Why it’s Ethical to Eat Meat

The belief I’m about to argue — that eating meat is ethical — has been, for me, 25 years in the making. For much of this time, paradoxically, I was a vegetarian because I thought eating animals was morally reprehensible.


What a self-righteous twit I was.


At my in-laws’ traditional Thanksgiving dinner, I recited graphic details about industrially raised turkey. (Do you know what debeaking is?) At the counter in a fast-food restaurant, I’d loudly order a cheeseburger with no meat. (I want a bun, cheese, pickles, lettuce and onions…but no meat!) At a neighborhood pig roast, I asked the host if he had ever read Charlotte’s Web. (You would never be able to eat pork if you had.)


Thankfully, the stridency of my earlier years has given way to a more balanced and humble approach to food. My evolution from militant vegetarian to “selective omnivore” (kudos to Jonathan Safran Foer for coming up with that term) began 10 years ago, when I learned I was pregnant with twins.


My only other pregnancy ended five years prior to this, with the mid-trimester miscarriage of my one-pound son. My new obstetrician — a “multiples” specialist —  was very specific about what I should do to minimize the risk of pre-term labor: don’t exercise too rigorously, gain 50 pounds, get lots of sleep, and “eat at least 130 grams of protein per day.”


What? I’m a vegetarian! How am I supposed to do that? 

His reply: “Simple: Just eat meat.”

That night, I had a steak for the first time in 15 years.


I’ve been eating meat ever since, because I feel stronger and more resilient when I do. Small amounts of meat a few times a week re-stocks my energy reserves and stabilizes my mood, both of which improve my ability to be a good mom to my twin daughters, who, by the way, were born just one week shy of full term.


Therapeutic meat eating is a common protocol of Ayurveda, a 5,000 year-old system of holistic medicine. According to Dr. John Doulliard, a Colorado-based Ayurvedic practitioner, “… the Dalai Lama and many of the monks in Kashmir eat meat… to rebuild protein and stabilize blood sugar.”


So if even the most devout Buddhists concede that small amounts of meat are necessary for optimal health, then isn’t it ethical to eat it? Only if, as Dr. Doulliard puts it “this medicinal program… is implemented with great respect and gratitude for the animal that gave its life to help yours.”


But it doesn’t end there. There’s an additional responsibility that comes with ethical meat eating; meat eaters must take action to end animal suffering in factory farms. Here are three ways to do that:


1. Eat only as much as necessary. For some, a three-ounce serving a few times a week is enough. Others may need a little more, or a little less. Learn what plant-based foods are good protein sources. And minimize waste; respect the animal’s sacrifice by not tossing it in the trash.


2. Buy meat only from verifiably humane and sustainable sources. Ask specific questions at supermarkets, restaurants and social gatherings, but be polite and gracious. No one wants to listen to a self-righteous twit. 


3. Get involved with local politics. State governments have a huge impact on how farm animals are treated. (For instance, read up on the recent spate of “Ag Gag” laws making their way through numerous state legislatures.) Connect with an animal advocacy group that will keep you informed about legislation that effects farm animals.


Please keep the conversation going by letting us know what you think about the Ethics of eating meat.


 Editor's note: this was an entry into the NYTimes contest. The criteria was, "600 words about why it's ethical to eat meat." 



Shari Manolas Danielson is a food writer and contributor to Simple, Good and Tasty. You can follow her on twitter @shutupmama. Check out her hotly debated post: Marler vs. Gumpert: A Raw Debate About Milk. 




I'm not sure that you really ever addressed your initial statement, that eating meat is ethical. Whether it is (or is not) there lacks an argument here from an ethical standpoint. You state that your personal, individual reason for beginning to eat meat again was for the protein volume benefits. Arguably, this is the reason that Homo sapiens began eating meat from the beginning of our omnivorous history. When we descended from tree life and evolved larger and larger brains it became necessary to consume higher amounts of protein than simple plant based diets that supported a sedentary lifestyle of our ape ancestors. Individually you continue to eat meat because it improves your strength and mood through adulthood, and you reference some Buddhist followers who also eat meat, but I don't think that proves that eating meat is ethical. It simply sets a precedent for a pattern of human meat-eaters. I think that is obvious when you look around and become conscious of the modern American diet! Holy meat overload!

As a meat-eater I also struggle with the question of ethics. Do I eat meat because it is the responsible, ethical way to feed my family? Or am I giving into laziness and a primal taste for flesh? Honestly, probably both. So to ease my mind I do shop responsibly. I support organic and humane meats. Indeed, you vote with your dollars in our culture, and I put in a LOT of votes to our co-op in the way of high-cost meat and dairy. Organic and humane meats are exceedingly expensive, but I will say that the high cost reminds me that I am eating a specialty item and that it's best to not eat meat at every meal or every day. It reminds me to honor the animal which gave its life for our meal, which I often do mention when we sit down to a meat meal, so that we can all be aware of the sacrifice made to sustain us. And yet ... somewhere in the back of my mind, the ethical question lurks unanswered. Here I live, in a place where I can go to the store and purchase local, organic fruits and vegetables; grains from around the world; protein-rich alternatives like tofu, beans, dairy, and suppliments. As an enlightened human resident on this planet, are we past the necessity for killing other animals to sustain our own dietary needs? Shouldn't that be what puts us above more simple-minded creatures on this planet? Shouldn't we be the stewards of their safety and well-being as we control and sculpt the land around us to our own benefit? Herein lay the ethical questions, and maybe I know that the answers to many of them are in conflict with my own choices and behavior. Not to pick on you, Shari, but these are the questions I would have like to have seen addressed in an article titles, "Why It's Ethical to Eat Meat."

Its a good point you make Ben. I think that this article talks about good justifications for eating meat and as you say, precedence for meat eating regardless of who you are and what the rest of your belief systems might entail. The idea of eating animals being ethical is really a hard idea to even begin to grasp. You would almost have to believe that the animal wanted to be eaten or needed to be in order to carry on as a species to make it seem "ethical". Perhaps it would be ethical to eat an animal that is threatening to overpopulate a place, such as deer in some parts of the Northwoods. Or what about Asian carp. As a meat obsessed country, we could help knock out the Asian carp threat and feast on Zebra mussels as they invade our waters (although Zebra mussels and carp are bottom feeders that probably have been absorbing contaminents from our polluted lakes...but alas, that is a different issue altogether.) However, even this just sounds like really good justification. I think in the end, there is almost no realistic way to say that eating other animals on this planet is ethical. I think the best we can do is hope to do it in a way that allows us to feel better about a way, to ease our guilt. 

I think an easier and perhaps more beneficial conversation to be in is the one that has already started. One that sounds like: is there a more morally responsible way to eat meat? This, as you and Shari have stated, begins with awareness of what you are buying and a desire to buy less AND buy responsibly. 

Either way, this is a fascinating conversation that we have started and I hope that someone much wiser than me can help point us in some good directions.

Perhaps it is useful to coalesce around a definition for "ethical." I defer to an article published by Santa Clara University, a Jesuit school that has its own Applied Ethics program. Here's what it says: 

"Ethics is two things. First, ethics refers to well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues. Ethics, for example, refers to those standards that impose the reasonable obligations to refrain from rape, stealing, murder, assault, slander, and fraud. Ethical standards also include those that enjoin virtues of honesty, compassion, and loyalty. And, ethical standards include standards relating to rights, such as the right to life, the right to freedom from injury, and the right to privacy. Such standards are adequate standards of ethics because they are supported by consistent and well-founded reasons.

"Secondly, ethics refers to the study and development of one's ethical standards. As mentioned above, feelings, laws, and social norms can deviate from what is ethical. So it is necessary to constantly examine one's standards to ensure that they are reasonable and well-founded. Ethics also means, then, the continuous effort of studying our own moral beliefs and our moral conduct, and striving to ensure that we, and the institutions we help to shape, live up to standards that are reasonable and solidly-based."

I think responsible, conscientious meat eating meets both criteria. First because it conforms to "well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do." And second, because the process of self-examination raises our awareness and helps us make better choices about what and how often we eat it.

Hope this helps.

Ahhhh...yes, with this broad defining of ethics from the perspective of both right/wrong as well as a system of personal moral beliefs and standards, we can begin to split this discussion into a few different directions, the original article perhaps falling into the latter category. I think the fascinating thing about the definition is how subjective it makes everything: obviously, every society has their own ideas of right/wrong regarding meat, then on a personal level, everyone is developing their own personal set of ethics.

Does this then just become a discussion of personal opinion? Or can we begin to develop a deeper sense of what is ethical based on what might serve the human population and the earth better. I sure think that is the more important and useful direction to take the discussion.

I agree with you Lawrence, and I think that the nature of a debate regarding ethical behavior will always be subjective to those having the discussion. What might be considered ethical treatment of animals from the standpoint of a Tibetan Buddhist will most likely strongly contrast an American politician whose job it is to dictate ethical laws regarding treatment of animals in factory farms. My original point, however, is that the article lacked an ethical argument at all. If "responsible, conscientious meat eating" is ethical, as the author states, then she should argue WHY it is so. Otherwise too much is left up to assumption.

While people's varying viewpoints may differ, however, I'm not sure that the definition of the term "ethics" is the issue, as Sheri suggests. The Jesuit school's applied ethics definition is very specific and thorough, but you'll notice that it also contains language regarding the right to life, which I see as a contradiction to meat eating (conscientious or otherwise.) The closest dictionary to me gives the definition of "ethics" as, "a system or set of moral principles," which I find very concise and accurate. Interestingly, the dictionary defines "ethic" as "the body of moral principles or values held by or governing a culture, group, or individual." So by definition the idea of ethics is subjective in nature as determined by the culture, group, or individual.

An interesting idea, Lawrence, that an animal might need to be eaten in order to carry on as a species. That is definitely a provocative idea. I'd be curious to see if that line of reasoning backs a rationale for humans eating those species. I doubt it would pertain to the animals that we tend to eat, but I'd be interested to find out more on that.

"What a self-righteous twit I was."
Shari- I love this quote! I had many friends who became vegetarian throughout our high school and college days. I for one, have never given up meat, though I agree their are a plethora of issues surrounding the ethic-ality of our collective meat consumption. Personally, I always viewed the issues at hand as ethical issues related to abuse of the environment or mistreatment of the handling of the animals, but not an issue of whether or not it's our human right to eat fellow animals. It's a simple thought, but I always felt that if we humans have such strong carnivorous desires, then we must be hard-wired to need meat as fuel for our bodies. Like you, I saw too many friends return to meat after many years in abstinence, so I'm guessing the biological pull is much stronger than the cerebral desires of logic or reason.

I now watch my children with fascination. Some days my 20 month old, who does not have much of a vocabulary, will clearly desire fruits and vegetables. After a day or two without meat, he then demands the flesh and eats only the meat on the plate. I can only surmise that his body has some natural rhythms which I try not to interfere with too much.

Meat is my favorite item and I don't eat any vegatable without meat except Potatoes. God has made all the food items for us and we should eat all which are Halal. <ahref="">Essayace</a> is a good place to read such Ethical post.

Meat is my favorite item and I don't eat any vegatable without meat except Potatoes. God has made all the food items for us and we should eat all which are Halal. <ahref="">Essayace</a> is a good place to read such Ethical post.

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