Exploring the Morals and Ethics of Eating Animals
“People often say that humans have always eaten animals, as if this is a justification for continuing the practice. According to this logic, we should not try to prevent people from murdering other people, since this has also been done since the earliest of times.”
~ Isaac Bashevis Singer (née, Izaak Zynger)
This is the first of three papers written as a project for Intro to Ethics class. I’ve chosen to investigate and research what it means to live ethically and how our actions affect others. In this preliminary paper I’m exploring ethical eating, mainly: Is it ethical to consume meat in our modern society?
It is no surprise that when reading The Craftsmen, by Richard Sennett, I was drawn to the chapter, Expressive Instructions (Sennett, 2009). In this chapter Sennett profiles the work of not only some of my favorite food writers but also those that have influenced me the most. When I was a young chef fresh out of culinary school I was enamored with French cuisine and collected cookbooks the way a sports fan may collect baseball cards. When I traveled I would seek out bookstores that had great cookbook sections. What really interested me were the food writers that didn’t simply publish recipe books, but those who wrote about food. So it’s easy to see how I would have been attracted to such luminaries as Child, Olney, and David.
Once, when in a used bookstore in Fort Erie, Ontario, I came upon a second edition of the two-volume set, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Child et al., 1963). Wrapped in brown paper, the way Canadian bookstores once did, I carried them the two mile walk home and across an international border like sacred texts; the customs officer at the Peace Bridge jokingly asked if they were bibles.
Richard Olney’s recipe for Gigot D’Agneau a la Sept Heures (Seven Hour Leg of Lamb) was often on menus at restaurants at which I presided the stoves (Olney, 1985). It was Elizabeth David’s books that influence me most as I began to write about food. I have every book she has written but it is the first that I came upon which still influences me to this day, A Book of Mediterranean Cuisine (David, 1968). She writes both with ease and also authority. This is apparent in the very beginning of the book, “The cooking of the Mediterranean shores, endowed with all the natural resources, the colour and flavour of the South, is a blend of tradition and brilliant improvisation. The Latin genius flashes in the pan” (David, 1968).
It’s also interesting that Sennett cites the work of Antonin Carême, whose recipe in the book is the focus of the writers that follow in the chapter. Carême, of course, is the chef who is credited with codifying modern French cuisine; he was also the predecessor of Auguste Escoffier, who streamlined Carême’s methods further and developed the brigade system in the kitchen, which was the forerunner to what we now call “line cooking.” Escoffier was also the author of a few books, including the seminal, Le Guide Culinaire (The Culinary Guide), in which he devotes no less than fifteen pages at the very beginning of the book to fonds de viande (meat stock). He put them in the beginning because he felt it was the very foundation (fond) of cooking (Escoffier, 1941). Le Guide Culinaire was bedtime reading for me while in culinary school.
Some years ago while on sojourn in Paris, I enrolled in a four-day class at Le Cordon Bleu. On the first day I remember watching the chef as he slipped slivers of truffles and cold butter under the skin of a Bresse chicken with the tip of his small knife with such articulate precision the accompanying translator was not needed.
So, what, you may be wondering, does this have to do with ethics? The correlation is not only to the books which we are reading, regarding pride and craftsmanship, but also with the subject of the recipes themselves: Meat.
While I have flirted with vegetarianism for years, I have to qualify that I am not a vegetarian. Though I do plan on abstaining from meat for the duration of this course and likely thereafter. When thinking about ethical and altruistic living, this is one of the first areas that comes to mind. The world has changed since the I first read the aforementioned books, and in many ways I have also.
It’s interesting that when I read the recipes in Sennett’s book, whereas once I would have been smitten by them, they now seem more like the description of a surgical procedure, “Sever the attachment of each shoulder blade at the wing joint and, holding it firmly between the thumb and the forefinger of the left hand, pull it out of the flesh with the other...Force the flesh loose from the breastbone, working along the crest with the tip of a knife and forcing that at the sides loose with fingertips” (Sennett, 2009).
Now I’ll get straight to the point: There is no reason we need to eat meat, we can easily consume all of our nutritional requirements with a plant based diet. We simply eat meat for our own pleasure, and in doing so we kill a living animal which was likely raised in horrendous conditions for its entire life.
According to Peter Singer in his book, The Most Good You Can Do, How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically, in 2012 there were 164 million dogs and cats as pets in American households (Singer, 2016). I personally am a dog lover, and have been my entire life. Currently two beautiful pugs cohabit my home with me. I bring this up because it was while thinking of my pets that that I first began to correlate the absurdity of eating some animals but not others. I was on a silent retreat at a center in the Hudson Valley and they raised animals. Passing the animals one day little piglets came rushing up to the fence to greet me. I was struck at how much they resembled my pugs.
Singer goes on to say that the amount of personal pets in the United States is dwarfed by the number of animals that were raised and then slaughtered as food; in 2012 this number was 9.1 billion (Sennett, 2009). Mylan Engel Jr., in his paper, Between the Species, The Commonsense Case for Ethical Vegetarianism, states that not only is the number of animals raised and slaughtered in the US closer to 10 million, he also goes into detail of the horrific lives 95% of them lived, from birth to slaughter (Engel, 2017). While the images I’ve read about how the animals are kept is terrible enough, it’s the descriptions of the slaughterhouse that are straight from a horror film.
"Once inside the slaughter house the animals are hung upside down [pigs, cattle, and sheep are suspended by one hind leg which often breaks] and are brought via conveyor to the slaughterer who slits their throats and severs their arteries and jugular veins. In theory, animals covered by the Federal Humane Slaughter Act are to be rendered unconscious by electric current or by captive bolt pistol (a pneumatic gun which, aimed properly, renders the animal unconscious by firing an 8-inch pin into the animal’s skull). Chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese are not considered animals under the Act and receive no protection at all. In practice, the Act is not enforced, and as a result, many slaughterhouses elect not to use the captive bolt pistol in the interest of cost efficiency. A consequence of the lax of enforcement of the Federal Humane Slaughter Act is that in many cases (and all kosher cases), the animals are conscious throughout the throat-slitting ordeal" (Engel, 2017).
If this weren’t enough, Peter Singer states that hundreds of millions of animals never even make it to the slaughterhouse because they simply suffer to death (Singer, 2016). In other words, there are multitudes of animals that do not get the “benefit” of humane slaughter because they parish before it is granted. Some succumb to there own species aggressive behavior, which is likely the result to their captivity, others (chickens mostly) are said to collapse under their own weight because they were bred to grow so quickly that their immature legs cannot support their full-grown bodies, others unable to reach their feed in the overcrowded conditions simply die from starvation or thirst. Many more parish en-route to the slaughterhouse because of the magnified conditions they’re exposed to during travel.
So with the above graphic descriptions, this question is the elephant in the room: If we could not consider our own pets enduring this horror how do we justify it to other animals simply for our own satisfaction? At this point I have to reiterate that while I haven't eaten meat in a couple weeks I do not consider myself a vegetarian, so I ask myself the question just posed.
If you’ve ever had a beloved pet injured in most cases you would do anything to alleviate their suffering. Peter singer takes this to the next level and equates animal suffering with human suffering, “In Animal Liberation (Singer, 2009) I argue that to give less consideration to the interests of non-human animals, merely because they are not members of our species, is speciesism and is wrong in much the same way that the crudest forms of racism and sexism are wrong” (Singer, 2016).
It’s easy to disassociate the meat that you cook with the living animal it once was, to forget that the neatly wrapped cellophane packages in the supermarket were once sentient beings. Here’s where my own ethical dilemma comes into play. Even if I don’t eat meat I still cook it every day, my occupation dictates that I must. For decades I have worked as a cook or chef, and currently as a supervisor in the commissary kitchen of a school district in the second largest city in New York State. I see the end result of factory farming everyday as chicken nuggets, beef riblets, and cooked ground beef comes through the back door by the truckload. Sometimes I’ll look at a pallet of cases of pre-breaded and fried chicken legs and try to imaging the room full of live chickens they once were. At the very least, I’ll say a silent prayer, both for them for them and me. Until I choose another occupation or find work in a vegetarian restaurant, this is my cross.
There are, of course, many arguments against vegetarianism. One of the most common is that we as a species have always eaten meat. I’ve heard people cite passages in the bible where there are descriptions of slaughtering meat for food. There’s also the argument that not all animals are factory farmed, that some are raised in humane conditions and “slaughtered humanely.” My response to the historical aspects of humans being carnivores is this: It’s only been in the past century (or less) that there have been large supermarkets packed to the hilt with foods. In ancient times, such as those biblical, eating was a very different thing; people ate what they raised, including meat. Likely it was considered sacred and a gift from God. In regards to the argument of animals being raised/slaughtered humanely: Yes, this is better, but in my view their humanly lived lives still ended with their throats being slit simply for our dining pleasure.
There’s yet another, if not extreme, side to this argument as well: That plants themselves are sentient. According to Andrew Smith, assistant professor of English and philosophy at Drexel University, this is true. In an interview at the website, Munchies, he discusses his book, A Critique of the Moral Defense of Vegetarianism (Swerdloff, 2017). When asked if he felt why there was a disconnect between plant-based life and sentience, he responded:
"There are historical reasons, cultural reasons, and philosophical reasons that go all the way back to philosophers like Plato and Aristotle—particularly the way they classified animals, plants, humans, and the gods. Today, that still reverberates. We look at the grass of our lawn and the trees outside our windows and we see beings that are clearly alive, but passive and largely inert. That’s simply not the case. These beings are aware and very active in their environment. In some respects, they are far more aware of their surroundings than animals are."
Despite his critique, professor Smith has been a vegetarian for more than two decades and a vegan for more than 6 years. His reasons, he says, are complex but largely philosophical and emotional (Swerdloff, 2017).
Another argument against vegetarianism is that it is elitist and arrogant. Examples are that, according to the website of World Hunger, of the 7 billion people of the world 800 million, or 11 percent of the world’s population, is hungry (World Hunger, 2017). On a smaller scale, there are food deserts in every major American city where the residents of such neighborhoods do not have access to fresh produce (American Nutrition Association, 2017). Yet, I can pick-and-choose as to what I want to eat.
In this paper I’ve attempted to cite arguments for and against vegetarianism, but I would be remiss if I didn’t admit I am more than slightly biased for a plant-based diet. My views can be mostly summarized by the Russian writer-philosopher, Leo Tolstoy, “A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral” (Tolstoy, 1987).
In conclusion, more questions arise: Will I continue to abstain from meat? If so, why? And also, how will I reconcile the fact that I cook it daily on the job. To this, I respond yes, I plan on abstaining from meat consumption, for ethical, philosophical, but also very personal reasons. As far as cooking it as a source of employment? This will be an ongoing struggle, and one to which I currently have no answer.
Peter Singer, in his paper, Utilitarianism and Vegetarianism, published in Philosophy & Public Affairs, offers another view of this quandary, “The utilitarian vegetarian is on strong ground in arguing that factory farming and other cruelties involved in large scale commercial animal production should end. The final problem is to establish the link between this goal and the obligation to become a vegetarian” (Singer, 1980).
This said, I’ll finish with a simple recipe for a delicious meal which can be made in minutes and does not harm any animals. This is my “go-to” recipe for a quick and nutritious meal and can be made with nearly any vegetable. Though I have to admit, after reading Andrew Smith’s view of sentience, I’ll never look at a stalk of broccoli the same again.
A Recipe for Spaghetti with Broccoli, Garlic, and Olive Oil
For a recipe to serve two people you will need the following ingredients: One head of broccoli which was grown in your garden, or lacking this, sourced locally from a farmer’s market or food co-op. Two cloves of garlic (or more if you’d like), which is neither too green nor too dry. Three tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil with an acidity level no higher than 3%. An couple ounces of Parmigiano Reggiano, which should be hand-grated just before this preparation. One-quarter teaspoon each of gray sea salt and crushed hot pepper. A half-cup of vegetable broth or, lacking this, a half-cup of water reserved from cooking the pasta. And lastly, 4 ounces of whole wheat spaghetti which contains one ingredient: whole wheat flour.
Begin the recipe by preparing the ingredients: wash the broccoli and cut it into florets, peel and mince the garlic, boil and strain the pasta (reserving ½ cup broth if needed).
Pour the oil into a cold skillet and add the minced garlic and hot pepper. This is an uncharacteristic way to begin a recipe (in a cold skillet), but there is a specific reason for this: To slowly draw the flavors out of the garlic and hot pepper rather than sear them in.
Place the cold skillet over a medium flame. Wait a minute or two until you notice movement in the pan as the garlic begins to sizzle. Slowly swirl the pan with one hand while stirring with a wooden spoon in the other. When the garlic is light golden, and the aroma of it and the olive oil perfumes the air while the hot pepper tickles your nostrils, add the broccoli and stir it into the oil. After just a few seconds add the vegetable broth or pasta water, which will release a puff of steam and also act as a vehicle of flavor. Add first the salt and then the cooked spaghetti. Stir it until is is hot but not over cooked, then remove the pan from the heat. Add the cheese to the pan, stirring and tossing all of the ingredients.
Serve while hot or at room temperature.
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Child, J., Bertholle, L., Beck, S. and Coryn, S. (1963). Mastering the art of French cooking.
2nd ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
David, E. and David, E. (1968). A book of Mediterranean food. London: Cookery Book Club.
Engel, M. (2017). "The Commonsense Case for Ethical Vegetarianism" by Mylan Engel Jr.. [online] Digitalcommons.calpoly.edu. Available at: http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/bts/vol19/iss1/1/ [Accessed 18 Oct. 2017].
Escoffier, A. (1941). The Escoffier Cook Book. New York: Crown.
Olney, R. (1985). The French menu cookbook. Boston: D.R. Godine.
Sennett, R. (2009). The craftsman. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Singer, P. (1980). Utilitarianism and Vegetarianism. Philosophy and Public Affairs, [online] 9(4), pp.325-335. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2265002? seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents [Accessed 17 Oct. 2017].
Singer, P. (2009). Animal liberation. New York, N.Y: HarperCollins.
Singer, P. (2016). Most good you can do. New Haven and London: Yale Univ Press.
Swerdloff, A. (2017). This Vegan Professor Says There's No Such Thing as Real Vegetarians. [online] Munchies. Available at: https://munchies.vice.com/en_us/article/jpkk4d/this-vegan-professor-says-theres-no-such-thing-as-real-vegetarians [Accessed 18 Oct. 2017].
Tolstoy, L. (1987). Writings on civil disobedience and nonviolence. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers.
World Hunger (2017). How many people are hungry in the world? - World Hunger News. [online] World Hunger News. Available at: http://www.worldhunger.org/hunger- quiz/how-many-people-are-hungry-in-the-world/ [Accessed 20 Oct. 2017].