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Why It’s Ethical to Eat Meat

  • by
  • September 20, 2012
  • 5:00 am
Why It’s Ethical to Eat Meat

Back in the spring, the New York Times’s Ethicist column ran an essay contest that challenged omnivores to defend the practice of eating meat. “Ethically speaking, vegetables get all the glory,” wrote Ariel Kaminer as she announced the contest. “In recent years, vegetarians — and to an even greater degree vegans, their hard-core inner circle — have dominated the discussion about the ethics of eating… In response, those who love meat have had surprisingly little to say.”

In 600 words or fewer, omnivores were asked to make the strongest possible case for why it is ethical to eat meat. Judges included Mark Bittman, Jonathan Safran Foer, Andrew Light, Michael Pollan and Peter Singer. The contest was criticized by many readers, who variously called it sexist, racist, pro-meat propaganda, antimeat propaganda and elitist. In the end the Times received 3,000 entries.

Below you’ll find my entry for the contest. As a disclaimer, I’ll say I found out about the contest close to the deadline and could have used more time to work out my argument. In fact I would have built my essay on the same premise that the winner did — that “eating meat in specific circumstances is ethical; eating meat raised in other circumstances is unethical.” I continue to be convinced of this.

At any rate, and without further ado, here is the essay I did write and enter on why it is ethical to eat meat.


Eating Meat to Survive

A lion topples a giraffe, a bear slays a fawn, a seal captures squid, and nobody objects. (Non-human) animals will be animals, and they do what they have to to subsist and, if possible, prosper. The circumstances for humans are otherwise. Ethical eaters argue that it’s wrong for humans to kill animals for food where survival is not at stake. As omnivores with a conscience, humans have a choice in what we eat and understand the ethical implications of our choices. This is why we are held to a higher standard. But how did humans, unlike every other animal in nature, evolve the cognitive capacity to consider the ethics of our choices in the first place?

Part of the answer is, by eating animals. “The first requirement for evolving a big brain,” Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham writes in”Catching Fire,” “is the ability to fuel it, and to do so reliably.” Dense in energy and easy to digest, meat (especially when cooked) provided an excellent source of food for the brain. In fact, most anthropologists believe that it was by beginning to eat meat that our ancestors saw a substantial gain in relative brain size millions of years ago. Bigger brains of course could accommodate more advanced cognitive functions, including abstract thought and language. So you could say that eating meat made it possible for us to deliberate the ethics of eating meat. For our ancestors, the choice to partake of other animals may not have been a question of survival, but their choice did contribute to the evolution of the species we are today — that is, to modern human existence. As such, can it be considered unethical?

Then again, that was then. Now that we are the ethical, rational species we are, we have a responsibility to act accordingly. And this makes it wrong for us to eat products derived from factory farm animals, who are subjected to terrible and unnecessary suffering in confinement. Moreover, as vegan and vegetarian eaters and societies have shown us, eating meat is not critical for our survival; it is possible to enjoy well-being on plant foods alone. So how can it be ethical to kill any animals, humanely raised or not, for food?

In today’s food environment, eating meat may in fact be the best bet for survival for many Americans. It is a more reliable way for them to get the energy and nourishment they need. In many areas of the country, fruits, vegetables and whole grains are hard to come by, and adhering to a plant-only diet would — calorie for calorie, gram for gram — costs more money (and time that can’t be spared) than one consisting of bacon-topped burgers and fried chicken, which are subsidized by our country’s industrial agricultural system. Composing a complete and balanced plant-only diet, moreover, requires a level of knowledge of foods, nutrients and supplements that most Americans are nowhere near having. Abolishing meat from the diets of Americans would not be unlike throwing them to the wolves.

Eating meat in America today is ethical because many of us have come to rely on it, to an extent, for our survival. And this is in no small measure a byproduct of the American food system, which promotes a meat-based diet while obstructing other ways of eating. But surely we’ll continue to evolve as a species and as a society, and it’s possible to imagine how someday meat-eating will be considered unequivocally unethical.


Related Stories:

Former Vegans Explain Why They Eat Meat: Are You Convinced?

7 Reasons Why We Have Not ‘Evolved’ To Eat Meat

The Ethical Dilemma Inherent in the Weekday Vegetarian Plan

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4:57AM PDT on Apr 18, 2015

Words of wisdom

"Only by means of reverence for life can we establish a spiritual and humane relationship with both people and all living creatures within our reach. Only in this fashion can we avoid harming others, and, within the limits of our capacity, go to their aid whenever they need us." - Albert Schweitzer

"Vegetarian food leaves a deep impression on our nature. If the whole world adopts vegetarianism, it can change the destiny of humankind." - Albert Einstein

"Were the belief one day to become general that man could dispense with animal food, there would ensue not only a great economic revolution, but a moral improvement as well." - Maurice Maurice

"Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages." - Thomas A. Edison

4:50AM PDT on Apr 18, 2015

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Inevitably, the violent act of slaughtering living beings deadens our compassion, skews our sense of justice.

In the words of Dr. Jane Goodall, "The greatest danger to our "future" is apathy." 

7:59PM PDT on Apr 13, 2015

Barbara D. Naww.. They only protect the fragile feelings of the more militant vegans. **shrugs** After all the poor misunderstood dears. Shouldn't have their noses rubbed in reality..

9:49AM PDT on Apr 12, 2015

Since Care2 leans heavily towards veganism they publish multitudes of vegan related articles which invariably degenerate into increasing conflict ~ until Support steps in to chastise and/or suspend the non-vegan *offenders*.

This reasoned, practical article justifies eating meat which will certainly engender conflict ~ with over 1,000 comments I'll assume it already has ~ but will Care2 Support step in to chastise/suspend the vegan offenders???

12:55PM PDT on Mar 24, 2015

Good thing that when I killed an animal, it was for food then, right Carol C?

Do you eat for pleasure? Doesn't matter if it's fruits, veggies, steak, or a pint of the good stuff, good food is to be enjoyed. It is the eating, not the killing

12:33PM PDT on Mar 24, 2015

Thanks for article and comments.

2:22AM PST on Feb 26, 2015

Killing for palate pleasure exists nowhere on the natural food web. All other animals kill to survive. Even animals that used to suffer reputations as "sport killers, animals behaviorists have proven that they always return to the prey as often as they can. Killing for survival is the opposite of killing for pleasure/gluttony.

8:13AM PST on Feb 3, 2015

This was an astonishingly poor excuse for an argument. It uses some classic fallacies, as well as some bizarre and not exactly honest misconceptions. Basically:
1) We benefited evolutionarily from eating meat, therefore it is ethical. This is the "appeal to nature" fallacy at it's finest. But also, it's more (and worse) than that.
For example, the US benefited enormously from enslaving and exploiting Africans, Asians, and Indigenous peoples in its early history. Does that mean it is ethical to continue to do so? Of course not.
2) Eating meat is easier in the US, therefore it is ethical. What? Stealing is easier than working for a living therefore it is ethical? Of course not.
I am not even arguing against the statement "eating meat is ethical". But you did an abysmal job of arguing for it.

8:08AM PST on Jan 18, 2015

Every species on this planet evolved in a web of life which DEPENDS on eating something else! That's the way it works and has worked for far longer than we've been ''human.''

Are you claiming that the evolutionary process is ''unethical?"

Billions of us live in areas where eating meat/following herds is the only viable option, since lack of water, good soil and all the systems needed to grow crops makes farming impossible. Is THIS ''unethical?" Because even the Dalai Lama eats meat, having growin up in an area where farms don't ''work.''

Our nearest relatives (chimps and bonobos) don't eat meat often, but they do eat it on occasion. Are THEY ''unethical?"

Don't try to impose very narrow ''values'' on the entire planet.

8:30PM PST on Dec 3, 2014

Okay, there are a few flaws with this rationale. First off, recommending that people eat fast food because they cannot afford fresh produce doesnt make a lot of sense. I take it that everyone has heard of Supersize Me. I know what the American health care system is like, and if they end up not being able to afford a triple-bypass because they ate crap, that does not seem like a very good solution. There are places in the world like Kazakhstan for instance, where growing fresh produce is not possible in that climate, so people eat animals like sheep and goats that are able to subsist on the scrubby vegetation there. It is kind of hard to believe that such a problem would exist in the USA, but perhaps there are some isolated areas like that.
Still, I have found that cabbage is highly nutritious, and can be delicious if properly prepared. They are among the cheapest food items you can buy, and very quick to make in a stir-fry.

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