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.

6 thoughts on “Can we just eat, Mom?”

  1. David– you make some REALLY great points! I, too, am frustrated at times with people and institutions who seem to make it their mission to make me (and other “regular” folks) feel guilty for being human and alive. I am a conscientious, thinking person who honors life and lives by the “Golden Rule” of ‘doing unto others as I’d have done unto me.’ I’m a good person, etc…. But I DO eat meat – not red meat – but chicken and fish and eggs and other healthy forms of protein that help me stay fit and active and healthy. I am SO tired of apologizing for it to these vegan know-it-all do-gooder ASS CLOWNS! OK – I said it. I am sure there will be many negative responses.

  2. Well, I think “ass clowns” is exactly the sort of provocative commentary this blog has needed for some time, so bring it on.

    Seriously, I’ve had very few people be self-righteous towards me about their food choices. And I don’t ever assume anyone’s else’s choices are a commentary on mine (as mine aren’t on theirs). But on the internet everybody gets up on a soapbox. It’s actually very hard (I’ve tried and almost certainly failed) to talk about one’s own choices in this context and not come off as self-righteous. It takes a good deal of thought and care, more than is practical if you have to write quickly. But maybe we should all write less quickly. Maybe we should all just say less.

  3. I read the Bittman piece yesterday, and clicked on some of the links, and ordered a veggie wrap at the deli today, instead of my customary Rueben. And yet: I’m not sure what the long-term implications of his article, which I found effective, might be for me personally. Nicole proposed a week of vegetarianism, more as an experiment (also, she worries about my cholesterol more than the ethical treatment of animals, I think) than a final solution. Also, as I’m leaving this comment, I’m listening to the bacon sizzle for the Martha Stuart bacon-egg-and-toast cups I’m prepping for tomorrow’s faculty breakfast.

    So I appreciate you addressed all this while my mind’s buzzing about it anyway. I’m reminded a little of Sartre, who said something like when we choose for ourselves, we choose for everyone — and so, even with the old orthodoxies gone, and God dead and all that, we are not freed from the obligation and agony of reasoning.

  4. the dali lama eats meat. he says when a field is tilled, animals above ground are brought under the ground, and animals under ground are brought above. untold thousands die to make a cup of tea–you may as well be drinking a cup of blood. the point is to be conscious of the sacrifice and compassionate towards the life you touch.

  5. I have a friend who was born on her mother’s kitchen’s dirt floor in Mexico. She told me once, in an expression of how far she had come in life, that she and her family were able to eat meat every day. I am also from a family who lived in the narrow median between the priorities of extreme economy and health. We mostly ate beans and rice and tofu and vegetables and homemade bread instead of bologna and hot dogs. It seems that in a sense, “the spread of luxury to the lower sorts apparently make the ruling classes nervous.” While I certainly believe that I should be a thoughtful, respectful, conscientious eater, the dogmatic assertions and legalistic pulpit pounding quoted above sounds a lot like another yoke around the necks of the have-nots.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.