Thanksgiving is always a good time to accent one’s moral superiority at the dinner table. I’m in a grumpy, stressed out state of mind, so here’s my beef:
Picture a scene I’ve seen often: I’m with a group, sitting down to dinner. I inquire about a vegetarian or a vegan option. After I order I’m accosted by a meat-eater, peppered with questions about my eating habits and more. “Do you wear leather?” “Do you think animals have rights?” I’m accused of hypocrisy on this or that point, confronted with a series of hypotheticals probing my limits, forced to defend my lifestyle. “Would you eat meat in the desert?” “Wasn’t Hitler a vegetarian?” All I did was order the pasta. Every vegetarian has such a story, the indignant carnivore at the dinner table trying to eat our arguments alive.
It is often non-college people – I call them “civilians” – that are loudly perplexed and hostile to our quiet vegetarianism. Princetonians, for example, are used to the signs on the dining hall dishes that indicate vegan, vegetarian or otherwise. My oral defense parallels, perhaps, the inquisition that greets a religious believer in the company of Northeastern liberal graduate students. Carnivores, atheists and liberals alike cop an attitude that asks “how dare you practice such habits so at odds with what I do.” So, when vegetarians gather and compare notes on the rest of you (and we do talk about you), we entertain the possibility that such dinner-table precepts are the result of profound moral insecurity. That is, though most of us are not preachy, our practices are seen as a moral affront to the eating of dead animals. We may be a logistical bother, but rarely are we self-righteous… until now.
Carnivores, let me tell you, on these matters, we are better than you. Yes, even morally superior, as you suspected. Someone has to be, and it is us, not you. We have the better arguments and the better diet, even better food options. Skeptical? I won’t rehearse the usual rational arguments for refraining from eating meat, you should know them by now. There are even better a/rational or irrational arguments, “religious” arguments, arguments which make Peter Singer nervous.
Allow me to poke three major groups with my moody self-righteousness: liberals, Christians and conservatives.
Liberal meat eaters perhaps feel some guilt over eating meat. They eat meat primarily because they have no self-discipline. Liberals, being liberals, tend to think about their own pleasure before the suffering of others. Since vegetarianism requires they give up something they enjoy, the taste of meat, they make excuses. These are the types that wear a PETA sticker on their leather jacket, or drive SUVs with Greenpeace bumper stickers. Liberal meat-eaters hate arguments like this because it reminds them that they are doing something wrong. The challenge to liberal carnivores is that eating is a daily thing; it requires one to walk the walk, not just talk the bumper sticker three meals a day. It is easy to wax liberally about future world peace, another to refrain, immediately, from eating dead animals. Since liberals are really hedonists, they hate being told what to do. Liberals ought to be vegetarians for all of the rational reasons and then some. For one, refraining from doing “what we want” builds character. Liberals need to become more virtuous, less attentive to their own desires and more practically sensitive to the suffering of others, animals included.
Christians are no less off the hook. Many Christian thinkers would agree that Christianity shouldn’t be a spiritual translation of our consumerist American culture, but something morally different and spiritually challenging. Christianity is, in its best formulation, a worldview that posits a sort of absolute peace. Refraining from meat eating is one daily practice that affirms that desire for peace. There is so much violence in the world we can’t control, what is on our plates and in our mouths we can indeed control. Christianity is, on my reading, about self-control, about refusing to simply be lead around by our base desires for sex, drugs, money or otherwise. Christians try to refrain from inappropriate carnal pleasures, resisting the temptations of flesh. Why? Because uncontained pleasure leads to pain and the absence of peace. Meat-eating is just another daily carnal pleasure, and one that most evidently causes pain and suffering for animals.
Religious people often reply that humans are profoundly different than animals, that animals lack souls. Soulful or soul food, animals are still a profound part of God’s Creation. A recent book, Dominion, makes the case for this, as well as for Christian vegetarianism. The desire of carnivores has led to an evident imbalance in Creation. Our meat consumption is responsible for devastating levels of water waste, grain consumption (for feed), methane from cows, and other uncomfortable factors. Billons of chickens die painful deaths for sinful palates. How much chicken suffering adds up to one human? Factory farming, the major method of killing animals for consumption is for me, part and parcel of the “Culture of Death” that so troubled John Paul II. One may hold some abstract pro-life position on abortion but think nothing of eating milk-fed veal or factory farmed pork. In this way, the Christian who eats meat is no better than the pro-abortionist in her callousness towards life.
Conservatives ask, isn’t meat eating part of the natural order? Not anymore, now that we know how to survive without those cheeseburgers and bacon. When clever carnivores ask vegetarians if we think that animals should be prevented from killing and eating each other, our answer should be yes. After all, in God’s Kingdom, all creatures will live in peace; the Lion will lie down with the Lamb. Conservatives, of course, avoid such utopian behavior. The world is tragic and people are weak and sinful. This may be true, but consider conservative Roger Scrunton. Last month, debating Peter Singer, Scrunton, a Tory philosopher who raises his own mutton, bemoaned the loss of a more decent past when families gathered around the table to say grace over the precious Sunday Roast. Prof Eric Gregory asked if “Sunday Tofu” would work just as well, and indeed Scrunton agreed. Scrunton’s points are classic (and class-based) conservatism, different from the thuggish Young Republicans of today: an appreciation of custom, the wisdom of old ways, a disdain for postmodernity, and, here I’m editorializing, the conflation of tradition with truth. There is something appealing in these arguments, which philosophers dismiss as empty rhetoric. What is lost with fast food culture, what Scrunton called the culture of flatulence, is the dignity of fellowship, and the bonds that tie the living to the dead.
Slow food aside, Scrunton agreed with Singer on the crucial issues, that factory farming is devastating to the moral order. Singer sees factory farming as concentration camps generating suffering. We are against suffering, animals as well as humans, so the systematic creation of useless suffering ought to stand as the target of our ire. Factory farms are exquisitely modernist and Fordist, instruments of efficiency that feed our unending desire for flesh. Conservatives should frown upon the all-you-can-eat buffet, the factory farm, and the intemperate appetite.
In closing, I should note that Peter Singer conceded to Ted Nugent last week. Singer admitted in class that under certain conditions the killing of deer was permissible. This is wrong. Killing animals hurts your soul, even if Singer doesn’t think you have one. Killing is always something tragic, not something to be allowed, endorsed, or celebrated. Of course, Singer just doesn’t employ rational robotic arguments in order to reduce the suffering of animals, he sometimes appeals to something beyond the rational. For his class, we watch the video “Meet your Meat” and face the suffering and slaughter of factory farmed animals. These emotional spectacles, more than any other factor, I suspect, turns people into vegetarians, not sound utilitarian arguments against “Speciesism”.
Seeing red? Good. Let’s see if you’re up for the challenge. Consider refraining from meat a disciplining practice, an affirmation of life, or a revolt against vice. Op-out of the carnivorous bad habit and join the ranks of virtuous eaters, the few and the proud. Tofu pride anyone?