To Eat or Not to Eat

Published: June 23, 2014

By Jim Lichtman
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There are many issues – ethical and otherwise – that we could be spending more time considering, but… this question caught the attention and response of thousands of New York Times‘ readers, (May 3, 2012).

Ariel Kaminer, who writes The Ethicist column in the Sunday New York Times magazine, posed the question – is it ethical to eat meat?, then invited readers 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.”

Kaminer was surprised and overwhelmed by many of the attacks that quickly followed. “Carnivores condemned the contest as anti-meat propa­ganda. Vegans condemned the contest as pro-meat propaganda. Yet others said that I was trying to impose a single moral code; they were matched by those who said I was abetting moral anarchy.”

“Despite all of that,” Kaminer writes, “the contest was a stupendous success. We hoped to get a few dozen responses. We dreamed of getting a few hundred. In the end we got around 3,000. And the quality of the entries was as exceptional as the quantity.”

Who would have guessed that the “to eat or not to eat meat” debate would rival gun control! Among the key arguments readers posted:

• 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?

“Pointy teeth or tasty dinners are noteworthy,” Kaminer writes, “but they aren’t arguments about ethics. And lions or sharks can’t be unethical because they can’t reason that an action might be more or less ethical. (Same goes for plants.) But we can.

“The judges considered 29 semifinalists, and though their votes barely overlapped, they were unanimous in seeing the contest as a cultural indicator.

“Several noted the widespread agreement that factory farming, which accounts for 99 percent of the meat eaten in America, is not ethical. ‘Lurking beneath these submissions,’ Jonathan Safran Foer said, ‘is a shared dissatisfaction with our current system of meat production, a shared anger.’

“Peter Singer placed that anger in the context of ‘a seismic shift of opinion about meat in the past decade.’ He added, ‘The tragedy is that factory farming survives despite the widespread agreement that whether we are primarily concerned about animal welfare, our environment or our health, it is ethically indefensible.’

“Mark Bittman suggested that just five years ago that critique would have seemed radical: ‘Yet 20 or at most 50 years from now, those of us still alive will express incredulity at the way we once treated animals destined to become food.’

“Andrew Light observed: ‘Though there were major disagreements among the approaches that most people took, everyone — committed omnivores, guilty omnivores and charitable vegetarians — agreed that food choices are moral choices.’ A hopeful thing, he said, because ‘if we can’t all at least agree that there is a moral issue at stake then there’s very little chance we’ll be able to discuss our differences on these issues.’

“Michael Pollan noted how many essays emphasized the role animals play in making a farm sustainable. ‘This argument gains authority when it is rooted in the practical realities of farming’ — rather than academic theorizing — ‘which it was in several of our entries, and these to me were the most compelling,’ he pointed out. ‘That said, simply stimulating people to think through their eating choices has a value, since our thoughtlessness in these matters has such a high cost.’ ”

You can click on the link to read the winning essay. As for my ethical opinion… well, considering that I am currently eating a flank steak fresh from the barbeque, I’m afraid my confirmation bias is showing on this one. However, my favorite response comes not in the form of an essay but another familiar theme: conspiracy.

“I find it both ironic and highly unethical,” writes D.A. Quinton, “that The New York Times would use a contest…. to garner e-mail addresses that they can then distribute to political candidates. Having a Big Brother in New York City with so much impenetrable concrete between his feet and the soil that feeds him, frankly, makes me nervous.”


  1. The difference between lions, sharks, and Venus flytraps from you and me is we have the choice to eat meat or not.

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