Is it ethical to eat meat?


A few weeks ago, The Ethicist, a column in The New York Times Magazine, invited answers to the question: Is it ethical to eat meat? (A vegan friend forwarded this contest to me, as if to say, "justify yourself, b—.")

In the end, I couldn't. Hours before the contest's deadline, I stared at a blank screen, struggling with the definition of "ethical." In the end, I went surfing instead. Which, I suppose, is ultimately my answer: hedonism trumps all. (What else do you expect from someone who writes about food for a living?)

I eagerly awaited the contest results. I wanted someone to tell me why eating meat was ethical. I know that factory farming cannot be ethical, in terms of the welfare of animals and environment. That's easy. I know there are alternative, more compassionate models out there, but I wanted to know: at what point is it ever OK to kill another sentient being? If we were starving, the answer seems clear. But the reality is, most of us will not die if we don't eat a steak, now.

I never got my answer.

Most of the finalists argued that animals could be raised ethically, and well-managed farms contribute to the environment rather than degrade it. Meat from these farms is ethical to eat, the essays concluded. The reality, however, is that 99% of our meat does not come from these purportedly idyllic pastures.

The more educated we become, the more complicated the world gets. In the grocery store now, we are faced with choices beyond simply beef or chicken. Local, organic, and now ethical? Locally-farmed with questionable practices or imported and organically farmed?

Sometimes I think hedonism as a moral philosophy came about when philosophers were tired of going around in circles, of debating, of trying to draw black and white in a world of grey, and just gave up and set out to live life. I think it's just the best we can do.

My favorite essay was one of the finalists, in an essay titled "For What Shall We Be Blamed": "We would be foolish to deny that there are strong moral considerations against eating meat. Likewise, we would be foolish to deny that there are strong moral considerations against giving our money to Armani rather than to Oxfam or—more radically—against having children rather than adopting them. When honest with ourselves, we admit that morality demands more than we would give; deep down, we know that we fall short … Thus the moral world is tragic. We ought to doubt any proposal that would steer us through these complexities too quickly."