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Vegetarian Debate at Princeton

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The University should brace itself for a new wave of vegetarianism on campus, if Thursday night's 75-35 vote against eating meat on ethical grounds is any indication.

Bruce Friedrich, vice president for policy and government affairs for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and bioethics professor Peter Singer presented the affirmative case on the resolution, “This house believes that eating meat is unethical,” at a debate sponsored by the American Whig-Cliosophic Society on Thursday evening. Visiting Fellow for the James Madison Program Peter Wicks and Matt Sanyour ’11, chair of the Cliosophic Society, took the role of the opposition. The debate, which took place before a packed audience of more than 200 students and community members, touched on topics from the suffering of animals and the question of human superiority over animals to the meat industry’s impact on the planet and on food prices for the world’s poor.

“Nobody in here has to change any values that you currently hold to agree with us that eating meat is unethical,” Friedrich argued. He is well known for his theatrical antics, including streaking at a 2001 meeting between President George W. Bush and Queen Elizabeth II with the words “Go Vegan” painted on his body.

“If you believe unnecessary waste is unethical, adding to global poverty is unethical and causing cruelty to animals is unethical ... in order to align your ethics with your actions you should be choosing a vegetarian diet,” Friedrich said.

Both sides quickly agreed that eating industrially farmed meat is unethical given the level of animal suffering but remained divided on the issue of eating more humanely raised animals, such as free-range meat. However, Sanyour asserted that Singer and Friedrich had not addressed the essential premise of the resolution and had instead presented “a critique of the existing praxis in the meat industry, not a debate on the ethics of eating meat in general.”

“From an evolutionary standpoint, cultivation of animals has been beneficial,” Sanyour said, arguing that the current population levels of farmed animals would not be sustained without the meat industry. “We can assume animals that exist today would prefer existence over nonexistence.”

“It is a crass fallacy to take your ethics from the evolutionary origins of the way that we and non-humans are,” Singer said in response to Sanyour’s argument. “Suffering matters because of the way it feels.”

Wicks objected to the premise that suffering was the primary ethical concern of the debate. “Professor Singer thinks that it’s wrong to eat animals but under some circumstances it’s okay to have sex with them,” he said in reference to Singer’s controversial argument that bestiality may be taboo but is not unethical. “At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I'm going to take the opposite view. Yes, we should treat animals ethically, but treating animals well can include killing and eating them.”

Singer concluded his arguments by asserting that because eating animals is unnecessary, it is unethical to cause them pain.

While the issue of animal suffering was the primary focus of the debate, both sides also touched on the question of whether using farmland for animal feed contributes to rising food prices for the world’s poor and briefly discussed the greater carbon footprint of meat production compared with that of producing vegetarian foods.

Whig-Clio’s leadership, who organized the debate along with PETA’s college outreach program, peta2, was satisfied with the event. “We thought tonight’s event shows that Whig-Clio is still the home for extracurricular intellectual debate at Princeton, and we're delighted that so many students feel the same way,” Whig-Clio president Charlie Metzger ’12 said. Metzger is also a columnist for The Daily Princetonian.

Brian Stephan ’11, who restarted the Whig-Clio public debates after becoming senate president last year, said he was pleased with this fall’s opener. “There is a need and a desire on this campus to have quality exchanges, not just on paper but through the spoken word,” Stephan said. “We can stand up and speak our mind and respectfully confront those who disagree.”

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