Culture  Mind over meat?

The moral qualms of a conscientious carnivore

Let’s face it: meat tastes delicious. Nothing compares to that gratifying first bite into a juicy hamburger – the savory flavour enveloping your taste buds, the hearty texture of beef as you chew, and the satisfaction as the delectable morsel makes its way to your stomach, where it pleasantly proceeds to satisfy your hunger like nothing else can.

As a lifelong carnivore, meat has always been a staple in my diet. It provides the perfect protein to balance an everyday meal, and I find it is the only food that really fills me up. Moreover, meat plays a key role in almost every seasonal celebration I’ve grown up with. It just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without a turkey, Christmas without a roast, or summer without hotdogs at a barbeque. Appreciation of meat seems to joyfully unite people under a common cause, and it’s been this way for ages.

So what could be so bad about meat that makes some people decide to permanently swear it off? Never having known any vegetarians or vegans until recently, I had always thought of them as animal lovers who couldn’t bear the thought of eating something cute and cuddly. Occasionally, I thought about the repercussions of my evening steak, remembering the gory PETA pamphlets that were posted and subsequently chucked every day at the café where I worked. Mainly I conceded that animals weren’t my thing, and left it at that.

My only problem with the meat industry was how horribly the animals were treated during their short lives, a practice that I figured unfortunately couldn’t be significantly altered by my otherwise indifferent self. I carried this view with me up until last semester, when all my assumptions were suddenly challenged, thanks to our lovely University.

I have always been an advocate of the “renaissance man” ideal, and wish to balance my mind with hard facts and abstract notions. But when I decided last semester to take both an anthropology course on human evolution and a philosophy course on contemporary moral issues, I had no idea how curiously well their ideas would mesh.

I figured I would read Peter Singer’s essay “All Animals are Equal” just as begrudgingly as the seven morally argumentative pieces before it. Maybe because of its compact length, I gave it a little more attention than the others. As I read, my thoughts began to flow with his line of thinking until I came to a startling conclusion: I actually agreed with this nutjob. His claim was that sentient creatures deserve moral consideration, which involves preventing them unnecessary suffering. This suffering occurs through things like meat production, which is no longer truly necessary to sustain humans.

Instinctively, I wanted to reject Singer’s conclusion. An indescribable frustration arose in me that searched for biological arguments to justify my assurance that eating meat was right – if only because it was the natural preference of humans (why else would we find the taste oh-so-good?) Yet it was exactly the opposite of biological determinism that I was learning about in my human evolution class. The evolutionary advantage of humans is not, like other animals, related to our position on the food chain; it is based solely on our cranial capacity. If our ability to think abstractly has given our species this position of God-like control over all earthly things, then it makes sense that we must put this natural advantage to use in rejecting biological norms that no longer make moral or environmental sense. We must stop eating animals.

I still hold this view – and yet, puzzlingly, I continue to be a practicing carnivore. As I nod my head in agreement when my vegan roommate discusses the detrimental effects of animal consumption, she remains mystified as to why I have taken no action to revise my lifestyle. And quite frankly, so do I. I find I still enjoy my immoral hamburgers as much as I enjoyed my indifferent hamburgers.

It could be that philosophical arguments just seem so far away from the dinner table. Still, being removed from the issue hasn’t prevented me from boycotting clothing companies whose practices I disapprove of. The only conclusion I can come to is that I am not a strong enough person to swim against the social current and forfeit my fancy for meat.

Meat is something I have grown up with. It is part of my life, my family, and my culture. Yet I know there is something fundamentally wrong with the meat that sits on my plate. The detachment we have from the living animals that are killed for our dinners removes us from the ethics behind their slaughter. Because mainstream culture has made meat-eating the norm and has removed us so far from its origins, it is difficult to oppose its everyday practice, even when one has intellectual reservations with it.

Could I live without meat? Absolutely, and probably with ease. Do I think vegetarianism is the moral high ground? I must admit, I do. However, I just can’t seem to get upset when I eat meat. The decision to consume meat is ultimately left to the individual, yet I continue to stand on the ethical precipice, oddly hesitant to join the moral minority.