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

Photos from Thinkstock


Frank Hanline
Frank Hanline5 days ago

thanks for sharing.

Patricia P.
Patricia P.6 days ago

thanks for sharing.

Jim Ven
Jim Ven7 days ago

thanks for sharing.

Al H.
Past Member 10 months ago

Kate R - which "side" sets up 99.9% of the debates on Care2? Those damn unethical veggies huh!

Kate R.
Past Member 11 months ago

But it appears to be considered entirely ethical to set up a debate with the sole purpose of polarising people onto directly opposite sides with the minimum of common ground. For folks with no understanding of mature debate to hurl insults & sarcasm at each other, to get angry & hurt... with absolutely no possibility of anyone learning the other side's point of view or changing their own stance on the matter. Yeah, sounds perfectly ethical to me.

Al H.
Past Member 11 months ago

Somebody with the initials DB, didn't even have the intestinal fortitude (guts) to answer my question about the "unethical headings" used on some Cause Threads (like this very one). She is good at slipping away and finding other threads to "embellish" with her "eat no meat or no meat at all. What is the matter with that?" mantra. Other mantra: "meat is not good for your health" - living isn't good for your health.

Caroline B. - there are a lot of us that live by the same principles that you do. DB NEEDS you to go that step further though and become a Herbivore. Are you up for it?

Caroline B.
Caroline B.about a year ago

Interesting argument. While I still eat meat I am eating less of it, and doing research on local farms raising animals ethically, and organically, and purchasing their products. I no longer eat comercially produced meat.

I have no doubt that a lot of people will disagree with my choice, but it is my choice. I also purchase as much local, organic and GMO free produce, and grains as possible.

Darlene Buckingham
Darlene Buckinghamabout a year ago

At least you are consistent Frank - calling anyone that does not have the same viewing point as you a liar and a fear monger. Take a look at the evidence of the cruelty to animals, that meat is not good for your health and the impact to the environment. It is the reality of what is happening. We humans can stand to eat less meat and improve the conditions for animals, the environment and our health.

Frank Hanline
Frank Hanlineabout a year ago

@ Darlene: You are a real hoot

You make false equivalencies and lie through your tooth

You are nothing but a dishonorable fear monger and liar

Darlene Buckingham
Darlene Buckinghamabout a year ago

It's not a laughing matter the suffering of animals and the impact of raising billions of animals to eat on the environment. For someone who wants to walk lightly on the planet you are leaving a heavy footprint.