Alright, I’ll admit that the title of this article is a shameless attempt to capture your attention. There really isn’t a reason, as far as I can tell, why animal lovers should eat meat – that is, no reason why eating meat is ethically superior or preferable to abstaining and going vegetarian.
However, eating meat can be ethically acceptable even if not ethically superior. The decision to eat meat can be just as “right” as the decision not to. This is so even if we agree that animals are not just natural resources for us to use, but are peers of ours on this earth, whose lives, pains, pleasures and deaths matter to them just as ours matter to us. How can we recognize the moral significance of animals, yet justify eating them? I’d like to lay out what I’d consider the two best arguments for that conclusion: (1) eating meat is not really so bad and (2) eating meat may be bad, but abstaining from doing so is not much of an improvement. I am nowhere near the first to outline either of these arguments; rather, these are the two views that I feel have best stood the test of time and endless debate.
1. Why eating meat isn’t so bad
Eating meat requires killing animals, and that’s the rub for most vegetarians. Inhumane treatment of animals while they are alive is, of course, horrible, but it is not a reason to become a vegetarian. It is a reason to become much more conscious about where the meat that you eat comes from, a reason to spend time with your farmer and processor, or at the very least your restauranteur or grocer, a reason to do what it takes to ensure that their standards for animal welfare are ones that you can support with a clear conscience. If you cringe at the thought of cruelty, integrity requires you to take the time to do your due diligence lest you become a consumer of it. But integrity does not require you to stop eating meat. When you can verify that your producers are giving their animals a decent life and a quick death (keeping in mind that no life or death, however idyllic, can be kept completely free of discomfort) compassion and kindness can be consistent with the practice of eating meat.
If it’s the fact of killing rather than the way food animals are treated that bothers you, though, you might think that vegetarianism is the only honest response to it. But there is a bigger picture to consider. Animals, after all, aren’t just killed for food – they are bred, raised, and killed for food. Therefore, if you decide to stop eating meat because you don’t agree with killing animals for food, you are not just stopping animals from being killed. You are also stopping them from being bred and raised. To put it bluntly, you are creating a smaller market for their existence. For every cow, pig, or chicken that you don’t eat, a cow, pig or chicken existence will simply not occur. So, when the question of the ethics of killing animals for food comes up, I think we have to realize that it’s not the whole question. The whole question, the real question, is whether it is ethical to bring animals into being for the purposes of killing them for food. If what we care about is the animals, then the question becomes: for them, or from their perspective, is it better to be brought into existence, live a (short) life, then be killed for food, or is it better to not exist at all?
Well, animals probably can’t ponder the possibility of non-existence, so we have to ask and answer the question for them. There doesn’t seem to be anything more profound to say about it than simply to conclude that if a life is worth living, then it is better to live and die than never to have lived at all. Therefore, if a food animal’s life is worth living, it is morally acceptable for we humans to both bring that life into being, care for it, and then to humanely extinguish it, knowing all the while that the inevitability of the latter is the precondition of the possibility of the former.
This is why it’s so important to eat meat only from compassionately-raised animals. If an animal is raised with no regard for its well-being, its life is unlikely to be even minimally worth living, in which case the argument doesn’t work. It is morally unconscionable to bring an animal into being, only to torture and then kill it.
2. Why being a vegetarian isn’t better
If you still don’t like the idea of killing even humanely-raised animals for food, being a vegetarian won’t help you. Or, if it will, it will only help you marginally. We obviously have to eat something, and if it’s not meat, it’s dairy and eggs, and if it’s not that, it’s fruit and grains and vegetables. Unassuming as chowing down on your beans and rice might seem, countless animals are killed to produce the grains and vegetables that vegetarians -- and vegans -- rely on. Granted, we’re not actually eating them, but they are nonetheless destroyed by the pesticides and tractors that enable us to bring food from the ground to our mouths. Therefore, we are requiring that they be killed so that we may eat, just as we require that food animals be killed so that we may eat. We might make ourselves feel better by reassuring ourselves that we’re not directly consuming them, but of course it matters not a whit to the annihilated animals whether we consume their bodies or leave them lying in the soil. Either way, their lives are gone.
The prospect of killing insects with pesticide may not bother some vegetarians, and I’m not one to harp on any inconsistency there. Perfectly respectable scientists theorize, after all, that insects are not sentient beings and cannot feel pain, so there may be some objective basis for making an ethical distinction between the killing of an aphid and the killing of a cow. However, the prairie dogs, gophers, groundhogs, rabbits, moles, and field mice living in crop soil whose lives end unceremoniously in the jaws of a tractor are undoubtedly sentient mammals, and I see no reason to count them as less worthy of our moral concern than a cow. Unfortunately, even vegetarians and vegans cannot avoid having blood on their plates.
I have seen very few responses in the animal welfare literature to this point. To his credit, Peter Singer, the philosopher who is often credited as starting the whole movement with his groundbreaking 1975 work, Animal Liberation, does offer a rebuttal. In a more recent book, The Way We Eat, Singer acknowledges the above argument and answers that at least fewer animals are killed when we eat crops than when we eat meat – by his estimate, five times fewer in an example in which we choose a vegan meal over one composed of grass-fed beef.
I’m not going to quibble with the math. The number of lives saved will vary greatly depending on controversial assumptions about soil composition, tilling method, etc., but let’s assume Singer is correct, and at least a vegetarian or vegan diet reduces the overall number of animals killed. Logically, that may be a reason to eschew eating meat. But is that really the most vegetarians can say for themselves? The moral high ground consists of, well, occupying a bit less of the moral low ground? The ethical difference between vegetarian and omnivorous diets is a matter not of principle, but of arithmetic?
It’s one thing to believe, when you give up the hot dogs and burgers and veal scallopine that you love so much, and have to live through your uncle’s disapproval at Thanksgiving, and your friends’ teasing at happy hour, and your mom’s incessant worrying that you’re not getting enough protein, that at least you’re living an ethically pure life. At least you don’t have blood on your hands. When it turns out that you’re doing all that just so you can divide the amount of blood on your hands by five -- it just doesn’t have the same ring.
So, I’m inclined to believe that eating humanely-raised meat is not a choice we can easily vilify. None of us has the luxury of shunning the kill. Perhaps the best we can do is devote our energies to ensuring that the animals’ lives we take are good ones.
Angelique Chao is a freelance writer in Minneapolis who spends her time noodling about the ethical implications of what we choose to eat. She thought she’d left philosophizing behind for good when she finished her dissertation and joined the business world, but after several years of corporate life her natural disposition reasserted itself; she’s now a full-time writer and researcher. When she’s not out touring farms and processing facilities, you’ll likely find her at one laptop-friendly spot or another -- a library, a coffee shop, or home. She blogs at http://fromanimaltomeat.com. Her last post for Simple, Good and Tasty was Organic Farmers at MOSES Conference Plant Seeds for a Sustainable Future.