It's been a while since I philosophized about eating meat in an increasingly crowded and affluent world. My own take at being a facultative vegetarian kept me mostly meat-free through the first half of 2010. Every now and then I had a little treat, a good way of eating meat, I thought – and very tasty. As the months passed, though, I fell a bit from the veggie gospel. During lab meeting I pick the roast beef sandwiches, I buy prosciutto di Parma from time to time and sometimes, if I need a condensed dose of animal flavor, a saucisson sec. I had chicken gizzards in Jordan and Rojões à moda do Minho in Porto (both surprisingly tasty). But my basic position hasn't changed.
Meat tastes good and there is nothing inherently wrong with eating meat. The evolution of the big brain that distinguishes us from animals would have been impossible without a meat-based diet. It is for this reason alone that I refuse to condemn, whatever happens to the state of the world, the practice of eating meat. It has done us good. It has pulled out from the jungle and put us in nice warm flats. That said, evolution provides no compelling reason to continue the uninhibited consumption of meat. In contrast, it should serve as a reminder of literally leaner times. Even at the cusp of becoming humans, our ancestral apes consumed only a fraction of the meat we stuff into our faces today.
My favorite restaurant – aside any that sits adjacent to and in perfect harmony with a well-run farm – would be Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. In case you've forgotten your Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, at Milliways the cow comes to your table, introducing itself most friendly: "I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in parts of my body?" Arthur Dent, the somewhat benighted but quite likeable terrestrial, is aghast and goes for a salad. I wouldn't share his compunction and instead go with Zaphod Beeblebrox who orders steak.
Comedy as aside, the question of what animals want is a good one. Peter Singer, the godfather of animal liberation, is very clear. An animal wants to live. But how can he be sure? An animal might have reflexes to live, but a will to live? That's asking too much, in my opinion. I think an animal wants to be our meal. That's its greatest satisfaction. Try to argue me on that! You might complain that I am taking the argument ad absurdum. But I content that Peter Singer's original position is already absurd.
Do animals have moral rights? Absolutely, but they are not inherent in their existence. These rights are drawn up and granted by us humans and they matter to humans only. No animal cares about animal rights (just ask the lion feeding on a gazelle). Humans came up with the concept of animals rights, which hinges on us being human and them animals. This means domestic animals must be sheltered, fed and treated with respect and compassion. But it also means livestock will be slaughtered and eaten – again with respect and compassion. Animals must be treated humanely – but not humanly.
In talks and articles I've been introduced to the speciesism, which argues that members of different species have different inherent values or rights. Animal rights activists frequently vilify speciesism with the help of an analogy: Just as discrimination on the base of race was acceptable fifty years ago, discrimination on the basis of species is acceptable now. And just as racism is being wiped out, speciesism will be wiped out sooner or later. But if you deny speciesism, you deny that there are differences between species. You might say that one should treat a sick house cat as one would treat a sick child. Or, if you're a cold-hearted bastard, you might equate the murder of kids on an island in Norway with the slaughter of chickens and cattle. In either case you'd be wrong because animals are not human.
Here's a thought experiment: At a time when slavery was the norm, you have a pen of fifty slaves. Over the course of the next two months, you proceed to kill one slave every morning. How long do you think it will take until the slaves riot, thus proving to even the most bestial masters that they are human? But do the same with cattle or pigs. Will they even notice that their numbers shrink? Will they care? Will the start an animal farm? I don't think so, and that's why the argument against speciesism is specious.
A dog doesn't dream of being a TV presenter, a frog doesn't want to learn Greek and study the ancient world, and a cow doesn't desire chatting up the cute horse at the other end of the barn. An animal doesn't have plans for the future. And thus, by making the present as comfortable as possible for the animals, we're paying them the ultimate respect. If we kill them tomorrow, today the animals don't care.
An entirely different line of argument against eating meat concerns the carbon footprint of a steak, the health consequences of meat consumption, the waste generated in hog farms, and the suffering of cattle in feedlots. Non of this is much of an issue with responsibly-sourced meat eaten on rare occasions. And so I will continue to be a flexitarian and enjoy every bit of meat that I eat.