April 20, 2011
Eating more humanely
In response to my earlier post on the hostile response that vegetarians and vegans experience, commenter Mary Jo said she became a vegetarian but later returned to eating meat but with a renewed sensibility, saying "I still feel really sorry for the animals I eat. I eat meat that is certified to be humanely raised and slaughtered by the Humane Farm Animal Care organization." She gave a link to Certified Humane, an organization whose label on products certifies that it "Meets the Humane Farm Animal Care program standards, which includes nutritous diet without antibiotics or hormones, animals raised with shelter, resting areas, sufficient space and the ability to engage in natural behaviors."
But Mary Jo added that despite taking the care to eat certified humane meat, "I have been really mocked about this because, of course, suffering is still involved."
Peter Singer is one of the foremost ethicists of our time who has written voluminously on the topic. He is someone who in all areas of his own life tries to meet the principles of ethical behavior. He is a vegan but he argues that what is important is not absolute purity but the willingness to minimize the suffering of other sentient beings. In his book The Ethics of What We Eat co-authored with Jim Mason, they take a non-judgmental approach and try to provide people with all manner of diets a way to eat ethically within the framework they have chosen or been forced into. They look at three families, one fast-food based, the second consisting of concerned omnivores (like Mary Jo), and the third being vegan, and for each family they provide practical suggestions for eating more humanely.
In the section titled Food is an ethical issue-but you don't have to be fanatical about it (p. 281-284) they point out:
[I]t is important to avoid the mistake of thinking that if you have ethical reasons for doing something, you have to do it all the time, no matter what. Some religions, like Orthodox Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, have strict rules against eating particular foods, and their adherents are supposed to follow these rules all the time. If they break them they may feel polluted, or disobedient to their god. But this rule-based view isn't the only possible approach to ethics, nor the best one, in our view. Ethical thinking can be sensitive to circumstances.
Amanda Paulson, writing in the Christian Science Monitor about "One woman's quest to enjoy her dinner without guilt," describes the ethics of Daren Firestone, a Chicago law student who won't buy meat, but will eat the remnants of a big Thanksgiving dinner before they get tossed out. Whether or not you agree with that view-don't eat meat unless it will otherwise be wasted-there is nothing that disqualifies it as an ethical principle. Yale philosophy professor Shelly Kagan takes the same view about airline meals. A vegetarian in his everyday life, he orders meatless meals when he flies. Airlines, however, sometimes fail to deliver on such requests. If that happens, and he is offered a meat meal that he knows will be thrown out if he doesn't eat it, he'll eat it. In these circumstances-in contrast to buying meat at the supermarket-his consumption of meat seems to make no difference to the demand for it.
How relaxed can we be? Firestone's dietary rules also include what she calls "the Paris exemption:" if she is lucky enough to find herself in a fine restaurant in Paris-or, very occasionally, in a truly outstanding restaurant elsewhere-she allows herself to eat whatever she likes. We wondered whether she believes that on these rare occasions, the pleasure that she gets from eating meat outweighs the contribution her meal makes to animal suffering. When we contacted her, however, she readily admitted that her "Paris exemption" is "more self-indulgence than utilitarian calculus." But that doesn't mean that her general opposition to eating meat is not ethical. It is, but she gives more weight to what she wants to do than she would if she were acting on strictly ethical principles all the time. Very few of us are in any position to criticize that, and most of those who do criticize it are deceiving themselves about their choices when their own desires are at stake. A little self-indulgence, if you can keep it under firm control, doesn't make you a moral monster, and it certainly doesn't mean that you might as well abandon your principles entirely. In fact, Firestone believes that by allowing herself to satisfy her occasional cravings-maybe once every three months-she has been able to be faithful to her principles for many years, while other vegetarians she knows have given up the whole practice because one day they could not resist the smell of bacon frying.
Singer has a utilitarian philosophy that seeks to minimize the suffering of sentient beings. It is not always easy to carry out the calculus (whether it is ethical to use animals in research that could lead to cures for diseases is one difficult question) but some ethical lines can be more easily drawn. Other things being equal, when it comes to minimizing suffering via our food choices it is surely better to be a vegan than a vegetarian. It is surely better to be a vegetarian than an omnivore. It is surely better for omnivores to eat less meat than more meat. It is surely better to eat meat from animals that have been raised humanely than those that have been raised in factory farms, and so on. The mockery that Mary Jo receives for not being 100% pure is entirely unwarranted.
Singer and Mason also realize that financial hardship poses some restrictions on the ability to eat ethically and healthily. They say that if you are forced to choose, avoiding factory-farmed food is a higher ethical principle than eating organic.
Food that is both more ethical and more economical is available in every supermarket. Buying organic food without incurring extra expense, on the other hand, is usually not possible. Taking that into account, and considering that there are more powerful grounds for avoiding factory-farmed products than for buying only organic food, it is reasonable to limit the obligation to buy organic food to what one can afford without undue hardship, while seeing the obligation to avoid factory-farmed products as more stringent.
The Ethics of What We Eat is an excellent book that I can strongly recommend. It not only provides a good understanding of the ethical principles involved in our food choices, it also provides practical advice for those who want to eat ethically but are not sure how best to go about it.