Meal times are uncomfortable at my house. For the past few years, I have rarely been able to cook without realizing that every time I select meat from the grocery store, I am participating in a slaughter of animals that takes place far away from sight and all too often from mind. I am not a vegetarian, which would be the easiest solution to my guilt. Currently, I’m the “eat meat sparingly” kind, though I do it in times of summer and plenty as well as winter and famine. But our Word of Wisdom and scriptures make it clear that we should eat meat sparingly and that we have stewardship over the earth. So, my question is, excluding the possibility of vegetarianism, how exactly should we decide which animals die so that we can live? I’m taking it as a given that we should only buy meat from those who treat animals ethically.
Currently, I employ several different approaches to make this decision, each of which highlights a different way of forming moral judgments. The approach that most frequently wins out for me is to select for my food those animals that least resemble humans. Mammals are higher than chickens that are in turn higher than fish on my list of protected species, because mammals seem more likely to me to experience human emotion and suffering. But let’s be honest: when it comes down to it, I just don’t want to kill cute animals like lambs. Call me a cuteitarian.
At other times I try to gauge the impact of what I eat on the entire ecosystem. Although fish trouble me the least to eat from an emotional perspective, it is hard to escape the environmental reality that many fish, such as Chilean Sea Bass (which became popular after its name was changed from Patagonian Toothfish), are being over-fished and are becoming endangered. See the Environmental Defense Fund for a guide to which fish are best choices to eat. (Goodbye, cheap salmon.) On the other hand, cows also take their toll on the environment, since we need to produce a substantial amount of grain just to feed them.
Finally, I am motivated by numerical calculations. Only one cow needs to die to feed several families, but about six shrimp need to die to form an individual meal. I puzzle at times how I should weight these deaths – probably I need to consider the species reproductive patterns, their levels of intelligence, and their impact on other organisms in the ecosystem – but at a glance, it does seem that the death of one large animal goes farther.
Finally, I should point out that respect for nature is found even amongst people who don’t always share my belief (which stems from a tradition in which animals are pets) that animals have emotions that deserve respect, too. I have discovered that people who engage in fishing and hunting, while not as sympathetic to arguments that advocate respect for animals’ suffering and emotion, are frequently amongst the strongest supporters of sustainable ecosystems. At some point, I need to consider the impact that my choices have on human farmers as well, and recognize that many people around the world would find my ability to select my food “victims” at all something of a luxury.
This isn’t a post that offers solutions, but I do invite you to weigh in.