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Saturday, December 18, 2010

"Survival and reproduction are in fact most definitely amoral."

This was a remark made in the breeder comment thread. An odd one, I thought.  It sounds sensical at first-- surviving is something we all need to do individually, and reproducing is something we at least need to do as a species, so how can someone apply "right and wrong" to them?  But I think what the commenter was actually saying is that you can't apply notions of right and wrong to the matter of how we survive and reproduce, which is definitely a more complex issue. 

Reading Michael Pollan's books lately has made me hyper-aware of the extent to which eating is a moral matter, for example. Eating, the thing we have to do to survive.  We also have to breathe to survive, but generally speaking it's hard to hurt someone else or the planet by breathing-- we cause harm by preventing others from breathing.  But it seems weird to think that there's a moral dimension to going to the grocery store, buying a package of ground beef, taking it home, and making chili or a taco salad or something.  After all, that's just making a meal-- you didn't steal the beef, did you? 

But when you do what Pollan did and trace the "food chain" back to the original source (or, much easier, read about him doing it), things become murkier.  For example, how much am I morally responsible for the way the steer which provided that beef lived?  Is it my fault that he was slaughtered at just over a year old after standing in his own manure in a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) for almost his entire life?  How much am I responsible for the way the corn on which he was fed was itself raised, government-subsidized and fed to him because it makes cattle fatten quickly even though it also makes them sick (being ruminants, "designed" to eat grass, not grains) and necessitates giving them antibiotics which in turn lowers the communal resistance of everyone to disease?  How much am I responsible for the pesticides that run off the fields of corn raised to feed this steer, and pollute the rivers from which people take their water?   None of these things are necessary to produce beef for me to eat, and of course there's the obvious fact that it's not necessary for me to eat beef in the first place.  It's a luxury, really-- that much can be seen in how costly it is, and not just in terms of the cash that came out of my wallet.  Which is, by the way, less than it otherwise would be thanks to those subsidies.  

It's generally understood that if you contribute financially to an act, you are in part responsible for it, because you are encouraging it to happen-- that is the entire basis for laws against possession of child pornography.   If nobody bought meat from animals raised on factory farms, factory farms would not exist.  Period.  We fool ourselves into thinking that our purchasing choices don't matter, but if that's the case-- why boycott?  Why do people organize to express collective disapproval of the ethical practices of businesses by refusing to purchase goods or services from them, if they think it accomplishes nothing?

I think the view that we bear moral responsibility for our purchasing decisions, especially those regarding what we eat and drink, is so hard to accept mainly because it's both difficult to learn exactly how we are affecting other people and the world by our choices, and the fact that it costs, both in time and money, to change the choices we make.  It's a pragmatic objection-- buying ethically is both more expensive to do and more difficult to know how to do, which causes people to conclude that anyone who is concerned with such must have a lot of free time and a lot of money.  Food ethics is an ivory tower enterprise.  But it doesn't have to be that way, and it is that way in large part because the corporations that produce our food and the government which regulates that production collude to make it so. The industrialization of food deliberately creates a vast chasm between us and the actual origins of the food we eat, which encourages us to be ignorant about it and thereby not care.  So long as we're fed, and the food is tasty and cheap. 

I'm not touching so much on the "meat vs. no meat" discussion here, because I think that's a somewhat different issue.  Certainly that's an ethical matter as well, but I think bringing the discussion of whether eating meat is inherently unethical into the general topic of how to eat ethically muddies things quite a bit.   There are more and less ethical ways to eat meat, and generally speaking they coincide with the more and less healthy ways to eat meat.  For example, I think that people who object to factory farming but aren't vegetarians should be big fans of hunting, which often involves shooting a deer, putting it in the freezer, and eating from it for much of the winter.  That white-tailed deer has lived in the wild all of its life, eating the plants that Odocoileus virginianus traditionally eats as opposed to dining on corn and standing in its own feces, and later is killed by a hunter to provide a family with meat that is nutritionally superior to that of a CAFO steer.  And we have in this country a ton of deer, as anyone who habitually drives in the country and has to worry about accidentally hitting one can testify.   Of course not everyone can hunt for their food due to constraints on both geography and population, but it's something that meat-eaters who are concerned about the interests of animals should enthusiastically endorse. 

And it bears mentioning that food has a powerful connection to tradition, to family, to our notions of what is normal.  Nobody wants to think that the dishes Mom prepared or even the brands with which they've grown up are in any way bad choices, much less immoral ones.  Those things are ingrained and sacred.  I think that's actually a huge part of the automatic defensiveness that meat-eaters tend to experience when confronted with the idea of vegetarianism, even if the vegetarian in question isn't remotely militant about it.  The assumption is that the vegetarian believes he/she is morally superior, that the omnivore who eats according to how he/she was raised is inferior.  But summing up someone's entire moral worth according to what they eat isn't exactly a rational way to evaluate things.  I feel compelled to Godwin things by mentioning the oft-repeated story that Hitler was a vegetarian....

...but I'm sure you've heard of that one.  In any case, I think it's pretty clearly that eating is absolutely a moral issue.  Reproduction has already been partially covered in the last post, but I'll try to cover that more later.

1 comment:

  1. This is an excellent post, and something I'm struggling with myself. I was lucky enough to stumble on a small family farm that raises 10 cows at a time, on pasture-only feed (grass or hay, depending on the season). I was stunned by the sheer hatred aimed at me by co-workers and others for my choice to eat meat as ethically as I could. There is so much pressure from corporations to be as ignorant as we can about wher eour food comes from.

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