Originally published on Grist.
In anticipation of Grist’s meat series, I turned to the person I know who has the most to say about meat: Hal Herzog, a man I also refer to as "dad." My father has spent 30 years studying the unique relationships people have with animals, and he’s the author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals. We spoke about vegetarianism, eating puppies, and why it’s more moral to eat blue whale than chicken. You can hear a podcast of our conversation above, or read an excerpt below.
Katie Herzog: Why are you interested in meat?
Hal Herzog: I’m interested in the moral complexities of the way we interact with other species, and one of the most morally complicated ways — in fact, the most morally complicated way, at least the one that has psychological implications — is the fact that we love them on the one hand and we love to eat them on the other. So to me this was the great conflict that we have between loving something and then engaging in an activity in which they inevitably suffer and die.
KH: Speaking of the moral complexities of meat, are people who are animal lovers or pet owners less likely to eat meat?
HH: No, not really. People who don’t eat meat are probably more likely to be pet owners, but it’s probably not true that there’s a large difference between people who eat meat in terms of whether they are pet owners or not.
KH: Why do we eat some animals and not others?
HH: That is really interesting, and it gets to the heart of the topic that I’m interested in, which is why we love some animals and why we dislike others. Some of the reasons are just stupid. At least from an objective point of view, if you go and look at biblical rules on meat eating, they are absolutely bizarre in terms of why it’s okay to eat a cow but not okay to eat a pig. It has to do with the shape of their hooves. Why is it okay to eat one type of insect but not another type of insect? It makes no logical sense at all.
Some people argue that the animals we eat have an ecological function. For example, some people have argued that some Jewish and Islamic cultures don’t eat pig because historically pigs compete with humans for food and they don’t want to keep a lot of pigs around because they eat the same things and they spread diseases like trichinosis. But I don’t think that’s a very good argument because there are other cultures that are very similar which do eat pigs.
I think most of our meat choices are determined by cultural habits and things that get simply passed down from generation to generation. When I was a kid, the idea of eating raw fish would have just been hilarious, and now the idea of eating raw fish is universally accepted. In my little town in western North Carolina, a real conservative place, we have a terrific little Japanese restaurant that people flock to to eat raw fish. Why is sushi popular now when it wasn’t 40 years ago? For the most part, our food choices are governed by the same sorts of fads and fashions that govern our taste in clothing, or whether you wear your baseball hat backward or forward, or what kind of a dog you get.
KH: So it’s basically meaningless?
HH: No. And that’s the difference between deciding what animals you eat and deciding what animals you want to live with as a dog. And the reason is that meat involves killing a creature. That is the great paradox. On the one hand, we’ve evolved, I think, to be empathetic with creatures and to anthropomorphize them. So you see an animal like a puppy and you see a little bit of yourself or your kid in that puppy. But on the other hand, you see a pig — and I think little pigs are adorable — and you want at one level to empathize with the pig but on another level you want to eat that pig. The same thing is true with puppies.
Culture can overcome our natural inclination sometimes. So, for example, we find it absolutely abhorrent, the idea of eating a puppy, but in China, Korea, Southeast Asia, people commonly eat puppies. Twenty-five million puppies or older dogs are eaten each year, and they are considered delicacies. And for most of human history, it’s likely that animals were more likely to be eaten than kept as pets. So that’s why meat is so deliciously morally complicated. It is a meaningless decision on one level but, on the other, it’s very meaningful.
KH: Speaking of eating dogs and puppies, in cultures where dogs are cuisine, do they also keep dogs as pets?
HH: In some of those cultures, yes. For example, the Sioux Indians in the United States — they would keep dogs as pets, and they would also eat dogs. When they had a litter of puppies, they would decide early on. They would take a look at the puppies when they were a couple weeks old and they would say, "This one’s going into the stew pot, and this one is gonna become part of our household."
Where we’re seeing a lot of interesting conflict now is places like Korea and Vietnam and China, where historically people have not kept dogs as pets very often. But these cultures like many Western ways. They like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. Well, they’ve also glommed on to the American culture of pet-keeping. On the other hand, they still have this culture of eating dogs. So you have these really interesting cultural conflicts even within these cultures, and now a dog becomes what one researcher has called "an animal on the uncomfortable border." They’re part pet, but they’re part animals to be used, and in this case, to be eaten.
KH: Are they eating different breeds than they are keeping as pets?
HH: The Sioux Indians would keep dogs in the same litter. Some they would eat, some they would keep as pets. In Korea, you have a different phenomenon. The dogs are specially bred for the meat trade. They look, unfortunately, a lot like Old Yeller, so they are sort of cute from an American point of view. But they give them a different name: They are called nureongi. In the markets, apparently, they keep them in different-colored cages, so they have these pinkish cages that they keep them in and they are kept in a different part of the market than they keep dogs that are going to be in the pet trade.
So even here, we have this situation where the moral labeling and the moral category system really assuages us from the guilt that we feel from eating things. This is one of the really important things that I took away from my study of this — one of the most important factors in human moral thinking, especially about animals, is what category do we put things in? And this applies to other things, as well. Take, for example, the abortion debate. It’s about categories. Is a fetus a human being or is it not? Is a dog a pet or is a dog dinner?
KH: You mentioned that the dogs in Korea kept for pets have a different name than dogs used as food. Could you talk a little bit about how language reflects our relationships with meat and with animals?
HH: I can tell you what most people think, but I’m less certain of that than I used to be. What a lot of people say is that we animalize certain foods that we eat by giving them different names. So we don’t call barbecue "pig." We don’t say it’s cooked pig. We say it’s pork. We don’t say hamburger is made of cow; we say it’s made of beef. This situation breaks down, of course, when you get to animals that are lower on the phylogenetic scale. For instance, we call chicken "chicken." We don’t bother to change the language. Fish we call "fish," but for things like veal, creatures like that, we change the names.
However, I used to think that was a universal principle, but I don’t think so anymore. I was talking to a friend of mine who speaks German and I was asking him what the Germans call pork and venison and things like that, and they don’t bother with that. Pork is called pig flesh. Beef is called cow flesh. Venison is called deer flesh. The same thing is true in China. So they don’t bother with that. I think the category of meat definitely serves as a moral distancing factor, but I’m not sure the specific thing does.
Now, labels can also make a type of meat seem more tasty. And the classic example of that is the Patagonia toothfish. It’s this horrible-looking creature found off the coast of Chile. It’s a really ugly-looking fish. It has big gummy-looking eyes and giant teeth and a sort of yellow complexion. It’s not very attractive. However, an American food marketing guy was down there and saw these guys throwing away these fish and said, "What are they?" They said, "Patagonian toothfish. Nobody wants to eat them." And he tasted it and said, "That tasted pretty good." It was a sort of mild fish that chefs like because it takes up different flavors, and he thought you maybe could sell it in the United States, but he had to rename it. And so they renamed it the "Chilean seabass," and now we pay tons of money for it. Now, this has not been good for the Patagonian toothfish, because they’ve almost become extinct because of overfishing of the identical creature, the Chilean seabass.
KH: I want to talk about vegetarians. Have campaigns like PETA, the PETA celebrity campaign, and Meatless Mondays, done anything to actually reduce meat consumption in the United States?
HH: Meat consumption in the United States has gone down slightly in the last 10 years, but very slightly. The publication of Peter Singer’s very influential book Animal Liberation, in 1975, really marks the start of the modern animal rights movement. He made a very powerful case against eating meat, on environmental grounds, moral grounds, and grounds of suffering and health. So you would think that meat consumption would have gone down in the US since 1975. Oh, no. Then we ate, I think, about 170 pounds per capita per year. We now eat approximately 240 pounds of meat per capita per year. When he wrote the book, about 3 billion animals were killed per year. Now about 10 billion animals are killed per year.
Furthermore, the number of true vegetarians is incredibly small. Most people think it’s big, but it’s not. The number of people who say they are vegetarians is substantial, but 60 to 70 to 80 percent of them eat meat regularly. So there’s a lot of people not telling the truth about their meat consumption, and a number of studies have shown this. If you actually look at the proportion of Americans who are vegetarians, it’s hovered between 2 and 4 percent, really, for the last 30 or 40 years. So the vast majority of Americans continue to eat meat in spite of the strong arguments against it on moral, health, and environmental grounds. It’s the single biggest failure of the animal rights movement.
KH: Was there anything that surprised you in your research?
HH: The bottom line is that meat is disgusting. Not only do we identify with the creatures that we’re eating, but once it comes down to it, meat is a bloody mess. What the food industry has done is go to great lengths to de-animalize meat, and they’ve done that very successfully. Very few people buy chicken carcasses anymore at a grocery store. What they buy is a chicken tender, which is in styrofoam and doesn’t look like meat. It’s cold, it’s white, it’s not bloody, it does not look like meat. It looks like a piece of paper. The meat industry has gone to great lengths to let you forget that that chunk of chicken that you’re putting in your mouth is actually a creature that used to go cluck cluck cluck cluck.
There’s another irony here — let me ask you a question, Katie. From a moral point of view, if you had a choice between eating a Big Mac or a Chicken McNugget, what would be the most moral thing to eat in terms of suffering?
KH: A Big Mac or a chicken nugget? I mean, I suppose the Big Mac would be worse because cows seems more sentient than chickens, despite the fact that chickens are probably treated worse. I put more value on a cow’s life than a chicken’s.
HH: That’s why you’re completely wrong. You have to remember that this is the moral calculus of utilitarianism, which means basically that if you are a sentient animal, you count in the moral calculus. Well, there are 280 — and I did the math on this — there are 280 chickens in a cow. So in other words, to kill one cow, you take one life. To get the equivalent amount of animal protein, you have to kill 280 chickens. Now, by that logic, the animal of choice for animal activists to eat would be a blue whale, because there are 80,000 chicken souls to make up the soul of one blue whale. I contacted Ingrid Newkirk herself, the head of PETA, and asked her if she would agree with me on that, and she said, "Absolutely." She said if an animal rights activist is going to eat meat, they should eat whales. Eat more whales. So that’s one of the ironies is that beef is more moral than chicken, eating a whale is more moral than eating beef.