Terrance Heath

Chicken Wings & Moral Choices

Filed By Terrance Heath | March 10, 2008 11:44 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Media
Tags: Vegetarian

Kip has posed an interesting question, and since he noted me as one of two vegetarians among his readership, I thought ought to join the discussion.

So I was sitting in my undisclosed location a few days ago, cleaning out my aggregator and listening to the radio, when I heard a commercial -- for what I cannot recall -- that contained, give or take a word or two, the following pronouncement:

I'm a vegetarian. A man once offered me $50 to eat a buffalo wing. I decided that my morality was worth more than that.

It seems to me that this woman, by refusing to take the money, is actually declaring that her morality is worth less than $50, and indeed worth zero.

Interesting question. Of course, Kip has more.

First, an important premise: The buffalo wing in question must already exist, have been prepared, must be eaten immediately, etc. It must be, in economic terms, a sunk cost. By eating the buffalo wing, our vegetarian would therefore not be expanding the market for buffalo wings and would not cause any additional buffalos to be killed or go wingless.* The choice is binary: (1) eat the wing and get $50, or (2) someone else eats the wing (or the wing goes into the garbage, etc.). There is no "(3) save a buffalo."

If that is the choice, then wouldn't the moral course of action be to eat the buffalo wing, take the $50 -- and donate it to some pro-vegetarian or anti-meat cause (or, for that matter, to any noble cause as determined by the vegetarian's subjective tastes and preferences)? By forgoing $50 -- or even $0.01 -- that could have furthered her morality without any offsetting cost (remember the premise), isn't the vegetarian in fact declaring that her morality is worthless?

The only true cost is opportunity cost. The opportunity cost of not eating the buffalo wing may have been $50 -- but that's the wrong opportunity cost to measure. Since the opportunity cost of indeed eating the buffalo wing was not $50 but zero, the value of the vegetarian's morality must also be zero. Q.E.D.

Good grief. How about this? I wouldn't eat the wing because I don't want to. I even when I was a meat eater — some 16 years or so ago — I didn't eat buffalo wings. So, why start now?

That said, the morality question is interesting. If, by eating the wing (for that matter you could make it a hamburger), according to Kip's logic I would not be contributing to the system (factory farming, etc.) that produced it, because the wing had already been produced, prepared, paid for, etc.

On, then, to the question of morality. I've long since thrown up my hands over the morality issue. Perhaps it has something to do with being married to a meat-eater.

Sharing meals has always been an important courtship ritual and a metaphor for love. But in an age when many people define themselves by what they will eat and what they won't, dietary differences can put a strain on a romantic relationship. The culinary camps have become so balkanized that some factions consider interdietary dating taboo.

No-holds-barred carnivores, for example, may share the view of Anthony Bourdain, who wrote in his book "Kitchen Confidential" that "vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans ... are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit."

Returning the compliment, many vegetarians say they cannot date anyone who eats meat. Vegans, who avoid eating not just animals but animal-derived products, take it further, shivering at the thought of kissing someone who has even sipped honey-sweetened tea.

"Honey-sweetened tea?" Oh please. I've kissed my husband after he's just finished off an entire steak. Everyone needs to just calm the hell down a little.

And, yes, I know what's at stake— or at steak, depending on how you want to look at it.

A SEA change in the consumption of a resource that Americans take for granted may be in store -- something cheap, plentiful, widely enjoyed and a part of daily life. And it isn't oil.

The two commodities share a great deal: Like oil, meat is subsidized by the federal government. Like oil, meat is subject to accelerating demand as nations become wealthier, and this, in turn, sends prices higher. Finally -- like oil -- meat is something people are encouraged to consume less of, as the toll exacted by industrial production increases, and becomes increasingly visible.

Global demand for meat has multiplied in recent years, encouraged by growing affluence and nourished by the proliferation of huge, confined animal feeding operations. These assembly-line meat factories consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has led to the destruction of vast swaths of the world's tropical rain forests.

I've seen Earthlings, Meet Your Meat, 45 days, Frankensteer, and Fast Food Nation. I also read Fast Food Nation, My Year of Meats (fun read, by the way), and Mad Cowboy. I also know that grocery shopping is like walking through a minefield, and unfortunately being a vegetarian won't protect me.

So I try, at least, not to be a self-righteous vegetarian. Maybe that's because my initial reason was, as Kip put it, "selfish."

I realize that there are people who are vegetarians strictly for ("selfish") health considerations and not out of ("selfless") moral concerns. For the purposes of this blogpost, however, you do not exist. Sorry.

Initially, I became a vegetarian for health reasons. I thought it would be better for me in the long run. At the time, heart disease and high cholesterol were cutting a swath through my family, and I decided that I would do something to avoid it if I could. (That was when I assumed vegetarian meant "healthy." It does not, necessarily. After all, one can be a vegetarian and eat nothing but ice cream and potato chips.)

It wasn't until I became interested in Buddhism that my vegetarianism took on a moral aspect. I decided that, in addition to health reasons, I did not want to be part of or contribute to a system that caused unecessary suffering to living beings. (Unnecessary for me, at least, because I discovered I could live without meat.) But I came up against some moral conflicts there. My years as an HIV/AIDS educator and activist made me realize that I couldn't stand against any and all animal testing, for example. Perhaps it's selfish, but if it means a medicine or treatment that will keep someone I love alive and healthy...well, I want that.

It was that conflict and my continued study of Buddhism that brought me around to tempering any moralizing about being vegetarian.

It wasn't until I came across a book called "Wake up and Cook : Kitchen Buddhism in Words and Recipes." I picked it up just as I was starting to study Buddhism on my own. It contained a discussion of Buddhism and vegetarianism that helped me put the two in the context. I'd begun to see -- and to some extent still do -- my own vegetarianism as an expression of the first precept; avoiding the taking of life. In that sense, it would be easy to be judgmental towards people who do eat meat, but this book argued for a more balanced view.

The book is packed away in a box right now, with most of my other books, so I can't reproduce it's argument here. But it basically boiled down to the reality that all meals, particularly in the modern world, involve the taking of life; sometimes on a massive scale. This link to UrbanDharma.Org sums it up pretty well.

The issue of meat eating raises difficult ethical questions. Isn't the meat in a supermarket or restaurant killed "for" us? Doesn't meat eating entail killing by proxy?

Few of us are in a position to judge meat eaters or anyone else for "killing by proxy." Being part of the world economy entails "killing by proxy" in every act of consumption. The electricity that runs our computers comes from facilities that harm the environment. Books of Buddhist scriptures are printed on paper produced by an industry that destroys wildlife habitat. Worms, insects, rodents and other animals are routinely killed en masse in the course of producing the staples of a vegetarian diet. Welcome to samsara. It is impossible for most of us to free ourselves from this web; we can only strive to be mindful of entanglement in it. One way to do so is to reflect on how the suffering and death of sentient beings contributes to our comfort. This may help us to be less inclined to consume out of mere greed.

All of that having been said, it cannot be denied that the economic machine which produces meat also creates fear and suffering for a large number of animals. It is useful to bear this in mind even if one consumes meat, to resist developing a habit of callousness. Many Buddhists (especially Mahayanists) practice vegetarianism as a means of cultivating compassion.

...So, every meal we take, whether it includes meat or not, is basically death on a plate.

Besides, given the working conditions in China and other places where the goods we buy are made, I'm not just "eating suffering." I'm wearing suffering. I'm carrying it around, attached to my hip. It's an inescapable part of just being in the world we live in. (Or should I say, the world we've made for ourselves?) At best, I can be aware of it and, when I can, avoid consciously contributing to it. But the reality is that I contribute to it every day, without even trying. Just like everyone else. And it doesn't matter what I eat.

It's a moral choice, sure. But it's one that I contradict in countless ways everyday; probably several times an hour, at least, inevitably. It's something I have to put into perspective. The perspective I choose is, "I do what I can." Emphasis on "I" and "can".

So, the morality doesn't really come down to eating meat. At least, not for me. It's more about taking money to do something with my body that I don't want to do or wouldn't do anyway. Sounds a little like prostitution, I guess. But, then, I think prostitution should be legal anyway, for those who want to pursue that line of work.

So, no, I wouldn't eat the buffalo wing. First, because I don't want to. I never liked them anyway. Second, it's not something I want to do to my body, especially given how my body might react after not eating meat for 16-plus years.

As for the $50. It's $50 I didn't have anyway. Maybe I would just take the offer as a reminder to make a donation to the animal welfare organization of my choice, in the amount of $50.


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Oh my. I don't think that it's a smart move for libertarians to be doling out morality advice. It's not really their forte; there's something else that starts with an "m" and ends with a "y" that they're more concerned with...

And this isn't about Kip. He's lovely and I like his blog and I like it when he participates here. But I'm just saying that his argument is very libertarian with a small "l," and that's not going to work for me.

Notice how he just erases any other reason to be vegetarian besides "Killing animals is wrong." Sure, he notes it, but it reminds me of too many other libertarian arguments - erase what doesn't work with your conclusion and keep on trudging.

Your reasoning, Terrance, is closer to why I'm vegetarian (and was vegan, for a while) than any single reason. I started a couple of years ago, it was about global economics, environmentalism, etc. Now it's a lot more personal, it's a form of practicing, reminding myself of my values several times a day.

I don't know how that works into an Enlightenment "morality" narrative that uses textual logic to replace judgment and emotion....

It's interesting because I get asked all the time to explain why I'm vegetarian here in France because French people just aren't vegetarian. It probably has a lot to do with the reason Michel Foucault was so much more popular in the US even though he was French - the will to create categories around language and let them define what's possible and what's not, what's forbidden and what's not, is a lot stronger in the US. Here it's like, if you don't like meat, fine, don't eat it, but you don't need to create an identity around it.

As for the buffalo wing, I wouldn't have eaten it either. And it has nothing to do with the wing. Being offered money to eat something you don't like or wouldn't have otherwise eaten is degrading. It's what 7th graders do in the cafeteria, not adults at restaurants.

Well, maybe for a steak dinner. But , certainly not for chicken wings.

Oh god, only meat-eaters ever discuss stupid hypotheticals like this crap.

People who are defensive about eating meat will try to invent a thousand different senarios, no matter how unlikely, just to find one that proves vegitarians aren't perfect 100% of the time. Being able to do this is like a defensive meat-eater's wet dream. Which of course they use as an excuse to validate the fact that they never even try to reduce their animal consumption in the first place.

And if it's immoral for me to pass up $50 that could be donated to an animal rights organization, isn't it even worse for the guy who bought the meat and isn't going to donate $50 to an animal shelter?

Nick, I realize that there were two people in that scenario, and, logically, both their moral culpability would be up for debate. For the purposes of this blog discussion, however, the buffalo wing wielding man's morality is beyond reproach. Sorry.

I took a different path, Terrance. I started as a vegetarian (back in 1995) for primarily moral reasons. But since then, I've moved toward atheism in my spirituality, yet continue to avoid (most) meat anyway. Primarily because of what it would do to my system is I started eating it again. Occasionally, someone slips some meat into a "vegetarian" party platter, thinking it's funny to trick the vegetarian into eating meat. I don't think those assholes have any idea how much I'll be paying for it later. I wonder why carnivores are so threatened by vegetarians that they pull tricks like that and engage in the kind of $50 dares described in this post.

Morality tells me to just log out.

Being offered money to eat something you don't like or wouldn't have otherwise eaten is degrading. It's what 7th graders do in the cafeteria, not adults at restaurants.

My thoughts exactly. The fact that someone is unwilling to degrade themselves for a mere $50 might be a sign that they have enough class privilege not to be desperate, but it is certainly not an indicator that they hold their beliefs to be worthless. In fact, the original radio commercial seemed to be saying that they held their values to be much higher than $50. Whether they were holding out for $100, or $500, or $1,000,000, we don't really know. But any kind of econ theory mumbo-jumbo that can turn that around and say that this person's values are worth $0 is a complete failure of logic.

Battybattybats | March 10, 2008 8:46 PM

"I don't know how that works into an Enlightenment "morality" narrative that uses textual logic to replace judgment and emotion...."

I don't really see how you can define judgment without logic. Existentially that would be 'bad faith'. Rationally it would be be poor or false judgment. Psychologically it would be allowing the unconcious to make the choice and engaging higher thought only in justifying the choice rather than in making the choice.

Anyway, I will give an enlightenment argument for vegetarianism.

Scientific evidence supports the existence of emotions and personalities in even simple short lived insects like worker bees and worker ants. The definition of sentience and free will as particularly human is an arbitrary and dubious assertion under clear assault from the scientific evidence.

Therfore if animals are sentient then they have intrinsic rights. Therefore they have a right to autonomy, to consent and a right to life. Until we can communicate with them then we cannot obtain their consent and so cannot assume it.

Therefore our relationship to all animal life would fall into the same catagory as our relationship with someone who's capacity to consent or to communicate thier consent is undeveloped or impaired eg someone drunk, mentally ill, brain-damaged or a child.

So we become responsible for the well being of them and that is clearly defined morally and ethicly. Exploiting or eating them would be clearly unethical.

So there you go, one simple cogent enlightenment argument for vegetarianism.

I agree with Terrance's choice. Just make a $50 donation to the charity of your choice and refuse the wing. Or take the wing and give it to a local dog or something...

I'm with Nick:

"only meat-eaters ever discuss stupid hypotheticals like this crap."