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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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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.

12:39PM PST on Nov 30, 2014

Every living thing on this planet evolved in a web of life which depends on eating something else.

Millions of humans live in areas where they cannot grow crops (no water, poor soil, etc.) and must rely on domesticated (or wild) animals for survival.

Millions of other animals kill and eat one another for survival.

There's nothing IMMORAL about that.

Any ''morality'' in the issue is the circumstances in which domestic animals are bred, fed and killed. I'll remind you that EVEN THE DALAI LAMA EATS MEAT!

But the truth is that we ALL eat SOMETHING which was once alive. And I"m weary of sanctimonious vegans telling me I"m ''immoral'' because I eat chicken or fish every now & then.

2:00AM PST on Nov 30, 2014

Is ethical for cats , dogs not for human , for me

9:38AM PST on Nov 29, 2014

an interesting article and discussion, too.....thank you......

4:44AM PST on Nov 29, 2014

So our starving,naked, knuckle dragging ancestors ate every possible piece of flesh they could so we should too? We're awash in calories and tidal wave inducing bellies today, the last thing we need is our big brains parked in neutral to justify the eating of flesh. See the film

3:23PM PST on Nov 28, 2014

It's ethical to eat ANTS!

3:22PM PST on Nov 28, 2014

Heather, Angela is alternatively vegan!

7:57AM PST on Nov 28, 2014

"Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet."...Albert Einstein

2:00AM PST on Nov 28, 2014

Thanks for sharing

9:02PM PST on Nov 26, 2014

Interesting view, Jane D

Anyone not feeding their cats a meat-based diet is condemning them to sickness and death. Felines and Panterines are the only obligate carnivores on the planet, and must eat meat. Humans, however, have a choice.

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