Sunday, August 30, 2009

Some Thoughts on Vegetarianism

I’ve come across many arguments for vegetarianism recently, and they’ve started to connect with thoughts I’ve had, since I wrote my article on torture, about the consequences of intellectual versus moral justifications for our actions. And I’ve become convinced that making intellectual arguments against certain issues is pointless, and is often a subtle way for the society that accepts them as legitimate to avoid changing its behavior, just as the politicians who talked about America’s “national character” during the detainee debates were so easily satisfied with symbolic remedies instead of real ones.

I should define my terms, since I might be using them in a peculiar way. I think there are two ways to determine the desirability of an action: one of them is to determine its consequences for the actor and society at large. These are intellectual reasons, because they demand a chain of reasoning which necessarily moves the thinker away from the act itself. Moral reasons stem from direct encounters – such as a look at these interrogation documents – and are based on instinctual revulsion that does not need any additional justification. Such responses can only be rebutted by looking at the acts and saying, “I honestly do not feel what you feel when I see this.”

Since such reasons are subjective, they are rarely used in serious arguments and are often seen as a form of sentimental muddle-headedness when they are. So it makes sense that, for years, the primary arguments for vegetarianism have been intellectual: the low nutritional value of the food produced by factory farming, for example, or the environmental consequences of eating meat, which involves the expenditure of vast quantities of water and land to produce a comparatively small amount of flesh, compared with plant-based food.

As with most intellectual arguments, these can be responded to with at least some logic, as Sandor Ellix Katz does in his bookon America’s underground food movements. I picked it up because I enjoyed his book on fermentation,which was full of interesting knowledge.

Katz has a chapter on meat where he responds to the arguments mentioned above: by spending a little extra money and time, it is fairly simple to find free range meat. And he points out that there is plenty of non-arable land that can be used to sustain small scale ranching. Clearly he's right. I spent some time on the coast of Madagascar and found a herd of very sprightly goats living off the meager vegetation that grew a few hundred yards from the ocean. Clearly, this land is more productive - for humans, of course - when creating meat and milk instead of growing wild.

So for many years, I could respond intellectually to such arguments and kept eating whatever I wanted. During that same stay in Africa, though, a different sort of encounter was forced on me. Our neighbors in Antananarivo were slaughtering two goats and I happened to be around to see them do it, because I heard the screaming of the second goat – which sounds, by the way, disturbingly human – as he watched what was happening to the first goat. The throat of each animal was cut, and blood pumped out of the body for a minute or so while the goat thrashed. Then it died, was skinned and butchered, and we were given some of the meat as a gift.

A few hours later, I ate the meat happily with everyone else – it was delicious, as you can expect – but it occurred to me that I would never have been able to kill the goat myself, even if I had the skills to do it properly. Killing a tame and immobilized animal seemed, and seems, completely repellent to me. I wondered if it was just squeamishness, so I conducted a thought experiment: I imagined standing behind a glass wall and pushing a button to kill the same goat, as neatly and humanely as possible, and realized that I still wouldn’t be able to do it. The act was morally repulsive, not merely unpleasant or gross.

These realizations took some time to filter through my consciousness, because habit is powerful, but eventually they did. I cut down on meat for a while – there were cravings, and occasionally still are – but for a few years I’ve eaten almost none, because I’ve never been able to shake the thought that it’s quite obviously wrong to ask other people (or machines) to do things that you are morally unwilling to do yourself.

The odd thing is that I’m certain that my reaction is common enough: only a fraction of people in the Western world would be able to cut that goat’s throat – or a cow or pig or chicken’s – especially many dozens of times a year, but almost all of them are comfortable letting someone else do it. I don’t think there’s any other area of modern life with such an immense disconnect between moral capacity and actual behavior – and the reason, as with torture, is the dominance of intellectual arguments even among thoughtful people.

Such arguments, by their very nature, are focused on human outcomes. For example, anytime I hear that someone is deciding to try vegetarianism because of their health – they’ve read some horrific story about how the unnatural diet of industrial cattle makes their meat nutritionally barren, or whatever – I know that their resolution won’t last long. Eventually, they will find meat that promises to be naturally raised and this will be enough. Then, once the question has entered the realm of consumer choice, something strange happens: the distinctions stop feeling important. You buy humane meat when you can, but you don’t protest when it isn’t available.

The same thing happens to me with Fair Trade products, the intellectual reasons for which I entirely appreciate. I get them on the rare occasions when I’m feeling adequately flush with cash to buy a little righteousness, but not otherwise. As with organic produce, the issue hasn’t put down any moral roots yet.

An intellectual commitment with a shallow moral basis will always be satisfied with words. My Costco dish soap says “Environmentally Friendly” and contains virtually no other information, and I swear I still felt good buying it. The words were enough; they gave me a little moral back rub, and that’s all I needed. I’m not bragging about my insensitivity - these things have real consequences. Listen to what happens to language, for example, when you don’t actually care what you’re doing. Here is Katz, who is usually intelligent and thoughtful, on humane slaughter:
The other major distinguishing factor for humane meat is how the animals are killed. Animals can be slaughtered with trauma, violence, and anonymity or calmly and quickly, with gratitude, tenderness, and even love. Intent and spirit can be as important as technique.
Words are being used here like odd colors daubed on an impressionistic painting – to create a kind of glow. But what possible meaning can they possess in this context? These animals are not terminally ill or in pain: how can they be killed with love? Do they experience it as gratitude, tenderness, or love when the blade cuts into them, or something very much like the opposite? Such words are flexible, but they do mean something, and they are being further debased to make normally compassionate people like Katz justify a purely selfish act, which should be acknowledged openly as what it is. "Made with love; raised with gratitude": Against the grain of his own beliefs, what Katz is using here is the language of modern commerce, which is eager to make us feel not just good but comprehensively good about every one of our indulgences.

There is one final consequence of having arguments on an intellectual plane – and it is a fixture of our political discourse, and perhaps of interest to the few people still reading this post. In the absence of any fixed scale of values, the only virtue becomes consistency. One group attacks the other for supposed hypocrisy, which is then used as an excuse for the former to make absolutely no moral demands on itself. Katz, for example, mentions that our breath kills millions of micro-organisms in the air, and Barbara Kingsolver, in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle argues that vegetarians are hypocritical because they ignore the deaths of field animals that are involved in the machine harvesting of many crops, which is something like saying that living in a building where a construction worker died is morally equivalent to throwing someone off the roof.

But anyone looking for contradictions will not have to look hard to find them. My apartment is filled with products that I’m sure required the death of animals. There’s a line from Tennyson that plays in my mind when I think about the repercussions of my most ordinary decisions and purchases: “And the spirit of murder works in the very means of life.” Our civilization is built on complicity, and we participate in a hundred appalling acts with every decision we make, every cent of tax that goes to our government. You just have to do the best you can – absence of hypocrisy is simply not a useful standard.

But looking at acts done for your benefit and deciding if you find them repulsive is a reasonable one, and is the only basis on which a fixed system of values could conceivably be determined in the absence of religious faith. Such moral encounters (with animals, with detainees, with civilians in countries we invade) are carefully hidden from us for a reason, but we need to seek them out, and trouble our beautiful minds with them, because we are so directly involved in what’s happening to them.

Some people will look at the same acts and not feel the way I feel, which is fine – I have no objective standard – but everyone should make the attempt to find out what they can live with. I'm not asking people to stare at gruesome videos: just spend some time around some of the animals we eat (they can be surprisingly hard to find, considering how many we consume) and think seriously about what it means to end one of their lives, and whether this strikes you as a necessary sacrifice.

I can’t make a moral connection with an oyster yet, for example, so I've eaten them occasionally (I'm less disturbed by the fishing and hunting of wild creatures in general). But I could relate to that goat, as well as other meat animals living in non-brutalized circumstances. I knew that I didn’t want the meat nearly as badly as the animal wanted to live.

With predatory creatures or traditional societies with limited food sources, there is a reasonable equivalence of desires, since not eating that meat would result in starvation or severe malnutrition. In Western societies, however, with our immense surpluses, we’ve gotten used to having our most casual desires trump the fundamental needs of other living creatures. We’re killing something, as David Foster Wallace put it in Consider the Lobster, merely because we like the feeling of a certain protein against our teeth.

In that same essay, Wallace also trots out a mainstay of vegetarian propaganda, which always assures the reader that vegetarians have a variety of equally delicious and healthy options: you can still get all the nutrients and flavors you need and deserve – hooray, no sacrifices required! This is disastrous intellectual ground on which to argue, because gourmandism is implicitly acknowledged to be a genuine counterweight to the moral argument. I think it’s quite plausible that vegetarianism is marginally less healthy and significantly less thrilling gastronomically than intelligently-pursued omnivorism. So what? Aren’t there any values that are worth defending to our own slight detriment?

Vegetarianism might well have some health costs, although I'm certain they are not severe, whereas eating decently-raised meat has, as far as I can see, only one human cost of any kind. In Kingsolver’s book, where her family raised and ate only local food for a year, her nine-year-old daughter knows not to name some of her chickens, so she “can face killing and selling them.”

There is a profound loss implied here. The desire to name these animals is close to instinctual. I doubt if there is a traditional culture in the world that does not individually identify the animals that it lives with closely, including some wild ones. These animals don’t always respond or care about these names, and there is often no practical reason to do it. The practice merely acknowledges what is obvious to anyone who has spent time, outside of a meat factory, with the land animals that we have tamed: that they are simple to differentiate, and have distinct personalities that one doesn't have to be a saint or a scientist to notice and appreciate. We view them as products only by stopping up certain springs of sympathy that are both natural and pleasant to us. And this is their loss and, less brutally, ours, because this sense of connection – along with the realization which accompanies it, that man is not a particularly lonely creature – is a source of contentment that we have increasingly abandoned. Vegetarianism does not produce this feeling, but it at least renders it an uncomplicated possibility. Which is a definite human cost, if that’s all we’re willing to care about.