Is It Ethical To Eat Meat?

This is one of those issues that I ponder from time to time, but ignore on a whole. Only recently have I begun to really think about the ethics involved when it comes to eating meat. It’s a fairly broad topic, but is it ever ethical to raise another living species with the sole goal of killing and eating it?

The more I think about it, the less convinced I am that eating meat is ethical. This disturbs me because I love meat. Nothing beats a nice steak or roast dinner. I’m also not a big fan of vegetables. Sure, I like corn on the cob, beans and carrots, but vegetables certainly aren’t high on my to-do list, if you know what I’m saying.

However, the arguments for eating meat that I can come up with, usually sound religious in nature, which bothers me greatly.

For example, here are a few of the things I thought about to try and convince myself that eating meat was ethical.

Example 1: It’s natural. We humans are omnivores and eating meat comes naturally to us and is part of our natural diet.

If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard this same sort of argument from the religious when it came to the rights of the LGBTQ community, I’d be a very rich man. One of the first arguments out of their mouths is to say that same-sex couples aren’t natural, because they can’t reproduce.

It sounds like a weak excuse when they do it, and I have to admit that it sounds like a weak excuse when I do it to justify eating meat. Yes, we can naturally eat meat, and I would if it meant my survival with not a second thought, but I live in an industrial society and eating meat isn’t necessary or required. I could easily survive on vegetables and supplements.

Example 2: I love meat!

Yeah, so what? That doesn’t make it ethical to eat meat. Slave owners used this argument to keep slaves. They told themselves that they were doing the slaves a favor, and they even came up with so-called ethical rules on keeping slaves. It still wasn’t ethical. In fact, many religious people used the bible to justify slavery.

Just like slave owners of that time, I try to ignore the ethical implications that eating meat brings with it. Most of the time, I don’t even think about it. When I do think about it, I start to feel uncomfortable and I shove it from my mind.

The fundamental question we have to ask ourselves is whether animals have rights? Do they have a right to live free, just as we do? Do they have the right to eat a natural diet, and should their interest in staying alive outweigh our unnecessary interest of butchering and eating them?

I suppose I could be swayed in either direction, but right now, I feel as if I don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to eating meat. It’s not necessary, and I do it because I like the taste of meat and I don’t want to give up that pleasure.

In the coming days, weeks, months, I will likely continue to wrestle with this ethical dilemma, but I’m almost certain that I know the outcome, even if it does make me cringe with distaste – it’s only a matter of time before I become a vegetarian, unless some convincing argument pops out of the blue that changes my mind.

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8 Comments

  1. About two and a half years ago, I went from a happy, meat-loving omnivore to a happy vegan in pretty short order, and the change came through a lot of the same concerns you have.

    I find it a very easy case to make to just about anyone that to cause suffering to any being that can experience suffering is nearly axiomatically wrong, (for example, the universal outrage that people feel towards those who abuse their pets for fun), and that strong reasons are needed to justify causing suffering.

    I find the arguments about whether it's “natural” to eat meat (or not) to be fallacious and irrelevant. I do tend weight the suffering of more intelligent critters like us more than that of less intelligent and self-aware critters, and therefore don't find myself at all in agreement with the more “militant” vegans etc. out there. But for me, the fundamental question was this: given that raising animals for meat on any kind of scale is unavoidably going to result in a truly mind-boggling amount of conscious suffering and pain, what are our reasons for doing it? The simple fact is that the vast, vast majority of people do not require meat in their diet to live healthy lives, and can thrive just fine without it. I make an exception for poor countries which perhaps have no other reasonable protein substitute; but for much of the world, and certainly people like me in the affluent West, we just don't need it. So what are the remaining reasons? We like the taste…? As far as I can tell, it all boils down to that in the end: there is an esthetic experience that we enjoy which necessitates animal suffering on an industrial scale, and which for most people in the developed world is entirely gratuitous. There's also the sheer momentum of millenia of culture, too, but that's a separate issue. There is no way to totally eliminate the negative effects of our presence on the animals around us, but the industrial scale suffering we cause is very, very optional. And so after running out of excuses and after my conscience was sufficiently seared, (and after considering the environmental impacts, too), I decided to opt out and see how it went.

    So that was two and a half years ago, and I can report it's been wonderful. I expected the transition to be difficult and frought with intense cravings, but it was not. My tastes really have changed, and where I used to love and crave meat, I now equally love and crave other things, (hello, Seitan!). I'm not going to claim I feel magically “cleaner” or “lighter” as some people do, as I doubt I can separate those feelings from the emotional element of feeling like I'm doing the right thing, (which I do feel strongly), but I can report zero negative health consequences. I feel completely fine – happy and healthy and with a similar sense of discovery and freedom that I felt when I overturned my old religious assumptions.

    I wish you well in your thinking, wherever it takes you. I hope you find a position on meat that makes rational and ethical sense to you, and that you can live by with conviction. Please count this comment as one data point in the “not eating meat can be brilliant” column.

  2. No problem! Apart from the religion question, my decision on meat is probably the thing that I've given the most thought to in my adult life. In both cases, I like to talk about it, (and debate it sometimes), but I also don't like to preach at people. Deeply cultural subjects, like sex, gender roles, religion, rites of passage, food, etc. are sometimes extra difficult to talk about simply due to the depth of their roots, and it's hard not to come across as being preachy; I'm glad I didn't.

    I'll be watching your blog with interest to see where you're thinking goes, (and standing by with help in making the transition should you make it!)

    Cheers!

  3. If you wish to become a vegetarian/vegan, it doesn't matter to me.

    My issue with the eating meat/slavery comparison, it's an extreme example of an false equivalency. One is a human being, someone is one of our own, as intelligent as we are (though some people didn't agree with that back then), who was tortured and forced to do hard labor, and treated as though they were a piece of property.

    The other is a far less intelligent and self aware creature being killed for the purpose of feeding people.

    That said, I do wish that the killing methods used in slaughterhouses were much more humane, they are creatures that can feel pain after all, and subjecting them to high amounts of pain when it's not necessarily at all, better methods can be used, is cruel.

  4. Hi Sheldon,

    The equivalent wasn't that slave ownership and eating meat are the same, rather that the excuse used to perpetuate both and make it 'ethical' were the same. A few hundred years ago, many slave owners didn't much think about the ethical implications of slave ownership. It was considered morally okay. Much the same as how we view eating meat today. I wonder if in a few hundred years, people will look back on our society and view our eating meat with close to the same distaste as we view our ancestors who kept slaves.

    You raise a good point about the intelligence, but I'm not sure that's really a factor. Intelligent or not, do they have the same rights to life as we do? I think when we start measuring 'intelligence' as the property that grants us rights, then we begin to slide down a slippery slope. Self awareness is certainly another good point.

    Thanks for your thoughts. Greatly appreciated!

  5. Interesting discussion on the ethical dimensions of eating meat. I suppose I'd say that I basically agree with Sheldon. There is however another factor that I didn't see mentioned: With a rapidly increasing world population and hunger and famine becoming more and more common, can we actually afford to feed cows and pigs? The grain used to feed a cow could feed a lot more people than the meat the cow produces.
    You referred to this as an ethical dilemma; however I don't believe that the choices as described constitute such dilemma. An ethical dilemma is usually understood as a necessary choice between two actions either of which would be immoral or unethical. ( A classic one: you're hiding Jews in your home and the Nazis ask if you are doing so ; do you lie or betray? This one may sound simple, but many are not.) A choice between “Animals shouldn't suffer” and “I like meat” is not such a choice.

  6. Nice comment Bill. I never thought of the feed factor. That's a great point.

    I think the ethical dilemma is whether or not animals have the right to life, or whether they are a natural food source that should be exploited. It seems rather obvious to me (as it seems obvious to you) yet a majority of the population still eats meat (myself included) without a second thought. On top of that, there are numerous articles and blog posts online that try to explain away the eating of meat. So I guess it isn't as cut and dry as we might think.

  7. Pingback: The Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Cold | Godless Cranium

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