The Meat You Eat
The Winner of Our Contest on the Ethics of Eating MeatRussell Bell
By ARIEL KAMINER, 2012
- Is it ethical to eat meat? That short question, posed in these pages a few weeks ago, inspired a debate heated enough to roast a fatted calf (or a really enormous zucchini, depending on your dietary orientation).
- To encourage omnivores to do some of the same hard thinking that vegetarians and vegans have done, I invited them to make, in 600 words or fewer, the strongest ethical case for the meat they eat. And to judge those arguments I gathered some of the strongest ethical critics of meat, or at least of the way we consume it — Mark Bittman, Jonathan Safran Foer, Andrew Light, Michael Pollan and Peter Singer.
Immediately, incensed blog posts, e-mails, radio broadcasts and tweets started appearing. Carnivores condemned the contest as antimeat propa ganda. Vegans condemned the contest as pro-meat propaganda. Yet others said that I was trying to impose a single moral code; they were matched by those who said I was abetting moral anarchy. People dismissed the contest as either too elitist or too populist. And then there was the outrage over the demographics of our judges. “I would like to propose the next subject for debate in The Ethicist,” one critic wrote. “It can be titled, ‘Defending Misogyny: Why Women Are Not Needed as Experts in the Year 2012.’ ”
Despite all of that — or because of it — the contest was a stupendous success. We hoped to get a few dozen responses. We dreamed of getting a few hundred. In the end we got around 3,000. And the quality of the entries was as exceptional as the quantity.
Of course, any haul that big (which I sifted through with the invaluable assistance of Gwynne Taraska, the research director for the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University) will inevitably include some bycatch. In this case, that meant arguments like these:
• Lions eat meat. Would you accuse a lion of being unethical?
• The Bible says it’s O.K.
• I have pointy teeth. Ergo, meat!
• Would you accuse a shark of being unethical?
• It’s nutritious/delicious.
• It’s a free country.
• Would you accuse a Venus’ flytrap of being unethical?
Pointy teeth or tasty dinners are noteworthy, but they aren’t arguments about ethics. And lions or sharks can’t be unethical because they can’t reason that an action might be more or less ethical. (Same goes for plants.) But we can.
Some critics insisted that even contemplating a life without meat was an indulgent luxury, a silly game for a wealthy first-worlder. I found this puzzling — as if the poor feast nightly on roast suckling pig and only the 1 percent eat boiled tubers. Over all, rich nations eat much more meat than poor ones, and raising animals for food takes more agricultural resources than raising crops. In any case, a vast number of the world’s ethical vegetarians live in India. Caviar is a luxury. Ethical discussion is not.
The judges considered 29 semifinalists, and though their votes barely overlapped, they were unanimous in seeing the contest as a cultural indicator.
Several noted the widespread agreement that factory farming, which accounts for 99 percent of the meat eaten in America, is not ethical. “Lurking beneath these submissions,” Jonathan Safran Foer said, “is a shared dissatisfaction with our current system of meat production, a shared anger.”
Peter Singer placed that anger in the context of “a seismic shift of opinion about meat in the past decade.” He added, “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.”
Mark Bittman suggested that just five years ago that critique would have seemed radical: “Yet 20 or at most 50 years from now, those of us still alive will express incredulity at the way we once treated animals destined to become ‘food.’ ”
Andrew Light observed: “Though there were major disagreements among the approaches that most people took, everyone — committed omnivores, guilty omnivores and charitable vegetarians — agreed that food choices are moral choices.” A hopeful thing, he said, because “if we can’t all at least agree that there is a moral issue at stake then there’s very little chance we’ll be able to discuss our differences on these issues.”
Michael Pollan noted how many essays emphasized the role animals play in making a farm sustainable. “This argument gains authority when it is rooted in the practical realities of farming” — rather than academic theorizing — “which it was in several of our entries, and these to me were the most compelling,” he pointed out. “That said, simply stimulating people to think through their eating choices has a value, since our thoughtlessness in these matters has such a high cost.”
I agree, and that’s what amazed me about the boatloads of essays: people’s willingness — eagerness — to stop their busy lives and wrestle with the ethical implications of what is otherwise so easy to ignore. (By the way, my personal favorite got zero votes from the judges . It was a single paragraph that basically said: like it or not, when we render this planet uninhabitable, we’re going to have to move to another, and the only thing that’s going to make anyone let animals into the spaceship is the chance to eat them. Hey, it’s novel.)
A great many readers prefaced their essays with the confession that they had never before given any thought to these matters, and that they were grateful for the invitation to do so. I am grateful that they accepted that invitation.
Whatever you think about meat — whether you are a rabid carnivore on a Cro-Magnon diet or a dyed-in-the-wool vegan who wouldn’t hurt a fly — we’ve all got a lot on our plates, ethically speaking. So read, enjoy, digest and discuss.