Some may be aware of a NYT contest that asked people to submit a brief essay on why it is ethical to eat meat. Because I have an opinion on the topic (and because I occasionally enjoy exercises in futility) I applied myself to the task and wrote a response. Those of you that read my blog might appreciate that constraining myself to 600 words was difficult, but I managed! I was alerted by a post of Melissa’s over at Hunt Gather Love that the finalists had been announced, which meant it was time for me to publish my entry here! I hope you enjoy…
Composing a convincing argument on why it is ethical to eat meat in less than 600 words is challenging, and by no means can such an argument be comprehensive. But few aspects of moral philosophy can be described with such brevity, and contemplating an issue as provocative as meat-eating under such auspices would take even longer. That’s not to say, however, that a brief and compelling case for the ethical eating of animals cannot be made, and I shall attempt to do so here, positing the (arguably utilitarian or hedonic) case that the appropriate consumption of well-raised and well-managed livestock maximizes benefits for humans, the environment, and animals. Considering the evolutionary context of the different components further strengthens the case.
Despite the occasional media hysteria over epidemiological studies, the argument that humans evolved to eat and thrive on meat is irrefutable. Anthropological evidence suggests that when our ancestors started to eat meat, our brains grew and our intestines shrank, starting the long road to making us human. As a result of millions of years of evolution, humans are “designed” to thrive on meat, and that is what modern research continues to show. While epidemiological dietary studies are notoriously difficult to interpret, the fact that meat is rich in compounds that the human body needs to survive and thrive is irrefutable. While humans can survive on a vegetarian diet (and, with supplementation of B12, a vegan one), we thrive on a diet that includes meat. The consumption of meat, in order for humans to prosper, is an ethical pursuit.
While eating meat has arguable benefits for human prosperity, there are also numerable ethical implications for the environment. Correct management of livestock can benefit the environment dramatically. Much as humans evolved to thrive on meat, our environment thrives when appropriately utilized by animals. Animals raised outside, on the products of the land on which they walk, give back to the environment by fertilizing the land with their manure and shaping the land with their habits. The (usually small-scale) farms that appropriately raise livestock are able to nurture (and often heal) the land that they manage. Furthermore, the purchase of local farm products greatly increases the economic health of the local community. These implications bolster an ethical argument based on maximizing benefits.
Perhaps the hardest aspect of an ethical argument for the consumption of meat is the argument in favor of the animals. Unlikely though this may seem, I believe this is the strongest component of this argument. My family raises beef cattle. I have raised broiler chickens, and I continue to have a laying flock. These animals have good lives. Seeing a chicken enjoy a dust bath, watching a steer peacefully graze- it is hard to deny the inherent ‘goodness’ of seeing an animal thrive in their environment. The reality, of course, is that these animals would not exist if we did not eat them. Killing animals is not pleasant, but when done correctly can be less stressful and painful than common procedures we perform on pets and ourselves. Furthermore, the net benefit of allowing animals to enjoy life in their natural environment is, from my perspective, an ethical ‘win’.
In our modern world we have the luxury to argue about the ethics of eating meat. In the past, and in many communities today, such arguments would be frivolous. Nonetheless, when the evidence is considered under the auspices of the ‘the greatest good’, one can ethically argue that the consumption of meat leads to benefits for humans, the environment, and the animals that are consumed.