I don’t know what to eat.

When I was bartending during undergrad, I was also taking a class on Eastern Philosophy, which dealt mostly with Eastern religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, etc). I came across Buddhism a couple of years earlier through Alan Watts, who was recommended to me by a friend. The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Watts changed my life and was the reason for me taking the Eastern philosophy class. However, taking the class was conflicting with my work. Buddhism teaches the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path. I was having a problem with the Eight fold path: http://www.zenguide.com/principles/eight_fold_path.cfm. The fourth precept states “right action” which means that one should refrain from actions that harm others and to respect others’ rights. The fifth precept states “right livelihood” which states that one should avoid jobs that harm animals or others. As a bartender, I was feeding people the flesh of slaughtered animals along with “intoxicants”, so I began to worry about my karma. I struggled with this dilemma the entire time I worked in the restaurant business. It was also during this time, because of this class, that I tried to be a vegetarian (which lasted about three weeks). This week’s readings bring me back to those moments in my life. These simple Buddhist precepts are still applicable, and when coupled with Singer’s pragmatic approach, all this leads to the ethical conclusion that I must stop eating animals.

Peter Singer elucidates the problem I have with eating animals, which is the question of suffering. The problem is not that the animal dies; as Singer, in another essay, points out: “in what way is painless, unanticipated killing wrong in itself” (88). The problem is that the animal does suffer. Safran Foer’s book is filled with examples of chickens with breast so big they can’t stand, cows that scream as their calves are taken away, and turkeys and pigs that can no longer survive in the wild nor reproduce naturally because of how much science has manipulated their genes. These genetic cruelties along with the unnecessarily cruel killing methods of these animals leave me with a very real ethical problem. Singer’s question is one of the driving forces of my problem: it is not the killing that bothers me, it is the suffering (Singer 28). For instance, a study in 1996 found that slaughterhouses:
were unable to regularly render cattle unconscious with a single blow. The USDA, the federal agency charged with enforcing humane slaughter, responded to these numbers not by stepping up enforcement, but by changing the policy to cease tracking the number of humane slaughter violations and removing any mention of humane slaughter from its list of rotating task for inspectors (Foer 230).

Knowing this happens—that the USDA doesn’t care about treating our food humanely nor sanitarily—exacerbates my problems with continuing to eat meat. I would like to know that the animals I eat are, at least, killed quickly and painlessly, but that is certainly not the case.

Furthermore, I can no longer deny the ethical call of the face of the (animal) other. Emmanuel Levinas posits that ethics is first philosophy, so all philosophical thinking must begin in ethics. Levinas states that I exist in a world among alien entities that are “other than” me. In this world, “I take precedence over the various objects I find around me…. I learn to manipulate and control them to my advantage, either as the member of a group which I identify with myself or simply as myself alone” (Lingis 12). Therefore, as a member of the human race, I control and take advantage of animal others in order to satisfy my palette. Other philosophers, from Hegel to Sartre, have dealt with the other, but Levinas argues that these philosophical systems either reduce the other to a version of myself (make him the same as me), or I categorize the other and justify my power over him (totalize the other). However, Levinas’s philosophy is one of “transendence,” in which when I encounter the face of the other, I am obliged to respond to the other. When I meet a person, Levinas asserts, I can either try to make the other into the same (into me, assimilate the other) and stay within my group that I identify with, or I can transcend by trying to speak to the other—encounter the other in the other’s infinite transcendence. However, humans feel that because of rationale, logic, language, or some other thing that humans have that animals don’t, that humans get to use and treat animals however they see fit. But why not extend this Levinasian ethic towards the animal?

Because I do not face the (animal) other directly and see its suffering, I continue to eat meat. However, because of the suffering that animals go through, outlined so vividly in Foer and Singer, and because of the rational calls to vegetarianism by Foer and Singer, I can no loner in good conscious eat meat, which is not to say that I can easily just cut out meat completely from my diet. This point is something Singer explores well. It reminds me of so many friends who begin to workout so intensely the first week that by the time the second week starts, they are so sore and discouraged they quit altogether. Singer, rather, rationalizes that this big life change is something that needs to be handled in stages. Whether it is because of karma or the ethical call of the face of the other or the very real ecological problems of eating meat, I know that I can no longer partake in it. Ethics is never easy. Levinas teaches that even when faced with seemingly easy ethical questions we must always be anxious that we are doing right—a lesson outlined by Garret Hardin and explored deeper by Avital Ronell.

I am always anxious that I am not doing enough for the other, and that other should include animals.

Works Cited
Coetzee, J. M., and Peter Singer. “Reflections: Peter Singer.” The Lives of Animals. Ed. Amy
Gutmann. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999. 85-91. Print.

Examined Life. Dir. Astra Taylor. Perf. Avital Ronell. Zeitgeist Films, 2008. Youtube.com.
Zeitgeistfilms.com. Web. 30 Sept. 2011.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown and, 2009. Print.

Levinas, Emanuel. Totality and Infinity: an Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis.
Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne UP, 1961. Print.