Friday, September 10, 2010

At least I'm willing to poke you in the eye myself.

At Grist, Rebecca Thistlewaite offers up suggestions for people to really make a difference in the food system. The article is frustrating because many of Thistlewaite's suggestions feature consuming animals,* she doesn't suggest eliminating or even reducing meat consumption to make a difference,** yet she poses the article as a sort of "You're proud of yourself for your food choices, but you're no better than anybody and here's what you should really do." To me, suggesting conscientious ways to kill and eat animals for our own pleasure really isn't a solution, but a way to make people feel better about doing what they want to do anyway. It's also frustrating that some of Thistlewaite's suggestions would take a great deal of energy and effort, while "stop eating animals" is by comparison fairly effortless.

It would be easy to write a lengthy post expanding on these points, but I want to focus on one suggestion Thistlewaite offers:

"Participate in the death of an animal that you consume."

Though perhaps not Thistlewaite's point, this seems like an argument I've heard from people with various points of view about eating animals. It is somehow wrong to consume an animal if you don't confront, witness, or even participate in the actual death of the animal, but the act becomes acceptable if you are willing to confront, witness, or participate in that death. For example, Tracy H. at Digging Through the Dirt cites Monica Eng:

"I didn't want to see a pig get killed. Heck, I don't think anyone does.

"But I felt like I couldn't continue eating meat if I didn't. So this summer I embarked on an unpleasant pilgrimage to bear witness to the death of every kind of animal I ate. And in some cases, to kill the animal myself."

This logic is, I think, flawed whether or not it is morally acceptable to eat meat or not. If a given act is wrong, then it is wrong whether you commit the act yourself or pay somebody else to do it. If it's wrong to pay somebody to steal a car, it's wrong to steal a car yourself, too. And if a given action is morally acceptable, then in most cases it's morally acceptable whether you do it yourself or pay somebody else to do it. I can paint my own house or I can pay a person to paint my own house, and either way I'll have few moral qualms and face few moral judgments. There are some cases where asking somebody else to do a job you should do is considered itself an ethical breach: you shouldn't send somebody else to break up with a significant other, for example. But those exceptions are often for things we already feel squeamish or guilty about, where we recognize that somebody is getting hurt. So does the argument itself indicate qualms?

I think this argument itself suggests some moral anxiety about eating animals. Some people recognize that there is a moral dilemma in an animal suffering and being killed for pleasure, but still want that pleasure, and thus will find some logic to still engage in that pleasure (which is also a reason I resent it when some food writers try to tell people it's OK to eat meat as long as you do it in this particular moral way--if people feel moral qualms about eating meat, I'd rather those qualms not be assuaged). In some cases, such a pose might even be an attempt to continue to claim moral superiority over others ("I'm willing to face the consequences of my choice, so that itself makes me good"--even if the choice itself is bad, and even if other choices that don't have the same consequences are ignored).

I think that killing animals for the pleasure of eating them is wrong. I see little moral difference in buying the dead animal that somebody else killed for you, or killing it yourself. I think the argument that there is a moral difference tries to take what is essentially the same behavior, draw a line through it, and call one side (presumably the side of the speaker) more righteous.

*In some cases, her direct advice to readers is to eat meat--just particular types. No caveat like "if you do eat meat" or "when you do eat meat"--her advice to change the food system, then, apparently requires the reader to eat meat.
**she does say if a waiter can't give a satisfactory answer about how the animal was killed, then order vegetarian--not quite advice to reduce or eliminate meat consumption for its own sake.


  1. I think, for me, the question is where the fault lies. In older cultures the killing of an animal is one that is done with a certain gravity or thanks. They recognized the sacrifice of the animal and the killing was done with a respect. Now, you could say it is still wrong, and I certainly do not kill animals to eat them, but I think if it is going to be done there should be an air of respect and an appreciation of the animal. It isn't necessarily about getting the hands dirty, but I think people should be aware of where their food comes from and what a terrible thing is done to these animals before they can be eaten. What bothers me the most is people are so entirely divorced from the concept of where their food comes from and the suffering that goes into their food. We see these commercials where people are laughing and dancing and ordering meat sandwiches (two slabs of fried chicken with bacon) and I find this not only disrespectful but bizarre and fanciful.


  2. Thank you for the comment. I agree with you about the mental distance people in modern developed nations are able to put between the food they put in their mouths and the source of that food. We've found all sorts of ways to make eating animals not look like eating animals.

    I am just also disturbed by what I guess can be called the conscientious meat-eating movement. There are people who, for various reasons, do find something disturbing about the way animals are eaten today. However, instead of giving up their desired behavior of eating meat, they find ways to justify it and separate themselves from the way others eat meat. When some critics of the food system say, essentially, "Yes, there's something very wrong with the way the majority of Americans eat meat--but the way that I eat meat is OK because (insert flimsy argument here)," I hear two things. One, there's a justification for continuing a desired behavior, and two, there's a desire to place a moral line between themselves and everybody else. Either way, the effect is that people who feel the moral qualms about eating meat end up feeling that their method of eating meat is justified, and they get a cleaner conscience out of it.