On a sunny summer morning, I am out on the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in Sarasota, Florida, watching dolphin pods swim, manta rays wing it, and adorably scary baby hammerhead sharks circle. Hungry pelicans glide low and wading birds on long legs dip their needle beaks into the sea. All of these creatures need to eat. And the fish they seek are jumping, traveling in schools for safety, hiding in seagrass, fleeing by the thousands.
There is no escape. Some will end up as lunch. Animals aside, from boats and bridges, humans drop their fishing lines. Meanwhile I keep paddleboarding, working up a mean appetite I’ll satisfy in a mean way.
Like all the other creatures out there, I will eat flesh. Unlike the rest, I won’t catch the animal that will be my meal. And perhaps unlike them—but who really knows what dolphins think?—I’ll question whether my actions are ethical.
As humans gain an ever-increasing understanding of animals’ ability to think, feel, and experience pain, many of us are asking whether eating meat is morally acceptable. Can you care for animals and also eat them?
There’s a difference between compassion and sentimentality and, after all, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. As I’m grilling steaks later, trying to visualize the cow killed for this meal, I wrestle with the question.
There are certainly many who disagree with meat eating, for reasons that are both moral and ecological. Carnivorousness is the new cigarette smoking, and it’s falling out of fashion. As the Washington Post (paywall) put it on June 30, “meat is horrible” and it’s “destroying the planet.”
That is ostensibly why, on July 13, the shared workspace company WeWork announced that it is banning red meat, pork, or poultry at events like its “Summer Camp” retreat and internal kiosks, called “Honesty Markets.” Likewise, its 6,000 global employees won’t be reimbursed for business meals that include forbidden flesh—fish is still fine.
In this way, the company predicts it will save 445 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, more than 16 billion gallons of water, and the lives of 15,507,103 animals by 2023. But Felix Salmon at Slate points out that the policy is incoherent: eggs are still okay with WeWork, though harvesting them causes as much environmental damage as raising chickens for poultry. Fish is acceptable, although swimming things are also animals. Meanwhile, WeWork doesn’t impose environmental controls on the buildings it uses for workspaces.
Virginia Postrel of Bloomberg, who is also not a fan, calls the meat ban “an exercise in brand building.” She believes the company is signaling its values by creating food taboos, like a tribe marking its identity, and that this is a kind of “team-building exercise.”
Indeed, team vegetarian—or more specifically, pescatarian, in WeWork’s case—seems to be growing. At least that’s what Jonathan Safran Foer, author of the 2009 bestseller Eating Animals, believes. In June, a documentary adaptation of his book was released, and the writer spoke to Entertainment Weekly about the positive change he senses in the last decade. “There are more vegetarians on American college campuses than there are Catholics. So it’s not fringe identity — certainly, there’s not even an identity anymore, which I think is in a way the thing to be most optimistic about is when it shifts from how one describes oneself as a political or ethical stance, to a norm—a societal norm.”
That said, Foer’s position is based on his understanding of college-attending millennials. That’s hardly a representative sample of Americans. As Andy McDonald points out in the Huffington Post, “some people just don’t have the time to think about where their food comes from or what’s happening to farm animals.” He notes that 46.5 million people in the US live in poverty, 22 million are underemployed, and one in six is food insecure, meaning they sometimes go hungry. McDonald writes, “These people don’t necessarily have the luxury to worry about where their food comes from, or what’s in it, or how it will be packaged and produced. Their most pressing concern is, ‘Will we have food?'”
One could argue that the burden of turning the tide shouldn’t fall on low-income people but on everyone else in the US. If the middle- and upper-class chose to forgo meat, the market might change, and factory farming would be eliminated.
But that’s also a somewhat problematic proposition for a couple reasons. First, it’s not clear that individual purchasing power moves markets, as a paper in Marketing Theory (pdf) debunking the “ethical consumption gap” argues; it’s not our personal choices, but the bigger capitalist system that needs fixing.
Second, if meat becomes a rarity reserved for elites who can afford to purchase ethically raised cuts, animal lives may be saved—but inequality is compounded for humans. The wealthiest Americans are already living in what economist call the “new gilded age,” with wealth and opportunity disparities between rich and poor more extreme than ever before.
Safran Foer doesn’t totally oppose meat-eating, though he chose to raise vegan children. He just thinks that the treatment of animals on factory farms and the rate of meat consumption worldwide is ecologically harmful and morally problematic. After spending the first 26 years of his life “disliking animals,” by his own admission, he got a dog—and his perspective on animal suffering changed. In Eating Animals, he suggests that we think about eating our pets to really get a sense of the ethical questions surrounding flesh consumption, writing:
A simple trick from the backyard astronomer: if you are having trouble seeing something, look slightly away from it. The most light-sensitive parts of our eyes (those we need to see dim objects) are on the edges of the region we normally use for focusing. Eating animals has an invisible quality. Thinking about dogs, and their relationship to the animals we eat, is one way of looking askance and making something invisible visible.
Honestly, I’ve thought a lot about eating my darling dog and cat. What circumstances would I have to be in to get to that point? Presumably, if there was no food and my life depended on it, I might arrive at the conclusion that even the creatures I consider my friends could end up as meals. (I was raised on Holocaust novels and have long contemplated potential actions in disaster scenarios.)
Similarly, I’ve considered how long it would take my pets to decide to eat my corpse. Maybe that sounds morbid, but if you’re going to consume flesh, it’s best to not be overly delicate in your thinking. That’s why I concede that if I was served a dog delicacy in Korea or the Philippines, say, where there’s no cultural taboo about the practice, I’d likely partake.
When it comes to eating meat, I try to keep it pretty real. Perhaps that’s because I wasn’t always a carnivore. Briefly, I was vegan—that was unsustainable. Then, for more than 20 years, I alternated between vegetarian and pescatarian, though I could never work out why I was okay with eating fish, considering they’re living creatures, too, and very cute, as I discovered during a few years of extensive snorkeling.
Suddenly, one day, at age 38, I longed for pepperoni on my pizza. I thought about it, discussed it with others, and finally got a slice. Slowly, that indulgence turned into all-out carnivorousness. Now I am a fanatic for hamburgers and a master of steak marination, especially in summer. I eat meat once or twice a week and love cooking over a fire and feeling like I’m part of an ancient tradition, tied to the first humans who discovered the marvels of charred flesh.
Because this is a departure from who I was, I force myself to think about what that means throughout the process—as I ride my bike to the supermarket (minimizing that carbon footprint), while contemplating choice cuts, during preparation, cooking, and even as I chew the flesh. I force myself to contend with my willingness to drink blood and wonder if—as animal activists claim—there’s a cognitive dissonance between my admiration of animals and my meals.
What am I not facing? Have I resigned myself to the violence of life, grown callous with age? Perhaps as I get older, that violence seems more like a fact to face. Or maybe it’s just that eating meat just seems natural now that I’ve hung around with animals a lot.
My darling dog and cat are killers, too, though they’re served plenty of food. However gentle they are with the members of our little tribe, they clearly lust for birds, bugs, and rodents, as I learned when we lived in the forest and they’d triumphantly present me with their kills—prizes they took pride in.
Meanwhile, some of my beloved pets were devoured in the forest. My cat Vince was likely eaten by a mountain lion, as he disappeared on the morning two giant cats crossed the territory. My three beautiful chickens—named after fashion designers Betsy Johnson, Diane Von Furstenberg, and Vivienne Westwood—wandered freely by day for two years, safe until my dog died (of old age, guys—I didn’t eat him!). When there was no doberman to patrol the land, they ended up as tufts of feathers, lunch for another animal. It seemed fair enough, on some level, considering how much those chickens loved to eat bugs.
It’s fair to say that just because the world is cruel doesn’t mean we have to be, too. I can choose my food in a way that other animals can’t. It’s not clear to humans whether animals have the self-awareness that morality demands, and even if they did, certainly the dolphins can’t go vegan.
If leading an ethical life means doing what’s right for the greatest number of creatures, perhaps it’s bad to eat meat just because animals feel pain, as the novelist David Foster Wallace argued in his 2004 essay Consider the Lobster (pdf). The new science of animal cognition is forcing countries around the world to overhaul their laws in recognition of creature consciousness. For example, as of January, in Switzerland, lobsters can’t be boiled, or transported live on ice. But they can still be eaten.
Still, even if animals have more sophisticated levels of consciousness than we’ve previously imagined, it may not necessarily make sense for a lot of people to eschew meat entirely. Sarah Taber, a US-based agricultural scientist who works as a consultant for aquaculture and greenhouse food safety, argues that the vegetarianism-for-everyone approach is a vestige of colonialist euro-centric thinking, built on an assumption that every place in the world has limited land, lots of water, and the ability to grow edible plants.
Taber has a point, even though her argument is based solely on land use and water availability and ignores factory farming. As Quartz’s Zoe Schlanger notes, “If we used the land the most sensible way (only raising cattle on scrubland), and ate locally, a vegetarian diet wouldn’t be the most sustainable choice everywhere.”
With this, we come closer to the truth about the morality of eating animals: There isn’t going to be a simple, universal solution. Individually, we all make choices within harmful systems that persist despite our small steps. We each live with our personal decisions, drawing somewhat arbitrary lines. If we want to try to live as ethically as we can, we must also face the fact that problems are complex, and that everyone living is complicit in death until it comes for them.
Vegetarians and vegans who feel certain that they’re exempt from this claim should consider the bigger picture—their countries’ global policies, the pesticides and natural practices that farmers use to kill bugs, the rodents and roaches that they don’t allow in their homes, the ants they step on inadvertently. Consider the Buddha’s early realization. It’s said that the young prince Siddhārtha Gautama—before he became illuminated—was shocked when he realized that a farmer tilling his field was unearthing and killing worms.
Destruction is a part of life. And even the great sage Buddha didn’t instruct his disciples to be vegetarian, though many schools of Buddhism do admonish practitioners to avoid all flesh today. Rather, the Buddha instructed monks, who begged their meals, to avoid meat that was killed for them. They could accept flesh when cruelty wasn’t committed specifically on their behalf.
There’s no way of dealing with meat that will be one size fits all. Take the Dalai Lama for example. The spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, who advocates vegetarianism generally, eats meat himself—regretfully, he says—on doctor’s orders.
The Japanese Zen master and poet Ryokan Taigu, who lived from 1758–1831, was a humble hermit who lived a simple life and exhibited extreme compassion. According to Zen lore, the poet slept with one leg outside a mosquito net, proffering his blood to hungry bugs. He picked the lice from his robe and placed them on a rock to sun themselves by day, then put them back on his clothing at nightfall.
Yet the Zen master did eat fish. When another monk asked him about this practice, Ryokan explained that life is about give and take. “I eat fish when offered, but I also let the fleas and mosquitoes feed on me.”