In the last couple of weeks, I talked about food with two vegetarians. One, a colleague, has been a vegetarian for 22 years; the other, while not having planned to do so, has remained a strict vegan after ending her month-long Jivamukti Yoga teacher training last month.
I also read Writings on an Ethical Life by philosopher Peter Singer. He seems to be one of the few philosophers today who are easily understandable outside academia, perhaps because he knows that many of the themes he works on are making news headlines every day and therefore he makes an effort to discuss them in plain language. His views on the legitimacy of abortion, as well as on ending human life when it is no longer worth living, are – in my opinion – unassailibly argued. Yet, they are much less discussed than his plea for animal liberation (Animal Liberation is also the title of his best-known book, published in 1975). Coherent with this moral stance is, of course, the practice of vegetarianism, which he personally adopts.
If you accept a moral philosophy that aims to minimize the amount of pain and suffering in the world, and you accept that animals are able to feel pain, then you should not inflict avoidable pain on animals. (As a good utilitarian, Singer always tries a computation of consequences and their weighting: for example, while campaigning for an end to an overwhelming majority of animal experimentation, he does make exceptions when there are no alternatives, or when the experiment you want to perform on an animal is so important that you would perform the same experiment on a brain-damaged human). And an overwhelming proportion of our meat eating entails just such avoidable pain being inflicted on animals.
Not in the reasoning, but in his conclusions, Singer reminded me of a more recent (and very successful) book about food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Pollan’s search for sustainable food brings him to very similar conclusions to those advocated by Singer (emphasis added):
[…] the issue to focus on is not whether there are some circumstances in which it could be right to eat meat, but on what we can do to avoid contributing to this immense amount of animal suffering. The answer is to boycott all meat and eggs produced by large-scale commercial methods of animal production, and encourage others to do the same. Consideration for the interests of animals alone is enough justification for this response, but the case is further strengthened by the environmental problems that the meat industry causes.
This is where both Pollan and Singer seem to broadly agree that, if an animal has been raised in a way that respects its interests and does not result in unnecessary suffering, and if the manner of killing is painless, it would be acceptable for us to kill and eat it. Such animals, of course, are hardly anywhere to be found; vegetarianism would therefore be a practical choice for adherents of this philosophy.
I eat meat once or twice a week – I’ve never kept track. And I hardly ever eat eggs – I occasionally buy them, but mostly end up throwing them away. For years, I have lived in a household whose meat consumption patterns involuntarily approximates Pollan’s ideal. Not for ethical reasons, not for environmental reasons, but strictly for gastronomic reasons: my husband refuses to buy supermarket meat on grounds of tastelessness.
This drives him, of course, to seek out specialty meats whose provenance is traced to small-scale farms and whose price supposedly reflects its superior quality. In fact, such prices often stretch credulity (he is the only person I know to have ever brought home a free-range organic hen – to make a very superior chicken broth – for the astonishing price of 55 Euros).
Yet, I do find myself thinking about moral challenges. Unless this is wishful thinking, I am reasonably confident that the excellent beef I ate at a rustic Mendrisio restaurant last Friday comes from an organically and very sustainably raised Swiss cow (Swiss farming, as you may have heard, being quite particular about such standards). Yet, when I was in Japan, I ate Kobe beef with delight, not thinking of the deprivation that produced such tender meat.
And what about pork? What do I know about that Spanish pig whose cured meat ended up on my plate as jamon serrano, or the Italian one that resulted in the premium culatello di Zibello? What lives did such animals lead?
My husband rejects my accusation of being a radical chic cook, engaged in inventing a rich people’s diet. He retorts that he is not trying to make a fashion statement: he chooses the meats he chooses not because it’s a hip thing to do, but because he truly can tell the difference and does not want to settle for less. As a good utilitarian, he just tries to maximize the quality of the food he eats, and makes tradeoffs based on his personal preference function.
I don’t mind his approach, as long as it is consistent with the reduction of unnecessary animal suffering. (I do mind it, of course, when our fridge is full of foie gras – which luckily has not happened in recent years). I still have to work out my own. What to eat, what not to eat: the omnivore’s dilemma, indeed. In the meantime, check out the blog of the Artisan Beef Institute by my friend Carrie – an entrepreneur committed to bringing you decidedly non-industrial beef.