Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Abyss

An oped in today's New York Times makes three pieces in the paper in the last week plumbing the moral pros and cons of eating meat. The other two are here and here. All gave voice to the question of whether raising animals to slaughter and eat is morally defensible.

In today's piece Bucknell University Professor Gary Steiner, a longtime vegan, makes an extended and impassioned argument for veganism. Eating animals and using products derived from them is morally indefensible.

"Yes, there are animal welfare laws," he writes. "But those laws have been formulated by and are enforced by by people who proceed from the proposition that animals are fundamentally inferior to human beings."

They aren't? The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Bill of Rights and quantum mechanics are equivalent to a pig rooting in mud?

When people cite what they see as the immorality of using animal products, I think of two things: my parents and the Third World.

My mother grew up on a subsistence farm during The Depression. They had enough to eat, but only just. Without the chickens and the runt pig my grandmother got from a farmer and the occasional pheasant (what they ate for Thanksgiving), they would have starved.

Same goes for my father, who grew up in Germany during World War Two and experienced if not outright hunger, certainly something close to it. To this day, he tells how he and his brother would literally lick their plates after meals and how he loved the Air Force because he got three squares a day. He and my family fought for every scrap, every morsel and would have literally walked a mile for extra animal protein.

And then there were the bony, hollow-eyed street urchins I saw years ago on the streets of Manila. Put a platter of meat, fish and fowl before them, and they would have devoured it. Same for the Filipino family that on the same trip invited my friend and me to their home, a simple shack, the walls decorated with pictures from magazines, for a chicken dinner (the best-tasting chicken I ever ate). They were making it, but just barely. Should they have freed their chickens, which would have been quickly killed and consumed by predators, and tried to live on bananas and rice?

It seems to me that these arguments expose a fundamental and often problematic strain in the American psyche: Puritanism. All Americans, from the most macho, meat-eating Texan, to the most liberal vegan New Englander, are puritans. They share John Winthrop's vision of America as a City upon a Hill, a Zion that strives to be a beacon to the world. That vision was originally religious and still is for many. But Puritanism was along ago secularized and embedded in America's DNA. Non-religious visions of America as a Perfect Society can be just as militant, idealized and -- yes, unrealistic -- as religious ones.

This strain in the American psyche seems to be growing more powerful. Witness the Tea Partiers, as well as the growth of extreme diets and alternative spirituality of the type that recently killed two people in Arizona. Tough economic times, I suspect, cause people to go to ground, which in America often means a fervent, religious or semi-religious belief in "fundamental" truths that promise deliverance, but often blur reality and hinder practical solutions.

Even Professor Steiner acknowledges that taking veganism to its extreme (he says he recently discovered that the soothing aloe strip on razor blades contains animal products) can lead you to an abyss.

I see this particular abyss as man made. For our ancestors, as well as most of the world which either gets not or just enough food, it does not exist.

Certainly, I respect the choices people make regarding their diet. It's an intensely personal decision, as it should be. I will choose to pass the turkey.


  1. Hey Chris, I couldn't agree more about extremism and evangelism, dietary or otherwise. But I don't believe our dietary choices are merely personal and affect us only. Because we feel entitled to eat cheap meat, animals, people, and the planet all suffer. Check out this piece in the Washington post:

  2. Sorry the link didn't work, here it is again:

  3. In resposne to the WP article: sobering statistics indeed. You can make a better case environmentally than morally for being vegetarian. However, you will never get even a substantial minority of people to do this. People love meat. You can neither outlaw it nor persuade most people to give it up. And as long as millions of people continue to eat meat, the agribusiness machinery to produce it will exist; what you or I or even thousands of people do won't really matter in a practical sense, except to assuage one's own conscience. You can, however, make it less desirable by jacking up the price by removing subsidies. Most people will happily kill themselves with bad food, cigarettes, etc., as long as they can afford to do so. Should we keep working to make meat production as green and humane as possible? Absolutely. Should we abstain from some types of meat like veal or non-free-range chicken? A personal choice (I don't eat veal but do eat everything else). Should we expect most or all people to go veggie? Don't hold your breath.

  4. Eleanor, I agree that our dietary choices have broader consequences. Eating less processed food, eating local and organic when practical and affordable are all good things. But they're also more expensive. Pushing for change is vital, but I agree with Yak that we need to be practical and realistic. Most people are never going to give up meat. Most will be reluctant to pay more for food. I'm not sure what the solution is, but it seems to me that diets the vast majority of Americans would never follow is not one of them.