Is Eating Meat Really a Personal Choice?

Posted on April 4, 2012
Updated June 28, 2018

We all have a right to our own belief yet we all live in the same world. It’s a total mess because most of us confuse our right to our beliefs with the right to act on them. We find it difficult to see what our actions mean to things we don’t personally value.

Food is the perfect example. This article isn’t meant to say whether it’s a good idea to eat meat or not (it’s covered elsewhere). In this day and age you do have a choice. But just because you are legally entitled to choose doesn’t automatically make it a personal choice.

You already know what meat is, the various parts of once living animals, in the context of food. But what’s a personal choice?

For starters, it isn’t just a choice made by a person. It means a choice that relates to the person choosing. What colour you dye your hair? Personal. Poisoning the town’s water supply? Not personal because it has repercussions that affect more than just the chooser.

So is meat a personal choice? Is choosing any food personal for that matter?

The choice about what to eat matters to more than just the chooser, unless they’re choosing to eat themselves or maybe nothing at all. Meat means rearing and killing animals and there are also effects reaching beyond that into the the life-supporting biosphere itself. We make a mistake by thinking our choice of food doesn’t affect anyone else by saying ‘it’s a personal choice.’

So why do many people claim that food is a personal choice? What do they really mean and why are the wrong in every case?

When some people say ‘it’s a personal choice,’ what they really mean is ‘it’s not against the law.’

Legally we can choose to eat animals. Whether you think animals deserve consideration as ‘others’ or not, the law cares not. If your personal reality is defined by the governing law, you’d think eating meat or not is a personal matter only.

The law deserves respect. Think about this though: if we live by the letter of the law alone then at some points in history it would have been a purely personal choice to enslave or interfere with children. Does that make sense? Not any more, if it ever did.

Others mean to say ‘it’s okay, because animals are just things.’

It’s convenient belief if you like to eat meat: animals are in some way not conscious, or not having a soul they’re simply a small part of the whole natural world, which is man’s dominion, ripe for plunder. Some might call this ‘rational,’ but actually it’s a throwback to the very outdated ideology of ‘rationalism,’ under which live cats were dissected with the obstinate notion they felt no pain.

The belief that humans alone have conscious awareness is flawed. We have roughly the same physical existence as the animals we eat. Nothing other than complexity sets the human apart from the rest of the natural world.

Some people might say ‘okay, animals exist, but you can’t compare them with people.’ Those believing animals are sentient but not worth consideration make up the majority of people.

Looking down on ‘food’ animals is easy when what all you know about them comes from the TV, or from observing them their stressful and artificial lives in farms and factories. If we all knew more about the animals we eat, we’d likely think differently. Animals are intelligent, social, emotional and feel pain like we do. Even fish have been found to feel pain similarly to mammals (puppies, for example). Cows cry for their young on separation, sometimes escaping confines to search for them, or even intelligently hiding them to save them from becoming veal.

A few people mean to say ‘okay, animals are similar to humans, but why should that matter to us?’ This is quite frankly a scarily selfish and dangerous way to think and I’d like to think it’s just a show or farce, instead of a deep seeded disrespect for life.

Whatever is meant, food is not a personal choice. But the reasons that go much further than the animals themselves.

People near and far are also affected through agriculture’s effects on the physical environment. Grazing livestock for example not only causes local drought, but also the climate of the entire planet.

In this respect, even veganism is not a personal choice: there is still agricultural land involved, animals displaced or killed and greenhouse gas emitted. But, dish for dish it’s a much better option all around.

Even in this context of ‘a choice being made by a person’, food is rarely a personal choice. Most of us were raised believing that meat is non-optional, ignorant of the fact it is undoubtedly non-essential for health and vibrance.

We should each take responsibility for our own lifestyle and looking with open eyes at the effects of our choices. The law and social custom are not infallible. We know animals are not dumb or mechanical cogs in the wheel of nature – we know they are similar to us. It’s time to include them in consideration.