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Eat, Pray, Kill: The Basic Brutality of Eating

Is there a soul-cure for the stomachache that comes from eating the body of another sentient creature?
 
 
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The following is reprinted with permission from  Religion Dispatches. You can sign up for their free daily newsletter  here.

Some humans are deeply passionate about their meat. They love it, they gnash their teeth for it. In her 2006 spiritual travelogue,  Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert confessed a kind of affinity with the sensual Tuscan culture of meat. Shop windows in the Italian town, she writes, are loaded with sausages “stuffed like ladies’ legs into provocative stockings” or the “lusty buttocks” of ham. The net effect, she suggests, is the emanation of a “you know you want it” kind of sensuality. Make no mistake. Meat—the flesh of non-human animals—is a force of desire in human life.

But is there an ethical argument in favor of flesh consumption? That is, can a meat-eating human find solid moral ground for her more carnivorous appetites? Is there a soul-cure for the stomachache that comes from eating the body of another sentient creature? Are these questions that the vast storehouses of religious traditions can help us navigate?

In a culture where plates are piled high with the spoils of profligate factory farming, it would seem that the growing surge of vegans and vegetarians have claim to the moral high ground. One might even make the argument that religious vegetarianism is one of the few things that makes modern religions look good. But not everyone is satisfied with this solution. “Ethically speaking, vegetables get all the glory,” Ariel Kaminer  lamented in the  New York Times, playing the role of the paper’s esteemed Ethicist. And so, in an attempt to buck this trend the paper launched an essay contest in March of this year: in search of the ethical argument for meat.

Essays were judged by a star-studded panel that included vocal vegetarians like Peter Singer and Jonathan Safran Foer as well as more cautiously omnivorous foodies such as Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman.  Controversy ensued over the fact that the panel was comprised entirely of men. But, gender issues be damned, results were published in late April.  Six essays made the cut. The final stage was to give  Times readers four days to vote on their personal favorite. Almost 40 percent of voters appeared to favor the ethical argument in favor of in vitro meat. “Aside from accidental roadkill or the fish washed up dead on the shore, it is perhaps the only ethical meat,” essayist Ingrid Newkirk baldly proffered.

If Peas Can Talk...

The argument that stirred me most, however, was one of the lower-scoring essays—earning a mere 10 percent of voter approval. Interestingly, it wasn’t really an argument in favor of meat at all, so much as it was an attempt to dramatize the moral stakes of the practice.

“We would be foolish to deny that there are strong moral considerations against eating meat,” philosophy professor Bob Fischer begins. Eating meat is clearly, from an ethical perspective, “wrong” on several counts. But morality is an ideal, he notes, something we aim for, and fall short of. This makes the moral world “tragic,” as he puts it. Moral work is a tragedy, played out on a cosmic stage. Rather than wallow in remorse, he sees this as reason to be suspicious of “any proposal that would steer us through these complexities too quickly.”

When it comes to the consumption of meat, in other words, our human hands have long been dirty. This isn’t a discouragement to stop striving for the good. But a moral proposal that promises to wash our filthy fingers spotlessly clean—in seconds flat—is suspect. Because they will still be dirty. The pressing moral question, of meat, becomes: given that human hands are obviously soiled, what can be done with these polluted tools?