Sunday, May 06, 2012

Omnivores?

Today, the New York Times Magazine published the winning essay in their Ethicist contest for the ethical justification of eating meat. As expected, it is lame.

And in a strange fit, the Times “Public Editor”, Arthur Brisbane, decries the contest for making meat-eaters uncomfortable (which strongly suggests that the ethics of meat eating is indeed elusive).

He cites, apparently as reasonable critique, a blog post by Lisa Henderson, a sophomore at Kansas State University, on the Pork Network: “I believe that humans are omnivores and that meat provides protein and other things that are essential for health. Animals utilize the grass. Animals help us utilize more of the earth. I am not anti-vegetarian, but they seem to be anti-meat, and they seem to want to take that choice away from me.”

The omnivore argument actually justifies a vegetarian diet, because, especially since the invention of cooking, humans can thrive in a large variety of environments without meat. Furthermore, while meat-eaters insist that the imperative of being omnivorous drives their eating habits, they are not in fact omnivorous. Do they eat other humans? Do they (at least the majority in the U.S.) eat horses and dogs? The fact is, they too make ethical and cultural decisions about their diet and do just fine.

It is also telling that meat-eaters always feel threatened by the mere existence of a vegetarian diet. That response suggests that the only justification is indeed cultural in that vegetarians are seen as apostates or traitors.

Brisbane then solicits a comment from Calvin Trillin, which again he cites as apparently meaningful: “If they had a chance, they would eat us.”

Those vicious cows and chickens: terrorists in our midst!

Finally, Brisbane had also noted evocations by animal experimenter Linda Cork of life on the Arctic tundra and arid plains, where she sees fishing and herding to be essential to survival. But that only underscores that animal flesh is not essential to survival in Stanford, California. (Science researchers like Cork, for all their avowed objectivity, generally sugarcoat the fate of their victims as "sacrifice".)

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So to the winning essay, by former vegetarian Jay Bost, who, like Linda Cork, apparently saw that life in the Arizona desert would be difficult without eating animals and that therefore it’s OK to eat them in North Carolina and Hawaii, too.

In what Brisbane derides as “awfully complicated”, Bost lays down three conditions (not necessity, not imperative) to feel OK about eating the corpses of other animals: 1) accept that death begets life, that all life is just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form; 2) invoke compassion to choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain, and/or meat; 3) give thanks.

Bost defines “ethical” as “living in the most ecologically benign way”. He compares boutique organic beef to monoculture/pesticide agriculture and — quel surprise! — concludes that not eating meat may be unethical. He compares the “best” situation on one side (we're not even getting into the horrors of "organic" dairy) to the worst situation on the other. Of course, meat eaters also eat plants, since healthy life without plants is a lot more unlikely than life without meat. They are implicated in both sides.

But let us consider cannibalism again. Since the greatest burden on the earth’s ecology is in fact the burgeoning human population, why wouldn’t it be ethical, by Bost’s definition, to eat other humans? In fact, one might conclude from his argument that not eating humans may be unethical. After all, if grazing animals help the land, it would be unethical to kill them. Whereas the Gospel of John in the Christian testament notes at 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son”. In the ritual of the eucharist (i.e., “thanks”, Bost’s final condition), believers consume the flesh of Jesus (”just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form”), not a sheep or chicken.

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Which leads me to my own (unsent) entry, imagining the only possible ethical argument, namely, the circular one of religion:

Meat: An Ethical Imperative

In the Book of Genesis, Cain slew Abel, because Abel was a meat-eater and thereby found greater favor with G-D. Having distanced himself from the ways of G-D by foregoing meat, Cain’s ethics had deteriorated to the point that his envy turned to murder. After that, he kept to cities, where a greater variety of sin is possible. But as the mark of his crime faded, his envy rose again, and so today urban vegetarians righteously condemn the diet that has sustained humans for millenia. They denounce meat-eaters as cruel, but instead of being cruel to animals, vegetarians must be cruel to other humans, just as Cain was toward Abel.

Violence and murder are a part of the human psyche. If we don’t regularly kill animals — respectfully, gratefully incorporating their spirits into our own — we end up killing other humans, even loved ones, as Cain killed his own brother. To advocate a vegetarian diet is ultimately to advocate murder. To eat humanely raised and slaughtered animals is to promote peace among men, which is why sacrificial meals are at the core of every religion and community.

As the essential bond of society, shared murder is its ethical basis.

To maintain civilization, if we are to avoid human sacrifice, the crime of Cain, we must slay animals and, to honor them as worthy gifts to the gods, eat them.

In choosing a nonviolent diet, vegetarians deny that ethical necessity. In continuing to eat meat, even to our own and the planet’s harm, we recognize the necessary sacrifice that ethical living demands. We must bear the burden of Cain by emulating Abel.


—o—

Update, April 7, 2013:  Chris Grattan of Brockport, N.Y., writes: “In paleolithic hunting cultures, the rites connected with the killing of game were oriented toward an expression of gratitude to the animal for having given its life and the belief that its spirit would return in another body. In neolithic horticultural and agricultural societies the rites to promote the fecundity of the land were often gruesomely bloody, often in the form of human sacrifice. I try to keep this in mind when being subjected to vegetarian sanctimony.”

Get thee behind me Cain, ye ferking vegetarian!

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But, back in reality, as omnivores we can choose what we eat. For most people most of the time, there is no need to eat animals. To choose to eat animals is to choose killing and suffering, and ethical justification for that choice — when it is a choice — is impossible.

As I have quipped before, meat-eaters claim to be omnivores, but they can’t swallow the truth.

environment, environmentalism, human rights, animal rights, vegetarianism, anarchism, ecoanarchism