Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category


May 6, 2014


We told the swans not to build their nest there. Seriously? We said. You really want to be this close to the parking lot, right off the foot path? You think this is a nice place to start your family, this corner of the harbor where all the trash washes up – food wrappers, water bottles, soda cans? Not my idea of a birthing center. But would they listen?

Sure enough, the next time we walked to the park in the village, the nest was done. The pen was sitting on top, and the cob was tucking a few last reeds into the side. We kept our son’s dog back, so the swans wouldn’t freak out. But we worried that not everyone would be as careful.

The town had stretched an official-looking fence between the nest and the path. But they didn’t include a sign warning against feeding wild water birds.


On Sunday, I took a friend to visit the swans. The pen was settled down for the count  — a blob of white feathers, a curve of neck, head hidden under a wing. A pair of mallards and half a dozen Canada geese were hanging out nearby. No sign of the cob.

“See? She’s sitting on her eggs,” a man was telling his little girl. “Want to feed her? She needs food, because she has to sit on her eggs.”

He tossed a slice of bread – not a torn-off crumb, but a whole, hulking slice – over the fence. It hit the bottom of the nest. The pen raised her head, looked around and reached for the bread. Too far.

“Too bad,” the man said.

A mallard swam over and waddled up the side of the nest, coming after the bread. The pen raised her neck as high as it would stretch and opened her beak.

“Did you hear anything?” My friend asked. I hadn’t. But it seemed clear that she was calling for her mate.

“Where is he?” I asked.

“Off getting a beer,” my friend said.

Meanwhile, the man tossed over another slice, missed again, and ended up feeding the mallard again.

“Darn,” he said, and threw another slide, this time hitting the swan. She grabbed the bread in her beak , tipped her head back, and swallowed. We could see the bulge moving down the length of her neck.

Enough already, I thought.

But the guy wasn’t done. We watched him throw in slice after slice.  Mostly he missed, but sometimes he didn’t. With each toss of bread, more Canada geese and ducks moved in, and the pen grew increasingly disturbed. We kept waiting for the man to stop throwing bread, or for the cob to show up and and chase the other birds away.

When we left, the man was still throwing bread, and the cob was still a no-show.

Idiots, I thought.


As we were walking away, my friend mentioned something she’d read about economic development – how often our attempts to fix a problem end up making it worse. She was thinking the same thing as me, of course – that the man’s hapless attempt to help the swan was actually endangering her eggs.

Later, when I told the story to my husband, I said, “We didn’t say anything to the man.”

That was the first it occurred to me that we might have done something other than just watch. And judge.





Embarrassment of Riches

March 31, 2013


I’m at the supermarket, loading my groceries onto the tabloids-and-batteries end of the conveyor belt. At the other end, a 40-ish woman is ringing up her order. It’s a small order, which is why I chose this check-out line. I’m not really paying attention to her. I’m reading a headline about Camilla Bowles’ drinking problem (who knew?) and I’m carefully arranging my purchases—the wild-caught salmon beside the milk, the skin cream with the razor blades and antiseptic lotion, the fresh veggies together, the fancy whole bean coffee near the parchment paper—when I realize that something irregular is happening at the register.

The woman is asking to have her total repeated. I’m pretty sure I hear the cashier say, “Seven eighty.” And then I see the woman reaching into one of her bags and handing the cashier two cartons of eggs. Neither the shopper nor the cashier makes a big deal of it. The shopper doesn’t act especially upset, and the cashier doesn’t seem particularly surprised. He just sets the eggs aside and punches in some numbers.

Then he holds up a coupon and announces, “This is expired.”

This time, the woman visibly sighs. “Okay,” she says. “Better put this back, too.” And she hands the cashier a small tub of cream cheese.

By now, it begins to occur to me that I could do something for this woman. I could pay for her eggs and her cream cheese. And maybe I should. But how? Do I give her the money? Do I give it to the cashier? I don’t want to embarrass her, I tell myself. No one has so much as looked in my direction, so I would have to intrude on their transaction. Admit that I’ve been listening. What should I say? And how much does she need? My money is snapped inside my wallet, and my wallet is zipped inside my purse.

While I’m standing there, trying to figure out what to do, the woman takes her remaining groceries and leaves.

I step up to the cashier and he rings me up. My order comes to almost exactly ten times what the woman ahead of me spent. I swipe my credit card, hit “yes,” sign, and leave with my bags. As I drive up Warwick Avenue, I see the woman waiting at the bus stop.

Did I mention that all this takes place on the fifth night of Passover? Four nights earlier, I presided over my family’s seder. We raised the matzo and recited, “This is the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat.” When I was picking readings from various haggadahs, I’d made sure to include one that interpreted the Festival of Freedom as encompassing freedom from want, and another that reminded us that it’s our duty to help make others free.

As I drive home from the supermarket and put away my purchases, the irony weighs more and more heavily on my mind. I keep replaying the scene in the check-out aisle, trying to picture myself putting my money where my mouth is. But even in my imagination, I fall short. The problem, I tell myself, is that I don’t know the right words to say.

So I ask Facebook.

It turns out a lot of my friends have been in this situation – on both the giving and the receiving end. Some found it embarrassing, and some still feel bad about failing to act, like me. But lots of folks seem to find it pretty easy to help a needy stranger. The key, they all agree, is to keep it light. Talk about “paying it forward,” they advise. They suggest I claim that someone else once did the same thing for me—whether or not this is true. Or I could say nothing at all. Just give the woman a smile, and the cashier the money.

These are all great ideas. But will I use them? I don’t know.

I’m great at being charitable in the abstract. Write a check or fill in a form on a website, and I’m done. And if the woman at the supermarket had turned to me for help, I’m pretty sure I would have been glad to give her what she needed. But step forward, uninvited?

I told myself I was concerned about causing her embarrassment. And I was. But I’m pretty sure that I was also worried about the embarrassment to myself. The embarrassment of admitting to someone who doesn’t have enough that I have more than enough. And the more general embarrassment of crossing the invisible barrier that makes us strangers. Of not minding my own business.

If this situation arises again, at least I’ll have a script. I hope I’ll have the nerve to use it. And if I balk, I hope I’ll remember that as difficult as doing the right thing might seem to me at the time, it’s a lot harder to deal with the regret.

The Other Red Meat

June 3, 2012

Do you eat meat? All meat, or just kosher? Halal? If just kosher or halal, are you strict about slaughtering, or do you just avoid certain species? Do you avoid red meat? Non-organic meat? Sad meat, from animals that were factory farmed? If you don’t eat meat, what about fish? Would that be all fish, or just wild-caught? What about bottom feeders? If you don’t eat meat or fish, what about eggs and dairy? Honey? What’s your position on wheat? Tree nuts? Peanuts? MSG?

Are your food taboos based on religion? If so, which flavor? Is it ethics you care about? Meaning cruelty? The environment? Labor policy? Localism? Is it your health? And if so,  are you worried about weight? Allergies? Something else? Or are your dietary decisions more of a gut thing? Maybe you just don’t like peas.

It’s complicated, this business of eating. And even after you’ve gotten your food rules worked out, new information or questions might force you to rethink your rubric. (Pigs aren’t as smart as you think. Sea bass are endangered. If road kill is fresh and healthy, isn’t it wrong not to eat it?)

My own food outlook has been evolving. When dinner hosts ask my husband David and me what we eat, our standard answer is “everything.” But that’s not really true anymore. Because we’re concerned about cruelty, we try to eat meat only from animals that have been raised humanely. We eat fish (fin- and shell-) because we figure they’re equally happy whether they live in the wild or in fish farms, but we avoid over-fished species, out of environmental concerns. For health reasons, I try to go light on the fat, and favor whole grains over white. I also generally steer clear of ice cream and other dairy products, for reasons I won’t go into.

That’s how we eat at home and in restaurants. When people have us over, however, we just say we eat “everything,” because we don’t want to be a bother to our hosts. But I’m beginning to think it might be time to change our public eating status.

The question came up last week, when we were at a philosophy conference in the Lofoten Islands, in Norway’s far north. The conference was held at a “base camp” of cottages with an associated restaurant, where most attendees ate three meals a day.

Breakfast was available for several hours, and served buffet-style – the default arrangement at Scandinavian hotels, where the morning meal is standardly included in the price of the room. The basic menu includes breads, cheese, cold meats, fish and vegetables, as well as fruit, nuts, cereal and yogurt, boiled eggs, some sort of sweet pastry, and maybe, for the tourists, scrambled eggs and sausages on a steam table. Cushier lodgings mean classier rations. At the conference hotel, the cheeses were scrumptious, the smoked salmon luxe, and tiny croissants dusted with lightly caramelized sugar to die for. The range of options, and the help-yourself set-up, was ideal for people who want stay in charge of what they consume.

Lunches and dinners were a different matter. The thirty or so philosophers and their guests all sat down at the same time, at two long tables. When everyone was settled, the server called us to attention with the tap of a spoon on a glass, and announced the menu. “For dinner tonight you will have stockfish in pastry, followed by halibut with leek puree and roasted potatoes, and for dessert you will have panna cotta with blueberry coulis.”

Fish dominated the menus, which was just fine with me. And substitute dishes were available for those philosophers who had registered their dietary desiderata in advance. Several ate fish, but not meat. Others were pure vegetarians. At least two others were vegans; at the chef’s request, they had sent ahead links to websites with appropriate recipes. One philosopher ate meat, but not fish or wheat. In the parlance of our English-speaking Norwegian servers, fish-eaters were “vegetarians,” and anyone on a more restricted diet “vegan.” The simplified terminology worked well enough until the second night.

The server stood before us and tapped a glass with a spoon. “I will announce tonight’s menu,” she told us, quite happily. “You will start with a whale carpaccio served with cream cheese, watercress and beet puree.”

Cue the gasps and murmurs. (“Hang on a sec. Did she say whale?”)

“But what if we don’t want to eat whale?” someone asked.

“Those who do not want whale will have salmon,” the server smartly replied.

More murmurs. “I won’t eat whale,” someone called out. “Me neither,” said someone else, amid the general clamor. The server – a slight woman, about the age of the undergraduates the philosophers taught back home, managed to get our attention.

“Who will not eat whale?” she asked. Hands shot up all over the room. “We have seven servings of salmon,” she added.

More murmurs.

“But what if more than seven people want the salmon?”

“The salmon is only for the vegetarians.”

“Pescaterians,” someone corrected her.

“If you are a vegetarian you want salmon,” the server said firmly. “If you are not a vegetarian or a vegan, you want whale.”

Clearly, we were having a communication problem. But what was getting lost in translation wasn’t the nuances of vegetarianism and veganism, but the meaning of want.

As the servers went off to fetch our plates, we did some quick calculations. Whale are way smarter than fish, but it’s hard to imagine another animal with a more free-range existence. Aren’t they endangered, though? I thought of the great sperm whale, hunted nearly to extinction. Whales’ majestic size. The awesome distances they travel. The grace with which they propel their huge bodies through the water. The romance of their songs – of singing through water. The sweetness of their calves. Rafi, “Baby Baluga,” and the days when our children were babies. It was like asking us to eat Barney, the big purple dinosaur.

I stacked all of that up against the fact that the whale had already been purchased, prepared and plated. It seemed unlikely that refusing it would make much of an impact. And weren’t we always saying it was important to be good guests?

We were visitors in someone else’s home – a country where intelligent, ethical people eat not only whale, but reindeer. Also sheep’s head, boiled whole and served with mashed rutabagas. For Christmas. If we were in Korea, the dish du jour could be dog. And where is it, Indonesia? Where they eat the brains of live monkeys? A friend of ours who once traveled to somewhere in Africa representing a nonprofit claimed to have been honored at a feast where she was served live insects. “I could feel their legs wiggling as they went down my throat,” she said. What are the limits of accepting hospitality?

“The whales that are eaten here are not endangered,” the one Norwegian philosopher at our table assured us. “There are strict rules about how they’re caught and killed. Policemen go out on the boats to make sure everything is done right. The way they are killed is much less cruel than the way factory farmed pigs, for example, are slaughtered. And I have seen no convincing studies proving that they are more intelligent than other species, such as pigs.”

Our plates arrived. And reader, we ate it. The meat was deep red and delicious — dense, clean and meaty like grass-fed beef, but richer on the tongue, and when you sank you teeth into it, a soft, silky texture.

If you’re going to challenge your dietary principles, it might as well taste good.

Why be good?

October 14, 2011

My October column for the Voice & Herald.

I once worked as the librarian at a Catholic girls’ high school. Before I took the job, I worried that my background would be a barrier. But the nuns loved having a Jewish librarian. They saw me as a direct line to their religious roots, and I began playing up my Judaism in order to please them. Everything was fine until Sister Mary Emilie invited me to address her Religion 9 class in a sort of Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Judaism session.

The students submitted questions in advance. Lots of them were easy. What is a bar mitzvah? Why do men wear those little beanies? Why don’t Jews celebrate Christmas? Other questions were trickier. Do Jews like Jesus? What about hell?

A few days later, I stood before a room full of fourteen-year-olds in matching yellow blouses and checked skirts. Flipping through my index cards, I talked about coming-of-age rituals and covering the head as a sign of respect. I told the girls that Jews consider Jesus a great teacher, but don’t believe anyone can be the son of God. As for hell, I said, it’s part of Jewish folklore, but not doctrine. “Nobody tells Jewish kids that if they sin they’ll go to hell,” I added.

Hands shot up all over the room.

“Then why be good?” A girl in the front row asked.

Because it’s good to be good? I wanted to say. A good person isn’t just out for number one – even in the very long term. Jews don’t need threats to do the right thing, I thought, trying not to look smug.

“Because being good makes the world better,” I said.

Sister Mary Emilie smiled at me from the back of the room. The girls seemed less convinced. But I was at a loss as to what else to say. I was a school librarian and Jewish. That hardly made me an expert.

Three decades later, I’m still thinking about that girl’s question.

It comes up when I’m reading Torah. Sure, we don’t read about guys in red Spandex suits brandishing pitchforks, but a parasha rarely passes when God doesn’t threaten to subject sinners to some living hell. Crops fail, armies invade and the nation is scattered, all becauseIsraeldoesn’t act right. One particularly pretty passage pictures evil doers eating their own babies. Do stories like these teach us right from wrong, or just bully us into submission?

The question comes up a lot during the high holidays, when divine judgment gets personal. We have committed all sorts of sins, the story goes, and God really ought to smack us. But if we pound our chests hard enough and say we’re sorry sincerely enough, maybe we can avert the harsh decree. If we’re more concerned about being judged than about what we did, what kind of morality is that?

For folks like me, who don’t believe famines and foreclosures are divine judgment, the Machzor suggests picturing God as a parent. The image is a lot easier to identify with than that of a king, or a judge with a ledger. And the idea of an internalized parental voice describes pretty well how it often feels to make moral decisions.

But how does the Be Good For Mommy model stack up morally? That depends. Suppose the voice in your head is warning you to be good or else. Even if you’re just trying not to feel guilty, if that’s the only thing keeping you from cheating your customers or punching your sister, you’re still basically acting out of self-interest. It’s good that your sister’s arm doesn’t hurt and your customers aren’t ripped off. But it doesn’t make you all that good.

What if the voice in your head wants to kvell? Do it for me, you hear your mother saying, as you write that check for tzedakah. Make me proud. Wanting to make someone else happy, or to shed a good light on them, is morally better than doing it for yourself. But best of all is if the voice of your parent – or teacher, or tradition – is there to remind you about the underlying principles that let you distinguish right from wrong on your own.

Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Maimonides. “A man should not do the mitzvot and learn Torah so that he will receive the blessings promised or obtain the hereafter… only the ignorant and the children are trained to worship God from fear, so that they will develop and worship God out of love.”

Not interested in worshipping God? Maimonides also articulates behavioral goals that should motivate any moral person. “The purpose of the laws of the Torah…is to bring mercy, loving-kindness and peace upon the world.”

If only I had said some of that to Sister Mary Emilie’s students. Instead, I turned to my next index card. “Someone wanted to know about Christmas?” I asked.

You Are What You Meat

November 23, 2010

Cows grazing at Pat's Pastured farm

When my son was six, I helped chaperone his class’s pre-Thanksgiving field trip to a turkey farm In Williston, Vermont. The trip didn’t turn out quite the way his teacher had hoped. The birds were crowded wattle to wing in an indoor pen, shuffling and shuddering, the cacophony of their collective gobbling loud and alarming. It came in waves. It was clear the birds were upset and setting each other off. Many of their normally red wattles were blue – a sign of anxiety, the farmer calmly explained. His baseball cap had a picture of a hand giving a one-finger salute. It was easy to imagine that the birds’ distress was directly related to his plans for their near future. But it’s more likely they were upset by the presence of 30 jostling, noisy first-graders.

It’s enough to make me never eat meat again, I thought as we hurried the kids out of there. Except it wasn’t. Just a few days later I sat down to Thanksgiving dinner with the rest of my family and blithely tucked into my turkey. And I have continued to tuck into turkeys – and chickens and lambs and cows and pigs.

But maybe not as blithely.

We used to serve it for dinner seven nights a week and buy any cut that looked good and was affordable. First we stopped eating veal, and then we started searching out other meats from animals that had been raised humanely. At the time we were still living in Vermont, where our neighborhood grocer carried lots of stuff from local suppliers touting free range/organic/fair trade/sustainable/heirloom/insert-your-pc-food-catchword credentials. So finding foods that assuaged our consciences was easy.

Less easy was paying for them, which meant we ate meat less often. Which I considered a good thing.

Then we moved to Rhode Island. Three years ago, when we arrived, there were two Whole Foods stores within a fifteen-minute drive of our house. Today there are three, plus a Trader Joe’s. These national chains pedal lots of groceries with groovy credentials. But kind treatment of livestock isn’t among them.

Not surprisingly, Rhode Island also doesn’t have nearly as many farms as Vermont. But the number is growing (in fact, last year Rhode Island’s farm roster has grown more quickly than 48 other states’). And in the short time we’ve been here, there has also been a boom in farmer’s markets.

We like knowing how our meat was raised and buying it directly from the folks who raised it. But market schedules don’t always jive with ours. And even without the middleman, purchasing happy meat retail is still pricey.

This fall, we faced a choice. I leaned towards going meatless – or nearly meatless. David proposed a different approach: buy a freezer chest and find a happy-meat farmer to fill it.

Now I’ve got a freezer in my basement filled with 100 pounds of dead cow. It’s happy dead cow. Or at least, it lived a happy life. Assuming happiness for a cow comes from spending its days grazing on grass in a Vermont pasture. I picked the meat up last week – three cardboard boxes – from a woman in Coventry, Rhode Island, who’d picked it up the day before from Corinth, Vermont, where she owns a farm and rents it to tenants who raise, slaughter and butcher angus cows.

On Sunday David and I drove to Jamestown, Rhode Island, to pick up our Thanksgiving turkey. It’s a happy Thanksgiving turkey. Or at least, it lived a happy life. Assuming happiness for a turkey comes from spending its days pecking at bugs in an open pasture on a narrow strip of land with Narragansett Bay sparkling to the east and the west.

Would it be better not to eat animals at all? Probably. But this is where we are this year. And when I sit down to our turkey dinner on Thursday, I’ll know the turkey I’m tucking into didn’t spend its days wattle to wing in a hysterical mob. That’s something to be thankful for.

My First Pig Roast

July 11, 2010

Every year my sister-in-law Sarah throws a giant pig roast at her home in Colorado Springs. This year David and I attended for the first time.

On Thursday we drove with Sarah to Castle Rock to pick up the pig. It weighed 108 pounds, and was wheeled out to the car in a long, cardboard box that looked like it ought to be draped in an American flag. Instead, we pulled a plastic bag around it, because juices were dripping out of one corner of the box. Once the pig was safely stashed in the back of the Subaru, we returned to Colorado Springs, where we dropped the box off at Front Range Bar-B-Q.

On Saturday afternoon, the Front Range Bar-B-Q guy parked his smoker in front of Sarah’s house. The smoker looks like an old-fashioned train engine. The pig was laid out with an orange in its mouth and pepper slices over its eyes. Its snout was hairy and its skin was glistening. It had already been smoking for several hours. Sarah had asked the Front Range people to finish the cooking in front of her house because she wanted to smell of the smoke to fill the air.

In the Torah, the fragrant smoke of grilling meat is the essence of the sacrifices at the Temple. When the pleasing aroma rises to God, the offering is accepted. Of course the animal being sacrificed at the Torah isn’t a pig. And as far as I know, the text makes no mention of oranges in the animal’s mouth or pepper slices over its eyes. After the smoke has risen to God, the pilgrims and their friends feast on the flesh. That’s what happened at the pig roast.

Coolers were filled with beer and soda. Two guitar-strumming singers from Manitou Springs played folksy covers. Guests brought sides of hummus, green-bean casserole, artichoke dip, pasta salad, silky-smooth collard greens. Counting the babies, there were about 70 people altogether. The pig was brought in from the smoker and laid out on the table, where we could watch it being sliced as we loaded our plates with meat and and topped it with sauce.

The sight of the pig laid out like that turned my stomach. But I’m not a vegetarian and I don’t keep kosher, so I helped myself to a little of the meat and spooned over some of the sauce. I think it tasted pretty good. But I didn’t really taste it. I couldn’t get the sight of that pig out of my head.

There are lots of reasons for not eating animals: human health, animal cruelty, environmental sustainability. I find them all compelling – but not as convincing as the deliciousness of a good lamb curry. The laws of kashrut present dietary restrictions as God’s commandment. I don’t believe in a god who commands, and love the salty bite of bacon – but I’m Jewish enough to feel guilty when I eat it. And I suspect that I would have been less put off if that pig had been a goat or a lamb.

Or maybe not. The way that pig was displayed, with everyone talking and laughing around it felt – what? Disrespectful, I guess. It was as if we were saying, “Ha ha, joke’s on you. You’re dead and we’re having a party.”

And if the specific strictures of kashrut strike me as arbitrary, its more general encouragement of eating awareness resonates deeply. I like the idea of taking the physical instinct to feed your face and turning it into an act of devotion. You don’t need to believe in God to see the point of slowing down, considering what it is you’re putting in your mouth, and remembering that your life depends on it.

I believe that if a person is going to eat animals, she should be willing to face up to what she’s doing. Someone who can’t stomach a slaughterhouse tour has no business eating what comes out of it. I’m pretty sure I could be sickened by such a visit. But I haven’t been to one yet.

The night after the roast I had trouble sleeping. As I lay awake, I wondered if come morning I would finally take the plunge and tell David I was giving up meat.

I didn’t. Today at lunch, I passed up the leftover pork in favor of chicken. Then I dug in with gusto, picking the bones clean and gnawing the cartilage. Surveying the remains on my plate, I realized what I had done. I forced myself to imagine the living creature I’d just consumed. But the thought was too unpleasant. I quickly set it aside and told myself, maybe tomorrow.