Philosophy > General AR Philosophy
Making An Ethical Case for Eating Meat

Thousands of readers took us up on our challenge to make an ethical case for eating meat. Our panel of judges -- Mark Bittman, Jonathan Safran Foer, Andrew Light, Michael Pollan, Peter Singer -- narrowed the pool down to these six finalists. Vote below by midnight on April 24 on the essay you think makes the strongest case. You can only vote for one.

We Require Balance. Balance Requires Meat.

My family has been farming a little over a decade now. I am a new, young woman farmer. At 27, I left an accounting career and stepped into this one to build a better life for my children, and so I am careful about the choices we make. We grow and learn each season. On this path, my shovel has overturned a few truths about raising and eating animals. Here is what I know.

Production of vegetables without the use of animals requires much larger amounts of energy. In small-scale farming, we use animals to clear fields of vegetation instead of relying only on industrial systems like tractors and herbicides. On our farm, we grow rows of vegetables while green cover crops and weeds fill the spaces in between those rows. After the harvest, dairy goats are grazed to get the land back under control, followed by the chickens that eat most of the remaining vegetation, and then finally with one pass of my tractor, I incorporate what is left back into the soil and plant the next crop. The animals clear vegetation and leave free fertilizer. They build biology in the soil rather than destroy it. Working in the natural order reduces our dependence on outside sources of energy, allowing us to harness the energy that is on-farm. The method leads to a better product, one that is more balanced for my customer, my community, my land, and me.

Because I started from scratch, I had my own misconceptions, and I learned quickly that animal husbandry teaches you more than anything else about the natural order, about life and death. When you care for large amounts of living creatures, inevitably some die, either by the talons of a hawk or the little hands of a possum or because there are too many roosters in a flock or by my own hands to serve my family.

Responsible animal husbandry will recall you to your own mortality. I would agree with those vegetarians who say that our culture eats too much meat. Too much meat creates its own imbalances as farms are converted into smelly feedlots. I am often disappointed at restaurants where vegetables seem to be an afterthought, a mere garnish next to the meat. We need to seek balance in our land and in our kitchens. However, I also ask my vegetarian friends to consider that if they are eating eggs, then someone had to cull the roosters or mature hens, and I hope those animals were not wasted. If they are drinking dairy, someone had to cull the males from the herd, since a world where every animal is maintained would be unsustainable. And if there are no animal inputs on the farms, then that energy has to come from fossil fuels and other nonorganic sources.

A farm animal is not a pet or a wild animal fending for itself. The farm animal and the small farmer must cooperate to build a stronger herd or flock; we literally cannot survive without each other. The eating of animals is paramount to the production of food in a system that embraces the whole of reality. This is why eating meat is ethical. To not consume meat means to turn off a whole part of the natural world and to force production of food to move away from regenerative systems and to turn toward a system that creates larger problems for our world.

This Is the Deal We've Made

In 1989, I decided that I could no longer justify the slaughter of animals on my behalf. A precocious 7-year-old and fervent animal lover, I told my folks that I'd stick to grilled-cheese sandwiches and breakfast cereal, thank you very much. They humored me, and being a vegetarian quickly became part of my identity. It was so easy that I eventually didn't have to think about the choice much at all; not eating meat was just part of who I was.

More than two decades later, I became interested in growing vegetables and found myself apprenticing on a farm in Massachusetts. Still a vegetarian, I was surprised to learn that we amended soil fertility by applying bone and blood meal, both slaughterhouse byproducts, and we regularly dipped young transplants in fish emulsion. I realized then what farmers have known forever: the domestication of animals and the cultivation of vegetables go hand in hand. Growing vegetables is an inherently extractive process, removing nutrients from the soil, so a sustainable system requires other inputs to replace them. Every backyard gardener knows that animal manure enriches the soil, so it should come as little surprise that the animal-vegetable connection is so basic that it's built into the words themselves: the word ''manure'' is rooted in the Latin manuopera, meaning manual work. Through my first season on the farm, I gradually came to terms with the idea that using animal byproducts made good sense, especially in contrast to the alternative of synthetic chemical fertilizers.

Our food system is based on arrangements between the grower and the cultivated species. For plants and animals alike, we have selected for characteristics like flavor, rapid maturation and disease resistance, often at the expense of traits that would allow the organism to survive on its own, especially in climates that might not naturally support it. In many cases, the plants and animals that we grow and eat bear only a passing resemblance to their wild ancestors. The deal is simple: we humans create an environment in which the plant or animal can thrive, we encourage reproduction and, in exchange, we harvest a portion of the crop.

Just as I must weed out more aggressive plants to ensure the success of my ill-equipped tomatoes, I, as a farmer and caretaker of hapless chickens, have a responsibility to keep them fed, watered and safe from the countless predators lurking in the nearby tree line. This relationship addresses the foundation of the ethical question of eating meat. While it's fair to acknowledge a difference between plants and animals, they are part of the same system, feeding each other and guaranteeing the ongoing survival of all parties involved. A sustainable system requires interdependence and balance.

Merely understanding these relationships does not provide a sound ethical defense of meat-eating, however. Animals play an essential role in our food system, yet it is undeniable that much of our production has fallen out of balance. It's not enough to simply ensure the safety and survival of my animals. As fellow sentient creatures with whom I am engaged in a partnership, I have a responsibility to show both respect and benevolence, in life and in death. I can't think of a moral justification for the industrial-scaled confinement operations that fail to uphold our side of the bargain.

Almost 25 years after deciding it was wrong to eat animals, I now realize that it's not that simple. There is an ethical option -- a responsibility, even -- for eating animals that are raised within a sustainable farm system and slaughtered with the compassion necessitated by our relationship. That, in essence, is the deal.

Meat Is Ethical. Meat Is Bad.

If certain conditions are met, then it is morally permissible to kill and eat animals. But we shouldn't do so, because it is bad for us. Let me explain why.

Something is bad, I believe, only if it harms someone. But there are two ways in which something might be said to harm someone: by making her worse off in some way at a particular time (e.g., by causing her to feel some pain at that time) or by making her worse off in some way in her life considered as a whole. Not everything that makes someone worse off in the first way makes her worse off in the second. It is only by harming someone in this second way that something can count as bad.

Death for human beings often harms us in this second way. Extra days, weeks, years, etc., enable us to become better off in our lives considered as a whole. We have relationships that grow and develop, projects on which we make progress over years, deep insights or profound aesthetic experiences that come only late in life.

Many animals, however, while they can be well off or poorly off in certain ways at particular times (e.g., by experiencing pleasure and pain), seem unlikely to be capable of becoming better off in their lives considered as a whole -- or at least not once they have had certain basic needs met. While they may be capable of relationships of a kind, it is doubtful that these can grow and develop in the ways ours can. Indeed, it is uncertain whether most animals even have identities that span weeks, let alone years.

If all this is right, then once such an animal has had her basic needs met, a painless death cannot harm her, at least not in the sense in which harm is necessary for an event to be bad. Since it is not bad to kill such animals, it cannot be morally wrong.

There is, however, I think, a powerful reason that most of us have (and would continue to have, even if animals were raised and killed painlessly) to not eat meat. It is a self-interested one. Most of us love animals. When we first discover that the meat on our plate is the body of an animal that has been killed for our consumption, this upsets us greatly. When we learn of what goes on in slaughterhouses, we experience true horror. We are, however, very good at putting these ideas out of our heads and carrying on with our meat-eating (especially given the inconvenience and social costs associated with becoming vegetarian). But an idea ignored can continue to affect one. And in the case of meat-eating, I suspect this effect is profound. I speak from experience: there is a considerable freedom and lightness of being that comes with giving up meat. As science progresses, I have no doubt we will learn a great deal more about the depth and complexity of our own emotional lives, including perhaps acute suffering caused by an awareness of our hand in the needless slaughter of animals for food.

You may object: If it is not morally wrong to kill animals, then it shouldn't horrify us to do so. That may be right. But this recognition has little tendency to remove the sense of horror we feel at what is going on. We are feeling creatures. And until we cease to be so we will have a powerful self-interested reason to not eat meat.

For What Shall We Be Blamed -- and Why?

We would be foolish to deny that there are strong moral considerations against eating meat. Likewise, we would be foolish to deny that there are strong moral considerations against giving our money to Armani rather than to Oxfam or -- more radically -- against having children rather than adopting them. When honest with ourselves, we admit that morality demands more than we would give; deep down, we know that we fall short.

This is not cause to decry morality as too stern a master. A more "realistic" morality would not deserve the name: an ethic should tell us where we ought to be -- not where we are -- so it is no fault if our destination is all but unreachable. That said, we must remember than an ethic is not necessarily a decision procedure for living, and perhaps the best ones do not aim for such clarity. The world is, after all, full of good things, the values of which are not obviously commensurable. Moreover, the quest for any one requires the sacrifice of others: even if we devote ourselves to preventing some evil, we invariably allow -- and even participate in -- far more that have equal claim to our energies. Thus the moral world is tragic. We ought to doubt any proposal that would steer us through these complexities too quickly.

In light of the above, we may be wise to rethink what it means to defend eating meat. Let's not focus on whether there are strong moral reasons against a particular course of action: no doubt there are. Instead, let's focus on where we should rank these reasons among the many that vie for our attention.

From this angle, it is not obvious where we should place considerations against slaughtering nonhuman animals for food. Nor is it obvious that we need all place them in the same spot: given our very different circumstances; perhaps some variation should be expected. A single mother of three, working two jobs, tries to decide how to feed her children on a Thursday evening; she opts for chicken over lentils, not knowing how to prepare the latter in a way that ensures consumption. A young vegetarian goes home to visit his parents; they prepare choice cuts of beef in honor of his arrival; he eats them out of love. A family celebrates a major event with a roasted pig, killed at their hand shortly before; they acknowledge, by taking life, the significance of the occasion.

Suppose we choose time with our children -- or the feelings of our parents or the bounty befitting revelry -- over the lives of nonhuman animals. What shall we say? First, we will admit that there are limits to the reasons behind these choices: the classic arguments may fail to make us vegetarians, but surely they should lead us to tread lightly -- or at least less heavily -- on the earth.

Second, if other reasons earn the endorsement of action, and we shed blood, we will admit that our hands are dirty. The point of the above is not that we can kill with impunity: quite to the contrary, we must own the fact that our killing is blameworthy. But our guilt must be put in context. The question is not "How can we live blamelessly?" but rather, "For what shall we be blamed -- and why?" Eating meat ethically, on this view, requires explaining why we kill by pointing to other things of moral worth. This does not justify the killing -- if our situation is tragic, that cannot be our aim -- but it does suggest how we can eat meat ethically, albeit wrongly.

I'm About to Eat Meat for the First Time in 40 Years

My father was an ethical man. He had integrity, was honest and loathed needless cruelty. He was also a meat-eater's meat-eater. He loved sitting at the elevated gourmet table ("gourmet" actually meant something back then) at the fanciest hotel in Sydney to take his evening meal.

He hung up game until it "ponged" to high heaven and enjoyed local meat dishes: wild boar in Switzerland, giant crabs on Easter Island and, in the Persian Gulf, sea turtles whose shells he pierced so that he could stake them at the water's edge, keeping them fresh until they were popped into the pot.
His habit killed him in the end: the first sign of trouble came with gout, then colon cancer, heart problems and strokes, but he enjoyed meat for decades before all that "wretched bother" in a time when ethical issues were raised only by "a handful of Hindus and Grahamists."

He taught me, the animal lover, to enjoy meat, too. It did not occur to me that while I would never dream of using a firearm to dispatch a deer or a duck, the specialty butcher's package, with blood seeping through the paper, came from animals who knew what hit them, who saw and smelled it coming, their hearts thumping in their chests, their eyes wide with fear.

I busily ate my way through the animal kingdom. My father and I hunted for mollusks -- mussels and winkles -- on the rocks around the Cornish coast. We relished organ meats like liver and kidney and even tripe, which my mother cooked reluctantly for us, a hankie covering her nose. We picnicked on raw triple-ground steak, smashing it messily into the palms of our hands, and mixing in, with our fingers, a raw egg, capers and a dash of Worcestershire sauce. If peckish, I would make a sandwich from the roast beef drippings congealed in a pan left in the larder.

Is it ethical to eat meat? Some 40 years ago, I took a long break from eating any animals, but soon I will be able to eat meat again without any qualms, without worrying about my health, cruelty to animals, or environmental degradation. That's because this autumn, 14 years after it was just a gleam in the eye of the Dutch scientist Willem van Eelen, the very first laboratory-grown hamburger is to make its debut.

Dr. Van Eelen, while a prisoner during World War II, had been badly treated, but what bothered him more was the abuse he saw meted out to animals destined for the guards' tables. He was determined to find a way to reduce animals' suffering, and eventually, he and the scientists he inspired all over the world succeeded. It is thanks to him that I can return to the table with my lobster bib tucked into my shirt front, my conscience clear.

In vitro meat is real meat, grown from real cow, chicken, pig and fish cells, all grown in culture without the mess and misery, without pigs frozen to the sides of metal transport trucks in winter and without intensive water use, massive manure lagoons that leach into streams or antibiotics that are sprayed onto and ingested by live animals and which can no longer fight ever-stronger, drug-resistant bacteria. It comes without E. coli, campylobacter, salmonella or other health problems that are unavoidable when meat comes from animals who defecate. It comes without the need for excuses. It is ethical meat. Aside from accidental roadkill or the fish washed up dead on the shore, it is perhaps the only ethical meat.

Sometimes It's More Ethical to Eat Meat Than Vegetables

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 are these "right" and "wrong" ways of producing both meat and plant foods? For me, they are most succinctly summed up in Aldo Leopold's land ethic: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." While studying agroecology at Prescott College in Arizona, I was convinced that if what you are trying to achieve with an "ethical" diet is least destructive impact on life as a whole on this planet, then in some circumstances, like living among dry, scrubby grasslands in Arizona, eating meat, is, in fact, the most ethical thing you can do other than subsist on wild game, tepary beans and pinyon nuts. A well-managed, free-ranged cow is able to turn the sunlight captured by plants into condensed calories and protein with the aid of the microorganisms in its gut. Sun > diverse plants > cow > human. This in a larger ethical view looks much cleaner than the fossil-fuel-soaked scheme of tractor tilled field > irrigated soy monoculture > tractor harvest > processing > tofu > shipping > human.

While most present-day meat production is an ecologically foolish and ethically wrong endeavor, happily this is changing, and there are abundant examples of ecologically beneficial, pasture-based systems. The fact is that most agroecologists agree that animals are integral parts of truly sustainable agricultural systems. They are able to cycle nutrients, aid in land management and convert sun to food in ways that are nearly impossible for us to do without fossil fuel. If "ethical" is defined as living in the most ecologically benign way, then in fairly specific circumstances, of which each eater must educate himself, eating meat is ethical, in fact NOT eating meat may be arguably unethical.

The issue of killing of a sentient being, however, lingers. To which each individual human being must react by asking: Am I willing to divide the world into that which I have deemed is worthy of being spared the inevitable and that which is not worthy? Or is such a division hopelessly artificial? A poem of Wislawa Szymborska's, "In Praise of Self-Deprecation," comes to mind. It ends:
There is nothing more animallike than a clear conscience on the third planet of the Sun.

For me, eating meat is ethical when one does three things. First, you accept the biological reality that death begets life on this planet and that all life (including us!) is really just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form. Second, you combine this realization with that cherished human trait of compassion and choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain and/or meat. And third, you give thanks.

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