By now, you’ve probably heard about the essay contest the NY Times is running. The prompt is “Tell us why it’s ethical to eat meat.” To decide the winner or winners, they’ve assembled a diverse mix of self-hating omnivores, self-hating sometimes-vegetarians, self-hating “flexible vegans,” and the guys with all those witty one-liners about food and grandmothers and “mostly plants” – Michael Pollan, Jonathan Safran Foer, Peter Singer, Mark Bittman, and Andrew Light. A number of readers have asked me to chime in on the subject and I agreed to it, albeit somewhat reluctantly. After all, why does the burden of proof rest on us, the physiologically omnivorous hominids who are simply eating the foods we’ve been eating for millions of years? But then I realized it might be a fun thing to write, to play around with and explore my own thoughts on the “ethics” of eating. And hey, maybe I’d have some sort of revelation, renounce my former ways, and come away a vegetarian! You never know.
Is eating meat ethical?
I find it odd that in their prompt for the essay, the NY Times forbids entrants from mentioning conscientious carnivory, local versus organic, grass-fed versus factory-raised, or sustainable versus unsustainable. In other words, they expect us to simply explain “why it’s ethical to eat meat” without allowing for any of the considerations or external factors that might affect the “ethics” of meat-eating.
How do I proceed, absent the ability to actually discuss the nuances? It’s a tough question, but I’ll try.
“Ethical” implies that we have a choice. Both dietary choices – omnivory and herbivory – cause animals to die. We have to eat something, and whichever choice we make, animals will die. There’s no getting around that. If we’re going to ask whether or not meat-eating is ethical because it causes animals to die, we also have to ask whether or not other common consumptive practices that also cause animals to die are ethical:
Is living in an apartment or a house built on the former homes of a dozen different species, several ant colonies, and the site of an indigenous people’s encampment from a hundred years ago ethical?
Is wearing clothing made from conventionally grown cotton that required the use of chemical fertilizers whose runoff pollutes rivers, lakes, and oceans, thus hurting marine life ethical?
Is eating pseudo-burgers made of soybeans that hail from monocrop farms whose owners razed the land on which they grow, killing families of groundhogs and field mice and trillions upon trillions of essential microbes that compose the topsoil ethical?
Animals all die as a result of these practices. Anyone who makes it past their first year has blood on their hands. At least the meat-eater must face the unavoidable fact that he consumes dead animals directly. At least he deals with death head-on, shrink-wrapped though it may be. For once the plastic and styrofoam are removed, there it is, staring him in the face: a bloody piece of dead animal flesh that he is then going to put into his mouth, chew, swallow, and digest.
Does that make him unethical? Only if anyone who eats anything whose production resulted in the death of animals is also unethical. One could even argue that since the meat-eater at least acknowledges the fact that an animal died for his meal, he’s the more honorable of the two.
And indeed everyone has blood on their hands as a direct or indirect result of their choices, consumption habits, and dietary practices. Everyone steps on someone else’s toes or hooves or talons or cute little paws or flippers or probosci or roots for “selfish” reasons – even vegans. If meat-eaters are unethical by virtue of their meat-eating, so too is the vegetarian whose grain-based meals came from farmers whose tractors crush small mammals and whose cropland disrupts entire ecosystems. I don’t think either person’s actions are unethical, but I fail to see how someone could think the former was unethical without also taking issue with the latter. If you’re going to indict eating meat because it kills animals, you also have to indict other dietary practices that also kill animals, like grain – even if those deaths are “unavoidable” or “accidental.” Sure, the farmer may not gleefully set out to murder field mice with his tractor (although the rodenticide used in grain elevators might raise a few eyebrows), but does it matter if the end result – a bunch of dead animals – is the same?
I eagerly await next week’s “Is Vegetarianism Ethical?” essay contest. If you’re going to indict eating meat because it kills animals, you must also indict the other dietary practices that kill animals.
Well, that’s my very brief take on it. For the record, I don’t think a discussion of the ethics of meat-eating can be truly entertained without full inclusion of the sustainability, organic, and local issues. In other words, without mentioning all that stuff the Times forbade us from mentioning, we can’t really dig deeply enough into the issue to get to the bottom. I suspect that this was by design, and that the whole NY Times contest was primarily a way to get the “meat-eaters” on the defensive without really giving them a chance (600 word limit… really?) to come out on top.
This is a tough issue, isn’t it? Death isn’t pretty. Killing animals is not easy, pleasurable work. And I love animals, and not just in an ironic, “because-they’re-tasty” kind of way. I’ll even admit that when I think of a cow or a pig or a lamb dying for my meal, going about its daily routine and then BLAM, suddenly being escorted away from the others to be put down, it’s not a pleasant thought. I feel bad for the animal, I feel a bit sad even, but I also feel thankful. If that sounds contradictory or confusing, you’re right.
That’s humanity for you. We feel sad and thankful and hungry and a bit weepy all at once (just check out Robb Wolf’s reaction to making the amazing atlatl elk kill in “I, Caveman”). These “ethical questions” rarely get hard and fast answers. I mean, people have been wrestling with them for thousands of years. There are no easy answers. It’s an essay question, not a multiple choice test.
Now let’s hear your take on it. Write your essays in the comments or provide links to them. Just be sure to defend your murderous ways somewhere, somehow. Thanks for reading!