NY Times Ethics of eating meat contest gives us all food for thought

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I can’t count how many straight out laughs I got in response to “soy vegetariana” when trying to order a meal in Spain. This is a country where the majority of bars decorate their ceilings with hanging dried whole legs of their famous black pigs and baby Babes are regularly served baked to tender perfection curled up on a big plate.

I had to be talked out of calling the police after we received our first body part in the mail for Christmas, animal of course. While the people of Spain are generous, friendly and clearly enjoy life, I found myself having to constantly explain why I didn’t eat meat. Well-meaning friends were invariably surprised when I turned down seafood tapas. Fish is not meat in Spain.

While I was the one attempting to explain in my less-than-perfect Castellano my ethical – and ecological and humanitarian and health driven – reasons for going AWOL on the meat addiction, the New York Times recently turned the tables when The Ethicist Ariel Kaminer announced a contest for meat eaters to explain why it’s ethical to consume the flesh of other species.

And the judges? While not all vegetarian, they are all outspoken critics of the current meat production machine. So rather than vegetarians defending their views to a world of meat eaters, ravenous carnivores were asked to give their best shot at ethically defending their choice to allow sentient creatures to suffer and die for the almighty palate.

The judges chose six finalists out of 3,000 entries, and allowed readers to choose their favorite. Readers chose PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk’s essay which argued that “aside from accidental roadkill or the fish washed up dead on the shore, [in vitro (lab grown) meat] is perhaps the only ethical meat.”

The judges chose self-described “farmworker, plant geek, agroecologist and foodie for the past 20 years” Jay Bosts’ entry, which reminded me of something I might have heard Daniel Day-Lewis mutter after killing the deer in the first two minutes of Last of the Mohicans. This is Bosts’ final paragraph:

“For me, eating meat is ethical when one does three things. First, you accept the biological reality that death begets life on this planet and that all life (including us!) is really just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form. Second, you combine this realization with that cherished human trait of compassion and choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain and/or meat. And third, you give thanks.”

OK. So I’ve accepted death begets life on this planet and that we’re all just solar energy. Ethically speaking, this doesn’t explain why it’s acceptable for me to kill animals so that I can enjoy something tasty or fit in at the annual neighborhood bbq. If death is just part of life, following this logic murdering people would just be part of the natural process of this planet and I’d be freeing up resources and space for another human to be born.

As far as choosing ethically raised meat, James McWilliams, in an op-ed piece that also appeared in the NY Times called The Myth of Sustainable Meat, addressed the fact that there would be no way to satiate the growing world-wide demand for cheap meat in a sustainable way. Basically, there’s not enough space for grass-fed, free-range beef, and, even if there were, the greenhouse gasses emitted by these animals would be an even bigger issue than the standard factory-farmed meat from whence 99 percent of the flesh consumed in this country comes from.

After killing an animal that felt love, pain, fear and happiness, regardless of whether its short life was in a pasture or the hell of a feed lot, you give thanks? You can’t give thanks for something that you took by force. By this logic, rapists could clear their consciences by thanking their victims.

The only time it seems ethically reasonable to hunt and kill animals for food is when it is necessary for survival. Yes, one animal dying so that another can live is part of the natural process of this planet upon which survival is based, but we long ago removed ourselves from being at the mercy of the natural processes of this Earth when we invented civilization. Following all of the rules of the natural process of life would mean foregoing life-saving medicine and procedures.

The vast majority – except for the very last of the truly tribal people – of humans no longer need meat to thrive. India’s growing overpopulation problem highlights this point (India is largely a vegetarian nation). In fact, there is an increasing mountain of research proving that eating the dead bodies of animals is actually hurting our health and causing many of the diseases afflicting Westerners.

I often hear meat eaters excuse their diet choices by saying that eating vegetables brings with it the collateral damage of killing insects, small mammals like mice and other wildlife when the food is trucked from farm to supermarket. While this is true, it is an unintentional consequence of the large-scale agriculture we have come to depend on.

But the accidental death of a few does not create an ethical free-for-all to kill whatever we want to eat. I may accidentally kill another person when I drive my car, but that doesn’t give me the right to start taking people out with my Hummer every time they get in my way.

If we focus strictly on ethics, there is no way to defend killing for our own enjoyment. The next time a rabid cow intent on mass murder charges your children, feel free to bust out your Glock and take it down, ethics is on your side. Otherwise, try using your flat teeth designed for chewing vegetation to enjoy a salad.

Sources and further reading
  • Tina Page

    Tina is a journalist and mother of three who's lived all her life in the South Bay of Los Angeles except for a two-year stint in the heart of Spain. She believes humans have the capacity to make this a beautiful world for all species to live, and mothers have a special charge to raise their children to enjoy, love and respect all creatures.

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