I Was Hungry, And Ye Gave Me Meat

I Was Hungry, And Ye Gave Me Meat

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It’s not much fun being a cow or a sheep in Englandat the moment.  In fact, it is not much fun being anyone in England at the moment.  My wife Lizzie just returned from a week’s trip there, and she found the place a bit like a fortress – or a prison, more like.  She could not go walking on the Sussex Downs.  Any visits to farms are right out.  And even sauntering down the lane in the evening to the pub is a bit dicey.

Foot and mouth disease has struck with a vengeance.  In itself, it is not that bad an affliction, but it does reduce weight and milk yield.  Although it is possible to vaccinate, the preferred way of treatment in the West is by rigorous slaughter of all affected animals, including those that might have been infected or that stand the chance of passing on the infection.  It is terribly difficult to eradicate, because it is carried by birds (by starlings, primarily, in Britain), and has absolutely raced through the land and now on to Ireland and to the continent.

Englandis an abattoir, with stacks of stinking, slaughtered kine, with greasy smoke palls rising over the countryside, with ruined farmers, with an election postponed, with tourism slashed, with nothing but gloom forecast for the future.  And all for the want of a lamb chop or a nice cut of prime rib.  Which makes one think, it really does!

Should we be in this business at all?  Meat eating, that is.  It is not much fun for the Ruses when they want to go traveling today.  But, let us face up to it, now or later it is always not going to be much fun for the cows and sheep – and pigs and chickens and ducks and geese and whatever.  It is not going to be much fun period, for at some point they are all going to make the trip to the abattoir – to the stun gun or the electrified floor or the garroting wire or the sharp knife or whatever method of execution lies in wait for them. And the question I ask is whether it is right and proper for us humans to be doing this raising and killing, foot and mouth or no foot and mouth?

Let me say straight off that I am not a vegetarian but that I have no objections if someone is a vegetarian.  I worry a bit about being a vegan, although mainly on health grounds.  To be frank, if someone does not want to eat honey because they think it is exploiting the bees, then I do start to ask about their values – I am inclined to think that this is trivializing morality beyond the reasonable.  I regard such behaviour as neurotic rather than commendable.  But if you do not want to eat meat, then that strikes me as your business and perfectly acceptable.

The one thing I do object to is not being told in time.  I hate it when I invite someone to supper, and only at the moment of service do they announce that they are vegetarian.  “Don’t bother about me, I’ll just eat vegetables and bread.”  I do bother, as I hurry to see that no chicken stock was used in cooking the greens and that the sauce can be scraped off the potatoes.  It is easy enough to fix vegetarian food, and if I am told beforehand then I can do something special or we can all eat vegetarian.  I have a great recipe for macaroni and cheese, which goes very well with an eggplant in tomato and a good bottle of red wine.  It goes even better with two good bottles of red wine.

So, why should one be a vegetarian?  One reason is simply that one does not like the taste of meat.  I can understand this.  I do not much like the taste of bubble-gum ice cream.  I cannot honestly say that I much like the taste of heart, although unlike others in my family I am very fond of a nice piece of liver.  I suppose, if the truth be known, I cannot really understand why someone does not like the taste of a good cut of roast beef, rare, or a grilled kipper (bones in please, for flavour), but (as they say) there’s no accounting for taste.  It takes all sorts.

Another reason for meat avoidance is aesthetic.  One just cannot imagine eating a dead animal.  I believe George Bernard Shaw felt this way.  I am inclined to think this a bit fussy but I am not about to argue the point.  My wife will not eat oysters for this reason, and I am certainly not about to argue with her.  In any case, I object strongly when universities insist on unregenerate old chauvinists like myself having to take courses on gender sensitivity, so I am hardly about to insist on courses on meat-eating sensitivity.

Health issues always come high, especially in the USA.  Now, I am probably sufficiently well conditioned to think that a diet of pork dripping, liberally spread on bleached, white flour bread, with a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper, is probably not a good idea – said he with regret.  (Bread and scrape is almost as good as black pudding, this latter made from pig’s blood and suet. One of the reasons – one of the very few reasons – for going to Scotland.)

But I suspect that a lot of the talk about meat and diet is more a function of American Puritanism than anything else.  If you like it, it must be bad for you.  There are no other reasons – certainly no good reasons – for all of these prohibitions.  Dietology, or whatever it is called, strikes me as being about on a par with astrology.  If anything is true, it is that a couple of good stiff drinks a day – any kind of alcohol, not just the middle-class tipple of red wine – is good for you.  Try getting that message across in this part of the world.  Now, lo and behold, the magazine Science no less has carried a piece suggesting that if you carefully abstain from anything in meat which makes it flavourful (I mean fat), you might get to live a full three weeks longer.  Thanks, but I will go with the pork chop and duck out (nice metaphor – great with orange sauce) early.

So none of those reasons are definitive, although I should say that for myself – unlike my wife who religiously eats meat three times a day – I am quite happy to mix up meat and non-meat meals.  I will eat bacon and eggs on a trip because I never am sure about my next meal – too often, I have crossed a time zone between breakfast and lunch and found that I should have indulged in the former, because I am about to miss the latter.  But at home, I always eat cereal for breakfast – an English cereal Weetabix by choice, although unlike one expatriate correspondent to the Weekly Telegraph (an appalling rag, very right-wing, full of news about the royal family and illicit sex in the vicarage, that I buy and read with relish) I cannot say that I have eaten the same cereal (Grape Nuts) every day of the week for the past forty years.

What about religion?  Well, what about religion?  Many religions, Judaism and Islam and Hinduism, to name three, have various kinds of food taboos.  I regard these as mildly interesting and quite without any moral standing, whatsoever.  Speaking personally, I have not had the end of my penis sliced off, but I cannot say that I regard those that have as morally superior.  You may not eat lobster because it does not have fins and scales.  I do.  Incidentally, a tip I never thought I would give is that if, when you up in the Northeast in the summer, you see that McDonald’s has for sale McLobster (or McHomard in my country) take it!  For five bucks you get a far better lobster roll than at twice the price from fancier places.  You get the Treat of the Week, too.

More generally, as far as I can make out, Judeo-Christianity is pretty positive about eating meat and fish – as it is about sex and booze, if you read the parts of the Bible that I read.  The Israelites on their way from Egypt did not mark their doors with olive oil, nor did they take cold cauliflower on the trip.  I do not remember, when the prodigal son returned, that his father got up the fatted nut rissole.  Nor do I remember that the feeding of the five thousand involved passing out flavoured tofu salad.  (In fact, I cannot remember that Jesus was that keen on vegetables at all – and think how much help it would have been if, at the end of I Corinthians 13, Saint Paul had said that “and the greatest of these is spinach – so eat it up right now”!)  This meat and fish consumption is all very much in line with a pretty strong general stand on the place and use of animals.  Abraham did not sacrifice a sauteed eggplant instead of Isaac.

Of course, for the Jew or Christian or Muslim, this attitude to animals – they are there for our use – is built right into the system.  We and we alone are made in the image of God.  Everything else is background.  There is no nonsense about pigs and sheep being part of the chosen few.  Indeed, it took time for most humans to get under the wire, as it were.  Towards alien peoples, the God of the Old Testament would often give a Balkan ethnic cleanser a run for his money.  Animals get the robust treatment that one would expect of a primitive nomadic people – look after animals carefully, for they are a crucial part of your livelihood, but do not sentimentalize them.  They are only animals, after all, and to pretend otherwise would be sacrilege.

It is sometimes pointed out today that, in the second creation story, Adam is given the job of naming the animals, and this is true.  It is suggested that this shows that we humans have a responsibility to nature, and that we should therefore not simply use the creation to our own ends.  I am happy with the conclusion, and I am quite willing to go along with such an interpretation of Genesis, although I am not sure that it is quite what the original authors intended.  (But then, what did they intend?)  But this is no warrant for vegetarianism.  A shepherd – the popular metaphor – cares for his sheep, but then he ends up by killing them for his own ends.  We should look after nature, including the animals, but that is no bar to eating them.

So finally we come to philosophy.  On the one hand there is the Kantian position.  Treat others as ends rather than as means.  Kant himself certainly never intended this to apply to animals, but some today would argue that we should.  Animals have rights or some such thing, and as beings with rights we ought not eat them (or do other things, like use them in experimentation).  I confess that this line of argument cuts little ice with me.  I am dubious about rights in the case of humans, let alone animals.  The eighteenth-century British philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, once forthrightly referred to rights talk as “nonsense on stilts,” meaning that he could see no warrant for assuming the existence of rights.  I am inclined to agree.

Consider the mouse about to be eaten by the snake.  In what possible sense can we say that the mouse has rights?  It is just silly talk.  You might say that the mouse has rights in our eyes if not the snake’s, since we unlike the snake have intelligence and a moral sense.  But notice first that you are imputing rights rather than finding them, and second that you now have an unproven premise, namely that in our eyes the mouse has rights even if not in the snake’s.  You have got to prove this, and I see nothing in Kantianism which does that for you.

On the other hand, there is the utilitarian position, which urges you to maximize happiness and minimize unhappiness.  This certainly and surely urges you not to treat animals with wanton cruelty.  For this reason, a case can be made against the treatment of veal calves – I confess that is one delicacy I tend to stay away from.  A more general case can be made against the experimental use of animals on cosmetics and so forth.  But against meat eating in general?  I really do not see this, so long as the animals are well cared for and so forth.  A comfortable life and a quick death.  Why not?

Of course you might complain that the animals do not have a comfortable life.  Peter Singer once told me that a major reason why he does not eat meat is that he is protesting against battery hens and the like.  A number of points arise.  First, I am not sure that not eating meat is going to do much to alleviate this.  Much better, if you are concerned, to seek out farmers concerned with the ethical raising of livestock.  Second, it is important not to ove sentimentalize.  I would hate to be raised as a battery chicken.  But a battery chicken is first and foremost a chicken.  Third – although this is a point against vegetarianism generally – do not forget that, unless you are a full-blown vegan, animals are going to be used for you anyway.  Where do your eggs and milk and wool come from?  Moreover, remember that eggs come from hens and not from cocks, and milk from cows – cows which have had to be pregnant – not bulls.  Hens which quit laying long before they die and cows which dry up long before they die.  Are you going to have vast farms for unneeded cocks and bulls (no jokes please about wild stories) and for superannuated hens and cattle?

I am sorry about what is happening now in Britain, but all in all I can see little moral reason for giving up the eating of meat or fish.  I confess that I myself have never been able to see the attractions of hunting, but that is another matter.  Actually, as a city boy who likes reading, I am happy to let you have your guns so long as I can have my libraries.  For the rest, if you want to be a vegetarian, please do not let me stop you.  If you want to come to supper at my house, you are welcome and I will cook to your wants.  But, I myself will go on eating meat in an entirely guilt-free fashion.  Another lamb chop anyone?  They go rather well with the peas and the new potatoes.  Do try the mint sauce.  I made it myself.