[Note: I probably won't be vegan, but hear me out anyways.]
Over the past few months I have been surprised to find myself examining some of the domestic life choices I have assumed will never change, and really asking myself if a change is possible, or desired. I didn’t intend to engage in this self-reflection, it just sort of happened, but now that it has I’m not sure what to make of it.
The other day I said to my TC “I think maybe I’m supposed to be vegan” and he said “Huh” because I love eating meat (though we generally only eat it once or twice a week, definitely more than fulfilling that “Meatless Monday” thing already). To clarify, I am not talking about becoming vegan to be healthy, I am talking about veganism as an ethical choice. The reason I was thinking about this was an article I read on The Vegan Woman blog, misleadingly titled 10 Reasons You Should NOT Go Vegan (which basically just makes fun of the reasons people give not to be vegan–I actually clicked on the link when I saw it on Facebook because I was feeling bombarded by anti-meat and dairy posts from vegan friends lately and I wanted to feel good about myself, which I suspect is why the article is titled the way it is, to catch us meat-apologists off guard).
The premise of the post is that there aren’t really any good reasons not to go vegan. The writer lists ten common excuses meat-eaters use to explain to their vegan friends why they don’t want to be vegan, and debunks them. A lot of these excuses and subsequent debunkings don’t apply to me because I’m not an idiot (I have never told anyone that “plants feel pain too” or that a cow would explode if I didn’t drink milk), so I ignored those parts. Excuse #7, “If God didn’t want us to eat animals, he wouldn’t have made them taste so good,” is a very silly excuse but I do take issue with the blogger countering this excuse by quoting “Thou shalt not kill” and suggesting that this maxim applies to animals too. Ethically, you could argue that it does, but in terms of what the Bible says, sorry honey. If I recall my grade 10 Christian Ethics class correctly, according to the Bible, a heavenly voice came to the apostle Peter in a vision, showed him a variety of animals (including pigs, which Christians were not yet eating) and told him it was a-okay to eat them:
He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
Again, I’m not saying these were necessarily ethical instructions, but if you’re going to quote the Bible at non-vegans you should probably know your stuff. (By the by, I’m not Christian but Christian Ethics was a required course at the English school I attended in grade 10 and I got an A+ so there).
Specifically Christian ethics aside, I have been considering the ethical factors at play in whether or not to eat animals and animal products and the final plea of this pro-vegan blog post was really the clincher for me:
Please, if you have an inkling that animals shouldn’t be killed just for your palate, don’t use habit or your upbringing to brush the thought aside, stand up and be part of the generation that heralds the change.
Oh boy. You got me there, vegan blogger. Though I love eating meat and think it’s great, I’m not always 100% sure that I should be supporting the meat industry. So why do I?
My reasons are generally ones I’m not proud of: laziness, my particular taste, cheapness. If these were my only reasons then continuing to eat meat would not be morally justifiable. But I do it anyways, and I don’t just think it’s because I’m an asshole, is it?
In order to answer this question I have to ask myself what I believe about animals and the rights of animals vs. the rights of humans. Philosophically, this area is incredibly interesting but incredibly uncomfortable. If it is morally wrong to kill or keep animals for the purposes of food production on the grounds that animals feel pain, the line between humans and animals becomes very blurry. And I believe in the line, even though I can’t quite define it. Isn’t there a difference between humans and animals? Isn’t there a difference between their pain and ours? I think most of us would agree it’s morally reprehensible to, for example, treat an animal better than we would a human being, but why? If there is a difference, what is it?
And if there isn’t a difference between the rights of humans and the rights of animals, wouldn’t it logically follow that keeping pets would not be vegan either, ethically speaking? Since a pet owner takes something from an animal (their companionship) and often keeps them in confined spaces without their consent (ever heard of “crate training” a dog?), controlling their ability to perform to basic bodily activities like feeding and going to the bathroom, would pet ownership not be a direct exploitation of an animal? And what about making the decision to “put down” a pet who may or may not be at the end of its natural life, without its consent? I have met one or two vegans who refuse to keep pets for these reasons, but there are many many vegans who do keep pets and who, presumably, do not see this as ethically problematic (and power to them, I think responsible pet ownership is great though I’m not so on board with crating dogs).
Which says to me that people’s relationships to animals must be located on a spectrum, rather than being an either/or issue. On one end of the spectrum we have vegans who refuse even to keep pets. On the other we have people who kill, torture, or otherwise cause unnecessary pain to animals for fun or profit, believing it to be their right as a superior species and/or as the “owner” or “caretaker” of the animal. My challenge, it seems, is to situate myself on this spectrum in a way that I can feel morally comfortable with. What do I accept? Penning animals? Breeding animals? Killing animals?
Though this may be morally repugnant to some, I have to accept that I am obviously okay with animals being killed in certain situations. No matter how blurry the line might be, I do believe there is a difference between human beings and animals (which is why I am annoyed when, say, people give more love to their pets than their children, or spend exorbitant amounts of money adopting stray dogs in third world countries instead of using what is clearly surplus cash on something that would benefit the human children in those countries). Society clearly believes in a difference (which is why dogs that attack human infants are put down, rather than being allowed to eat the baby as a reward for being the stronger predator in this particular food chain). I guess, as a human, I have a bias towards other humans. And I think that’s okay, within reason.
My upbringing probably has a lot to do with it. Not only was I raised eating meat, I was also raised within walking distance of several farms. Until I was in grade school I drank whole milk from the farm down the road, and I have been present for the butchering of chickens on more than one occasion. We ate eggs from our own hens (who got to scratch around and roost and lay however they liked). My parents have, for the most part, purchased their beef and bison meat directly from neighbouring farms all my life. I didn’t come up with some sugary vision of happy cows wandering around in grassy fields because the meat industry told me this was so, this is my concept of meat because I actually saw it for myself. I don’t really have a problem with it. I don’t think it was wrong.
It’s worth noting that many cultures we respect and acknowledge as having a special relationship with animals and the environment (First Nations cultures in Canada, for example) still kill and eat them. I don’t think of these practices as unethical as long as they are not wasteful and do not cause unnecessary suffering. The problem for me is not that animals die so that I can eat meat, the problem for me is actually that I don’t live in rural Saskatchewan anymore. I don’t know who’s raising my meat now and I don’t know how these food animals are treated. Probably not well.
So since I’m not going to be raising and butchering animals with my own two hands anytime soon, and since I do have an inkling that consuming the products of industrialized meat and dairy farming supports a system that isn’t okay, what do I do? Do I give up meat and cheese and eggs (which I’ve already said is unlikely)? Do I just hold on and hope I will one day move back to a rural area where I can have a closer relationship with food animals? Do I drive all over the city looking for ethical meat and spend the big bucks on it? (If anyone has suggestions for good butchers/meat suppliers in East Van/Vancouver that only sell “ethical” meat, please pass them along, leave a comment, etc. because this is an option I do want to look into).
I really don’t know what I’ll choose to do. I might do nothing, which is sometimes the result of my ethical dilemmas. I might do a lot. I might do a little. Either way, it is likely that I won’t blog about it again, because even taking ethics into consideration I believe that eating is personal. I might blog about the struggle, as I have here, but I don’t want to talk about the actual food. I’m the one who will have to be morally accountable for the food choices I make. I just want to try to make choices I can live with.