In his famous “Autobiography,” published posthumously in 1793, Benjamin Franklin recounts his experience following a vegetarian diet when he was 16 years old. Having read Thomas Tryon’s 1691 book “The Way to Health,” which extolls the many benefits of a “vegetable diet,” Franklin found that it promoted “greater clearness of head and quicker apprehension.”
Several years later, he stopped being vegetarian while sailing from Boston and explains why:
“Hitherto I had stuck to my Resolution of not eating animal Food; and on this Occasion, I consider’d with my Master Tryon, the taking of every Fish as a kind of unprovoked Murder, since none of them had or ever could do us any Injury that might justify the Slaughter. — All this seem’d very reasonable. — But I had formerly been a great Lover of Fish, & when this came hot out of the Frying Pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc’d some time between Principle & inclination: till I recollected, that when the Fish were opened, I saw smaller Fish taken out of their Stomachs: — Then, thought I, if you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you. So I din’d upon Cod very heartily, returning only now & then occasionally to a vegetable Diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for every thing one has a mind to do.”
As Franklin understood, the joy of having reason is that you can reason your way out of anything, and when it comes to eating animals, as Franklin eloquently illustrates, we do a pretty good job of rationalizing it. Remarkably, we don’t merely justify it on the grounds that it benefits us; we also – rather brazenly – justify it on the grounds that it benefits the animals themselves.
I know I’m not alone in having been told as a child that I didn’t have to feel sad about eating animals because they sacrificed themselves for us so that we may eat. If pressed, I think my parents would have admitted that this was neither true nor rational, but indeed logic has nothing to do with it. As Franklin illustrated, reason is the guise we wear when compassion ruins our fun, when conscience gets in the way. Reason is the intellectual veneer that conceals and legitimizes an irrational desire.
And so, in order to persuade their sensitive, animal-loving daughter to eat the chicken’s legs or pig’s shoulder they put on my plate, my parents had to tell me what they knew would sting less than the truth – both for my sake and theirs: that the animals are complicit in their own deaths. It’s classic deflection: exonerate the perpetrator by proving that the victim was an accomplice in the crime.
Ironically, I think it’s our compassion that necessitates these lies. It is precisely because my parents knew how painful it would have been for me to know that I was contributing to an animal being unnecessarily hurt and killed that they conjured up these stories of suicidal chickens and masochistic pigs. They weren’t trying to hurt me; they were trying to protect me. It was their sensitivity – and their awareness of mine – that compelled them to romanticize what is in truth a very ugly endeavor. The very idea that animals suffer because of our actions is so anathema to us, so difficult to confront that instead of doing so, we idealize our use and abuse of them to the point of fantasy.
As creatures of conscience, we have the capacity to justify anything we do, and what separates the little fish from the big fish is having the self-awareness to know that’s precisely what we’re doing. Although I do believe Franklin did indeed give up on his vegetarianism on that voyage, I also believe that he knew full well that he was rationalizing his behavior in order to feel better about participating in something that he knew was not in alignment with his values.
Franklin had enough self-awareness — and scientific knowledge — to know that unlike the carnivorous animals who are physiologically compelled to eat other animals, we humans have the ability and responsibility to make moral and rational decisions – or not. We can choose compassion over convenience and principle over inclination or we can turn to the fishes as the model for our behavior. It’s our choice.