Tuesday, 5 February 2008

A new era in his life

"How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!" - Thoreau, quoted by A.C. Grayling in The Meaning of Things.
I recently read an essay called "Speciesism", in which philosopher and Humanist Anthony Grayling draws parallels between the general current attitude to other species and historical attitudes to "lesser" segments of humanity - lesser races, the lesser sex, those with lesser spiritual beliefs.
We locate a difference that we find threatening, or that we despise; we thereby make the other fully Other, so that we can close the door of the moral community against him, leaving him outside where our actions cannot be judged by the same standards as apply within.
I found myself connecting his arguments to my eating of meat. Every time I eat meat - a steak, a burger, a chicken wing, even a hot dog - I am participating in the death of another being.

After reading the essay, I was left with a hollow feeling of inevitability in my gut. My Humanist values draw no neat lines to box out that which is superficially different. My right to be free from torture derives from the fact that pain is an evil. Humans are not the only animals that experience pain. My right to liberty derives from the fact that I have consciousness, a will. I cannot pretend that my baby daughter has consciousness but an animal with whom I might communicate (for now) more readily - a trained pig for instance - has not.

Against this, what arguments could I muster in favour of consuming my evolutionary neighbours' flesh?

Er...it tastes good. I...um...I'm used to it.


Hoping that Deena would have some clever argument to bolster my defense, I read the essay to her. She got this hollow look of inevitability in her eyes. She mentioned a conversation we once had. We both agreed that if we had to do any killing or butchering in order to get our meat, we would choose to go without. It was hypocritical, but at the time it seemed a minor matter, not worth changing our lives over. Now, in light of Grayling's stark portrayal of the issue...

Double ack!!

So here we are, several days and some heavy, philosophical conversations later. We are adjusting our diet to accommodate the rational consequences of our consciously-held values. We know we have the support and encouragement of our vegetarian friends.

We've gone three days now without meat. Not exactly a major achievement - we've often gone longer between meaty meals. But this isn't just three days between meals with meat. This is three days with no meat waiting at the other end.

Will this new era in our lives last? I don't know.

We are soon returning for an extended visit to our home province of Alberta, where this may be the most common bumper sticker:
(I love Alberta beef)

Will we relapse in the company of our Albertan family and friends, very few of whom are vegetarians? I don't know.

Will our values manage, in the end, to trump our petty desires for tasty dishes we grew up with? I hope so, but honestly, I don't know.

Grayling closes with a characteristically powerful nugget of thought which should help our resolve:
A person's integrity is never more fully tested than when he has power over a voiceless creature.


  1. Woohoo! Good luck with the transition! I can promise you that there is a wealth of cookbooks and online recipe resources catering for a wide variety of tastes and regional cuisines. Edinburgh central library has some too.

  2. Thanks Clare. I'm glad I have an enthusiastic and supportive vegetarian friend like you to help me stick to my guns.

    I think the post ended up a little darker than I'd intended - probably because I posted it very late last night. Things look much brighter today - and not just metaphorically - we're having one of Edinburgh's rare sunny winter days today!

    Plus, I have some delicious veggie burritos packed for my lunch. Yum.

  3. By the way, do you see the chicken burger image in the post? I see it on my blog site, but my blog reader leaves it out.

    I really need to learn more about this blogging business.

  4. Interesting comments. Just want to raise some questions:

    Is it just the idea of causing pain that wigs you out? Would you be OK with eating meat obtained with a method of killing which caused no pain? (say, some sort of painless lethal injection, or general anesthesia prior to slaughter)

    Also, going off of something I read in the "Speciesism" Wikipedia article, is it really accurate to equate speciesism with racism or sexism? For one thing, ending speciesism is not about the disenfranchised speaking up for themSELVES, but about one population speaking out on another's behalf. In addition, the movements behind ending racism and sexism are based on the principle of "treat others the way you wish to be treated". Non-human species, however, will generally not treat humans the way they wish to be treated - they'll eat us if they're mean and hungry, defend their habitats even if we're just passing through, or even invade our bodies if we happen to wade through the wrong river or eat the wrong food. No social contract can be formed between human and any non-human species, whereas obviously such contracts do exist between human populations.

  5. It's not "just" the idea of pain that persuades me. I do think that is an important idea - it's why we went to free-range eggs some while ago - but that is not the whole of it.

    I was actually reminded of an excellent scene in the very Humanistic series, Star Trek, that bears on the other criterion I mentioned. Free will. Consciousness.

    Watch Picard's speech at Data's trial for yourself.

    "What if he [has] consciousness, in even the smallest degree? What is he then?"

    It is not a question of whether the other would do the same for me. Do we deny other humans the right to life if they deny ours? No - the death penalty has been abolished in all of the most ethical modern legal systems.

    The question is not whether non-humans should be given full human rights or none. The question is which rights we should extend to them.

    If our rights as humans are based on anything less tribal than our species membership, then we have to acknowledge the biological fact that there are no absolute lines that divide one species from another.

    I'm happy for others to respond to the continuum of animal consciousness differently than I do - I don't expect to start trying to convert everyone to vegetarianism. But to deny that it is a continuum is to deny the lessons of evolutionary biology.

  6. My best advive is that if you relapse don't worry about it too much - just look at vegetarianism as something you gradually want to move to.

    Too many people try to go completely cold turkey (no pun intended), find that they can't do it and so just give in completely. I've been cutting meat out of my life for about four years now and it does get easier as you go along. I still eat fish, and will generally eat meat rather than be too awkward (if I've gone round to someone's house, for example), but I can now stand in a kitchen where somebody else is making a bacon sandwich and feel hardly any desire to join them.

    As well as philosophical considerations, I stopped eating meat after reading up on the conditions animals are kept and killed in. It made me realise that I just didn't want to be a part of that culture.

  7. I found your blog a couple weeks ago, and am emerging from lurkerdom to offer my support!

    I am both a secular humanist and a vegan. In the American south, neither of these positions win me friends. It's absolutely unpatriotic not to eat meat or go to church. :(

    What we eat is obviously a very personal choice. Each of has to decide what works - and doesn't work - for us. I recognize that vegetarianism can be intimidating for people; but I can personally attest that I feel much better about myself since having given up animal products.

    I agree with "Matt M" - don't stress about it. Do it gradually, have fun following or inventing recipes, and know that lowering your meat intake by even 20 or 30% has a measurable impact on animal's lives, your health, and the environment.

    Good luck with it, and kudos to you whichever way you choose - at least it will be an informed, considered decision, which is more than you can say for most people! :)

  8. My name is Caroling, by the way. I don't have a blog.

  9. Uggh, sorry. I meant Caroline.

  10. Thanks for visiting my blog! Yours rocks. Seriously, it's great.

    And congratulations on taking the leap toward viewing animals as not something merely there for humans to exploit. I get frustrated when I hear or read fellow atheists make fun of veg*ns or try to justify their position with something along the lines of, "it's what humans do." Well hell, worshiping a deity is what humans do, too. Let's just all do that as well.

    Sorry for the mini-rant. I just wanted to lend some encouragement and let you know that it gets easier every day.

    Here are some quick resources:


  11. Congratulations!

    Al suggested some great links, but here are a few more:

    Also check out Veg News magazine and Vegetarian Times magazine.

  12. Hi,

    I am not sure how I landed on your blog but I'm glad I did. I'm a vegetarian. Have been since 2007. It's not as hard as most people think. Do it gradually if you must. Best wishes to you.


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