If Slaughterhouses Had Glass Walls…

We wouldn’t be having this debate.

There are many difficulties in adopting and sticking to a vegetarian (or vegan) lifestyle. But think of the difficulties endured by the sentient beings who simply got us here today. Think of the difficulties that future generations (human and non-human) will endure if we don’t change the course of our societies today.

As with any important ethical issue, eating meat is not a clear-cut issue. I (basically) gave up eating meat in 2001 on ethical grounds. This was in large part due to my becoming a Buddhist and my teacher Bodhipaksa, who had written on the ethics of Buddhism and vegetarianism (How does what we eat affect us and our world? Is there a connection between vegetarianism and living a spiritual life? Doesn’t the Dalai Lama eat meat? A trained vet, respected teacher, and happy vegan, Bodhipaksa answers all of these questions and more. -via the book description at amazon).

Over the last decade or so I have wavered, here and there, between vegetarianism, meat-eating, and (very brief bits of) veganism. But the core intention of benevolence has maintained throughout. I have had debates with some wonderful people: Buddhists, Pagans, Christians, and others, about the morality of eating meat. As a devout educator, I think these discussions, while they may not change anyone’s ultimate beliefs, will still lead to deeper questioning greater understanding.

To get a short snap-shot of my views on meat eating you can see a few posts here:

Does studying Ethics make you more Moral? (me in 2012)

The Buddha explains the ethics of meat-eating. (me in 2010)

Save the World – stop eating meat! (me in 2008)

They are dated, but I’m still happy to see more comments on each – and to see more old discussants/friends return to the conversation. But first, watch this (many thanks to Christpher Titmus for sharing it):

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And hey, a fellow Patheos blogger, Hehmet the Friendly Atheist, also talks about being vegetarian here (2009).

But whatever your faith, I hope the questions of animal cruelty and environmental degridation weigh heavily on you, whether you eat meat or not. As an American, issues such as nuclear weapons, global state terrorism, and drone warfare are all issues I am concerned about, even as I oppose them.

However, as with any argument, there are many sides to bring to the conversation. First and foremost, what do you think of the video and Philip Wollen’s argument? Is it true that ‘as we suffer, we suffer as equals’? That their capacity to suffer, ‘a dog is a pig is a bear is…. a boy’.

What about the other facts he presents?

The 6th mass extinction in cosmological history? (and we’re causing it????)

600 million vegetarians in the world today…

And Cornell and Harvard studies say that the optimum amount of meat in a healthy human diet is exactly zero.

(I just noticed that Peter Singer is also on his side of the panel in the video), here’s the full (2 hours-ish) video:

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As Singer says, “we CAN live healthy lives without meat…” with massive studies to follow it up (especially in terms of red meat consumption).

Please watch the video in full. It’s WELL worth your time if you care about ethics, diet, consumerism, the environment, or living a good life in general.

  • http://davidmashton.blogspot.com David Ashton

    Thanks for this collection of resources. Looking forward to watching the full video.

  • Michael Schapers

    Thank you Justin for another thought provoking post. As a conscious carnivore, I’d like to respond, not with the goal to convince you that it is OK to eat meat, but perhapse to simply try to explain myself as a meat-eater, hopefully adding to your insight as to some of the reasons why people chose to eat meat, even when presented with the reasoning of people such as Philip Wollen.

    I apologize for the length of my post, but I feel it is appropriate due to the complexity of the issue.
    Why do I eat meat? Besides a matter of unconscious habit, the single one reason is: I love it’s taste. When it comes to this taste, there is nothing that can replace it. Now the ethical question I have to ask myself of course is: is this worth killing an animal for?
    From what I picked up from Wollen’s short speech his main arguments for replying negatively to this question are the following:
    - eating meat is detrimental to one’s health and therefore we should refrain from eating meat
    - it is cruel to kill an animal for its meat
    - to kill an animal is the same as killing a fellow human being, and therefore immoral
    - the practice of eating meat inevitably leads to the creation of a global industry that is environmentally unsustainable

    I find these arguments unconvincing.
    - On health:
    I see no moral obligation to protect my own physical well being at all costs. Physical health is not the highest purpose of life. Psychological happiness is more important than physical health. That’s why I eat sugar, fat and salt purely for pleasure; that’s why I drink alcohol; that’s why I perform fellatio, even when research shows it increases the chance of oral cancer by a factor 9. That’s why I bungee jump. Of course, it is smart to take health concerns into consideration, for the physical costs can outweigh the psychological gains. That’s why I do not use crystal meth. But the health costs of eating meat are acceptable; they are worth dying a few years earlier for. The social costs for maintaining a healthcare system for people who chose to eat meat justifies discussion, I would argue that I prefer a society based on the promotion of psychological happiness, not primarily on economic considerations.
    The key solution here is: moderation. But even excess is not inherently unacceptable.
    - on cruelty:
    This is a complex issue. What do we mean with ‘cruelty’? Cruelty as a concept refers to a specific quality. In my understanding, cruelty refers to the infliction of an access of suffering; of suffering that is unwarranted. Cruelty does not simply mean suffering, this amounts to an inflation of its semantic function. When you kill an animal, it suffers. When you kill an animal for fun (for example because you like to eat it), you will have to realize and accept that it suffers, but as long as the suffering serves this specific purpose, it can be right or wrong, however cruel it is not. Inflicting pain should be avoided if it serves no valuable purpose. For the purpose of consumption, I shoot a bullet through the head of a cow that I raised to maturity on my land: he dies, which implies suffering, but the suffering is reduced as much as possible and the purpose of consumption which cannot be obtained by other means makes this act a justifiable one. You can oppose this killing, but you cannot say its cruel. Some people in southern China believe that skinning a dog alive while roasting it over a fire increases the flavor of its meat. The amount of suffering inflicted upon the animal is immense, I do not believe the increase in flavor is increased in equal proportion, therefore the suffering is excessive and I call it cruel. Boiling a lobster alive or spooning the flesh out of a live sea urchin – these are tougher questions, their supposedly painful deaths do serve a purpose that is somewhat in proportion to their suffering. Is bull fighting – even when the suffering of the animal is reduced to a minimum – justifiable? I am not convinced that there is a simple black-and-white, one-size-fits-all answer to such questions. Some pleasures are worth a lot, others less. Skinning a squirl alive because youre bored? Cruel – way too cruel, sick -, no discussion necessary. Bull fighting, recreational hunting, angling? Varying degrees of questionable justifiability. The industrial way we produce most of our meat nowadays? Not worth the excessive suffering it inflicts, in need of thorough reform, yet it cannot be equated to purer forms of deranged cruelty like skinning a squirt or other acts of sadism: inflicting pain is not the purpose here, it’s a different category of cruelty. Eating meat an sich? Wrong or right, however inherently cruel it is not.
    Again the key maxim here is: moderation.
    - on equating animals with humans, and their killing with murder
    Animals are not humans. There’s a reason we distinguish ourselves from them in our language. In essence, this reason is that we feel a stronger identity between ourselves as humans than we do with the beings we call animals. Is this a necessity? Perhapse not. Is this justifiable? I think so. Humans have different needs than the animals they keep as livestock. When kept as livestock ourselves, what we call slavery, we experience it generally as a very unsatisfying existence. Does a cow, raised and eventually slaughtered in a responsible manner, deem its existence unsatisfactory? By lack of communication, stress levels are a way to measure this, and I dare say the stress levels of free range cows are less than those of most free humans! As a society we should not allow people to kill others for the sake of pleasure, but there is no reason why animals should be granted the same level of protection. This is not because humans are somehow ‘worth’ more than animals, although it is only natural for us to care more for our own than we do for others, in varying degrees. It is because societies where such practices are banned, are happier ones. Mind you, I’m not talking about cruelty here, as I argued earlier all living beings deserve to be protected from excessive violence.
    - on environmental sustainability
    For me, this argument against the consumption of meat is by far the strongest, and to a certain extent I find it impossible to refute. The pleasure of eating meat that has been produced in an unsustainable manner are far less then the total amount of pleasurable experiences that are lost due to the environmental destruction that is the consequence of this production. We should avoid this destruction. This is not just limited to meat consumption, maspects of our modern consumerist lifestyle are endangering our planet, and thereby the happiness of its sentient beings. The most effective way is perhaps to become a Buddhist monk, commit oneself to radical ascesis, and switch to a vegan diet. If we all do that, the planet will be saved. My problem with this is: will this make us happy? For some a life of selfless service appears to be satisfying, in their perception sensual pleasures are illusionary and inherently dissatisfying. But for me, and I think the majority of people, sensual pleasures like the consumption of meat are truly satisfying, and valuable, and my life is less satisfying without them. So we want to eat meat. We do not want to destroy the earth. Our problem is: we want to eat the cake, and have it to. This is not simply a matter of choice or getting rid of bad habits: this is who we are, what makes us happy. So where we can afford it, we will modify our consumption in a sustainable manner. But to those saints who are begging us to change our ways, and cursing us if we don’t, I say this: unless we can obtain equal alternatives – better ways to get the same satisfaction – your mission is doomed to failure. Abstention from our sensual pleasures is not an option, it will not happen.
    The key to a solution here I think is to be found in technology, not in morality.

    So to conclude my lengthy response. People like Philip Wollen who try to overpower me with guilt will not convince me, their guilt is no match to my appetite. Vegetarianism is commendable, and those who find happiness in that lifestyle should be praised. But it cannot be considered a moral obligation.
    I do not eat meat conscientiously, but I find no problem in eating it consciously. I try to be mindful, to not contribute to cruelty, to lead a sustainable lifestyle. But I do enjoy materialistic pleasures, I don’t yearn for nirvana and this is why I am not a Buddhist. And why I chose to eat meat.

    • Lisa P.

      I think you need to explore the word of vegan cooking. I guarantee that you would be totally satisfied after one of my amazing vegan meals. Try checking out some vegan restaurants. I don’t miss meat at all, and I used to be a big KFC fan.

    • Giacomo Baldo

      I even enjoyed to eat raw liver. I turned vegetarian two years ago and I don’t miss meat at all. I think it’s a balance between my sensitivity to suffering and the pleasure I would gain by eating meat. Maybe I’m just very sensitive and I gain a lot of happiness by knowing I am limiting the suffering of animals and this is my materialistic pleasure. I am not trying to reach any Nirvana and I am not a Saint.

  • Justin Whitaker

    Michael, many thanks for your thoughtful comments. No worries on being too long – the arguments from the pro-meat-eating side in the video left me wanting and so I very much appreciate your contribution. I hope others will engage you more, either pro or con, but I did want to just note your tastes good/happiness argument. You admit that concern for the environment/future generations does weigh on you and hense you are a mindful meat consumer, but it doesn’t weigh enough to give up all meat. To me this is really good enough in being moraly defensible. If everyone in the big meat-consuming cultures/nations could do just this, the world would be a much, much better place. The same goes for being a mindful consumer in general.
    That said, it may be just a matter of a few experiences here or there (conditioning) that separate you and I on this. The gulf between us and ‘average’ consumers is much wider, and I hope that my occasional writing, which has drawn out good comments such as yours, can help draw mindless consumers more toward us.

    Oh, and I just saw that NPR is running a series on Meat in America:

    And a friend of mine recently (and I believe unrelatedly, posted this video):

  • http://theendlessfurther.com David

    At a teaching I attended many years ago, the Dalai Lama explained that on his doctor’s orders he ate meat every other day. So he was a vegetarian some days and others he wasn’t. I used this as my excuse, rationalization, cop-out, or whatever you want to call it for a long time. Hey, I told folks, if works for the Dalai Lama, it works for me. Then I attended a talk by Thich Nhat Hanh who presented a very powerful argument against meat eating on any level, and elsewhere he has been quoted as saying it’s akin to eating the flesh of your own son. Egad. That stuck for a while, but eventually faded into the background.

    Since then, I too have been here and there, back and forth, although I rarely eat red meat, just chicken (organic, free-range). Ethically, I think it’s wrong. But . . .

    And the other thing is so many of my friends who are vegans (and whom I hope don’t read this) are zealots on the subject, and I get sick of hearing about it. What’s a poor boy to do? Anyway, as you say, it’s not a clear-cut issue and thanks for the objective post on this subject.

    • http://gplus.wallez.name/ denis wallez

      “not red meat, just chicken (organic, free-range)” is interesting to read [no judgement intended]. Tibetans use exactly the opposite argument: for them, killing a yack is more acceptable than eating chicken… because there’s more meat “per life.”
      [I agree with the zealots... that's why I usually question people about the need to eat meat twice a day (which is so new a behaviour that clearly it is not a need of our specie) and I think if somebody goes for meat twice a day to meat once a week, that's 93% reduction that is highly commendable already.]

      • Justin Whitaker

        Absolutely agreed, Denis.

  • A Reader

    A really interesting post. I haven’t yet spent much (okay, any) time in the Buddhist section of Patheos blogs (right now I consider myself atheist/agnostic), but this post drew my attention. I’ve been a vegetarian for most of the last four and a half years (okay, I’ve cheated a few times–chicken is good). I can certainly see why many people eat meat. Not only is it a very powerful habit, but sometimes, it just feels good. What always brings me back to vegetarianism, though, is the question of whether a few minutes of enjoyment for me is worth another animal’s life. To me, it isn’t. Of course that brings up the nagging question of why I continue to consume dairy products, considering the deplorable conditions of many mega-dairies…
    Vegetarianism/veganism is a complicated issue that I still think about today, and it was great to read a thoughtful post on it. I haven’t yet watched the videos, but if they’re as good as the post itself, I think I’ll enjoy them :) Thanks for posting on this subject!

  • http://www.moralobjectivity.net Robert M Ellis

    Hi Justin, Thanks for posting this. The (first) video is a piece of powerful advocacy worth watching just for impact, however one assesses the arguments. For myself I am a non-absolute vegan. I think it is important to be non-absolute and make it not a matter of purity. So it would be fair to say that I am more than 99% vegan but eat sustainably caught fish perhaps once every couple of months.

    Like Michael Schapers, I find the environmental argument by far the most persuasive. Unlike him, I think such arguments are far more important than something as trivial as the dietary preferences one happens to be conditioned into at present. This is so easy to change. In just a few weeks of a different diet you can alter your expectations, and after a few years you will probably find meat aesthetically repellent. Nor is veganism in the least ascetic these days. Visit any health food shop and you will find vegan alternatives for virtually every meat, dairy or egg based item you might be used to. Of course, they don’t taste exactly the same, but the challenge of switching is made that much easier for meat-eaters because they really don’t have to change very much. All they have to do is visit the specialist shop instead of doing all their shopping in the supermarket.

    I don’t agree with Phillip Wollen’s equation of human with animal suffering (if that’s what he’s doing), but I do think human and animal suffering are on a continuum. And Wollen is right to highlight the massive quantity of animal suffering connected with the livestock industry. You don’t have to equate this animal suffering with human suffering to nevertheless conclude that it’s totally unnecessary. It’s certainly not necessary either for the trivialities of conditioned human taste, or for human health, so why else should it be necessary? Nor is it justifiable for meat eaters to select the most humane methods of rearing and slaughtering as representative of meat and dairy production unless they only eat products produced by those methods. And the vast majority of meat and dairy products are directly or indirectly dependent on factory farming and slaughterhouses – which are places of fear, extreme stress and casual cruelty.

    Not a moral obligation? I don’t think it’s helpful to see ethics in terms of ‘obligations’. If you are not a vegetarian or vegan you would be moving forward and addressing conditions by reducing and eventually ending your meat consumption. And if you are stuck in a rut (‘you’ meaning any meat-eater) where you feel you have no moral choices because you ‘like meat too much’ then I think you owe it to yourself, not just to animals and the world, to get out of that rut.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Thanks for dropping by, Robert. I agree in terms of not being absolute about it. Purists are those who I think tend to have a plank in one eye while shouting about the splinters in others’. If you can be a purist, do so humbly (I’ve known plenty of these as well, I suppose). I also agree that there is plenty of wonderful food for vegetarians/vegans. In fact I’m certain that I’ve discovered more interesting and wonderful food as a vegetarian than I ever did in my steak-and-potato youth.

  • Meaghan

    I’m impressed with the politeness of the conversations in this thread.
    However, may I also say that I find some of the rationale and polite reasoning a bit offensive as well ..
    I try very hard not to be a radical and when people ask me what I think their position should be regarding diet I have always said .. try reduction. I am someone who has been inside slaughter houses, and on the frontline of ecosystem devastation .. Im a bit sick to death of listening to humans have intellectual discussions about these topics when the reality is we ARE in a very drastic situation and that whatever rational debate you want to have about the nature of suffering, animals do very visibly suffer a great deal in slaughter houses and all for a sick self centred human desire . ANYONE who has owned a dog or a cat etc knows without doubt that animals have consciousness, feelings and lives of their own. They are sentient. I am also tired of the insulting ‘radicalism’ ‘extremism’ ‘non comprising’ tags that are thrown at people who have made heart felt choices for the good of not only their health but the planet. I have been an activist for 30 years and am weary of trying to meet the opposition half way in polite debate in order to appear reasonable and compromising. Arguments against lifestyle choices which have been shown to dramatically reduce resource use and suffering in the planet seems to me to be a bit obscene given this challenging time of mass starvation, environmental destruction and unease. Suffering is never justified.