What My Cats Taught Me About Eating Meat
Over the course of the past three years, my wife and I acquired two cats, which may have led to my shrinking consumption of meat. A cat, after all, is a big fluffy animal capable of an athletic bolt of speed and amazing leaps, delightful for petting and hugging. I would never eat a cat. Highly developed mammals seem close enough to a cat that I wouldn’t want to eat them, either. So about a year ago, after a long contraction in consumption, I gave up beef and pork entirely. Of course, recent evidence that meat—and particularly beef—is a great contributor to climate change also played a big part in my decision. The health benefits are another reason, as is the fact that eating meat in large quantities means consuming more than one’s share of the world’s resources (since vegetables are so much more efficient to produce). All in all, there is no rational reason to eat meat in anywhere near the quantities most Americans do. But the acquisition of cats was the strongest emotional trigger for my decision.
I’ve had an aversion to eating cats my whole life, but even more so now that these amazing creatures come rubbing against me at unexpected times, leaping into my lap and melding themselves there with audible purrs, not to mention sharing my bed. Cats are among my best friends and also my relatives, although perhaps 1000th cousins 1000 times removed. Still, a cat is in many ways made in my image, or I in its image, or at least according to a similar set of blueprints—eyes, ears and an acute nose for sensing the world; four limbs; symmetrical; warm blooded; capable of reproducing and nurturing young. To alter Shakespeare’s Shylock only a little, “Hath not a cat eyes? Hath not a cat organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer, as a human is? If you prick a cat, does it not bleed?”
Of course I would never eat a cat! But isn’t the above quote true also of pigs, cows and other animals that we humans consume daily, thoughtlessly, in mass quantities?
One of the multiple ironies embedded in a cat leading to my shrinking meat consumption is that cats are carnivores, showing no sympathy whatsoever for any smaller mammals birds, or insects they may happen to catch (since our cats are indoor animals, the only such victims have been crickets whose mangled remains we occasionally find littering the floor). How, then, have these creatures, amoral killers from the viewpoint of a mouse, turned me against meat?
One counterargument, already implied, is that animals will harm and consume each other without remorse. Strangely, it is the carnivores, cats and dogs, that we feel closest to and adopt into our homes. As Benjamin Franklin in his memoirs recalled of his 18-year old self:
“I considered…the taking every fish as a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had, or ever could do us any injury that might justify the slaughter. All this seemed very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and, when this came hot out of the frying-pan, it smelled admirably well. I balanced some time between principle and inclination, till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish take out of their stomachs; then thought I, “if you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you.”
This might seem a convincing rebuttal, but Franklin concludes his thoughts: “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” A human, then, can be just as amoral as an amoral animal—indeed, Franklin’s logic may illustrate how humans move from the amoral to the immoral, since we are capable of hypocrisy. As some animal rights advocates point out, the fact that we are also capable of morality imposes an obligation upon us that it would be foolish to ascribe to animals.
A common argument for separating humans from animals is our intelligence. Peter Singer, a formative influence on the animal rights movement, takes as his central argument that animals are capable of suffering, and it’s suffering that really makes harming other creatures immoral. And if humans have individual personalities, so, too, do animals, at least to an extent. Singer, however, doesn’t consider animals and humans exactly equal; he does differentiate the two: “There are many matters in which the superior mental powers of normal adult humans make a difference: anticipation, more detailed memory, greater knowledge of what is happening, and so on.”
I would go beyond Singer and say that humans, unlike other animals, undergo complex social, moral, and artistic development throughout their lives. Animals are unable to, for instance, decide whether to intervene in a genocide, or compose a great piece of music. Not that most humans do these things, but we all engage in similar acts, albeit to a much lesser extent. Our ability to use language, to plan and compose our lives, to make decisions in how we treat other living beings, does separate us from animals, to me not just quantitatively but qualitatively. I use this difference to excuse myself for my continued eating of chicken and fish—to me lower on the scale, less capable of individual bonding and expression, than pigs, cats and cows.
The paradox is that the same capacities that make humans capable of great good or great evil—or more often of slothful moral indifference—also make us capable of blithely eating animals or deciding not to. A more nuanced view would give animals some rights, certainly more than a thing or commodity, but fewer than humans, and gives higher order animals—say, dolphins—more rights than medium order—chickens—which in turn have more rights than lower order—insects and worms. (An animal rights activist might say this isn’t a more nuanced view, but a more sophisticated scheme for excusing the eating of some animals, another version of Ben Franklin’s hypocrisy.) Yet both Singer and another writer on animal rights, Jonathan Safran Foer, argue that since the move toward complete vegetarianism isn’t for everyone that incremental change away from meat is a good thing.
Change is hard, in large part because, like dogs and cows, humans are social creatures, oriented toward what the pack or herd is doing. We may think we are rational, we may think we are moral, but we are first of all products of our society. So George Washington and Thomas Jefferson could declaim eloquently and fight bravely for the rights of man while continuing to own slaves. And so many sustainability advocates can argue fiercely for the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions while flying around the globe to a network of international conferences. And so is it difficult, in a society where meat is everywhere, to reduce or end our consumption. As Foer puts it, “food is not rational. Food is culture, habit, and identity.” We largely define ourselves by our attachments to our traditions, both cultural and familial. Altering these only admits that our deepest sentiments and memories may not be as ideal as we had hoped. And the move away from a culture of massive, thoughtless consumption of animals is a slow evolution.