Confessions of a Recovering Meat Eater

Humanitie, the quarterly publication of the Humanist Society of Scotland, is out now. In it is my second column, included below. Visit the Not Quite So Friendly Humanist for the twin column. (Confession: I cadged my title from his. It was too good not to.)

I’m a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat because I don’t want to cause the deaths of sentient beings. I cannot justify killing them (or paying someone else to kill them) just for my pleasure or convenience. It is a decision based on deeply-held values, and one I try to stick to despite frequent temptations. It is also, I think, a natural consequence of humanist philosophy – indeed, an essay by humanist philosopher A.C. Grayling was the catalyst for my shift to vegetarianism this past February.*

Having grown up omnivorous, it has been difficult to become vegetarian. Despite the strong rational and compassionate argument for vegetarianism, the habits and tastes of thirty years cannot easily be set aside. I miss the taste of meat: steaks, fish suppers, roast beef sandwiches. It is against this non-rational urging that my ethical decision always fights. I am happy to say that my daughter will not have that struggle: deciding between a vegetarian or an omnivorous diet, she will not be distracted by the irrational influence of habit and custom.

I’ve had a wide range of reactions since becoming vegetarian: indifference, curiosity, even encouragement and support. Mostly indifference, though. It’s no more an issue to most people than declaring a taste for Thai food. But for some people, my vegetarianism is not so easy to accept.

For example, my parents have told me that, by calling my choice an “ethical” one, I imply that their choice is an unethical one. Not only that, my dad raises beef cattle – so my choice also implicitly condemns his work.

I want to be clear: I do not condemn people who choose to include meat in their diet. Eating meat does not mean they are less ethical. Am I being hypocritical, holding myself to one standard and others to a different one?

No. Humanist ethics need not polarize the world of choice into right and wrong, good and bad. Human understanding is imperfect and provisional; this inherent humility of humanism means that I do not set up every personal choice as absolute and universal.

We are a somewhat smarter type of ape, using our ape senses and our ape reasoning to construct meaning and purpose in a confusing and ambiguous world. This ambiguity requires us to be flexible and accommodating of the various ways that people infuse the world with value.

I encourage everyone to think about our kinship with other animals. Consider carefully whether the value of their lives is so small as to be outweighed by the comfort of our habits, or by the slightly greater convenience of constructing an adequate diet with meat.

Think about it, and try to be true to your convictions. Whatever they are. That’s all I ask.

* “Speciesism”, from The Meaning of Things

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9 Responses to “Confessions of a Recovering Meat Eater”

  1. Tim Maguire, Humanist Celebrant Says:

    I enjoyed your piece very much, TimAs a omnivore, I’m not quite of the mind of Dennis Leary who says “vegetables are what food eats’, but I do think that the british approach to vegetarianism (conscience before flavour) could learn a great deal from other cultures, like the Indian sub-continent and Asia Minor where vegetables are considered to be delicious and are cooked and presented as things to be enjoyed in their own right.I like to eat meat as well, but as far as possible I eat game – wild birds and animals that haven’t been farmed and have had a free and independent life until the moment of their death. Rabbit, hare and venison are healthy and delicious; wood-pigeon, wild duck, pheasant and partridge are much cheaper than chicken and a lot tastier too. Farmers are particularly grateful to anyone who eats wood-pigeon as they are insatiable eaters of grain, so you could argue that you’re performing a public service by doing so.As you live in Edinburgh, you might want to visit George Bower, the game dealer and butcher at 75 Raeburn Place, Stockbridge 0131 332 3469 where you can find all of these birds of the air and beasts of the earth at the appropriate time of year.There’s a nice piece about them in the Scotsman here http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/scotland/Local–butcher-is-stilla.3857595.jp

  2. notsofriendlyhumanist Says:

    I wouldn’t mind opening the discussion into bringing children up vegetarian. I agree that eating meat should be a positive choice (ie morally speaking, vegetarianism should be seen as the ‘default’ position), but I’ve been told by people brought up vegetarian that they now have a physical inability to eat meat, they can’t digest it or something and it makes them ill. I don’t know how true that is scientifically speaking, but if it is, does that not leave someone brought up vegetarian with no choice? Whereas an omnivore does have a choice (although tainted by habit).I think one day I probably will become a vegan, but my moral sensibility isn’t nagging at me enough yet.

  3. Steelman Says:

    Hello, Timothy. Regular reader, appreciate your blog, but I’d like to challenge you on this post.”For example, my parents have told me that, by calling my choice an ‘ethical’ one, I imply that their choice is an unethical one.”I think that is, indeed, what you’re implying, unless you don’t take ethics (at least in this case) to be universally applicable. In which case the “ethics” of food choice are merely preferences without moral import, no?I don’t see how you can say vegetarianism is in any way a moral choice if its opposite is not immoral. Eating meat, from the ethical vegetarian’s point of view, doesn’t necessarily have to be considered a high crime, but it has to be considered actually wrong, doesn’t it?Your position sounds like cultural relativism: It’s wrong for me to force my ethics on others, but somehow right for others to engage in behavior I consider immoral, and wrong for me to condemn their behavior.I don’t think humanists need to fall into the trap of absolutist dogma to take a stand on issues of right and wrong. They do have to take a stand, though, but using evidence and well reasoned arguments, rather than ancient holy books, as their tools.

  4. Steelman Says:

    Your position sounds like cultural relativism…Should be: “Your position sounds like moral relativism…”Although I suppose one could make a case for vegetarian culture vs. “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner” culture. 🙂

  5. Timothy Mills Says:

    Wow, such action despite my long absence (on which more soon).Tim, thanks for your thoughts on eating game. As Mike points out in his article, there are plenty of ethical choices around eating meat besides whether to do it at all. My own primary reason for not eating meat precludes game as much as farmed animals, but I do recognize that the difference between the two is important.Mike, I have been told by two friends about people not being able to digest meat if raised vegetarian. I tried to look it up: if true, it would raise a dilemma. Is our choice to be vegetarian removing Kaia’s choice later on? I found nothing online to back up the claim, and the friends who mentioned it gave no references ;). As I understand it, meat foods tend to be easier to digest than non-meat foods, so the claim seems suspect to me. If you or your friends have any evidence for that claim, please let me know.Steelman, glad to hear from you. And I’m glad you challenged me on the relativism thing. I’m not 100% sure I’ve got this thing nailed down (I’m no professional philosopher), so I need you folks to reveal all of my loose floorboards. Here is another way of looking at ethical relativism:I think the ancient Greeks had something valuable in the idea of ethics encompassing “eudaimonia” – normally translated as “happiness”, but apparently closer to “flourishing”. (I think this was Epicurus.) Now, for me to flourish, I need to be studying something. Hence my career as a scientist. For my dad to flourish, on the other hand, he needs to create things. Hence his farming. For him to be a scientist and not a farmer would diminish his flourishing, and hence be unethical in the deeper sense, although one cannot formulate a universal ethical law that not-farming is wrong. For me to be a farmer and not a scientist would be a disaster in many ways, and so also be unethical. A single underlying principle leads to opposite behaviours being ethically required.Does this generalize to vegetarianism? Somewhat – in that we all have different temperamental tolerances for varying (or profoundly altering) our diets. But the main point of what I’m saying is that moral relativism on what you might call secondary ethical choices is entirely appropriate.I have more thoughts, but in an attempt to keep my comments shorter than the original post (and not scare off any other potential commenters), I’ll stop here for now.

  6. Steelman Says:

    Hi, Tim. I’m obviously no professional philosopher myself, although I’d gladly accept donations for my amateur ramblings!You said: “For my dad to flourish, on the other hand, he needs to create things. Hence his farming.”Two things, here.1. I’ve never considered farming a creative activity, more like hard manual labor, but I’ll take your word for it.2. I think you’re setting up a false dichotomy here: Either your farther farms, and flourishes as a result, or he simply fails to flourish.Aren’t there other ways your father could flourish that avoid the ethical concerns that caused you to eschew the consumption of meat? Being a scientist might be a bad career choice for him, but surely there are other more suitable, and less ethically questionable, occupations?By the way, I’m not a vegetarian myself, I just enjoy discussing philosophy in general and ethics in particular. I do, however, prefer to buy free range animal products for ethical reasons.”For me to be a farmer and not a scientist would be a disaster in many ways, and so also be unethical.”The way you’re using the higher goal of “flourishing” as a justification for both cattle farming and vegetarianism seems to allow for justifying whatever makes a person feel good, even at the expense of other ethical concerns. I think eudaimonia includes not just human happiness, but also virtuous behavior, and what is labeled virtuous behavior can be judged as such according to the consequences of actions. If vegetarianism is ethical, then its opposite must be unethical, and behaving unethically in the name of “flourishing” seems a poor excuse.Sure, nobody is perfect, but lets not sweep the main issue under the rug of eudaimonia!I think this is a question of rights coming into conflict (calling Peter Singer!). Would it be accurate to say that you think cattle farming is actually unethical, but the rights of humans should prevail over those of animals, so you’re willing to grudgingly let cattle farmers go on about their business?Would you feel differently if you weren’t related to the cattle farmer in question?

  7. Timothy Mills Says:

    Steelman, I’m afraid you’ve missed the point of my analogy. The point was that different choices are required for different people to thrive. This does not imply a false dichotomy, just the fact that different people are, well, different.If human thriving is a key goal of ethics (and I think it must be), then what is an ethical choice for one person would be an unethical choice for another person. This claim does not lead into the trap of extreme relativism: there are some choices, such as murder, rape, etc, that promote nobody’s thriving, and are thus universally unethical. The claim promotes a reasoned, realistic relativism that many of us tend to follow in practice, though we might not use the language of ethics to describe it.How does this connect to dietary ethics? Well, let me point out that Mike’s column asserts the commonly-held position that even non-human animals should not be made to suffer unnecessarily. So anyone who decides to eat meat is implicitly deciding that some other good (their pleasure/convenience/health/…) outweighs the “evil” of killing the food.In this light, the difference between me and non-vegetarians is not one of fundamental values, but of the relative weight we put on either side of that equation. How important is the pleasure you derive from eating meat? How important is the animal’s right to life? How important is your convenience? The cost of your food? The difficulty of planning a balanced diet? The social implications of your food choices?For me to say that a non-vegetarian – someone who balances that equation differently than I do – is therefore immoral, is the same as saying that someone who chooses to work (say) in the financial industry is immoral, because they balance the equation of career choice differently than I do.I don’t wish to sweep inconvenient issues under the rug. There are still practices used in the food industry that are unethical in a less subjective, less negotiable sense. The suffering of our fellow animals is too easily ignored, and subordinated to crass economic concerns. But those are, I think, issues that can be resolved short of everyone becoming vegetarians.I think we are far too eager, as individuals and as societies, to set up our particular choices as absolute and inviolable principles, and to ignore the particular differences that make other people’s choices attractive and even legitimate. I would love to persuade more people to be vegetarian; I would love for more people to agree with me about the non-existence of gods and the non-necessity of religion for human thriving. But I will not artificially pump up my ego by pretending that people who choose differently from me are therefore less ethical, less intelligent, or less worthy of my understanding.

  8. Steelman Says:

    Steelman, I’m afraid you’ve missed the point of my analogy. The point was that different choices are required for different people to thrive. This does not imply a false dichotomy, just the fact that different people are, well, different.If your point is that our responses to the harms caused by unethical behavior may be mitigated by extenuating circumstances (and I assume it is harm that causes us to deem something unethical), then I understand your point.If you’re saying that the unethical behavior in question is no longer deemed unethical because of extenuating circumstances, then no, I don’t; the harm that caused you to label a behavior unethical remains.If I judge a certain act to be wrong, and those committing that act could have chosen otherwise, but considered their own wants more important, then they are acting immorally in that regard. I may or may not label them an “immoral person”, depending on the severity and frequency of the act, and mitigating factors.Stealing is wrong, but I’m willing to judge a starving person’s need for a crust of bread much less harshly than the act of the habitual criminal who chooses to make a dishonest living.In this light, the difference between me and non-vegetarians is not one of fundamental values, but of the relative weight we put on either side of that equation.Yes, I think there is a continuum in ethics, levels of wrongness and rightness, and how one weights certain ethical actions, and what responses to those actions are considered appropriate. A vegetarian may consider their food choice ethical and, when at the home of their meat eating friend, not bring up the subject, or bring it up only gently, in order to promote more widespread ethical behavior. One who gives more moral weight to vegetarianism may lobby for political reforms, write letters to the local newspaper, or join an animal rights organization. Someone who feels very strongly indeed, may protest in the streets, or even chain themselves to the door of a meatpacking plant.It seems your beliefs fall at the less radical end of the scale. That’s fine. Again, the problem I have with your arguments isn’t that human thriving doesn’t carry weight, or that individuals not be allowed to make the choices that suit them, it’s that you can arrive at an ethical stance on a principle of harm, and then seem to say those harms are somehow negated provided they are part of a person’s chosen method of thriving. They aren’t. They’re still there, it’s just that you choose to overlook them for various reasons, such as the overall happiness of a particular human being.For me to say that a non-vegetarian – someone who balances that equation differently than I do – is therefore immoral, is the same as saying that someone who chooses to work (say) in the financial industry is immoral, because they balance the equation of career choice differently than I do.If they’re working for a financial company that is engaged in unethical practices, and they know about these practices, then they are behaving immorally by continuing to work there. Ethical decisions have moral force, they require or prohibit some sort of action, or they are simply trivial preferences (e.g., you like chocolate ice cream, I like vanilla). If you’ve arrived at an ethical position on vegetarianism due to evidence of harm, then other human beings that eat meat (or work in that industry), if they are able to choose otherwise, are actively promoting those harms. Of course these same people may be doing a lot of other wonderful things with their lives, but that in no way negates their unethical behavior. It just makes them a mix of good and bad, just like the rest of us.

  9. Timothy Mills Says:

    I’ll try to respond more directly to some points in your first comment, which I feel we haven’t yet resolved.Your position sounds like cultural relativism: It’s wrong for me to force my ethics on others, but somehow right for others to engage in behavior I consider immoral, and wrong for me to condemn their behavior.Some things are relative. My example of people’s choice of professions seems (to me) to establish that. But behind the relativism is a deeper principle that is not relative – in this case, I have argued that it is eudaimonia – the flourishing that I think is at the root of most ethical thought and behaviour.I do not think it is unreasonable to say that an action which is ethical in one situation is unethical in another. That was the point of the career choice illustration.I don’t think humanists need to fall into the trap of absolutist dogma to take a stand on issues of right and wrong. They do have to take a stand, though, but using evidence and well reasoned arguments, rather than ancient holy books, as their tools.Quite so. I think that the thriving of sentient animals is a pretty solid foundation, and it is on that that I base my position. This thriving includes humans, as well as many of our cousins among the vertebrates. I happen to put humans first, because I think we have a more intense experience of eudaimonia, and suffer more greatly in its absence.This principle leads me to value another animal’s life above my dietary cravings.It also means that, because different people thrive in different conditions, I have to allow others room to choose their own path to flourishing (within limits, of course).Here’s another analogy that might help. My one-year-old daughter often wants to eat things she shouldn’t, for example. In order to be a good parent, I often need to curtail her freedom of choice. Limiting another human’s freedom is always an unfortunate thing to do, but I think it would be perverse to call my protection of her “unethical”. The fact that my decisions promote her general flourishing (survival, health, etc) makes such decisions ethical. Period. At the same time, to similarly curtail the freedom of an adult would be less acceptable – in that case, their autonomy is greater, and their freedom to choose (even to their own harm) is more important.Relativism? Yes! Because situational ethics are always relative to the situation, to the agents involved and the choices being made.The particular ethical choices are relative to particular circumstances; the underlying, motivating principle is not relative.You are right – sometimes the ethical choice requires us to accept unfortunate consequences: my daughter’s lack of freedom; the omnivore’s animal victims. But that does not make the choice itself unethical. It is the overall balance of consequences that makes a choice ethical or note. And, since I do not have access to all of the consequences of others’ choices, I cannot simply label all their actions as ethical or not based on my own situation and preferences.(And please remember, just because I do not judge another person’s every choice, does not mean I forfeit the capacity to judge any choice of theirs. Some actions – such as murder and rape – have such severe consequences that we can reasonably assume that nothing could balance the equation and make the action ethical. I simply don’t think eating meat is such an absolutely grim choice.)

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