Sunday, March 2, 2014

Meaty, Ethical Questions

I don't know how this is possible, but tomorrow my ENG 100 students are scheduled to discuss only their second professional essay of the semester. And it might not even happen, as another 6-10 inches of snow are forecasted overnight and into the morning. This semester has been such a mess; thank God I only teach English, nothing more important. ;)

The essay they will be blogging and chatting about is "In the Belly of the Beast" by Paul Solotaroff, published just a couple months ago by Rolling Stone. This essay looks at the investigative work done at meat farms and slaughterhouses by undercover associates of the Humane Society, and it raises a lot of interesting questions about ethics and consumerism. I'm hoping it will provoke my students to think critically not just about animal rights, but also about the rights and responsibilities of consumers, citizens, and food suppliers.

A philosophical question that I've often posed to myself (without ever definitively deciding what I think) is what does it mean to have an ethical relationship with animals--especially the animals that humans typically eat? Some people would probably argue that it doesn't make sense to talk about ethics in relation to animals; if animals don't think ethically about us, why should we think ethically about them? Others (mostly vegetarians and vegans) argue that it is never ethical to kill an animal for food when plant-based food is abundantly available (and generally healthier). Even though I haven't made up my mind on this question, I think my own sentiments are somewhere in between these two views. Solotaroff, too, seems to argue that there's nothing wrong with eating meat per se, just as long as the animals are treated in a humane and environmentally sustainable way while alive.

The animals I eat most often are fish and deer. My wife and I love salmon, mahi mahi, tuna, swordfish, and we try to get "wild caught" (usually from Wegmans) whenever possible (and affordable). The venison we are lucky enough to get for free, courtesy of my wife's father, a generous and skilled hunter. I feel good about the fact that these animals lived freely--not in cages, not covered in excrement, not pumped full of hormones--before they met their demise. Yet, I certainly could sustain myself without them. There's plenty of protein in nuts, lentils, beans, avocados, chia seeds, etc. What's stopping me from becoming a complete vegetarian? Habit alone? The sensual pleasure of sinking my teeth into fish and deer flesh?

The other question raised by this article--the more practical one, considering it's unlikely that Americans, who eat more meat per person than any society in the history of human beings, will suddenly become vegetarians--is how to get people to be willing to pay a little more money for meat that comes from humane and sustainable farming practices? Americans love a bargain, and we are willing to turn a blind eye to fairly horrifying business practices if it means low prices for whatever we crave. (Who cares about the paltry wages of the Bangladeshi workers who cut and sew our trendy Old Navy sweaters, if we can get those sweaters for $16.99 each?) Now some might argue that most Americans can't afford to pay more for their meat--after all, organic, free-range, grass-fed meat can be expensive. But if we eat less meat, we can afford to eat better meat, and most nutritionists, at least according to food journalists like Michael Pollan, agree that Americans would be healthier if they ate "mostly plants."

Still, it's a hard sell. How To Eat Less Meat and Pay More For It is not exactly a catchy ad campaign. I look forward to hearing how convinced my students were...whenever the snow stops and we actually get to have class again.

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