The Ethics of Eating Meat

This great debate about meat just keeps on coming, and I couldn’t be more pleased.  I received a remarkable email from a fan who has been vegetarian since age 10, and I’d like to share a portion of it:

“The ethics of meat eating have been on my mind since I spent five weeks in rural Ecuador working with a water NGO at the beginning of the summer.  I was staying with a host family and eager to experience the culture and help out around the home, which, one Sunday after the weekly meant helping pick out, slaughter, and pluck a rooster for dinner.  (You can see my host brother with the rooster in the picture.)  I then had the honor of burning off the tougher parts of the skin which was a little bit of a harrowing experience at times when bits of it caught on fire.  I confess – I found the whole thing pretty unsettling.  The rooster didn’t seem terribly happy about the whole process, and if anything, the experience strengthened my resolve to be a vegetarian.  I know people refer to it as the animal “sacrificing itself” but the animal didn’t really have any choice or agency in the process.

So here’s my question: It’s so rare to hear from someone like you who actually kills their own livestock and I would love your perspective on why you think it’s ethical to eat meat.  You seem to have thought so much about the issue, and I really think you could add richness to my (and many other people’s) understanding of the other side of the debate.  In your last blog post, you mentioned that people have eaten meat for thousands of years.  But people have done lots of things for much of history — some good (agriculture, moral taboos against murder) and some bad (lack of women’s rights, lack of gay rights, lack of all kinds of minority rights, slavery), so time alone doesn’t make it ethical.  You also said that some animals would have gone extinct if we didn’t breed them, but just breeding or creating something doesn’t mean we have a right to kill it and eat it (as by that logic alone, parental cannibalism would be justified :P).  So can you talk more about the deeper issues of animal consciousness and rights and whatever else you think helps define the moral issues for you?  I know it would help broaden my worldview and I think it would help many other people too.”

Alyssa, thanks so much for sharing this story.  And, alas, I wish I could tell you that I’m as eloquent a philosopher as I am a writer.  But any debate on “ethics” or “morals” always ends up in a battle over what “ethics” or “morals” means in the first place.  And, to be honest, I don’t really know if there’s any possible way to define ethics or morals across any group of humans, much less the entire span of the human race.  Ethics and morals can truly only be embraced and embodied in a single individual.  Religions may claim to unite their followers under a single body of morals and ethics, but they never do.  Plenty of people in the religion I was raised in still believe it’s not right for a woman to speak in church, or for her to ever contradict her husband, but the majority have more progressive views.  Ethics and morals can only be defined by an individual, for an individual.  And that’s the outer-most boundary of any moral or ethic.  Laws can claim to spring from “universal morals” but I still don’t believe there is such a thing.  I think, under certain circumstances, it is moral to end the life of a human (ie euthanasia).  So the most popular “universal moral” of it being immoral to kill, isn’t, in fact, a moral that is universally applicable.

There are many ways to look at the meat eating issue.  One way is to say that, in nature, the food chain exists, and animals eat what their instincts drive them to.  Lions eat meat.  Cattle eat grass.  Dogs eat whatever they come across, like bears, but will kill live food if they are hungry and can’t find sustenance in berries or plants.  Our ancestors were hunter/gatherers.  They hunted meat, and they gathered edible plants from the wild.  It is in our nature to eat both meat and plants.  The dawn of civilization occurred when humans discovered they could cultivate BOTH animals and plants.  Had such rich animal protein sources not been available, the human race might have fallen extinct like our evolutionary ancestors did.  So, at least historically speaking, humans have eaten meat throughout the entire duration of our existence and evolutionary development.  Some vegetarians like to suggest that the biology of the human body is actually not “designed” to eat meat, because we don’t have pointed teeth like most carnivores, etc..  For every legitimate argument they present, there is a legitimate counter argument on the opposite side.  There is no conclusive scientific evidence that humans are biologically programmed to eat meat or not.  Regardless, for the entire duration of our existence, we have eaten meat.  And as a result of this, we have sheep, pigs, goats, cows, chickens, and a handful of other animals which had a genetic predisposition toward being domesticated.

That phrase alone is enough for me to justify eating meat for myself.  The vast majority of animal species on earth are not fit for domestication.  It would never be POSSIBLE to domesticate them.  But for a handful of animals, domestication happened almost spontaneously.  And whether you take a scientific outlook or intelligent-design outlook on our origin, both routes seem to point quite clearly at the fact that these creatures were meant to be domesticated as meat animals, either through the hands of a creator, or through the probability and adaptability that governs the theory of evolution.  A sheep may be able to provide wool for fabric, but at the end of its natural life, it has a rich source of life-giving protein that would be disrespectfully wasted if it was buried or cremated.  Of course, the carcass could be left for scavengers, but then we’ve upset the “natural balance” of things by providing unnatural excess for scavenging species, which will overtake local populations.

These domesticable species came into existence because we needed them for food and other purposes.  (And let’s not forget that ALL meat animals are utilized in many ways other than meat…chickens give eggs and feathers, cows give leather and their bones are used for fertilizer, etc.)  Should we have domesticated them in the first place?  Had we not, we may not, in fact, be here today.  Should we continue to domesticate them now that we have “evolved” and can make a moral choice to not eat meat?  What responsibility do we then bear for these species which would have no place in the wild without human husbandry?  Do we allow their entire species to die out from natural deaths?

This brings up another argument that vegans often tout…  We have progressed as a species to the point where we no longer NEED animal products to sustain the human race.  There are arguments on both sides of this fence from far wiser people than me.  While it’s true that it requires many, many pounds of vegetable calories to raise a pound of meat…and that many humans could be sustained (though perhaps not richly sustained) on that same amount of vegetable matter, rather than utilizing it for meat production to feed a far fewer number of humans…meat is a source of nutrients that is unmatched by anything outside the egg, which technically is also meat.  Some like to tout quinoa and hemp seed as the miracle foods that can provide the same complex amino acid base that gives meat its complete protein, and can therefore be a nutritional substitute for meat.  However, I cook extensively with both quinoa and hemp seed, and can vehemently say that to take my entire protein content from quinoa, hemp, and various beans does not result in a rich quality of life…TO ME.

Which is leading to my final point.  Yes, humans have progressed and advanced in many ways.  We are sentient and can make decisions governed by things which can be called morals and ethics.  We can also experience a higher level of pleasure and satisfaction than can our animal counterparts.  We love in a more complex way.  We take pleasure in things like art, literature, and food.  And for us to fulfill our own maximum potential as a species, I believe it is our duty to further these things to their own maximum potentials.  We must continue to write.  We must continue to create art and music and dance and theatre and film.  And we must continue to further the culinary arts.  It is our duty to, because we have the capacity to, as no other species on earth does.

A chicken’s potential, as a species, is not to be a companion, like a cat or a dog.  It can’t be potty trained.  It is insufferably and adorably stupid.  But it has the maximum potential to live as a chicken naturally lives: free of a cage, eating what it can scavenge, mating, laying eggs, roosting in trees at night, and providing a food source for coyotes and raptors and humans.  And as a provider of crude protein with both its meat and its eggs, and well as being a facilitator of the development and advancement of the culinary arts, the chicken’s maximum potential is to sustain life on a larger scale and a higher order.  A tiger’s maximum potential is to live unmolested in the forest, hunt for its food, and continue to balance the natural ecosystem.  In comparison, a chicken has a far greater potential in this universe than a tiger.  And not to help the chicken achieve that potential is, in my opinion, immoral.

No, I do not believe animals are “equal” to humans.  If given the choice, I will preserve the life of a human child over a young animal any day.  Animals are a lesser order of life on this planet.  Yet we have the ability as humans to help them fulfill a far greater destiny and contribution to the universe than just existing and dying, un-utilized by us.  We have the power to cram them into cages, torture them, kill them and eat them.  But this is an evil and irresponsible choice.  We have the power to give them a natural life that allows them to fulfill their natural potential, and then die…in order to fulfill a potential far greater than their own existence in the first place.  And this is the moral choice.  To ignore them as a species and their potential to be utilized to advance and enrich human life on earth is, in fact, immoral to me.

The death of an animal sustains life on a higher order.

To me, the world could not be any more beautiful and perfect, simply because of that.  It does not sadden me that meat animals are killed to sustain our life.  That is, in fact, their purpose.  Were it not, a chicken would be like a sparrow or a leopard…incapable of domestication.  The chicken’s evolutionary path merged with the human’s because that was both our destinies.  And we have sustained and enriched the chicken species far beyond what it ever could have in nature, had it not offered us a domesticable, rich source of food to sustain life for us.  Were it not for the chicken, our species might never have survived.  Were it not for the chicken, our species would definitely have never THRIVED.

I see no moral drawbacks to the eating of meat, provided the animal it came from lived a life that allowed it to fulfill its nature.  And its penultimate nature is to take its place on the food chain and sustain a higher form of life.  To me, this is, in fact, living in harmony with our planet.

I would absolutely love to hear what you all have to say on this matter, please comment below.  And for further reading, the New York Times hosted an essay contest on the ethics of meat eating, and the essays can be read at this link.

I also highly recommend the works of Michael Pollan, a food journalist, and Joel Salatin, a farmer.  (Both can be ruminated upon in Polan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, where he spends a good deal of time at Salatin’s farm.)

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