Unmeatly Meditations

The full title of this essay is Unmeatly Meditations, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Utilitarianism and Love Lentils for no reason other than that is funny.


Beware my will to power
Beware my will to power

LAST month I stopped eating meat. The days of the calendar year clicked into October 1 and I surrendered my love of bacon, steak, chicken fajitas, smoked salmon and ham and cheddar panini. The plan was to give up for a month, to see if I had the required mental fortitude to eschew pepperoni pizzas. After twenty-plus years of eating meat – and eating it well, often, encheesed and with abandon – it was a tough ask. (I later found out that National Vegetarian Month in the US takes place in October; a happy coincidence.)

Why? Nobody asks socialists ‘why?’ Or act consequentialists. Or presbyterians. Alongside atheism, what other political, epistemic or ethical position seems to require such perennial, torrential and cyclical social justification? Sometimes the ‘why?’ takes the form of disbelief – usually from meat-eaters (now known to me as shmucks, or lesser folk) questioning my voracity: just how could you forego a bacon sandwich or roast lamb? Often, and encouragingly, the ‘why?’ is followed by a ‘how might I…?’ or a broad agreement with some general conception of what vegetarianism means in an ethical context, viz. I like animals, eating them might not be very nice, perhaps I shouldn’t. (Also, the ‘so why not vegan?’ question was common, one for which the answer was always along the lines of chickens, hatching and counting. It’s in the pipeline.)

The month proved tricky. Full disclosure: there was one day in week one when I opted for prawn toast at the work canteen, plated it, carried it back to my seat and performed its mastication end before realising the error, so I added an extra day to the month-goal. The activity of eating out was (and is) often exasperating as a vegetarian. Challenge: find a veggie burger anywhere, in any restaurant, that is not “spicy”. Flavour cast asunder, swapped with chilli powder. It’s not always so glum. Quorn savoury eggs, meanwhile, are, surprisingly, deeply great.

Why do it at all, even for a month? A number of reasons shape this answer. A very good friend whom I miss dearly inspired me to live a more generous life without causing pain or discomfort to other animals and while it has taken some years to follow his lead it is of no small pleasure to traverse the same road. It is also important for someone of near-unrelenting fatness to make positive choices about the foodstuffs that enter their mouths. Paying more attention to what and how to eat via not eating meat has been enlightening in this regard.

Furthermore, it became, for reasons made clear below, increasingly difficult to conceive of our partner species as something other, as merely thinged objects with which we relate but do not commune in ways that share our common vitality. It became impossible to see foxes in the car park outside my house, scraping through bins, through the refuse of capital, the disregard of the world, turning our economics into their food, finding life-giving in the shittest of human spaces, without considering them to be entities of inconceivable brilliance, equal to and as evolved in every way as the pie-eating, crud-discarding, over-stuffing, inconsiderate flesh sacks from whom they reappropriated their means to be alive. Can I eat you? Can I chew through your beefy cousin, your porcine great aunt? A month proved not to be enough time in which to avoid the killing of utter majesty.

And, sure, I read some Peter Singer, too. His environmental statements on vegetarianism are well-known, summarised neatly in an essay of 1997 commenting on the McLibel case:

“To convert eight or nine kilos of grain protein into a single kilo of animal protein wastes land, energy, and water. On a crowded planet with a growing human population, that is a luxury that we are becoming increasingly unable to afford.”

His consequentialist argument is both very convincing and very troubling, a conversation with which I have tried to engage for a number of months, someone with whom I have tried to think. One argument of his, broadly construed, is that there is no morally justifiable way to remove or ignore animals from our moral considerations in that they can clearly suffer and, through our consciousness, we can interpret this suffering. Any being that does not wish to suffer, and acts to avoid pain, deserves not to have its suffering increased.

This requires us to make some assumptions about the human interpretation of animal behaviours. However, recent scientific work has shown correlations between analogous animal behaviour during pain-states and human behaviour. If an animal behaves in a way in which we interpret it as being in pain, we can monitor its vital signs and find out if anything detrimental is going on to get a sense of how to appropriate its behaviour. For example, if most mammals cower away it usually happens simultaneously with pupil dilation, increased sweating/panting, muscle tension, increased heart rate and an increased tendency for it to run away from the stimulus. All of these things happen during human fear-responses. We can therefore make a reasonable (though contested) assumption that the two are analogous, admitting that animals cannot speak to us and tell us that they are in pain, so we must fill in some blanks.

So we should not cause pain in beings if we are able to prevent such pain-giving. It is an argument utilitarian in form, taken to mean an ethical theory that considers the correct actions in a given scenario to be ones that avoid the giving of pain in favour of ones that increase the maximising of pleasure. And in relation to animals it is seductive: by not eating meat, by attempting to avoid producers or retailers which I know commit to the increased aggregate pain of animals, either in causing them to die or in the use of their products (e.g. eggs). But this is a moral argument that I reject in terms of human behaviours, so why consider it useful in relation to animals? Is it my own speciesism?

So hang on, Quorn-botherer, you might say; what’s wrong with utilitarianism? Happiness is considered a noble aim in moral actions, one that dominated philosophy from the pre-Socratics to the nineteenth century and beyond. Many associate some kind of goodness with being happy with one’s family, with one’s conscience, and so on. But while this foregrounding of happiness is, indeed, valuable to many, it betrays the naturalistic spirit of human action.

Utilitarian arguments place the finding of happiness, or pleasure, at the centre of the “good” action. But “good” people, that is to say, the best people, actualise self-overcoming; via their creative, passionate and destructive actions, they forge new values that celebrate and protect life and change; they destroy “being” as something antithetical to true human experience. Those who can see and act beyond the injured spirit of utility, the meek veneration of the defeated, those who, as Nietzsche would say, become, are the good. And while their actions may create unhappiness, pleasure and happiness are irrelevant in the creation of good humans. So, to be a good human, I need not consider my actions in relation to the happiness/pleasure/pain of the animal. There may be another way.

Is utility realistic? Rational action, as our Enlightenment brothers, our Lockeans and Humeans, might contest, is the root of human action. For we, given the right opportunity and circumstances, would act in rational ways to achieve x and y ends. As Plato displayed in Meno, this form of thinking is open to all: the very wisest or the least-educated. In reality, humans are something of a psychological lucky dip; a stew of emotions, impulses, desires, fears, misinformation and irrationalities which merely take the form of the “rational” when we attempt to give an explanation for a particular choice in a given selection of alternatives. How often is it true that one has thought of surrendering meat eating, with the best of intentions, only to find that the bacon sandwich smells too irresistible, that the roast lamb looks too juicy? These are not always rational impulses. Human action is too varied; we are vast, we contain multitudes.

In Nietzsche’s collection of essays, Untimely Meditations, the second essay, entitled ‘The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’, contains an invocation of the problem of human temporality. Our relation with time, he argues, is unhealthy. We allow the past to enslave us. In over-historicising – in placing too great a value on our antecedents, our social memories – we deny the forces within us that affirm life. The animals, on the other hand, do no such thing, he argues. Now, Nietzsche is wrong about this. Proper wrong. Wrong as fuck. Book of Genesis wrong. Apes, dolphins, wolves are just a selection of species who display a social memory, whose actions as part of a group have social connotations and who in some way grasp some primitive aspect of temporality. But what Nietzsche is getting at, and where he is valuable for us meat-deniers, is in showing that our animal cousins are far closer than we, for the most part, in affirming life, in allowing for the passionate processes of natural will to dominate our actions. In thinking unhistorically, we can use history for a revolutionary purpose: divorce ourselves from it and start anew.

So don’t eat meat. Don’t pretend that either the animal’s happiness or its will to life are worth less than yours. Animals are healthier than us; they are more “good” in the sense that they act more often according to their irrational, creative wills. They are more full of vigour, of memento vivere, as Nietzsche would say, the more beautiful for it.

“Consider the cattle, grazing as they pass you by: they do not know what is meant by yesterday or today, they leap about, eat, rest, digest, leap about again, and so from morn till night and from day to day, fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure, and thus neither melancholy nor bored. This is a hard sight for man to see; for, though he thinks himself better than the animals because he is human, he cannot help envying them their happiness – what they have, a life neither bored nor painful, is precisely what he wants, yet he cannot have it because he refuses to be like an animal… A leaf flutters from the scroll of time, floats away – and suddenly floats back again and falls into the man’s lap. Then the man says “I remember” and envies the animal, who at once forgets and for whom every moment really dies, sinks back into night and fog and is extinguished for ever (UM, I).”

Some reading, so it please ye
Nietzsche, F., Untimely Meditations (trans: R. J. Hollingdale), 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 1983).

Singer, P., Animal Liberation, 2nd ed. (New York, 1990)

––– Practical Ethics (Cambridge, 1993)

––– ‘A Vegetarian Philosophy’, in Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (eds.), Consuming Passions (Manchester, 1998), pp. 66-72.