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

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§ 5 Responses to Why and when this vegetarian believes it’s ethical to eat meat

  • Judy Piemme says:

    Good article Ellen! My Mother grew up on a farm. Her family raised sheep. I don’t know how it came to be, but one of the newborn lambs became her pet for many years. She alone took care of raising that particular lamb. Her family also had cattle. They raised the cattle and sheep to sell for food and for wool, except, of course, for her pet lamb. Her pet lamb lived for many years and the two brought each other great friendship and joy. She eats beef with no problem, but to this day, she cannot and will not eat lamb. She turned 90 years young last month!

  • Hal Hayes says:

    This is great, Ellen; I love it!

  • Mijnheer says:

    You say, “We cannot feed our population unless meat is provided.” Perhaps you could elaborate. Surely you know that for the most part the production of meat is a highly inefficient way of producing food for human consumption. The typical meat-eater’s diet requires much more land and crop production than a meatless diet. Industrial meat production actually reduces the amount of protein and calories available for human consumption. This is not necessarily the case with non-industrial meat production; but even so, it is difficult for me to understand how meat is necessary to feed modern populations. You might like to have a look at this article:

  • Barb Riley says:

    I enjoyed this and learned a lot about you!

  • Karen Altree Piemme says:

    Nice article, Ellen. I particularly appreciate your emphasis on the concept that the ethicality (and the decision) regarding whether to eat meat (or not) lies with the individual. I’ve been vegetarian for 29 years, and vegan for 12 (and my daughter has been, proudly, vegetarian her whole life). I have my reasons for these choices. And they are just that – my reasons. I find it frustrating when others try to invalidate my reasons, especially when I have never been the kind of vegetarian/vegan who criticizes others’ dietary choices if they differ from my own. I don’t give people a hard time about what’s on their plate, and I’d appreciate it if they didn’t give me a hard time about what’s (not) on mine. 🙂

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