The ethics of eating meat

Back in April, I submitted an entry for the the New York Times’ Tell Us Why It’s Ethical to Eat Meat essay contest. This is a topic I’m passionate about, think about constantly, and often fail to stop myself from debating (and fighting) with people about. This what I wrote:

Is it ethical to eat meat? Like every other ethics question, the answer is somewhere between definitely and no.

Let’s look at some other ways to divide up the food world to put the question in context. Local v. non-local: Is it more ethical to eat bananas from Nicaragua, or a chicken I raised in my backyard? Organic v. non-organic: is it more ethical to eat an ear of corn grown with pesticides that kill organisms in place, then taint soil and waterways; or to buy organic bacon from the farmer I see ever week at the greenmarket? What if that ear of corn is Roundup Ready? Then the question is genetically-modified versus non-GM, and you have to ignore the damage done to farms and farmers by Monsanto’s devastating pesticide in order to say its more ethical to eat that than a taco al pastor from the corner store. Or how about edible food-like substances v. real food: should we eat Twinkies instead of tacos?

The answer to all of these questions is: maybe. You can’t decide without more information. Put someone alone on a desert island, or on food stamps with a family of five, and who would call it unethical to eat any of these? Those of us with that have the luxury of choice can choose freely, but the addition of freedom does not transmute those choices into ethical imperatives. What it does do is give us the space to ask more questions, inquire deeper. Knowing the biological kingdom of your food is merely the beginning.

The mindset of “plants good, animals bad” is a cop-out, an easy answer to the question of how to eat in a way that expresses and aligns with our highest ideals. You are free to choose it if it you like, but if you truly want your view on the subject to correspond to reality, you have to admit shades of gray into your black-and-white world. You have to accept the possibility of nuance and seek it out. You need a worldview that doesn’t get so caught up on how disgusting and destructive the production and consumption of meat can be that it fails to see how disgusting and destructive eating plants can be too, just because it’s less obvious. The ruined cornfield bleats its anguish in a different language.

Dig deeper.

There are things I had to leave out because of the word limit and I’ve refined my thinking since then, so I’ll return to the topic in future posts. For now, I just want to get this out of my email, where it originally disappeared after I sent it to the Times and then again in an email thread with some friends that became unsustainable.

Here are the winners from the contest.

Favorite quote, from judge Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation (1975):

“The tragedy is that factory farming survives despite the widespread agreement that whether we are primarily concerned about animal welfare, our environment or our health, it is ethically indefensible.”

I went googling for ethical vegetarians or vegans that went back to eating meat and wrote about it, and had some interesting finds:

“I still believe that the diversion of ever wider tracts of arable land from feeding people to feeding livestock is iniquitous and grotesque. So does the book I’m about to discuss. I no longer believe that the only ethical response is to stop eating meat.”

— George Monblot in The Guardian: I was wrong about veganism. Let them eat meat – but farm it properly

“Replacing red meat with grain products leads to many more sentient animal deaths, far greater animal suffering and significantly more environmental degradation. Protein obtained from grazing livestock costs far fewer lives per kilogram: it is a more humane, ethical and environmentally-friendly dietary option.”

— Mike Archer in The Conversation: Ordering the vegetarian meal? There’s more animal blood on your hands


“I was a vegan for almost twenty years. I know the reasons that compelled me to embrace an extreme diet and they are honorable, ennobling even.”

“This book is written to further those passions, that hunger. It is not an attempt to mock the concept of animal rights or to sneer at the people who want a gentler world. Instead, this book is an effort to honor our deepest longings for a just world. And those longings—for compassion, for sustainability, for an equitable distribution of resources—are not served by the philosophy or practice of vegetarianism. We have been led astray.”

— Lierre Keith: The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice and Sustainability

“Human beings survive by eating other living things. I really want not only to eat, but to survive. Yet a nakedly logical way to judge the value of one kind of organism over another — the rightness of a plant’s death versus an animal’s — seems, to me, out of reach.”

— Carol Kaesuk Yoon in The New York Times: No Face, but Plants Like Life Too

This last one covers a some ideas I’ve been thinking a lot about: What exactly distinguishes plants from animals? The biological distinction is pretty boring—I would love to see someone make a moral argument for not eating meat based on the actual difference between them. And also the pain argument: plant behavior unfolds on the different timescale than animal behavior. Don’t eat meat because animals feel pain? Watch those time lapse videos of plants and then try to articulate the difference between plant and animal agony.


2 thoughts on “The ethics of eating meat

  1. mijnheer says:

    There is no plant agony. Although plants are sensitive to their environments in remarkable ways, they are not sentient: i.e., they are not subjectively aware. Nothing you can do to a plant can possibly make any difference to it from its point of view because it doesn’t have a point of view. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that plants are sentient after all. Since animals eat lots of plants, and a vegetarian diet therefore consumes fewer plants than a diet with meat, the moral argument for vegetarianism would be all the stronger.

    • ephduke says:

      “Sentience” is a messy word. How do you determine if another being is sentient? There are no strict criteria. All we can do is look at it and say, “Yeah that looks like sentience to me,” which is really to say, “It resembles my own experience as a sentient being.” It reminds us of ourselves, and so we can sympathize.

      For that to be possible, for us to be able to look at another being’s experience and think we understand it, it has to have sufficiently similar perceptual/conceptual faculties. The more different an animal is from us, the less able we are to map our own experiences (pain, agony) onto it. Which is all we can ever do with other beings, humans included. We know what pain and pleasure feel like, and we recognize it in other people because they’re really similar to us. For the same reasons, it’s easy to look at common animals (specifically our food animals: cattle, pigs, sheep, poultry, fish) and decide that they have a subjective experience, are sentient.

      Take the phylogenetic tree. Traverse it and decide which branches are sentient and which ones are not. Where do we draw that line? Do we pick some feature of our nervous system and call it the deciding factor? “It doesn’t have a neocortex (or a spinal cord, or x number of neurons), therefore it isn’t sentient.” Can we do this is a non-arbitrary way? Is there an objective criterion for determining sentience?

      At certain points, we’ll throw up our hands and say “I can’t imagine what it’s like to be this being.” But are those points—points determined, really, by a lack of imagination—meaningful in any way? Meaningful beyond the boundary an individual mind? Do our supporting arguments have an authority that other people can trust? Are we comfortable taking a figment of our imagination and building a worldview around it? Isn’t that very precisely unscientific?

      The claim “There is no plant agony” can be split into two claims: (1) “I can’t imagine what plant agony would be like,” and (2) “My inability to imagine it is proof its nonexistence.” The former is true if we say it is, but Part 2 doesn’t make much sense. Thomas Nagel has excellent thoughts on that topic.

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