I was at a petting zoo last summer, and above each animal hung a whiteboard with two bits of information: name and purpose. The purposes ranged from dairy to wool to breeding; the names from Wilfred to Bessie to Elmer. But it was the sign above a certain pig (whose name escapes me) that forever etched itself into my brain: “Purpose: meat.” NO. Every fiber of my being rebelled against that statement. The purpose of that pig was to play with other pigs, to roll around in the mud, to eat, to breathe, not to die, but to live! But I should have known better. I’d seen the horrors of Food, Inc. Twice. The food industry treats its animals (not to mention its human workers) as objects. Yet when I saw it in a documentary, I managed to say “Oh, that’s terrible, I hope that changes!” while changing exactly nothing about my own eating habits. Logically there was no excuse, but emotionally I was one step removed from the injustice on the screen. But looking into that pig’s eyes at the petting zoo moved something inside of me. There was nothing to hide behind, only me and the pig. I’d like to say that I never had pork again, but I caved here and there over the next few months, slowly weaning myself off of mammal.
It’s worth noting that I also looked eye-to-eye with a chicken that day, and was rather unmoved. Where in the pig I saw an impressive awareness, in the chicken I saw a stupendous idiocy, and my fowl consumption remained stable.
A couple months later, and it was time to register for freshman fall courses. As a prospective astrophysics major, I wanted to keep my schedule diverse—I needed something to balance the math and physics I knew I’d be taking. On the night before enrollment, I found myself sifting through glowing reviews for a philosophy class called Practical Ethics. It was taught by Peter Singer, who, I was able to deduce, is kind of a big deal. Most notably (to me, at least), he had twice been a guest on the Colbert Report, qualifying him as a “friend of the show.” I decided to sign up.
Several of the reviews suggested that Singer is quite convincing in his arguments against meat eating. I would discover midway through the course that respect for animals is something of a pet cause for Singer (no pun intended). After all, he first made a name for himself with the 1975 release of the unequivocally-titled Animal Liberation. Based on my summer experience, I knew I was a ripe candidate for vegetarianism, even veganism (although it wouldn’t be easy for chickens to earn my respect). And Singer didn’t disappoint; he spent the day before Thanksgiving describing in detail the evils of the meat industry, and soon I was faced with a six-hour flight and a thick stack of popular and philosophical papers, all telling me in some way, shape, or form why I shouldn’t be eating meat. I wasn’t sure if much turkey would be in my future.
It wasn’t long before I was sold on poultry. It doesn’t matter that every chicken I’ve seen has the intelligence of perhaps a slightly above-average rock. Their nervous systems are similar enough to ours that we know they feel pain. They suffer. And sticking them in overcrowded, unsanitary hellholes is pretty hard to justify.
Somewhere between New Jersey and California I became a vegan. I was reading from Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma at the time. “You look away—or you stop eating animals,” he writes. I wasn’t going to look away. I won’t get into details here, but a quick Google search on the factory farm yields some stuff that’s hard on the stomach, in more ways than one. Luckily for my love of pizza and ice cream, I didn’t end up going all the way. It was Pollan himself, in an apocalyptic description of a “Vegan Utopia,” who convinced me that widespread veganism might not be best for animals or humans. And in an article called “Why I am Only a Demi-Vegetarian,” R. M. Hare used simple supply-demand economics to convince me that supporting humane farms did more to encourage animal welfare than abstaining from meat altogether.
Philosophically, I subscribe to Hare’s demi-vegetarianism. But in practice, because it’s hard to always know where meat is coming from, I’ve been pretty much a complete vegetarian in 2012. Recently, two events have forced me to reconsider this. The first is that I discovered that Princeton’s dining halls obtain chicken from Bell & Evans, a farm that even PETA has commended for its kindness. I watched a video on their website of all the little chickens wandering around and was suitably convinced that they had lived a good life. So did this mean that I’m going to start eating chicken in the dining halls?
Secondly, I found out about a contest the New York Times was having. They were challenging readers to defend the act of meat eating from an ethical standpoint. Judges included Peter Singer and Michael Pollan, and the winning essay(s) would be published. If I was a demi-vegetarian, then technically, I was okay with eating meat. Answering why proved to be harder than expected.
My essay is on a very limited topic. Please do not use it as a defense of the meat-eating culture. I do not think that the “positive” of meat’s flavor outweighs the negative of animal cruelty, and if forced to answer honestly, I believe even the most impassioned of food connoisseurs must be forced to concede that meat does not taste quite that good. Not only that, but America’s excess meat consumption is a serious component of the obesity epidemic we are facing. I am defending meat-eating as a solitary act, not as a lifestyle.
One of the more absurd critiques I’ve faced is that, because animal rights are less important than other issues, we should ignore them. But a simple change in eating habits does not take away any time and money from other issues, so this is no excuse. Even Peter Singer, a founder of the animal rights movement, spent more time talking about poverty and promoting charity in Practical Ethics than he did defending animals.
Forgive me, but I’ve spent the last six months enlightening (or boring) my family and friends as to the drawbacks of meat, and it’s a high horse I often find myself slipping onto with effortless grace. But for this one time I’ll defend you. Some of you are people I love, some of you I do not know, and some of you are in between, but most of you eat meat. Some of you may have already reached the below conclusion, and I’m sure the rest have their reasons. Maybe you’ve never thought critically about your diet, maybe you have and you’re a hypocrite, or maybe you’re simply weak-willed. I’m here to tell you it’s okay. In the following “Grudging Defense of the Human Carnivore,” which may (but probably won’t) show up in the New York Times next week, I assure you that you are not a horrible person, and we can still be friends.
On April 6th, I ate a chicken sandwich for the first time this year. I hadn’t purposely eaten meat in months, and, to be honest, I find something rather base in ending a life merely to satisfy one’s taste buds. A vegetarian diet can satisfy the same nutritional needs in a healthier, more efficient, and in my opinion tastier manner.
So I am not going to defend those who eat meat several times a day. I still find hunting mildly barbaric, the production of veal exceedingly so. And I don’t think it is possible to justify the bastions of animal suffering that are today’s factory farms. Instead, I will defend my chicken sandwich. The chicken, I have been assured, came from a farm so humane that even PETA has praised it. I ate a small serving, complemented by a hearty helping of vegetables. This type of selective, moderate meat consumption, championed by philosopher R.M. Hare, would encourage the industry to shift toward less cruel practices and to scale down in size (thus preventing overcrowding and decreasing pollution). For the individual eater, this lifestyle would limit obesity-related health problems, not to mention the various cancers caused by red meat.
By sidestepping questions of animal abuse and health, we can focus on one specific dilemma: is our decision to kill and eat this animal morally permissible?
From the modern human’s viewpoint, this quickly devolves into unanswerable questions: does a cow have a concept of the future?; does a lobster have a soul? But a rudimentary understanding of science and history gives us a markedly different perspective. In the most simplistic terms possible, a few millennia ago, humans figured out we liked the taste of pigs, cows, and chickens. But rather than hunt them, we would try something new. We’d offer them shelter, protect them from predators, and give them food, but we would also periodically kill and eat them. Some animals took the deal and their descendants can be found in a supermarket near you; those who didn’t eventually die off.
Of the three major farm animals, only pigs might be capable of surviving in the wild, but even then, we cannot simply release them; ecosystems are renowned for their fragility. But even if we could: imagine you are a pig. Would you prefer to be constantly avoiding predators while struggling to find food and shelter, or for all to be provided for you? Clearly the latter, but what if that easier life ended in premature death? The hard life has at least the slim possibility of a full, natural lifespan—in the farm, there is none. Is it worth it?
This is a difficult question, and I cannot answer for a pig. I am unconvinced that a pig is even capable of comprehending such a question (much less a chicken). But when Benjamin Franklin declared, “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety,” I doubt he was including livestock. The only metric we can confidently assign to most animals is: are my needs being met, or am I suffering?
I still believe that both health and ethics mandate a drastic reduction in individual meat consumption. But I feel confident that, in the case of my meal, the chicken’s needs were met. She enjoyed her life, and when a painless tranquilizing gas ended it, she did not suffer as she would have in the wild. So although I plan to go back to my veggie burgers, I cannot in good conscience condemn the omnivores around me for the occasional chicken sandwich.