But Hitler was a vegetarian

3 11 2015

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People who want to find flaws in the arguments for not eating animals will often, semi-jokingly, point out that Hitler was a vegetarian. Their anti-vegetarian logic flows something like this: if a carpet-munching, insane mass murderer loved animals enough not to eat them then sane, rational people should not do so because that makes them affiliated with him, the tiny nasty Fuhrer.

In response, it’s likely that Hitler almost certainly ate bread as part of his diet, but few people would give up eating sandwiches or baguettes to avoid being associated with the eating habits of the Fuhrer, so why does his preference for vegetables provoke such an emotional reaction?

Perhaps what stirs people is not so much what Hitler decided to put on his plate (or not), but the effrontery of Hitler taking an ethical position. For many, Hitler cannot be ethical because, of course, Hitler was evil. Ethical positions held by evil people are suspicious therefore we shouldn’t trust them. This curious line of reasoning conveniently lets people off the hook of considering the difficult, embarrassing problem of whether to eat animals or not.

Like many people who grew up in the seventies, I ate animals. Favourites from my childhood diet included crispy bacon sandwiches with spicy brown sauce, sausages cooked to dark sweet stickiness and sandwiched between the crackling crusts of soft white bread, steak and kidney pie, especially those flabby ones in the tin that puffed up to a glorious golden crispy wonder, liver and bacon and onions.

Just thinking about those meaty favourites makes my mouth water. If someone were to offer me a steak right now, I would have trouble resisting, which makes me, I suppose, an inconsistent vegetarian. Sometimes I tell people that I’m a pragmatic vegetarian, who sometimes eats meat, but that is a pretty indefensible position. In fact, it’s really no position at all.

Like many people, I suppose, I want to leave my options open. I want to enjoy the clear conscience that comes from only eating plants and not harming animals, but I’m also someone who loves to cook for people and eat with family and friends, and most of the people I love to cook for and eat with are not vegetarian.

I’ve got round this for a number of years by only cooking meat on special occasions. I believe that if I’m going to eat meat then it should be locally sourced, organic, free range, the best, by which I mean the least harmfully reared meat I can buy. Lamb I consider to be more ethical than pork or beef because at least lambs are allowed to live outside for most of their short lives. Last Christmas I bought from my local butcher a plump free range duck that was lovingly slapped as it slid into its plastic bag. This bird had been branded a ‘good bird,’ simply by the warmth of the butcher’s touch. It tasted delicious, along with the potatoes cooked to a crisp in the sweet clear duck fat.

A year on, and I’ve read more and thought more about the ethics of eating animals and now I’m not so sure I would enjoy the duck without more than a twinge of guilt. A butcher’s banter is no longer enough to reassure me that every bird had a decent life. Free range and local does not necessarily mean a happy bird waddling around by a pond with its friends before someone came along with a bag to whisk it away for slaughter. The duck might, indeed, have been a duckling only six weeks old and fattened up with growth-promoting feed to increase its breast so that it could adorn my Christmas table. Huh!

In preparation for a seminar on food ethics, I’ve been reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. Much of his reasoning resonates. He believes that the question of eating animals is ‘not only our basic ability to respond to sentient life, but our ability to respond to parts of or own (animal) being. There is a war not only between us and them, but between us and us.’ By which he means that eating animals is part of the human story.

I’m at the beginning of a new story in how I work with and relate to animals and I want to start off on the right footing, so to speak. I would no more think of eating one of my animals than I would think of eating one of my brothers or sisters. It isn’t sentiment that stops me considering their flesh as meat, or romanticism, or even squeamishness. It’s a sense of morality. I wouldn’t eat my horse, or any horse for that matter, because it would be wrong to do so.

The reasons for this wrongness are many. Firstly and obviously, I have other options and don’t need to eat them to stay alive, but even if I were starving and had no other option then I would still choose to gnaw on bark or eat dried leaves than sacrifice my horses to feed myself.

How can I know this? During the two and a half years I spent researching the German and Russian occupation of Poland in the Second World War I read many accounts of people eating rats, cats, dogs, squirrels, pigeons and crows simply to stay alive. In one vivid account, people who had been imprisoned in cellars for months ran out and risked their lives to drink the blood of horses. Many horses perished to keep people alive.

I understand the desperation that would drive someone to kill an animal in order to stay alive. I have read enough about the effects of starvation to know that it drives people mad and convinces them to abandon their ethical principles. Under these circumstances, many people would think that they didn’t have a choice. It would come down to this: either my life continues or the animal’s, and my life is more important to me than the animal’s so unfortunately the animal must give up its life to save mine.

When Jonathan Safran Foer’s Jewish grandmother was offered meat by a Russian after coming close to starvation under German occupation, she refused. The meat was pork. It wasn’t kosher. The author was surprised by her decision. Why wouldn’t she eat pork to save her own life? Her response illuminates the ethical position so simply, so beautifully and so powerfully. ‘If nothing matters, there’s nothing left to save.’

If animals matter to us, to make them suffer in their billions worldwide just so we can farm them for cheap meat through the food industry is indefensible and certainly unethical. The question which intrigues me though is why a diet without meat is so difficult for many people to contemplate: why are so many people, and I include myself here, prepared to look away from animal suffering and heap their surrendered flesh on to a plate simply because it tastes good? It just seems such a flimsy reason. My thinking is that eating meat is so bound up with conditioning and habit and mind-set that taking an ethical position on animal suffering is nowhere near as straightforward as taking an ethical position on human torture. Most people aren’t implicated in torture, but most people are implicated in what happens to animals. I’m interested to know what you think. In the meantime, I’m sticking with eating apples for a while.





What’s the point of walking?

27 07 2015

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I’ll never forget a friend asking one day: what’s the point of walking, I’d rather read a book? I have to admit when I’m pressed for time, or when it’s really lashing it down, I’d much rather be curled up inside with a good book. My idea of heaven would be a library set in a tree house overlooking a meadow. There I would live in complete bliss with all the inspiration I need right before me. This week I’ve been forced to walk because an elderly dog I’m currently looking after detests going in the car. So in deference to his seniority, I’ve clipped on his lead most evenings, to his tail-swinging delight.

Because I wanted to make the most of our time together and make the walks interesting for us both, I made sure we took a slightly different route each time. One evening I took my camera to record some sights along the way, and was rewarded with good light and some wonderful work on a suitably ethical sculpture trail.

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My favourite was Walking on an Empty Stomach by Malcolm Gurley, an arresting image of a hiker with no middle, which was playful, but also poignant as it made me think of soldiers severed on the battlefields of the First World War. Its incompleteness was ghostly. I also loved the old goat made from recycled textiles and the giant plastic snail made from recycled milk cartons.

Walking is something I rarely do now unless I have a dog. I used to walk for miles along the cliff path when I was working on novels, and the process of walking helped to generate the rhythm I needed to write. I gave up proper walking when I started to train my horses. Most of my walks now involve the company of a horse and while I love these walks, I can’t really lose myself in the landscape or my own imagination because I need to be fully present for my horse.

Walking dogs doesn’t require the same focus or attention as walking horses. Walking dogs takes me to different kinds of places, and it allows me to notice what’s happening close to home. This week my walks have shown me that the town in which I am so fortunate to live is vibrant, social and ethically aware. Some seaside towns are tired and traditional, and don’t bother to welcome visitors with anything new. A sculpture trail is a good place to start people thinking about what we do with the stuff we chuck away. I’m glad that Teignmouth cares enough to engage with the question.





Adventures in Ethics

18 07 2015

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Is there anything you would be prepared to give up to save the planet from human excess? I put this question to one of my philosophy groups this week after admitting that I was trying to give up buying bottled water, not always easy when I’ve gone out in hot sun completely forgetting to take a drink with me.

Graham said that there were some things that he would be prepared to give up, but not at the expense of marital harmony. His wife was against any form of ethical living and his attempts to sort out their rubbish for recycling really annoy her. I joked that he’d have to start taking out the rubbish under the cover of darkness and he said that it was no joke. One night his wife caught him eating something perfectly edible from their kitchen bin, and went ballistic. He wondered whether ethical living was worth the hassle he would get from someone who thinks that people who care about such matters are basically nutters.

Painful as it was for Graham to be so compromised in his own household, antipathy and even downright aggression to people who want to live according to ethical principles is fairly commonplace. Judging by the amount of rubbish in my street and the road I walk regularly, there are more people chucking food wrappers and drinks cans out of cars than there are people prepared to pick up the litter. If I want to live ethically, I can’t walk past the grey, flattened bottles, the plastic bags and the drinks cans washed up along the hedge without picking them up, and most of the time I resent having to do so, even while I’m ranting at those who DON’T CARE.

There are many objections to living ethically. Here’s a list of some of the most popular ones.

Living ethically is dreary

Living ethically is earnest

Living ethically makes others feel guilty

Living ethically is difficult

Living ethically will change who I am

Living ethically will make people dislike me

I’m too old for ethics

I’m too young for ethics

Ethics can’t make a difference, as the planet is already doomed.

I’ve decided that I can’t really teach ethics without at least trying to address some of these objections and practise some of the philosophical ideas I’m inviting people to explore.

So, I’m committing to a year of living ethically and I’ll be sharing my adventures in regular posts. For starters, taking the first objection on the list, ethics really needn’t be dreary. Ethics can be fun and it can also involve young people, who love to get involved, as long as the ethical is served up with a generous dollop of spontaneous play. I’ll offer an egg-hunt as my first example of how ethical living can be an adventure.

One the morning after their sleepover I’d promised Anna and Elen pancakes, but I had run out of eggs. We had a choice. I could either nip to Tesco Express and buy some and make the pancakes pretty swiftly, or we could go and feed the goats and ponies and buy the eggs on the way from a local farmhouse with a little roadside stall and a tin for the money. Guess what the girls chose? We went to the farmhouse, but the stall was empty. There are no guarantees of success with this way of shopping. I knew of another farmhouse with eggs and an honesty box, but it was two or three lanes away, and we were by now starving. The girls had to make another ethical choice: go to the supermarket or go to the second farmhouse. Guess what they chose?

The farmhouse had eggs, and what eggs they were, all different colours, from hazelnut brown to sky blue to olive green. We bought two dozen, some for us, and the rest as gifts. We admired these eggs. We talked about them. We wondered about the hens that had laid them. We put them on the counter and photographed them. And then we made golden pancakes and ate them.

If you’re willing to share, I’d be fascinated to know about your own ethical adventures.





The Best Life

16 06 2013

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Can we choose to be happy? Aristotle thought that we could. He outlines his reasons in a series of tantalisingly brief notes compiled as the Nicomachean Ethics. For Aristotle whatever we choose, we choose because we want to be happy or fulfilled. We make decisions that are ‘choiceworthy.’

  “Happiness more than anything else seems unconditionally complete, since we always choose it because of itself, never because of something else.”

Aristotle’s main idea is that we never choose happiness for the sake of something else. He argued that all our choices in life are aimed at the goal of happiness. We choose the person we will marry because we are convinced that that person will bring us (hopefully) everlasting happiness. Similarly we choose to settle in places because we feel that we are going to be happy there. When we get fed up with living in, say, London, we move to Devon, or to Cambridge or Spain. Happiness draws us along the line of decision making. The only thing that we need to keep in mind is that we can’t choose beyond happiness.

Aristotle makes the goal of happiness both incredibly simple and fiendishly difficult. For a start, many people who live lives of acute desperation are often not aware that happiness is even a valid choice for them. I imagine young women who have been kidnapped as victims of human trafficking gangs rarely feel that they have any options, and that applies also to victims of any form of violence. Child soldiers; young prostitutes; sweat shop workers; the homeless; migrant fruit pickers – for many people in these situations their daily decisions are aimed at survival alone and happiness itself is a remote dream.

Circumstances must always influence happiness: you simply can’t compare the happiness of a wealthy business woman with an online empire and her children educated in independent schools with a woman who still has to carry water to her children who may die of disease before they reach adulthood. Global happiness is clearly not a level playing field.

I would argue, though, that we can still find wisdom in Aristotle’s ideas. If we are going to aim for something in life then surely it is better to aim at happiness than to dismiss it from our lives because it does not apply to our circumstances at the time? It is a rare human being who cannot recall a single happy moment. For those living the most wretched of circumstances, it is those moments of lightness and relief that keep them going and act as the bridge between merely existing and truly living.

Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl’s memoir from the ‘human laboratory’ of the Holocaust death camps builds the case that courage and hope are closely connected. If we can hope, then we have the will to live, and in order to move beyond despair we need to make fundamental changes in our attitude toward life. Frankl, a professor of neurology and psychiatry, who spent three years in Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps, writes movingly of his role as mentor to those for whom the relentless brutality of camp existence had extinguished all hope…’we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop thinking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly.’

The answer, for Frankl, does not lie in in the innocent pursuit of happiness, but in ‘right action and in ‘right conduct.’

Here Frankl’s ideas dovetail with Aristotle’s. For both thinkers seem to agree that happiness is not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of life, but a series of activities and challenges that we must overcome in order to draw our own map of meaning. Right action and right conduct means living an ethical life.

In the notes throughout his Ethics, Aristotle is vague on the question of whether happiness is a gift of the Gods. He more or less admits that he didn’t know, but that if it were a gift from the Gods then that would be a reasonable thing for the Gods to offer. He is more interested in how we can achieve happiness through our own actions. He didn’t think that fate brings us good fortune. He is not superstitious. He argues that it is better to be happy through our own efforts than through good fortune because fortune is easily lost and therefore unreliable. The Ethics is a reasoned enquiry into the elements that make up the best kind of life. One of its conclusions is that activity brings lasting happiness.

“…since it is activities that control life…no blessed person could ever become miserable since he will never do hateful and base actions. For a truly good and intelligent person will bear strokes of fortune suitably and from his resources at any time will do the finest actions, just as a good general will make the best use of his forces in war, and a good shoemaker will produce the finest shoe from the hides given him, and similarly for all other craftsmen…”

In this idea that purposeful and creative activity brings psychological benefits, Aristotle follows Plato. This idea is central to Greek thinking on harmony. A person living in harmony lives a life that is well-suited to their talents and character. If you are suited to be a shoemaker then that is what you should do for life and if you make the best shoes possible and keep all your customers happy then you in turn will be happy.

   “Since happiness is an activity of the soul expressing complete virtue, we must examine virtue; for that will perhaps be a way to study happiness better.”

Aristotle turns his attention to what he calls ‘the virtues of character,’ or good habits of mind. The term ‘ethical’ comes from habit or ethos. For Aristotle, then, the good character is ethical. He claims that ethics does not arise in us naturally. We are not born ethical, as anyone who has spent time with toddlers will recognise. Aristotle claims that we become ethical through a process of habituation. We learn the right way to act.

 “The right sort of habituation must avoid excess and deficiency.”

Aristotle advocates the middle way. If we avoid extremes of all kinds we can achieve balance and harmony in our lives and it is this sense of equilibrium that leads to happiness. For Aristotle, happiness is temperance and moderation; a state of poise and tranquillity that has echoes in Buddhist ideas of recognising that it is craving that leads to suffering.

    “For both excessive and deficient exercises ruin strength; and likewise, too much too much or too little eating or drinking ruins health…the same is true of temperance, bravery and the other virtues. For if someone avoids and is afraid of everything, standing firm against nothing, he becomes cowardly, but if he is afraid of nothing at all and goes to face everything, he becomes rash.”

But his claims about habituation raise a puzzle: How can we become good without being good already?

Aristotle’s response is that we need to practise ethics rather than relying on theory. There is no point in reading a book about how to live a better life unless you put into action some of the ideas suggested. We become happy by doing activities that put us in a good state. We create our own well-being.

   “The many, however, do not do these actions but take refuge in arguments, thinking that they are doing philosophy, and that this is the way to become excellent people. In this they are like a sick person who listens attentively to the doctor, but acts on none of his instructions.”

Aristotle argues that knowing ourselves is fundamental to achieving happiness. We need to observe our own tendencies on the scale of extremes and deficiencies. Are we more inclined to be passive or aggressive; active or inactive? A dreamer or a doer; intellectually or emotionally driven? Are we generous or cautious with money? When we know what we are like, we can find our own midpoint on the circle.

“Giving and spending money is easy and anyone can do it; but doing it to the right person in the right amount at the right time for the right end and in the right way is no longer easy nor can everyone do it. Hence doing these things well is rare, praiseworthy and fine.”

Which makes Aristotle’s idea of happiness sound like a goal worth pursing, not for the glow of contentment it brings, but for the motivation it gives us to shape and adjust our ethical lives so that we may become endowed with the happiness that we truly deserve.








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