Thursday, April 5, 2012

For the New York Times: The Ethics of Killing Food...and Killing for Food

I recently read a piece in the New York Times that jokingly lamented the lack of coherent "pro-meat" arguments in the realm of dietary discussions.   The Times asked for responses (in less than 600 words) from meat eaters, and I offer such a response.  First, allow me to complain briefly.  To ask a cohort of people who are vehemently contrary to your beliefs to "agree that you are ethical" is a bit of a red herring.  Prove that using paper is ethical.  Prove that using wireless technology is ethical.  Prove that any human diet is truly ethical, considering that living things must die to sustain us.  Prove that it is ethical to cut down a tree that even one animal  uses. You cannot do so, without reverting to an argument that starts with, "I believe....." or even worse, "well, one is not as bad as the others," a clear indication that purely ethical/unethical solutions to the problem are unusual at best.

The review panel for this contest is assembled of a self-admitted "murderers row" of vegetarian activists who have published book after book on their beliefs about animal rights (no 600 word limit there).  Below is my response to them.  I cannot imagine it will ever see the light of day on the New York Times website, and so I am publishing it here.   If you've also written a response, please leave me a comment and I will edit this post to show a link to your response.  And to those who have written (significantly longer than 600 word) complaints on their own blogs about how this writing challenge is "unfair," I respond: of course it's unfair.  That's a ridiculous reason to not do something.

In most polls of vegan and vegetarian Americans, the overwhelming primary motivation for abstaining from animal products is defined in terms like "ending animal suffering" and "morally oppose killing."  There is no ethical ambiguity in such responses.  Americans who do not eat meat strongly believe that they live a life devoid of killing, devoid of animal suffering. 

The problem with that assumption is that the American vegetarian lifestyle requires complicity with the trapping, shooting, and poisoning of hundreds of thousands of animals every year. It's called farming. Your local co-op, farmers market vendor, and other local veggie heroes manage a delicate balance between natural living and not getting eaten into the poorhouse by deer, rabbits, geese, groundhogs, and a myriad of other hungry critters.   Except on a very small scale, those animals are almost impossible to exclude from agricultural lands, and so they are killed.   Deer, rabbits, and groundhogs are pretty interested in that "product," and they will eat it all, given the opportunity.  This reality obviously requires us to ask ethically ambiguous questions like, "how much killing is okay?" "why?" and "how?",  It's immediately obvious that we're no longer having a discussion about ethics at all.  We're having a discussion about how humans feel about killing animals.  We are discussing a belief system - not an ethical standard.

I believe in having an honest moral accountability for the food I eat.  And three or four times per week, I eat meat.  I'd say that my diet is about 10% - 25% meat.  When I buy or order food, I try to consider my own health, environmental impacts, humane animal treatment, sustainability (i.e. buying tomatoes in January), and who had to work in what conditions to bring me that food.  All that being said, I'm married, have a 2 year old child, and I work two jobs, so I'm not always proud of the food decisions I make under duress, or at 10:30pm when I am crawling home from my second job and there's not an organic market open within 200 miles.   I don't always know where my food comes from - but I do strive to know.

Even worse (you might say), I prefer to kill my own meat, when I have time.  Why?  I highly value the connection to my food.  I value spending time where my food is grown.  Whether the garden, the forest, or the river.  Is this more or less ethical than the vegetarian who falsely pretends that no deer are slaughtered on the local organic farm where he or she sources their food, then falsely claims to the world "my lifestyle harms no animals!"?  Ethics do not have a sliding scale.  Your food choices are responsible for killing animals, or they are not.  In almost every case in America and Canada, your food choices are responsible for killing animals. I can't make that any clearer.

And so, back to ethics.  Being conscious of where your food comes from, and making good decisions based on that, is an ethical thing to do, regardless of how one "feels" about the value of animal life and animals' roles in feeding humans.  We should be sustinained by food and our lives enriched by food.  Eating the national average 171 pounds of meat per year won't get us there.   But "not eating meat," and pretending that our lives are "free of killing" will not get us there either.  It's simply not ethical to pretend it's so.

(end of response)

Can I prove that human reproduction, human life, vegetarian diets, or omnivorous diets are "ethical?"  I suspect not.   Human beings are creatures on this earth.  We yearn to survive.  We eat. We reproduce.  We manipulate (and destroy) the earth to provide more immediately utilizable resources for us.  If you want to eat ethically, grow your own eggs and chickens.  Grow your own grains, greens, and fruit.  Learn what it means to lose a portion of your food to hawks, rats, and a hundred species of seed-eating birds.  Go hungry for a day because the deer ate all of the oats one morning. Learn to hunt or fish.  Learn what it means to take moral responsibility for your food.  But in all of this, I ask just one favor: please don't pretend that your diet is free of animal killing, free of the cruelties of life on earth, and therefore somehow "ethical"  because you refuse to pull back the curtain.

My supermarket - no animals were burned out or bulldozed under to make it a productive place for human food.


Steve Zakur said...

I saw this article on Sunday and just couldn't get my head around the notion. It seems to ask one to ethically justify the very nature one's being.

Man is an omnivore, we're structurally built to hunt - binocular vision and all that - and so we do. And most of us, on account of this large brain, have figured out that consolidating the meat gathering part in the form of ranches and farms makes sense cause getting food shrink wrapped in the supermarket is a whole lot easier than sitting in a tree stand a couple of mornings a week.

I don't have a lot of time for such self examination of my very existence.

Reminds me of the fable of the Scoprion and the Frog; it is my nature. I'm not eating animals cause it's fun , I'm doing it cause it's what I do to survive. I don't have to justify that to someone who uses their large brain to make different decisions.

Fat Boy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fat Boy said...

Sorry, forgot to proof the first one...

Great post RM.

Let me add that for those that impose their morality on others, it's not done out of honor or the betterment of society, it's a highly selfish act with the sole purpose of justifying their own ridiculous standards.

Who gets to decide what morality is, who is moral and on what grounds? Why is it up to the New York Times to be the moderator on such a topic? It's all about power and control of other people. Where is the civility in that?

These same people who claim to represent those who can't speak for themselves, have no problem with gigantic multiuse shopping, corporate, and living development occurs, where their favorite veggie stores are built that's conducive to their lifestyle, where such activities cause so much more harm to wildlife by the mere destruction of habitat.

I could care less if people choose to live that lifestyle. More power to them. But don't impose that on me or my freedom.

e.m.b. said...

Absolutely fantastic piece and response. I have nothing to summed up my thoughts entirely!

Kirk Mantay said...

Steve, I agree. But my personality and notion of basic, pragmatism and logic compelled me to write something about the insanity of believing that any realistic human lifestyle is ethical or unethical. Some are more, some are less...but none pure. We are animals. We try to survive. That has a real impact on animals ...veggie diet or not.

Rabid Outdoorsman said...

Great write Mud. Reminds me of a video I saw featuring Ted Nugent and his rant about Vegetarians feeling they are "immune" to the killing of animals in their daily consumptions.

Mandy_Fish said...

I was a vegetarian for 18 years and I can't comprehend why anyone would try to press their beliefs on anyone else. It was my choice. My body. I didn't care what anyone else did with theirs. It's not in my control so why waste my emotional energy trying to make everyone believe the same way I do? That sounds like madness to me.


Devin Angleberger said...

A couple big words, but I get the jist of it...great post!

Kirk Mantay said...

Thanks for the comments - you guys are your own "murderers row" of people who spend real time outdoors and understand our connection to nature.

Mandy - I believe I have no right to condemn your food choices, or anyone's. To that end, I agree with your shrug. But I will harass proselytizing hypocrites with impunity - whether or not they agree with me. Dumb is dumb. In 2012, there are still such things as "intellectual honesty" and "self reflection." I think that both of them are great things. Thanks for stopping by!!!

Erin, thanks as always for the kind words. They mean a lot coming from you!

Fat Boy - your comment is a pretty good editorial in and of itself!

Devin - you get it more than you know. Sometimes adults act a lot like children. Shouting to the world that your way is 100% true, clean, innocent, and the only way forward is dangerous, and usually disingenuous (another big word for you!).

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