Readers Write: Eating Meat, Mindfully
Matthew Miller's article of Nov. 30, Eating Meat, Mindfully, spawned a colorful, insightful and, at times, heated debate among AlterNet readers about the ethics of eating meat.
Passionate responses to Miller's advocacy of the consumption of free-range, locally raised meat covered a range of topics -- from revolutionary land reform to eating "crunchy little toes" -- throughout the 200-plus user comments.
One of the early disputes brought up by readers was the question of whether there is such a thing as a "mindful" way to eat meat when it is, by many accounts, immoral, unnecessary and wasteful. Keith began, "Mindfully. Well as long as that's the most important criterion, I guess we can do just about anything. I mean, hey, what's Thanksgiving without a baby, crunchy little toes and all?"
Doubtom believes morality shouldn't factor into eating. "Only because of man's monstrous ego does he think he can or should rise above his station as an animal. He introduces artificial constraints called morals and hopes that this will miraculously change the order of nature. He is also silly and pretentious."
Ilbertine, quoting poet Robert Burns, challenges that it is precisely humans' ability for reflection and self-restraint that obligates us to follow moral standards: "The eagle from his cliffy brow/ Marking out his prey below/ In his breast no pity dwells/ Strong necessity compels/ But man to whom alone is given/ A ray direct from pitying heaven/ Glories in his heart humane/ And creatures for his pleasure slain.' Ilbertine goes on: "The carnivores must kill or die -- we DON'T. We are uniquely capable of reflecting morally on our practices."
But Mysticpal wonders, if morality is the principal rationale of vegetarianism, then how do vegetarians account for the moral contradictions inherent in almost all food production? "Ever stop to think how many billions of insects died in the production of the rice, grain, fruit and vegetables you alone have eaten in the past few years? Even if it was all organic (unlikely), the plowing, weeding, harvesting, etc. Insects feel pain too."
To counter this point, Mav argued that the inevitability of some sort of transgression does not justify discarding one's ethics altogether. "Of course no one can live completely cruelty free, but we should all of course try to live [as] cruelty free as possible. Just because you can't save all the kids in a burning nursery doesn't mean you should just walk away."
Still, fellow vegetarian Lydia Cypher argues that it's setting the veggie movement behind to focus only on morality as a justification: "Vegetarian advocates need to get real about the history of life on earth, which has clearly evolved along omnivorous [sic] lines, instead of dreaming of a utopian ideal that just is not true, no matter how much you want it to be. Do I care about the lives of animals used for food? Absolutely! But we'll make a lot more progress in promoting vegetarianism with intelligent discussion and delicious, readily-available vegetarian cuisine than with rude, disrespectful, sarcastic attacks on meat eaters."
Reader Keith feels that many meat eaters are not just immoral, but hypocritical. "It's amusing to me that, at the end of movies, they assure us that 'no animals were harmed in the production,' so everyone can feel warm and fuzzy as they file out on their way to McDonald's. Or when a bunch of people were protesting horse abattoir, furious that somebody was butchering horses, but somehow feeling cows were different."
But Doubtom insists that man is an animal -- therefore, eating meat is natural: "The sharp pointy [teeth] are called canines. Their purpose is for tearing into meat, and if nothing else, they should remind you of your close ties to the animal world, where eating each other is considered routine as well as inevitable." Similarly, Taxidave challenges: "Take a trip to the Serengeti and tell a few lions to 'put down that antelope, you don't have to eat it.'"
Satyagirl had this retort for the "nature" justification: "I don't know what your canine teeth look like, but mine aren't all that sharp. Compare any human canine tooth to a carnivorous animal, and you'll see a huge difference. Also, grab your chin and see if it moves from side to side. Only herbivores in nature have the ability to move their jaw from side to side. Carnivores can only chomp up and down. Another thing is, we have a very long intestinal tract that is designed for processing plants. Meat begins to rot immediately, and that is why carnivores have very short intestines, since the food must be digested quickly."
Beyond morality and nature, Crusty adds that eating habits are largely cultural: "Meat has been part of many cultures for thousands of years. Try telling an Italian you are going to take away their proscicutto di parma. Food is not just an environmental issue here." And even though Bajensis "grew up on a farm and used to run to the woods on butchering day," cultural forces contribute to people's desire to eat meat. Therefore, she argues, "There are more humane ways to raise and slaughter animals for human consumption, since most people do insist on eating meat."
But is free-range meat really more ethical? Alison Tristend points out: "'Free-range' doesn't always imply that the animal came from humane conditions, it merely means that the animal had some access to the outdoors, even if it's just a doorway leading out to a small muddy yard crowded with other animals. Remember, "free-range" does not always equal "cruelty-free."
Ilibertine concurs: "If you sleep well at night [because] you eat meat raised humanely, I suggest you observe those animals being loaded, transported, unloaded, and accompany them into the slaughterhouse. And if you think what you see is fine, then I'm afraid you're a psychopath anyway, which might explain a lot."
Some argued that the importance of free will in itself justifies meat eating. Jayzer contends, "Actually, the justification for meat eating (or not) is because we like to and because we can. Life feeds on life and don't kid yourself: There are plenty of predatory critters who, given the chance, would eat you or me. If you don't want to eat meat, fine -- don't. That leaves more for the rest of us."
Crusty agrees: "You want to eat rocks? Go ahead. Veggies only? Fine. Don't rain on my parade, and I wont rain on yours." Gentlemoose rebuts that free will is more of an economic indicator of affluence than a social one. "It's a choice people privileged enough to be able to afford to *buy* or otherwise procure their meat get to make. Food banks, when they exist at all, hand out loaves of bread, not prime rib."
Jayzer had this response: "The issues of poverty and choice are definitely worth exploring in their political context, and the solutions to such problems should not involve the constriction of choice, but their expansion." Gentlemoose found a sound defense of vegetarianism in the critical social issue of energy efficiency: "The net cost of production of plant-based food versus animal-based food is fractional in economic, environmental and societal terms. The raw inefficiency of raising a pound of beef versus raising a pound of grain begs the question, why eat meat at all?"
Kneel agrees: "Cows and sheep are environmentally destructive even on the open range, from the way [they] graze to the way [they] visit streams. Applies even if they're raised by a hippie playing a mandolin to them as they range over 10,000 square miles before you cut 'em up."
Regardless of whether AlterNet readers ultimately agreed with Miller, his piece was successful at provoking a lively discussion. Thanks to all who contributed.