Of all the convoluted rationalizations for eating meat in an age when eating meat is not at all necessary for our survival or health, many people today are borrowing a popular slogan I like to call “the personal choice self deception.” It goes something like this: “My decision to eat meat is a personal choice.” And it is usually followed by a statement sympathetic to their vegan and vegetarian friends, acknowledging that they too are making personal choices that are right for them. Sounds great on the surface, but it’s what lurks beyond the surface that I find deeply disturbing for five key reasons.
1. Eating is a communal, multi-cultural activity until the vegan sits down at the table
First, let’s take a closer look at what personal means in the context of the highly social human activity of eating. Personal food choices had never been discussed at the dinner table until a growing number of vegans and vegetarians — by their very presence at the table — question the legitimacy of eating animals. A person who tells you that their meat eating is a personal choice is really telling you “stay away.” They don’t want you to question their highly-coveted moral beliefs or perhaps they object to exposing their unexamined moral quandary over how one can justify using and killing animals for food in an age when it is completely unnecessary. In other words, They have made this issue personal precisely in response to you making it public.
2. There is no free choice without awareness
The irony is that while meat eaters defend their choice to eat meat as a personal one, they will nonetheless go to great lengths to defend it publicly when confronted with a vegan or vegetarian. Like some apologetic white liberals who defend themselves by defiantly exclaiming to a new black acquaintance, “But I have black friends too!”, some meat eaters will go to great lengths to explain how intimately they understand veganism since they have vegan friends, have already heard and evaluated their reasons for going vegan and respect them dearly.
They’ve considered being vegan carefully, they will assure you, and have concluded that it’s just not for them. But instead of arriving at some novel new understanding of why humans should eat meat, they simply revert back to the traditional arguments that are all pretty much centered around what social psychologist Melanie Joy calls the three N’s of justification: eating meat is normal, natural and necessary. (1) But their reasoning reveals the fact that they have sorely overlooked the big idea behind veganism which author Jenny Brown points out so eloquently in her book The Lucky Ones: “We can become prisoners of our earliest indoctrinations or we can choose to look critically at our assumptions and align our lives with our values. Choosing to live vegan is how we re able to do that best.” (2)
3. The choice has a victim and the victim is completely ignored
Let’s take a look at the issue from the animal victim’s perspective which has been completely denied by the meat eater’s unexamined assumption that animals have no interest or understanding of the value of their individual lives. Does the animal who is being bred, raised and slaughtered for someone’s food care if the person who is eating meat has given the prospect of becoming vegan any serious moral consideration? Of course not.
The notion that these conscious meat eaters think they have done their due diligence by examining the pros and cons of eating animals means nothing for those that value their lives as we do. The fact is the animals we raise for meat have at least as much of an interest in staying alive, avoiding pain and suffering and seeking pleasure as these meat eaters’ pets. As activist Twyla Francois so aptly puts it: “All animals have the same capacity for suffering, but how we see them differs and that determines what we’ll tolerate happening to them. In the western world, we feel it wrong to torture and eat cats and dogs, but perfectly acceptable to do the same to animals equally as sentient and capable of suffering. No being who prides himself on rationality can continue to support such behaviour.”
4. Many personal choices we make have dire consequence for ourselves and others
Now let’s take a closer look at the meaning of choice itself. The act of making a choice implies that the actor has free will and awareness of the options and their consequences. In the spirit of justice, we live in a society where our actions and choices are governed by what society deems acceptable. We can make a personal choice to maim, rape or kill someone, but these actions will have consequences that serve as a deterrent. It is generally accepted in a democratic society that we are free to do what we want as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else or infringe on the same rights and freedoms of others.
Yet, for the meat eater, the choice of eating animals is completely disconnected from this concept of justice since justice does NOT for them apply to other species, only to humans (how convenient). In other words, there are no visible, negative consequences to eating meat. The victims remain invisible and silent to those who eat them, and that is perhaps the greatest deception of all.
5. Atrocities are never personal
In reality, the choice to eat meat negates the very meaning of choice because the animal that had to be killed to procure the meat had no choice in the matter at all. And the notion of characterizing such a choice as a personal one is even more problematic since the choice required the taking of another’s life, not a personal sacrifice. Nothing could be more public than the taking of a sentient life that cares about his own life, particularly when the act is not necessary and therefore not morally defensible.
When 60 billion land animals and another approximate 60 billion marine animals are killed every year across the planet for “personal” food choices made by a single species that are based on palate pleasure alone, eating meat ceases to be a matter of personal choice; (4) it becomes a social justice movement to protect the rights of animals. To deny animals the right to live their lives according to their own interests is wrong and to attempt to defend our choice to eat them as a personal one is delusional.