Another Reason

April 22, 2012

Not long after posting last week’s blog on the New York Times “ethics of meat eating” contest I heard from my friend Andrew Light, who is one of judges. Andrew doesn’t read the Thornapple Blog, but I had sent him a copy of the first draft as a courtesy. He reports that The Times has received more than 5000 entries to the contest, some of them sounding themes very much like my blog. He also notes that the judges weren’t to have finished their work until this past Wednesday, so if you went looking for the results in the NY Times Magazine last week, you were probably disappointed. Maybe next week.

Andrew picked out this sentence of the blog for comment:

You can’t live in the world of food ethics without being aware that many philosophers who live on considerably more than $2.60 a day have decided that eating meat is a “trivial pleasure” which people are morally obligated to forego in light of the fact that producing animal protein (and this would include eggs the way we do it in the industrialized world, by the way) requires the death of animals.

He assures me that none of the judges (two of which, himself included, are philosophers making more than $2.60 per day) hold the opinion that meat eating by the poor is a trivial pleasure. This may be so, but the other philosopher who is a judge has in fact written that meat eating is a trivial pleasure, and when he did so, he did not qualify his statement by confining it to people at higher levels of income. I have had this phrase thrown at me on several occasions, and I rather suspect that people who use it picked it up from the writings of Peter Singer. I wrote about a particular occasion on which something rather like this phrase was used in a Thornapple Blog on November 14 of 2010.

Nevertheless, I would be remiss if I did not also point out that Professor Singer is one of the loudest and most consistent voices raised on behalf the poor. He is known for donating a substantial percentage of his income to charities running aid and development programs in developing countries, and this is not something that I do myself. So Andrew would be quite right in correcting any implication that the sentence he quoted was a valid criticism of the contest judges. Singer is notorious for his advocacy on behalf of animals, but he has always qualified this advocacy. It is not based on a concern about the death of animals, nor does he present it as a rationale that could cited to deprive people in poverty of the food that they need.

In fact it was never my intention to criticize Andrew Light, Peter Singer or the other judges (who are not philosophers, in any case, and two of whom are not, so far as I know, vociferous advocates of ethical vegetarianism). I was being sincere in trying to explain why I find philosophical arguments about what other people should eat to be so troubling. The 2010 blog also talked about people a bit less fortunate than I am, though in that case they were my neighbors, which means that they are getting by on significantly more than $2.60 per day.  I could have talked about some other people I know who are every bit as well off as I am.

There is a woman I know who struggles with several dietary conditions and takes virtually no pleasure (trivial or otherwise) in eating whatsoever. What’s offensive about the “dietary ethics” arguments in this case has little to do with vegetarianism, and everything to do with the assumption that what you eat is a matter of choice. As further evidence, I could cite my own case. I’m a diabetic, though my blood sugars are reasonably well controlled at present. They tend to be better controlled when I eat a meat heavy diet. In fact I don’t eat a meat heavy diet, which means I have to offset rice or pasta meals with some pretty vigorous exercise. But for me, diet is a regimen contextualized by numerous factors, only some of which are ethical in nature. It’s still not really a matter of “choice” in any straightforward sense.

And then there’s the poor fellow who takes a bag full of medications every day. Some drug or some combination of drugs and/or food sets off a round of explosive diarrhea every other week or so. If you see him make a beeline for the men’s room, cut him a little slack, would you? Trouble is, he can’t figure out what to eat, what not to eat, or whether it’s some weird combination of the moon, the tides or bulgur and tofu that’s the root of all.  If he could help his condition by eating meat, I’d say go for it. I probably wouldn’t encourage him to write to the Times, though. His case points us to a reason why we’d probably all be better off not to talk so earnestly about what’s at the end of each other’s fork.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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