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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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?
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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 >
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.
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
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