The New York Times just held a contest to write an essay defending the ethical permissibility of eating meat. The contest is announced here and the winner and finalists can be found here. Unfortunately, I was neither a finalist nor the winner. (Neither was my colleague Hal Herzog, whose entry was rather different than mine.)
All of the finalist essays were well written and interesting, but I find the winning argument a bit annoying: It will soon be ethical to eat meat, because lab-grown hamburgers will hit the market this fall. Technology rescues us with a better substitute, and our separation from the land and our local economy grows even greater. I wonder if the results would have been different if vegetarians were excluded from voting.
My Entry: Eat Meat
A thoughtful, moral diet is an essential part of a thoughtful, moral life. How we eat makes up the lion’s share of our connection to the land and our fellow creatures. There are many disturbing problems with meat as it is currently produced and consumed—cruelty, disease, exploitation of the poor and pollution among them—none of which do I defend or excuse. I defend the eating of meat.
The problems associated with carnivory are both conceptually and practically separable from it. The carnivore need not be cruel to the animals eaten; from the Quran’s prohibition of sharpening the slaughter knife in front of the animal to the hunter’s pride in making clean kills, meat eaters have traditionally condemned cruelty. Several now epidemic diseases are associated with the consumption of animal protein, such as heart disease, obesity and some cancers, but they are not linked equally with all forms of meat eating. A bison steak or a roll of sushi is not the nutritional equivalent of a fast-food cheeseburger. Confined feedlots and slaughterhouses may trap vulnerable people in subhuman work and poison the land around them, but when I shake the hand of my farmer, I support a neighbor in an enriching, sustainable, local job.
Refraining from meat, on the other hand, is not without costs and hazards of its own. Despite the improved health experienced by some vegetarians, a good third of lapsed vegetarians return to meat for reasons of health. Soy, often eaten by vegetarians in highly processed meat alternatives, is usually grown in large monocultures with the heavy use of chemical herbicides. On top of the direct environmental impacts of such land use, expanding soy production is also a significant contributing cause to rainforest destruction.
The abolition of meat eating would also constitute a great impoverishment of cultural diversity. The elimination of so many traditional cuisines might be compared to the extinction of languages, which proceeds at a frightful pace. Not only would the cuisines be lost, however, but also all the professions and practices tied to them: ranching, shepherding, hunting, fishing and more. Some of these, such as ranching and hunting, are particularly celebrated and promoted in North American society for their moral value. Dealing with life and death on the farm or accepting the disciplines required for successful hunting are said to build important character traits. And this is not implausible. The hunter who waits all day only to pass up a shot that might not be clean exercises a great deal of patience and the ability to stick to principles when no one is watching.
Eating meat also offers the chance to more effectively combat cruelty and unsustainability in mainstream animal agriculture. A minority which drops out cannot effect the market in the same way as a minority that buys selectively. A market for humane, sustainable animal products allows for the creation of alternative practices and business models, which by their very existence give lie to the necessity of business as usual. More than avoiding poor land uses, we can drive up healthy uses; putting more land into bison ranching is an important step toward the restoration of our western prairie ecology. This approach also effectively increases the size of the dissenting minority, since many who are not willing to abstain still show a preference for humane or sustainable products.
So the best practice—in terms of cultural heritage, alleviation of animal suffering, stewardship of the environment and possibly your health—is to eat meat, but to do so mindfully, preferring higher standards to greater quantity.