Thursday, May 15, 2008

On thinking about not eating meat

Warning: long post

'I blame Peter Singer for turning my wife into a vegetarian,' said a friend of mine about fifteen years ago, and it was enough to send me off to read some Singer and see what the story was. I have continued to admire Singer even through the radical ideas that have made a lot of people write him off or worse, partly because I admire anyone rational and detached enough not to be automatically, unthinkingly anthropocentric, and partly because I also admire anyone who can follow a train of thought all the way to its logical destination without losing her or his nerve.

Also falling squarely into both these categories is novelist J.M. Coetzee, well-known for his views on animals and meat-eating, and since he and his partner Dorothy Driver moved to Adelaide it's been my good fortune to have encountered them in various places. One of the most memorable of these occasions was a public reading at a fundraiser in the Adelaide Hills where Coetzee read a passage from Boyhood about watching men on a farm kill a sheep.

Coetzee is not an elaborator, at least not in the writerly sense of what John Steinbeck once called 'hooptedoodle', but the unexpressed horror and fear and revulsion felt by the watching child is there in the syntax of these quiet sentences. Listening to the reading was a very weird experience, because on the one hand I could feel the horror in the writing, and on the other hand could imagine the scene very clearly because I'd seen this sight myself, many times, at a similar age in a similar place. And for me it's an interesting but matter-of-fact memory, framed by the context of a very happy childhood.

If you grew up on a farm in the 1940s or 50s or 60s, this was just something you saw. In my case we were (like every other kid in the district) inured to it as a natural part of farm life. If you farmed sheep -- and in those parts, everybody did -- you would regularly kill one for meat as a matter of course. There was even a kind of unspoken primitive-hunter-type 'honour the creature' thing going on when animals were killed to eat. My sisters and I, from a very young age, would be neither encouraged to watch nor discouraged from watching the sheep being quickly killed, hung and gutted, but if we were on the spot then we were expected to make ourselves useful, mostly by being handed a bowl of warm brains and kidneys and told 'Here, take that up to Mummy.'

Sheep destined for the table, like the doomed chooks for special-occasion meals, were killed quickly and efficiently; the worst thing they felt was a few moments of fear. A quick death was mandatory. A sharp, clear line was drawn between killing for food and causing pointless pain and suffering.

Any cruelty or neglect shown to animals was despised, and failure to look after one's animals properly was cause for shame. In tandem with the vivid but undistressing memories I have of watching sheep be killed, there are equally vivid memories of my father trundling around in rain, hail and gale in the middle of the night, bodily lifting pregnant ewes or newly shorn sheep into the back of the ute or even, in uteless years, the boot of the car to drive them to shelter.

Obviously much of this was economically based and God knows sheep are very hard to love, but whatever the motives may have been, I grew up steeped in an ethos of treating all animals humanely. Sheepdogs and farm cats were loved, cared for and regarded as individual creatures with personalities and feelings.

All of which is to say that I grew up with a clear sense of the difference between neglecting or mistreating animals, on the one hand, and on the other hand raising them in the open, providing protection from predators and weather, making sure there was always water and plenty to eat, keeping them mainly for wool and eggs and occasionally killing a sheep, a chook or a goose quickly and humanely for food. I think these things were too deeply imprinted ever to be erased.

So, on the continuing-to-eat-meat side of the argument:

-- I grew up in the country; there was enough money; my parents loved each other and me. Beliefs acquired in that sort of childhood cannot be shed easily, if at all.

-- I don't regard eating meat as in any way unclean or defiling.

-- I appreciate the benefits of protein and iron.

-- I really like meat.

-- These days I am very, very careful when shopping about the conditions under which the animals for animal products were raised. Eggs and chooks are free range only. I never eat pork or cured meats at all.

-- I take the point about the environment, but my shopping habits don't support the sorts of farms that do it the most damage, and in any case I think there are more urgent environmental disasters happening, and in any case anyway, I think it is too late.

-- Most of the extreme 'animal liberationist' rhetoric and behaviour I've seen has looked hysterical, irrational, ignorant, sentimental, self-righteous and/or obsessed.

And yet, and yet:

-- I once found myself, after several weeks of getting very run down through overwork and no proper meals, tearing into a couple of half-cooked veal chops still dripping with bloody juices, standing over the sink like Mia Farrow chowing down on raw hearts in Rosemary's Baby. I know the body demands meat -- but look at that comparison I drew there. Why is Mia Farrow chowing down on raw hearts? Because she's been possessed by the devil.

-- A.S. Byatt, perhaps the single living writer I admire most, spoke more than 20 years ago at the Melbourne Writers' Festival about how lived experience gets used in writing fiction. She told a story about opening her fridge one day, seeing the assorted sausages and bacon and chops and chooks, and thinking 'My God, this thing is full of death.'

-- I have no respect for or patience with the anthropocentric view that all other species are there for our convenience, and even less with the view that might is right and therefore the smartest species gets to treat all the others any way it likes.

-- I have even less respect for or patience with people who argue that animals do not have a 'self', feel emotion, or think; that to me simply indicates that these people have never spent any time with animals.

Grapple, grapple.

I can't imagine taking up a formal position on this, or sticking to it if I did. But what with Singer and Coetzee and Byatt, and living with two cats and a gardenful of birds, and the disgusting conditions -- physically as well as ethically disgusting -- under which so many animals are farmed, I can see myself moving further and further away from meat-eating. Not with any conscious resolve or intention to stop altogether, but more in the spirit of what Gertrude Stein once said about her unintentional estrangement from her brother. 'Little by little, we never met again.'


Another Outspoken Female said...

I don't eat meat and although I'd like to say I am driven by all the ethical/environmental reasons, in reality I think it is just because I ate so much of it in the first 20 years of my life - I'd reached my quota for a lifetime.

It was a slow progression over a year - first no red meat (though I was probably lured by the smell of bacon cooking a few times), just chicken when I visited my parents. Still some fish and organic or true free range eggs (ring the egg marketing board if you want the commercial definition of free range, they are fed the same, medicated, debeaked etc just have "access" to outside which they assured me they didn't make use of).

I have a strong memory of the bobby calves, hand fed in a dark shed to make the veal I once so loved, when I stayed on some distinct cousin's farm. That is the only agricultural image that makes me shudder today.

I don't think moving towards a vegetarian diet should be about claiming some high moral ground, rather a move towards being more conscious about the impact of our actions.

Anonymous said...

I grapple with the same issues. The only two things I'm really certain about are:

* when we become detached from our food production (meat or vegetable) we are likely to become environmental vandals. It's this detachment from the process that makes us think tomatoes in June, or meat three times a day, are reasonable.

* the sort of animal liberationists who advocate synthetics rather than wool or leather are thinking of only part of the process. The chemical industries that make synthetics aren't doing the environment as a whole any favours. Obviously there is also a lot of pollution caused by modern tanning, it's a battle.

Fyodor said...

I'm biased, in that I'm extraordinarily fond of eating meat, so take the following with a pinch of salt and your favourite brown sauce (in our house it's YR), but I don't find your contra arguments particularly compelling:

1) Associating the intake of bloody meat with the Work of the Debbil is, to put it mildly, a highly irrational cultural bias.

2) Life is full of death. Meat is the fatty silver lining. I bet Byatt felt better after a rasher or three.

3) It's called a food chain. Other carnivores don't have a problem with it - what makes humans so fecking special we have to make a capital case out of it? Isn't THAT an irrationally anthropocentric view?

4) There's an unwritten assumption on your part there that some evidence of thought, self etc. should make it ethically wrong to eat other animals. That's a contentious point.

I have never seen a decisive argument against the eating of meat. The good (i.e. logical) ethical arguments rely upon contentious assumptions and the bad ones upon wishy-washy sentiment. The environmental arguments rely upon flawed economics and the health-based arguments are contentious, to say the least.

M-H said...

My observation is that, unless they take a lot of care with their diet, most vegetarians do develop problems in the long term - often iron or vitamin deficiencies - that can really undermine their health. Sure, it's not bowel cancer, but it can be an insidious effect that makes them more liable to infections etc. It's boring, and it may not sit well with people who like to live by strict ethical guidelines, but I still think that moderation is the way to go.

lucy tartan said...

Fyodor, you've never seen a decisive argument against eating meat, I've never seen a decisive argument in favour of eating it - it's just not that kind of topic. I quite see that the main reasons I don't eat meat are probably easily debated and ratiocinated into insignificance, inconsistency (I continue to wear leather shoes and eat a bit of dairy, for instance) and moral vanity, but the point is that not eating meat makes my psychological life just that much easier and less fraught, because I think it's the right thing to do.

Good on you Pav for continuing to grapple. I liked meat, but I don't miss it one little bit, there's plenty of other food to eat.

Anonymous said...


I enjoyed your thoughtful post. I did notice that - inadvertently, no doubt - you seem to associate meat production with the memories that you and J.M. Coetzee "share": of small, family-run farms harvesting well-cared for animals for direct consumption.

Unfortunately, very few households in Australia still consume meat from these sources. Surely, the reality of modern meat production, and the inhumane practices it relies upon are the key questions you should be considering, before you look at the more abstract issues about taking lives.

Oh, and the Mia-Farrow-As-Devil analogy was ridiculously camp. I assume it was supposed to be?

The Devil Drink said...

Who're you calling highly irrational or culturally biased?
Good point BTW. There are lots of consumptive behaviours that have been frowned upon by the polite, from women smoking to children eating spicy foods, and associated with sin.
Fuck 'em, I say. If sinfulness is stopping you, you have my special dispensation: gnaw that bone, slurp that marrow, and wash it all down with a tooth-blackening shiraz.

Wendy said...

I spent a lot of time on my cousins' farm as a child and had the same experience of watching sheep being slaughtered for meat. As a child I was fascinated and not the least bit squeamish about it.But I don't think farmers are all as concerned with animal welfare as your family - my rels were quite harsh with their dogs, for example.
As soon as I left home aged 19, my meat consumption dropped dramatically, as I associated eating meat with convention and I moved into wholefoods, hippy cooking. Then when I was 23, I was on a beach in WA and watched a school of big fish (maybe tuna?) driven into a big net which was hauled up onto the beach and the fish flapped and died. I stopped eating meat from then on. However, M-H is right - I had a lot of low-level health issues which, eight years later, led me to start eating fish for more protein, etc.
So for the past 30 years I haven't eaten animal or bird meat. It's ironic that I do eat fish now, given that it was the deaths of fish which originally turned me vegetarian. I eat it only once a week or less - I'm not all that keen on it, actually.
I don't have a particularly cohesive position on being a vegetarian (pescetarian?) and don't know that I'd want to have a 'totalised' position anyway(reminds me too much of Catholicism).
Personally, not eating meat is largely about taste and health and a style of cooking, but on the political/ethical level, while I am of course concerned about the treatment of animals, I'm as concerned about the economics and environmental aspects of the big business of raising meat at the expense of crops.

Fyodor said...

"Fyodor, you've never seen a decisive argument against eating meat, I've never seen a decisive argument in favour of eating it - it's just not that kind of topic."

Ah, but it is.

I'm not - and I'm certain Mme. Pav is not - arguing that others should eat meat. It genuinely doesn't bother me that others choose to be vegetarians - IMO everyone is entitled to their own preferences.

What intrigues me about these discussions is the way in which people such as yourself - and PC, to some degree - suffer this curiously deep-rooted, amorphous psychological angst about the consumption of meat. I'm honestly curious about it, as I don't feel it, and struggle to rationalise it in others. In other words, I don't understand why you feel this psychologically fraught over food.

Fyodor said...

"Who're you calling highly irrational or culturally biased?"

Well, you are a mythical, socio-cultural construct. Talk about anthropomorphocentrism.

Pavlov's Cat said...

AOF: "I don't think moving towards a vegetarian diet should be about claiming some high moral ground"

No, neither do I particularly, and I hope that was clear in the post. I was actually trying to stay well away from shoulds and shouldn'ts, except for the obvious issue of inflicting cruelty; it was just a personal meditation on the things that have affected me either way. OTOH, I worry a bit about the way Australians shun the 'high moral ground' as though there were something toxic about it -- it's part of the 'Who do you think you are' mentality that kept most of us in our places for so long. I can't actually see a problem with people attempting moral self-improvement, in fact I wish to God there were more of it, as long as it didn't lead to people claiming moral victories over other people which I think is what you meant. It's a baby/bathwater thing.

Innercity garden: your comment highlights how many quite separate issues there are in thinking this carnivore question through, so people discussing it are very often talking at cross-purposes.

Fyodor, you stirrer: re (1), it was a joke, as I'm quite sure you are aware. Re (2), yes I'm sure she did. (3) is a not-half-bad point. (4) is true only if you read my post as a claim to be absolutely logical, which I was very careful to signal that it wasn't. Also, I'm not at all sure what you mean by 'wishy-washy sentiment': how would you distinguish that from what you'd think of as legitimate feeling?

As for 'contentious', this whole issue is contentious. I'm not trying to score debating points (unlike many bloggers, I got that out of my system in high school, where I did in fact score many debating points, usually by playing the fool), only to work through a personal narrative, which I think has interest for other people because it's an issue that affects everyone. Laura's right, it's just not the kind of topic where you can add up the points at the end and say Ooh look, I win.

Anon: I did mention the inhumane practices more than once. Again, I stress that this is a clearly-signalled personal narrative and not an exercise in trying to convince other people of anything. Actually, I will go at least some of the way to the wall for other people's right to eat meat if they want.

Anon: "Oh, and the Mia-Farrow-As-Devil analogy was ridiculously camp. I assume it was supposed to be?"

You're new here, aren't you. Welcome. Yes it was. Although it was a memory as well as a joke: I went into a trance about those veal chops. I pulled them out of the pan before they were fully cooked, because the smell was making me feel deranged with lust, and I ate them in my burning fingers standing over the sink. I came to as I was gnawing the last shreds off the last bone, realised it was the first meat of any kind that I'd eaten for several weeks, and did actually think 'My God, I feel like Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby, scarfing up raw hearts." (Though Wiki tells me is was raw chicken livers. Hearts, livers, whatever.)

DD: "If sinfulness is stopping you, you have my special dispensation"

Sinfulness in the abstract doesn't stop me very often. We who have sharp tongues and bad, erm, quick tempers worry much more about causing pain (or indeed failing to cause pleasure) to fellow-creatures than simply about Being Bad.

Wendy, I can relate to your story of the fish. That is just cheating.

Fyodor #2, all Western women feel psychologically fraught over food; we are forced to do so from the cradle. But specifically regarding Laura's and my thoughts on the subject to hand, I think 'fraught' is an exaggeration. There's a character in Margaret Drabble (those Drabble/Byatt girls are really something), a psychiatrist? psychoanalyst? who when asked if she believes in evil, hesitates and then replies 'I believe in suffering, and in the alleviation of suffering.' Most of the people I know who have given up eating meat have done so largely out of a refusal to collude with contemporary mass-production farming practices because of the way animals are treated. You're very welcome to call this sentimental if you want, but I defy you to prove it; I don't think it is, any more than it was sentimental to scorn the Steve Irwin thumb-up-the-bum technique for making varmints perform for the camera.

Fyodor said...

Mme. Pavlova, you might have picked up that I wasn't entirely serious myself, and not at all critical of your personal narrative, which is both interesting in itself, and interesting in terms of the thought process. In that regard, by "contentious", I mean inconclusive and/or indeterminate, in that I don't think some of the arguments against eating meat are built on solid foundations. I'm no more fixated on scoring the non-existent debate than you are, but the quality and truthity of the arguments are important and interesting.

The word "fraught" was actually Laura's, which is why I used it. And I think you're playing the Femobolshaya card a little too early with the ex-cradle food oppression of women. Plenty of men get worked up over meat, too, so I'm not sure Le Patriarchie is holding the smoking gun on this one.

The element of collusion in mass-farming practices is interesting, and raises a whole bunch of questions. It also ties in to what innercitygarden remarked upon in terms of detachment from the process. It's often assumed that detachment from mass-farming desensitises people to the suffering of animals, but the experiences of people living in rural areas (and you're a good example) with first-hand experience suggests that's not always a tenable assumption. Voluntary vegetarianism (i.e. for non-economic, non-religious reasons) is a lifestyle decision most common in wealthy Western countries where people are most often divorced from farming practice. Why is that? Is it the case that people actually care MORE about animal suffering the less they have to do with its infliction?

One last point (yes, apologies for the length of the comment): by "wishy washy" sentiment I was referring to the inconsistency exemplified by Wendy's admission. Why is it that "we" care more about rabbits and dolphins suffering than we do about tuna or salmon? Why don't sharks and wolves get more love? Does it really come down the banality of anthropocentric conceptions of "cuteness", by which we deem some animals more worthy of protection than others?

Pavlov's Cat said...

'Truthity'. Oh yes. I plan to use that a lot.

The word 'fraught' was indeed Laura's, and I got sidetracked by Femobolshaya issues (and yes I'm having that word too). The point I should have made was that it's not a matter of being 'fraught about food' but rather 'fraught about the question of what one considers to be food'. I can't speak for Laura of course, but my interpretation of what she said, and I am beginning to feel the same way occasionally, is that, for Laura, meat is now by definition 'not "food"' -- and therein, on the border of that decision-making process (as on so many borders), lies the fraughtitude.

All good questions about mass farming and desensitisation. I don't know what the answers are.

The only people who need ever apologise for the length of their comments are trolls and loonies. You are clearly neither.

On cuteness: I disassociate myself from the 'we' that barracks for cute animals but not scorpions and warthogs and so on. There are however, for certain creatures, issues around, oh, the plague, malaria, being stung to death by angry wasps, etc. But bear in mind that white pointers are a protected species and so are brown snakes, neither species high in the cuteness stakes.

Still on cuteness, sort of, there's a very interesting interview with Coetzee, recently linked to by Perry Middlemiss at Matilda (will give link in a PS comment as Blogger makes putting links in the comments box an utter pain) where he (Coetzee not Perry) more or less says that it should simply be used to the advantage of the cause. Can't disagree.

But I do agree that there is any amount of actual (if unthinking) hypoocrisy, much less inconsistency and illogical thinking, in the rhetoric of vegetarianism and animal rights. I'll cop some of it, but not all of it. And really it bores right down to the central philosophical question of what one thinks animals are. Coetzee again: if existence as 'embodied spirit' is not his actual phrase, then it is a good one that someone has coined about his view -- and when 'being' is considered in that light, there is no essential separation between humans and other living creatures. I think the view that says there is such a separation is based quite as heavily on irrational foundations as the view that says there isn't. It's just one of those issues where the reason/feeling nexus is particularly dense, dark and tangled.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Interview with J.M. Coetzee, via Matilda. Both highly recommended.

Deborah said...

If you follow Singer's arguments to their conclusion, it turns out that he isn't opposed to meat-eating per se, provided animals aren't harmed in the production of meat, and provided they are killed painlessly, with no inkling that their lives are about to end, and hence their preferences (to say, consume that nice bit of green grass on the other side of the fence, or to have a drink of water, or whatever preferences animals might reasonably be expected to have) aren't frustrated.

In practice of course, it's incredibly hard to achieve pain-free production of meat, if not virtually impossible. Hence his commitment to not eating meat at all.

I'm think the ethical arguments in favour of not eating meat are pretty compelling, without even worrying about 'freezers full of death'. But I still eat meat. I just accept that I am, in some respects, immoral.

cristy said...

Lovely post PC.

Have you read "The Ethics of What We Eat"? I really liked the way that Singer examined all of the impacts of our consumption decisions - environmental (ie eating local, seasonal produce that has not had harmful chemical inputs...), cruelty, fair trade, etc... rather than just adopting an 'animal liberationist" approach.

To me it really seemed to highlight the value of simply adopting a thoughtful approach to consumption rather than trying to be perfect or apply rigid rules (or "be consistent").

That seems to be exactly what you do and, as you say, it may be that such an approach will just naturally lead you away from meat over time.

lucy tartan said...

I just thought I'd reply to Fyodor's repy to my comment, where he said : "What intrigues me about these discussions is the way in which people such as yourself - and PC, to some degree - suffer this curiously deep-rooted, amorphous psychological angst about the consumption of meat. I'm honestly curious about it, as I don't feel it, and struggle to rationalise it in others. In other words, I don't understand why you feel this psychologically fraught over food."

I guess you don't understand because you think the fraughtness is a sort of pre-rational and deep-seated gut feeling, but it's not. Fraught might not be the best word: I'm certainly not agonised or disgusted or even particularly exercised by the sights, sounds, smells of other people's meat eating.

I do actually still think of meat as food. I don't look at the meat bit in the supermarket and think of corpses etc (although since getting chooks I do see dead chickens primarily as dead versions of their live bodies.) I don't imagine hte meat/food link is a habit unlearned very easily. I just think it's a food which is morally extravagant, costs too much, because it requires a death, and that seems a big price to pay, given that it's perfectly possible to live well and enjoy food without needing to eat meat.

I stopped eating meat because I found that it wasn't worth the trouble of continuing to negotiate the grapplings Pavlov is exploring in her post. It was actually a very coolly taken decision, Fyodor: I weighed up the costs and benefits, and even allowing for the tendentiousness of some of the environmental arguments and the sentimentality of my attitude to animals (which I don't see any ned to apologise for, btw), it just wasn't worth the mental bother.

Anonymous said...

Laura's said it better, but: I’m a simple soul and this question has been straightforward for me since I was a teenager. I can survive without eating meat. Slaughtering animals causes pain and suffering. Is my liking for the taste of meat enough justification for that? Nope.


Kate H said...

It's a good post PC. I have to admit I lean towards Fyodor's view of things, and generally I find veganism fairly hard to understand (sorry Cristy).

My own thoughts:

- On animal exploitation. It's true we do exploit animals for food and clothing, but that's rather the way of the world. Unless we are to all have our own farms, make our own tools, grow our own crops, weave and sew our own clothes, exploitation is the order of the day. True, we can reduce that exploitation through our choices, but we can't get out of the system. Where does your tofu comes from? Who makes it? How much are they being paid? What about the fertiliser used in growing the soybeans? Where does that come from? Who mines that out of the ground? How much are they being paid? What about the organic cotton in your shirt? Where is that grown, and under what circumstances? Where does the water come from? Who harvests the cotton and how?
My point is there is more to this than meat.

- Like PC, I grew up on a farm. Every now and again we'd kill a sheep or send a cow off the knackery. We'd shoot rabbits and roos. And the occasional dog. It was always done without pleasure and with a sense of necessity. I think we all could do with a much stronger sense of where our food comes from and how it gets to us.

- After travelling a bit in Africa and SE Asia, where they eat EVERYTHING I think we're bloody spoilt in the west where we can afford to discard the vast bulk of our foodstuffs. Nonetheless I am not ever going to eat crickets or dog or pigeon or eyeballs.

- Thought experiment: if we were all to become vegan, what would we do with all the cows and sheep and goats?

Andrew Bartlett said...

"I have never seen a decisive argument against the eating of meat. The good (i.e. logical) ethical arguments rely upon contentious assumptions and the bad ones upon wishy-washy sentiment. The environmental arguments rely upon flawed economics and the health-based arguments are contentious, to say the least."

I don't know if decisive is the best word, as I agree with Kerryn that it's best to stay away from shoulds and shouldn'ts.

But I don't think the basic ethical argument is contentious at all, it's just a matter of how much weight people wish to give it, which is really their personal choice. As Lucy & Anon said, most of us can easily survive without having to eat other animals. For some of people, that's enough reason not to have animals killed to provide food.

In regards to veganism (not eating dairy & eggs), the animal isn't directly killed so its a slightly less direct argument, although there is major suffering involved in many (but not all) of the production methods used to produce this food these days.

I don't know why you say the "environmental arguments rely upon flawed economics." There may be some assertions you've seen that suffer from this, but the high environmental impacts of meat production compared to other types of food is quite well established, even though the overall impacts vary from region to region and also dependng on production methods.

This is especially the case in regards to greenhouse impacts, particularly for livestock (an extra argument for veganism too). Of course, this on its own is more an argument for seriously reducing consumption rather than necessarily cutting it out altogether (rather like trying to reduce energy consumption, private car travel, etc), but obviously elimanting it entirely has the best impact.

Fyodor said...

Laura, the struggle with fraughtness isn't because I think it's "pre-rational" or somehow unfounded. It's because it's very rare to hear/read the underlying arguments articulated. Because the arguments aren't spoken, they remain amorphous and difficult to understand.

I'm not having a go at you, either, I might add. I think you're a very rational, sensible person and vegetarianism is often a perfectly rational choice. Even if it isn't rational in some cases, I still respect other people's right to choose for themselves, so I'm not judging either way.

What interests me are the universal arguments proposed for vegetarianism. Now, if you argue that an animal's death is too high a price for you to pay to enjoy meat, that is a personal preference: you value the animal's life more than you value its meat. Fair enough, but that is not a universal argument, as different people will value animals' lives differently. That is, the issue is not whether the animal's life has value independent of you or not, but how you feel about it.

Is meat morally extravagant? I'm not sure what you mean by this, so can't respond. Do you feel it is morally extravagant for everyone to eat meat, or just you?

Agree that it's perfectly possible to live well and enjoy food without meat, but if one can live better and enjoy food more with meat, what does one do?

I don't see a need for you to apologise for your sentimentality either, and you'll notice that I hadn't asked you to, as it would have been horribly presumptuous.

Fyodor said...

Andrew, as I've just pointed out to Laura, the argument that we can survive without eating meat isn't a convincing, universal, argument.

That is, it is not possible to say that it is ethically wrong to eat meat simply because one thinks it is wrong for oneself. Although this is an ethical calculation one makes, it doesn't have universality because it relies upon personal, subjective preferences. That is why it is contentious. Likewise, we can survive without all manner of material comforts. That doesn't stop us wanting them, or make it morally wrong to want them.

As regards the "high environmental cost" of meat, it's not clear what you mean. If you mean that meat requires more resources (e.g. lad, feed, water, etc.) to produce than other foods, then, yes, that is generally correct. But if the value of the meat is more than its cost then those costs are captured and passed on to the consumer, who can decide for him- or herself whether the costs are justified.

The "flawed economics" I referred to are the arguments that take an absolutist approach to these environmental costs without appreciating the tradeoffs. The production of greenhouse gases is just another one of these costs.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Oh, okay, now I see what this is about. Personally I can't answer, about the universal argument, because I haven't seen one by which I'm fully convinced (though strongly persuaded, which is, as you say, different). I've been trying not to get into this area of absolutes because it gets so, yes, fraught. Possibly because the logical conclusion of a universal argument on this subject is that everyone else is wrong and bad, and most of us shy away from that.

For instance, Coetzee appears to believe that intentionally killing an animal for any reason is murder. That is a word I have seen him use. I'm assuming you'd acknowledge that as a universal argument ...? (Whether you accepted it or not, I mean.) His arguments are very much metaphysical ones that (if I understand them correctly) are a sort of resistant engagement with the mind/body problem. Among other things.

It occurs to me, fully for the first time, that this issue really does have something in common with the death-penalty debate: under what circumstances is it not wrong to take a life? And what is it, exactly, that you are taking? As I've said somewhere in this thread, that that would come down to what you think an animal's life is. Fyodor, have you read Elizabeth Costello? "Enjoy" isn't the right word but I think the quality of argument would interest you.

Fyodor said...

"For instance, Coetzee appears to believe that intentionally killing an animal for any reason is murder. That is a word I have seen him use. I'm assuming you'd acknowledge that as a universal argument ...?"

Yes, justement. The implication of his argument is that it's not only wrong for Coetzee to kill animals, but wrong for everyone.

"Fyodor, have you read Elizabeth Costello? "Enjoy" isn't the right word but I think the quality of argument would interest you."

No, and ta.

Anonymous said...

I found this post fascinating as someone who find himself in a similar space often.

The original version of The Lives of Animals published by Princeton is well worth reading. It contains responses from Peter Singer and others. Singer finds Coetzee's arguments incomprehensible. There is also a fascinating discussion on Hindu conceptions of eating meat and plants in which eating plants is bad but not as bad as eating animals.


lucy tartan said...

To hear the underlying arguments articulated I'd second Cristy's recommendation of The Ethics of What We Eat. It isn't preachy. It is made up of case studies. Conclusions are scrupulously left for the reader to draw.

Pav's post was explicitly personal, and the comments here have almost all been personal too, so I don't exactly know what the actual 'universal' argument you are thinking about is, F.

Unless it's Coetzee's proposition, in using the word 'murder', that killing animals for food is wrong in an absolute sense, no ifs no buts?

Well: there's no logical problem in recognising that morality is a private and personal matter yet can still generate absolutes. Sartre thought that only subjective decisions and positions were authentic.

Once an individual develops absolute moral convictions it's up to him whether he simply uses them for himself or also attempts to persuade others around to his point of view. If a whole culture is persuaded (Wilberforce) and the principles pass into law, then what's been achieved is not the enshrinement of a universal moral rule - it's a social contract. The terms on which such contracts are made are mutable & negotiable, which is as it should be.

Pav's example of capital punishment is a good illustration.

Pavlov's Cat said...

I am endlessly surprised by the things you find online while you're looking for something completely different.

Anonymous said...

I suppose what I was trying to get at (I got 'toddlered' trying to think it through and type it) is that while taking the life of an individual cow/sheep/chook directly so that I can eat it doesn't bother me particularly. However, my eating cows/sheep/chooks and also wheat/potatoes/rice, particularly given that I live in Australia, comes at a high cost to lots and lots of creatures. Not just the individual cow whose lucky number came up this week, but all the native animals who were displaced by the farm, and all the microscopic creatures nobody was even able to identify let alone count before we wiped them out.

So food production and consumption is fraught in this country. It is also problematic around the world, but it seems to me especially so in a country where we eat so little that is indigenous to the land. So perhaps have a bet each way and eat more 'roo. At least then when you cause the death of the animal, the raising of it hasn't destroyed all the biodiversity of the place it lived.

What humans do to cows is pretty crappy. What cows do to creeks (and everything that should rightfully live in them) is also rotten.

Fyodor said...

"Pav's post was explicitly personal, and the comments here have almost all been personal too, so I don't exactly know what the actual 'universal' argument you are thinking about is, F.

Unless it's Coetzee's proposition, in using the word 'murder', that killing animals for food is wrong in an absolute sense, no ifs no buts?"

As I pointed out to Mme. Pav above, that's it exactly.

It's one thing to say that eating meat is not right for me, for subjective reasons that only I know and appreciate, but quite another to argue that eating meat is morally wrong in general.

What I'm trying to tease out from this discussion is whether there ARE good arguments for the universal proposition that it is not right - i.e. morally wrong, unethical, whathaveyou - to eat meat. As you suggest, there ARE universal arguments about the morality of slavery, just as there are about capital punishment. I'm interested in the universal arguments about meat and vegetarianism.

You seem to suggest that such arguments are divorced from personal decisions and experiences, but I don't think people make up their minds in an existential vacuum. That is, there's an interplay between the personal and the universal, as can be seen in Mme. Pav's own discussion in the post.

Caroline said...

My only struggle with this issue is due to that 'inkling of fear' I cannot help but imagine, all animals sense while waiting in line.

There is incredible wastage in pastoral lands in Australa through soil degradation, land clearing and a monoculture mentality. I don't think its fair, especially to the cow to blame cattle production for what are essentially land management issues. Land for the most part, is both abused and managed badly in Australia. Vast tracts of land that could be used more productively goes to waste trying to support a family of four, who more often than not don't have a vegetable garden and are just as dependent on Woolies and Coles for food as the rest of us.

I really believe that animals communicate in ways we would find quite remarkable and were we a little more sensitive and less inclined towards the Cartesian model of animal production, (which seems geared mainly to ensure we remain heartlessly pragmatic, less we cry a river of tears in remorse) we might learn more about the subtleties of recognition and communication--latent potentials we have in ourselves.

I eat meat and enjoy it, without much psychological angst, but I am well aware of how farming has transmogrified into agribusiness and with its cruel, callous capitalistic advent, any humane understanding that animals are more than machines for production has vanished, presumably subsumed by greed.

It will probably take some hideous disease (hoof and mouth I suspect) that wipes out hundreds of stock (they lose again) for us to realise that we cannot expect animals to live in such conditions.

I think one day when we understand more about the mind and sensitivity of cows, (for instance), what they think and perhaps specifically what they think about us, we will be saddened, admonished and chastened and find it hard to believe we farmed them and killed them with no thought as to their inherent sensitivities.

I have no trouble seeing a well fed, cared for animal who has had a good life go to market. But I do have a problem with the concept of feedlots--frankly they should be outlawed. I blame John Howard.

Dave Bath said...

While not living on a farm, we always had farm animals in sight, and most of our relatives were on farms (mainly sheep and dairy), and we spent a lot of time on them.

As kids, we were encouraged to kill , hang and defeather chooks to be connected to the process, but not mammals - because we could stuff it up and cause unnecessary suffering.

My attitude now is that I won't eat any species I couldn't kill regularly (apart from mercy-killing, sacrifices in laboratories, or getting rid of vermin). Mammals are off the menu - poultry and fish are on.

Anyway - I've come to dislike the taste of meat anyway - even "mock meat" made from soya.

While at primary school we only made bread (starting with wheat which we had to grind into flour), and perhaps there is an argument that encouraging urban kids to kill and dress chooks for a class meal might give them enough connection to the process to let them make informed decisions about what they eat.