Letter to the Editor: Aligning our values and our diet

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by Andria Skornik

 

In a recent Episcopal Cafe post, readers were asked what they thought of the arguments presented by Nathanael Johnson in his article “Is there a moral case for meat?”

 

Honestly, I found the article dissatisfactory, if not a bit disturbing, not least because of his odd and seemingly self-serving beginning. He admits he’s looking for a philosophical defense for something he’s routinely convinced is morally wrong, which is that he likes to eat meat (and most people do too), so there must be a good reason for it being okay. But if that’s the basis for moral decision making, then we’re simply justifying our preferences with the word “ethics,” rather than holding ourselves up to a standard of what is right. If the upshot of his thought experiment is that we all should do better and that we should not judge one another en route to doing better, the downside is a readily available excuse to simply keep doing what we’ve always been doing, since no one’s totally perfect anyway.

 

 
Johnson asks if Christian virtue ethics could provide a model for an ethics of eating. But his emphasis is too much on what is unattainable (in his view) than the many measures available to us to end animal suffering now. In the case of Christian virtues, the ideal of perfect love may be impossible, but his concern over abstaining from meat – by far the most effective means of reducing animal suffering – is actually very doable for most people in first world western societies. One thing Christian virtue ethics definitely would not say is that if the person next to you is suffering, and you have the resources and capacity to end their suffering with a simple action, then to stand by and do nothing is ethically okay. The parable of The Good Samaritan is a good example of how we are morally obligated to alleviate particular instances of suffering when we see it. But even this parable is only partially sufficient, for when it comes to animal suffering we aren’t innocent bystanders making decisions about whether to attend to suffering or look the other way; when we buy and consume meat that has been resourced through unjust means, then we actively participate in the harm done.

 

Johnson is looking for a principle that can be applied to all people, in all places, and his examples of food choices in India and the (apparent) quality of life of caged hens certainly complicate efforts to arrive at such universals. But perhaps what is truly needed here is an ethic that takes into account the complexities of the individual experience and that guides us in ethical decision making in the everyday questions of what we eat.

 
If we assume that meat eating is inevitable in our society, as Johnson seems to, we can still spend more time asking how we can be more just in our practices rather than justifying what we already do. Examining factory farming – as he does to a limited extent – is a great place to start. Right now factory farming accounts for more than 99% of the meat we eat in America. These animals are subject to confinement, neglect, and abuse from workers who are themselves abused by an unjust system. Often these animals’ deaths are brutal and far from humane.

 

While this is how we procure meat in our country, it doesn’t seem to line-up with people’s values. As a society, we love animals. Ask people how they feel about their pets. Watch people feeding ducks. Consider the number of animal videos that go viral. We love animals and are fascinated by them. And studies show that the animals we eat have the same capacity for thinking and feeling as the animals with whom we share our homes. I recently visited a Farm Sanctuary where I got to hang out with pigs who love a belly scratch as much as any dog, and some of them found great pleasure in doing tricks for treats. There would be moral and public outrage if we knew the abuses of factory farming were inflicted upon dogs and cats; those fortunate animals we name, feed and mourn when they are gone. Most of us wouldn’t even be able to watch what happens at a factory farm. It’s time to bring our actions – what we eat and how we get it – in alignment with the value we already have for animal life.

 

What is most amazing is that we can all make a significant difference to minimize the cruelty of factory farming simply by what we put on our plate. We don’t have to write a check. We don’t have to volunteer. We just have to make better decisions, meal by meal. And as an added benefit, research is showing the overwhelmingly positive impact a plant-based diet can have on one’s health and the environment.

 

Gandhi once said, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” We need reform in the factory farming industry because the current practices are cruel, unnecessary and not morally justifiable on any account. As people of faith, however, it goes a step further. God has called us to care for God’s creatures, especially animals, as God cares for them. They are truly the most vulnerable among us. Caring for animals is the first thing that God asked humans to do in the creation account. It is fundamental to who we are and what we have been called to do. This is our ethical standard and we are more than capable of rising to this task.

 

 

 

The Rev. Andria Skornik is Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Rockford, IL

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Vinnie Lainson
Guest

This is a topic I feel passionately about. My views have been expressed in other comments by other people, so I will only share a couple of thoughts that are pivotal for me.

I think it is probably morally ok to eat meat - what is NOT morally ok is to cause them to suffer for a life-time, drug them, confine and abuse them and then, inhumanely slaughter them. Period. That is not ok. And, I believe, the moral cost is reflected in the entire chain of the industry and in the health of the consumer. The meat I will eat has had a "good life and one bad day" (to quote Joel Salatin). If I am unsure where the meat comes from, I will not eat it. Unless it is pork - I will not eat pigs under any circumstances....they sing to the moon. Nuff said.

Like all of you, I have heard tons of sermons through my life and remember few. One of the few I remember was when I was in seminary, it was given by Dr. Ellen Davis (OT Prof. now at Duke Univ.) where she said, (and I paraphrase here) "one day all of creation will be given it's voice and invited to sit at table with each other...and we will have to hear, to listen to all the pain and suffering we have caused." I believed her. And the thought of having to hear all that suffering, all those cries and terror and sadness made me stop eating industrialized meat. Chickens, cows, pigs, duck, geese.....all of them. I stopped.

One last thing. One of my sons goes hunting once a year to get one deer. We all share in this deer meat. The first time he came home with a kill, he told me he looked into her eyes and she into his just as he pulled the trigger. I asked him how he could kill her after looking in her eyes, and he said, "If we cannot look into the eyes of the animal we are about to kill, we have no right to eat them." He dressed her in the field himself, as he gave thanks for her life and for the nourishment she would give. And I knew I had found the ground of my moral compass on this issue. I wonder, how many meat eaters would be willing to look into the eyes of the yearling calf as they kill it for veal piccata....not many, would be my guess. Because we are humanely attached to our animals. That is a good thing.

I believe that God loves all of creation - loves all of it. Which means for me that the suffering I cause by eating industrialized meat grieves the heart of God. Every day of suffering by any and all of God's beloved creatures is a day of suffering for God. I do not want to be any part of that.

Sorry so long....it's the preacher in me 🙂

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John Chilton
Editor
John Chilton

The supply chain argument in the comments is a tricky one. If one chooses not to purchase a product from supplier X because of their labor practices you could well be making their employees worse off, not better, because they lose their jobs. You need to communicate that *you* are willing to compensate the supplier for taking on their added cost by paying a higher price. And, of course, you need to be able to monitor their practices.

Most surveys show Americans are willing to pay more to improve working conditions, but not enough to create the incentive for firms to do so. But they are willing to purchase the lowest priced good, quality held constant. And when they do so they are creating jobs in the poorest of countries.

The morality of what we eat does not stop at meat.

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Carolyn Peet
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Carolyn Peet

My British White cattle have a lovely life. And then they have One Bad Day.

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Catherine Jo Morgan
Guest

In the world as it is, many vegetables, fruits and nuts are grown in ways that entail suffering and sometimes even slavery for the people who grow and/or harvest and process them. It seems to me that rather than make general moral judgments about how everyone on earth should eat, it makes more sense to examine one's own "supply chain" and ask for spiritual guidance about what one's personal "necessity" is. Maybe one of us should eat meat, and a neighbor should not. Just my current point of view -- open to other viewpoints.

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James Yazell
Guest

I agree that it is important that we recognize just how implicit suffering is in our current economic models and just avoiding animal products doesn't absolve us of all the other types of exploitation occurring in the world.

With that said, I'm still curious to hear how exactly someone with the luxury of considering their own "supply chain" could have a necessity for consuming animal products. Unless of course, you are arguing for a moral relativism where each person decides for themselves what they think is right and wrong.

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Ann Fontaine
Member

There are many cultures that eat very little or no meat and have healthier lives and big brains. If you are going to eat meat would be good to raise it and kill it your self to see what a gift the animal is giving you (giving thanks to that being for giving its life for you). I think prepackaged meat gives people no sense of animals except as a product for consumption. Also there are many animals that have much less impact on the environment than beef (also won't give you "mad cow disease")

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David Streever
Member
David Streever

Hi Anne:
I think the environmental impact of cattle are actually up for debate, depending on the location. Australia, for instance, is a huge producer of cattle, and it's because it has a natural habitat which is ideal for raising pastured cattle. The extensive grasslands in Australia are not good for other agriculture, and indeed, it would be a massive ecological blow to convert the grasslands to farmland, resulting in large-scale habitat destruction for small mammals, birds, and insects. Cattle raised for meat are able to co-exist with the native flora and fauna.

It would be extremely expensive and destructive to switch from cattle pastures to arable land, and eliminate an industry which provides jobs to many, many Australians, and relatively inexpensive protein & nutrition. There is no economic path that would supplant the cattle industry without many people losing their livelihoods, and combined with the ecological damage that switching to farm land would cause, I'm not sure that we can say that raising cattle in Australia has a net negative impact.

I think in an ideal world we'd see human activity contextualized in this way; there is no doubt (for instance) that cattle raised in the Amazon has an incredibly destructive outcome. In my ideal world, we'd see cattle raised where it's the least destructive, and vegetables planted where that's the least destructive, and we'd see human demand/consumption increase or decrease in unison.

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