Why I'm (almost) a Vegetarian

After seeing Twelve Years a Slave, some friends and I were discussing what part of our society would seem utterly barbaric and morally unjustifiable 150 years from now. My immediate thought was factory farming of animals. For those of you unfamiliar with factory farms and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), you really should take some time to look them up. It’s not pretty. The combination of a few well-timed videos and a recent reading of The Omnivore’s Dilemma suggested to me that I should become a vegetarian.  The fact that on Saturday I went to my friend’s house to slaughter, clean, cook and eat his chickens suggests that I am not.

To repeat: I am not a vegetarian. Those of you who know me know that I eat a lot of meat. I eat bacon almost every day. My family roasts whole pigs on special occasions. My favorite foods revolve around meat, whether I’m taking about Peking duck or beer can chicken or even just a lox and onion omelet. I eat a lot of meat. I like cooking it for people, I like cooking it with people, and I like spending hours discussing strategies for rendering cheap cuts of meat delicious through the judicious application of heat and time. But my meat habit does bother me, and as it is one of my least ethical forms of consumption I frequently think about it. 

There are three main arguments against eating meat.  Two of are good, one is not.

The first argument is that eating meat is unhealthy. This is a bad argument; it is not true. While there are health problems associated with the consumption of low quality, factory farmed meat (which is largely just corn refigured into protein), the real health problems our society faces are almost universally due to other culprits: wheat, soy, sugar, and corn (including high fructose corn syrup). High quality, pasture raised meat and wild caught fish are some of the most healthy things you can eat. They are nutritionally dense. We were made to eat them, or at least made to be able to eat them. Organ meat too—that stuff will keep you bright eyed and bushy tailed.

The second argument is environmental.  Meat production accounts for a huge amount of greenhouse gas production, runoff from CAFOs pollutes and destroys water systems, and in general our current system of agricultural production is ruining the very productivity of the land on which it depends. The large scale overuse of low-dose antibiotics on livestock threatens to return our society to a pre-Penicillin age which would mean the end of every procedure modern medicine takes for granted. As humans with hope for humanity, it is immoral for us to ignore the consequences of actions when they desolate our environment and doom future generations. 

The environmental argument against eating meat is powerful.  However, it really only addresses the problems caused by large scale industrial meat production.  Heritage farmers, like the now-celebrity Joel Salatin, have innovated new ways to produce meat in sustainable, self-replenishing eco-farm-systems.  These new operations—although, maybe ‘old’ is more appropriate—allow for animals to be responsibly raised in ways that help, rather than hurt, their surroundings.  When your cows aren’t shitting out antibiotic-laced corn sludge, it’s amazing what some manure can do for the grass. So while our current system of raising livestock is destructive and must be reformed, responsible meat consumption can move beyond these problems.  In fact, it must move beyond them to even be responsible.

The final argument against eating meat, and the one that speaks to me most, is the ethical argument. Animals feel pain, and they can suffer—Peter Singer has made that much clear.  Confining them to gestation crates and the other torturous devices of the industrial animal raising industry is cruel and, while I won’t say ‘inhumane’ (what humans do has never seemed the best measure for moral correctness, cf. most of human history), unwarranted. However, it is possible to raise animals in such a way that, inasmuch as an animal can be truly happy, they live happy lives.*  If the end goal of a pig’s life is to lead a really piggy life and roll around like a pig in shit, the least we can do is give it a pile of shit and the space to roll around. Similarly with chickens, although I’m less certain of the telos of a chicken… 

The thing is, no matter how nice you make the life of a farm animal you eventually do have to kill it if you want to eat it, and you have to (or should) look into the eyes of that a chicken or pig before you do (cows, incidentally, have beautiful eyes, as the Homeric epithet ‘cow eyed Hera’ would suggest). I did that for the first time last weekend.* It was elucidatory.

For those unfamiliar with what goes into slaughtering a chicken (at least the way we did it), there are several steps.  The first is to acquire a chicken. My friend and his family raise their own chickens, feed them, care for them, and right before the slaughter even name them. On Saturday, my friend’s dad went with largely Biblical names. You then have to kill the chicken, which is, to quote my friend’s dad, “not fun.”  There are several techniques. We hung them upside down by their feet and slit their throats; the idea is both that the blood rushing to their head confuses them and pacifies them (seemed true) and that they will bleed out more quickly (definitely true). They flap a lot though after you slit their throats, but most of that flapping occurs after they are dead. 

After the killing, you cut off the heads, dip the chickens in warm water, which loosens the feathers, and then pull the feathers out. Once you have a naked chicken, you make a little slit by the butthole, which you widen until—being careful not to puncture the intestine and get poop everywhere—you can pull out all the guts.  You do the same thing around the neck to get the gullet and the lungs out.  If you’re smart, you save the livers and hearts for a post-slaughter paté.

So killing a chicken is not pleasant.  It was a draining afternoon, and not just because it was hot and sunny. Chickens really don’t want to be killed, which is pretty obvious when you try to catch about the seventh or eighth one of the day. They are also remarkably stupid, so I imagine killing a pig is much worse. If you accept that inflicting pain on an animal is necessarily something to be avoided, and since it is pretty clear that killing an animal inflicts some pain on it (probably less than the pain of living in a gestation crate), then there really is no way to justify eating meat.  Which is why I wanted to kill and eat a chicken—as a meat eater, it was my moral responsibility to every chicken in the world that I plan on eating to face up to the fundamental violence of what I was doing.

Someone who has read this far might think that this is when I decide to become a vegetarian.  I am, after all, somewhat of a moral Socratic—I don’t believe in weakness of the will, and I think that the very fact of knowing something is morally wrong compels one to not do it.  Otherwise you don’t really know it’s wrong.  So if I know that it is wrong to kill a chicken, I shouldn’t be able to.  And since inflicting pain purely for my own gain is something that I do know is wrong, it should follow that I don’t think killing is right.

And yet I do still eat meat, despite an intellectual argument that proves I shouldn’t.  But intellectuality only takes you so far. One of the most striking features of my chicken slaughtering experience was that it very soon became pedestrian. It became a task that needed to be completed, a job done quickly and well because I was thirsty and there was a beer in the fridge waiting for me and I sure as shit wasn’t going to drink it with chicken guts on my hands. Something about killing those chickens did not feel wrong, in the way that a CAFO or a factory farm feels inherently wrong.  Yes, it was difficult to watch the first few chickens die.  It was messy and bloody the whole way through.  But I felt, in a strange way, like I was doing something that as a human I was meant to do.

One of the confusing features of our time is that our search for humanity and enlightenment has led us away from our essential quality of human-as-animal. We sleep in private, shit in private, die in private, and eat food from the production of which we are totally divorced, even alienated.  Sometimes we forget that we are not a unique species in contrast and conflict with nature; we are natural.  We are stardust, billion year old carbon, even if that carbon is wearing a suit, and we live in a world where we consume other organisms to live the same way those organisms consume others and, some day when we are dead, other (smaller) organisms will consume us until our carbon and our energy is put back into the universe to eventually fuel another star.   

We should be able to face up to these natural cycles and our part in them, to look a living creature in the face and tell it that as pleasant as we have tried to make its life, now is the time that for it to rejoin the carbon cycle through a delicious taco or traditional roast.  Eating meat is also something that we do traditionally and together; traditions are built around types of meat and types of cooking, in a way that ties us to our pre-modern, more fully human lives and our pre-modern, less homogenized cultures.  That is also something worth saving, especially when it involves eating meat in a way that reminds you what it is you are eating.

So where does this leave me?  Eating meat, but barely.  Eating meat, but responsibly. No factory-farmed abominations that, like so much of our society, represent us pawning off the future of our planet for all you can eat ribs. No animals kept in cruel confinement. But animals that have actually lived before they die, with a profound understanding that these animals did die, and that in a (sometimes literal sense) I killed them.  That is what the animals we eat deserve, and it is what we owe them and ourselves to understand. The chicken that I killed and ate the other day was not some infinitesimal fraction of a McNugget; he was Solomon.***

NB: Sometimes I will eat Peking Duck at Duck House or al pastor tacos at a tiny truck stand.  Sometimes I’ll do it realizing full well that those animals probably led miserable lives.  But then again I am often a hypocrite.

*I am in some sense an Aristotelian: I believe that each thing in the world flourishes most when living its most characteristic life. Chickens live their most characteristic lives by running around like chickens with its head—well, never mind. 

**I have killed fish before, and lobsters. I’m working my way up to mammals.

***I’m not sure, actually, whether the chicken we ended up eating that day was one I killed.  They all looked the same after we were done with them.

© Henry Gruber 2013