarians believe the answer to this is no and if I’m honest my own instinct is to agree with them. Even as a meat eater I think there is something rather barbaric about the consumption of animal flesh and skin. If I took the time to stop and think about it - the constituents of my meals would disgust me. However the avoidance of such a reaction is the crux of the matter… If I stopped to think about it…. I don’t allow myself to think too much about what I am eating and nor I suspect do most people when tucking into their evening meal.
This ability to disassociate ourselves from our food is inevitable because of the way in which we acquire our food in modern times. Shrink wrap packaging and refrigeration enable us to buy our food pre slaughtered and hygienically packaged. Processed and reconstituted food takes us another step away from what we are eating. Supermarkets have made it very easy for us not to consider the origins of the food we eat - to the extent where people no longer need make the connection between vacuum packaged meat and the flesh of dead animals. In disassociating what we eat from its source we neatly sidestep an awareness of moral question as to whether eating animals is wrong.
If you think about it, the whole language surrounding meat eating is saturated in euphemisms that further disassociate us from the origins of our food. When did you last invite someone round to dinner for a slab of charred flesh and chips? The language we use to describe what we eat has evolved to make as little reference as possible to what we are actually eating. The few exceptions (brain, liver, kidney, tongue) are not popularly consumed foods (It’s never safe to invite anyone to a dinner party and serve offal, I can guarantee at least half of your guests won’t eat it.) We dress our language up and offer – steak, chop, cutlet, slice, patty... All very sanitised and designed to remove the eater from the unpalatable realisation that what he is actually eating is cooked flesh.
In days gone by the relationship between consumer and food was far more intimate. People would slaughter their own livestock and butcher their own meat. This meant it was harder to ignore the morality surrounding meat eating and harder to avoid the understanding of where meat actually comes from. I wonder if people in modern times had to kill and skin their own dinners whether we might see a rise in vegetarianism… I can honestly say hand on heart that I couldn’t kill an animal (and I’m a witch and quite accustomed to blood and carcasses... ) Possibly if I was starving then I could bring myself to do it but just to offer myself a meaty alternative to mushroom risotto – no – not in a million years. I’m happy to trot off to Sainsbury’s for my meat but when confronted with the actuality of where that meat comes from and the likely suffering inherent in the animals who have died for the sake of my dinner – I scuttle off back to the vegetables.
This makes me a total hypocrite of course. I'm hypocritical to let someone else do the killing for me and enjoy a meat diet without having to relate to the fact that I'm having a dead body for dinner. My hands while not perhaps stained in blood are certainly not free from the taint of death. I am part of the food chain that takes life for unnecessary human consumption. My guilt is no less than those who slaughter the animals personally. I wonder even if my own guilt is greater – there is an honesty in a man who kills for his own food. There is little integrity in hiding behind the packaging and enjoying the pleasure of meat in the knowledge that I lack the bravery to source that food for myself.
I’d like to think that people who do choose to eat meat do so in an informed way but I doubt it. I suspect most people are like myself – happy to buy it – squicky about killing it. We’re also in the main entirely ignorant about the suffering that goes on in the food production chain. I’ll admit that I can’t bring myself to watch the Peta footage filmed inside the abattoirs – I’m not naïve enough to think animals destined for slaughter are treated well but something in me balks from actually witnessing it for myself. Again, hypocrisy. I’m happy to support an industry that harms animals (by consuming the end product) but I’ll turn a blind eye to the horrors of live animal transportation, badly managed slaughter houses and sadistic abattoir employees (and yes Bernard Matthews I’m looking at you and the bastards you employ to “care” for your turkeys.”)
While I might not go so far as Morrissey and proclaim meat to be murder there is an uneasiness about the implications of my own role as a consumer. Without people like me who are willing to eat meat the animals will continue to be slaughtered. As the population grows more and more animals will be slaughtered. In a classic example of voting with our feet we could stop this. And yet we don’t, we choose not to. We choose the pleasure of eating meat above the lives of the animals.
The captivity argument is often raised that if the animals are treated well under ethical conditions then this somehow justifies our right to kill them for food. I’m not sure I agree. If you told me I’ve had 36 good happy years on the earth but tomorrow I’m going to be slaughtered to go in somebody else’s stew pot then I really wouldn’t be happy about it. My reaction would not be along the lines of “I’ve had a good innings I might as well become somebody’s dinner now.” Granted I have the ability to articulate my response in a way that an animal doesn’t but I’m pretty confident that if cows, pigs and sheep could express themselves in the way I can they’d say something pretty similar. Yes absolutely it is important that animals are treated well to the end of their days but I’m unsure that any amount of animal welfare standards can atone for the fact that the creatures are going to end up on the dinner table.
The morality of meat as with most areas of morality is a continuum and each person chooses where they draw their own line. Some go further than vegetarianism and refuse to consume by products of animals like milk, eggs or even honey (usually the contention here is the manner in which animals are kept or the fact that intensive farming can lead to a reduced life span). I can understand meat eating and I can understand absolute veganism but some of the grey areas in between confuse me. Pescitarians for example (what – are fish less of a living creature than a mammal?)
Animal slaughter for food is sometimes justified on the grounds that animals are less sentient and less self aware than humans which is why eating human flesh is a strict taboo and eating animals socially acceptable. But it’s hardly a satisfactory line in the sand – what about babies? I’d argue that they are less self-aware than an adult animal. Or the mentally handicapped or the comatose? There would be an uproar if I tried to eat one of those for my dinner. A silly analogy perhaps but sufficient to make the point that the continuum works both ways – there is little argument for eating meat that couldn’t be extended to eating certain types of human as well (except that from a health point of view cannibalism of the same species leads to all sorts of health issues which I suspect is why we have evolved to be disgusted at the idea of eating fellow humans). My point is why do we find it acceptable to take one life for human sustenance and not another? Why do some people draw the line at killing any animals, others agree only with killing select animals and almost everybody agree that killing humans to eat them is wrong. In the conundrum of whose life is important we overlook the simple fact that it is life itself that is important.
And as with any continuum there is the question not only of where you start but of where you stop. Plants can feel pain, should I not eat them either? I’m not entirely sure if the concept of fruitarian (people who eat only what falls naturally from the plant – nobody seems clear as to whether it is ok to pick the fruit or whether they have to wait for it to fall of its own volition) is a serious one but I can see how people pushing the continuum to its natural conclusion feel that it might be the only option available. If you wish your diet to cause no harm at all to any living creature then eating fruit that has fallen to the orchard floor probably is the only option. The morality does get blurred here though as although it is perfectly possible to eat a vegetarian diet with no health implications I doubt anybody can get all the nutrients their body needs from fallen fruit. The question of morality changes when it becomes a matter of humans eating what they need for sustenance as opposed to what they like the taste of.
(Incidentally a lot of people whine on about the fact that other animals kill each other for sustenance. I’d say in answer to that that you can’t have it both ways. If you believe animals to be non-sentient enough as to not be self-aware then you cannot expect them to have the same level of moral conscious of a human. Simply put – they have the excuse that they are acting purely on instinct - we do not.
Those people who do eat meat often talk about their right to do so. Rights are an interesting hot topic in modern debate. People seem very fixated on their right to do things. I’m sceptical however that rights can be used to morally justify the eating of meat. You may well think you have a right to a bacon sandwich but surely such a right doesn’t override the much more basic right to life. I’d say that a pig has more right to live than a man has a right to eat its flesh between two slices of white bread on a Sunday morning.
There are of course counter arguments to the fact that eating meat is inhumane. Much of our cattle would suffer and likely starve to death if we did not keep them to rear for meat production. Some species might even die out entirely. While this is a valid argument it is one borne from utilitarian practicality and not from the morality I wanted to explore. Just because more animals are born when humans eat meat doesn’t mean the act of killing those animals for food is justifiable. There are some very very persuasive practical and economic arguments for why meat eating is a positive thing in society but these don’t strike at the heart of the very simple question – is it right for a human to kill another creature simply to eat it?
I’ll stress again before the inevitable flurry of outraged email responses. I am neither a vegan nor a vegetarian. I actually eat meat with most of my meals. I am not preaching sanctimonious morality based on the example of my own virtue, I am empathising with the hundreds of thousands of people like me who have a gut feeling that eating meat is wrong but who as of yet haven’t made the choice to stop eating it. As for whether I will do one day – I don’t know. I’d like to think I will, sometimes I could almost convince myself I will but it’s a big step. What I won’t do is rush out on an impulse and stop eating meat. If I ever do decide to become a vegetarian it will be a lifelong commitment. In the meantime I have no choice but to confront my own hypocrisy, simply put – Yes I believe it is wrong to eat animals and yes, I still do it.
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