Confessions of a Meat-Eater

This is my second column from the Humanist Society of Scotland’s magazine, Humanitie. It should be read side by side with this column from The Friendly Humanist.

I don’t hate animals (from now on by ‘animals’ I mean non-human animals). I’d never describe myself as an animal lover, but I’m not at all unsympathetic to the suffering of other species. Conversely, I’ve never really questioned why I have little problem eating them. The issue only really came to mind during the Edinburgh Science Festival this year, when I heard Richard Holloway remark to Richard Dawkins in a sterile lecture theatre which they’d failed to make homely with a coffee table and a couple of armchairs, that he considered speciesism “the greatest moral crisis of our time”, following insights from humanists and animal rights activists like Peter Singer.

I’ve started to notice there are plenty of vegetarian humanists (I admit that I used to associate it with those I dismissed as hippies). Indeed many object to the label ‘humanist’ because it is exclusive of animals. If humanism is the pursuit of knowledge and morality through reason and rationality however, it seems to me it’s not the name that’s excluding the non-rational animals, it’s humanism itself. Animals can’t be humanists, whether we change the name or not.

The time when Jamie Oliver and others were trying to expose the widespread barbaric practices used in processing non-free range meat was a good time to consider the issue, even if it meant I had to endure a few hours of that horrific combination of accent, speech impediment and gross bastardization of the English language. Let me say from the outset that I don’t have a big problem with animals dying so I can have something to eat. It happens in nature, we are obviously evolved to do so, and our species wouldn’t be where it is now if it we hadn’t (I recall an Edinburgh HSS group talk on neuroscience where Roger Redondo confidently announced that vegetarians are less intelligent than meat-eaters. I’m sure he meant vegetarian species, really). And I know if a bear decided to have me for lunch, no amount of rationality would convince it otherwise. I know that’s speciesist, but for the moment it seems an acceptable position.

So the moral problem I have is not with eating meat in itself, it’s with the unethical farming practices and abhorrent cruelty shown towards some animals on their way to my plate. The moral arguments against eating meat are just as effective in favour of veganism. After all, dairy cows and egg-laying hens are still killed when they’re no longer productive. And arguably vegetarianism alone doesn’t solve the problem, since you can still buy eggs from caged hens or milk from badly treated cows. So I decided, as a compromise between my moral conscience and my lack of enthusiasm for veganism, to only eat free range meat and animal products. This is difficult considering pork, beef, milk and cheese aren’t as well labelled as eggs and chicken, so you can’t tell if they’re free range or not, but the balance of conscience and practicality works well.

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5 Responses to Confessions of a Meat-Eater

  1. Tim Mills says:

    The ground I tread, as a vegetarian but not a vegan, is indeed ambiguous. I feel that, in time, I’m either going to have to become vegan or backslide into depravity – er, I mean meat-eating.

    Your comments also make me wonder what the correlations are between vegetarianism/veganism and other ethical food choices, such as free trade and locally-grown produce. I also wonder what the correlations are between veg*nism and more empirically dubious choices like organic – but perhaps that’s a discussion for another time.

    Also, I like that you acknowledge the “non-human animal” thing. I often wonder why everyone with a modicum of basic biological knowledge doesn’t cringe whenever someone uses “animal” to mean “any animal but human”. But maybe I’m just a pedant.

    Love the post, and thanks for the title.

  2. Stuart Ritchie says:

    You know that thing about vegetarians being less intelligent than meat-eaters? University of Edinburgh Psychology Department to the rescue (two of our professors have been involved in the research below)!

    It seems that higher IQ kids are more likely to go on to become vegetarians, even if you adjust for social class. (http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/abstract/334/7587/245). Possibly this is because more intelligent people are more likely to be more thoughtful about the suffering of others?

    Here’s an interesting one. It seems that if you give supplements of creatine (a compound that naturally occurs in meat) to vegetarians, they start to achieve higher results on IQ tests…! (http://journals.royalsociety.org/content/995yme1nnn6qvya1/fulltext.pdf)

    Calm down, calm down – the authors think that the creatine supplements would improve the intelligence of everyone – vegetarians AND meat-eaters – except those who eat vast amounts of meat on a regular basis. Still – interesting!

  3. grammarking says:

    Fascinating, Stuart.

    Tim, I suspect the ‘animal’ thing is just linguistic habit, just as we don’t think twice about saying things like ‘oh my God’, or associating ‘spirituality’ with a kind of spirit or soul. I wouldn’t be averse to making consciousness-raising efforts to change that, but I think if we do, we should come up with a word for non-human animals as that phrase is a bit clunky.

  4. Tim Mills says:

    Stuart, very interesting research.

    Mike, I agree that the phrase “non-human animal” is a bit clunky. But I would argue that the consciousness-raising that goes with its use would also tend to make the referent of “all animals except humans” less needed. We’d still want to talk about humans; we’d still want to talk about all animals. But, knowing that humans are included in the term “animals”, we might simply start to acknowledge (more than we currently do with our somewhat blinkered linguistic habits) that the traits that all non-human animals share tend to be traits that human animals also share.

    I for one do think twice about saying “oh my God” – I went through a phase of consciously (and perhaps artificially) replacing it with “oh my goodness” (same for related phrases such as “thank goodness”). Now, it’s no longer so conscious or artificial – the substitute phrases are becoming the natural, default phrases in my use of language. Given the subtle but potentially far-reaching effects of using misleading phrases, I think the little effort such a shift requires is worthwhile. But perhaps that is a topic for another column. 😉

  5. […] now. In it is my second column, included below. Visit the Not Quite So Friendly Humanist for the twin column. (Confession: I cadged my title from his. It was too good not […]

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