A beloved uncle and aunt, husband-and-wife farmers, named their first cow Rebecca, a lovely, sweet-tempered red and white Ayrshire, and we all fell for her. My uncle and aunt couldn’t bring themselves to have her killed, and so she died of old age. They never named another cow, which made it easier to accept the cows’ ultimate fate at the slaughterhouse.
Eating meat isn’t a problem only for vegetarians and vegans. Eating meat requires the killing of animals, many of which we cherish: innocent cows, cute lambs, graceful deer.
I do sometimes wonder whether our distress over the animals we must kill is more aesthetic than moral. Do many of us have misgivings about eating shark? After all, sharks don’t think twice about having us for dinner. A shark exists to eat and be eaten by other animals. Barring cannibalism, humans are spared the “being eaten by” part.
On the other hand, we are so repelled by insects, for example, that recent efforts to convert us to the idea of eating them is, to date, just a curiosity. We recoil from eating monkeys because they seem so close to us on the evolutionary scale, while the idea of eating dogs and cats is repellent because they live in our homes.
Cows, sheep and poultry are in that unlucky zone between utterly alien and completely familiar. We carnivores are willing to eat them because they don’t repel us, while most of us today very rarely, if ever, have contact with them.
I was conscious of their in-between status last summer during a vacation in Scotland, where sheep were almost always nearby. They’d bleat and bah with voices that soon became distinct, most in a mid-range, but there was always at least one bass and more than one tenor, presumably the lambs. In the field just over there, as night came on, they’d say goodnight to each other in a moving choir of affection.
A college friend, Drausin Wulsin, one of the most humane men I know, fulfilled his dream of becoming a farmer in middle age, after having been spokesperson for the Cincinnati Zoo. Drausin is a true environmentalist, and his affection for his animals is genuine. A year or so ago, he came to New York, and Laura (my wife) and I had dinner with him. With minimal badgering from us, he explained the philosophy underlying his raising animals for human consumption. Now, he has put it into writing on his very readable and remarkably informative weekly blog. Here’s one paragraph from that essay:
There is little more sacred than eating the meat of an animal one has raised. It is spiritual, for some; it is the ultimate connection and consecration between living entities. The juices, the meat, the bones — to touch, feel, and ingest them is a literal communion of spirits. That a noble animal would give itself to us inspires me to give back all the more to its brethren, forging the sacred cycle of connection. We are mutually entwined, for without our reverent consumption, the domestic animal would not exist, it would not be born, and would not experience a full and contented life, roaming pastures, bearing offspring, and building organic matter. If one loves domestic animals, one needs to eat them to keep them alive.
Drausin’s rationale seems to me irrefutable. If we didn’t raise cows, sheep and other domesticated animals for human consumption, they couldn’t survive because they have no defense against certain predators. True, they were bred to be defenseless, just as dogs have been bred to be dependent on us. But the past can’t be undone, and for these animals to exist today, they need human protection.
Drausin also contends in his essay that our distinction between animals and vegetables may well be false. Indeed, studies suggest that plants respond to stimuli just as other living things do, even if they can’t articulate their feelings with a “moo” or a “bah.” Explain it any way you like, but it is striking to watch plants react to sunlight, both as the days get longer in the spring and as (from our earthly point of view) the sun traverses the sky. Each time I prune a plant’s stems and branches in order to maintain a certain shape and to stop it from growing excessively, I worry I am causing it pain. With that thought in mind, Laura encourages me to sharply cut a branch rather than roughly break it off with my hands. One day we may be appalled to discover just how much suffering we cause plants.
When we contemplate the animals raised for our consumption, we think we face a binary moral choice: either, like Drausin, we reconcile our need with our sense of right; or, like my vegetarian and vegan friends, we stop eating meat. However, I discover in myself a third position, though it isn’t a position at all: I can’t reconcile killing animals for my food, and yet I continue to eat them.
This hypocrisy is hardly exceptional. Environmentalism isn’t about ending the harm, sad to say, but about minimizing it. Vegetarianism and veganism are similarly relational, if you accept that plants are as capable as animals of suffering. Nature is at once astoundingly beautiful and incredibly cruel. It brings out our aesthetic responses while forcing us to do harm.
Taken to an extreme, this position suggests a Machiavellian attitude that moral failure is inescapable and, therefore, acceptable. But how we conduct ourselves toward our fellow human beings isn’t dictated by nature, at least until the day population size overwhelms us. We don’t need to kill other people to survive, unless they plan on killing us first.
In Maria Anderson’s “Cougar,” a story I happened to mention in last week’s post, the protagonist wants to kill the cougar that killed his dog. But his friend argues against it, saying, “everyone’s got to eat.” An animal cannot be blamed for being hungry. The difference between us humans and all other animals on this planet is that the only predators to which most of us are exposed are our fellow humans. But we cannot deny the cougar within us. One way or the other, we must eat other living things, whether flora or fauna. Maybe biological research will one day change this equation. For now, however, we’re stuck with an unacceptable situation that we must nevertheless accept.
Within the next day or two, I expect to eat a turkey sandwich. If I think about the once living bird whose remnants are contained in that roll, I’ll feel regret. Ditto, if with a little less certainty, the lettuce and cucumber.
I deeply respect Drausin’s argument and equally the commitment of my vegetarian friends to eating habits that often don’t lend themselves to convenience. But I can’t make these adaptations in thought and way of life work for me. Nature, behind its glorious regalia, is a cruel tyrant.
Note: I showed an earlier draft of this essay to Drausin. We’re still friends.