There is probably no better illustration of the radical nature of the Middle Way than the question of meat. For meat, at least in the West, is conventional, it is often regarded as middle-of-the-road, and, despite much recent progress, it is still vegetarians and vegans who are taken to be the antisocial extremists making a fuss in restaurants. Perhaps more conventional now than old-fashioned incomprehension of why anyone should not want to eat meat is the belief that it is just a private matter – a personal preference that need not affect those who choose differently. I argue, on the contrary, that it is the belief that it is generally justifiable to eat meat (and other animal products) that is extreme. Not (yet) extreme in conventional terms, but extreme in the sense of being closely associated with metaphysical dogmas that alienate us from our experience. For the continued consumption of meat and other animal products, in the face of the facts that any vegetarian organisation will be keen to tell you – about animal suffering, human suffering, land use, water use, energy use, and health effects (for example, see viva) -relies only on the appeal to a set of dogmas.
These dogmas can be simplified into the two most common overarching ones: the dogma of Nature and the dogma of hedonism. I don’t think I have yet heard a defence of eating animal products that did not invoke one of these two in some way, but of course I could still be surprised by new arguments.
The dogma of Nature is the belief that eating animal products is justified because it is natural, and what is natural is good. There is a theistic version of this, in which God designed humans to have a certain nature, which included eating meat, and there is a non-theistic version, which may appeal to tradition, culture, or selective anatomy to justify the belief that eating animal products is natural. Unfortunately many vegetarians implicitly accept this dogma too by arguing that eating meat is unnatural and therefore bad. However, nobody who invokes nature is able to provide any useful understanding of how we would know what is natural or not, let alone why this should be the basis of moral judgement. The fact that it can be just as easily invoked by either side in the meat debate is a good indication of how infinitely manipulable the word is. It means virtually nothing except a vague appeal to a source of approval beyond oneself or beyond the limitations of merely human choice. It tries to get us out of responsibility for our actions, rather than realising that responsibility lies in our own integration.
The other type of meaty dogma is the dogma of hedonism. “I like meat, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t eat it?” is the blunt message. Probably those who offer such a message rarely think through its implications. Do they really believe that liking or enjoying something is a justification by itself for doing it, whatever the effects? Obviously if you enjoy mass murder then there will be no problem, then. Perhaps the underlying appeal is really just to social convention again. They don’t see why they shouldn’t consume something they enjoy, so long as society approves.
As always, then, the apparently opposed two extremes to be avoided by the Middle Way turn out to have a close connection with each other – to be not just counter-dependent but interdependent. Both have nothing to offer but the dogmas that support group membership, whether the group is a traditionalist group or an apparently freethinking hedonistic group. To invoke “nature” is just another way of invoking social approval through the limitless approval of a vague absolute, but just to prioritise pleasure just invokes another absolute – the value of the ego’s immediate identifications and satisfactions – insofar as this, too, is approved by the group.
Somewhere in between these two dogmas we all have the capacity to face up to the conditions. The facts are pretty plain: so plain that I feel no need to rehearse them all here. These facts are also part of a rapidly worsening picture: an impending world food crisis partly driven by increased demand for meat amongst the rising classes of China and India. The world would be a lot better off in a great many respects if we all stopped eating animal products. It would be considerably better off, also, if we just considerably cut down on animal products. If we only leave the market to do this, of course this choice will be forced on the poor, but the rich will continue to destroy the environment through consuming unnecessary animal produce as long as they can.
This failure to face the facts is directly attributable to our attachment to metaphysics. Not only do we all need to let go of these metaphysical beliefs by subjecting them to critical thinking, retrain our amazingly flexible palates and start eating in a sane way, we also need political action. The world food crisis is just as much of a problem as global warming (and is worsened by it), yet discouraging meat-eating is on nobody’s agenda. There are also powerful vested interests who would fight any political action. The obvious way to go is a large tax on meat across the Western world, with the money raised being used by governments to help farmers and meat processors adapt their practices and find new more sustainable livelihoods, and consumers change their habits. There is an epetition on the UK government site for a meat tax with a pathetic 4 signatures (one of which is mine). Do sign it if you are a UK citizen. It’s not a question of converting to vegetarianism or veganism all at once, or of becoming pure, or even of thinking that meat is bad in itself: It’s just a matter of letting go of dogmas and facing up to conditions.
For more detailed arguments on the ethics see A New Buddhist Ethics: chapter 6
For more on nature see concept article
For more on the world food crisis, see this Guardian report and also this one. It’s astonishing how little attention this major threat to the lives of billions of people gets in the media, and even in the news reports how little attention the role of meat is given because of dogmatic resistance to changing our eating habits.
Picture: William Hogarth: The Roast Beef of Old England (public domain)