The ethics of eating meat

My friend Kate and I submitted the following essay to the New York Times’s “Tell Us Why it’s Ethical to Eat Meat” contest. We didn’t win, but hey, that’s what blogs are for.

Cross-posted at Kate’s new blog about the food movement, Begin with a Beet. Go check it out. Seriously.

In posing the question, “Why is eating meat ethical?” the New York Times has asked us to divorce the ethics of eating meat from its context. With all due respect, it’s not that simple.

Here’s a real-world example: in rural Nicaragua, a middle-aged couple, Lourdes and Jose, raise chickens in their backyard. The butter-colored chicks live in a spacious coop. As they grow older, they are given free rein of the yard. And when they are fully-feathered and plump, they are killed, plucked, butchered and sold to the neighbors.

This is not a money-making enterprise; Lourdes and Jose charge just enough to offset the costs of buying and raising the chicks. It is instead a response to a need. The members of this community are not starving, but neither are they wealthy. They cannot afford the retail price of meat, limiting them to rice, beans and cheese as their daily sources of protein. Not a terrible fate, but a monotonous and nutritionally limited one. The chicken-raising enterprise is a way for Lourdes and Jose to make sure that their friends and neighbors can lead well-nourished, balanced lives.

When we question the ethics of meat, Lourdes and Jose are just as much a part of the conversation as we are. Whether sitting in privilege in the United States, or just making ends meet in a rural barrio, the ethical shape of eating meat is the same. Lourdes and Jose have made an ethical choice; what about it makes it ethical?

A strict non-meat eater might regard this story with suspicion. You are describing life in a poor country, they might say, and how does that apply to us? In the United States, where most people interact with chickens in the form of a saran-wrapped, battery-caged broiler from the supermarket, it makes sense to regard the death of animals for human consumption as ethically suspect.

And there’s the rub. There is nothing invalid about this perspective and its consequent moral conclusions. But there is also nothing wrong with Lourdes and Jose’s perspective: for them, the connection between chickens and humans is based on explicit respect and mutual dependence. To imply that one of these perspectives is superior to the other betrays an arrogance unbecoming any ethical argument worth its salt.

Everywhere in the world, organisms live and die together. This cycle is non-negotiable. Regardless of human ethical convictions, we all get it in the end. Life’s dinner table plays host to all of Earth’s plants and animals, uniting humans with the species we have bred for eating. It’s an uneasy meeting that tests our empathy, especially given the developed world’s growing penchant for treating animals as commodities rather than mess mates. And it gives the lie to the notion that one pattern of eating meat–or choosing not to–is applicable in every situation. Eating meat is inherently an ethical act, because it is part and parcel of the interconnectedness that moves us to treat animals well in the first place.

The fact is, we humans eat meat in the real world, a messy landscape brimming with life and replete with imperfection. If we are to address the ethics of this essential act, we cannot cloister ourselves in a vacuum of theory and expect our conclusions to have bearing on our real-life experiences, or those of the animals we may eat. There is no justice or morality in playing this God-trick. Our ethical choices should instead acknowledge the seat we hold at table. From there, we have a much clearer view of what we are eating, and why.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The ethics of eating meat

  1. Mijnheer

    You make the perfectly legitimate point that the ethics of eating meat cannot be divorced from its context, and that what may apply to someone in a wealthy nation may not apply to someone in a place like Nicaragua. But then, towards the end of your essay, you seem to have slid towards a one-size-fits-all justification for eating meat: “Eating meat is an inherently ethical act, because it is part and parcel of the interconnectedness that moves us to treat animals well in the first place.” How can inflicting suffering or premature death on sentient creatures be ethical for those of us who have no need to inflict suffering or premature death? The cycle-of-life-and-death story is all very convenient for those of us who do the unnecessary killing and eating. We tell ourselves this story to comfort and excuse ourselves. We say, “We’ll be eaten by worms when we die, so it’s all the same.” But it isn’t all the same: we won’t have had our lives deliberately terminated prematurely; we won’t have had our lives reduced to fodder for the pleasures of someone’s palate — something that is surely disrespectful in the extreme. And, yes, it’s true that no human diet and no human way of life can be free of causing some suffering and death in the world. But ethics is not about trying to achieve unattainable purity; surely it’s about trying to promote flourishing lives and trying to minimize the harm we do to our fellow beings.

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