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Is eating meat ethical?

from: Darren

To open a discussion on this article, please use the contact page to provide your comments.

Wondering if I could ask :

"Is it ethical to eat animals?"

I realise ethics is subjective, but isn't living a cruelty and violence free life, a valuable principle to uphold? There is strong evidence that we can obtain a completely balanced diet devoid of animals in most parts of the world. Isn't this living with common sense, love and wisdom?

Would welcome the opportunity to hear your comments on this. Thank you in advance for your comments.

The Patriarch replies:

Darren:

I have considered for some time writing about the ethics, not just of eating meat, but of everything we eat and drink. I don't think that there is an item in the human diet today which somebody out there is not claiming there is an ethical problem with, from morning coffee through to a midnight snack of leftover pizza. If we allowed ourselves to be bothered by all the claims, we would consume nothing. Goodbye human race - and there are those out there claiming that would be the correct ethical decision to follow, though we don't see any of them personally following through on it.

But let's talk about eating meat.

A little over a month ago, a well known vegetarian blogger[1] came out and stated that she was now eating meat again. She wrote:

Many of you know that I have recently been struggling for the first time in my life with health problems. When I discovered that my problems were a direct result of my vegan diet I was devastated.  2 months ago, after learning the hard way that not everyone is capable of maintaining their health as a vegan, I made one of the most difficult decisions of my life and gave up veganism and returned to eating an omnivorous diet. My health immediately returned.

Her doctor:

told me that while there are people who can be quite healthy on a vegan, or predominantly vegan, diet, there were many people who simply could not. After all, every human is biologically and physiologically different...

And after "coming-out" with her reversion to including meat in her diet:

In the span of just a few days I received an outpouring of emails from fellow ‘vegan’ bloggers, who told me in confidence that they weren’t really vegan ‘behind the scenes’. They ate eggs, or the occasional fish, or piece of meat, all to keep themselves healthy, but were too scared to admit to it on their blogs. I even received emails from two very prominent and well respected members of the vegan AR community. One a published and much loved vegan cook book author, the other a noted animal rights blogger, their emails detailed their health struggles and eventual unpublicized return to eating meat.

The point to all this quoting from Tasha's blog is to point out that a full vegan diet is not for everyone and that at least some of those who actively promote a vegan diet apparently quietly cheat to maintain their health. (I'm not saying Tasha cheated at all - her honesty and courage in quickly publishing her change in status is to be commended)

We evolved to be omnivores and most of us need some meat in our diet. But we don't need to eat as much meat as we do. If we are concerned about the suffering of animals, then most of us can certainly cut back significantly on meat consumption. But, if you consider your personal survival more important than (say) that of a chicken, you cannot ethically eliminate meat.

(For an opposing humanist & vegetarian view, read Katrina Voss's article in the current Free Inquiry, the journal for the Council for Secular Humanism.[2])

Coming down on the side of eating meat does not necessarily mean you should ignore all ethical considerations other than personal survival. Ethics can guide you in the amount of meat you eat, and in the type of meat you eat.

Let's just look at some of the considerations.

Consciousness / Awareness / Self-Awareness

Douglas Hoffstadter, in his book I Am A Strange Loop explained he had come to vegetarianism through deciding animals had souls - a fraction of a human soul, but nevertheless enough soul that we should not kill them for food. Now, I don't believe in the existence of souls, animal or human, but most of the animals we eat do have a level of consciousness, some of them can be argued to have self-awareness. I suggest it is probably wrong to use highly self-aware animals as food, and we should move our food choices towards the lower ends of the consciousness spectrum.

Quality of Life

Based on the wording of your question, this seems to be the issue which concerns you Darren. You want the animals to be "living a cruelty and violence free life." However, if we switch to a vegan diet, the domestic animals we most use for food won't be living a cruelty and violence free life - they won't be living at all. And as for those in the wild, it will still be nature, red in tooth and claw. The cruelty and violence will still be there, just one less predator.

But we certainly should be aware of the quality of life of our domesticated animals. Ethically we should avoid buying meat from "factory" farms. Animals should be allowed to live in reasonably natural surroundings and should meet a humane death.

Environment

Pack the family into your SUV, drive 10 miles across town to the hamburger joint, and fill up on burgers. The production of the beef in those burgers contributed more to global warming than driving your gas-guzzler to the fast food place and back. If you are concerned about the environment, switch from beef to... well, switch to just about anything else. In a North American context, switching to bison (aka North American buffalo) would have a significantly positive effect on the prairie ecosystem rather than the deleterious effect of cattle and would produce a tiny fraction of the methane. And I recently read an article which suggested switching to kangaroo meat from beef would have a similarly positive effect in Australia.

Summary

Those are just some of the considerations - and those I have mentioned could be greatly expanded on. But, as most of us do need a certain amount of meat in our diet, and until the science fiction solution of growing meat in vats comes to pass, that meat will have to come from animals. Most of us could eat significantly less meat with no adverse effects. And if we are interested in ethical considerations beyond simply eating, then we should inform ourselves of the origin of what we eat.

Footnotes:

  1. Tasha, on voraciouseats.com. The site is currently down, but the article in question is cached.
  2. Eat Tofu, Do Science, by Katrina Voss, p13, Free Inquiry December 2010/January 2011 Vol 31, No 1