Eating What You Love: Ruminations on “The Compassionate Carnivore”

Posted on October 14th, 2009 by

(Part One of two)

I’ve been reading a book called The Compassionate Carnivore, by Catherine Friend, the southeastern Minnesota farmer who wrote Hit by a Farm. It’s an extremely thoughtful, readable book about how to make the choice to eat meat a responsible, sustainable, ethical, and (most of all) compassionate choice.

Friend undertakes this project because, as she says frequently, she loves, loves, loves meat. Indeed, she notes at the beginning of the book that she isn’t really going to offer an argument for meat eating, but is simply going to talk about how to do it in responsible ways, because she loves meat so much that she cannot imagine not eating it. She straightforwardly admits that she’s “not very interested in the ethics of eating meat…. Pro-meat and anti-meat advocates can go at each other all they want about whether eating meat is right or wrong” (43). She loves it…so she wants to figure out how to do it with care.

I respect and admire Friend for writing this book. It’s an incredibly useful resource for folks who make the choice to eat meat. She walks readers through the problems with current meat production, and then offers them a whole market basket full of things that they can do to mitigate those problems, beginning with small-and-easily-doable things (clean your plate; don’t waste food), and extending upward (outward?) to more complex, more arduous actions. (Go meatless rather than eating meat you don’t know about. Replace “go food” with “slow food.” Buy meat from farmers you have “interviewed.”)

While I’m not a meat eater, the book certainly gave me some practical ideas about how to think about my dairy and egg purchases—factory farms don’t just produce meat, after all. But the aspect of the book that really has knocked me off my pins is this business about continuing to eat something just because you love it.

As a philosopher, I was taken aback by someone beginning a book by telling me that she wasn’t going to argue for eating meat, and that she didn’t really have much use for arguments against meat eating. I was even more taken aback by the ease with which she reported that she eats meat because she loves it. “Is that really enough of a reason to eat it?” I found myself thinking.[1] “Do we really get to do something just because we love it?”

And then I thought about chocolate. As a non-meat-loving vegetarian, my perspective on her meat-loving is that of bystander only; I’ve never loved meat,[2] so deciding to give it up was NBD. But chocolate—there’s another matter. I love chocolate. And while meat involves the death of animals, chocolate often involves the literal enslavement of very young children—children whose lives, if they are not ended, are often rendered miserable and desperate by this work. Have I stopped eating chocolate because of this? Well, no. I haven’t even committed myself to eating only chocolate that doesn’t use slave labor!  So, clearly the “I love it” (non)defense is at work in my own food life as well. I am not really in a good position to question someone who chooses to continue to eat something she loves, even though eating it involves negotiating very difficult ethical terrain.

So, the question with which Friend leaves me is this; how can my love for delicious food become an engine to drive my commitments to justice? How can that love be less about self-indulgence and more about something bigger than just my transitory pleasure? How can I use the aesthetic dimensions of eating to enhance or enrich its ethical and socio-political dimensions?[3]

How about it? How do you do it?

[1] To be clear, Friend doesn’t offer her love of meat as a reason or justification for her meat eating; it’s just a fact, a fact that leads her to look for ethical ways to satisfy her love.

[2] True confession time: I love porketta. Once a year I make a fool of myself over porketta at a friend’s holiday party.

[3] The essayist, poet and farmer Wendell Berry has something to say about this. Check out his essay “The Pleasures of Eating.” If you’re looking for chocolate that doesn’t use slave labor, try this page from “Stop Chocolate Slavery.”


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