The next best thing to vegetarianism

June 2, 2010 | By | 7 Replies More

Today I had the opportunity to discuss the meaning of life with St. Louis Activist Adam Shriver.

Adam mentioned that, a few months ago, he was invited to write an op-ed for the New York Times. The topic he examined was what we can do about the 100 pounds of meat the average American insists on eating every year. This situation raises moral red flags for many of us because it is rather clear that confined animals suffer painful bone and joint diseases. In his article, which he titled “Not Grass-Fed, but at Least Pain-Free,” Adam noted that mammals have two parallel pathways relating to pain:

[A] sensory pathway that registers its location, quality (sharp, dull or burning, for example) and intensity, and a so-called affective pathway that senses the pain’s unpleasantness. This second pathway appears to be associated with activation of the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex, because people who have suffered damage to this part of the brain still feel pain but no longer find it unpleasant.

This neurological situation, combined with the ability to genetically design mammals that lack  proteins  necessary for the perception of the sharpness of pain, presents a potential solution (or, rather, it presents a fascinating thought experiment):

If we cannot avoid factory farms altogether, the least we can do is eliminate the unpleasantness of pain in the animals that must live and die on them. It would be far better than doing nothing at all.

Adam’s tongue in cheek solution, then would be to continue to abuse the animals but to relive ourselves of moral queasiness by genetically modifying the animals so that they won’t hurt.

Adam’s article reminded me that I’ve sometimes wondered what most vegetarians would think if we could grow meat in test tubes, meat that was never connected to any sort of brain.  Imagine pounds and pounds of brainless meat coming out of big vats at a factory, the raw materials being mostly grass.   Before you answer, consider that I raised this topic a few years ago over lunch.  A woman in attendance was adamant that if we could develop veggie burgers that tasted as good as beef burgers, it would still be immoral for a committed vegetarian to enjoy that food.  A buddy and I looked on perplexed as she ranted at length.  She scowled and said, “If you created a meat substitute that had the shape and texture one would experience if eating a human baby, it would be immoral to eat it!”

Now I do think it’s creepy to contemplate eating anything resembling the texture and taste of human babies (I insist that I haven’t actually tried this delicacy), but in my book, eating something that is not a human baby is not anything like eating a human baby.    And consider too all of the people who play violent video games.  Is “killing” the image of an innocent person somewhat immoral, even just a bit?  And what about a man who fantasizes about having sex with children, or even creates his own drawings of nude children to enhance his fantasies?  Assume, further that he has never solicited a real-life child.  Is he immoral?  And imagine this:  imagine that someone at work really pissed you off.  Is it immoral, even a little bit, to imagine poisoning that person the next day at work?  What if this sort of fantasy actually kept you calmer and actually prevented you from being fiercely tempted from carrying out the murder?

Maybe I’m just too much enamored with thick black lines, but I believe that for something to be immoral (or criminal), one must actually do the forbidden act rather than fantasizing about or simulating doing the forbidden act.

Now, back to the eating of abused animals who couldn’t feel pain.   What if I could actually choose to buy such pain-free animal-meat at the grocery story?  Wouldn’t it be more moral to eat the pain-free animals than the animals who ached with joint pain?  It would seem so, even if it not perfectly morally commendable.

[Full disclosure:  I am a somewhat guilt ridden non-vegetarian.  Most of the meat I eat is chicken or turkey, though I do eat a hamburger every few weeks.]


Category: Food, Good and Evil, Meaning of Life

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (7)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. KennyCelican says:

    Only a few minutes before class, so this will be a bit abbreviated, but…

    Some people get caught up in whether things are immoral or not, rather than why things are immoral. Rather than values, they have a long, comprehensive list of rules. If anything falls outside those rules, they look for the rule that most closely fits and try to enforce it, whether it really fits or not.

    If your anti-meat sentiment comes from a nutrition standpoint, not much is going to change your opinion of meat, although meat substitute ought be ok as long as it's healthy. If it comes from an ecological standpoint, then pain-free really doesn't make a difference, but lab / vat grown might. If it comes from an animal cruelty standpoint, then pain-free ought fix that qualm.

    That last, by the way, ought to be called 'hitchiker meat'. Y'know, 'cause of the steaks at the restaurant at the end of the universe?

    Class now, must go, GREAT discussion topic.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Kenny: Thanks for yet another upbeat and thoughtful comment. Someday we ought to sit down to a real discussion over some sort of burger . . .

  2. Brynn Jacobs says:


    You should know that test-tube meat is already on the way.

    While it's indisputably true that factory-"farmed" meat is inhumane, wasteful, and polluting, all meat does not have to come from the giant food conglomerates that produce food in this manner. Many consumers are realizing the benefits of a return to locally (and humanely) raised food- whether fruit, vegetable, beef, chicken, etc…

    As Lierre Keith explains in her book, <span style="font-style: italic;">The Vegetarian Myth</span>, pastured animals are not only live healthier and happier lives, but the meat made from such animals is also healthier for those who consume it. See also Michael Pollan's <a style="font-style: italic;" href="; rel="nofollow">Omnivore's Dilemma.

    For example, grass-fed cattle are higher in Omega-3's, lower in saturated fat, and have as much as 80% less contamination with <span style="font-style: italic;">E. coli</span> bacteria than their grain-fed counterparts. (source)

    To the morality question, it seems a little silly for the vegetarian about whom you write to equate a tasty veggie-burger with actual meat-eating. What possible moral rule could there be that proscribes such things? As a recovered vegetarian myself, I'm aware that there are a great number of vegan or vegetarian products which are made specifically to imitate the experience of eating meat. Soy bacon, seitan "beef" jerky, Tofurky, and so on, <span style="font-style: italic;">ad nauseum</span> (sometimes literally!). Ersatz substitutes, certainly, but definitely meant to simulate the flavor and texture of eating actual meat. I'm quite sure that a large majority of vegetarians who consume these products would find no moral equivalence between these products and actual meat at all. I do know some vegetarians who avoid those products because they find them distasteful because they simulate meat a little <span style="font-style: italic;">too</span> well, but that's another issue.

  3. Adam says:

    Erich, thanks for this. One thing though: I wouldn't say it's "tongue in cheek" so much as "acutely aware of the serious limitations of the proposal." I am genuine, however, in thinking that *if* we are not going to eliminate factory farming in the near future, then we should consider this option, even though I'd prefer for industrialized agriculture to be eliminated altogether.

  4. Mark Magas says:

    Erich, I would like to address the issue of whether one should censure their own thoughts and partial actions. While I do not agree with the extremist vegetarian I do understand her logic.

    Consider Dr. Tiller. For many years "Christians" wished for, prayed for and joked about his execution. The killer knew that his actions were approved of by thousands. Do you agree with me that those who merely joked about the murder bear some responsibility? Does a person who tells racist jokes bear some responsibility for hate crimes? Old people like me can tell you we never repeat the jokes told by our fathers and their peers, we self censor.

    There is a dulling to morality. President Carter acknowledged this when he admitted to committing adultery in his heart.He knew that thinking, was the first step to accepting the action. Not equivalent but a necessary precursor.

    Consider a stripper(Yes, I am one of those guys who used to go and talk to them). Almost invariably they begin as a waitress. Slightly embarrassed to be scantily clad. Alcohol and drugs ease the anxiety. They usually intend to do just one private dance, then become dancers and then make the realization that prostitution is only a matter of degree.

    Your pedophile is indulging in his compulsion. With each repetition he is closer to action. So while thought should not be illegal it can be immoral.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Scientists claim to be on the verge of being able to manufacture passable fake chicken.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    In this post, I said "eating something that is not a human baby is not anything like eating a human baby."

    I eat my words. But who are these crazy people? This is almost disgusting. Or maybe it actually IS disgusting.

Leave a Reply