Eating Ethics

This was an essay written for a New York Times Essay contest, the question being, “Why is eating meat ethical?”

Not eating meat is a denial of death. Death is a part of life. It is the cycle that is important, and where humans break Nature’s cycles, we pay the price. Eating meat is a part of that cycle. There is a degree of hubris in the idea that if one stops eating meat, that somehow this balances the scales. This only pushes death away, making it less personal. To refuse to eat anything with a face ignores both the vitality of plants, and the myriad small birds and mammals that are killed in farm equipment. These lives are not less valuable than that of a domesticated cow or pig.

Everything dies, and to live is to create a devastation. Every minute, microorganisms are killed in our digestive tract. Building and heating our homes kills trees. Feeding our beloved carnivorous pets kills other animals. This is a tide we cannot sweep back. Life feeds on life. There are, in the animal kingdom, both predators and prey, and prey does not die of old age. Our prohibitions, inhibitions and regulations around the killing of animals have disrupted the natural balance, and while it is stupid to embrace an ethic of rejoicing in death, it is appropriate and healthy to embrace an ethic of cyclical living.

To ask the question “Is it ethical to eat meat?” is to imply that eating meat is an option. Humans are the animals that need ethics purely because we have the capacity to choose our behavior. But despite this capacity, we are still animals, tied to our biology and our body’s needs. No matter how much we might desire to eschew consuming our fellow beings, denial of our needs comes at a cost. We evolved eating meat. We evolved because we ate meat. Digestion and assimilation is an expensive process. Plant eaters have to spend far more time eating and digesting than do omnivores or carnivores, and human omnivores get many nutritional needs met by eating our fellow beings. It is indeed the case that some humans are better adapted to maintain health without meat, but this is not true for all, and we simply do not know enough about nutritional science to make a judgment about percentages. To deny these costs is to devalue our selves.

Humans have valuable contributions to the planet. In the Americas before Columbus, humans were stewards of the land. Indigenous people burned trees every single year for thousands of years, which returned nutrients to the soil and made the forests open and easy to navigate. They cut back forests to make room for wildlife that they could then hunt. They created lively, vibrant eco systems.

It is true that overusing land results in it degradation. It is also true that ignoring it causes degradation. In the western US, lay a number of “exclosures,” areas that were overgrazed in the 40s and have been set aside to recover. They are not recovering. Without human intervention, they look like parking lots; flat, dry expanses with only a few scraggly trees. Standing in stark contrast are the managed lands of U Bar Ranch in Southwestern New Mexico. The ranch hosts the largest population of three endangered species, including 30 to 40 percent of Willow Flycatchers. This spectacularly successful management is done with beef cattle. Humans are not separate from Nature, nor do we have be an anathema. Eating meat is not a question of ethics, it is a matter of humans being willing to play their role in a very complex ecosystem.

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About selinarif

Selina came across Paganism around age 15 and it felt like coming home. She has been solitary, and worked in numerous circles, both formal and informal in several different traditions. She is a massage therapist, a nutrition counselor and a martial artist and ties all of these things into her spirituality.
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2 Responses to Eating Ethics

  1. Mijnheer says:

    I’m sure you would not defend cannibalism by using your “denial of death” and “Nature’s cycles” argument. This shows that something is missing from the ethical equation here, namely, consideration of victim’s point of view. It is, of course, awfully convenient for us humans that we get to terminate the lives of animals prematurely, and they seldom terminate our lives prematurely. It is true that none of us can avoid causing some harm to others, but shouldn’t we try to minimize the harm we do?

    As for plants, there is no scientific evidence that they are sentient (consciously aware or able to experience pain or suffering), though they are amazingly sensitive to their environments. But if plants were shown to be sentient, that would make the case for vegetarianism all the stronger, since a meat diet requires far more in the way of plant input than a vegetarian diet. (Animals have to eat plants or eat other animals that eat plants.)

    Here’s an interesting piece on the “Number of Animals Killed to Produce One Million Calories in Eight Food Categories”: http://www.animalvisuals.org/projects/data/1mc/

    • selinarif says:

      I have to start by saying that one of the rules for the particular contest was that we were not allowed to use arguments around consuming pastured rather than factory farmed meat. This made for an interesting intellectual exercise, but in my opinion, left out the best argument. Eating pastured meat (which I do) negates Middleton’s argument about number of deaths because only one cow is killed. But his argument has other problems. He is assuming that only calorie count matters to human health. If that were true, we could all live on sugar.

      My other issue with the contest was that to say that an ethical argument is needed for eating meat assumes that we have a choice about eating animal products. While human bodies are all different, there are some realities that we do not escape, in this context, the reality is that there are nutrients that our bodies do not manufacture that we cannot get from plants. While some humans can survive for longer without animal products, eventually there are going to be problems.

      I agree completely that we should minimize harm. This is why I advocate for pastured meat, which when properly done has the benefit of sequestering carbon, reducing flooding, and building healthy soils. This allows livestock to live and breed the way they evolved, and places us (humans) firmly within the cycle of Nature. Let me be clear, I am against factory farming, both for its cruelty to animals, and because it causes damage to human health.

      How do you feel about other animals terminating animal’s lives prematurely? As a fact of nature, it is far from gentle or compassionate. Nothing wants to die. A species that lacks a strong survival drive would, by definition, fail to have a continued presence on the planet. It would get eaten. The “desire to live” is not in itself a good argument.

      No, I would not defend cannibalism as being part of nature’s cycle. Generally, species that eat their own would run into the same problem as one that lacked a survival drive. But cannibalism is relatively rare. In his book Good to Eat Marvin Harris makes the argument that it occurs only in places where there is a shortage of animal foods.

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