Craig Russell addresses a contentious question in his recent essay, Blood, Power, and Freedom regarding the slaughter of animals for food. While I share many points of agreement with Craig, decades of wrestling with the same ethical dilemma have spurred me to rethink my own conclusions repeatedly. At the age of 14, I first decided to become a vegetarian although I'd been raised in a carnivorous household, and despite an on-again off-again transition process, eventually I did settle into a vegetarian diet and stuck with it for decades, with periodic lapses for the sake of seafood. Currently my diet includes fish, but I haven't partaken intentionally of poultry or red meat (I've encountered an occasional suspicious tasting morsel in take-out or salad bar food) for about twenty-five years now.
About thirteen years ago, I was caring for a cat with a chronic health issue. During my research into holistic nutritional approaches I found disturbing anecdotes of problems associated with commercial pet diets. I decided to switch from processed pet food to a raw food diet, stepping into an ethical dilemma. As long as I can remember, cats have been my honored family members and beloved companions - I like dogs as well, and a vegetarian dog lover in similar circumstances might confront the same dilemma I did.
Cats are not vegetarians by nature, but it was easy to ignore that messy fact and maintain a complacent attitude regarding vegetarian superiority while I was feeding my cats store bought kibble. Switching over to a homemade diet of fresh food meant buying meat and preparing it - initially, the thought horrified me enough to briefly consider attempting a vegetarian diet for my cats, as a few intrepid individuals have undoubtedly done, but that felt wrong. What objections I had to eating meat myself, it seemed unjust to force upon the carnivorous cats I loved - who would have suffered the consequences of that decision had I made it. As much as my conscience rebelled at the prospect of buying meat, I saw no alternative that seemed feasible. Letting my cats run loose to hunt squirrels and birds might have been an option under ideal circumstances, but I like birds and squirrels too.
Mankind co-exists with other carnivorous creatures by respecting them as carnivores and not by turning tigers into vegetarians. Domesticated predators like cats and dogs evolved in popularity among humans as pets, probably because they offer man protection against unfriendly wild predators and rodents - their carnivorous nature achieving them greater status as man's allies than herbivorous creatures easily cultivated as livestock. Dogs and cats earned their way into the shelter of human households by an exchange of goods and services, and presumably became exempt from the menu in many cultures on account of popular affection for creatures whose close companionship seemed mutually beneficial.
After I left high school I worked for a year at an organic community farm. One day I was asked to help slaughter a chicken and held one end of the rope while a coworker held the other end, and the boss swung the axe. That experience wasn't pleasant - watching the headless body thrash around reinforced my desire to exclude meat from my diet. I don't think I could ever kill an animal for sport, only for survival if I were starving or attacked. On rare occasions when I've been unable to avoid hitting a squirrel or other critter while driving, or experienced mishaps like birds flying into a building and unable to find their way out, I've felt deeply saddened that the lives of man and beast frequently collide in unfortunate ways. Whenever I see a dead animal in the road I say a prayer for it, because that helps me to remember that however vital the life of the flesh may be, all corporeal life decomposes eventually into inanimate substance, yet life continues to renew itself. Life is a temporary condition, a loan of breath that death will eventually reclaim, as in the parable of the three pennies: not ours to keep but to invest wisely and cautiously while we hold it, in hopes of future returns from the investments we've chosen for posterity's sake.
Candid appreciation of the nature of life takes into needful consideration the problem of death, and the brutal paradox inherent in nature that dictates a carnivorous appetite as an attribute of the dominant members of the food chain. Conquering appetites of the flesh and for the flesh enhances a sense of the spiritual aspects of life for some people, but not for others, and in some cases it seems harmful - not only for carnivorous animals, but for people whose constitutions may not adapt well to a vegetarian diet. At one point I tried a strictly vegan diet and lasted less than a week on it - that might work for some people, but not for me. I do not expect that my largely vegetarian diet would suit many other people, either on the omnivorous side or the vegan side of the dietary preference spectrum.
I wholeheartedly agree with Craig that cultural dependence on factory farming appears unhealthy and lamentable from many angles. However, market mechanisms are at work to provide alternatives - from local organic and free-range farms, to the meat counters at Whole Foods or Wild Oats markets, to the manufacturers of an expanding variety of meat substitutes, to the appearance of diverse vegetarian selections at restaurants in response to demand. The subtle but powerful response of the market to provide healthier alternatives for omnivores and vegetarians alike accommodates individual freedom. Gradually, sad consequences of factory farming and industrial agriculture on human health seem bound for wider recognition, and the changing nature of consumer demand should accordingly reward responsive suppliers and encourage kinder, more wholesome farming methods. It seems just to argue that an exchange of goods and services between man and animal does perhaps make it appropriate for man to concern himself more with quality of life for food animals - to offer them a better life in exchange for an unnatural ending to it, at least. In the long run, care not to exploit dominance over animals might result in healthier people.
Consumer preferences ultimately regulate the marketplace, with little help from myriad interests who seek to impose forcible controls or restrictions on it. Personally, I am very grateful that the market provides ways to harmonize conflicting interests so I did not face the quandary of butchering animals to feed my cats or making them suffer an inadequate vegetarian diet on account of my unwillingness to kill for them. Recognizing that death is an intrinsic aspect of life, and that quality of life often feels subjectively more essential than longevity that carries the cost of poor quality of life, seems realistic if not idealistic.
Rather than a contentious tug-of-war between uppity omnivores and vegetarians, I prefer to witness respectful dialog about differing diets and perspectives. Hungry people care less for the interests of animals than well-fed people who are freer to concern themselves with the well being of creatures, unhampered by primitive needs and impulses. Unless we acknowledge varying individual needs honestly we fight an ongoing uphill battle in which everyone tries to change someone else's behavior through legal coercion, and/or social or economic pressure. In refusing to tolerate unpopular individual choices, people use many activist objections to strengthen mechanisms injurious to individual liberties.
Defining individual behavior as "addiction" implies that an individual has fallen helpless to the control of a substance (often, a dead plant), and "addiction" is often used to justify involuntary psychiatric treatment, or other forms of forcible intervention to save a person from the consequences of his choices. Dependence upon substances is an entirely natural condition, however - one could argue that an addiction to air, sunlight, or water should be reason to deprive addicted persons of access to their daily fix. Perhaps addiction to sleep robs society of productivity, so sleep might be prohibited on that basis. Surely we should all feel grateful to find ourselves freed of such habitual dependencies and addictions?
Craig also once wrote a staunch defense of smokers in his compassionate and thoughtful style that I, as a smoker, profoundly appreciated - many people today find tobacco use so objectionable as to warrant various levels of prohibition, and consider tobacco addictive. The difference between medicine and poison is often determined by dosage, and often the difference between normal consumption and addiction to a substance seems determined by its acceptance amongst myriad individuals comprising a society. Instead of a society which offers friendly accommodations for smokers in exchange for business, patronage, or social participation in their communities, smokers and other "addicts" are increasingly penalized, marginalized, or subject to coercive "treatment" to modify their behavior. To call a person's dependence on any substance, whether it's tobacco, heroin, or red meat, an "addiction," justifies the busybodies who seek to aggressively regulate personal behavior for the betterment of society. Sadly, the betterment of society inevitably calls for greater limitation of individual autonomy, and society never seems better off as a result.
I'm a smoker and a long-time vegetarian - perhaps I'm addicted to vegetables, as well as to cigarettes, if mere reliance upon a substance constitutes an addiction. Once I thought of meat eating as a vice, and felt that carnivorous appetites seemed unworthy of human beings… I still hope that market forces will prevail on behalf of more humane methods of farming, to meet the insatiable demand for meat by omnivores and carnivores. I'm too fond of various meat-eating species to wish them out of existence, or begrudge them a market or society capable of meeting their needs, and I could wish for a society friendly to my needs as a smoker. Call smokers "addicts" at risk of secondhand hazards to your own liberties. If an addict is subject to coercive regulation on the basis of popular opinion regarding socially acceptable substance uses, witness the sorry plight of today's harried smokers and consider it a warning label on your freedoms of tomorrow, dear reader. The surgeon general may be hazardous to your civil liberties, according to a smoker's report.
"Addiction" is a treacherous label - one that freedom lovers should stay wary of using, or abusing at all. What might you be considered addicted to, if the relentless tide of popular opinion turns on you tomorrow: vitamins, salt, coffee, chocolate, the internet, Coca-Cola?
published at Endervidualism on 12/7/04