05 April 2004

Meat-Eating and Rape

As many of you know, I stopped eating red meat (beef, pork, venison, &c) in early 1981. I gave up turkey, as planned, on the last day of 1981. Since then, the only animal products I've ingested are chicken, fish, and eggs. (I've been allergic to dairy products since 1972.) A couple of years ago I stopped eating chicken. More recently still, I ruled out eggs from confined hens. As of today, the only animal products I ingest are (1) fish and (2) eggs from free-roaming hens.

Do I live up to my moral standards? No. But I'm close, and that should count for something. A few years ago, in correspondence with several philosopher friends, I was taken to task by one of them for continuing to eat chicken and fish. He couldn't believe I hadn't gone all the way (cold turkey, whole hog). He said it was preposterous for me to think I was doing well. "Imagine someone saying that he commits only an occasional rape," he said. The implication, of course, is that rape is unacceptable. It's not good enough to reduce the number of rapes one commits (unless the reduction is to zero).

One virtue of my friend's analogy is that it brings individual animals into the picture. The flesh one eats comes from individual animals, not from a species, a population, or a collection. Each rape is an affront to the dignity of a distinct person. Each act of consuming steak, hamburger, or a chicken leg is an affront to the dignity of a distinct animal. We tend to think of chicken as a mass term, like peanut butter, but it refers to body parts of individual chickens.

My friend's criticism stung me, and it has bothered me ever since. Am I no better than the rapist who "cuts back" on the number of victims? Does my sense that I'm doing better than most people and better than I once did rest on sand? Am I deluding myself?

I don't think I'm deluding myself, and I hope I'm not deluding myself by thinking that I'm not deluding myself. Suppose I were a rapist, and suppose I had been raping five women a month for many years. If I cut back to two women a month, I'd be doing better than I was. There are fewer victims. Clearly, I should not be raping at all, but raping twenty-four women a year is morally better than raping sixty a year. Would my friend disagree?

He would probably say, "You shouldn't be raping any women!" But I can agree with that without giving up my belief that I'm doing better now than before. The two judgments—one comparative and one noncomparative—are compatible. My friend seemed unwilling to address the comparative claim. He's a purist. To him, there are just two choices: (1) rape at will and (2) don't rape at all. By analogy, (1) eat as much meat as you want, of whatever types you want, and (2) don't eat meat at all.

There's a lot of purism (my term) in the animal-liberation movement. Anyone who hasn't purged animal products from his or her diet is viewed with skepticism (at best) or animosity (at worst). I wonder why this is. Why not celebrate each incremental movement toward veganism? After all, most of us grew up eating meat. Is it reasonable to expect people to eliminate animal products from their diets overnight, or even over the course of a year? There's a learning curve, for one thing. Vegetarian diets require new cooking skills and a better understanding of nutrition. There's also this brute fact: People enjoy the taste of meat. Perhaps they shouldn't (if that makes sense), but they do; and we're talking about changing lifelong habits. Dietary habits are especially difficult to change, since food plays such an important role in our rituals and identities. (I'll write about that in another post.)

If you're a vegan, like my friend, be reasonable. Rape is abominable. But it's better for one woman to be raped than for two to be raped. This doesn't justify or excuse the rape; it simply compares two states of the world in terms of the individuals that compose those states. Eating only fish is better than eating all meats. Eating only eggs from free-roaming hens is better than eating just any eggs. It seems like common sense, but then, philosophers are not long on common sense.

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