In late March, the New York Times announced an essay writing contest in which readers were invited to make the strongest possible ethical case for eating animals. The Times put together a panel of judges — Mark Bittman, Jonathan Safran Foer, Andrew Light, Michael Pollan, Peter Singer — to sift through the entries and collectively decide which one was best.
The contest is now over, and the panel has released what it thinks were the best six entries.
Here’s a taste (no pun intended!):
As a vegetarian who returned to meat-eating, I find the question ‘‘Is meat-eating ethical’’ one that is in my head and heart constantly. The reasons I became a vegetarian, then a vegan, and then again a conscientious meat-eater were all ethical. The ethical reasons of why NOT to eat meat are obvious: animals are raised and killed in cruel conditions; grain that could feed hungry people is fed to animals; the need for pasture fuels deforestation; and by eating meat one is implicated in the killing of a sentient being. Except for the last reason, however, none of these aspects of eating meat are implicit in eating meat, yet they are exactly what make eating some meat unethical. Which leads to my main argument: eating meat raised in specific circumstances is ethical; eating meat raised in other circumstances is unethical. Just as eating vegetables, tofu or grain raised in certain circumstances is ethical and those produced in other ways in unethical.
What do you think? Did any of the essays make you rethink your views on eating meat?
It seems the ethical arguments for a vegetarian diet have finally taken hold of philosopher Massimo Pigliucci.
Well, sort of. Pigliucci still doesn’t think it is necessarily wrong to use most non-human animals for food, but he does believe that animals used for food ought to be treated humanely. Unfortunately, the modern meat industry tends not to do that. As such, Pigliucci concludes that a form of vegetarianism is the most reasonable dietary choice:
If I am okay with using animals, including possibly as food, as long as the good treatment criterion holds, what sort of diet should I then follow? At a minimum, a vegetarian diet (as opposed to vegan), if I take care to check that my eggs and dairy products come from free ranging animals. Indeed, one can consistently (from an ethical perspective) go further and include some meat, beginning with fish, as long as it is not the result of the type of large scale industrial practices that are so horrifically depicted in Earthlings (and as long as one also doesn’t run into environmental problems, such as the possibility of over exploitation of fisheries leading to the near extinction of some species).
If the above makes sense, or is at least more coherent than my previous fundamentally omnivorous attitude, then in practice I would have to make vegetables and fruits the larger base of my diet, followed by eggs and dairy, if I’m reasonably sure of the benign treatment of the animals involved (possibly easier for an upper middle class person living in New York around the corner from a large Whole Foods store, more difficult for others), occasionally by poultry (again, assuming free ranging etc.), and by fish (once I check out the advisability of eating a particular species based on ecological criteria — for instance using the excellent iPhone / Android app out out by the Monterey Aquarium). Pretty much all red meat will be out, and so too will be poultry, fish, eggs and dairy in the many cases in which I will not be able to ascertain that my minimal conditions for humane treatment have been met. To complicate things further, I have decided that there simply is no justification for eating animals that are capable of sophisticated cognitive processes, which includes humans — there goes my chance for cannibalism — whales, dolphins and, alas, squid and octopi. Oh well.
By Michael De Dora
I became a vegetarian in early 2008 because, after a good deal of thought, I decided that eating non-human animals was immoral. I judged that using animals for the sake of pleasure was wrong, and I adopted the moral stance of vegetarianism. Nearly three years later, I am still a vegetarian. Yet the moral basis for my position has changed. Allow me to explain.
I made the switch from omnivore to vegetarian on or around Feb. 18, 2008. That day marked the largest ground beef recall in United States history, after the government learned that cattle unfit for consumption were entering the food supply. Undercover videos shot by the Humane Society showed factory workers kicking and prodding cows with forklifts to get them into the slaughterhouse. I did more research into how animals are treated at factory farms, and my conscience was shaken. How could we treat sentient animals in such ways? I quickly concluded that the factory farming system is inherently bad, as it treats animals as commodities not worthy of moral concern, and I became a vegetarian. I haven’t eaten meat since that day.
However, I now see a flaw in my reasoning. I equated the treatment of animals to the killing of animals. My concern was not the act of killing, but the suffering these animals would endure (and even that is a complex debate, of course, for not all non-human animals have the same capacity to feel pain). I never had a reason to oppose the consumption of animals per se, I only objected to treating them poorly.
Many vegetarians (and vegan, but let’s stick with one position) argue that we should not use animals as a means to some end, but as inherently important, worthy of certain rights and protections. This is a morsel from Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy. Kant argued that every human being is deserving of respect (i.e., moral concern) because of its cognitive faculties – its autonomy, ability to reason, make free choices, and plan for the future. Vegetarians would have us expand this to non-human animals. But there is no reason to suppose that animals have such capacities, and I see little reason – judging from scientific evidence and philosophical thinking – to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Here, then, is where we reach an interesting juncture: if there are no compelling ethical reasons to not kill animals for food, then vegetarianism risks degenerating from a moral stance to the level of preference.
Then again, there may be other compelling reasons in favor of the vegetarian stance. An immediate and undeniable one is the manner in which meat is typically produced, as it relates to the animals themselves.* In the U.S., factory-farmed animals are treated horribly. This matters because of the fact that animals are sentient – that is, they can feel or perceive pain. Thus, one could argue that eating meat is immoral given how the meat is produced. This would once again make vegetarianism a moral stance. This is now the basis of my vegetarianism. In fact, I have realized that it was all along.
Of course, vegetarians like myself can’t just sit out the meat-eating game and claim the highest moral ground. We also need to go out and make our moral case. The means by which humans produce meat for mass consumption are largely immoral, but they need not be so. And I think the key is to focus on improving how we “use” sentient animals. Simply put, we ought to treat the animals that we do eat well before they are killed. Not only do I think this is the correct moral argument to make, but it also seems that it would be more acceptable to society because it’s not really asking very much.
Yet, even if these changes were made, I think I still wouldn’t eat meat. That would no longer be because I think it is morally wrong – it would be because I simply don’t prefer it any longer.
* I specify that this consideration centers on animals because this could also lead to a discussion of the damage that mass meat production does to the environment. This is an important issue, but I didn’t have the time to expand on it in this essay. More here. But notice that we need not completely cut off meat production to make significant improvements in this area.
Note: this essay was first published on the blog Rationally Speaking in January 2011. In the coming months, I will be republishing many of my articles that previously appeared elsewhere in an effort to house more of my work here.