Is Meat Immoral?
Welcome to the second installment of The Question at Carleton College. Our Question for this term is "Is Meat Immoral"? and we've asked our EthIC's associates to kick-off the discussion with their reflections on this question, which invites reflection on animal suffering, the nature of predation, food policy and health-related issues.
We encourage you to join the discussion with comments or questions of your own. There are various events happening this term, and early next term, related to The Question, and food ethics more generally. Be sure to check out the EthIC calendar and consider "liking" us on Facebook.
Max Bearak ('12)
About a year ago I was watching a documentary on primates narrated by Sir David Attenborough. He described how most primates were naturally vegetarian, but some scavenged meat if the opportunity arose, or if other food was particularly scarce. The film then switched to a clip of a gang of chimpanzees who he described as not needing to eat meat, but engaging in a hunt as a bonding ritual and as a show of power. In the context of evolution, I see this type of behaviour as a key juncture, if not the key juncture in the development of what we vaguely refer to as "human nature."
What I mean by that is that we take because we can. The question "Is meat immoral?" stretches beyond your choice of food – it touches on consumerism, materialism and excess in general. Do we need meat to survive? Clearly not, as millions of vegetarians and vegans can attest to. Do most Americans need half of the things in their houses to survive? No, again, and the slippery slope I'm sliding down here ends with each one of us living the utmost minimalistic life in which we only consume what we need. Barring minor examples, isn't that what the rest of the animal kingdom does, though? To me, meat isn't immoral to the Inuit family that, without meat, has little or nothing to subsist on. But I know that I eat copious amounts of bacon for instance, even though I know that the pigs I'm eating were processed in a manner that deeply offends my moral conscience. That's immoral -- so in other words I do immoral things and continue living my life without hesitation.
Perhaps meat is just one of many – thousands probably – immoral indulgences that I partake in almost every day. But we're embedded inextricably in a society that is moving toward a moral consensus that assures us that consumerism and materialism and excess are human rights and the trademark of development. In my heart of hearts, all of that is immoral in some way. We're all hoarding, and sometimes it makes us happy, and many of us believe that happiness is what this life is all about. Three cheers to our utilitarian methods at reaching satisfaction! If it’s a bit unethical, or immoral, well who cares, we're manufacturing happiness, right? But when someone goes off and lives that minimalistic life and is just as happy if not happier – others will probably see that person as either poor, depressed, or even crazy. Prove me wrong, or keep strolling with me down the path of willful immorality.
I do not believe that meat is generally immoral. To ask this question is a luxury; by that I mean that it is a luxury to be able to choose what food we eat. Where I grew up, there are many people who cannot afford to eat what I would consider “moral meat,” meat that has been killed or prepared humanely. We have enough food that we are able to choose what we eat, and not only what we eat, but to consider other factors like food production in the food we choose. Because it is a privilege to be able to ask a question like this, I do not think it is immoral to eat meat; we live in a reality where many people are only able to survive by eating meat.
Almost all of the meat that I eat is immoral. Whether I'm at the supermarket, on a Sayles sofa, or at my kitchen table, I almost never conceptualize the animals I'm eating. Unquestionably, my inability to face reality enables a terrible process. The animals I eat are usually factory farmed and raised under terrible conditions. The farms that raise them probably pay their workers almost nothing and create enormous pollution. Much of the meat I consume probably also travels long distances to get to me -- I'm sure the meat I eat in a given week is responsible for many tons of greenhouse gas emissions. I haven't taken any considerable steps towards understanding America's meat industry, but I do know that with every bite of chicken I have people and animals suffer.
So the meat I eat is immoral. Therefore, meat can be immoral. But the EthIC prompt really asks if all meat is immoral. Most of us think that if you are going to kill an animal it is good to eat it. The deer hunter that kills, and then uses, a deer is better than the deer hunter who kills for a thrill and then leaves the deer to die. And so, in a way, we are really asking if it is ever okay to kill an animal. Pretty much everyone has killed an animal at one point or another. Most of us eat meat. Even if we don't most of us will occasionally kill a mosquito. And even if we don't do that, we probably use a non-recyclable straw that ends up choking a fish somewhere. And even if we don't do that we've definitely been in a car or a plane that has indirectly contributed to the death of a polar bear, or another animal that has died from climate change. It is impossible to be a member of contemporary American society without killing animals. For those people that do care about animal's lives, some animal murders are more okay than others. It is usually considered better to kill an animal accidentally than purposefully. A person on an airplane kills more ethically than the boy with the magnifying glass on the anthill. It is also usually considered better to take a small life than a big one. Killing an mosquito is not as bad as killing a lion. Our dependence on killing animals does not prove that eating meat is okay; just because everyone is doing it doesn't mean it's right. However, it does suggest that vilifying meat eating is beside the point. The true problem is not that we kill animals, but that we don't respect them. Instead of being scared to conceptualize the animals I eat, I should know where they came from (perhaps kill them myself) and think of them with love.
Leave a comment (less than 300 words please) to join the conversation (Carleton login required).^ Engaging in ethical reflection is its own reward. But we're sweetening the pot: we'll give a $20 gift certificate to the Carleton bookstore to one lucky commenter (based on a random drawing). So join in!
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