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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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1181 comments

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9:32PM PDT on Aug 18, 2015

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.



6:50PM PDT on Aug 18, 2015

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.

6:35PM PDT on Aug 18, 2015

@ 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

4:52PM PDT on Aug 18, 2015

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.

3:57PM PDT on Aug 18, 2015

Here endeth the lesson - from Dr Dralene. Too funny. GAL. CU. Charity work to do.

3:43PM PDT on Aug 18, 2015

If you are fit and healthy than enjoy life! It is a blessing. But it still holds true that people can stand to eat less meat for their health, for the environmental impact of raising the unnatural numbers of billions of animals to eat and for the inherent cruelty in raising and killing animals for food. There is no excuse or justification for advocating a paleo diet or having meat as the main dish in todays world, including B12 when it is so easy to supplement and be responsible to the environment and to animals that are suffering because we rely on them so much when we could be eating a more plant based diet.

3:12PM PDT on Aug 18, 2015

70 is still "young". Take off those rose coloured glasses.
Apart from your fanciful spin - I have this Doctor (a real one), who tells me that I'm as fit and healthy as the young bull on top of the hill, you know the one, that wants to run down and have his way with the cows (in a nice way) in the valley below. I wish! ;-)

2:43PM PDT on Aug 18, 2015

70 is still young! WE forget that humans can live a lot longer. Sadly too many people are old at your age. I am in my 60's and use herbs for health, no prescription drugs but I do supplement vitamin D3 in the winter when I get less sunlight. I also take a probiotic. There are foods that have B12 in them -for some that is enough for others it isn't no matter what their diet is, meat-eaters included. Even though I get most of my nutrients from my diet I would not recommend not to supplement especially as people age. I also would not tell people because I don't take supplements not to do so. If you read the article many people are deficient in vitamin B12 even if they eat meat. You are not eating any fortified foods at all?
http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/20030618/vegetarian-diet-b12-deficiency
"Meat Eaters: This Includes You
Even young, healthy, vitamin-taking meat-eaters may not be getting enough B12, according to Tufts University nutritionist Katherine Tucker, PhD.
In a study published three years ago, also in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, she found that nearly 40% of 3,000 adults under age 50 had blood levels of vitamin B12 low enough to cause problems."

2:03PM PDT on Aug 18, 2015

Dralene - check this out. I'm over 70 (is that old) and I do NOT take any supplements. And I guarantee, I could muscle you under the table any day, whilst chewing on a spare-rib (or twelve). I've always lived my life on the Omnivore Diet and I'm still as happy and contented "as a pig in s..t".

9:11AM PDT on Aug 18, 2015

Check it out Frank - supplementation is also recommended for people on the Paleo diet. Supplementation is a reality for all people today no matter how healthy they may eat.
http://ultimatepaleoguide.com/paleo-supplements/

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