Is it Ethical to Eat Meat?

Published: July 27, 2012

By Jim Lichtman
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This story has been sitting on my desk since early May, and I confess that while it may not be the most vital ethical issue of the day, it’s an interesting one. I have several vegan friends who have made pretty persuasive arguments against meat.

“To encourage omnivores to do some of the same hard thinking that vegetarians and vegans have done,” The New York Times writes, “I invited them to make, in 600 words or fewer, the strongest ethical case for the meat they eat. And to judge those arguments I gathered some of the strongest ethical critics of meat, or at least of the way we consume it — Mark Bittman, Jonathan Safran Foer, Andrew Light, Michael Pollan and Peter Singer.”

Among the obvious pro-meat arguments:

• Lions eat meat. Would you accuse a lion of being unethical?
• The Bible says it’s O.K.
• I have pointy teeth. Ergo, meat!
• Would you accuse a shark of being unethical?
• It’s nutritious/delicious.
• It’s a free country.
• Would you accuse a Venus’ flytrap of being unethical?

The winning entry came from Jay Bost, “a farm worker, plant geek, agro-ecologist and foodie for the past 20 years,” who teaches at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, NC:

“As a vegetarian who returned to meat-eating, I find the question ‘Is meat-eating ethical?’ one that is in my head and heart constantly. The reasons I became a vegetarian, then a vegan and then again a conscientious meat-eater were all ethical.

“The ethical reasons of why NOT to eat meat are obvious: animals are raised and killed in cruel conditions; grain that could feed hungry people is fed to animals; the need for pasture fuels deforestation; and by eating meat, one is implicated in the killing of a sentient being. Except for the last reason, however, none of these aspects of eating meat are implicit in eating meat, yet they are exactly what make eating some meat unethical. Which leads to my main argument: eating meat raised in specific circumstances is ethical; eating meat raised in other circumstances is unethical. Just as eating vegetables, tofu or grain raised in certain circumstances is ethical and those produced in other ways is unethical.

“What are these ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways of producing both meat and plant foods? For me, they are most succinctly summed up in Aldo Leopold’s land ethic: ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’ While studying agro-ecology at Prescott College in Arizona, I was convinced that if what you are trying to achieve with an ‘ethical’ diet is the least destructive impact on life as a whole on this planet, then in some circumstances, like living among dry, scrubby grasslands in Arizona, eating meat, is, in fact, the most ethical thing you can do other than subsist on wild game, tepary beans and pinyon nuts.

“A well-managed, free-ranged cow is able to turn the sunlight captured by plants into condensed calories and protein with the aid of the microorganisms in its gut. Sun > diverse plants > cow > human. This in a larger ethical view looks much cleaner than the fossil-fuel-soaked scheme of tractor-tilled field > irrigated soy monoculture > tractor harvest > processing > tofu > shipping > human.

“While most present-day meat production is an ecologically foolish and ethically wrong endeavor, happily this is changing, and there are abundant examples of ecologically beneficial, pasture-based systems. The fact is that most agro-ecologists agree that animals are integral parts of truly sustainable agricultural systems. They are able to cycle nutrients, aid in land management and convert sun to food in ways that are nearly impossible for us to do without fossil fuel. If “ethical” is defined as living in the most ecologically benign way, then in fairly specific circumstances, of which each eater must educate himself, eating meat is ethical; in fact NOT eating meat may be arguably unethical.

“The issue of killing of a sentient being, however, lingers. To which each individual human being must react by asking: Am I willing to divide the world into that which I have deemed is worthy of being spared the inevitable and that which is not worthy? Or is such a division hopelessly artificial? …

“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.”

In spite of Bost’s argument, I thought it wise to check with another authority; someone whose moral compass may be a little more finely tuned. What does the Dalai Lama have to say on this issue?

A former vegetarian, His Holiness began eating small amounts of animal meat on the advice of a doctor after he developed gall bladder issues and hepatitis. However, his Buddhist position on the subject was interesting.

“In Vinaya (discipline) no prohibition in eating meat,” the Dalai Lama says, “so monks in Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, they take both veg and non veg food. One time I asked, discussed this subject with a monk from Sri Lanka about 40 years ago, he said Buddhist monks are neither veg nor non veg… he should accept whatever he gets, so that’s the principle. But Vinaya clearly mentions that meat which was purposely killed for you was not to be eaten but in general was not prohibited, some books likeLangaavatara Sutra (doctrine of the Buddha) prohibited any kind of meat, including fish, etc., but some other texts not prohibiting, so different case. I think practically in northern part of Tibet, no vegetables. Very difficult. So that’s practical reason.”

So, from a practical standpoint, it looks like I remain an unrepentant Big Mac-ovore.


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