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?