“These are young and delicate calves. For some reason they were left tied to the bars of the wagon. Filthy, scared, thirsty for maternal contact. One of them licked our hands feverishly.
Slaughterhouse workers begin driving the calves with shouts and blows. The animals are scared. They don’t understand what is wanted of them. The workers grab their heads with the aid of iron loops and stretch their necks. The calves’ eyes nearly pop out of their sockets. Until the slaughterer arrives.
A few seconds later the workers release the loops and the calves go into a frenzy. They shake themselves and try to breathe.”
This description of the last moments of young calves is documented by an activist of the Israeli organization Anonymous for Animal Rights. It is the price of pleasure, according to Canadian environmentalist Graham Hill – cited by in an article by Amitai Ziv – “who feels that he is not ready to give it up completely – while all he is offered today is an absolute dichotomy: To become vegetarian or to eat meat.” This, says Ziv, “is the biggest problem of the vegetarian movement.”
After all, what does Hill want? Just a little more enjoyment in life, especially on weekends. But the vegetarian movement, in its asceticism and dogmatic passion for the binary, won’t allow it. That is, it can’t prevent him from eating meat, but is unwilling to grant moral legitimacy to what he calls “weekday vegetarianism.”
Hill’s argument places his pleasure opposite the life of the calf. This claim demands that a consideration of the loss Hill will suffer if he is denied the right to eat meat overtakes the loss suffered by the calf, which is life itself. Because even a reduced amount of meat-eating requires slaughtering some animals.
This point of view, that Hill’s pleasure is more important than the calf’s, was formulated long ago by Tolstoy with binary clarity: “A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral.”
The question lying at the bottom of these matters is not, therefore, Hill’s right to pleasure, but what that pleasure stands in the way of. That is, what value do we place on the life of husbanded animals. What conditions are demanded by ethical considerations? Those who believe that the only ethical principle governing this consideration is the existence of sensitivity and the ability to suffer (not the extent of intelligence ) must have compassion for animals, who, according to prevailing scientific thought, have these qualities.
The ethical vegetarian position naturally prefers a reduction in the eating of meat to no such reduction, and even encourages it. But it may not morally equate reduction to cessation, as Hill does. When he asks to be recognized as a “weekday vegetarian,” he is in practice arguing not only for recognition of what he gives up, which is legitimate, but also recognition in principle of “the right to pleasure” involved in eating meat, and that he be released from further demands.
This recognition is essentially a negation of the ethical claim at the heart of vegetarianism. If everyone were vegetarian to some degree, even if they also ate meat, (after all, a semi-vegetarian is a semi-carnivore ), the basic principle that it is wrong to take a life for the sake of enjoyment – and the death of a calf is the death of a living soul – would lose validity.
The request made by Ziv and Hill negates the importance of the individual calf. But it is exactly the calf as an individual that stands as the foundation of ethical vegetarianism.
People may decide that they prefer pleasure over a calf’s life. But they may not decide to eat their veal and have it too. If they decide in favor of pleasure they must pay the price: They cannot be identified as vegetarians.
Ziv compares the vegetarian movement to those which fought against racism and anti-Semitism, and calls for a gradual revolution, as they did. However, no human rights organization would accept the title “weekday liberal.” According to Ziv, the discussion about vegetarianism is changing from one which is qualitative and absolute to one which is quantitative and relative, with functional arguments. There is room for a functional dialogue, but not in place of the ethical one.
The animals we kill look at us silently, Jonathan Safran Foer writes in his recent book “Eating Animals.” The calf that licked the hand of the Anonymous activist has already lost its life in favor of Hill’s weekend enjoyment. The looks of the rest of the calves accompany us in silence. If we continue to eat them, even if we’ve stopped eating some of their species, their gaze will not disappear.