Friday, September 16, 2011

intentional consuming

Jackson asked me what my ethical position is, in relation to the practice of consuming the flesh of non-human animals. I realized that it wasn't something I'd taken up and thought about in a while, so I asked my loveliest why it's okay for us to eat animal flesh. She laid out what we regard as our position, and I think she's more accepting of it than I am on the whole.

It goes like this.

Humans evolved as omnivores, and we continue to live, as a species, as omnivores. Obviously, we're not biologically determined to eat animal flesh any more than to eat, I don't know, rutabagas. Just as obviously, when there were a few thousand humans trying desperately to avoid starving to death, being an omnivore was useful, rather than the problem it has become. Yet this evolutionary history has predisposed us to be delighted by the taste of meaty things.

That's important because we believe that living well, happily, and pleasurably is practically a commandment (if there were commandments). Lauren often articulates this as a form of responsible hedonism. Not to enjoy life, for the sake of an abstract moral commitment or political aim, seems wrong to her. As she put it this afternoon, if you mean to live in a completely unharmful way in our society, you must run naked and eat nothing, and that won't last long or be very enjoyable.

We limit how much animal flesh we consume, because we recognize that its primary role in our lives is for delectation, rather than sustenance. We tend, as far as possible, to eat the flesh of animals that have lived better lives than many in the US food chain. We avoid eating feedlot beef or caged chickens, for instance. (We also think this meat is healthier for us, and firmly believe that it's more delicious, so it better serves our hedonistic mission, and our intentional ingestion of meat for the purpose of delight instead of mere sustenance.) We literally never buy chicken that is not free range. Until recently we only ate range-fed, grass-fed beef.

We're concerned about the sustainability of our consumption habits, and try to find more-sustainable options, which is another factor driving our limited consumption of animal flesh. We eat fish and seafood that is more sustainable and really strictly avoid poorly fished, over-fished, or poorly farmed fish (like that disgusting stuff they call Atlantic salmon).

After talking about it, we realized we have slipped in our habits, and we've decided to be more conscientious about what we consume.

I notice that I haven't said anything about sentience, and only alluded to suffering. Here, our positions definitely differ. My position, for now, is that sentience and suffering are important ethical considerations for any decision, but that they aren't the final and absolute considerations. I can't say it's immoral for lions to eat a yak, even though the yak is sentient, and the method of killing the yak employed by lions is probably going to cause the yak to suffer. It probably doesn't enter the minds of lions to be concerned about it, and it does enter my mind, and so it's a consideration. That's why the way animals that I eat are raised matters to me.

This may seem like a strange analogy, but I feel about eating animal flesh somewhat the same way I do about driving a car. Driving a car makes a lot of things much more comfortable and feasible, and in that way makes life more pleasant for us. Clearly, the US consumption of gasoline, like the US consumption of most kinds of food, is not ultimately sustainable, for the planet or for us. We two can't do a lot to change that, but we can choose to reduce how much we consume, and to be attentive to how and why we consume. I'm calling that "intentional consuming," to imply that the consuming I do is still self-conscious and reflected-upon.

That means, it's always open to change. I said earlier I'm less accepting of our current practice and thought about eating animal flesh than Lauren is. It's fraught. I'm not satisfied with our reasoning. But I think it's good that we do reason about it.

1 comment:

Bobo the Wandering Pallbearer said...

Ironically, the most intentional act of consumption I can imagine would be cannibalism. You really have to want to do that.