Mark Zuckerberg’s Moral Courage

I’ve got some ethical issues and disagreements with Mark that mostly pertain to Facebook, but his latest announcement regarding his personal life isn’t one of them. Below is an e-mail he wrote to Fortune, outlining his goal for the next year. If you want the quick version, only read the parts I have bolded.

To start, let me give you some background on what I’m doing. Every year in recent memory, I’ve taken on a personal challenge — something to learn about the world, expand my interests and teach myself greater discipline. I spend almost all of my time building Facebook, so these personal challenges are all things I wouldn’t normally have the chance to do if I didn’t take the time.

Last year, for example, my personal challenge was to learn Chinese. I blocked out an hour every day to study and it has been an amazing experience so far. I’ve always found learning new languages challenging, so I wanted to jump in and try to learn a hard one. It has been a very humbling experience. With language, there’s no way to just “figure it out” like you can with other problems — you just need to practice and practice. The experience of learning Mandarin has also led me to travel to China, learn about its culture and history, and meet a lot of new interesting people.

This year, my personal challenge is around being thankful for the food I have to eat. I think many people forget that a living being has to die for you to eat meat, so my goal revolves around not letting myself forget that and being thankful for what I have. This year I’ve basically become a vegetarian since the only meat I’m eating is from animals I’ve killed myself. So far, this has been a good experience. I’m eating a lot healthier foods and I’ve learned a lot about sustainable farming and raising of animals.

I started thinking about this last year when I had a pig roast at my house. A bunch of people told me that even though they loved eating pork, they really didn’t want to think about the fact that the pig used to be alive. That just seemed irresponsible to me. I don’t have an issue with anything people choose to eat, but I do think they should take responsibility and be thankful for what they eat rather than trying to ignore where it came from.

The closest I’ve come to what Zuckerberg plans to do was back in Mauritania. Every month, me and the other Marines would purchase a calf and have it taken directly to the butcher and from there directly to a large freezer at our house — none of the storefront butcher shops or grocery stores in that country had refrigeration and there was no equivalent to the FDA, so it was that or get fly-covered meat that has been out for who knows how many hours or days. We did this about once a month, and usually gave the calf a name – eye contact with the animal was an implicit part of this process.

I’m better off for having had the experience of making eye contact with something that was thereafter to be my food. I’m at least aware of what I am eating on more than an abstract theoretical level.

I eat meat, and don’t hunt or butcher, but I do occasionally give pause for what is implied by the meat I eat. I don’t say a prayer or anything like that, but it’ll be on my mind while I nonetheless continue to eat. Is that taking it for granted that the very reason an animal was brought into existence and lived its entire life was for me to enjoy a single luxurious meal? Perhaps.

Here is something I do have a problem with, from he Boy Scouts of America:

Unauthorized and Restricted Activities

The following activities have been declared unauthorized and restricted by the Boy Scouts of America:


12. Hunting is not an authorized Cub Scout or Boy Scout activity.

Is fishing next?

Boy Scouts wishing to do so are prohibited from trapping and butchering the meat they eat at official Boy Scout functions, but meat can presumably still be consumed at such functions. One part of being a Boy Scout, as I recall from my days as one, was regarding nature and the luxuries we routinely enjoy with a bit of humility and respect. One of those luxuries, for most of us, is a high level of meat consumption on a regular basis. A prohibition on obtaining the moral understanding that can only be obtained with a first hand experience in the production of that meat is ridiculous. I’m not saying killing an animal should be some form of universal requirement to “become a man” or even a requirement for advancement within the Boy Scouts hierarchy, but such activities shouldn’t be prohibited either. If Vegetarianism where to become a Boy Scout requirement, such a prohibition would make sense. However, that clearly is not the case.

The fact that Boy Scouts are formally prohibited from obtaining a real understanding of what they are putting into their mouths is a problem, part of the larger problem of the moral degradation of Western Society. We like our meat, but are unwilling to ponder from whence it came. We like our manufactured shoes, but are unwilling to ponder the life lived by the people in the Third World that assembled those shoes. We love our Foxconn-produced Apple products, but we are largely unwilling to even contemplate the staggering rates of suicide among Foxconn factory workers.

At some point in the life of a young boy or girl in Western Society, that boy or girl should be introduced to the source of the meat they eat. If they still choose to eat meat according to their own ethical impulses, so be it. Ditto for the working conditions of shoe manufacturers and electronics assembly factory workers.

If you are reading this on a computer or device you personally own – you are wealthy beyond the imaginations of many by virtue of that alone, and the lifestyle you maintain rests on the backs of millions. Some of those millions are animals, and some are humans treated no better than animals. At the very least, be willing to be aware of that and contemplate it once in a while.

And, for the record, Zuckerberg’s plan to be intimately aware of the food he is eating is not the luxury only a rich man has. Being wealthy, by world standards, means you can afford not to make eye contact with anything you’ve eaten. You can afford to have it abstracted from you. I recall eating at a nice restaurant in the third world, and seeing a restaurant employee butcher a goat in plain sight of customers.

A “poor” man in the first world can certainly afford to have the life of the animal abstracted from him – he probably shops at grocery store. The subsistence farmer or fisher or herder should be considered our example of poverty, not someone that can afford to pay someone else to grow, butcher, package, and ship food to his local grocery store. By definition, those subsistence farmers have absolutely zero economic impact at all, and are similarly of zero economic value. If someone is willing to pay you $10 an hour for a good or service you can provide and you are thus not forced to grow your own food or livestock, you are not poor by world standards. Poverty certainly exists in the United States, and certain parts of the United States certainly resemble the third world (Detroit comes to mind, comparing Detroit literacy rates and infant mortality rates to those rates in Third World nations) but it isn’t nearly as prevalent as some would have us believe – no one should be considered to be in poverty simply because they cannot afford a smartphone, a laptop, and a car.

It takes a helluva lot more than that. Do you have shelter? Clean drinking water? Is your child likely to be functionally literate as a result of attending a public school? Can you put 2,000 calories worth of food and necessary vitamins and minerals into your body? Do you sleep on a mattress? If Fred answers yes to all of those questions, Fred is not poor and Fred should be thankful for what he has. Fred has enough resources that he can probably make his way to somewhere that he can at least watch a factory farm video on youtube and then decide if he still wants to consume meat as a source of those needed calories, vitamins, and minerals. My answer is “yes,” but Fred’s answer can only be Fred’s own and ought to have at least some foundation of awareness of the implications.

If the thought of catching a fish, killing it, and gutting it sounds so appalling that you aren’t sure you can handle even thinking about, I’m not entirely sure you are on solid moral footing when you order fish at a restaurant. There may even be a small bit of hypocrisy there. The same applies to a horse, and using glue. Be honest with yourself: could you feed and pet an adorable cow or piglet, give it a name, and then subsequently kill it for nothing more than the desire to have a delicious meal? Do you avoid even thinking about the notion that someone else may be doing that, to provide you with a meal? If you find it repulsive to even think about, how do you justify eating bacon or beef (if you do)?

I’m certain there are people all over these United States that are forced to turn a feral dog or trapped raccoon into a meal from time to time. They do not have the wealth needed to abstract the food from the animal every single time. Zuckerberg clearly does have the wealth needed to abstract the food from the animal, and he has chosen to give up that luxury.

So, Concluding: Thank you Mark Zuckerberg for having the moral courage to lead by example – to be willing to look an animal in the eye and perhaps even pet the animal prior to butchering, preparing, and consuming it. Hopefully, other young people in Western Society will at least follow your example at least to the extent of pondering the source of the luxuries enjoyed.

Mark Zuckerberg’s Moral Courage

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