Eat Meat

The following is my submission to an essay contest hosted by the Ethicist blog at the Times. The task: Explain, in 600 words, why it’s ethical to eat meat. Entries are judged by an all-star (though all-white, all-male) panel including Peter Singer, Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Andrew Light.

The greatest challenge, I felt, was not so much the judges’ wide-ranging views on ethics and food policy as their diverse writing styles. How to compose an essay that would appeal simultaneously to the analytic philosophical background of Singer, the policy wonkery of Light, the literary flair of Foer, the populism of Pollan, and the journalistic curiosity of Bittman?

My essay, I’m quite sure, failed to satisfy most if not all of those objectives. (Update: Indeed it did. This rather circuitous essay won instead.) It’s also more hastily written and more lightly edited than I’d like. Nevertheless, I hope the core ethical contention is mildly novel and orthogonal to these judges’ typical lines of attack on carnivorism.

Animals feel pain. They may well be conscious, self-aware, or sentient, however we choose to define those terms. Despite our evolutionary instinct to elevate ourselves above other species, as rational beings, we ought to care about creatures who share our sentience. Yet we cage livestock by the billions, condemning them to painful lives that animal rights supporters accurately liken to concentration camps.

There is nothing savory about the malevolent machinery of industrial meat production. More humane alternatives, like free-range pastures, are still morbid outfits organized around slaughter. These enterprises fulfill no human need, only the idle craving of people who seldom witness the mechanism enabling our consumption.

But they do serve one meaningful purpose: to create life. Most of the livestock in factory farms and family farms alike live only because of our consumption. It’s the unspoken inevitability of moral vegetarianism that when we put an end to the suffering of animals by ceasing to eat them, we will also put an end—or a near end—to their bloodlines.

Perhaps that’s for the best. Their lives are so grievous that some might consider them to be worse than never having lived at all.

To be, or not to be? That is the question we unfortunately cannot ask animals. But we can ask ourselves: How awful must a life be to be worse than no life at all?

Children were born to mothers in Nazi concentration camps—children with no hope of survival, who would know nothing but suffering from birth to young death. But who would say it were better for these children never to have been than to have known life, even a brief and painful one?

Of course we would wish greater happiness for such unfortunate creatures. But for religious or secular reasons, we find there to be meaning in the most nasty, brutish, and short of lives.

Millions inhabiting slums can be said to live “like animals”—buried in sewage and filth, packed in dense, noxious compounds, with short life expectancy and little hope of escape. They remain in these slums, in part, because of our inaction—our failure to care enough about their well being. We have a responsibility to help them. We do not have a responsibility to eugenicize their population. The very thought is preposterous. Yet that is precisely what many animal rights supporters suggest we do to the billions of livestock animals who exist only because we demand their meat.

Animals, if they are sentient creatures capable of pleasure and pain, should likewise experience less suffering and more pleasure than they do in cramped pens under the farmer’s electric baton. But if they are sentient then, like humans, are their most truncated and futile lives not also imbued with meaning, however fleeting? Is it not better that they should at least glimpse the world we share?

That is the decision I make when I buy a turkey at the supermarket. The turkey would not have lived had I not wanted to consume it. Do I have a responsibility to make my next turkey’s life less painful and more humane, perhaps by buying it from free-range or family farms, or even by hunting it in the wild? Without a doubt. But can I condemn that turkey’s life, however short, as worthless, morally bad, worse than never having lived at all?

This is the paradox of moral vegetarianism: If livestock animals are not very sentient, we shouldn’t care very much about their suffering. But if they are sentient, we should celebrate their lives—while (and this is the part meat eaters too often overlook) striving to improve them.

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