Why It’s Ethical to Eat Meat …

The Ethicist column of the The New York Times Magazine started out an article with the following paragraph …

Ethically speaking, vegetables get all the glory. In recent years, vegetarians — and to an even greater degree vegans, their hard-core inner circle — have dominated the discussion about the ethics of eating. From the philosopher Peter Singer, whose 1975 volume “Animal Liberation” galvanized an international movement, to the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, who wrote the 2009 best seller “Eating Animals,” those who forswear meat have made the case that what we eat is a crucial ethical decision. To be just, they say, we must put down our cheeseburgers and join their ranks.

The article continues on and invite their readers to make the strongest possible case for this most basic of daily practices. Put simply, why is it ethical to eat meat?  

I believe that this is the wrong question.

Why is it ethical to take any life to eat?

If we are going to argue based on a value judgement, then that must be the question that is asked. 

If one is to take a moral stance on the food they eat based on the taking of life, then one cannot create an arbitrary differentiation based on whether or not that life has a face. 

Plants have life. Plants have forms of behaviour which includes items that can be described as play, strategy and reaction to outside influence. The fact that they do not react with ‘puppy eyes’ have the ability to run away or communicate in a way we recognise does not negate that fact.

So, if one was to take a “no life taking” moral stand for the food they consume, what is left for them to consume? The Fruits and nuts that fall to the ground? Eggs? Milk? Honey that dripped from a hanging beehive?

The choices that remain would be highly limited, let alone the possibility of remaining healthy.

Within nature, life eats life. It is the cycle. There is no guilt over it. The question should not about a moral stand. The real question is “how is it ethically ok to eat?”

The failure to use all of the food you have is a greater ethical “sin”. Waste, quite simply, is the greatest ethical no-no. 

Every food we have available to us is one we are wasteful with. Of the 15000 identified edible plants, humans cultivate only 250 for food. Of these, we often waste a great majority of the plant. I’m not even talking about the industrialisation of certain foods. As one such example – people buy radishes with the leaves attached, then remove and throw them away. Radish leaves are a delightful salad leaf – why throw it away? At the very least, compost it! Nose to Tail eating was long a tradition of almost all our ancestors and yet we now snub the crunchiness of a crispy sow ear salad or the delights of an oven baked Roman tripe stew.

When it comes to food, the triangle of expectations is an effective measure of the ethical value. Good – Fast – Cheap : choose two. If you’re food is fast and cheap, chances are it’s not “good”.  I don’t just mean McDonalds either. The more processed a food is – the closer to “Ready To Eat” it is, the less likely it is to be meeting the “good” criteria of foods when exploring it from the view of “ethical” food.

So, is it ethical to eat meat? Yes, with an if. If you are respectful of the food you eat, then you are more likely to be ethical. If you take a life (whether with your own hands or via that of a farmer) then you should respect that life by making use of every part of it to the fullest.

Everything else is just moralistic guilt and propaganda.

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6 thoughts on “Why It’s Ethical to Eat Meat …

  1. This was a great initiative by the New York Times. Good on you for taking up the challenge. However, I am not at all convinced by your argument.

    You say, “If one is to take a moral stance on the food they eat based on the taking of life, then one cannot create an arbitrary differentiation based on whether or not that life has a face.”

    – You state that it is an arbitrary differentiation. Is it? I think there is a vast difference between plants and animals, and this has nothing to do with whether a plant has a face. The science is against you on this. In fact, fruiting plants are evolutionarily dependant on animals coming along, eating the fruit and shitting out the seeds.

    You say, “Plants have life. Plants have forms of behaviour which includes items that can be described as play, strategy and reaction to outside influence. The fact that they do not react with ‘puppy eyes’ have the ability to run away or communicate in a way we recognise does not negate that fact.”

    – Here, you’re wading into some pretty dubious territory. It seems as though you’re arguing:
    1. Animals behave in a certain way and that’s why we have moral concern for them.
    2. Plants behave in similar ways to animals.
    C. Therefore, we should care about plants the same way we do animals.

    You say, “The choices that remain would be highly limited, let alone the possibility of remaining healthy.”

    – Here, it seems you are saying that we need to eat so it might as well be meat.

    You say, “So, is it ethical to eat meat? Yes, with an if. If you are respectful of the food you eat, then you are more likely to be ethical. If you take a life (whether with your own hands or via that of a farmer) then you should respect that life by making use of every part of it to the fullest.”

    – This is an appeal to the old “cycle of life” argument. A phenomenon exists in nature therefore it is our biological imperative to continue this phenomenon whenever we have the chance, across the board, irrespective of moral challenges. You also argue that if something is done with respect it is no longer worthy of moral condemnation.

    I look forward to hearing your response.

    • Thank you for the compliment of reading my brief response to the challenge. the piece was designed for brevity, that is, for a newspaper column. It therefore has a limitation of explanation and a tendency for partiality.

      As you yourself have stated on a few of your own posts, the argument over omnivorous or vegan diets is just as fraught with emotive overtones as that of theistic and atheistic discourse. To make an authoritative statement is, by all probable means, beyond the scope of either of us to make. However, I will make an attempt to respond as best I am able.

      So, let us start with the first item. Is it more moral to be vegan or to be omnivorous? If only the question could be so black and white.

      The topic of the argument is about Morality. Well, then, let us define that. What is morality?

      The term “morality” is a Noun that is defined by:
      * Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour.
      * descriptively referring to some codes of conduct put forward by a society, some other group (such as a religion or movement) or accepted by an individual for their own behaviour
      * normatively referring to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.

      Thus, morality is the modification and enablement of behaviour as it is affected by the observation of these principles.

      In the normative sense, morality should never be overridden, that is, no one should ever violate a moral prohibition or requirement for non-moral considerations, further, all of those who use “morality” normatively also hold that, under plausible specified conditions, all rational persons would endorse that code.

      Thus, the issue of morality is a difficult one, as, by almost sheer definition, the fact that all rational persons do not in fact endorse that code as set out by those who believe that the vegan lifestyle is just and moral, in itself defines the vegan principle to not be a societally moral path.

      However, I am under no delusion that this is a satisfactory answer to your query, so let us park that for now and return to it later.

      Let me respond to your questions. I did indeed state ‘If one is to take a moral stance on the food they eat based on the taking of life, then one cannot create an arbitrary differentiation based on whether or not that life has a face’.

      You argue that there are vast differences between animal and plant life, and indeed I agree, there are. You then state science is against me? Pray tell and enlighten me. How? Are we referring to the division of categorisation set out 2300 years ago by Aristotle? Thus, plants do not move, and animals need to catch their food, thus move?

      The issue with such a categorisation is that it becomes difficult to define around the grey blurry bits. The Venus fly trap which catches food by moving. The sea sponge that does not move.

      Science also chooses to place those items that are far too grey in their own category, such as bacteria … we could never settle on a plant or animal categorisation for them otherwise.

      Returning to your counterpoint where you believe I am entering a dubious territory for implying that animals and plants should receive the same level of care?

      Should we not? Should we simply dismiss the evidence that one cannot exist without the other? That one kingdom relies on the other and that the two are connected by other kingdoms?

      I fail to see how this is dubious territory. I would, in fact, go a step further and state that this care, respect and, indeed, moral obligation be extended to the soil, the air and the very web of life itself.

      To understand that cycle is to understand why both need to be given equal care and why, also, it is required for us to eat both.

      To grow my cows, I need to ensure that my soil has a healthy system of biology — this means fungi, microbes, micro fauna — so that the vegetation — the grass, shrubs, brassica or other fodder — is healthy. Healthy fodder provides for healthy animals, healthy animals provide for healthy outputs to promote the health of the soil and the vegetation. Healthy animals provide for healthy humans.

      Missing out on any one element of that cycle means that all parties suffer.

      The understanding of the cycles of life, inclusive of the interference provided to those cycles by humans is imperative in being ale to have a discourse on the issues. Humans have domesticated plants to a far greater degree than animals. The impacts are such that if we were to break the interdependent cycles, we could wipe out a great many species, and quite possibly ourselves as well.

      Without apiarists, for example, our ability to pollinate vast fields and orchards would be, at best, reduced. Without that pollination, a great deal of the plant based foods we enjoy today would not be available.

      So, is it morally wrong to utilise bees to ensure crops are bountiful? Is it morally wrong to eat the honey that those bees produce? How would we succeed in providing food to vegetarians and vegans alike if we could not utilise the services of the bees?

      I have been told in the past that science will save us by coming up with new ways to ensure we do not need animals. To date, those methods (e.g artificial fertilisers, chemical pesticides, self pollinating GMOs, etc) have failed prove their worth in the long run. That is not to say they did not work, or did not have their place, but, the full analysis shows that where the health of ‘the cycle’ was used, synergy occurred, benefits increased.

      Returning to the closing challenge, where you seem to think that my implication is that there is a circle of life argument — where I, the omnivorous lion king, survey he kingdom and claim that we can eat everything the light touches. I apologise, but it seems you are throwing words into my unspoken mouth.

      The counter implication, if I may be so bold, is that the view of the choice to eat one or the other is somehow the true moral obligation and thus the concept of respect for the food and choices we make is not worthy of being brought up.

      The vegan diet can cause greater global impact than many are willing to admit, let alone realise. As the affluent consumers find “miracle diets”, “super foods” or “green alternatives” the demand for those products rise. In so doing, the impact of those crops alters. Palm oil, once espoused for being a green product due to being re-utilised rather than being a waste product, has now become responsible for the mass clearing of jungle and rainforest to make way for the global demand. Soy consumption has increased ten fold over the last decade. Quinoa has become so popular in the capitalist system that the prices paid for the grain have now priced out the traditional local growers (who’s staple it was) of being able to afford to consume it and thus western introduced foods (such as McDonalds!) are now cheaper.

      Is it still morally superior to eat vegetation over meat under these circumstances? Is it morally superior to eat GM crops that have been responsible for the wholesale saturation of soils with glyphosate? Is it morally superior to eat soy which has been grown in forest cleared lands? If it is so morally offensive, why are there so many vegan products on the market that attempt to look like and simulate the taste or texture of animal products?

      The moral condemnation should be flung far and wide to all consumers, regardless of the type of dietary decisions made. The choices we make do affect a number of factors, understanding those factors is a very important step to understanding the food we eat, it’s inherent part in our world and our respect for it as well.

      With that, I return the favour. It is easy to pull apart the attempt of one person to put into words an idea, it is far harder to put your own words down to define your own.

      Convince me.
      * Why should respect not be a consideration?
      * Why is the respect for the life of the plants we eat not a valid argument?
      * Why is it immoral to eat meat?
      * Why is it moral to eat plants?

  2. Sorry about the lengthy delay with my reply, Goodrock Park. Life sometimes gets in the way. Also, thank you for your contributions over at Hail To The Nihilist. We don’t agree on much, but that’s okay. I’m glad we can have a civilised and respectful discussion on topics we are passionate about.

    I’m going to try and keep my response brief. (Yours was a pearler.)

    The argument I am trying to make about plants is quite simple. There is no evidence to suggest they experience life in any “meaningful” way that ought to warrant moral consideration of their experience. Yes, we ought to make considerations around plants and soil for that matter, however, I am not compelled that these considerations should be on par of what is given to a sentient being.

    It sounds to be, on your logic, that we should treat plants and animals on a similar par. That par being “consider some intrinsic characteristics about the two; but use them all you like provided your gentle about it”.

    You’re very right about the potential impacts of a vegan diet. However, the case you make presumes an awful lot. It presumes soy, palm oil, quinoa and GM are all necessary players in a vegan diet. Obviously this isn’t true. And obviously, if it were, that is a problem that too needs addressing.

    I shall now move on to the intriguing questions you posed. My answers shall be brief (I contend they will not be thoroughly argued–I would prefer to move this discussion along rather than provide full essays of answers; which is more a candidate for a blog post,– but by all means respond to my answers if you feel obliged):

    * Why should respect not be a consideration?

    Respect is important. It should be given consideration. I don’t believe my philosophy argues anything to the contrary.

    * Why is the respect for the life of the plants we eat not a valid argument?

    We ought to respect plants. But respecting plant doesn’t equate to treating them the same as non-human animals. For it you made an argument to that end, it would surely follow that human animals are included, no? It seems to be you’re arguing for an equal respect across living things. You know very well this ought not equate to equal moral consideration.

    * Why is it immoral to eat meat?

    It is immoral to eat animals and their byproducts for it relays on the systematic exploitation and tampering of the sexual imperatives of sentient beings.

    * Why is it moral to eat plants?

    It is moral to eat plants because (1) we have to eat something (I do accept the survivalist argument when it comes to meat) and (2) plants are the best candidate for they have no means to suffer.

    • You seem to be very quick to throw all encompassing judgements and presumptions towards my assertions whilst simultaneously rigorously downplaying the concerns I surface.

      As you state, you want the argument to be not of diet, nor of treatment – but, of use. Summarily that the primary base argument here is in regards to the philosophical belief surrounding the nature of animals and their sentient nature being, above and beyond, the primary consideration.

      My own views., which, by the by, are that there is no such thing as an ‘impartial observer’ and, as such, that we arguing over a concept of morality that actually relies on outdated views that an absolute, cosmic or ‘higher court’ in front of which humanity needs to justify its actions and behaviours exists. My philosophical view is that since all morals stem from the human community, and and that it is an inevitable (and indeed hard-wired into human thinking) aspect of that community to place the human community first, that it is fundamentally flawed to argue around the morality of actions that are not against the special community itself.

      That said, I am willing to understand and debate the issue and determine if there is indeed a better philosophical view that stands on its own logical legs.

      Your reply to me upon the presupposition that there should be an equal respect across living things stated that I should “know very well that this ought not to equate to equal moral consideration”.

      My previous postulation is that this is identifies a prevailing zoocentrism on behalf of yourself and the vegan movement. I believe this stems from the fundamental fact that there is a lack of appreciation of the plant’s physiological workings which is further obfuscated by not being readily able to identify with plants as with animals. A form of anthropocentrism, if you like.

      If I were to consider your argument that this zoocentrism is borne from the concept of sentience and the “ability to suffer” then I shall have to demand clear and concise rules for the definition of such items as in my view of the world of nature and the physiology of life is that plants do, indeed, suffer.

      So, the real question that must, by definition, be defined prior to the question of use is … how do we define sentience? Does a brain define a sense of sentience?

      Thus this thus mean that the use and consumption of sea sponges, urchins, jellyfish, earthworms and insects are fine?

      Would a preference be for nervous systems instead of brains so that ganglia are included? If so, how many neurons are required to define the moment of sentience?

      Before we even begin to consider whether there are any moral or ethical considerations, we must be able to define the roots. Otherwise this entire line of reasoning is just as arbitrary and filled with the rhetoric as any argument of two conflicting belief systems.

      How do we define, place and maintain the line? What definition will all life be subjected against to determine the abolitionist stance of use?

  3. I apologise about the typos–I can spot them all now I read over the published comment. Me being hasty…

    I want to bring something else to your attention. Check out “The Botany of Desire” by Michael Pollan. It’s available as a book and documentary. It’s a very interesting piece that argues that humans haven’t so much used plants to their end, rather, plants have used us to theirs. For if we accept the “biological imperative” argument we are doing plants a favour. Though, this conclusion leads to the same being true of domesticated species. But hey, for consistency, I don’t necessarily dismiss that. Nor do I consider Pollan’s a moral justification.

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