This guest post by ceramic artist and blogger Carter Gillies is in response to my recent post Way Outback: Bush Tucker. To read more of Carter's thoughtful writings follow his blog at http://cartergilliespottery.wordpress.com
Yeah, the subject of food and morality is not always straight forward. I think a lot of what you say has merit. This passage touched on several important points:
"After living overseas in countries that struggle with hunger and food distribution I have come to understand that the ability to make a "moral" choice to abstain from a food source only comes when there is an overwhelming abundance of food in that society. Hungry people don't have the luxury of abstaining from a food source that might make up more than 50% of their natural diet. I am not knocking vegetarians but I am saying that deeply held beliefs are often dictated more by our physical and cultural landscapes then the intrinsic morality of the issue."
Morality and what counts as food are always culturally dictated. Many themes overlap across cultures. Food sources, food preparation, food distribution, food practices are all part of a system, and growing up within that system the choices make sense. The same with traditional morality, for the most part.
So its possible that circumstance has a great influence on these things, and even though we can talk of 'food' in general, and 'morality' in general, they are not really general things. They are embodied realities. Sounds like I'm a relativist here. But sometimes the world throws up unfamiliar and uncertain circumstances, and the old trusted ways no longer apply. What do we do then, when the rules are broken?
You say that "hungry people don't have the luxury of abstaining from a food source" and that moral choice seems to come "when there is an overwhelming abundance of food in that society". Survivors of a plane crash end up eating the passengers who died, poor people here in the US forage in dumpsters and take whatever hand outs they can get. Privation does seem to shrug off the normal sensibilities.....
But as a vegetarian myself, I'd like to flip the focus of the scenario you have laid out and suggest that Morality and food ARE intimately linked, and that in a culture of abundance (as in the US) there is a real moral issue that some folks are going hungry at all. Poverty is a stain on our society, and we are not living up to our moral responsibilities by sweeping the issue under the carpet. Also, the food industry itself is engaged in practices that have moral components. The idea of sustainability is entirely moral. I'd also suggest that where there is such abundance of nutritional options, exploiting industries based on taking lives needs to be examined. Its no longer necessary to kill for our supper, and yet we only get meat on the table when something has died. The death was not necessary in the same way it might have been 100 or even 50 years ago. Is it a moral question that lives are taken when they could have been spared? Do we even need to ask this question when human lives are at stake? If our culture fails to extend basic morality to its animals is that not an indictment of our own morality? Cultures that NEED to hunt for food almost always have the respect for its food source that links into a system of morality. Are the traditions of meat eating in our first world culture vestiges of a hunting society that had no other choice? Are we simply ignoring the moral questions that were embedded in the small scale society practices now that we've turned food gathering into a large scale commercial venture? Do we accept death as the price of appeasing our taste buds?
The difficulty is that in the modern world there are consequences to our actions that are far reaching and hugely impactful. Tradition and morality sometimes need a wake up call to get on the same page as society is traveling. The pace of cultural change far outstrips what we are able to make sense of as a society. Our morality often lags behind and has to play catch up. We don't have the luxury these days of the slow accretion and evolution of traditional responses. Atom bombs, pollution, and other modern manifestations have made things more urgent.
So I'm not appealing to 'inherent' morality. I'm not appealing to traditional morality. I'm just suggesting that the game has changed so much that we need to think differently. We need to start thinking more in moral terms how our actions square with the world today, and what that will get us for the future. A diet of meat was a luxury throughout most of human evolution. Putting meat on a family's table didn't always impact those outside the home itself. In a global world the resources spent raising a pound of beef are so hugely disproportionate to the amount of vegetable protein that could have been grown, not to mention the ills of the meat industry itself, how is meat eating not a profligate waste of resources? With so much hunger throughout the world?
Morality always explains the difference between 'is' and 'ought'. Simply because the way we do things currently includes meat eating doesn't mean it reflects what ought to be the case. The status quo can be used to rationalize every evil society has invented (slavery, segregation, gender inequity.....) The reasons that once justified aiming our resources at putting meat on the table are long gone in the US (for the most part). We have to think differently now. We have to think of scarcity and responsibility. We have to think of long term consequences.
Morality may not matter if we don't have a choice. If we DO have a choice, then it is often a moral one which direction we take. I might be a cannibal up on that Andes mountaintop, but in downtown Athens Ga that won't cut it. Maybe we will end up in some future world where we eat 'Soilent Green'..... If we blow it now, we may not have a choice. Our children's children's children may be forced to subsist on processed human body parts...... Can we say that looking ahead and with the possibility of side stepping that future that its NOT a moral issue facing us here and now?
Carter is having a sale in the Athens, GA area this weekend. If you are in the area stop by and support him.
572 Nantahala ave, Athens Ga
Saturday and Sunday, June 1st and 2nd, 10am – 4pm