The New York Times Magazine's "Ethicist" just held an essay contest with the theme, "Is it ethical to eat meat?" The judges were an all-star roster from the modern foodie writing world -- Michael Pollan, Jonathan Safran Foer, Mark Bittman, Andrew Light -- plus ethicist and Animal Liberation author Peter Singer. Over 3,000 people wrote in to provide their own truths. The six pieces selected as finalists were well-written and, from my perspective, awash with rationalization and verbal gymnastics aimed at making the authors and readers not feel guilty.
I entered, but did not win. Perhaps my submission was a bit too heavy on the, er, snark fin soup. But before I foist it upon readers here anyway, a few facts and thoughts.
The ethics of meat-eating, like in so many other arenas, are situational. If a human needs to kills and eat meat to survive, he or she will most likely do so, and can't reasonably be faulted for that. But among modern affluent humans, the true need for that is gone. So we are left with either ignoring the realities of what eating meat means, or justifying it in some way -- the worst being those who invoke some sort of new-agey "gratitude" and the like, as the dead animal you are eating doesn't care how you feel about it. But in any event, the arguments get complex and heated. Here are at three things worth pondering at least once:
1. Meat involves killing. Duh. But unless you kill the creature yourself, you're using hired killers, complicit in whatever is going on where your food is being produced and killed, and probably avoiding the issue. Visit a slaughterhouse for a dose of reality; or short of that, videos and such are readily available to illustrate what meat-eaters condone by their actions.
2. Meat is bad for you, or certainly can be. The evidence for this mounts, but here is just one latest example.
3. Meat is an environmental disaster, at least the way we produce most of it now: Beyond pollution and climate issues, the overuse of antibiotics is leading to more resistant bacterial strains, with severe real and potential consequences:
So. Anytime such facts and arguments are presented, all sorts of defensive reactions occurs -- it tends to remind me of NRA-type folks fearing for their treasured weaponry. But as with that intractable debate, nobody is trying to take away anybody's meat, or at least nobody with any chance of success. It's up to each eater to decide what they think is right and best for them. I really recommend Foer's Eating Animals as the single best recent work -- he provides a balanced, nuanced take on the many topics, eats meat reluctantly himself, but illustrates the sleight-of-hand "sustainable" and "humane" meat-producing ruses for what they mostly are -- marketing and justifications. He also points out our arbitrary ethics: "Every factory-farmed animal is, as a practice, treated in ways that would be illegal if it were a dog or a cat." Or a horse or bird or, even, a lab rat. Or any creature in a zoo. Or a human.
If you're going to keep eating modern meat, maybe just admit what it entails in terms of suffering, health, and environmental impact. Enjoy. Sing along with The Smiths: "Meat is Murder." Admit you don't really care about all that. Or maybe just be like this (wise)guy:
BECAUSE I SAY SO by Steve Heilig
I am a meat addict. There, I've admitted it. That's the first of the fabled Twelve Steps, of course: acknowledging one's problem. But that's as far as I'll go. It's a free country -- you can't force me to stop eating it. But since you asked, I'll tell you why I do.
I eat meat because I'm human, and we are pretty much king of the hill here, right? You see any other creatures able to make and use guns? And a slaughterhouse -- you think a cow could construct and operate one of those?
In fact, we're at the top of the hill because we eat meat -- at least according to some evolutionists. Our ancestors were able to eat more animals 80,000 years ago, and the increased protein allowed our brains to grow bigger. With that meat, we also got heavy hits of amino acids like l-tyrosine, needed to synthesize dopamine -- the neurotransmitter that controls our brain's reward and pleasure functions. Addiction experts say it's all about dopamine. And meat is one way to get that rush. See? Not my fault.
I eat meat because it's good for me, other than increased heart disease, cancer, infections, and such. Even though I don't need it - athletes have proven that -- I feel I do. Like the alcoholic who cannot enter bars since the temptation is too great, you expect me to pass a restaurant smelling of fresh cooking meat? Hello, bacon. Meet my teeth.
I eat meat because I don't have to kill anything myself. Others do that. I pay them. Ten billion animals die for American meals yearly, but I don't witness that. And me going vegan wouldn't make a dent. Listen, I love animals. I wouldn't eat a dog, cat, monkey, or horse, unlike barbarians elsewhere. I wouldn't kill a cow, chicken, pig, sheep, duck, turkey or bunny rabbit either, but they taste good, plus there are so many of them and the daily holocaust provides not only meals, but jobs. Can't beat that, in this tough economy.
Sure, our closest relations, chimpanzees, sometimes torture and eat their prey alive. But we humans are above that. Right?
I eat meat because I can afford to. Plus it's normal here. In much of the world people are vegetarians because they can't get meat. Losers.
I eat meat because, even though it's the most inefficient and polluting way to get protein to our tables in this world of hunger and starvation, I... well, I guess I don't really care about that.
I eat meat because now there are fancy justifications -- "humane" farming, "sustainable" practices, "artisanal" meat, and all that. It's for rich folks, mostly, inconsequential in the big sad picture, but sounds good, even if much of it is hooey.
But I'll pay a little extra to ease my conscience and impress other people.
Six words: Sarah Palin. Rifle. Dead moose. Hot.
I eat meat because I don't have time to endure guilt-tripping from Pollan, Foer, Schlosser, Singer, Gandhi, "Sir" McCartney, Harrison, Einstein, Confucius, Aristotle, Plato, Schweitzer, Socrates, Schopenhauer, Buddha, Coltrane, Thoreau, Franklin or... you get the picture -- people who think too much. We choose our teachers, and this is what mine says on this: "All normal people love meat. You don't win friends with salad." Thank you, Professor Homer Simpson.
So, to all you poor pompous non-meat-eaters, I'll just say, as my dear old mum used to, Shut up and eat your vegetables. And pass the flesh.
I eat meat because my dumb brain is bigger than my poor meat-clogged heart, and I don't care. Eating meat's ethical because I say so. So, there.