Can we just eat, Mom?

Is anybody else getting tired of the constant drama about what we should and shouldn’t eat? Maybe it is because I have been thinking about this stuff for fifteen years and I am just tired of it, but it seems that everybody, now, is telling me what I should or shouldn’t eat. Many of them are growing increasingly angry about it. Others are going further and further into the speculative thicket. Here’s a sampling of what my Twitterstream and blogroll have pointed me to just in the past three days:

Mark Bittman points out the discrepancy between the way we treat our livestock and the way we treat our pets. James McWilliams, who I thought was merely a contrarian, has now declared himself against all meat-eating, and rather pointedly so, because animals suffer. And Tuesday’s New York Times included an essay pointing out that plants, too, fight to survive; the author wonders whether our ethics ought to extend to them:

Slavery and genocide have been justified by the assertion that some kinds of people do not feel pain, do not feel love — are not truly human — in the same way as others…. Yet even as we shake our heads over the past, we continue to fight about where to draw the line around our tribe of those deemed truly human. We argue over whether those who love others of the same gender deserve full human rights. We ask the same about fetal humans. The dinner menu pushes us further still. Do other species of animal deserve our consideration? Do plants? Fungi? Microbes? Carol Kaesuk Yoon, “No Face, but Plants Like Life Too,” March 14, 2011.

I don’t entirely disagree with any of these authors. I’m sympathetic to all their core arguments: industrial livestock conditions are appalling; most people really ought to eat less meat; it’s worth considering what a tree feels, or is worth. And yet I am starting to appreciate the value of having a single orthodox religion that would obviate the need for me to listen to all this.

As I see it, we can state two principles as absolute, undeniable truths.1

  1. Because we are animals, we have to kill and consume other lifeforms in order to survive.
  2. It is seriously bad mojo to kill and eat your own mother.

Somewhere in between those two points — you have to eat something; don’t eat the woman who bore you — we have to draw a line between what we will eat and what we will not. Religions, traditions, and cultural norms have always defined that line so that individual human beings did not have to spend their days worrying about whether eating this or that was ethical. The lines they draw are arbitrary and conflicting, but any line we draw is arbitrary. Think about it too hard and it all gets fuzzy. Do we draw the line around humans and say that anything else is fair game? Peter Singer has questioned whether it makes sense to deny higher mammals rights we assign to extraordinarily low-functioning human beings. Around higher mammals, then? But what’s “higher”? Higher than what? Why dogs and not pigs, since pigs are probably smarter than dogs? Around mammals? But birds are also complex, intelligent, social creatures. Be a vegetarian, then? Better avoid milk and eggs; do you know what happens to the “boy cows” and “boy chickens”? A vegan? Explain to me, then, how killing an oyster is worse than cutting down a tree. And how many small animals are killed under the blades of plows and other plowing a field to raise grain? Or lose their habitat and starve when you clear the field?

And then: If it’s acceptable to kill and eat animals, in what manner is it acceptable to do so, and how are we permitted to treat them? On whom is it acceptable to inflict our person ethics — on our hosts? our guests? For every argument there is a counter-argument, which is why, I suspect, so many people are growing increasingly shrill in defense of their own.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try to draw a line. Indeed you must draw a line. Western culture’s bright lines were eroded by the Reformation, eroded some more by the Enlightenment and nineteenth-century science, and all but swept away by cultural changes since the 1960s. Freedom from orthodoxy leaves the engaged, intellectual, and consciously ethical free to fly as close to the sun as they like, but it also demands that individuals be engaged, intellectual, and consciously ethical, because there are no rules they can follow unthinkingly. Human beings simply are not equipped to be consciously ethical about everything we do. It’s exhausting, and impossible. If, as McWilliams argues, it’s wrong to cause any suffering unnecessarily, how aware do I need to be of the chain of production behind any item I buy — and what do I really need, anyway? Very much so and very little, if I want to be seriously, consciously ethical; I can reason my way pretty quickly into a desert cell. But my heavenly reward for such self-abnegation was sadly swept away with the rest of the traditional orthodoxies, so what’s the point?

At some point we also have to live our damn lives. We have to be thoughtful and engaged, but we also have to get on with it, or there really was no point in being born. And in living our damn lives, we are bound to cause some suffering — somewhere, somehow, at some level.

That, I think, is the real meaning behind original sin — not just that we’re bound to screw up but that it’s impossible to live as human beings without sinning, or, if you prefer, without violating our own codes of ethics, which are bound to be incomplete and imperfect anyway. Kurt Gödel proved that no mathematical system can be complete and self-contained; why would we think that an ethical system could be? We are, figuratively if not literally, damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

So do me this favor, people. Stay engaged with the ramifications of what you eat and what you do and how you live. By all means, talk about it and debate it. It’s important stuff. But please, try to keep a little humility about it, because whatever you come up with, you’ll assuredly still be wrong.


  1. Technology might find an end-around the first point, but I doubt it, especially considering the likely cost to life forms of building and fueling the technology. I’m unaware of any human society, culture, or religion in which the second is not taboo, but if anybody knows of one, please let me know, and I’ll remove the comma from the title of this post.