can’t see the forest

On Vegetarianism

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For as long as men slaughter animals, they will kill one another. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.
—Pythagoras, ca. 520 BC

If a group of beings from another planet were to land on Earth—beings who considered themselves as superior to you as you feel yourself to be to other animals—would you concede them the rights over you that you assume over other animals?
—George Bernard Shaw

To my mind, the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being.
—Mohandas K. Gandhi

Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances of survival for life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.
Albert Einstein

Fruits and VegetablesI am a struggling vegetarian. As I get older the issue seems to weigh a bit heavier in my mind. I feel that vegetarianism is a noble and critical lifestyle choice, and it is the reasoning behind this that I wish to discuss here.

The ease with which I am parted from this conviction is due to a number of factors—chiefly convenience, since I do not do very much of the grocery shopping within my household; or sometimes social conformity, if I am dining with a group in a milieu that is not conducive to vegetarianism, as is often the case here in my home of the American ‘Deep South.’ Not infrequently it is self-deception that steers me from the course. The animal has already died; if you do not eat it, it is wasted. I simply wish to illustrate, before I begin, that I am not writing about vegetarianism from the standpoint of someone who (as yet) fastidiously practices that which he preaches.

However, I can offer that I have decided that, beginning next month, I will vigorously and resolutely pursue a vegetarian diet—eggs and dairy products, yes; red and white meat, furs and skins, no. For now, I hope you will allow me to explain my philosophical position on vegetarianism, and I hope that you will feel free to share your thoughts or arguments.

As a young man, I often asked myself the same question posed by Shaw in the quotation above. In fact, I did not know that Shaw had asked that question until a few moments before I began writing these words—which leads me to believe it is a question that must persist in the minds of a reasonable number of people.

Surely we would object if a superintelligent race of alien beings—against whose assault we, with our primitive intelligence, were quite defenseless—descended upon Earth and began to systematically consume us as food. Even if these hypothetical homovores were willing to allow us to make a case for ourselves, there would not be much we could say in our own defense given our own carnivorous history. It seems apparent, then, even with very little introspection, that killing living beings for their meat is grossly hypocritical, unless we ourselves are gladly willing to lie upon the butcher’s block.

What does require serious thought is the extrapolation of how the prevalent rationalizations of killing for food—and with that practice, I mean also to implicitly associate killing for hide—might manifest themselves elsewhere within the ethics of society, and this is the chief reason I wish to observe vegetarianism and hope that others will consider doing so. While Shaw’s hypothetical construction serves adequately to demonstrate the hypocrisy of carnivorousness, the application is less than practical (and hopefully will remain so!)

Cave Art - HuntingScience has taught us that, at one point in human history, our ability to eat the flesh of other creatures was crucial to our evolutionary and cultural development. Meat is a source of concentrated protein, and the ability to eat it safely through cooking was likely instrumental in developing the larger, more complex brain that is the hallmark of homo sapiens. Had we not been hunters and gatherers, it is unlikely that we could have become builders and thinkers. It is likewise clear that killing animals for inedible products such as bone and hide produced invaluable benefits unattainable through other means.

In the present, however—apparently at least as early as Pythagoras, anyway—it becomes more relevant to assess the psychology and the philosophy of willingly engaging in an unsymbiotic relationship with a fellow creature, a relationship which is clearly unnecessary for our survival and is as such ecologically excessive. The industry of agriculture now makes it possible to obtain more than sufficient nutrition from sources which do not bleed and have no nervous system. Why, then, must we continue to kill to live? I do not believe there is suitable justification which can withstand the scrutiny of logic.

A distinction based on outmoded metaphysics and silly theologies and on little, if anything, of empirical substance is widely drawn between the perceived ‘value’ of a human life and the value of nonhuman life. Few are they who would categorically state that it is ethically acceptable to take the life of a human, and yet the vast majority of those who would so attest would be willing to state that it is ethically acceptable to take the life of a nonhuman. What, then, makes a cow more worthy of murder than a human?

For some, the answer is a matter of theological doctrine. The Creator, in his wisdom, created animals so that humans might eat. The sensibilities of those who believe such fairy tales, I am afraid, must be perturbed on a plane more profound than ours here before they are fit to openly consider these arguments—for, believing that one thing is in a ‘divine plan,’ a person can so justify virtually anything of base immorality, and this is borne out by much of human history. Of course, there is no need to provide justification for that which is not prosecuted, and the gnashing of teeth upon the tissues of certain classes of living beings is hardly considered an offense in any culture I can call to mind.

Even those who do not espouse this brand of anthropocentric creationism, though, might conceivably argue that carnivorism is part of an evolutionary paradigm. The fittest survive, and by so doing, somehow have the right to inflict death upon the less fit. It is plausible that a lion has the right to eat a hyena, but it is more accurate to say that the lion has the instinct to eat a hyena. No human being living in even a marginally developed culture has an instinct to eat meat that can be conclusively isolated from learned behavior—and, for that matter, it would be difficult to prove that the lion’s supposed instinct is hardwired rather than learned from its parents.

But to invoke the idea of natural rights with respect to vegetarianism is absurd simply because a system of natural rights, if equitable, must be equally applicable to all who exist underneath its framework. The lion in the savanna does not recognize the common origin and the common value of all life on Earth, nor can he place himself in the place of his prey for purposes of empathy. Humans do not have this luxury, although we are adept at behaving as if we do. In truth, I think we must stand behind something like the philosopher John Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ to view the situation rationally. If we believe that evolution has granted us the right to kill animals, how can we classify ourselves as super-animal with respect to the right to life? Put another way, how is it that only humans among all creatures are able to indulge in this right to life? Taken to its logical extreme, such an evolutionary answer to vegetarianism produces some rather startling consequences: a system in which it is logically permissible for one human to kill another in the name of evolutionary advantage!

I have yet to find, and am possessed of a great deal of certainty that I will not find, a justification for carnivorism that cannot be ultimately reduced to the hideous and all-too-human belief that it is perfectly all right for a human to engage in any activity from which he cannot be prevented and will not be prosecuted. This is the basis for killing for food in modern man, and it is the point of Shaw’s question.

Having achieved the status of sentience, it would appear that humankind has little need for natural selection unless it is for one sort of human over another; but, as a consequence of sentience, humankind is also explicitly imbued with the choice of complex cooperation over bloody predation.

StriploinVegetarianism I view as an invaluable discipline of human rationality. If we kill for food when it is unnecessary for us to do so, we allow ourselves a license that our rational cunning can and will ingeniously translate to our relationships with one another and with our planet at large. The ethic of vegetarianism is the ethic of preservation and of compassion, of cohabitation and cooperation. No one can argue that these are not admirable, invaluable qualities.

We can extend this reasoning beyond the realm of eats and into the area of animal servitude. Among this kind of servitude we might include keeping animals for their labor, wool, eggs, or milk. However, in most of these applications, I would posit that it is reasonable to understand the relationship between humans and nonhumans as symbiotic, provided that the animals in question are well cared for (which is certainly far from always the case.) That is why I do not necessarily subscribe to the vegan ideal—because, treated properly, I believe that a dairy cow or a wool-bearing sheep benefits from its servitude. When one’s only feasible sources of these kinds of animal products or services are ‘factory farms’ or other institutions which practice cruelty to their stock, the abstinence from consumption of these products is certainly noble and defensible—and it is granted as self-evident that participation in the economics of animal cruelty is tantamount to complicity. Animal servitude, though, does not necessarily involve the kind of barbarism which is part and parcel of carnivorism.

Now, should Shaw’s aliens wish to create this kind of relationship with humankind, then we might agree to their terms should they provide for the elevation of our quality of life. Then again, we might not. To each, we would hope, would be afforded the right of choice. The ethical issue might then become whether or not we were serving against our will, and this is not a criterion in man’s relationship with other animals which cannot communicate such notions. So the use of animals for those purposes which do not necessarily result in their slaughter, then, is ethically arguable, I think, in a way that carnivorism is not.

My conclusion is this: the human vegetarian displays a respect of his own faculties and of the natural order that is absent in the human carnivore, and the psychological and sociological implications of the absence of this respect certainly are not restricted to the dinner table. To those willing to grasp the concept, these implications are evident in interpersonal and intercultural relations the world over. Not only is human predation upon his fellow inmates generative of tragic folly and abject cynicism, it is impractical and wasteful in a time in which populations are booming and resources are being strained. For those who simply must kill for food in order to survive, not even the choice of survival is self-justified, although it is perhaps excusable to all but the most wizened ascetic. But for those to whom the freedom from predatory practices is ubiquitous, there can be no logical excuse.

In an age obsessed with nutritional health, the concern for the health of the conscience is yet neglected. Well, not by me; not any longer. We shall see how I fare.

Vitruvian Man

The time will come when men like me will look upon the slaughter of animals as we now look upon the slaughter of men.
—Leonardo daVinci


12 Responses

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  1. peoplesgeography said, on 3/8/07 at 9:22 am

    A fine piece. So you’re taking the plunge, that’s great! At least you’re giving it a go and putting your beliefs where your mouth is, in a manner of speaking. Vegetarianism, so a recent title goes, is the “new prius”. The article claims that we can do more environmentally by going vegetarian than by driving hybrids like a Prius. A fifth of global warming emissions come from livestock apparently–more emissions than from all of the world’s transportation combined, according to a recent UN report mentioned therein.

    Anyway, enough of the political proselytising already. On a level closer to home, I hope its fun, and that you make an adventure out of it. I must say, that first picture of the healthy looking vegies you had there looked luscious, in contrast to the red piece of meat, at least to me. I’m also a lacto-ovo vegetarian and re-introduced fish a couple of years ago, after a few years of being a vegan. That experiment (veganism — no animal products whatsoever) went brilliantly when I did it right, I was very healthy throughout when balancing proteins and carbs, but went a little askew only when I lapsed in my efforts and wasn’t making the effort to get quality proteins amid a richly varied diet.

    After reintroducing chicken for a time, I’ve gone off that again too. I haven’t had red meat since fifteen. I’ve felt better for it.

    I’ll endeavour to send you some good recipes, and very best wishes with your pledge to go vegetarian!

  2. peoplesgeography said, on 3/8/07 at 9:25 am

    Btw, great new look. I think this is my personal favourite, with your very first one a close second — JMO.

  3. Tuco said, on 3/9/07 at 7:26 am

    Curt – have you seen the “meatrix” films?

    the way factory farming treats animals is very like the way humans were used in the matrix films.

  4. HopeSpringsATurtle said, on 3/10/07 at 8:20 pm

    “A non-violent world begins with a non-violent diet.”

  5. HopeSpringsATurtle said, on 3/10/07 at 10:39 pm

    I linky-loved this piece over at my place. Good luck to you on your vision quest. I have been vegetarian now for over 23 years and I don’t regret a moment and feel I’ve gained so much from this lifestyle choice. My one bit of advice is to be gentle with yourself, no scolding yourself if you slip, just get back on the wagon. It can be difficult to be in a meat-eating world so try to get some veggie friends. Before I was married, one of the things I told my dates was that I could date someone that ate meat but I couldn’t be in a serious relationship with a meateater because of the difference in values. I married kinda late but was able to contribute greatly to the vegetarian population, one guy at a time. My husband has never eaten meat since our first date and he is so happy to be a veg now and is very activist regarding animals. Again,, good luck and blessing to you from the animals you’ve saved from not putting them on your plate.

  6. Curtis said, on 3/11/07 at 12:31 am

    Thanks for your support, advice, links, and comments, everyone! Much appreciated.

    You’re right, PG—vegetarianism makes a great deal of sense environmentally. I like this theme a lot, too. We’re in agreement there! And I look forward to tasty recipes.

    Turtle, that’s welcome encouragement and sound advice.

    Haven’t seen the film, Tuco, but I’m glad to check it out and I’m enjoying your new blog. Thanks!

  7. zilla said, on 3/14/07 at 11:05 am

    “I believe that a dairy cow or a wool-bearing sheep benefits from its servitude.” I assume you include chickens, too, since you will eat their eggs but not their flesh?

    Is it because once domesticated, these animals started to enjoy artificial safety from predation by quadrupedal carnivors? Is the protection from danger traded for milk or wool truly symbiotic?

    Let’s look at the most common example of symbiosis: the oxpecker bird of Africa, and it’s most recognized mutual symbiont, the hippopotamus. The bird benefits from eating parasites and dead skin; the hippo benefits from better health through the reduction of parasites and perhaps — what? the comfort of fewer dead skin cells? What does the exchange cost either symbiont? Nothing comes to mind.

    What does it cost a man to maintain a cow or a sheep? Money, labor, time. What does it cost a cow or a sheep to serve a man? Only her freedom, which is perhaps the most highly valued human right in American society.

    I’m not being judgmental about your intentions or your reasons behind them, nor am I attempting to poke holes in your logic in order to persuade you to omit dairy and eggs; nor would I ever demand absolute consistency in ethics from anyone who tries to eat thoughtfully and sensitively.

    We ate buffalo for dinner last night and tonight’s menu includes salmon. When I’m out of soy milk, I will add a splash of skim cow milk to my morning coffee, without guilt. My choice isn’t due to an absence of respect for my own faculties or the natural order of things. I was born with cuspids, just as wolves and coyotes were born with cuspids, and this indicates to me that it is natural for me to eat flesh.

    When it comes to food, there is really only one thing a person can do that’s clearly, for lack of a better word, wrong: to live to eat, as opposed to eat to live. Meaning, whether it’s plant or animal, consuming more than is necessary for optimal health does not serve self, nor does it serve community, nor does it serve our long ailing planet.

    Clearly, if it is only ethical to eat only for utility, I have all of the ethics of a common toad, assuming toads have the biological impetus to eat at any opportunity and are incapable of ethical thinking, that is.

    George Bernard Shaw lived between 1856 and 1950, becoming a vegetarian at age 25. 94 years speaks volumes for his preferred diet, although his reasons for becoming vegetarian were purely ethical — “A man of my spiritual intensity does not eat corpses.” The reasons for Shaws choice aside, certainly, much has been learned by nutritional scientists since Shaw made his choice.

    I do aplaud those who endeavor to consume ecologically with good health in mind. But being the sort who tends to revere intelligence as enthusiastically as some Seventh Day Adventists revere spirituality, I intend to keep looking to the nonpolitically, nonspiritually motivated intelligentsia for nutritional guidance.

    Harvard thinks we should consume less dairy, and disregard the USDA’s recommendation that only half our grains be 100% whole, and they maintain that some animal proteins are better than others while leaning toward nuts and legumes is wise. Plus, as you probably know, I’m thrilled that they do not disallow wine :-)

    I hope you’ll post on this topic again after you’ve made the transition to lacto-ovo vegetarianism. Good luck with it! And eat your beets!

  8. Curtis said, on 3/15/07 at 2:03 am

    Transition in progress. Boy, were those hot wings tempting this evening. ;-)

    Thanks for an extremely thoughtful and well-put comment, Z. I always value your input on the topic of nutrition (among other things) because it’s clear that you do your homework and are wise in the ways of gastronomy.

    I want to address a very important point that you bring up, which is the fact that people have cuspids and cuspids are meat-eating teeth. There is no doubt that it is natural for humans to eat other creatures. There are also virtually no limiting parameters to the “argument from nature” for any human behavior, essentially because of the philosophical “problem” of free will.

    It is the mind and not the teeth which determine what is ethical. Therefore, I fail to see how the presence of cuspids can provide any sort of ethical justification for carnivorism (not that one is needed unless one consciously decides that one is needed; and until that point, there is no need for an individual to consider vegetarian practices for ethical reasons.) Because human beings have cuspids, we are evolutionarily outfitted to eat meat. Because we have intelligence, we are ethically outfitted to choose otherwise.

    You are right to question the notion of what I’ve termed “animal servitude” as truly symbiotic, in the biological sense. I could invoke the example of ants and aphids as a sort of precedent, but that would be the argument from nature again! (And an unsophisticated argument, at that.) I’m fortunate to live in an area where it’s not impossible—albeit difficult—to get eggs and milk and even some kinds of meat from local sources which do not engage in the so-called “factory farming” practices. I would say that the relationship between man and not-man which underlies this kind of production is more symbiotic than that which informs the industrial production of animal byproducts, and so I think it is a rational and ethically sound choice to participate in the micro-economics of cheese ‘n’ eggs for more than one reason. But, definitely, the issue is more arguable than one in which an animal must be slaughtered in order to produce goods.

    I also think it’s a little misleading to qualify vegetarian ethics as a political topic. It can be a political topic, but I think at its root it is a question of ethics which is extremely personal.

    It’s definitely wise to look to nutritional science for answers, but nutritional science cannot answer to the ethical aspects of carnivorism. I don’t think you would argue that carnivorism is necessary for good health—but then again, you know a lot more about nutrition than I do, so maybe there’s something I’m missing! Also, I’m a little skeptical of government regulations and requirements simply because the regulatory agencies involved in the U.S. agriculture and health bureaucracies are informed by interest groups with vested economic interests in continuing the large-scale production of animal products. And grain products—it’s a frequently cited statistic that it takes eight times as much grain to feed a cow as a human. $$$!

    Extremely thoughtful comment. Much appreciated. Beets? Well, I’ll give them one more try. :-/

  9. zilla said, on 3/15/07 at 7:47 am

    First cup of coffee here, but I’ll try to be not stupid in spite of the lack of drugs coursing through my system ;-)

    By “politically motivated” I was referring only to the USDA, not to vegetarians. Apologies if that was unclear.

    It IS possible to acquire all necessary amino acids from non-animal sources. It does, however, require more knowledge than the average, lazy, coasting-through-life person is willing to gain or apply.

    If vegetarianism is only about eschewing flesh, and not also about replacing each and every amino acid easily afforded by flesh, with a plant source, there will be some consequences to health. As far as I know, specific amino acid requirements aren’t even addressed by the USDA, probably because there is no L-Arganine lobby, no L-Lysine lobby, and so on. Maybe I should spearhead … nevermind.

    We are fortunate in our region, too, to have excellent sources for pasture-fed, free-range livestock. Since I don’t want to eschew animal protein as long as I have finicky, growing children to feed, I’m glad to pay the higher price for some animal proteins, which, can run to three times as high as the mass produced stuff. This is not to say that I never avail myself of the convenience of the grocer’s meat department. I can be pretty lazy, and sometimes even a little bit arrogant, often-times self-contradictory. As thrilled as I am to have recently purchased a share in my county’s community supported farm, I will continue to buy California produce until harvest, because by this time of year locally produced stores of just about everything have dwindled. You should have an easier time eating well and within your bioregion, if that’s among your goals.

    I’m very interested to hear how you feel as the transition progresses. I’m curious to know what will take the place of flesh, and if you’ll include any pre-packaged stuffs, and if you develop any cravings; whether or not you’ll omit refined and enriched in favor of whole. Depending on what you’ve been eating previously, and what you replace it with, you might have some mildly unpleasant symptoms at first — I encourage you to ride those out. I also hope you have friends & family support in this endeavor, as it sure makes things a lot easier. Again, good luck, and please keep us posted!

  10. […] . . .there was some form of morality before the New Testament. How very novel!! If only we enlightened human beings could learn to extend the ‘golden rule’ to other spe… . . .perhaps that’s the next stage in the evolution of […]

  11. emma said, on 6/6/07 at 6:56 pm

    i hate it when people say : “the animal is already dead, to not eat it would be a waste”
    hello people!
    its called supply and demand. if you buy meat from the industry, that is the real waste.
    any way i liked the article

  12. Catwoman said, on 8/11/08 at 3:59 pm

    2 cents:

    After close observation, I am clearly healthier, happier, sexier and more energetic when I include regular servings of eggs and salmon, and a-once-a-year homeopathic serving of venison or grass-fed, free range beef.

    I’ve tried veganism for years, and it mostly leaves me struggling with weight gain, hair loss, and mild to severe depression due to a lack of whatever it is in the animal protein that my body needs for optimum health.

    I have many friends who are hard-core vegans. Some are the epitome of health, others are weak and ghostly. Some are rich, some poor. Some angelic, and some can be total assholes sometimes. Veganism is not a pre-requisite for health, wealth or happiness.

    Obviously inhumanely factory farmed meat, eggs, and dairy is a horrible travesty. It’s disgusting, in my opinion.

    However, because corporations go about killing animals in a grotesque way doesn’t mean that it’s consequently always a bad thing to sacrifice and eat animals.

    The most nourishing medicine I can remember in recent years is when a beloved friend spent weeks hunting a giant buck and made stew out of it and shared it with us on a freezing, rainy winter evening. I’ve never ingested anything so warming and nourishing. My body wisdom (used to vegan raw meals) exclaimed loudly “Now THIS is Real Food!” It’s SO nourishing on every level of being.

    I observe my cat when she stalks a bird or rodent. In the thrill of the chase, she is at her most vital, primal, spirited power. She couldn’t care less for sprouts. Some of the most powerful, intelligent, muscular, quick and magical animals are carnivorous – however, vegans have an evolutionary advantage of being more prolific because they generally have easier access to more food.

    Why is it generally accepted by vegetarians that it’s okay for canines, felines, snakes, etc. to hunt and eat meat, but not humans? While I cringe at even hurting an ant, when it comes to nourishing the carnivore inside of me, I honor the sacrifice of life force an animal that has lost it’s life to nourish mine.

    Another question I pose to the anti-violent argument against vegetarianism: at what point to you draw the line in hurting or maiming a living thing: mammal, avian, piscean, fungal, vegetable? Who’s to say a carrot doesn’t suffer when it is killed for a carrot juice? Just because it doesn’t have eyes or a brain doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t have consciousness.

    I too will be devoured by the world at the end of my days. In the meantime, I am following my conscious, high-wisdom intuition and eating as I am guided to in each moment with full consciousness and gratitude for the abundance that the World has to offer. That’s the best I can do.

    Life feeds on Life feeds on Life feeds on Life…

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