But Hitler was a vegetarian

3 11 2015


People who want to find flaws in the arguments for not eating animals will often, semi-jokingly, point out that Hitler was a vegetarian. Their anti-vegetarian logic flows something like this: if a carpet-munching, insane mass murderer loved animals enough not to eat them then sane, rational people should not do so because that makes them affiliated with him, the tiny nasty Fuhrer.

In response, it’s likely that Hitler almost certainly ate bread as part of his diet, but few people would give up eating sandwiches or baguettes to avoid being associated with the eating habits of the Fuhrer, so why does his preference for vegetables provoke such an emotional reaction?

Perhaps what stirs people is not so much what Hitler decided to put on his plate (or not), but the effrontery of Hitler taking an ethical position. For many, Hitler cannot be ethical because, of course, Hitler was evil. Ethical positions held by evil people are suspicious therefore we shouldn’t trust them. This curious line of reasoning conveniently lets people off the hook of considering the difficult, embarrassing problem of whether to eat animals or not.

Like many people who grew up in the seventies, I ate animals. Favourites from my childhood diet included crispy bacon sandwiches with spicy brown sauce, sausages cooked to dark sweet stickiness and sandwiched between the crackling crusts of soft white bread, steak and kidney pie, especially those flabby ones in the tin that puffed up to a glorious golden crispy wonder, liver and bacon and onions.

Just thinking about those meaty favourites makes my mouth water. If someone were to offer me a steak right now, I would have trouble resisting, which makes me, I suppose, an inconsistent vegetarian. Sometimes I tell people that I’m a pragmatic vegetarian, who sometimes eats meat, but that is a pretty indefensible position. In fact, it’s really no position at all.

Like many people, I suppose, I want to leave my options open. I want to enjoy the clear conscience that comes from only eating plants and not harming animals, but I’m also someone who loves to cook for people and eat with family and friends, and most of the people I love to cook for and eat with are not vegetarian.

I’ve got round this for a number of years by only cooking meat on special occasions. I believe that if I’m going to eat meat then it should be locally sourced, organic, free range, the best, by which I mean the least harmfully reared meat I can buy. Lamb I consider to be more ethical than pork or beef because at least lambs are allowed to live outside for most of their short lives. Last Christmas I bought from my local butcher a plump free range duck that was lovingly slapped as it slid into its plastic bag. This bird had been branded a ‘good bird,’ simply by the warmth of the butcher’s touch. It tasted delicious, along with the potatoes cooked to a crisp in the sweet clear duck fat.

A year on, and I’ve read more and thought more about the ethics of eating animals and now I’m not so sure I would enjoy the duck without more than a twinge of guilt. A butcher’s banter is no longer enough to reassure me that every bird had a decent life. Free range and local does not necessarily mean a happy bird waddling around by a pond with its friends before someone came along with a bag to whisk it away for slaughter. The duck might, indeed, have been a duckling only six weeks old and fattened up with growth-promoting feed to increase its breast so that it could adorn my Christmas table. Huh!

In preparation for a seminar on food ethics, I’ve been reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. Much of his reasoning resonates. He believes that the question of eating animals is ‘not only our basic ability to respond to sentient life, but our ability to respond to parts of or own (animal) being. There is a war not only between us and them, but between us and us.’ By which he means that eating animals is part of the human story.

I’m at the beginning of a new story in how I work with and relate to animals and I want to start off on the right footing, so to speak. I would no more think of eating one of my animals than I would think of eating one of my brothers or sisters. It isn’t sentiment that stops me considering their flesh as meat, or romanticism, or even squeamishness. It’s a sense of morality. I wouldn’t eat my horse, or any horse for that matter, because it would be wrong to do so.

The reasons for this wrongness are many. Firstly and obviously, I have other options and don’t need to eat them to stay alive, but even if I were starving and had no other option then I would still choose to gnaw on bark or eat dried leaves than sacrifice my horses to feed myself.

How can I know this? During the two and a half years I spent researching the German and Russian occupation of Poland in the Second World War I read many accounts of people eating rats, cats, dogs, squirrels, pigeons and crows simply to stay alive. In one vivid account, people who had been imprisoned in cellars for months ran out and risked their lives to drink the blood of horses. Many horses perished to keep people alive.

I understand the desperation that would drive someone to kill an animal in order to stay alive. I have read enough about the effects of starvation to know that it drives people mad and convinces them to abandon their ethical principles. Under these circumstances, many people would think that they didn’t have a choice. It would come down to this: either my life continues or the animal’s, and my life is more important to me than the animal’s so unfortunately the animal must give up its life to save mine.

When Jonathan Safran Foer’s Jewish grandmother was offered meat by a Russian after coming close to starvation under German occupation, she refused. The meat was pork. It wasn’t kosher. The author was surprised by her decision. Why wouldn’t she eat pork to save her own life? Her response illuminates the ethical position so simply, so beautifully and so powerfully. ‘If nothing matters, there’s nothing left to save.’

If animals matter to us, to make them suffer in their billions worldwide just so we can farm them for cheap meat through the food industry is indefensible and certainly unethical. The question which intrigues me though is why a diet without meat is so difficult for many people to contemplate: why are so many people, and I include myself here, prepared to look away from animal suffering and heap their surrendered flesh on to a plate simply because it tastes good? It just seems such a flimsy reason. My thinking is that eating meat is so bound up with conditioning and habit and mind-set that taking an ethical position on animal suffering is nowhere near as straightforward as taking an ethical position on human torture. Most people aren’t implicated in torture, but most people are implicated in what happens to animals. I’m interested to know what you think. In the meantime, I’m sticking with eating apples for a while.

An end to suffering

29 08 2013


Picture: http://www.rspb.org.uk

Much of the comment surrounding the arguments for the badger cull which began in Somerset this week has focused on the reasons for delaying the cull no longer. Farming Minister David Heath adopted the ‘regrettable but necessary’ tone that so often accompanies any announcement of acts that the public will find shocking. The prevailing view of the British government is that we wouldn’t kill badgers unless we absolutely had run out of options. We understand that you the public are upset about this, but really we just want a safe, efficient and humane solution that meets our targets. I’m sure that I’m not alone in finding these words of Heath’s chilling.

My question is this: how can mass slaughter ever be humane?  When we as a species decide to send marksmen out into the woods at night specifically to target another species, we lose our humanity.

Those who understand compassion understand the harm in the action. It is always unacceptable to kill one species for the sake of another. Arguments which suggest otherwise presume that species exist on a sliding scale of importance. Those who hold this assumption believe mistakenly that badgers have less value; they are subordinate to cattle raised by farmers and therefore they can be regrettably sacrificed.

The issue for the farming minister is not one of value for the species that live in the British countryside. The place for badgers has already been decided. They are dispensable. It is livelihoods that we are protecting, the farming minster’s emotive tone implied. We are talking only a few thousand badgers in comparison to the economic disaster running into millions for farmers whose herds are being wiped out by tuberculosis. Of course, given a sum like this, the badgers will lose.

The protest against the cull is not about the economy. The demonstrators can understand the farmers’ point of view and have sympathy for their plight. We are all affected by economic recession and can relate to hardship within our own species. We have all been there. In essence, the protest is about what one species can stomach doing to another. The protestors are demonstrating on behalf of the silent badgers, however, they are also demonstrating on behalf of all reasonable humans who will not tolerate tyranny against another species.

As human animals we have responsibilities towards the other animals in the biosphere -we are the leaders of this planet – and how we conduct ourselves towards the other animals marks us out as beings of higher consciousness. Our actions make us worthy leaders or managers. The cull of badgers diminishes our humanity precisely because we have taken the option of violence when we might have chosen further enquiry or investigation; when we might have chosen to ask deeper questions about why the cull is so distasteful to so many ‘ordinary’ people. When we might have paused to really understand what is going on with our farms that are so stricken by disease.

As a child I once came across a badger that had leapt across a rifle range and somehow had become impaled on a metal spike. Its bloated, fly-blown corpse haunted my imagination and in recalling the image I can still smell the rotting stink of death. I found it at a time that badgers were being gassed from their underground setts, and I now wonder whether this badger had been spiked as some sort of macabre trophy. This is not as fanciful as it sounds. I have listened to people talk of their ‘hate’ for badgers and it is part of Devon lore that farmers will aim straight for them when they meet them at  night in the headlights of their four-wheel drives.

It is easier to kill something when you ‘hate’ it, or consider it to be ‘vermin,’ as the Nazis constructing the gas chambers of Poland well understood as they began their systematic extermination of Europe’s Jewish population. All destruction begins in hate and misunderstanding. All justification begins with considering the ‘target’ a lesser being.

Extremist animal rights activists who plant bombs to draw attention to the cause do not understand the arguments against suffering either. Animals share the world with us and always have. They have a voiceless place in our world, and that makes them vulnerable to exploitation by those who wish to subdue them altogether. We are rightly outraged when our ‘fellow’ animals suffer because our animals belong to our way of living. We cannot live without them; they are not separate to us. It is the politicians and factory farmers and laboratory directors that have to separate animals in order to justify experimenting on them or poisoning them when they become inconvenient. Separation is always essential in oppression as we have seen through a world history that has made slaves of people of different skin colours and races and religions.

The protestors recognise something deeply unsettling that has not been at the forefront of the debate about badgers. They recognise that being hunted down and killed at night is horrifying to any species. All animals have a deeply primitive fear of being murdered in their homes at night.

It is for this recognition that people are prepared to leave their comfortable living rooms; their children; their cello lessons and carry candles into the night for creatures who have no idea that they are about to be slaughtered in their thousands.

The farming minster claimed that a single badger sett can be home to a hundred or more badgers, as if the sheer numbers of the animals living in such close proximity to one another justified the army of marksmen that surely will be needed to carry out the deed. I wonder if the South West has enough gunmen prepared to do the job, and I wonder also how these gunmen will be able to sleep afterwards.

Those who speak of badgers as disease carriers that need to be exterminated for the greater good don’t fully understand that what’s at stake here is not simply eradication of tuberculosis infection in cattle, but eradication of a much deeper and more compassionate way of being.

The badger protest is a sign that people are prepared to take an ethical stand on cruelty, and that can only be healthy for all of us.

Yard Philosophy

18 04 2013


I studied philosophy as a mature student at Middlesex University and since graduating in 1999 I have been teaching some form of the subject as my main job. I love teaching philosophy. Sometimes it is difficult and demanding and requires me to concentrate harder than I think I can, but the rewards are always worth the mental effort.

 I’m now branching out with my teaching and leading philosophical enquiries in new settings including farms, barns and yards. Often in philosophy sessions the group ends up talking about animals. This week in a session with my A Level students I just happened to drop in a reference to cats and the room suddenly became electric as the students, well trained philosophers as they are now, furiously debated the merits of dogs over cats.

One line of argument was that dogs care more about humans because they share a house with us and rely on us to supply their needs whereas cats can come and go as they please. Cats don’t need us in the same way as dogs. So, my students argued, it seems that need is an essential ingredient in the devotion of dogs. Perhaps need is essential for devotion itself, but we didn’t get that far. We could easily have become absorbed in this topic. In the same way that we have been absorbed in the pressing philosophical question of whether Cheryl Cole is the epitome of female beauty, but we had to move on.

Given the delight and enthusiasm that animals provide as a focus for discussion, I’m starting a new philosophy project that invites people to think about animals in a deeper way. We live with our animals and they are part of our human community. The question that intrigues me is why we are so drawn to other species. What is it about a horse that compels us? A lot of my gifts at Christmas were horsey ones. I got a blanket, some horse mints (for when I’m feeling hoarse…) and a Spirit of the Horse calendar from my Mum. I’m not so good at flipping over the months. I feel comfortable with the familiarity of each particular month and get slightly stressed by going from one to another, but April’s quote was worth turning over for:

Wherever man has left his footprint in the long ascent from barbarism to civilization we will find the hoofprint of the horse beside it. – John Trotwood Moore.

Aside from loving that ‘Trotwood!’ I keep looking at the quote and wondering whether horses are still continuing in some way to civilize us. Compared to carriage horses of earlier centuries, farm horses, not to mention pit ponies and draught horses of all kinds, present day horses have lives of comparative ease. My horses largely do nothing all day while I toil away to keep them. Why do I go to all the trouble? What have horses given me? Bear in mind that I am asking this question five months after a severe knee injury meant riding my horse was off limits.

I’m going to argue that horses help us to understand what it means to be human. Horses complement our lives with their beauty, their power and their grace. We admire horses because they are a source of wonder to us, and that makes them perfect philosophical partners.

It was sluicing with rain for my first formal equine facilitated philosophy enquiry at Sirona Therapeutic Horsemanship and so contact with the horses was somewhat limited, but we still had plenty to puzzle over. Our chosen question: Do we have the right to tame animals? generated an enquiry that was rich, stimulating and varied.

Interestingly at the start of the enquiry we assumed that we did have the ‘right’ to tame animals merely by the fact that all the horses on the yard had been tamed and were animals working willingly with humans. So, the animals that we have tamed do not seem unhappy about it and therefore there was little scope for debate, but as the discussion deepened we asked a more nuanced version of the question which was: Do we have the right to educate animals? We wondered whether educating an animal still involved ‘squashing its spirit’ and some members of the enquiry thought that this was inevitable whereas others wondered whether animals even needed us around to educate them. Don’t they do a better job of it themselves?

Given ultimate freedom, would animals choose to be with us at all? Post enquiry, I’ve been mulling over this question during my brushing and muck clearing duties. I’ve been educating my horses for longer than a decade and my role remains a blend of teacher and slave. We’re pretty content in our small community of three and all get along well and take each other for granted as happens in many long-standing relationships. I’ve known my horses from birth and can track the arc of the first ten years of their ‘schooling.’

I know that they could have spent ten years in a field and bought themselves up, but if they had they wouldn’t be the horses they are today: they wouldn’t know how useful humans are for a start. They wouldn’t know that a human could climb on their back and take them somewhere they’ve never been before. They wouldn’t know how to trot at the click of a human voice. They wouldn’t know what it means to be friends with people.

Philosopher Mary Midgley argues elegantly that we live in a mixed community and that our ‘experience of animals is not a substitute for experience of people, but a supplement to it – something more which is needed for a full human life.’

I wonder whether this is also true of animals, especially horses in whose hoofprints we have walked for many years. Do they need us for a full animal life?

That question requires a longer philosophical ponder. I can feel the need for some more brushing and muck cleaning coming up.

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