mad anthony

Rants, politics, and thoughts on politics, technology, life,
and stuff from a generally politically conservative Baltimoron.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Saving slugs and eating beefy jerky...

When I was in college, I took a mandatory ethics class with a professor I didn't exactly get along with. He was big into Catholic social justice theory, while I was a free market borderline libertarian. I didn't do well in the class grade-wise, and it may have had something to do with the first day of that class.

He wanted us to think about ethics and why we make the decisions that we do, so he asked us "do you eat meat? And if so, how do you justify it?". My brilliant answer: "If God didn't want us to eat meat, why does it taste so good?".

The thing is that while this answer sounds simple and jocular, it actually makes some sense. If you take the view that the world was created by God, or at least that He had a major role in it, then you would expect that He wouldn't make animals both tasty and a necessary part of a balanced diet unless he expected that they would be eaten. And if you want to look at it strictly from an evolutionary standpoint and leave God out of it, evolution-wise, the meat eaters won. If there ever was a race that lived only on vegetables, they died out. Humans have evolved with a taste for meat, and our bodies are designed to rely on it for protein and other things - people who are vegetarian or vegan have to go out of their way to find foods that make up for the nutrients that they miss by not eating meat.

So what made me think about this? Well, I came home from work and the gym on Friday, and picked my copy of the Baltimore Sun off the front lawn. (I subscribe mostly for the Sunday circulars and auction listings, and generally throw the rest of the week's papers in recycling, unread. But it's easier and cheaper than driving to the store every Sunday, plus I can stay home in my pajamas and read the paper). As I walked in, I noticed there was a slug on the paper, that had crawled from the wet grass onto the plastic bag. Ehh, I'll just throw out the bag and the slug. But then the slug started moving. It looked up at me with it's little slug eyes and waved it's tenacles, and I couldn't let it die. He was an amazing little creature, almost cute. So instead I found myself standing on my front stoop, trying to persuade a slug to get off the bag and go on the lawn by poking it with a ballpoint pen.

Then I went inside, washed my hands, and looked for something to munch on. I settled on a bag of Lemongrass flavored beef jerky I picked up a few weeks ago on a trip to a local Asian grocer.

So there I was, saving a slug, which is pretty much the lowest life form you can find, and generally regarded as a pest, while eating a cow, an animal considerably larger, smarter, and with more developed senses of pain and emotion.

Can I rationalize this? Well, the cow was bred for food. It needed to be killed to produce food, to fill a need. There was no need for the slug to die, I could save it in a few minutes.

But of course, the real reason was that the slug was alive in front of me, the cow met it's end somewhere in Canada (where, evidently, Asian beef jerky is made). If I had to kill the cow personally to get the jerky, I probably would have had some pretzels instead. My choices are not made so much by ethics, but by convenience, by an ability to ignore the gritty facts of where my food came from.

And you can probably extend this to the way I interact with other animals. I feel a certain sense of doing good that I adopted Nibbler, a stray kitten that was living behind one of the dorms at the college I work for. I'm probably not the world's best pet owner, but I figure she's better off than on the mean streets of Baltimore. But there are thousands of other cats out there that I haven't done anything to help, including Nibbler's parents. Stray cats in the abstract are easy to ignore, but it's hard to ignore a six week old kitten that keeps curling up in your lap and falling asleep.

And why just cats? Why does Nibbler get to sit on my lap licking her fur while I type this blog post, while some Canadian cow ends up smoked in a bag in my kitchen? Well, it probably helps that the cat is cuter, smaller, and can be trained to poop in a litterbox. But in the grand scheme of what is ethical, I'm not sure it passes muster.

So we make the decisions that we do - be it adopting homicidal kittens or eating tasty animal flesh - based on an ability to ignore the sometimes ugly truths behind them. But I'm not sure that that makes them wrong - I can't imagine I'd be better off without the cat (or having to take care of every cat in Baltimore), or that I could happily go through life without steak or Chic-fil-a sandwiches. Maybe ignoring inconvenient truths leads to the right outcomes after all.


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