Christopher tm Herdt (cherdt) wrote,
Christopher tm Herdt

I'm a bricklayer, I kill what I eat

The new Jonathan Safran Foer book, Eating Animals, has been getting a lot of press lately. I probably won't read it. I read Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma several years ago, and since that time there have been myriad books about ethical eating. However, I feel like my eating habits are usually in line with my beliefs, so I am going to spend my leisure time reading about something else. If I were to bend on this, I think the original--Upton Sinclair's The Jungle--would be my choice.

NPR posted a link about the book to Facebook, which filled up with comments (183 and counting), including one from Denise Beno:
"I believe that if you cannot look an animal in the eye, kill it and eat it at least once in your life, then you have no business eating meat."

I'm not here to argue for or against omnivorism or herbivorism. But I've heard this argument before, and I would like to say: hogwash!

Although I believe that I could kill & butcher an animal, I have quite a few good reasons not to. For one thing, I have no training or experience, and would therefore probably make a lot of mistakes. Also, I don't have the proper facilities to do so in a humane and food-safe manner. Not to mention the resulting mess! Additionally, aside from very small animals like rabbits and chickens, I would probably end up with more meat than I could reasonably use or store, given my additional lack of training and experience in meat-curing.

This argument basically says that we should eliminate division of labor and we should all become amateurish woodsy DIY survivalists. At least once, that is--which I suppose we do, if campfire s'mores on Labor Day Weekend counts as survivalism. I say to those same people: if you have never designed and constructed a combustion engine, if you have never built your own rack-and-pinion steering system, if you have never refined gasoline from crude oil, then you have no business driving a car!

It's absurd. Obviously, society works best when people do what they know and do well, and what they enjoy doing. If people do not have a knack for butchering, it makes perfect sense to leave that work up to someone who does.

The argument is poorly-phrased. The argument isn't really about learning to become a butcher. It's not about your knowledge and ability: it's about your conscience. We could all, with relatively clear conscience, build a yodeling pickle if we had the knowledge. But when faced with actually killing another living creature for the purposes of eating it, many people may opt for the eggplant parmigiana.

Perhaps the argument should be posed a different way: if you cannot look an animal in the eye, and give instructions to an expert butcher to slaughter it, then you should reconsider your stance on the omnivorous diet. This version still has a problem, though: it doesn't separate squeamishness from conscience. I don't think the argument is about squeamishness. After all, I would probably pass out watching a surgery, but that doesn't mean I object to modern medical care. There are many people who would prefer not to witness the bloodletting for reasons that have nothing to do with conscience.

Is there a way to separate sqeamishness from conscience in a question like this? I suppose you could give a lethal injection to an animal so it would die painlessly, and then have it carted out of sight for the butchering. But you couldn't eat it, because the chemicals would taint the meat.

The best way is probably through your actions in the marketplace, but unfortunately this has issues too. If a guilty conscience is the problem, who feels guilty for buying a shrink-wrapped pound of hamburger? Do you feel one-tenth of one percent of the guilt of killing an animal? Hamburger is to cow as CDO is to mortgage loan, and we've seen how that sort of tenuous-at-best connection can lead to all sorts of problems.

Now it's become a problem of connecting what's inside the Styrafoam-and-cellophane to the death of an actual animal. Butcher shops like the ones in the Italian Market in Philadelphia might also do the trick: if you see the animals hanging upside-down in the window, with the neck slit but the head still attached, perhaps the human brain can make that connection. And if people aren't comfortable buying meat in such a shop, then perhaps those people should reconsider where they stand on the issue of eating meat.

Bacon Vending Machine
The old-fashioned butcher shop is an antiquated solution. I don't see Kroger redesigning its stores to mimic the Italian Market anytime soon. I propose a high-tech solution: a meat vending machine. You press "Bacon" and a photorealistic hog appears on the screen. Then you have to put your finger on the hog on the touchscreen and watch as life fades away, in a painless manner, but by your design. Then you have to select the "Yes, I am responsible for the death of this pig" option to retrieve the bacon. Ah, modernity! Finally, a way to help reconcile my conscience with my consumption!

There are many excellent reasons for making ethical food choices (as well as many less-than-excellent reasons). Vegetarianism is among the wide range of ethical food choices. But the "if-you-won't-kill-it-yourself-don't-eat-it" logic doesn't work for me. The question of conscience cannot be reduced to a quick quip, a rule-of-thumb. The real answer is, of course: think about it, and decide for yourself.

I have only now realized my two great errors:
  1. I pick up a topic many writers and philosophers have already covered, with more thought and research than I have done
  2. How could a Facebook comment amount to much more that a hollow phrase?
Tags: bacon, facebook, food, jonathan safran foer, michael pollan, npr, upton sinclair, yodeling pickle

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