Confessions of a Recalcitrant Omnivore. Unless you or your family are starving, eat pasta.
The Incontestable Case for Vegetarianism
Confessions of a Recalcitrant Omnivore
First of all, I have to make a few things crystal clear as to "where I'm coming from" as they used to say (and I obviously still do). This essay is not about the health benefits associated with eating a strictly vegetarian diet. For one, I'm not qualified to speak to that side of the issue, which is better left to those far more informed than I, about nutrition and the alleged toxic effects of eating meat. Nor am I equipped with what is no doubt a wealth of data in opposition to a strictly vegetarian lifestyle. So I'll leave all that to the experts to iron out. Or stew over, pun intended.
Nope, my argument is concerned solely with the moral justifications -- and ethical rationalizations both pro and con -- for either willfully refusing to eat meat, or continuing to do so despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Epiphanies are not always life changing, although some would argue that if one's life is not altered in some dramatic fashion, then one didn't experience an authentic event. It is with great regret and sorrow, however, that I never turned to vegetarianism at a time when I learned better -- and subsequently knew better. In this respect, my life has not been the same since, and the guilt that has always haunted me -- albeit in the form of a mild depression -- is both easily denied and habitually dismissed.
Furthermore, the matter of choice is critical to this discussion. No rational person would suggest that a starving human in desperate need of food should avoid killing and eating an animal -- any animal -- because doing so would somehow violate their vegetarian principles. The old saying about "principles be damned" would certainly apply in such an instance. So no one is more in favor than I, that when it comes to matters of survival, all bets are off.
Again with respect to choices, one's decision to be a vegan as opposed to a typical vegetarian is a matter of preference based on very personal, sometimes very private reasons. Veganism is the more austere or militant form of vegetarianism whereby not only do vegans not eat meat of any kind, but neither do they (as much as possible) use any products (including a wide variety of other foods) that are derived from animals. For the purposes of this essay, however, the focus is primarily on the breeding, imprisonment, and slaughtering of animals as mass-marketed food items.
In an earlier essay, I addressed the immorality of sport hunting for fun and pleasure, so I won't dwell any further on that particular aspect of things. Having dispensed with any and all nutritional or health considerations, we are thus left with an examination of the topic in question purely from the standpoint of both moral and ethical assessments.
1. The philosophical (secular) study of moral values and rules.
2. Cultural/Societal beliefs and behaviors based on commonly accepted ideas of right and wrong.
3. Standards of principle and decency as prescribed by concepts of morality.
1. Motivation based on philosophical or religious ideas of good and evil.
2. Standards of principle and decency based on one's philosophical or religious beliefs.
3. Virtues and rules of behavior at the societal/cultural level.
As concerns all vegetarians who make their choice based on other-than-health-related-issues, the definitions listed above play a role in their decision, regardless of whether a person thinks of things in the exact manner as I've outlined (and defined). Sometimes a vegetarian lifestyle is the result of both health concerns and moral convictions. I'm more interested, however, in one's unshakable belief that the wholesale harvesting of almost any animal life as "food" is -- by definition -- immoral and unethical. And it is only such convictions with which this essay is designed to deconstruct and subsequently validate. All of this coming from yours truly, a hopelessly addicted omnivore who nonetheless confesses to leading an admittedly sinful life -- but especially as regards my dietary choices.
Unfortunately the subject is not a laughing matter. I find no humor in this topic whatsoever, which represents the second of my two greatest regrets as a human being who briefly occupied planet Earth. The first is that I did so little to help the less fortunate around me. Both at the neighborhood level, but on a global scale as well. Granted the latter was far more limiting than the former. I should have done more and could have, but chose not to. I exercised a thousand excuses to avoid a single humanitarian task. Which was never a task at all, but should have been thought of as a privilege. Secondly was my lazy and lame refusal to stop eating the flesh of once-living animals. Creatures that not only possessed an autonomous sovereignty of being, of spirit, but could just as easily have been someone's personal pet or pal. Who could just as easily have been my own companion.
In the closing scene of the sci-fi movie, Soylent Green, Charlton Heston -- while being carried off by the police -- shouts out, "Soylent Green is made from people!" Once converted, a true vegetarian might well want to shout out with equal outrage and indignation that steaks and burgers are made from animals. And a hundred other products not so easily recognized. Most people probably already figured out that fish is fish. But even then, the minor joke is not that much of a stretch. In many ways similar to the aforementioned film where a cookie, so innocent in its appearance, was derived from the most sinister of sources, so is it much the same today where a hot dog bears little resemblance to a dog, let alone the pig, cow, or both from which it was derived. Palatability plays such a vital role in American society, that food producers go to great lengths to disassociate as much as possible, what we eat from who we eat. And this is obviously done for good reasons.
Not that human and animal rights are directly comparable, I think it's fair to say that when slavery was legal, many if not most people knew, deep down in their heart of hearts, that the practice of humans owning other humans was cruel at best, and morally reprehensible at worst. I think lots of folks also instinctively sense that killing animals for burgers, hot dogs, and chops is also a great wrong. But we've all sort of fallen into a trap of traditionality where that which would otherwise be considered extraordinarily grotesque has, over the decades of our youth and adult years, become so commonplace that the situation is rarely even questioned. Beyond the activist groups who do so. And those who choose vegetarianism as a matter of conscience.
Unfortunately most religious faiths are concerned solely with human affairs where the role of animals, and considerations of their welfare, occupy rungs low on the ladder of important priorities. In religion, the distinction between humans and animals is so clearly defined, meaning animals are little more than a different kind of plant life, that the question of rights, responsibilities, and privileges as relates to animals is not even up for discussion. Such things are generally reserved for people and only people. Otherwise too little would separate the two and the idea that animals don't go to Heaven might seem unthinkable. Try telling a dog or cat lover (even those who are religious) that there's no place in Heaven for their little friend, and few will accede to such a disturbing proposition.
Thus in general terms, "animal rights" as many of us like to think of them, come to the discussion from positions of a philosophical, ethical nature, rather than religious sensitivity. Regardless of how one defines the exact abuses animals suffer that results in one's personal discomfiture, whether it's the harpooning of whales or the crowded confinement of chickens, the brutal treatment of cattle or pigs and their subsequent slaughter, the decision to eat vegetarian is rarely an expression of overt activism.
"If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." While Eldridge Cleaver is often cited as having coined this phrase in a 1968 speech, Charles Rosner, a famous advertiser and marketeer from the 60s through the 90s, actually wrote what has become the mantra for any number of causes. He wrote the words for VISTA as a recruitment slogan in 1967. I mention this bit of history because it so aptly describes the passive, righteous resignation of most vegetarians. If one can have little or no impact on a massively entrenched industry of meat consumption, with no hope whatsoever of changing the status quo, then the least that we can do is refuse our participation in, contribution to, and perpetuation of, systematized evil on a scale second only to human genocide. And given that humans often and unhesitatingly consume animals to the point of extinction, such a comparison is not much of an exaggeration.
In this context it is not necessary for me to spew forth a diatribe of accusations and condemnations of the meat processing industry. It's not my intention to launch into a litany of graphic, horrific examples that typify the animal abuses to which this essay alludes. Those who know, don't need my personal reminders, and for those who remain unaware if not oblivious to the abysmal conditions and treatment of our "fellow travelers", probably no amount of facts will matter. Either such information will be ignored or simply dismissed as untrue. And when presented with photographic evidence? I don't -- I can't -- look at it.
Two final points need to be addressed. The first concerns itself with the absurd schizophrenic approach that Americans make when it comes to which animals are deemed suitable for consumption as food, and those who are perceived as adorable, loving, often lifelong friends -- often regarded more as children than beasts. It should be noted that the neurosis ( if not psychosis) involved is not exclusive to American culture by any means, but represents a phenomenon shared globally. Although the United States is probably more manic and illogical in this regard, than most other countries.
I apologize beforehand for the following, awkward comparison, but the analogy seems unavoidably apropos: which animals are kept as pets and which go to the slaughterhouse is frighteningly reminiscent of when, during the Holocaust, the Nazis decided which prisoners would live and who would die. The comparison stops there as it should, but for real animal lovers, I can't help but think the similarities are, in their own way, eerily analogous.
While it's true that from a historical perspective, every culture develops its own rationale for which animals are revered and which are eaten, the haphazard results possess no real rhyme or reason. The system is chaotic, random, and utterly illogical. Especially in westernized countries. It is also true that in some cultures, the same animals are both admired, kept as pets, and still eaten as food. Even in the U.S., 4-h club members raise cows with loving kindness, only to sell them to the highest bidder either as meat-on-the-hoof or as breeding stock. The whole matter is nonsensical and borderline psychotic in nature. I think the truth of this is well known and well understood -- so much so that it is rarely if ever talked about. As a consequence, the underlying guilt and denial that most of us carry around as one of those "unmentionable" topics may well have implications far deeper than touched upon in this all-too-brief an overview.
So powerful and effective is our ability to justify, rationalize, and live in a quagmire of "denial", that despite my extensive knowledge of the subject under review, I continue to eat meat and will likely do so the rest of my life. I make no excuses. It is a profound weakness of character on my part for which I feel ashamed yet strangely unrepentant. Speaking out in this minor essay is my pitifully small way, I suppose, of apologizing for what I consider are misdeeds and maybe -- just maybe -- causing someone stronger than I am, to reconsider their dietary choices.
This topic would be incomplete without a brief acknowledgement of how the American Indians are reputed to have "thanked" the animals they killed, for providing the Indians with much needed -- and appreciated -- nourishment and all manner of other utilitarian gifts. I think such gratitude was extended to trees and other things as well, but suffice it to say that native Americans didn't take their food for granted. Rather it was apparently partaken with religious reverence. Modern Americans have deviated far from such insightful attitudes and thinking. Most kids today who eat a fast-food burger rarely, if ever, give a single thought to where that meat in their sandwich came from. I can hardly look at a fried chicken leg anymore and not picture the living, breathing, feathery creature to whom it once belonged. A small being I might just as easily have held to my chest as the dearest of friends. A maudlin, mawkish thought to be sure, but one with which untold numbers would mutually commiserate.
Two last points deserve mention before this essay can be concluded once and for all. The first is that I want it understood that human life trumps animal life every time. Although I have to make this pronouncement in the most general of terms, it is meant to be distinguished from other philosophies and beliefs proffered by activist organizations who are wont to argue that animals possess innate rights similar if not equal to those of human beings. Not only do I not share in such thinking, but believe it to be entirely false and indefensible. Just so you know.
My final comment harkens back to an earlier essay entitled The Involuntary Guest. This particular essay deals with the notion that all of us are guests on planet Earth, that no part of it is our personal possession (except our own bodies) and that we necessarily owe the same courtesy and respect to everyone and everything accordingly. In the composition, I make brief mention of our role and responsibilities with respect to animals, and I think my observations are appropriately repeated here. Which is to say that nothing in this world belongs to us. Nothing but our autonomy, our own skin. And even that can be debated, but I won't. While I state it in jest, the law that says "Thou shalt not slay the king's deer" is not without significant relevance.
No single blade of grass, not a solitary pebble nor grain of sand is something to which we can claim (or prove) ownership. There is no moral or ethical basis that permits or allows or grants any person to harm or destroy, in any way, anything that is not their personal possession. It is as if we are all guests who find ourselves living in a place that is not of our making, our doing, and must be presumed as being the property of someone unknown. That being the case, the rules of conduct and behavior -- as guests -- are clear and unambiguous. This is particularly relevant and true as concerns our relationships with the other living things that (who) inhabit the planet. Note I did not say "our" planet. There are also many exceptions, of course, when rules might be legitimately overlooked or broken altogether. The survival of oneself, especially of one's family are certainly the most obvious. So it is only in the most general of terms that the guest principles should guide us, but even then, their applications are numerous and meaningful.
The fact that I have seen evidence enough to convince me that the manner in which we manage animals as a food resource is cruel, savage, and barbaric, prompts me to encourage anyone who's willing, to seriously reconsider their consumption of meat. And become a vegetarian if at all possible. Even fisheries are not without their problems and I would reluctantly advise against eating commercially caught fish as well. Porpoises tangled in fishing nets was enough for me.
To sum up, the current methods employed in the handling, accommodating, slaughtering and rendering of animals violates every conceivable (and conscionable) act of minimal decency required of a guest. And since the foregoing is true on a near epic, epochal scale of both misconduct and mistreatment, vegetarianism should be considered less as a lifestyle choice, and more as a salvation of one's sanity.
You may have noticed how I failed to bring bugs and plants into the discussion. That was not an oversight on my part, but rather a topic deserving of its own little essay which I hope to get to one day. Suffice it to say that for me, bugs are God's little computers who function on extremely basic albeit sophisticated levels of both autonomy and mutual cooperation. I do not believe bugs or insects suffer pain, but I can't prove it. I just strongly suspect it's true.
Plants on the other leaf, are so different a life form from animals, including bugs, as to be something outside the very definition of "life" itself. I think plants are somewhere in the middle between a rock and a cricket, but like I said, that commentary is definitely for another day and time. Thanks for listening.