If Meat is Murder

Eating meat is a completely natural thing to do. At least, it is for a boy raised in a white, middle class English household. Eating meat was so normal that it didn’t even occur to me that some people would go without it.

At some point I became aware of vegetarianism and grew to have some sympathy for it, but my practice never changed. From time to time I would question the morality of eating meat and come to the conclusion that it was immoral, but these thoughts never had any impact – I would return home to eat meat for dinner each day, and didn’t ever think of changing my own practice. Making a change was, in a sense, unthinkable. I was fortunate that a friend gave a chance to step back and make a choice.

He had vowed to go without meat for a couple of weeks, to see what it was like, and I decided to join him. As it happened, we both found this incredibly, almost outrageously, easy. At no point did meat appear to me any less delicious, but there was never any question of eating any. I had made a choice to not eat meat, and any thoughts of how tasty it might be were an irrelevance rather than a temptation.

I carried on after the two weeks were up. This was a wonderful moment, in which I had a genuine choice. I was no longer an entrenched meat eater, but I was also no longer committed to my trial of vegetarianism. I therefore had complete freedom to choose either path, and it was simply a question of following my desires. I chose to carry on not eating meat. Why?

The straightforward answer is that it felt right. For those who like to look at decisions from an intellectual/thinking standpoint, my reasoning was mainly based around the fact that eating meat didn’t seem necessary. I didn’t want to bring about the death of various animals for my consumption if there was no good reason for doing so. I’d eaten well in the preceding two weeks, and couldn’t bring myself to actively eat meat.

After 6 weeks of test-run vegetarianism, I returned home from university to my meat-eating family. For the moment, this was to be the end point of my experiment. This wasn’t a function of principle or experimentation, but simply the product of a lazy desire to avoid preparing my own meals.

On the first evening back we had a chicken curry – tasty, no doubt, but certainly not a joyous reunion with meat eating. I would have been just as happy eating a vegetable curry. I couldn’t help but feel that it was a bit wasteful and that I was going to have to figure out a better system. I took stock of the thoughts floating around in my head, and came up with a system based on these axioms:

The core axioms:

1) Eating meat is not necessary for survival
2) Eating meat requires the death of an animal.
3) Killing for no reason is bad. (Killing something is not the worst thing you can do to it, but should not be done lightly; and being killed probably isn’t exactly a pleasant experience)
4) For a large proportion of our nutritional needs, a vegetarian diet is more efficient than a diet including meat. In other words, it would be possible to feed more people if we ate less meat. This is quite important given the rising global population.

The lesser axioms:

5) Eating meat occasionally is nutritionally beneficial
6) The moral choices of an individual should not be forced upon others in such a way as to override their own moral choices. As a guest, one should not bend in one’s moral system, but should ensure not to impose one’s morality on the host.
7) It’s good to be able to vary nutritional intake in times of illness, to help recovery.

The lazy axiom:
8 ) I eat a main meal with my parents twice a week, and my mum always cooks a meat dish. Laziness discourages me from cooking something separate.

These eight axioms have led me to adopt the following dietary system:

1) I eat two meals a week which contain meat.

2) I can eat gelatine-containing products on a day in which I eat a meal containing meat.

3) If I am staying as a guest in a meat-eating household, I will only refrain from eating meat where this can be achieved without causing the host to alter catering plans.

I don’t have a background in ethics, or in nutrition, so would be interested to see what people make of the above. If someone could challenge axiom 5) about nutritional benefit, you might be able to make a full-blown vegetarian out of me. Conversely, if someone can challenge the second axiom and fourth axioms (in other words, if we can efficiently create artificial meat), I will happily return to full-time meat eating.

I’ve been on this system for two years now, and am fit and healthy and happy with what I eat. When I do eat meat, I genuinely appreciate the experience. I have not found myself trying to circumnavigate the provisions that I’ve set out.

When recovering from a nasty illness in early 2010, I briefly returned to meat eating to build up my strength, but was keen to stop as soon as possible. I am very aware of the risk of diluting my principles to meet certain expediencies, such as illness or being a good guest, but feel that I have accommodated these in a way that does not undermine the core of what I’m trying to do. Most importantly, I remain firm in my conviction, and in my desire to only eat meat twice a week.

This flexibility has probably been a strength, allowing me to adapt to circumstances as I find them, staying true to the core convictions without having to worry about occasional practicalities derailing things. Because I have not made an absolute moral commitment to not eat meat, I am able to more sustainably refrain from doing so.

What do you think of this system I’ve devised? Is there something in it, or is it, in fact, based on hesitancy and a refusal to carry things through to their conclusions? Are the ‘lesser axioms’ and the ‘lazy axiom’, as I have classified them here, weak baggage that must be jettisoned? Is this ‘flexibility’, as I call it, actually a sign of weakness? Should I, in fact, adopt a more challenging system of absolute values (ie adopt the axiom: eating any meat is bad), which demands more from me? If my motivation is about the immorality of unnecessary killing, then surely this is the only way? But if my motivation also comes from an environmental standpoint, surely my sustained reduction in meat eating is sufficient? My motivation behind my reduction in meat eating is a blend of factors, so, in a way, sticking on the current system of 2 meals a week allows me to indulge all these motivations, without having to narrow myself down to one main factor.

I’m really keen to get a discussion going here, as I’m interested to see what people make of this, and excited to see if there are any suggestions for improvements to the above.

What do you make of it all? What are your own opinions on the morality of meat eating? Is meat eating a live moral question for you? If not, why not? Have you ever tried to devise your own moral system around a set of beliefs and actions, and, if so, how did you do it, and did it work?

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9 Responses to If Meat is Murder

  1. lmm says:

    You are committing a logical fallacy on 4) and probably also 5); if your intent is to eat in ways that help “feed the world”, and to eat nutritiously, those should be your aims, and you should make decisions on specific foods based on those, rather than a blanket decision on meat in general. Of course on average raising meat makes less productive use of farming land than growing crops, but there is meat that is produced very efficiently (welsh lamb is raised on land that would be unsuitable for anything else), and there are specific vegetarian foods that are produced very inefficiently.In general if you’re claiming eating meat is a moral issue then I think you do need a more firm, consistent position. We’d never say it’s ok if you only murder on Thursdays. You could argue that your system allows you to behave as morally as possible while maintaining your nutritional requirements, but since it is possible (if awkward) to eat well without eating meat I don’t think that’ll wash. Whatever slight nutritional difference you gain can’t possibly justify causing the deaths of starving children in africa (if we’re going with argument 4), and your morality would have to be very precisely calibrated if you think you’re justified in killing a few animals, but not as many as you would while eating without your restrictions.(FWIW I’m a happy meat-eater myself)

    • Excellent points. Can you think of any practical ways that I could find out which food is most efficient in terms of production and nutritional value?

      Of course, in terms of meat production, I’m actually in favour of less efficient means of production, in an ethical sense (ie whilst battery farming is very efficient, I’d actually rather eat meat that has had a better quality of life).

      And yes, you’ve struck at the heart of the non-absolute nature of my current system. If something is bad, then surely it is bad whether you do it twice a week or twelve times a week. Doing it less is a start, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

      • lmm says:

        Bah, didn’t seem to get an email notification.

        The crude, first-order, but quite accurate approximation to efficiency is to look at price; if you go for the cheapest food it’s generally because it’s been most efficiently produced. Sometimes this will dovetail neatly with your other ethical goals (e.g. quite often the tesco value/sainsbury’s basics version is almost or in some cases exactly the same as the “normal” one, the price difference being due to the fancier packaging, which is thrown away immediately and only serves to damage the environment).
        But as you’ve touched on, at other times it may clash. The most efficient food producers are generally the giant multinationals; their very profit-driven ruthlessness will see them making the best use of their land, wheras small-scale local farmers are often horribly inefficient. (this reminds me of the counterintuitive thing where if you want to minimize the CO2 output of the food you eat, you’re better off buying imported food than that grown in Britain – the diesel burnt by small tractors chugging round our small fields outweighs the cost of transporting food from elsewhere).

        Of course sometimes the big multinationals are guilty of their own environmental malpractice, and it’s hard to know about specific foods without researching them in detail, but I’d say price makes a good guideline. This probably dovetails with what you’re currently doing – most of the time the vegetarian option is cheaper, but I suspect occasional meat ends up being a cheaper way to get your iron and B12 than the specialised foods you need to keep those up while remaining vegetarian.

        Of course you have to balance this against specific ethical concerns – battery farming saves on feed, thus lowering the price of grain and (in an indirect but no less real way) saves the lives of the hungry poor, but whether that’s worth the animal cruelty is your call.

  2. Mike Smith says:

    Interesting stuff. For myself I’ve never much gone for the “meat is murder” standpoint if only on pragmatic grounds; wild animals rarely die of old age, but almost invariably of disease or predation. In that context, humane slaughter of animals that have been well treated during their lives is possibly an improvement (battery farming, for instance, clearly isn’t).

    The level of conscious experience possessed by most animals that we might eat is also worth considering; clearly this will be contentious but on comparative neuroanatomical grounds a good argument can be made that chickens, say, simply do not have a conscious experience of the world as we do – they lack brain structures implicated in human consciousness. After all, chickens can survive pretty well with everything above the brainstem removed by beheading. So to varying degrees according to the animal in question I would question whether the animal can be said to suffer – and therefore whether killing it can be an evil act. But this argument is a weak one and perhaps premature; our understanding of this sort of thing is very much in its infancy.

    I agree with lmm that some meats may be more acceptable than others from an ecological standpoint. Equally there are issues with some crops – those grown on land previously covered by rainforest, for instance. That said cutting down or eliminating meat in your diet will tend to have a positive ecological impact, albeit in a blunt-instrument kind of way and allowing that in this regard some meat may not be a problem.

    Personally part of the reason I’m trialling vegetarianism is for the health benefits; animal fats in particular play merry hell with the body over the course of a lifetime, raising the risk of cardiovascular disease and various cancers. Meat can be eliminated from the diet without adverse effects to health, but only by carefully making sure to replace nutrients that would normally come from meat. Specifically, various minerals, vitamin B12 and essential amino acids. Whey protein, which you can get cheaply from internet suppliers of bodybuilding supplements, will boost the protein that vegetarian food often lacks and in particular provide the essential amino acids that the body cannot synthesise and which are present only at low levels in plants. For vegans, these amino acids can be got without resorting to dairy; kidney beans for instance have a good balance of amino acids. The rest can be got from supplements; a careful mix of vegetables will also solve this problem, but is a logistical headache, and the supplements are cheap. If I were raising children I would be considerably more cautious; a vegetarian diet can provide everything a growing body needs, but it’s a trickier business than for adults. So a veggie diet can see you right, but needs a better understanding of nutrition than for carnivorous folk.

    • Thanks for the comments, Mike; they’re an excellent addition.

      This discussion’s really got me thinking about the tension between the ‘anti-killing’ and ecological strands of my thinking. I probably need to think more about the former: Given that I agree that a humane death after a pleasant life is acceptable, it seems that I should be placing most emphasis on the ecological strand, and place more of an emphasis on welfare of any animals that I end up killing.

      I completely agree with what you say about conscious experience. I know that I’m happy to slaughter bacteria in the countless millions, but am less certain of the conscious experience of an animal, so an inclined towards caution. As our understanding improves here, I imagine that this will sharpen my thinking of the acceptability of the process of killing, and of the standard of life of livestock.

      Thanks for the nutritional information – that’s all very helpful.

  3. Hugh says:

    I don’t think that 6) and 8) have been developed as much as they could to make your position/system as strong as it actually is. Eating meat when you are eating meals with your family is not simply a question of your ‘laziness’ and not wanting to cook for yourself. Obviously I don’t know much about the structure, size and habits of your family, but to attempt to cook your own alternative at any family mealtime would inconvenience others, not just yourself.

    This is a long way down the scale in terms of living by your principles and not imposing them on others, but it is still a real consideration. In that context, I also think it’s legitimate to consider the ‘manners’ involved. Small amounts of regularly hurt feelings are of moral significance, particularly when 3) is held on utilitarian grounds. That is, you are measuring the pleasure/pain units of animals living and dying, the pleasure/pain units involved in environmentally aware dieting and the pleasure/pain units involved in your and your family’s convenience. These are all very hard sets of units to measure and compare, particularly as they involve a great deal of uncertainty, ignorance, distance and complexity.

    Without expanding this post too much, I notice that you’ve pointed out that you’re not a ‘trained ethicist’, so it could help you to think through these things by looking up what is meant by the ‘hedonic calculus’ and applying it to 3), 4), 6) and 8). I think there’s a serious case to be made that 3) and 4) do not oblige one to seriously or habitually inconvenience others (perhaps and yourself), particularly when those others are aware of 2), 3) and 4) themselves (so you don’t need to ‘preach’ to them).

  4. Dad says:

    Yes, most of us are shameless meat-eating hypocrites, but we can still be concerned about animal welfare and at least try to source ‘free-range’ products. This also applies to eggs and dairy. We could all avoid the intensely-reared alternative, but there is a big price penalty to pay. I wonder how much of this is justified and how many shoppers’ selections are influenced largely by price;

    If we all cut out meat for just one day a week it would reduce consumption by, er, 14%, which would have a big impact on the supply chain with no significant impact on our nutritional intake;

    Much as I admire anybody with moral principles to live by, there is a dilemma for parents whose growing children become vegetarians. Being concerned that the child enjoys a healthy diet, it must be difficult to balance a parent’s responsibility with respecting a child’s decision.

    Finally, a question: Is it fair for parents to impose their morality on their children?

  5. Beth says:

    damn posting system. The above are only mentioned in contradiction to ‘vegetarains tend to have lower IQs’ – there’s a lot of conflicting argument on this but without sounding overtly arrogant the only people I know that are vegetarians are all university educated. Now- I’ve been a vegetarian foralnost 16 years now- probably a reaonable amount of time to assess the health side of things. I’m in very good health and have been throughout my life aside from asthma which (unless anyone wants to shock me wit new info) is unrelated. The main problem I seek to avoid is anemia and as such I take iron- however i feel that this is more down to my laziness in ot eating the right things- something whic is incredibly common in this country. If you examine the diet of most adults in this country I’d contest that they don’t get the right levels of vitamins and minerals- I haven’t found this more or less difficult beng a vegetarian. As someone who became a vegetarian at the age of 6 there were concerns for my parents whic I didn’t fully appreciate until I was older- however I don’t feel tha tthe inconvenience ocassionally caused is immoral s my parents respect my choices and would not want me to sacrifice them for the sake of convenience.In this sense I think this is a lazy argument as you’ve said yourself- I’d also contest that my family are heathier because of th new foods they’ve been encouraged to try because of me. I often think about the hypocrisy of my lifestyle and in particular the fact I wear leather shoes- I’ve come to the conclusion (without any research) that buying a pair of leather boots that last a few years is far more ecologically friendly than oe smade from other materialsthat do not last as long and goig through at least 1 pair a ear- though this may be me tryin to delude myself. I focus on my own experiences as a contrast to yours. I cold go on (and on) into te ethical arguments but honestly I’m too hungover :) The only other thing I would ask people on a slight tangent then is whether they think it’s immoral to have a large family given the overppopulation of the world and the limited resources.

    • lmm says:

      On what grounds are you claiming the world is overpopulated, or that resources are limited? With very few exceptions, it’s difficulty of extraction that limits our use of most resources, rather than an absolute supply limit – and that extraction is done by people; more people means more scientists to invent better ways to do it, and more workers to get it done. Some of the most densely populated countries (Taiwan, Korea – or even the UK is far above the world average) are among the richest (although there are also many among the poorest), and the world has grown far richer over the past 300 years at the same time as it grew vastly more populous.

      If I was to pick something tangential to question the morality of, how about living in the country (where you need a car to go anywhere, and the government spends far more to provide your schools/doctors/etc.) when your job doesn’t require you to? That’s one thing I’ve always felt a bit guilty about my family doing.

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