I entered a contest a few weeks ago. [Spoiler Alert: I did not win.] I had read about the contest in the Ethicist column of the NYT. The point of the contest was simple: it was a call out to meat eaters; if you eat meat, defend it
from an ethical perspective. As an omnivore, I thought it was a worthy topic for consideration and at the very least might be a good mental exercise. So I tapped out a few hundred words and entered. Turns out, I was one of more than 3,000 people with more
or less the same idea. You can read the winner's essay, and a fascinating article about the crazy brouhaha the contest stirred, in the Sunday, May 6, 2012 edition of
The New York Times Magazine. My entry is right here:
Is Eating Meat Ethical? It can be. It could be. Sometimes. Well, yes. A qualified yes.
I will have to begin at the begining, I'm afraid. Way way back to the time when we swung down from the trees and began hunting and eating meat in earnest. These were the two activities, you see, that kickstarted our brains. We were hunting animals for
meat as we were first becoming human, as we differentiating ourselves from the mass of animals around us, as we were being fired and shaped in the kiln of evolution. We might not have made it to becoming fully human, except that somebody, somebody you're probably
related to, had the bright idea to put meat over fire. Slapping meat over fire gave us an additional boost in brain size: Cooking meat made it easier to digest, freeing up calories that would ultimately be used to power larger, energy-sucking brains.
Ok, from the savanna to the Safeway, let's cut to now.
One of the side effects of our bigger brains is that we modern humans, in addition to dreaming up the Internet and the gin martini, are capable of thinking about what we're eating. We can consider our relationship with the animals that become our food
and conceive of being compassionate towards them. We can do this, then, because we initially conceived to eat them.
Our very omnivorousness provided us with decision-making tools, including a capacity for intellectual and ethical considerations that sometimes lead us to reject our carnivorous side. After all, as omnivores, we have a wide-open palate. Yet as rational
animals, we have the ability to choose. We’re free to expand or narrow the scope of what we consider food. Unlike the lion, we can decide we'd rather just have a salad. And we owe it all to our meat-eating past.
For as long as we have been human, we have shared a link with the animals we eat. With domestication, the link not only continued, it strengthened. Humans and animals grew into domestication together some 15,000 years ago or so.
However, domestication developed from a condition of mutual benefit, with animals drifting toward human settlements, having recognized that here they would find a reliable source of food and at least a measure of safety--protection
against all predators except, inevitably, one. For humans, domestication turned the calculus of the hunt right on its head: better now to preserve the biggest and best animals so they might produce other excellent animals. This
new arrangement was based on the self interest of both animals and humans. It was a contract, mutually beneficial, based on respect for the animals' nature and needs.
Today, however, modern industrial animal husbandry makes a complete mockery of this contract. Far from nurturing, protecting, and acting as caretaker, the system brutalizes its charges, reducing sentient creatures to mere widgets on a gory assembly line.
A pig is not a pig in this system; it has been stripped of its animal nature. It is not ethical to eat an animal raised in current factory farm conditions. Conditions matter. What is unethical
is the modern machine that denies the animal its natural dignity.
However, recreate a nurturing environment of mutual benefit, similar to the initial contract, where the animals' needs and concerns and basic nature are respected, then you have a situation where it can be ethical for a human being (also an animal, after
all) to eat that animal, whose existence was valued and secured and protected until the day its life was quickly and humanely extinguished.
So yes--a qualified yes--eating meat is, or rather can be, ethical.