I went to a small, Jesuit liberal arts college in upstate New York. Although there weren’t many Jesuits teaching there, the school still had a religious feel. Crucifixes hung on the front wall of every classroom, statues of saints stood watch in the gardens, and the whole campus smelled like church.
One of the best professors I had while I was there was a man by the name of Ellerman. That’s how he introduced himself. Not Dr. or Mister, or even Karl, which was his first name. Just Ellerman. At the beginning of the first class, he gave a small summary of what we were going to study (Ethics) and then he simply said. “My name is Ellerman.”
As we got to know him, he confided in us that he hoped someday to write a new, improved version of Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground. He was intense, wore a pencil-thin mustache, and rarely smiled. He was also an avowed atheist. Quite rationally, he explained that since he could discern no proof of God, he simply couldn’t believe. This non-belief, frequently expressed, came as quite a shock to my classmates, most of whom came from Catholic high schools. To them, God was a given, the claims of the Bible waterproof tight. The priests and nuns told them so. And so it must be true.
Ellerman was the first pure contrarian I ever met, pushing everyone’s accepted beliefs to the limit, and I worshipped him for it.
Then one day, he was gone. Working at a college as I do, now I understand the intricacies and high drama of the tenure process. I’m sure he was told he wasn’t on track to get tenure anytime soon, so he moved on. But back then I wanted to believe he had lost his position because he was a confessed atheist at a Jesuit school. He stuck it to the man, wouldn’t compromise his beliefs, chose reason over magic, and paid the ultimate professional price. Even if none of it was true, believing it made his sacrifice seem even greater in my eyes.
One of the ethical problems we discussed was whether or not someone had the right to challenge another person’s long-held belief in God, even on their deathbed. Was it ethical to try and make the dying person see reason, or to let them die happily with their belief in the afterlife and eternal salvation? The question applies not only to religion, but to other philosophical positions as well. Politics or personal ethics, for instance. How far are we permitted to go in order to make someone else agree with our position? Is any discussion of long-held beliefs worthy, or do most people, by the time they reach a certain age, simply believe what they believe and either can’t or won’t believe otherwise, rendering any dialogue moot?
Buddha is quoted as saying that when words are both kind and true, they can change our world. But sometimes true words can’t be kind. And kind words are certainly not always true.
I’ve just finished Morrissey’s Autobiography, and have decided, once again, to recommit myself to the vegetarian lifestyle. This puts me in a somewhat uncomfortable position at times. In a representative quote from the book, Morrissey says, “Suddenly, you come to a certain situation and you are unable to live with it, and the only protest you can make on behalf of the butchered animal is to depart the scene. Whether this be considered irritating or rude by the gluttonous carnivore is of no interest to me. Nobody can possibly be so hungry that they need to take a life in order to feel satisfied – they don’t after all, take a human life, so why take the life of an animal? Both are conscious beings with the same determination to survive. It is habit, and laziness, and nothing else.” Later in the book, Morrissey tells us how he fired an agent for simply ordering frogs’ legs in a fancy Beverly Hills restaurant.
Vegetarians, like recovering alcoholics, must always be ready, it seems, to defend their beliefs. Carnivores and drinkers never do.
If I followed Morrissey’s lead, and simply started walking out of places, like the recent Super Bowl party I attended where a friend brought a bowl of chicken wings (wings I had, on many previous occasions, eaten with unchecked abandon), I wouldn’t have many friends left at all. How far am I willing to go, as Ellerman taught us, to challenge my friend’s long-held beliefs by reminding him that he is eating dead, burned flesh? Should I launch into graphic descriptions of animal torture and slaughter, and how sometimes the flesh is peeled back from the skull of a still-live cow in cases where that poor cow hasn’t been fully anesthetized by the slaughterman’s stun gun? Or how the beaks of chickens are cut off to prevent them from pecking each other to death in the unconscionable close quarters they are kept in? Should we talk of veal, or fois gras? And what about that poetic misnomer, “ethical meat,” that is bandied about by the foodies in the pages of the New York Times? What can be ethical about killing an innocent, sentient creature, with thoughts and feelings, who wants to feel pleasure and avoid pain, just like humans do, as long as the creature was “free range” or had a “name instead of a number” before it was led to the abattoir? Lucky Bessie! She had a good life, but then we had to chop her head off and eat the flesh from her roasted bones. A life destroyed for a moment on the lips.
You see what I mean about the problem of challenging deathbed beliefs. How graphic should I get? What happens in a slaughterhouse doesn’t need to be ginned-up to convey its sheer horror. Animals are skinned alive for our food. That’s what happens.
The whole scheme only works if you believe two (in my opinion) false assumptions. First, that animals are less worthy than people, thereby making their suffering less important, and second, that we need meat to live. If you’ve ever had a dog or cat or goldfish or hamster, and you examine your feeling towards these “domestic” animals, you will probably find that their lives are just as important as yours. I realize that humankind, at some point in our development, may have needed meat to evolve. But with 50 varieties of hummus and 30 kinds of peanut butter in every supermarket, no one can make the argument that meat is now necessary for human life to continue.
Yet meat is everywhere and is consumed, as Morrissey said, out of habit and laziness. Alongside the ubiquitous beef jerky, dried pieces of turkey flesh can now be bought in little baggies in nearly every checkout line of every Wal-Mart in America. Because turkey, the experts tell us, is healthier than beef. Healthier, perhaps, for everyone but the turkey.
Remember how shocked the world was to learn that there was horse meat in the meatballs that were sold in Ikea cafeterias? The horror! But is a horse any more noble than a cow, simply because it’s capable of running at Churchill Downs? If a cow could curl up on your bed at night, or even speak, would it still be so easy to kill?
But what if, as Thoreau believed, that as mankind evolves further, he will naturally leave off the eating of flesh food? However you slice it, meat is dead, decaying flesh. The forms that it takes disguise the fact. A plate of sushi, which is sliced fish bodies, is made to look like candy. Animals are the prefect industrial workers because they can’t complain in any meaningful fashion, nor can they unionize. It’s so easy to kill animals because we are stronger than them, and they trust us. But imagine leading your dog to the guillotine?
Yes, of course people love the way meats tastes, but is a few minutes of pleasure worth the pain? Is it necessary that both a pig and a cow be slaughtered so we can enjoy applewood-smoked bacon on our drive-through cheeseburger?
You may read all this and still say yes, it is.
I know in my lifetime I’ve consumed thousands upon thousands of once-living, self-aware beings. I’ve been vegetarian and even vegan at other times in my life, but have always returned to meat-eating eventually. I’m sure that if I had to hunt to keep my family from starvation, I would have to do it. Or if I was driving my car and had to swerve to avoid hitting either a child or a cow, I would avoid the child. Of course a few extreme situations can be imagined where animal life must be taken to ensure the survival of human life. But these situations, in the modern world in which we live, are negligible almost to the point of non-existence.
There’s a difference between ignorance, and knowing but still choosing. As we move from ignorance to knowledge, maybe we can leave off killing animals for food. Maybe we won’t need a deathbed conversion.
Maybe, as Gandhi suggested, the way we treat our animals will someday be an intimation of the way we treat each other. Maybe we can be kind. And true.