Tuesday, August 4, 2009

My Omnivore's Dilemma

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a great book, but anyone reading this blog has probably known that for about a year now. I read about two thirds of it last summer, but then school started, and I never got to read the last 150 pages or so. But now I did, and they were really the best part of the book. The last third (or perhaps half) of the book covered Pollan’s trip to Polyface Farm in Virginia, where he encountered the most delicious sounding meat I’ve ever read about, and his "hunter-gatherer" meal.

Pollan’s thoughts on the ethics of eating animals in general are also described in detail in the last half, and they seem to somewhat parallel my own feelings on the subject, although he is certainly more eloquent. I have never really had a justification for why I eat meat, but it never seemed wrong to me. I think it’s maybe because my general philosophy on eating has become “eat the things that people have been eating for thousands of years”, and meat is firmly within that category. Pollan doesn’t necessarily advocate the eating of meat, but he does provide what seems like a coherent argument against a moral prohibition of the act.

One important argument that he makes against the “animal rightists” as he calls them addresses the equivalence that is drawn between animal and human life. I haven’t read Animal Liberation Peter Singer, and perhaps I should instead of accepting Pollan’s characterization of his position as purely “utilitarian”. However, according to Pollan, one argument advanced by a utilitarian position such as Singer’s is that we should grant the same rights to a chimp, a dog, or a pig as we would to humans because, in fact, many chimps are more intelligent and capable of emotion than either young or under-developed human beings. So Pollan poses the question of animal testing: If we must test a medical product on a mammal, should we do it to rats or retarded humans?

The answer is obvious, of course, but it does address what seems to be the logical extension of a utilitarian argument that envisions complete equivalence between species. Despite how awesome monkeys are and how bad I want one to be my friend, they are not humans no matter how closely we are related. We feel a certain connection to other humans that we do not naturally feel with other animals, and it's probably not a coincidence.

Pollan also addresses animal happiness, which in the case of domestic animals is probably best represented by a life on Polyface farm. Yes, they die in the end, but chickens don’t survive so well in the wild, either. So if we end consumption of the meat of domestic animals, that could very well lead to the extinction of one or more domestic animals...Is that a good thing? Pollan points out that these animals have evolved to become dependent on humans, and it was, at least until recently, a successful evolutionary adaptation.

Something that Pollan mentions, which I don’t think he needed to, is the “Vegetarian’s Dilemma”. He says that he feels like a burden on people when he goes to their house for dinner, and that vegetarianism makes life more complicated or more difficult or something, etc.

But…really? I don’t see this at all with my vegetarian friends. In fact, I enjoy accommodating them because it makes me cook new vegetarian things that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I don’t necessarily think anything is lost by not eating meat, as Pollan seems to imply, but I also don’t see any moral reason not to. But I think it's becoming more and more well known that Americans eat too much meat. And in the current state of our food system and environment, the more vegetarians the better. More restaurants offering more vegetarian options, more people eating vegetarian meals at home, and more people just being exposed to the reasons to not eat meat would be an improvement.

Anyway, read the book if you haven’t, or if you’re too lazy, go see the movie version. And ya know what’s good either vegetarian or omnivorous? BURRITOS.

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