Posts Tagged ‘eating animals

Eating Animals is Wrong, I’ll Have the Burger

» April 24th, 2013

Here are two stories that, taken together, are kind of thought provoking. First: The other day, while running, a friend told me that he was recently at dinner with a colleague whose daughter is vegan. When the topic of her veganism came up, the colleague said, “the problem now is that I know I shouldn’t eat meat and so, when I do, I feel really badly about it.” This awareness, in it’s way, kind of annoyed her. She now knew too much.  Which can be very inconvenient.  

Second: Last night, I got an e-mail from another friend with a Psychology Today blog post attached. The post was written by Hal Herzog, author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, and the topic was “why are there so few vegetarians?” The article quotes the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, on why so many humans find it difficult to forgo animal products. After reading Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, Haidt’s consciousness was raised. But note his reaction: “Since that day, I have been morally opposed to all forms of factory farming. Morally opposed but not behaviorally opposed. I love the taste of meat, and the only thing that changed the after reading Singer is that I thought about my hypocrisy each time I ordered a hamburger.”

As vegan advocates and activists, our initial inclination to such a confession might be to castigate it as confirmation of weak character. Morally opposed but not behaviorally opposed? I mean, come on. Lame, pitiful, cowardly, etc, etc. A more generous and productive tact, however, might be to first acknowledge that even the dimmest awareness that the act of eating animals carries moral implications is, albeit regrettably, a sign of moral progress and, next, to bore into why a man as intelligent and morally cognizant as Haidt could say what he said and not be guillotined by the logic police. Ditto for the woman—a professor—who feels bad about eating animals but still continues to dig in. What’s really going on here?

My very strong sense is that neither of the two reluctant meat-eaters noted here would apply their moral/behavioral dichotomy to other situations involving animals. If an organization of psychopaths who derived genuine euphoric pleasure from tossing kittens into the dryer declared that they were morally but not behaviorally opposed to the gratuitous torture of kittens because, you know, it made them laugh hard and feel really good, I seriously doubt Haidt and the professor would grant their approval. So then, why is the moral-but-not-behavioral opposition culturally acceptable when it comes to doing something arguably much worse—like, say, killing and eating animals? It is, I think, a critical question, one we overlook by simply castigating the people who say such things.

I’ve used the term “tyranny of taste” in other contexts. Well, I think we’re seeing it here as well. In fact, I think we’re seeing an especially virulent strain of it. When it comes to our treatment of animals, there’s something different and fundamental about the basic act of putting an edible substance in your mouth (or not, I guess) and declaring pleasure from it. In an odd but understandable way, it becomes less an animal rights issue than right to my body issue, veering perilously into the pro-choice politics and the abortion debate lane. Don’t tell me what I can and cannot do to my body. That’s my business. Keep your laws off my mouth, vegan!  [Please note that I am not agreeing with this perilous lane weaving. I'm just bringing it up, reluctantly, since, the last time I did, I was nearly dragged to another guillotine.]

If I’m at all correct in the claim that humans are arbitrarily quick to subsume animal rights to a false sense of a basic right to taste whatever we please, perhaps even as a right to body issue, it is worth highlighting that we do not sanction the arbitrary satisfaction of other desires, such as, most notably, sexual ones. We cannot go out and engage in sexual acts wherever and whenever and whomever we want to because it feels so good to do so. But still, the right-to-the-taste-my-mouth belief strikes me as very real and perhaps helps explain Haidt’s position. It also highlights a philosophical issue that we must bring into the public sphere.

The other thought I had is that we are, as a culture of meat eaters, working from a basic misunderstanding of pleasure. Of taste. I hear it over and over again, even from people I love and respect, that meat just tastes too good to give up. This is said, again, with a nascent awareness that there are moral implications to the act of eating animals, which only makes the assertion of the culinary euphoria of flesh that much more convincing. But I must ask: does meat per se really taste good? I’m not entirely sure we can even answer questions about something as subjective as taste with objective information, but given the work being done on sugar, salt, and fat—and our physiological response to these substances—I think it’s possible.

I’m sure there’s a lot of research out there on the physiological logistics of deriving pleasure from meat. Or not. But from what I remember, it was never the flesh of a burger that I liked so much as the texture of the bun, the condiments, the creaminess of the cheese, the smokiness of the grill, and, maybe more than anything else, the cultural message that eating a burger satisfied something deep and primordial. But even back then, in the prehistoric pre-vegan days, the idea of chomping down a naked burger was not appetizing.

I do wonder, then, whether we really do enjoy the taste of meat or, instead, have merely been sold a bill of goods wrapped in a good story and stamped with approval from those immoral and behaviorally decrepit cretins who profit from the sale of animals. But I wonder about a lot of things.