Eating Meat: The Moral Question
This brief discussion of moral questions about eating meat was published on Kimberly Hartke’s blog December 8, 2009, under the title “What to Tell Vegetarians Who Say Eating Meat is Immoral”.
In an online discussion group in which I participate, I recently made some comments about sourcing all my meats either in my backyard or locally, from farmers I know personally, in order to avoid supporting the feeding of antibiotics to the animals I eat. Someone, perhaps a diehard vegan, challenged me regarding the legitimacy of eating meat at all. The following meditation expands on what I replied to her question:
Have you ever killed and butchered an animal so you could eat it? Ever looked into its eyes as it died so you could eat meat? ~JB
My response: Ah, yes, this one is supposed to be the showstopper, isn’t it? I’m supposed to hang my head and admit, that, no, I’ve never killed an animal whose flesh I’m going to eat—I hire that out with the dollar bill I plunk down at the supermarket check-out, but I’d rather not think that shrink-wrapped package has anything to do with a once-living animal. Or I’m supposed to shuffle my feet in embarrassment and admit that, yes, I’ve slaughtered animals, and I’m ashamed of it, because obviously avoiding doing so would be the morally superior thing to do.
So be advised first of all who you’re talking to, friend: I’m a homesteader with chickenshit on his boots and decades of experience putting much of his own food on his table. Yes, I have killed and butchered many animals who have graced my table (couple of thousand fowl of all types, many kid goats, a few lambs, squirrels, and groundhogs). And yes, I always make it a point to look in the eyes of that dying animal—I do not want to hide from the painful tragedy of what I am doing: killing a beautiful animal for food.
And no, I do not cede the moral high ground to anyone who assumes she is more completely avoiding unnecessary suffering of living beings because she does not wield a butcher knife.
Where you and I probably disagree most is this: While no one would claim that the wolf is being immoral when he catches and eats the rabbit, you probably assume that for me, a human being, eating meat is merely an option which I (selfishly) choose by preference—and I could just as easily satisfy my dietary needs with a strictly plant-based diet. Well, I do not see my eating of animals as merely optional. Based on extensive research on the matter, I believe that animal proteins, and especially high quality fats (and the fat-soluble vitamins they either contain or enhance), are essential for optimal health. Thus “kill and eat” is as imperative for me as for the wolf.
It is unfortunate that my vegan friends focus so exclusively (and morbidly?) on the death of the animals in my care. For me, the life those animals live is the crux of the moral issue. Thus I do not shoe-horn my laying hens eight per cage the size of a pet crate, stacked one above the other in long, multiple tiers; nor do I raise my broilers from hatch to slaughter shoulder to shoulder with tens of thousands of their fellows, never seeing the direct light of the sun, nor eating a grasshopper or fresh blade of grass.
And yes, these are moral choices for me. I despise the morally debased system we use to produce most meat in our supermarkets—the CAFO (confined animal feeding operation)—and our reckless disregard of its consequences not only for the welfare of other beings but of our own. (And I do practice what I preach: I have several times had to eat lunch in a local restaurant recently, and I ordered vegetarian fare rather than eat the flesh of animals—pigs, cattle, chickens—who have been shamelessly abused.)
Slitting the throat of a chicken destined for the table is a life necessity for me, but I do so within the context of partnership, gratitude, and respect—as profound, meaningful, and essential as my relationship with the microbes that create soil fertility in my garden, the bees that pollinate my crops, the decomposer organisms that keep my world clean and sweet, rather than a wasteland of putrid corpses. As long as my partnership with my birds is one of mutual support for a life of contentment and natural fulfillment, their nourishment of me is in balance with my nourishment of them.
Though our disagreement is clear, surely we can agree on this proposition: The food dollar we spend—whether at a supermarket, fast-food restaurant, farmer’s market, or CSA—is, first and formost, a vote—for more of the same. In that context, let me return your personal question with one for you: What is the percentage of the food on your table, year round, that you produce yourself, or that you buy face to face from producers you know personally, so you also know how that food was produced, and at what cost to living beings? My estimate is 85 percent for my own table. If you have not a clue where your vegetarian fare was produced, by whom, at what cost to other players in the local ecology, including economically oppressed humans—do not dare presume a moral superiority based on the fact that I do indeed kill animals in my backyard, in the context of a way of food production which is most of all about regeneration, about healing, about ensuring an agricultural base “unto the seventh generation.”
May I recommend Lierre Keith’s The Vegetarian Myth—it is most instructive regarding this thorny question. Keith was a 20-year vegan who came to understand that an agriculture based on both plants and animals is a more compassionate way of producing our food than any other available. That is, in the context of a sane and nurturing husbandry it minimizes the suffering of living beings, considered from broader perspectives than the simple question of whether I am righteously eschewing the killing of animals for food.