Sunday, April 03, 2011

On Vegetarianism

Census corrects mistake,

Lost Springs, Wyoming has
four residents, not one

The subject of vegetarianism has interested me for some time although I have been resistant to comment about it. A paper today, “A ‘Sin Tax’ on Meat Would Improve Our Health and Environment,” by Bruce Friedrich on Huffpost Politics, has finally motivated me to do so. I scarcely know where to begin. First, I guess one should be aware that Friedrich has some position in PETA, an organization that may have merit but also, I believe, can be a bit extreme at times. Second, I do not personally believe that eating meat can reasonably be considered a “sin.”

I may not have this entirely right, but in my memory the first vegetarian who received much attention was Bernard McFaddon. His argument, as I recall, had to do with the fact that as we were evolved from primates, and primates did not eat meat, we should probably abstain from eating it. Of course we know now this belief has no foundation in fact as apes (and I believe some monkeys as well) do eat meat, at least when they can get it. The contemporary argument against eating meat has to do with the belief (probably fact) that raising meat for food is environmentally undesirable and also, according to PETA, unethical, because animals have to be killed in the process.

I have a bit of trouble with these arguments for the simple reason that anatomically and dentally we have obviously evolved to eat meat. Our dentition and digestion allows us to be at the least omnivores, and in important ways, carnivores. It has always been so. Even if you reject the theory of evolution, you still must confront this basic fact. God, too, must have created us to eat meat as our dentition obviously points to that. You must accept this or assume that God somehow made a mistake and really intended us to be vegetarians. But God does not make such mistakes. Even if you ignore both evolution and Godly creation, and believe that somehow we just naturally exist, you are still confronted with the same facts of dentition and digestion. While it is true that humans can exist without eating meat, it is also true that some humans exist by eating meat almost exclusively. By and large, however, most humans have existed by eating both vegetation and meat (and seafood of various kinds), although the relative proportions of these foodstuffs can vary widely depending upon environments and availability.

I find the idea that we should tax meat-eating, in particular, truly strange, as that is something that the majority of mankind has eaten naturally for centuries. Are we now to suddenly reverse centuries of diet? Of course when humans still existed as hunter-gatherers there were no serious problems associated with eating meat, it was not environmentally destructive, nor was it regarded as unethical. It was merely the way humans lived, a perfectly natural way of life that depended upon what foods were available and how successful people were in exploiting them. I’m sure if you tried to explain to a Bushman that hunting gazelles was unethical you would be met by at best a blank stare and at worst with hilarity. Similarly, try to explain to an Eskimo why killing and eating seals, walrus, and whales is unethical. All life seems to depend upon the death of some other life form. Animals eat plants, thereby killing them, or they eat other animals in order to live. Humans are no different from other creatures, they have always depended upon the killing of plants and animals. It would seem that is what plants and animals are for, to provide nourishment for other plants and animals. In nature there is nothing unethical about this.

I suppose one could argue that some parasites manage to live without necessarily killing their hosts, but if so that is unusual and hardly makes a case for vegetarianism. Mongols, for example, could go for times on a diet of mare’s milk and blood without killing their animals, but not forever on such a diet. Vegans and vegetarians in general do not appear to be interested in parasitic diets. If American Indians lived on buffalo, depended on them for meat, hides, sinew, bone, and so on, how can it be said it was unethical to kill them. Similarly, if an Indian killed a deer for meat, hide, and so on, how was that unethical? More often than not there were ceremonies apologizing for the kill and hoping that species would continue to flourish. I simply do not believe the killing or eating of animals, per se, is unethical or even undesirable. But it depends upon the circumstances.

There is little doubt in my mind that our current treatment of animals is in important ways unethical. Locating thousands of animals in feed lots, standing for days in their own excrement, pumped full of chemicals and artificial feed, and being slaughtered by the most efficient but inhumane methods possible is certainly not desirable. Similarly, locking chickens in small cages and collecting eggs via conveyer belts is not desirable. Exploiting dairy cows so their average productive years are reduced to three rather than twenty is not desirable. Raising pigs on concrete and feeding them mostly corn is not desirable. This is not what nature, or God, or evolution intended, but I see nothing to indicate that animals do not exist to feed each other in the natural course of their lives or the lives of others who depend upon them.

It is corporate agriculture that is unethical (and unhealthy) and should be heavily taxed, taxed sufficiently to force them to change their ways and allow us to return to former methods of vegetable and animal production, smaller farms and the more ethical treatment of animals. In the New Guinea Highlands, where pork is the major source of meat protein, they say, “Pigs are our friends,” and sometimes women even nurse them along with their infants. But it is undoubtedly true that as things stand now we should eat less meat and pay more attention to our animal friends and the environmental consequences of what we do, as what we do nowadays is certainly not what we have done in the past.

Grub first, then ethics.
Bertolt Brecht

There actually is a recipe for jellied moose nose.

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