On Eating Meat

I’ve been thinking about food a lot, lately.

One of the central modern problems raised by eating is that of meat-eating. I’m not deaf to the cries of animal activists; I agree that the treatment of animals by the meat industry – reducing animals to commodities whose suffering is inconsequential – is morally reprehensible.

I’ve been a vegetarian before (although I was very young at the time), and I’ve been giving serious thought to vegetarianism lately. It would certainly please Hélène, who has what I’d call ‘vegetarian tendencies’.

Yet I’m currently leaning away from vegetarianism altogether. What I have in mind is something I haven’t found a handy term to file under… Happyvorism?

My current thinking leads me to think that eating meat can be ethically acceptable. I believe that the eating of animals is part of human nature, and during the evolution of Humanity, we have influenced other species to depend on our own desire to eat or domesticate them in order to thrive.

What I do resent, however, is making any of the animals I eat suffer before they get on my table. And unfortunately, our Western way of approaching meat has led us to tolerate a whole lot more suffering than we should.

In Asia, it is customary to leave certain parts of the animal in the dish when it reaches the dinner table. For instance, if you ask for fish in China, you will get the head. Refined diners will know that the eyes of a fish do not lie about its freshness, so leaving the head is a way for the restaurant to stay honest. Likewise, if you ask for chicken soup in most restaurants in China, you’ll get the legs and the head as well.

Now, this disgusts many Westerners. These parts are too “chickeny” – they are associated with the live animal, not the meat we have at dinner. This is exactly why I think they are important: whenever we are forced to confront the ex-animal we now call meat, we are one step closer to our decision being a lucid one.

In other words, chicken feet and fish heads are ways to keep us honest about our food. And if you stop ignoring the fact your steak used to be a cow capable of anguish and suffering, you suddenly care about how they lived.

And so, I’ve made the conscious decision, recently, to only allow myself to eat meat that comes from small-scale, sustainable farms. This kind of meat usually comes from animals which have been allowed to grow and live in conditions resembling their natural state, and thus probably felt “happy” about their existence. I also hope fervently that this also means their slaughter was as humane as possible, and that suffering was kept to a minimum.

There are two things I’m hoping to accomplish to prove or disprove this position:

1. Become a vegetarian. I’ve heard it said that you are not in a position to make a judgment about the ethical implications of eating meat if you are a meat eater. I would be very happy to undergo the process, to know exactly where I stand on the issue. I’ve done it with cigarettes: I’ve quit smoking “temporarily” in 2000 to verify that I was smoking out of a genuine enjoyment of the activity. I haven’t touched a cigarette since.

2. Kill an animal myself. That might sound like it flies in the face of point number one, but I think it’s the logical extension of it. If I’m going to pretend to be fine with eating an animal, I want to take part of this final step, slaughter, and make sure I am comfortable with it in practice as well as in theory.

I’m pretty convinced that with these two steps taken, I will be in a better position to affirm my ethical beliefs concerning meat eating. Whether I decide to avoid meat altogether or actually revel in it, remains to be seen.

One thing for sure, though: I don’t need to see an industrial meat-packing plant to know I cannot ever feel good about myself by eating at McDonald’s. That part of the food chain is definitely behind me.

Post Scriptum: A lot of my current thinking has been fueled by Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. If you’re at all concerned about what you eat and the ecological, financial and ethical implications of it, then you owe it to yourself to read it.

About Daniel Roy

Daniel is a writer, backpack foodie, slow traveler, and endurance runner. He is the author of the upcoming book, "The Way of Slow Travel: A Hands-On Guide to the Best Travel of Your Life."

6 comments

  1. As you probably know, I’ve dabbled with the same issues lately, and I’ve contemplated your “step 2” for a couple of years now. I wanted to have the chance to kill a lamb myself to prove to myself that I had what it takes to eat meat, but I never had the opportunity.

    However, this year, I’ll go and hunt deer. It’s going to be the first time in my life that I hunt big game animal, and I’m sure that if I manage to kill a deer, I’ll be proud of it.

    It should also be noted that game animals are not only not grown, but they also have a chance not to be “harvested”. A chance that even the happiest steer grown for consumption will never have.

    You should try it next year!

  2. You know what… I’m VERY interested in your experience. I have no innate desire to hunt, not even to wield a firearm, but I’m in total agreement with your approach on the subject. I’d be very interested in doing the same thing.

    Let me know how it goes… I might very well join you next year!!

  3. Si tu commences à avoir une réflexion éthique sur ta consommation de viande, est-ce que tu vas avoir la même réflexion sur ta consommation de pois chiches ou autres légumineuses?

    Si oui, n’oublie pas que chaque année, des milliers de jolis rats des champs, des lièvres sympathiques et de charmants oiseaux au champ si doux sont décapités par des moissonneuses batteuses qui cueillent des légumineuses « bio ». À mois, évidemment, que tu hiérarchises les animaux entre « les gentils » et les « méchants ». Mais venant d’un gars qui a mangé des mollets de porcs, j’en doute!

    Pour ma part, je ne mange pas de McDo. Ma rationalisation est seulement différente. Je refuse d’en manger, non pas parce que leurs pratiques détruisent l’environnement, tuent des animaux de façon… inhumaine, ou bien exploitent leurs employés boutonneux, mais bien simplement parce que McDo, ça goûte la marde.

  4. Hmm, c’est sûr que si McDo goûtait divin, j’aurais un dilemme moral supplémentaire. Ça aide certainement à ne pas en manger considérant ce que ça goûte.

    Sinon, je connais bien l’argument que tu émets concernant les mulots tués dans les champs. C’est d’ailleurs mon argument personnel qui m’empêche de considérer pratique ou même moralement adéquat l’idée de “Veganisme”… Parce que tsé, que tu le veuilles ou non, même la production de légumes, comme tu le soulignes, implique de tuer des animaux.

    C’est un des points qui me fait pencher vers ma position actuelle : que de vouloir manger de la viande de façon éthique est peut-être moins pratique quand tu veux filer supérieur aux autres, mais c’est certainement une position plus concrète et réfléchie.

  5. Is it really a question of ethics, and if so, based on what? Lots of stupid things have been done in history based on so-called ethics.

    What about plain old simple sensitivity? You can always ask yourself if your mind should accept or not the killing of a sheep or a chicken, but what about simply pay attention to how you feel about it, for what an everyday meal is worth in the occidental world nowadays.

    Seeing how the life of animals have been reduced to a commodity here, where their killing is indistrualized, just made me sick.

    In the middle of Ethiopia, I was confronted with a fresh animal being killed for dinner. In an area where the sense of surviving is there, your sensitivity adapts, and you feel ok with respectfully killing an animal to eat once in a while.

    I don’t base my decisions on ethics, but on sensitivity. When offered red meat, I will eat it. In the middle of nowhere, I will eat whatever there is. But don’t ask me to go to the grocery store and walk that bloody aisle of prepackaged body squares. Besides, we have great vegetarian food available everywhere nowadays.

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