Wednesday, 26 March 2014


(Second post today.)

Last night I watched "Never Let Me Go", which disturbed me so much, I considered becoming vegetarian. Or partially vegetarian. Like many British people, B.A. and I are so disgusted by factory farming, that we do not eat battery hens or buy battery eggs. We won't eat anything we are reasonable sure had a horrible existence. But I am feeling a bit queasy about potential sentience.

A vegetarian reader took issue with my characterization of meat as a harmless pleasure that one can give up in Lent. I remembered several Biblical verses that not only assume but command meat-eating. Indeed, Saint Peter was offered in a vision all kinds of animals that Jews of his day did not eat and told to kill and eat them (Acts 10:28). He was not, of course, told to practice factory farming. I am sure that Saint Peter would have been just as astonished by what farming has become today as he was by God's directive to give up his Jewish dietary practices.

One argument carnivores give vegetarians is that we are the only people who can improve the living conditions of livestock. As vegetarians don't usually buy meat, the livestock industry don't give a damn what they think. But when British carnivore Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall cried over his dead experimental battery chicks, there was a British carnivore revolution on behalf of chickens.

But chickens are not very smart. Sheep are pretty smart, though, as are pigs. I very much like pigs to look at. They look friendly and apparently "a middle-aged pig can be as smart as a three-year-old [human] child." I am fond of pigs, but I also like to eat pigs. Pigs are yummy.

All the same, I am troubled. Would it be better for humans to keep eating pigs, which means that pigs will continue to thrive in large numbers, or to stop eating pigs, as a recognition that sentient beings should not be subordinate to other sentient beings' desires, even if this means there would no longer be domestic pigs at all. Is eating only well-raised pigs a satisfactory ethical choice, a recognition that pigs should at least be comfortable before I eat them?

Readers are invited to make rational, well-tempered arguments for and against the eating of pigs. RATIONAL and WELL-TEMPERED. This is a serious ethical question, and there is nothing in the New Testament to suggest human beings should not eat the meat of fish, birds and beasts. The taboos of the Old Testament suggest that pigs, etc., are somehow ontologically unclean, but I do not believe pigs are unclean--I believe they are delightful. I also believe you can both hunt, kill, eat and respect non-human animals all at once; in Canada we are frequently told it was the practice of First Nations people to pray to the spirits of the animals they killed.

I think I will put up a poll. Incidentally none of this is binding on poor B.A., who can make up his own mind on what is okay to eat. We have long since decided that it is not okay to use human beings for selfish or health reasons, except where the humans--adult humans--have freely, without economic pressure, donated parts of themselves, like blood.


Bee said...

Have you read the book by Kazuo Ishiguro that the film was based on? Infinitely more disturbing. I'm shuddering just thinking about it. I do eat meat (that type of protein works better for my individual biology; there are legitimate concerns to overdoing it on soy, especially for women)and try to go "free range" as we say in the states, but it is difficult, as it is inordinately expensive and most farmer's markets are during business hours on work days. :(

Kate said...

My family buys organic meat from a nearby farm - sometimes we visit - and we grow most of our own vegetables in the summer. I am a huge fan of eating locally-produced food, and I feel like as the fad for it grows, the prices have gotten more reasonable. If we didn't grow our own vegetables, I would consider joining a vegetable share - some are prohibitively expensive, but many are fairly priced and require a certain number of volunteer hours. I've noticed quite a few meat shares popping up in my area as well - and I'm only 60 miles outside Manhattan! A cousin of mine has joined both a vegetable share and a fish share, and I love seeing what she manages to concoct with all of it.

I think being good stewards requires knowledge of what goes in our bodies - I don't think I would ever give up meat as a lifestyle choice, but I'm also careful what sort of meat I'm buying. Now that cloned meat doesn't have to be marked in supermarkets and the soil is practically barren (nutrition-wise), knowing the source of my food is reassuring.

Anne said...

I have a lot to say about this, as I am a vegan, however, I'll just keep it to this. I visited a farm sanctuary a couple of months ago, and I can tell you that the pigs were very interactive. They most definitely reacted to my presence with interest and curiosity. As you have already mentioned, I have heard they are very intelligent animals. Also, I think chickens are smarter than you give them credit for! Studies show they can solve problems, anticipate the future, have chicken "friends", and certainly are caring and attentive mothers. Thanks for thinking about this, I hope you continue to explore it more, and maybe consider experimenting with some meatless meals once in a while and seeing how it goes!

Seraphic said...

Thanks for your perspective, Anne! You'll be happy to read that B.A. and I consume quite a few meatless meals, especially in Lent. Of course, we are not as meatless as our East Orthodox brethren, who go without meat for the entire Lenten period and I believe at other fasting times, too. And there are East Orthodox monks who NEVER eat meat.

MJ said...

I just recently read Genesis 8, in which God says:
"The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything."

He doesn't make any exceptions for the more clever or adorable beasts. I can understand the squeamishness about eating some beasts, and I think that this compassion is a good thing. But I don't see any moral imperative for Christians to avoid eating sentient or cute animals.

The three reasons that most people (including my late adolescent self) cite for vegetarianism are the ethical problem of eating another animate being (whether abused or not,) the effect of livestock farming on the environment, and health. The first doesn't bother me anymore (see above,) the second is up for debate (proper farming practices can make livestock very beneficial to the land,) and I am almost entirely convinced that the third is a crock. It seems to me people who improve their health through vegetarianism usually do so because they're more aware of their diets, not because the meat was the problem. Perhaps it's okay for adults past child bearing age (or monastics, who in the Orthodox tradition are always vegetarians) but most traditional societies emphasize the consumption of animal products for children and young adults. Soy substitutes are terrible for children and those who might reproduce.

Plus, looking again at the passage above, why would God give us food that is bad for us?

As an Orthodox Christian, I do advocate the spiritual and health benefits of frequent periods of fasting from animal products, but those periods are never more than six weeks long, and they are not for everyone.

Sheila said...

Hoo boy. I read The Omnivore's Dilemma recently and was quite shaken up. I don't want to eat factory-farmed meat because I don't want to have any part in animal cruelty. On the other hand, I do believe some meat consumption is good for your health, and I can't afford the good stuff at this point in my life. We aren't designed as herbivores -- our guts just don't extract all the nutrition that is in vegetables. We can't make our own b12 like other animals can, and many people can't make vitamin A out of beta carotene either. Some people also have issues getting enough iron from plants. And it's just a dense source of things we need, like protein and fat. There's a lot of debate about what's best for people to eat, but I really side with the "traditional eating" school -- what our ancestors ate is good enough for me.

That said, our current way of eating meat, both how we raise it and how processed it is, is no good. I don't eat a lot of meat, because it's not my favorite -- I give myself a little piece and save the rest for the meat lovers in the family. And I only eat meat at dinner -- breakfast and lunch are for veggies, bread, eggs, and dairy.

My life's dream, though, is to homestead and raise animals myself. It doesn't bother my conscience in the least to bring an animal into being (if we didn't raise and breed these animals, they wouldn't exist at all), give it a healthy, happy life, and then eat it. Throwing away part of the animal because you don't like it, though? That's surely wrong. Animals are ours to use, not ours to abuse or misuse.

With the pigs, yes, they are very intelligent. Does it make a difference to you to know that if you happened to pass out in the pigpen, that pig would eat YOU? They are omnivores like we are, and they don't form enough emotional bonds to those outside their species to have a problem eating us. Wild pigs are vicious and dangerous, with scary tusks -- a close relative of bears!

Me, I feel only humans have a right to life. Animals have a right not to be caused undue suffering.

Anonymous said...

I believe that eating only "well-raised pigs" would be a satisfactory ethical choice, if such meat is available. I have no objection to eating animal flesh in principle, (animals do, why not humans?) but to eat conventional meat would be to support the abuse of animals, and as stewards of the earth, it would be neglecting our task.

Furthermore, if we were to abhor the subordination of animals to human desires, and domestication in general, it would follow that seeing-eye dogs and recreational horseback riding would be unethical as well.

I agree about vegetarianism's adverse effects on health. As traditional diets have demonstrated (and as much research has shown), and even the structure of our bodies indicate that, meat, although not necessary for survival, is in fact important for one's health. Vegetarians are generally healthier because of a higher awareness of the importance of healthy living, not because of the lack of meat in their diet. For example, vegetarians in India have maintained their health because of specific traditional diets and the fact that insects inevitably found in the food supply necessary nutrients. After moving to more developed nations, where sanitation levels are higher, health problems develop.

I would like to add that it is very, very, difficult to eat a well-balanced diet as a vegetarian.



Belfry Bat said...

Pigs. Old Testament. Hmm.

Brendan MacGuire tells us that most of the kosher beasts (which are also the beasts for sacrifice) had, in Egypt, been revered as images of various gods; and that pigs were just about the only beasts Egyptians were happy to eat. (on that page, jump into the first audio about 25m and, hearing "Hyksos", think "Israel"; pigs comes in after 43m, but the context is really nifty).

I have an apprehension that it's imprudent to make sentience comparably important to sapience. Many of the ills NCBs and NCGs and our Fathers and mothers and fathers lament in the modern world turn on privileging sensory thrills over reason in humans, and even the language of human rights has been subverted along these lines in the last couple of years, which you'll all remember if I mention "S.S. marriage". Of course sense does have some right: one should not will or counsel or praise cruelty, and if we are cruel to beasts it does become easier to be cruel to fellow men. Kosher butchers (so I have read) seek to be humane, quick and painless as possible; as they'll never be handling pork, perhaps the rest of butchery should learn from them.

Still, do pigs have supernatural reason? And if a pig is comparable to a human 3-year-old, ought we to be allowing them to breed, even encouraging them or controlling when and with which other pigs they do? Or should we round-up all the lions who have ever hunted wild boar? And when did we ever have a conversation with a pig, to find out what it thought about it all? Three-year-old children are much more articulate, anyways. (Goodness, but I do write hyperbolically at times...).

So I can't see reason in pigs to avoid eating them, but I can see reason in farmers to scold them for being cruel to their pigs (if they are).

Leah said...

What MJ and Shelia are saying. :)

I think it is important to be careful not to humanize animals. A pig's soul is not any more rational than a chicken's, and the ability to learn simple commands better, etc. does not make it somehow more human. We might be more reluctant to kill it, because we think we can identify more with it, but it doesn't change the morality of the issue. Either it is okay to kill and eat soulless sentient beings(And I would venture to say that it goes against pretty much everything I know of Catholic teaching on the matter to say that it isn't), or it isn't. Frankly, this might sound terrible, but I don't see how it could possibly be morally any worse to kill and eat a puppy than a chicken. I might feel worse about it because puppies are cute and lovable, but my feelings don't make the action itself right or wrong.

That being said, I would totally agree that it doesn't give people the right to raise animals for meat under terrible conditions.
Raising food ethically and well is a growing trend, and I hope it continues.

However, I also think we have to be careful to be reasonable, and not too hard on ourselves. At least here in America :), there aren't that many foods you can buy in the grocery store that don't have some good reason for not buying them. (Maybe the the production of the food involves people in third world countries being paid a ridiculously small wage, or the company supports abortion, or it has gmos etc. Because of ridiculous labeling regulations, even so-called 'organic', 'cage-free', 'free-trade', etc foods often aren't what they say they are.)

But we have to eat.

If you have the means and ability to shop just from local farmers, than I think that's awesome, and more power to you! But not everyone can.

We have to pick and choose our battles. If meat is the battle that someone chooses to pick and they can eat healthily without it (or find another source for it), than that's great! I think everyone should fight at least some battles. :) But we have to be careful not to let it get ridiculously overwhelming. Do what you can and what you feel called to do, and trust God with the rest.

Anyway, just my two cents. Not that I feel strongly about this or anything :)

Sheila said...

I know, trying to eat ethically is exhausting, and if you're on a budget, sometimes it feels like starvation is the only option!

I do make a point to try to learn where my chocolate, coffee, and sugar come from, because these are most often connected with slavery or other human rights abuses. But really I'm still beginning that journey, so I can't give you many tips. Lately not eating those three things has been much easier than calling the companies and asking questions. Ditto with clothes -- so many clothes are unethical for one reason or other that I almost exclusively buy used.

But I would rather eat battery eggs than slave-harvested chocolate, any day. A human being is worth more than many chickens. ;) On the other hand, factory meat involves some human rights abuses too, especially at the packing plants. Here in America, illegal immigrants are put through incredibly dangerous situations in those plants because they are seen as disposable. I think Catholics should address these issues more often .... in the Holy Father's words, they're symptoms of a throw-away society.

Anonymous said...

We do not eat pigs because they are or are not delightful. We eat them because they are yummy and don't have rational souls. Lambs and cows can also be delightful. I hesitate to call chickens delightful because no adult chicken I have met can be called so, although the chickies are cute. Would you feel better to know that pigs can also be extremely violent and cruel, and will eat their own young and indeed, anything that ends up in their pen if they are hungry. We have a family friend whose uncle was eaten by pigs when he fell into their pen and could not get out. Eaten. By. Pigs.

I think that the more time you spend around creatures at a good farm where they are well taken care of, the more you both respect them and also are ok with eating them because you can't romanticize them (as you can in a film). I recommend this practice to all with doubts. Find a good organic meat farmer who loves his critters and follow him around for a couple days.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, the above "Anonymous" comment is by me, Fifi.


Seraphic said...

A human being is worth more than many chickens. --Sheila, paraphrasing the Gospel. Hee hee!

These are all very interesting answers. I had a long talk with B.A. about eating animals today because he used to teach ethics courses. While we talked I remembered that many animals eat animals, birds other birds (and animals and bugs), fish other fish bugs other bugs, moths my best cashmere pullover and so on and so forth.

How horrible for the poor uncle! What a ghastly death. I had forgotten about pigs eating people.

I think, in the end, the important thing is giving another what is the other's due, and what is due pigs (and other farm animals) is not the right to a natural death but a decent, natural life and a humane end.

The solution for the adult human carnivore, then, is to buy "ethical meat" or go without, although I completely understand putting children's and pregnant or breast-feedings mothers need for meat before other considerations.

As it happens, red meat is rather a treat in our house. We tend to get our meat protein from fish and free-range chicken. But, oh, the deliciousness of roast pork with crackling!

Seraphic said...

Leah, that's a particularly good point about not to humanize animals. The extreme version of thinking that men think like women is thinking that animals think like humans. Er, that doesn't sound right, but you know what I mean.

Magdalena said...

Oh, this is exactly the right topic for me – only that everything I could say was already said, especially by Sheila. :D

Talking about sustainability now, which is not quite the same as animal welfare, but also has to do with caring for God’s creation: You don’t have to be a scientist to have heard by now that much less arable land is needed for food production if we eat the cereal directly instead of feeding it to animals first. The solution seems to be: Eat meat, if you like it, but don’t eat it every single meal on every single day!
Eating beef does make a lot of sense if the cattle is fed grass – we can’t eat grass ourselves, and grassland can be very valuable with regard to biodiversity. Here is an interesting calculation (very rough, off the top of my head): If I use 3-5 l of milk per week (in cheese, yoghurt,…), and if a grassland-fed cow produces 4-5000 l milk per year, if she furthermore has one calf per year in order to get the milk production started, if every second calf is slaughtered and brings 200 kg of meat (every second calf is female and allowed to stay alive), that leads me to 100-250 g of beef per week which comes together with my milk consumption. That would just be my Sunday roast!

Sorry for all the numbers! :D

Quite apart from buying organic food, buying fair-trade chocolate, coffee, and bananas is even much more important for me as I absolutely don’t want to support slavery-like working conditions.

sciencegirl said...

If pigs are so smart they are worthy of not being eaten, then they should be baptized, given Communion, and confirmed once they have passed a porcine-geared religious ed. curriculum. I am not sure how a pig could confess its sins, however, but maybe someone could design out a push button system.

Pigs and many other animals are excellent at solving problems, particularly problems involving how to get food. I saw a video of a squirrel that gradually figured out how to solve increasingly complex puzzles to get a peanut, moving buckets, pulling ropes on pulleys, dangling from wires, etc. Animals can learn, teach, and solve problems, and many animals are smarter or know more words than 3 year-olds and adults with severe disabilities.

Who cares?

We don't refrain from eating the 3 year-old because of her intelligence, instead devouring the bumbling 2 year-old or senile granny. Setting up respect for intellect as our criterion for judging is risky business and is as arbitrary as anything else. "Sentience" as it is currently defined is not something I consider as part of my ethical or moral framework. That said, I don't want to be part of animal cruelty.

I've heard it said that the ill treatment of animals is bad for humans. Michael Pollan hunted, killed, and ate a wild boar in The Omnivore's Dilemma.

PolishTraveler said...

The book by Kazuo Ishiguro is infinitely disturbing. I got it as a Christmas gift a few years back because my parents knew how much I loved his "Remains of the Day" but it was not a pleasant read (because of the topic. I still think he is a very skilled author).

Nzie said...

One of my roommates and a friend both decided to stop eating pork. They highlighted the poor treatment of pigs, and pigs' intelligence. But many animals are poorly treated, so a couple other friends and I think that the deciding factor was really that pigs are smarter than other animals they eat. The three of us were rather uniformly unconvinced by this argument (we are also the religious ones of the five).

If the basis is truly animal treatment, then forego all meat. I have a number of vegetarian friends and I respect that choice, although it is not one I have made or anticipate making (although I have reduced my meat consumption).

I echo numerous sentiments above, and especially Belfry Bat's about sentience. I am extremely uncomfortable with any classification that values life proportional to any ability, including intelligence. I accept that the way many animals sold for meat are raised is ethically problematic. But, assuming relatively equal levels of bad treatment, the injustice to the pig is not worse because a pig is more aware of it.

Seraphic said...

Hmm. Yes, B.A. made the same point. He said that life did not increase in value from one-celled creatures up through the ranks of intelligence to us (or, it just occurs to me, beyond us to the angels.) He stated that humans are in a separate category all by ourselves, and the beasts, birds, fish (etc.) are together in their shared category.

This conversation has led to me Thomistic ideas about justice, which is about giving another his due, which I find helpful. A decent, natural life and a swift, humane end is what I think due to pigs. I tend towards being over-imaginative, so it could be that have been projecting human status onto pigs. Nobody knows pigs better than people who actually raise pigs, and pig-raisers like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall seem genuinely fond of their pigs yet simultaneously happy to send them off to slaughter.

Sheila said...

Haha, Seraphic, when I saw the title of this post I thought it was going to be about whether or not it is a good idea to say that men are pigs. I figured you would say no, because even if some men behave badly, they are still the caffeine in the cappuccino of life, etc. etc.

Anne said...

Funny coincidence, today, I just received an email with the subject line "How do you make people care about pigs?". The email had a link to this video and fact page:

I agree with previous comments that intelligence isn't the indicator of whether or not we should be concerned with the welfare of an animal, but this was just too close to our topic for me not to share!

I enjoyed reading everybody's comments, and although we have some areas where there are differences of opinion, I am very encouraged that we are asking these questions, and that every single comment shows concern for the well being of the animals. Thanks Seraphic for hosting such an interesting and important discussion!

I just would like to briefly add one point: our understanding of vegan health and nutrition has expanded in the past few years, and there are some excellent books and other sources of information on how to be a healthy and vibrant vegan, and it's actually very easy to get excellent nutrition, once a few new habits are acquired. And there's always the option of starting with a few meatless meals now and then!

Thanks again Seraphic and thanks everybody for your interesting discussion! I really enjoyed it!

Aquinas' Goose said...

And now for something completely different: feral pigs.

It seems that in all arguments I've ever heard about pros and cons of eating -insert animal here- no one ever considers the actual numbers and environmental factors. What would you do with all the animals once you decided not to eat them? Let them loose? Slaughter them and forbid anyone from eating the rotting remains / bury them and use them as fertilizer?

Feral pigs cause environmental damage that can only be compared to greedy human housing developers. Either we can eat them, or something else will, or nothing else will because we've killed off all the other predators around and they will destroy wildlife and domestic agriculture alike.

I am not condoning the evil factory treatment of animals here, just pointing out that domestically raised animals for the table are not subject only to the ethical dilemma of "to enjoy or not to enjoy" but that it reflects outward into multiple ethical levels.

The real problem is not what we eat but rather the fact that we no longer know our food providers nor provide food for ourselves. As "consumers" in a Capitalist world we no longer know how to interact with the world qua nature, but only the socially constructed imaginary world as sold to us by the latest trends and fashions.