Eating and caring: The lines we draw

by Tovar on July 22, 2011 · 94 comments

Photo by Ken Thomas

Some hunters pursue and eat birds, rabbits, and deer, but draw the line at bears. For them, bruins resemble humans a little too much: They’re intelligent omnivores. Their eyes face forward. They can stand on two feet and climb trees.

I haven’t ever pondered bear- hunting, but I may be one of these hunters. Though I understand the need to manage bears and to keep them from getting too comfortable in people’s backyards, I’m not sure I would squeeze the trigger myself.

Vegetarians draw the line at fish, birds, and mammals (or, in the case of vegans, anything derived from them). One reason is that these creatures resemble humans a little too much: They have faces and vertebrae. They walk, run, swim, and crawl. They have the capacity to suffer.

Most people in this part of the world won’t eat cats or dogs. These animals may not resemble us any more than pigs do, but culturally we have embraced them as members of the extended human family.

In short, I think everyone holds some version of the same conceptual category: “Fellow creatures about whom I care too much to eat.”

I think everyone also holds some version of the opposite category: “Life forms I eat without concern.” Some people don’t trouble themselves about animals, domestic or wild. Most of us don’t fret about plants. Despite the indications—from ancient teachings and modern science alike—that plants sense far more than we give them credit for, few of us worry that a tomato vine is traumatized by being stripped of fruit.

When I was a vegan, those were the only two categories I saw. The line I drew was absolute: Above it, sentient beings I cared about and would not eat. Below it, non-sentient edibles about which I need not care. Black on one side, white on the other. A tidy dualism.

The world, however, does not conform to such a convenient moral order. For most of us, there is a third and more troubling category: “Creatures I care about, harmed by my eating.”

How do we handle this messy middle ground?

One option, of course, is not to admit it. We can sit down to a burger or a steak and refuse to acknowledge the steer or the slaughterhouse. We can sit down to a fruit salad or a veggie stir-fry and refuse to acknowledge the deer, rabbits, mice, and birds injured and killed in orchards and fields.

But what if we want to acknowledge it? What then?

In Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez wrote:

No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture but within oneself.

I wonder: Are we any closer to solving this dilemma than our ancestors were?

© 2011 Tovar Cerulli

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