I’ve often thought about the ethical implications of eating animals. I can’t say I’ve struggled with the issue, because whenever I’m presented with a roasted chicken or a sizzling plate of bacon, ethics are the furthest thing from my mind.
Would I kill an animal myself, in order to eat it? Certainly I would, though I’d prefer not to. I’m all for division of labor in this case — so thank you cattlemen and butchers. On the other hand, if left to my own devices in the forest, I’d probably try to sharpen a stick and spear myself a deer to accompany my foraged chanterelles, roasted grubs, and wild greens. As for my chance of success at this imagined endeavor — admittedly slim. But it wouldn’t be zero; I spent a good deal of my free time in junior high developing my spear-throwing skills (not to mention nunchucks and throwing stars). An ancillary skill I developed, related to these activities, was the installation of new windows.
Both sides have some good arguments. No animal wants to be eaten, and many animals show every sign of being conscious creatures with emotions. If you follow this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, then it makes no more sense to kill and eat animals than it does to kill and eat each other (and not just because of the prion issues).
Ethically concerned meat-eaters, on the other hand, might argue that many animals have become much more successful, on a species level, exactly because they are so yummy. Chickens, pigs, and cows excel in this regard (there are more chickens roaming the earth than people). For this group, the question is not so much if we eat animals or not, but how we treat them while they’re alive.
Unfortunately, most animals raised for food in the United States (and most other countries) are treated poorly. This sort of animal abuse is well-documented, as on this site. If you find this kind of treatment of conscious, living creatures to be abhorrent, then you’re probably 1) a vegetarian or 2) a buyer of ethically raised meat whenever possible. Niman Ranch claims to raise their animals humanely, Glaum Egg Ranch doesn’t cage their hens, and hundreds of other producers provide (or claim to provide) their animals with environments that include open pasture, normal socialization with their own kind, and other animal perks that make animal eaters like me feel less guilty. Pretty much all the meat, eggs, and dairy products that I buy falls into this category, but there are definitely some items in the unknown category (like salami).
And when I go to a dinner party, I never quiz the host. I suppose there must some sort of cognitive dissonance going on here. I do care about animal welfare, but even more so, I don’t want to be an obnoxious guest. And when the steaming roast comes out of the oven, I’m not even thinking about the life or last moments of that unfortunate beast. My baser instincts take over — I just wanna eat it.
Does this make me a hypocrite? Probably. I do sometimes feel guilty about eating meat (especially when I’m not hungry). I would have no problem with animals eating me when I’m dead, but surprisingly few animals would want to (vultures, mountain lions, great white sharks, tigers, and hyenas would all happily consume my flesh, but none of the animals I like to eat [sheep, cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, fish, oysters, mussels, octopus, squid, and snails] would have any interest in reciprocating, thus disrupting the potential symmetry).
What about vat-grown pork? This will soon be a viable option. If there’s only pig meat — no pig brain, and therefore no pig consciousness — there can’t really be anything ethically wrong with this approach, can there? Unless you’re Jewish and kosher, I suppose, or Muslim, or hung up on vague nonsense concept like “natural.” In any case, it sounds like the meat turns out a bit soggy, and lacking in muscle tone. I think I’ll stick with Niman Ranch, and tolerate the occasional twinge in my conscience.
What About Health?
The healthfulness of eating or not eating animals, and what kind of animals, and what the animals themselves eat, is a hugely debated, highly divisive topic. At social events, bringing up the topic of what a person should or shouldn’t eat has become a taboo equivalent to bringing up politics or religion. It’s just not done in polite company. Of course I do it all the time (all three) and usually end up regretting it. These topics are simply too personal, too hot to handle.
When one person suggests to another person that they might be better off by changing their diet in some way, what usually happens is kind of an emotional head-on collision. The person giving the advice is thinking “I care about you,” and “I want you to be healthy.” The person receiving the advice is thinking “Do you think I’m so much of an idiot that I don’t know what foods are good for me?” and “You’re a totally obnoxious busybody.”
That dynamic aside, most of us are at least somewhat interested in the health effects of food. Since there are financial interests backing every single food out there, there are no shortage of industry shills and scientists-for-hire presenting evidence that that you should consume their particular food item in large quantities. Dark chocolate is good for your heart, as is red wine. Milk is good for your bones. Meat can prevent anemia. Broccoli can prevent cancer. But much of the information out there is contradictory. There are advocates for all-meat diets and all-vegetable diets. You can even get contradictory advice from the same person. During the time that I was a vegetarian (approximately three years, during high school, which I am now convinced stunted my growth — my evidence for this is my 5’8″ height vs. my 5’11” arm span) I was an evangelical vegetarian, so much so that at my 20 year high school reunion some of my old friends still seemed to be carrying some resentment against my overzealous lectures, those that had occurred two decades previous. These days I believe in the health benefits of a modified paleolithic diet, but I’m a much more cautious advocate. I’ve learned that people don’t like to be lectured, and also that the content of my own advice can change over time (radically, in this case).
Eating whole foods and avoiding processed foods (like high-fructose corn syrup) probably has more impact on a person’s health than whether they do or don’t eat meat. Genetics also has something to do with it — my ancestors co-evolved with cattle and thus I’m capable of producing lactase (which breaks down lactose) as an adult, while some of my friends won’t come near a glass of milk without a package of Lactaid. So what about meat — is it bad for you or not? It’s possible that eating large amounts of red meat (even from grass-fed, humanely raised animals) may raise the risk of some chronic diseases. But if you look at the actual evidence that MEAT = BAD, it’s quite weak. A lot of diet/health research studies are based on self-reported eating habits, which is about as accurate as self-reported incomes on all those subprime loan applications. The evidence that saturated fat is bad for you is even weaker (the latest evidence shows that small dense LDL’s — those that are produced from eating carbohydrates — are much more dangerous than the big fluffy LDL’s that are made from saturated fat).
Michael Pollan, in his book In Defense of Food, warns against “nutritionism,” a dogmatic belief in the value of individual nutrients, or itemized components of food rather than the food itself. He points out, quite correctly, that conventional wisdom about food changes over time, so we should be cautious about food fads. (He would probably call the paleolithic diet a fad as well, but at least it’s a fad backed by several millions years of hominid evolution.)
Bottom line? I’m going to keep voting with my dollars, buying animal products only from suppliers that treat their animals humanely. I may also continue to feel a twinge of regret when I see a cute pot-bellied pig at the zoo, after having eaten bacon for breakfast (or, if I haven’t eaten breakfast, maybe I’ll feel a twinge of hunger).
And if I’m hiking in the Oakland hills and a mountain lion eats me, well, fair is fair.