Meat, Death and Compassion: More on “The Compassionate Carnivore” Posted on October 21st, 2009 by

(Part Two of two)

Last week, I wrote some thoughts about The Compassionate Carnivore, Catherine Friend’s book about how to satisfy her meat love in the most humane, just and sustainable ways possible. My first entry explored this whole matter of love; I confronted the similarities between Friend’s love of meat and my own love of chocolate, and I asked, “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?”

Here, I want to continue the discussion of meat, chocolate and justice, by reflecting a bit on death.

Reading The Compassionate Carnivore, I found myself asking, isn’t there a significant moral difference between my love of chocolate and Friend’s love of meat, given that one of them necessarily involves the death of animals and the other doesn’t? I found myself arguing that, at least I can eliminate—or reduce to close to zero—the misery built into chocolate production, by buying chocolate only from companies that vow to use adult labor paid a living wage, that use growing methods that do not deplete the soil, that process the cacao in-country to contribute to the local economy.[1] In the case of meat, even if you do all of those things, at the end of the day, you’re still taking a life—and doesn’t that still produce the most misery of all? Is it really okay to eat what you love, even if it involves the death of a sentient being who can figure out how to open the latch on her pen?[2]

And then I had an odd recollection, about a philosophical article I once read, regarding the death penalty.[3] The article didn’t argue for or against it, but rather addressed a prior question: how do we know that death is actually suffering? How do we know that death—the actual death—is any kind of punishment? The article went to great pains to acknowledge that, of course, if you spend years on death row, anticipating your death, you will have suffered a great deal. But what of the actual death itself? In the absence of any knowledge of what happens next, who’s to say that death is suffering? Dying may involve a lot less suffering than, say, spending life in prison.

Whether or not the article had anything useful to say about the death penalty, I think it actually does say something to me about killing animals for meat, especially animals raised in the ways that Catherine Friend advocates. Consider an animal lovingly raised in an environment that enables it to live out as many aspects of its animal self as are possible (insert images of gamboling lambs, chickens eating grubs, and cows knee-deep in gorgeous pasture here), for a reasonable amount of time.[4] When that animal is then put to death in a humane, rapid way that is as close to painless as is possible, and that involves as little anticipation of that death as possible, perhaps such an animal hasn’t had a bad life. Perhaps such a death isn’t in fact misery.

Will I eat meat in the future? I don’t know; my food choices are not fixed, unbending principles, but ongoing conversations I have with the world around me, so it’s not at all impossible that my I might add in some meat. Catherine Friend has definitely put the conversation back on the table for me.

[1] True confessions: I can do those things, but so far I have not chosen to do them. If it’s chocolate, I eat it. Maybe my public confession will put me over the top and I’ll get serious about choosing chocolate committed to fair labor practices.

[2]More true confessions: among the reasons I became a vegetarian, the death of animals was not, actually ever at the top of the list. Ironically, it rose higher on the list as I read this book.

[3] Yes, I tried to find it and no, I didn’t succeed. Sorry.

[4] “And what, pray tell, is a reasonable amount of time?” my vegetarian self responds. “Will you be willing to let that animal get close to dying of old age before you kill him to eat him? Will you be willing to eat tough ropey old beef, stringy stewing chicken? Will you? Because that is how long a reasonable amount of time is.” Friend’s answer to this is to say “it’s quality of life, not quantity, that we’re going for.” And there’s something right about that—but frankly, what’s wrong with quantity too? To paraphrase Woody Allen, why can’t animals have immortality not through their work, but through living forever? Or at least living for a long, long time?


One Comment

  1. BJ Heldke says:

    My favorite “honoring the animal” story remains Jan’s hotel-made meal of the poor pheasant that crashed into the window at work when she was in England a few years back.