Why and when this vegetarian believes it’s ethical to eat meat
April 8, 2012 § 5 Comments
This is a little something I sent to the New York Times Magazine’s Ethicist column in response to their query about why it’s ethical to eat meat. Yes, I am currently a vegetarian. No, I don’t believe it’s unethical to eat meat. It’s all about the how and where and … well, read on to get a real idea of where I stand on this. And please keep in mind, I’m not advocating one way or the other and for no one else but me. Comments? Leave ‘em below!
I was 4, and I accompanied my oldest brother to a duck farm. He was delivering a load of hay to be used as bedding for the local two-legged citizenry, and I was just along for the ride. The bales were unloaded and we drove toward the gate. We slowed as we rounded the corner and spotted a bright-yellow baby duckling against the brick-red barn. The trouble was the roll of chicken fencing the little guy was stuck behind. We stopped, liberated the fluffball, and brought him home. I named him Grover.
We kept Grover in a pen by the sandbox. Each day as I stepped off the bus from kindergarten I would bound toward the pen, shove fistfuls of lawn toward him, study the quick thrusts of his neck. As a rule, ducks aren’t the cuddliest of pets, but for a kid, they’re alright.
It’ll come as no surprise to you that one day, Grover wasn’t in his pen to greet me. And it will also come as no surprise that later the same week an odd-looking, all-dark-meat chicken appeared on the dinner table. It was another brother—one who is still not my favorite—who broke the news. I remember the tears; no sound, just tears rolling down my cheeks. Mom got up, opened the freezer, and took out a package of hot dogs.
Growing up on a farm, this is what happens. Animals are named. Pets are killed. Portions of pork and beef and lamb are carved from their bodies, wrapped in crisp, white butcher paper, then “Bucky” or “Victor” and the date are penned on the package. Their flavors are contemplated as their diets are recalled and discussed. “Did we feed Bucky too many potato peelings?”
Grover was my indoctrination into this culture. A farm girl has to learn.
Forty years later I am a vegetarian. The psychological root of this is not due to my childhood pet being served to me on dinner plate. In fact, I do not eat meat because I don’t know who is on my plate. Who has touched that ham? Where did she live, what did she eat? This is not a creature with whom I am familiar, and because of that, I cannot take the animal into me. I can’t.
Four years ago I stopped eating pork. Years before I had given up beef and other red meat, and I have since stopped eating poultry (except for the Thanksgiving turkey, I admit). But pork, that was a big thing. And I gave it up with this caveat: I will not eat pork until I can raise the pig myself. (I have since tacked on the other meats.) I will once again know the what and where and when of the who that is on my plate.
The why or why not of the ethics of eating meat is irrelevant. We cannot feed our population unless meat is provided. On a societal level, meat must be a part of this American culture. And this holds true for numerous cultures and their circumstances.
The statement “eating meat is ethical” is one that can only be made by an individual, and with qualifications. For this vegetarian, eating meat is ethical if I know who it is and approve of how it was treated.
When I was 16, one of our female Muskovies died a horrible death: She drowned in a mud puddle while a male…ahem…did his business with her. My parents chose not to serve her for dinner. They clearly knew which side of ethical this duck died on.
copyright Ellen C. Wells, 2012