Monday, November 23, 2009

Animal, Vegetable, Miserable

I really liked this Op-Ed piece by Gary Steiner in Saturday's New York Times. Steiner does a great job of pointing out the fundamental moral contradiction found  in many of  the arguments of people who claim to care about the welfare of animals and who attempt to satisfy their concern by, for example, buying only free range meat. What does it matter, he asks, how well the animal lived if it is going to be murdered, cut up and cooked? Doesn't the shock that the animal experiences when it's skull staved in by a captive bolt gun negate the comforts that were provided it as it was being raised?

Steiner, a vegan,  also points out some of the flaws in the reasoning that meat eaters use to explain why it's okay to kill animals and not okay to do the same to humans. A couple of examples 

"human beings but not animals are made in God’s image and hence stand in much closer proximity to the divine than any non-human animal; according to this line of thought, animals were made expressly for the sake of humans and may be used without scruple to satisfy their needs and desires"
 "the human capacity for abstract thought makes us capable of suffering that both qualitatively and quantitatively exceeds the suffering of any non-human animal.''
In concise language he demolishes the illogic of these and makes it glaringly apparent that one cannot assume that humans have a right to kill animals for food or any reason other than, I assume, self defense.

Having been a morally motivated vegetarian for about seven years from 1974-1981, none of what Steiner wrote was new to me, nor could I find anything to disagree with. I know that eating meat involves causing animals to suffer. I knew that when I made the conscious decision to start eating meat again and I have never doubted it and I accept it as a consequence of my appetite and my craft.

Like Steiner, I have little patience for those who refuse to acknowledge that no matter how well you treat it while it is alive, the act of killing an animal causes it to suffer and may be immoral. However, unlike him I'm willing to live with the fact that my actions cause suffering and may be immoral.

Op-Ed Contributor - Animal, Vegetable, Miserable -


Ed Bruske said...

I don't think logic or moralit have anything to do with it. Is it immoral for a lion to eat an antelope. Should a toad feel a pang of guilt for eating a fly? Are fish morally tainted when they consume krill? We are lucky to be at the top of the food chain. But like everything else, we also die. Should we feel guilty because we live?

Tags said...

I was so impressed with a comment by Nic Heckett on Michael Ruhlman's October 26 2007 blog post that I saved it after a cut and paste.

Here's the link - search for Heckett, it was posted at 10:52 PM

This addresses eloquently the justification for eating meat.

Jessika said...

I live in the north of Scandinavia, at this time of the year we get 4 hours of "sun" a day. In the summer it never turns completely dark. Historically people lived on cured or heavily salted fish and meats and what the earth could provide according to season. Now you have the benefit of round the year import of produce all year around now being a vegan just 50 yrs ago would have been impossible. Not that the idea of veganism existed then. In this specific climate, although climate change has brought well, climate change, adhering to a strict vegan diet would kill have kill you without the addition of dairy, what vegetables that were available and meat. Famine would still prevail some years. Whereas you can argue the moral imperatives of veganism there's also the issue of pragmatism. We used to subscribe to veggie boxes that provide local produce. In winter we got kale, cabbage, cabbage, carrots, cabbage and some more cabbage which would offer you a sense of what life was like were we now not blessed with the chances of imports. The historical accounts of veganism would be interesting and just how would you view the fact that there are places in the world where it is (basically) impossible to adhere to a vegan diet.

There are food chains everywhere. A vegan would probably argue that the humans are eating too much being at the top of it. To me this is or could be characterised as a moral issue but more in terms of environmentalism. Some meat production does claim a bit too much water and land but that is another discussion. The debate between vegans and human omnivores seems to be neverending just because where morality is concerned there are things far more worthy of a discussion of morality than what I eat. Especially if I know where and how my food, including meat, has been produced.

Walt said...

Ed, Tags and Jessika,

Great comments all. Tags, you're right about Heckett. Thats an argument I've never considered. I hope more people will take the time to read his post.

Thanks Bob, This was quite the thought provoking piece.

Kevin said...

Morality and ethics are human constructs.

The Bad Yogi said...

The reason it matters how we treat animals before we kill and eat them is that killing and suffering are two different things. Think: suffer for 2 years and then die or live free for two years first: no difference? It has to do with us, and our capacity for inflicting unnecessary pain, as opposed to the (for meat eaters) necessary pain of ending a life. Free range, done properly, allows the animal to have a life, as opposed to an miserable existence.

Like you, Bob, I was a vegetarian for many years, and went back to eating meat deliberately and consciously.

Heath said...

I like Steiner's piece a lot.

I've thought about these issues:

I'm thinking in vitro (vat-grown) meat will one day make a lot of livestock raising disappear, solving a lot of these moral issues.

There was a time when we exploited horses and oxen as power animals. Just as technology replaced them, we'll replace our food animals, because they'll be too expensive compared to the alternatives.

Chef Schneller said...

Well here it is.. from a god awful butcher who has actually done a slaughter and has seen the "horror" of it all. The act of taking an animal's life is never easy but it can be very quick and without suffering. If the animal doesn't know whats coming then there is very little stress. It will go into instant shock.View some of Dr Temple Grandin's work on
I believe an animal raised correctly with care has a much better existance and is "happy". That has nothing to do with the way I, the consumer, feel. What I feel about should be of no concern. For me its about meat. Less stressed animals provide a higher quality meat.
Meat grown in a lab sickens me, just like iceberg lettuce. Just don't eat meat then.
PS, Death is never easy for any creature, but it always happens.

Robert said...

Bob, so how did you come to the conclusion that you would eat meat again and be alright with knowingly causing suffering to another being. And be ok with knowing your immorality?

Bob del Grosso said...

I realized that I was not as moral as I thought I was.