The Straw Man of Happy Meat


Recently, The New York Times invited readers to submit an essay that describes why it’s ethical to eat meat. After reviewing thousands of submissions, one essay, by agroecologist Jay Bost, was selected for publication.

I wasn’t surprised that a former vegetarian who returned to meat-eating wrote the essay. Nor was I surprised that the essay failed to offer a compelling argument. But I was surprised to see yoga teachers expressing support for Bost’s argument. Yoga is, among other things, a moral philosophy that places primacy on the recognition of all sentient beings as purusas; spiritual persons of equal standing with inalienable and self-evident rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This philosophical principle is the foundation of any serious yoga practice.

We can still practice yoga while eating meat if we understand that eating meat implicates us in needless violence against sentient beings for nothing more than the fulfillment of a selfish desire, that living according to the principles of non-violence and renunciation of selfish desires are intrinsic to one’s progress on the path of yoga, and that aspiring to live according to the ideals of non-violence and appropriate renunciation is a mandatory prerequisite for further progress. Absent this aspiration we may be engaged in physical therapy, calisthenics, acrobatics, relaxation, or stress reduction, but not ‘yoga’ unless we re-define the term to the extent that we might just as well call a bowling ball a butterfly.

The main thrust of Bost’s argument is that minimizing the negative environmental impact of raising animals, treating them nicely during their truncated lives, and killing them with a minimal infliction of pain constitutes an ethical basis for the consumption of their flesh. In other words, consuming the products of ‘factory farming’ is not ethical but being a ‘conscientious carnivore’ is. This is a very disingenuous argument: the desire for animals to be spared the horrors of factory farming implies the recognition of an animal’s inherent right to live in a natural way, free from human-imposed cruelty and abuse. There is no way to reconcile the expedient execution of an innocent living being with the recognition of it’s inherent right to a natural life; the argument carries an internal contradiction and therefore makes no sense.

And the economics of the argument make even less sense: the process behind ‘ethical meat-eating’ is not viable relative to the demand for the product. If every meat-eater tried to become a ‘conscientious carnivore’ then the vast majority of meat-eaters would become vegetarians by default: there wouldn’t be enough meat to go around. “Happy Meat” – meat from sustainably maintained, humanely raised, free-range animals – is an expensive luxury for an elite few, not a commodity for the masses. The reality of free-market capitalism will simply not tolerate “Happy Meat” much beyond its current, insignificant market share.

The entire essay hinges on a logical fallacy: the Straw Man argument. The specific challenge from the NYT was “tell us why it’s ethical to eat meat”. By shifting the focus toward the circumstances of production and away from the end result, Bost sidesteps the real issue: he never tells us why taking an animals life for the sake of consuming it’s flesh is ethical, attempting instead to describe a right way to do a wrong thing.

Bost eventually concedes that “the issue of killing a sentient being, however, lingers.” Well no shit, Sherlock: that IS the issue! Bost diverts our attention from the subject in question by equating unethical meat-eaters with unethical tofu-eaters (vegetarians who ignore the carbon footprint created by their consumption), but one can easily apply all of his arguments to conscientious vegetarianism without the pesky problem of having to justify murder for the sake of pleasing one’s palate. So why doesn’t he? Because, by his calculation, an ethical meat-eater and an ethical vegetarian are operating on the same ethical level despite the fact that one is killing a sentient being and the other is not. He changes the subject entirely by making the ethical standards of measure ‘carbon footprint’ and ‘sustainability’ rather than compassion or necessity.

From the standpoint of yoga, the bottom completely falls out from under Bost’s argument when you look at his premise, which appears in the last paragraph: “First, you accept the biological reality that death begets life on this planet and that all life (including us!) is really just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form.”

That’s the basis of the best argument the New York Times could find? That we’re all just temporary little bundles of inexplicably self-aware body-fied sunshine? Solar energy is in the category of matter so Bost is saying that all sentient beings are nothing more than matter: prakrti! According to Bost there is no purusa, no self, no conscious being separate and apart from the transformations of material elements that produce a body. Consciousness, in this scenario, is an epiphenomenon: an anomalous by-product of a chance combination of insentient stuff. If that’s the case then who cares what we do? It’s all inconsequential in the big picture of an accidental universe that we inexplicably pop in and out of for no apparent reason, if you can even say that there was ever an ‘us’ to begin with.

According to yoga philosophy 101, Bost’s premise is called avidya – ignorance: the illusory misidentification of the body as the self. Basing an ethical argument on ignorance is not much of a foundation so it’s no surprise that Bost’s argument is an exercise in misdirection that illustrates just how hard it is to present an ethical defense for an unethical act.

Whatever his argument is I can tell you one thing that it’s not: it’s not yoga philosophy. And yoga teachers ought to know and acknowledge that.

13 Comments

  1. Posted May 22, 2012 at 10:22 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Love it! This is one of the best arguments and explanations I have heard supporting the essential teachings of vegetarianism in yoga. Thanks Hari!

  2. Gail Harris
    Posted May 22, 2012 at 2:00 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Well said! Thank you!

  3. Brittanie DeChino
    Posted May 22, 2012 at 11:32 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Wow! Slam dunk! Home run! Whatever they say. :) Thank you, Hari, for so eloquently and clearly delineating a point of view which has been living in my head for way too long. I could never have said it as good as you. Really nice job! Cannot wait to point folks in this direction. Love this world wide web!

  4. Tulasi-Priya
    Posted June 12, 2012 at 12:43 PM | Permalink | Reply

    There is one ethical argument for eating meat, to save one’s life, or the life of another, in the absence of anything else edible, or in the case of serious illness to the body resulting from eating something other than meat. I wouldn’t hesitate to kill an animal in such a situation, but it would be with a grave awareness of what I was doing. That’s about as conscious a carnivore as I’m prepared to be.

    • Posted June 13, 2012 at 11:30 AM | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Tulasi-Priya. This may be an ethical argument from the point of view of necessity, but the NYT expressly asked readers to submit essays that offered an ethical argument for eating meat as a matter of choice rather than as a matter of survival so I don’t think it applies to this specific consideration.

      • Posted June 13, 2012 at 3:21 PM | Permalink

        It’s still a choice: you can choose to starve rather than eat meat. ;)

      • Posted June 13, 2012 at 3:25 PM | Permalink

        Oops, slipped and hit Send before it was ready to go. I went back and read the original article. Where did it exclude survival as the only ethical reason to eat meat?

      • Posted June 13, 2012 at 8:47 PM | Permalink

        From http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/magazine/tell-us-why-its-ethical-to-eat-meat-a-contest.html?_r=1

        “… those who love meat have had surprisingly little to say. They say, of course, that, well, they love meat or that meat is deeply ingrained in our habit or culture or cuisine or that it’s nutritious or that it’s just part of the natural order. Some of the more conscientious carnivores have devoted themselves to enhancing the lives of livestock, by improving what those animals eat, how they live and how they are killed. But few have tried to answer the fundamental ethical issue: Whether it is right to eat animals in the first place, at least when human survival is not at stake.”

        They further specify that the essay should “tell us why it’s ethical to eat meat”, not ‘tell us under what circumstances it’s ethical to eat meat.’

  5. Posted June 13, 2012 at 9:32 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks for this. Excellent. While I believe that the fact that we are essentially trapped sunlight, as presented in the essay, does not disallow other facets of our being, the bones of your article ring true for me. I felt the same eye-rolling “is that IT?” response when reading this essay. Vacuous arguments for eating meat seem to be the only kinds.

    • Posted June 14, 2012 at 10:09 AM | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for your encouraging comments, Karl. I agree: whether the light of our consciousness is solar or spiritual, either way there isn’t a good objective argument to be found amongst the defenders of meat-eating, at least not one I’ve ever heard.

One Trackback

  1. By Yoga Calms Stress Eaters | Yummylicious Yoga on May 23, 2012 at 10:07 AM

    [...] The Straw Man of Happy Meat (yogablog.hari-kirtana.com) [...]

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