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.
Photos from Thinkstock