When I saw that the NY Times was holding an essay contest on the subject of why it’s ethical to eat meat, I knew I had to submit something. Though I didn’t make it into the finalists, I was glad to see some of the same logic used in a few of those that did. Here is my essay for those interested :
As a vegetarian poised to inherit a cattle ranching operation, I have put some time into the mental gymnastics that is rationalizing my role in the family business and the justice of the work itself. I can find no justification for modern factory farming, indeed that ugly version of animal husbandry is what made me an herbivore, but in its more traditional guise, one in which the animal’s quality of life is taken into account, I see little wrong. While I lack any formal education in ethics, my sense is the greater good can be served on the same plate as supper.
The cows we raise, with minimal intervention, live happy unadulterated lives before dying in an instant and in a way that benefits others. If I could choose, I’d live my life and die similarly. The struggle to find one’s place in the world, to create or attain a sense of meaning regarding one’s time here is what makes us human. If we generously assign animals equal feeling and sentience might they not grapple with the same concerns and in some way find peace on the dinner plate, if only in fulfilling the journey of their lives? Like Mr. Pollan’s book, Botany of Desire proposes, I think the argument can be made that through domestication certain species have assured their survival. The animals we don’t eat go extinct much quicker and with less purpose to their deaths.
Eating meat connects us to the cycles of birth and death, even if it’s been carried home in a plastic bag, sealed inside by layers of cling wrap and pressed against Styrofoam. The unconscious does the work for us. The Hebrew word for sacrifice- “korban,” means “close.” In the intimacy of consuming flesh we bring ourselves closer to nature, to the cosmic cycles of life and to each other. We cringe when we think of the animal that becomes meat and in the “cringing,” we are brought to our own mortality and the gratitude that accompanies that reminder causes us to treat each other better. Thanks to the suffering involved, it brings us outside of ourselves. There is both something given and taken in the process of killing. There wouldn’t be the same gravity with a carrot. It is no surprise that meat is at the center of our culture’s traditional gatherings: The Easter Ham, The Christmas Goose, The iconic Thanksgiving Bird.
In a more ideal setting, one in which the relationship between the prey and predator is greater, the dialogue with mortality becomes clearer. Imagine a hunter who has spent himself racing through the woods after a buck, unsure if the animal will escape and leave him hungry. If he prevails to find himself dripping sweat over the bloody carcass, what guilt is there in that hard won victory?
We are still animals ourselves, and to remove ourselves from the natural order, the ebb and flow of the animal world is its own sort of arrogance. Anthropocentrism, they call it. By eating meat we return to our baser selves, the hungry, wanting, warring bits that we regularly keep in check. It is a way to visit our natural state in a rational way. A release valve for the pressures of civility. If we want to behave the rest of the time, we may need to feed our inner beasts.
In limiting consumption to humanely and locally produced meat, eaten in moderation and ideally with community, most of the environmental and health concerns are mediated. I hope the ethical concerns have been addressed above.
P.S. Still vegetarian myself … the ethical remainder applies.
I’m impressed that found so many insightful tidbits on the interweb….
I got babies from the NYTimes, in an awsome article describing “The movement to restore children’s play”, while i’m not trying to hate on Tiger moms out there ala’ Amy Chua in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, I do believe in the value of letting children explore and imagine without adult direction. My kid are more likely to go to a Waldorf school than take piano lessons in the end. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/06/garden/06play.html?emc=eta1
Being that we are half way back towards Summer and in LA it always feels like June, I found it appropos.
Since I got the Babies and Jews covered, let’s go Queer: Another NY Times piece, this story about the beautiful life of an adopted black son of Gay parents, totally made me cry. Not only does it show the sort of beauty found in an unwanted child loved by unwanted parents, but there is a horse involved. Get out your hankies folks, you’re going to need them….http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/24/nyregion/24towns.html?hp
Now the only quadrant of interest left untouched would be Acting and it is perhaps a mirror of my current life in Lalaland that shows the asbsence therein. I’ll keep trying, we’ll see how “The Kids Are Alright” does at the Oscars…..
One rabbi is on a quest to keep Jews from wearing “Crocs” to High Holiday services because they are too comfy.I know Yom Kippur was a week ago already but I feel like this article is still hilarious and so deserves attention even if its less topical. At the service I attended the emphasis was less on being punished for one’s transgressions and more on being, for a day, an angelic version of oneself, unfettered by attachment to the physical form: Eating, Vanity etc. In this context the “Crocs” are less egregious I think. I did notice a lot of them though so I can see why the rabbi felt the need to address it.
Sometimes I feel like this blog should be subtitled ” Kellen’s guide to the NY Times: a selection of the articles she likes.” I will work on some original thought but in the meantime, I totally enjoyed this article about a man who delivers Seltzer in Brooklyn. Jews love Seltzer. I know I do…I wish someone would deliver it to me here in Santa Fe. When I was young my mom didn’t want to give me soda, so instead she gave me fizzy water, usually Calistoga since we were in Cali. She referred to it as “special” and my child’s mind took that to be its’ name. I still have a vague sense that the word ” special” is also a noun. It was one of my favorite young indulgences, one that perhaps paved the way for my great love of Champagne and its more affordable bubbly relatives. Maybe you could call Seltzer a sort of gateway drug….