I heart AR: a blog by an Animal Righter

Rebuking the “Ethics” of Eating Meat

In Rebuking the "Ethics" of Eating Meat on May 15, 2012 at 3:37 pm

Recently Ariel Kaminer, “The Ethicist” of the New York Times, called upon all the Times readers to make the strongest possible case for eating meat. She solicited entries to an essay contest, after which the winner was picked by a panel of judges. The winning essay chosen from thousands of entries, “Give Thanks for Meat” by Jay Bost, was subsequently published in the Time’s Magazine online edition on May 3, and in print May 6.

After reading the winning essay, I was surprised that it managed to pass muster to actually be chosen as the best ethical argument. First, similar arguments in the past attempted to provide various justifications for eating meat, which were thoroughly analyzed, picked apart, and its scholarly failings highlighted. Even such arguments made by one of the judges chosen for this contest has been shown to be short on facts in favor of a compelling narrative. Secondly, the arguments made by Mr. Bost are tenable at best and hardly stand up to critical scrutiny. That it is considered a winning entry baffled me at first. But after seeing how the contest was set up, I realized that by design such an argument wasn’t going to be an honest examination of such moral dilemmas.

Kaminer starts off with the answer (“Tell Us Why It’s Ethical to Eat Meat“) and asks writers to come up with the justifications to fit the predetermined conclusion. Now I’m hardly an expert on ethics, but I think most philosophers, ethicists, and others who spend time wrestling with ethical dilemmas ask the questions first, and after examining all sides of the issues, arrive at an answer.  Honest ethical inquiry begins with a question, not by coming up with the answer first and using mental gymnastics to work backwards to make the justifications fit.  Starting off with a rhetorical demand does not open up an ethical conversation; closure is designed into the inquiry, discouraging a true exploration of the issues.

The contest’s obvious bias was compounded with the choice of judges; among those chosen there was a marked lack of critical balance and diversity. Of the judges (Mark Bittman, Jonathan Safran Foer, Andrew Light, Michael Pollan, and Peter Singer) four have openly supported the idea of “humane” meat — which makes their choice of the winning essay justifying “humane” meat almost a foregone conclusion. None of them takes a position that it is unethical for humans to use other sentient beings for any human interest; even Peter Singer, a philosopher credited with jump-starting the modern animal rights movement in 1975 with his book “Animal Liberation,” has a utilitarian approach to animal welfare, even going so far as stating that he does not support animal rights. Kaminer could have chosen from any of the hundreds of prominent writers, philosophers, scholars, professors, critics, and well-versed activists who unequivocally oppose meat production on ethical grounds. The fact that she didn’t shows us that there was no serious attempt to critically analyze the issues and arguments at stake, even while assuring the readers that the judges chosen were going to be the rigorous gauntlet through which the submissions had to pass (“We have assembled a veritable murderer’s row of judges — some of the most influential thinkers to question or condemn the eating of meat.”).

The lack of diversity in her choice of judges is another concern (which has not gone unnoticed by others). In this day in age, it is surprising to see a panel of all white men, especially when there are so many noted feminist, LGTB, and/or non-Caucasian theorists, philosophers, and writers available to critique our society’s overt masculine domination and violence against those who are more vulnerable, e.g. women, minority populations, those in foreign countries, or other species.

The “winner”

After around 3000 entries were submitted, the field was narrowed down to six semi-finalists, from which the judges picked Mr. Bost’s contribution as the winner. In a cursory examination of his essay, Mr. Bost uses poetry and eloquence as a sleight-of-hand to hide some very obvious short-comings in his arguments, which apparently was enough to seduce the judges and confirm their inherent position bias.

Most notably, Bost glaringly omits tackling the key question that such an essay would purport to answer — he states “the issue of killing of a sentient being, however, lingers.” With such an admission, such doubt makes his argument fail no matter his other justifications.  An actual examination of the central issue of killing a sentient being on behalf of diet would have noted the empirical basis of the position, namely, the known facts of animal cognition and of the violence inherent in any model of animal-based agriculture.

There has been a surge in scientific studies in the past few years that have shown that animals killed for food have more complex emotional and cognitive lives than previously attributed, including empathy, the capacity for envisioning future events, and the ability to intuit the emotional state of others. He fails to acknowledge that animals have a will to continue living, form social bonds with each other, struggle to avoid painful situations, and experience fear, stress, pain, and trauma during any number of the things we do to animals that are being raised for our demand.

Violence and suffering is inherent in every step of animal-based agricultural production, including on the idealized small family farms: from the killing of all male chicks in egg-laying-hen hatcheries, to the continual forcible impregnation of cows to produce milk and the snatching away of their calves for the veal or pet food industries, to the slitting of the throats of young pigs and chickens screaming in terror, to the castration — without anesthetics — of cows and pigs, just to name a few common agricultural practices that would be considered felony animal abuse if it were to occur to a dog or cat. Virtually all animals raised on small farms, including ones advertising themselves as “humane,” “free-range,” or “organic,” end up in the same slaughterhouses used to kill animals raised in factory farms. The speed at which slaughterhouse workers are forced to work means many animals are still partially or fully conscious when the process of skinning and gutting occurs.

These and other facts have led a majority of contemporary moral philosophers who have studied this question to reach the conclusion that killing animals in order to eat them is not a morally defensible position for humans, especially not in today’s society such as ours, where vegan alternatives are more and more widely available.

The losers

But in order for his argument of meat-eating to make sense, he considers the human interest (by couching it as an ecological “benefit”) of an animal’s death to be more important and outweigh the moral harm of the animal’s untimely death; instead of trying to explain how eating meat is ethical, he merely redefines his ethics to justify the killing of animals. But the concept of ethics is meaningless without considering the well-being of sentient, conscious beings who experience emotions and are capable of suffering. Only by failing to recognize animals as the unique individuals they are, individuals that desire and deserve to live their lives in freedom as nature intended, can he then determine that the lives of animals are no more important than to be eventual food meant for human consumption. He does not consider that nonhuman animals have interests of their own that we as humans can readily acknowledge and protect as rights. Rights protect individuals from having their interests violated or traded away simply because it’s more convenient or worthwhile for those in a position of power to do so; just because it serves us to keep, use, and kill animals, it does not morally allow us to violate their inherent rights. The natural characteristics that allow humans to hold moral rights — sentience, the will to live, liberty — are shared by non-human animals, therefore they share the same inherent rights that cannot be taken away, violated, or exploited by others. Any justification that allows humans to exploit others — human or non-human — is on its face unethical, even if it is in the interest of humans to do so.

So instead of addressing the key central question of killing sentient animals, he sidesteps the issue by suggesting that killing animals is inevitable, so who is he or anyone else to decide? Here he confuses inevitability with deliberation; in our current system of food production, we deliberately kill animals in the prime of their lives despite that we have a choice not to. He tries to make an argument that under certain environments, meat is the only food available — perhaps that is so for the indigenous peoples living in the most northern parts of the world lacking edible vegetation, but certainly not in the industrialized world where the most meat consumption occurs. Where we all comfortably sit and read this now, eating meat is not an inevitability. With the multitudes of other options available we simply do have a choice of whether or not to eat meat.

The justification of inevitability brings forth sister arguments such as “humans evolved to eat meat,” “humans have historically eaten meat,” and “animals eat other animals,” however, tradition, history, culture, and evolutionary processes do not have any intrinsic morality.

We have been behavioral omnivores in order to survive during our more primitive days, but a comparative cross-species examination of anatomy reveals that our bodies are adapted best to a plant-based diet, and the latest scientific studies of nutrition have confirmed that humans can not only be healthy, but thrive on a solely plant-based diet. There have been persistent myths about the safety of vegan diets, but the evidence supports that such a diet allows for optimal health. If the most “natural” diet for humans is not necessarily based on what we’ve eaten in the past, or what we choose to eat today, but what is optimally best for our health and our bodies, then the “inevitable” conclusion is that a plant-based diet is what we as humans do best on. Traditions and cultures are not static; they are transformed over time, so we have the capacity to change what we do as a society to reflect our values of compassion.

When one uses the justification that animals eat other animals so humans therefore have an obligation to follow animals’ model, it is obviously problematic, as there are many other actions by animals that humans decidedly do not engage in. If animal behavior alone is justification for a human behavior to be acceptable, then it should hold as an ethical behavior the practice of eating our own babies to control our population, since after all, many animals do the same thing. We pride ourselves in our ability to reason and govern our behavior towards one another for our mutual benefit, so why is it in this case we allow ourselves to abandon such principles in favor of animistic behavior that belies our evolution and cognitive/technical ability?

The second most obvious omission in his argument is his failure to acknowledge the huge environmental impact that any meat production (both factory and free-range) has on the environment— especially surprising since he espouses a central concern for the environment.

First, he makes the unfair comparison of an idealized method of small-scale meat production against the straw man of mass commercial crop agriculture, as if there is no other way to raise crops. Surely as an “agroecologist” he is well aware of the growth of biodynamic crop farms, of a resurgence in what used to be common agricultural practices before the age of intensive commercial chemical-based farming (crop rotation, organic methods, etc.), of other methods such as hydroponics and “veganic” agriculture, just to name a few examples. His assertion that animals are an essential component in crop-based agriculture ignores the fact that farmers can get just as much if not more nitrogen and other essential nutrients in the soil if they use legumes and other cover crops as “living mulches” which are then turned under, rather than by growing plants and having animals eat those plants and produce manure (or by using synthetic fertilizers).

Secondly, only by omitting key aspects of the meat production in the manner he suggests can he justify that eating meat is “most ecologically benign way.” He offers two equations:

Sun > diverse plants > cow > human. This in a larger ethical view looks much cleaner than the fossil-fuel-soaked scheme of tractor-tilled field > irrigated soy monoculture > tractor harvest > processing > tofu > shipping > human.”

He seems to forget the amount of fossil fuel it takes in the transport of the animals to slaughter, and the amount of resources it takes to cut the carcasses apart, package, ship, and keep them refrigerated during the entire time to keep them from rotting until the consumer buys them. Not to mention the vast amount of fossil-fuel, tractor-tilled, irrigated monoculture soy, grain, and corn that is required to feed the animals. Even in his idyllic vision of cows grazing in pasture lands means that their diet has to be supplemented with tilled crops once winter sets in, the pasture is dead for the season, and the cows need substantially more calories to keep warm. His example of the “dry, scrubby grasslands in Arizona” as being a better environment for raising cows rather than crops fails to take into account the vast amounts of water that have to be diverted for the animals and the non-native grass they eat (an invasive species that incidentally fuels destructive desert wildfires there). One cannot graze a non-native species like cows and not inherently change the natural balance of the ecosystem.

Thirdly, the idealized version of meat production he suggests ironically has a greater environmental footprint than that of factory farms; for example, raising animals in a “free-range” method requires more land and more resources per animal. But it is the massive demand for meat that makes such factory-farming inevitable; there just is simply not enough land or resources for free-range operations to meet such a demand, thus ensuring that Bost’s version of “ethical” meat remains a niche market — the vast majority of humans will not have such a choice as he suggests. The reality is that this essay will simply encourage people to eat more meat — no matter how it was produced — with a guilt-free conscience.

And finally, he ignores what may well be the most important fact that drives all of these environmental concerns; with the world’s population approaching the 7 billion mark (and projected to pass 9 billion by 2050), the very survival of the human species may very well hinge in part on a switch to plant-based diets. To supply the current demand for meat, an additional 53 billion land animals are bred into the world, raised, and killed each year across the globe. All of those animals consume crops grown to feed them and drink water that is becoming more and more scarce. The earth’s ability to support the resource-consumption of 53 billion extra lives we as humans bring into the world for our demand is being stretched thin, and vast tracts of bio-diverse ecosystems are irrevocably damaged as they are cleared to make way for animal-based operations and the crops grown to feed them — not to mention that the demand to eat aquatic animals (worldwide estimated to be in the order of roughly 90 billion a year) is causing the collapse of marine ecosystems. And it is well-documented that vegetable-based crops are more sustainable and have a greater yield per acre than animal-based agriculture. Meat production requires more resources and causes much more pollution than crops grown for human consumption. And given that an overwhelming majority of crops grown across the world ends up as animal feed (70-80%, depending on the crop), he doesn’t bother to discuss the question of whether those feed crops might be more efficiently used to feed people directly. By simply curtailing animal-based agriculture and using the greater yield of crops, the amount of land needed to adequately feed the world’s population would be reduced dramatically — which would potentially allow some of the previously-used land in the best-case scenario to grow back as a bio-diverse habitat for previously endangered wildlife.

Mr. Bost’s eloquent argument of “agroecology” stands only when one ignores the basic facts of meat production and its impact, and making his unbelievable assertion that “NOT eating meat may be arguably unethical” in the face of such ignorance is irresponsible.

But Mr. Bost continues, making the assertion that eating meat is considered “ethical” when it satisfies these three requirements:

You accept the biological reality that death begets life on this planet and that all life (including us!) is really just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form.

This argument is truly bizarre; strip away the new-age sentiment and you have at its core a rationalization for the abandonment of ethical concerns for others, concluding death is no big deal in the grand cosmic scheme. It’s a kind of heartless Darwinism that diminishes the value of individual life; it ignores the real relationships that all sentient beings have with each other, and that life is most valuable to those who live it, both to human and nonhuman animals.

It also gives fuel to those who give moral equivalency to the death of plants and the death of animals. Some people still persist in the debunked idea that plants suffer, that mowing the lawn is on an equal moral dilemma as slitting the throat of a cow. Such arguments are made not because of a genuine concern for plants but as a justification to continue the behaviors that cause suffering to animals. Granted, all life does feed on life. Everything on our planet gains nourishment from something that once lived.  But there is a huge gulf of a difference between the animal life we intentionally kill for food who have sentience, self-awareness, cognition, social order, emotions, and a brain and central nervous system that transmits pain, and the rest of “the biotic community” which does not. The choice to be vegan is not because of a desire to have all life not die, but because of the desire to limit to the greatest extent possible the pain, suffering, and death our actions as human beings contribute.

Even when one ignores the core issue of whether or not it is ethical for us to use and kill animals for our demand (as Bost does), when one makes a comparison of animal-based agriculture versus horticulture, it is plants that have a much greater concentration of “temporarily stored solar energy.” Even so, his soothing romancing of the sun and soil is not enough to cover the brutal truth of the violence and brutality of animal agriculture that is kept hidden from us.

Second, you combine this realization with that cherished human trait of compassion and choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain and/or meat.

This is probably the most dangerous consequence of this so called “ethical” thinking; if conscious living is merely an individual choice, then others can simply choose to destroy the environment or kill animals. If ethics is about general welfare and of the consequences of actions, then such decisions should be made collectively. It is the “cherished human trait of compassion” that have formed policies that affect everyone concerning issues like slavery, child labor, and other issues of oppressed groups. Had we relied in the past on mere individual choice to govern what we had considered to be ethical behavior, people today will still choose to own slaves and marry 12-year-old girls.

And third, you give thanks.

Giving thanks does not change the nature of the act of killing; the result is still exactly the same. Earlier I have written an examination of gratitude’s hollow ring, owing in part that it has recently been a common mechanism employed by those in the boutique butcher and restaurant movement to assuage consumer guilt and to absolve themselves of the responsibility of their actions. It is a paper-thin justification; when committing any other violent act against a living being, giving thanks to our victims for being victims would not make it ethical.

Perhaps he should really give thanks for having the good fortune, by luck or accident, of not being born a cow, a pig, a duck, a crab, a turkey, a chicken, a lamb, a fish, or any number of other fellow beings that humans kill in the prime of their lives for the taste of their flesh, of not being one of the billions of domestic farm animals that humans continuously force an existence of confinement, misery, boredom, and pain before violently meeting their untimely death. It is this attitude that animals are merely here on earth for us to use, that they are mere commodities to be bought, sold, altered, processed, and discarded, that allows us to be irresponsible towards the rest of the earth; by viewing animals as inevitable resources it enables us to ceaselessly mine the land, log the forests, pave over and pollute the environment.

Only by giving the true respect that animals deserve, by not breeding, confining, causing them pain, and killing them, can we as society progress to the next step of truly living in a way that is respectful of the biodiversity of the earth.

It is telling that among the New York Times Magazine readership, this essay was not the one that rang the most true to them. The Magazine allowed the readership to vote on their favorite contribution. One essay got a total of 38% of the total vote, more than double of the second-most-popular submission, but it was not one the judges picked as a finalist. In a highly publicized call among the entire omnivore readership of the Magazine to produce an iron-clad ethical argument in favor of eating meat, the one that was clearly the most popular wasn’t about “humane” meat, “compassionate” slaughter, or “free-range” animals, but rather one that makes the case that in-vitro meat is the only meat that is truly ethical (“I’m About to Eat Meat for the First Time in 40 Years” ). That’s right, out of 3000 essays submitted on the ethics of eating meat, the runaway favorite among the meat-eating readership was one that concludes that eating meat from any sentient animal killed for food is ultimately an unethical choice.

  1. Very well written. Thank you. I had no idea this had been going on.

  2. [...] Rebuking the “Ethics” of Eating Meat [...]

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