There is a lot of controversy and debate surrounding eating meat. I’ve heard many arguments over the years from vegans and vegetarians objecting to eating meat, everything from animal rights, environmental ethics, religious reasons and health issues – an entirely different subject, beyond the scope of this posting. What I wish to discuss today is the ethics of eating meat. As a proud meat-eater’s meat-eater I was glad to see that the New York Times recently had an essay contest to make an ethical case for eating meat “Put your ethics where your mouth is”. I’m a vigorous and unapologetic carnivore and I feel that veganism as practiced by most is sanctimonious at best, and at worst harmful arrogance.
Probably the most common ethical objection to the killing and consumption of sentient beings is that people living in the developed world no longer have a dietary necessity for meat consumption –we can obtain all the other nutrients from non-meat foods- therefore the slaughter of animals to please human taste buds is not morally justifiable. This was opined by Peter Singer from Princeton University the pioneer of the animal liberation movement. He believes that if alternative means of survival exist, one ought to choose the option that does not cause unnecessary harm to animals. For example the grain that could feed hungry people is fed to animals (a loss of energy); the need for pasture fuels deforestation etc. However, if one accepts his viewpoint we can logically extend it to eliminating many low yielding crops from our diet because they destroy natural habitat and extinguish life, be it plant or animals. Thus we should only eat foods which have the lowest carbon footprint leaving us with tofu and mushrooms, or only organic seasonal foods produced locally.
The second ethical philosophy personism says that animals with a consciousness or who are capable of feeling pain should not be eaten. This includes only animals with a central nervous system which would mean that although biologically oysters are not in the plant kingdom when it comes to ethical eating, they are indistinguishable from plants. However, this philosophy does not hold up biologically with a strict vegan or vegetarian diet if they consume oysters. This ethical reason was lampooned by the punk band NOFX’s song clams have feelings too:
“They have no face, no place for ears
There’s no clam eyes, to cry clam tears
No spinal cord, they must get bored
Might as well just put them out of misery
I don’t beleive it’s selfish
To eat defenceless shellfish”
I also feel this is a foolish philosophy because although suffering animals feel anguish, a suffering plant also struggles to stay alive (albeit in a less visible way); no living organism “wants” to die for another organism’s sustenance.
If you want to talk about overfishing and sustainability then the real issue is human overpopulation – again, an entirely different subject beyond the scope of this posting. If “ethical” should be defined as living in the most ecologically benign way then NOT eating meat could arguably be unethical and ecologically foolish as animals are integral parts of truly sustainable agricultural systems – production of vegetables without the use of animals requires much larger amount of energy.
To give up eating what we have been doing since time immemorial we endanger ourselves genetically and socially. Second, when consumed in proper proportions eating meat is pleasurable and is good for the mind and body. However, as a meat eater I do abstain from meat of animals reared in particular ways, such as factory farms, veal and foie gras. My moral concern is not one of eating meat but the treatment involving the raising and humane slaughter. This is truly the next step, and I don’t think anyone –vegan, vegetarian, carnivore- disagrees with it: end the way we grow, process and slaughter, distribute, and eat meat. Give thanks for the meat you eat as well as all your friends in the vegetable kingdom: accept the biological reality that death begets life and that all life is really just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form.