Putting the Dog in Dogma: Is Meat Eating A ‘Personal Choice’?

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When Goethe wrote what would evolve into the familiar adage, ‘He who knows one, knows none,’ he wished to express that the capability to understand language requires a point of comparison. It is a compelling conviction that to attempt an understanding of our own language is a wasted project if we are simultaneously confined by it, unable to step outside of it and approach it with any kind of objectivity. The intuitive truth of this observation was subsequently recognised by Max Müller, who in 1873 invoked these words when founding his ‘science of religion’, applying it to belief systems more broadly and arguing that to analyse an ideology requires an acquaintance with alternative perspectives on the world and the labour of their comparative study.

Yet what of ideological principles that fail to make themselves known to those who internalise them? It is one thing to (uncontroversially) suggest that we cannot hope to evaluate the legitimacy of an ideology without placing amongst and against competing understandings; it is quite another to grasp that we may not always even recognise the presence of an ideology, even one in desperate need of justification, regardless of its popularity or importance. Such creeds are undoubtedly the most pernicious, given their elusiveness and subtlety in moulding our practical doctrines, and time spent attempting to exile their influence from our catalogue of thought is never time wasted. Dr. Melanie Joy claims to have identified one such ideology, coining and exposing the influence of ‘carnism’ in her lucid book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows.

One tool we can reliably use in attempting to uncover the influence of unspoken ideologies in shaping our behaviour is to be always diligent in looking out for dogmatic tendencies within our thinking and justifications for our general practices. It is dogma that buttresses false ideologies under the threatening weight of truth; for such ideologies to be sustained they must either ignore or contradict those observations and reflections which demonstrate their untruth, holding fast to the principles that such observations expose as fraudulent. This is dogma: doctrines not only unquestioned but unquestionable; accepted truths made impenetrable by sociopolitical, rather than argumentative, force.

One of the defining characteristics of dogma is therefore its allowance and reliance on self-contradiction, making this a useful red flag in our search for hidden ideologies that ought not be guiding our operations. When a contradiction in a person’s behaviour or beliefs is exposed, their reaction will indicate whether it is dogmatic in origin. Contradictions cannot, by definition, be honestly maintained, and so any continuation of their belief, or deflection of their consideration, is a trustworthy indicator of some implicit—and faulty—ideological motives at play.

This in mind, consider Dr. Joy’s thought experiment. You are attending a dinner party hosted by a friend, who provides you with an exceptionally well-made stew. Requesting the recipe, you are told to begin with three pounds of well seasoned golden retriever meat, and before the rest of the ingredients can even be listed you have likely spat out the chunks of dog you had been enjoying. Disgraced, you refuse to continue eating the stew (despite, it is worth reminding the reader, of its extraordinarily flavoursome taste). Yet this is all a practical joke—of course you haven’t been fed dog meat, your host just thought it would be funny to scare you, and has in fact served you with the flesh of an ordinary cow.

Perhaps you would remain unnerved. More likely you would laugh in relief before apologising for the mess and continuing your meal. It would, of course, be patronising to attempt to explain the point of constructing this scenario, or why future generations will be so utterly bemused by its accuracy, especially when our current love and appreciation for man’s best friend is not merely some detached, philosophical respect for their moral worth, but an active and expressive adoration for them strong enough that they are granted legal protection from abuse and are often used as a defining characteristic of a person’s interests on social media and dating sites. (Are you a cat person or a dog person? Perhaps you are both. But then, what if I am referring to them here as food, rather than pets?)

What can we make of the fact that a meat eater does not concede this moral contradiction (indeed, most are deeply offended at the mere suggestion of chowing down on a poodle, failing to notice how this only strengthens the case against their own dietary choices)? What might we call a belief or justification that refuses to change after a contradiction in its justification is exposed? This is the creeping influence of carnism, an unacknowledged ideological force that as a moral community we yet rely on to reconcile our ‘love’ for animals with our treatment of those we would rather not think of who end up as carcasses on butcher hooks, and which must ultimately rely on dogmatism to avoid immediate collapse under the most rudimentary ethical analysis.

The most common dogmatic principle underlying carnism can be summarised in the boring chant, ‘Eating meat is a personal choice.’ This may also appear in the variant form, ‘I have no problem with vegans, but they should respect my diet, too.’ In their most naked manifestation, such assertions can be translated as follows: conventional limitations on freedom and choice that we have agreed to place on our relationships with other humans (and, indeed, some lucky nonhumans) can be arbitrarily lifted when applied to our relationship with those animals we like the taste, feel, or convenience of.

Imagine providing a moral argument against any other practice or behaviour (from petty theft and adultery to abduction or murder), which someone had been explicitly defending or implicitly condoning, to be met only with the empty recitation that such behaviour is ‘a personal choice’. This is either to be taken literally, as a descriptive statement that acting in the manner in question is motivated by the practitioners own volition—as if that were news to anybody, and is if any conscious action, whether moral, immoral, or amoral, were not similarly actuated—or it is to be taken as an assertion that a person ought to possess the right to exercise such actions, which is nothing but a deaf and unreflective restatement of the original position, not a response to its criticism.

The doctrine of ‘live and let live’ has always tacitly contained the assumption of Mill’s celebrated harm principle (without which this pithy maxim could be used to defend, among other favourite examples of vegan philosophers, the freedom of slaveholders to justify their title). You can do as you wish (and mine or anyone else’s permission here is naturally superfluous) in your private life, provided your doing so is not at the expense of your fellow creature’s ability to do the same. You may similarly eat, wear, or mount whatever tempts you to do so, provided your doing so is not at the expense of your fellow creature’s basic rights. (The negative strength of how little anybody really cares about another’s food choices is surely most noticeable when watching a friend photograph their meal for social media; it’s not your choice of food we care about, it’s from where (better: from whom) you procured it.)

When YouTuber Brooke Houts accidentally uploaded to her channel a video in which she repeatedly hits her dog in anger at its intrusiveness while she was trying to film, her online career was burned to the ground. In the past month she has lost four thousand subscribers, even five months after the offending video was released. Who would dare argue that beating a pet is a personal choice that she should be entitled to enact upon? Who would casually remark that we should ‘live and let live’ and reserve our judgement since we cannot expect everybody to live up to the demanding standards of animal ethics?

Yet while Miss Houts is guilty only of hitting her dog, and while an anonymous mob continues to condemn her behaviour as impossible to by any means excuse, a circus of incalculably crueller confinement, torture, and extermination of equally intelligent creatures remains in constant operation due to the general inability and unwillingness to see through these tired ‘personal choice’ sophisms that would be so easily dismissed if only consistently applied to our beloved canines, rather than the pigs or cows whose flesh we are addicted to eating.

Instead, the contradiction is ignored, or obfuscated, and anybody who insists on exposing it is labelled as evangelical or extreme. Yet what is more extreme than the conditions in which we keep our nonhuman evolutionary cousins? What is more clandestinely evangelical than the silent force of carnism, which has convinced the world not only that meat and dairy is necessary to sustain a healthy lifestyle, but also that we are justified in treating animals as unfeeling commodities in order to produce them?

It is and forever has been a personal choice whether or not to exploit animals for taste, convenience, fashion, cosmetics, and indeed anger management. It is equally true that the choice should be an obvious one.

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5 comments

  1. People don’t like being told what they are doing is wrong. Especially if they are somewhat aware of not having the better arguments. Changing habits is difficult and one which is so deeply engraved into our societies like the consumption of meat will take a long time to get rid of.

    The sad thing is, even people who consider themselves as rational and highly educated start boring jokes and insults as soon as you mention your own vegan diet. They fight against gender inequality, climate change and many other things but can’t make the additional step to change their diets as well although this would have profound positive effects.
    It’s difficult to make people realize the many problems associated with their diet, especially if they are not already prone to listen to your arguments.

    On a side note: I really like the way Montaigne put the relationship between animals and humans in one of his writings:

    “There is a certain respect, and a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants. We owe justice to men, and mercy and kindness to other creatures that may be capable of receiving it. There is some relationship between them and us, and some mutual obligation.”

    Maybe one day we will see this happen.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. How about a third option: meat eater who is *happy* to concede a moral contradiction, yet doesn’t become vegan?
    Alex, what can you say to persuade this person to abandon their “false ideology”?

    Like

  3. It is self evident that the sheep in the paddock across the road from me live the life of kings and queens in comparison to the native animals in my paddock, which I have converted back to nature.

    The kangaroos, echidnas and so on that live in my paddock are infested with parasites such as worms and ticks. The few that make it to adulthood get ripped to shred by predators or die a slow death from thirst and hunger.

    Sometimes foxes and wild dogs will tear chunks of flesh off the wild animals in my paddock but not kill them. The suffering involved is shocking. Nature is a callous and inhumane death march.

    Some will say my neighbour’s sheep will eventually be killed and eaten by humans, and this violates their right to life. I say this claim is anthropomorphic nonsense. A right to life means nothing to a sheep as sheep lack the cognitive capacity to value longevity or to contemplate mortality. The ethical significance of a sheep’s death is zero.

    However sheep feel pain and can be stressed by the events that lead to their death. This is a genuine ethical concern. But all sheep must die, and a responsible farmer will ensure a sheep has a far better death than many humans.

    Alex has not made a compelling case against eating meat that is ethically sourced.

    Like

  4. “What can we make of the fact that a meat eater does not concede this moral contradiction…”

    Just because someone spits out dog meat that does not mean they think it is immoral to eat them. I also would not want to eat bats or bugs. They eat dog in some places and although I myself love dogs I do not think this necessarily immoral.

    “Imagine providing a moral argument against any other practice or behaviour (from petty theft and adultery to abduction or murder), which someone had been explicitly defending or implicitly condoning, to be met only with the empty recitation that such behaviour is ‘a personal choice’.”

    What do you think of the “Pro Choice” movement?

    Like

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