Ethics Challenge – Come up with an ethical reason for being a carnivore

Ariel Kaminer, The New York Times’ “Ethicist” throws down the gauntlet at carnivores — challenging us to come up with an ethical argument for eating animals.

[Carnivores say] they love meat or that meat is deeply ingrained in our habit or culture or cuisine or that it’s nutritious or that it’s just part of the natural order. Some of the more conscientious carnivores have devoted themselves to enhancing the lives of livestock, by improving what those animals eat, how they live and how they are killed. But few have tried to answer the fundamental ethical issue: Whether it is right to eat animals in the first place, at least when human survival is not at stake.

So today we announce a nationwide contest for the omnivorous readers of The New York Times. We invite you to make the strongest possible case for this most basic of daily practices. (Source)

The “challenge” is bullshit.

The fact is, there is only one rational answer to “why do you eat meat?” The answer is “because fuck you, that’s why.”

I don’t say this in jest or irreverence (ok, a little irreverence). I say this because I freely admit that there is no “ethical” justification for eating animals. In fact, it doesn’t even make sense to do so even if they were voluntarily offering themselves up for consumption — well, at least when it comes to land-based animals.

A recent study says that processed or not, red meat is more unhealthy than we previously thought. (source) Red meat is, indeed, awful for you. Pork is no better. Chicken seems to be a pretty “clean” source of protein, but if you know anything about where your chicken comes from, you might puke at the thought of it. Fish? Well, that’s at least a lovely clean source of protein, so I will support the eating of fish as a rational decision — as long as it is wild caught and not that farm raised garbage.

But, the challenge isn’t to come up with a healthy explanation, the challenge is to beat back the moral argument against meat. As The Smiths said, “meat is murder.” It is. You kill another fellow animal just because its dead flesh feels good on your tongue. That may not seem to be the right choice for you. If you agree, you’re in great company. There are some pretty compelling role models on the no-meat side of the equation. Ovid, Leonardo DaVinci, H.G. Wells, Kafka, Plato, Mark Twain, Isaac Newton, Thomas Edison, Henry David Thoreau, all were vegetarians. Closer to home, three guys I think the world of are vegetarians: Eric Goldman, Venkat Balasubramani, and Jon Katz are all no-meat guys.

Jon Katz presented a very thought provoking piece on how the U.S. v. Stevens case should make us consider our position on eating animals.

I wish for Stevens to be an opportunity not only to celebrate and strengthen the First Amendment, but also for people to re-examine their relationship with and treatment of all animals, both of different species and their own species. Human rights violations continue running too rampant worldwide. Too many people accept violence and the threat of violence as normal for controlling others, for flexing muscle, and for carrying out their daily activities. The human-on-human violence and threats of violence include parents who hit their children lightly or more brutally, police and soldiers who lose a sense of self control over their power to arrest and shoot, governments that mass arms and soldiers, street criminals, and the list goes on.

Physical violence is not the only blight on society. To be sure, a lack of general compassion towards all causes much harm in society, and too often leads to physical violence. (source)

Here’s a hell of a short film showing the horrors of the meat industry.

So lets recap: Eating meat is bad for you. Lots of really smart people decided to be vegetarians. Eating meat is cruel. And, if you ask me to come up with an ethical argument as to why I still eat our furry friends, I got nothing for The Ethicist.

In light of all the authority screaming at me to eat nothing but sunflower seeds and tofu, I still exercise my right to choose to eat a nice rare ribeye with a heaping helping of foie gras on top. I can’t argue that meat is good for me. I can’t credibly argue that it is the “right thing to do.” I can’t credibly argue that choosing vegetarianism would be an impediment to my success or happiness.

Nevertheless, I just don’t feel like my genes went through billions of years of evolution, to get to the top of the food chain, without really enjoying the view. I eat anything I damn well please. And, unless it is super-duper bad for me (like Dolphins — full of mercury) then I’m eating it.

I just love the way animals taste.

And I get to make that choice.

So, to The Ethicist, here’s my argument: “Because fuck you, that’s why.” I know its bad for me. So is smoking cigarettes, snorting cocaine, and working so much that I am a screaming ball of stress all the time. I choose not to smoke cigarettes or snort cocaine. I choose to eat meat and to work all the time. I choose to drive a car that gets 10 miles to the gallon because I like having 771 horsepower and 900 ft. lb. of torque at my command. I don’t need an ethical justification to do, or not do, any of those things.

I just get to make that choice. Now, Mr. Ethicist, mind your own business about what I eat. You go eat your twigs and rocks, and I’ll eat my veal. Unless you can come up with some valid argument as to how my eating meat harms another human being, then the default is that it is ethical, so I win. Either that, or just “fuck you, that’s why.”

35 Responses to Ethics Challenge – Come up with an ethical reason for being a carnivore

  1. Clint says:

    No mention of turkey? Ground turkey and turkey bacon are quite awesome.

    • So is pork belly. OMG, its wonderful.

    • Jack B. says:

      So true. For health reasons, I’ve pretty much cut beef and pork out of my diet, but I don’t really miss it. I’m making turkey meatloaf tonight, and I’m going to enjoy every bite.

    • andrews says:

      No mention of turkey?

      And for good reason. I got some ground turkey once, thinking of all the usual health claims and similar hooey. It’s lousy. Never made that mistake again.

  2. Josh King says:

    The “ethical challenge” is bullshit, but so is the study about the evils of red meat. See

    Red meat is health food. It’s the bread, soda and sugar that will kill you.

    • Hmmm, I guess I just believed all that crap.

      Whether it is true or not (red meat is good or bad for you) you’re right about bread, soda, and sugar.

  3. Clint says:

    Harm? Depends how you define it. Increasing medicare costs which account for 16% GDP and some of my tax expenditures? I could argue that hurts me.

    The thing is, I am still of the “because fuck you, that’s why” argument. Freedom isn’t free, so we all pay more to be free. To me, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

  4. Jozef says:

    If eating meat was bad for you, the human race would evolve into fruit and leaf eaters. I personally prefer the evolutionary argument: we evolved to eat a mix of meat and non-meat (primarily meat, though), and I’m just following that path. Same with other evolved behaviors that in our infinite stupidity we’ve been throwing away, such as standing instead of sitting (I stand on the rare occasion when I watch the TV, and I type this on my laptop placed on an extendable stand) and two-phase sleep.

    Come think of it, I’m quite sure that the dinosaurs died out because they evolved ethical thinking and started doing things contrary to their nature…

    • Walt K says:

      No it wouldn’t. It would have to be so bad for you as to cause you serious health problems before you reached reproductive maturity. The health effects don’t take place until late in life, so there’s no real effect from an evolutionary standpoint. Especially when you consider that throughout most of our evolutionary history, we weren’t living long enough to suffer any major consequences based on long term eating habits. I don’t have a stand one way or the other on whether meat really is that bad for you. But your evolutionary argument isn’t sound.

  5. John Miller says:

    I love how they didn’t ask people to explain how killing babies is ethical. Bioethisists in Australia proposed that it is ethical to kill a newborn. Maybe vegetarians would be happy if we eat babies instead or cows.

    • THAT seems like a bit of a non sequitur.

      • john says:

        Indeed it is absurd, which is why it will be the premise for my Swiftian essay that I will submit to the Times for fortune and glory.

    • Jay Wolman says:

      John, I understand you to be suggesting that if it is unethical to kill another animal for the pleasure of a human being (food in this challenge, clothing, sport, etc., in others), it is unethical to kill the animal known as homo sapien for the pleasure of a human being.

      I saw the Australia debate, basically suggesting that if it is ethical to terminate a foetus due to pre-natal diagnosis of a horrible medical condition, it remains ethical to terminate a neonate due to post-natal diagnosis, suggesting that birth is simply an arbitrary point to distinguish the moral position of the life of the potential human at issue.

      Your juxtoposition of the two debates, as Marc suggests, is a bit of a stretch. However, since termination of the potential human in the latter debate is for the pleasure of the parent (I use the term “pleasure” loosely, meaning that the parent suffers less by mercifully killing the child rather than watch it endure a horrific life), I understand you to suggest that if it is unethical to kill an animal, it should be unethical to kill a foetus or newborn human.

      Most pro-lifers and pro-choicers, however, come to the debate over the status of a potential human from the carnivore’s perspective: human life is more important than animal life, simply differing on when termination of human life is warranted. Vegetarians may generally oppose terminating potential human life as well, for the same reasons they oppose terminating animal life. But, just as most vegetarians would agree that you can shoot the lion that is attacking you, many would also say there are circumstances that would warrant terminating a potential human life.

      The debates may overlap to some extent, but they cannot be equated and the Australian proposal does not necessarily follow from adopting vegetarianism. And cannibalism is an ever further logical misstep.

      In sum: Jonathan Swift fail.

  6. Charles Platt says:

    I only eat animals that I don’t much like. Fortunately these include cows, chickens, turkeys, dogs, and all fish. I would not eat cats, reptiles, or parrots, because I consider them to be higher forms of life. Where human beings are concerned, I would consider some of them edible, on a case-by-case basis.

    • I *would* eat all of those animals you mentioned – if hungry enough. But, I doubt that cat or parrot tastes all that good. Reptiles, well, Alligator is delicious.

      As far as humans go, I’d definitely eat humans. But, it would have to be someone who was a non-smoker who ate well. Not too fat, but not too lean. good marbling.

      • A Pimp Named Slickback says:

        I’m not so sure about parrots, but cats, definitely. I didn’t like alligator when I ate it. I wouldn’t personally eat cats, but my theory is that the cuter an animal is, the better it tastes.

        Veal, for example. Hobbled baby cows are super-cute. Lambs… also cute.

        There’s a reason that the Chinese eat cats and the Norwegians eat seals. In fact, I’d wager that baby penguins are just about the most delicious thing on this planet. Not that I would eat any of them, of course (lamb and veal excluded). Just saying, that’s my theory.

  7. Being a vegetarian myself of more than twenty years, it seems I am unable to compete in this contest. But I very much agree with you, Marc.

    First, let’s start with the basic premise of freedom and liberty. Eating animals is presumed ethical. We are free to do what we want as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of another without his or her consent. Eating animals has to be shown that it is unethical.

    For an animal to have in interest in liberty and rights that people cannot justly infringe on, the animal has to be a moral agent. Who is to say that the basic moral unit is an animal? Why not a plant? Why not a paramecium? The vegetarian/vegan moral view insists on drawing the line arbitrarily at animal. But why? Sentience? Pain? We can find similar responses in plants and microbes, which are not treated as moral agents. Further, all food production results in dead animals, from killing rats and mice who might get into the food store, to roadkill from delivering that super special organically grown asparagus blessed by the Dali Llama. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it’s morally right to side on the liberty of individuals here: people can morally eat animals.

    The vegetarian/vegan moral view also contains a kind of utilitarian argument: that eating animals is wasteful to society, or that it encourages “inhumane” conduct. To the former, again the line is arbitrary. It may be wasteful of me to take my girlfriend to an expensive restaurant, but it’s hardly immoral. To the latter, again in the absence of evidence, I strike on the liberty of the individual here. We know people are moral agents, so it’s morally right to protect their liberty to eat animals.

    This is not to say that vegetarians and vegans are not entitled to their moral view. They are. I understand the view. I feel that eating animals is disgusting and gross. If I am sharing a meal with a good friend, I’ll tease: “How’s your spiced dead animal?” “Like that slice of cow?” “You know, pigs and people taste about the same.”

    But it is not moral for me to impose my moral view onto others. And the question the Times elicits seeks to impose that moral view on others with it’s “challenge.” The question is not why eating animals is moral. The question is how could a view to the contrary be morally imposed on others.

  8. (r)Evoluzione says:

    Here’s the next half of the argument–the follow up to: “Because– fuck you–that’s why,” and that is eating grains and any mass-produced monoculture crop inherently destroys topsoil and habitat.

    Whereas eating pastured beef (raised with an eye to soil health, like Joel Salatin does, for example, this method of meat production does the opposite.

    A former vegetarian/vegan gives the lowdown, blow-by-blow, how vegetarianism-as-planetary-savior is a bunch of horseshit, and how the opposite is true.

    • I actually came to this conclusion myself, so big pats on my own back (no no, I can reach, thank you.) The water costs and chemical fertilizer run-off are further damning reasons veggies ain’t so holy. If we stopped planting so much corn and wheat (most of both never being used or donated, or just thrown away at the end of a meal,) we would open up huge tracks of land that could be turned over to grazing animals and save a ton on worthless subsidies. Don’t believe that bullshit (hehe) about cow flatulance, loss of topsoil and water and emissions from tractors far outweigh it. If we just stopped wasting time and resources on excessive grain yields we could still feed half the world well and keep the rest from starving (which is where we’re at now, so no change.)

  9. Marc, the problem is that you say at the end that unless it harms another human being, you don’t need an ethical justification for it. (It DOES harm other human beings, but more on that below.) That claim is just false. There is nothing special about our species such that its members warrant moral consideration but members of other species don’t. Being the lazy slob that I am, I’ll just link to my argument for the injustice of animal use, rather than rehash it in full here. (It’s a talk for a general audience, and so probably not as philosophically rigorous as what I’d say to professional ethicists, but it gets the point across.)

    As for the impact on humans, animal agriculture has more than enough wrong-making features to guarantee its wrongness even if animals didn’t matter morally. It’s wasteful; more than 70% of the grain grown in the U.S. gets fed to farmed animals just to raise them for human consumption. It accounts for about half of the water we use, and the runoff from farms is the number one industrial pollutant in our society, far ahead of all the others. It’s also the source of E.coli and a number of other diseases of animal origin that have killed or sickened many human beings. And it’s the #1 source of greenhouse gases that cause global warming, with its disastrous consequences for human beings.

    Moral concern for animals is the only consideration that *entails* veganism, but the long list of anthropocentric concerns entails that consuming animals and animal-derived products is morally very problematic.

    Regarding the arguments from evolution that others have offered: the argument is morally empty, as even if the evolutionary claim (that humans “evolved” to eat meat and animal products) is true, the argument depends on a (false) moral claim that what is natural is morally good or right. That’s the naturalistic fallacy. Furthermore, the evolutionary claim isn’t even true. There is nothing “natural” about humans’ consumption of meat, nor about the way in which we consume it. (Consider, for example, the fact that we have to cook it in order to eat it, and that we have to season it to make it palatable.) Since both claims on which the argument rests are false, we should reject the argument.

    • Okay :)

      1) Your assertion in paragraph 1 that there is nothing special about humans, from a moral perspective, is deeply flawed for two reasons.

      First, there is something special about humans. Humans alone can discuss morality, and there is a world-wide consensus that humans are moral agents.

      Second, why draw a line at animals? What about plants? Why are they excluded? Why not microbes? What’s your limiting principle, if any? Any why can’t the moral basis underlying that limiting principle be used to alternatively draw the line between humans and animals, instead of where you draw it? Is the underlying principle that animals are “cute”?

      2) Your 2d argument is a utilitarian one. Waste is not necessarily immoral. If it were, you and I are both being horribly immoral by posting here, wasting valuable time and energy. A host of ordinary liberties would be immoral under a “waste” theory.

      If your argument is rather that eating animals causes direct harm, I think selecting animal consumption for censure is arbitrary. (I also question your data, but I will let that alone for now.) So many activities in our lives cause the same kinds of harms that you describe, yet we do not find these activities to be immoral. Is driving a car immoral? Why not if consuming cows is? Why not viewing a film, given that the chemicals used and various processes ostensibly poison the earth?

      3) Some animals are killed or harmed in all mass food production, like almost all industries. If consuming animals is immoral, why are these slayings moral? The argument becomes one of degree (the lifestyle kills less animals) instead of one of kind (killing animals is categorically and impermissibly immoral).

      4) Cultures around the world have always accepted the morality of consuming animals. I hesitate to call anything universal, but this comes very close.

      5) In this absence of certainty, what gives us vegetarians/vegans the moral authority to impose our moral views on others, limiting their enjoyment of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness?

      It’s much like imposing a religious view on others, and I find that morally reprehensible.

      • Thanks for your reply, Mario. Here are my responses:

        1. You’re quite right to say that (most) humans are moral agents. This does not mean that it’s the reason they are also moral *patients*. Human infants and severely mentally disabled humans are not morally responsible for what they do; they are not agents. But we do owe them moral duties. So agency is not what is at issue here. As for where we draw the line, what matters is that the being in question is sentient–in other words, subjectively aware. There has to be something it’s like to be that being. Plants fail this criterion. We can have moral duties *involving* plants, but we can’t have moral duties *to* plants. The cuteness jab is a red herring; let’s please avoid those.

        2. I’m not a utilitarian myself, though the harms that animal agriculture causes to human beings can be cashed out in either consequentialist or deontological terms. If I’m correct in saying that these harms, as well as the harms to animals, are morally significant, then I’m not wasting my time posting here. It’s also not at all obvious that the things we think are morally permissible are in fact entirely morally unproblematic. People have given wrong answers to many questions like this in the past; why think that the majority view on this question is unassailable?

        3. If in fact we cannot entirely avoid doing harm through our actions, this does not entail that we are off the hook for causing gratuitous harms that *are* avoidable. That the universe, and our planet, contain suffering that cannot be avoided does not license us to add to that suffering for the sake of, say, our own palate pleasure.

        4. Many cultures recognize that animals’ pain is morally significant, and so I doubt the claim that our attitude toward animals is universal, but frankly that’s neither here nor there. I’ve given an argument for the wrongness of causing suffering and death to animals in the service of trivial human ends (see the link in my original comment), and if the argument is cogent then we should accept it.

        5. Certainty is an inappropriate bar here. Must we be certain that something is wrong before we conclude that we should avoid doing it? It’s probably better to think that we should be certain that the suffering and death we cause to animals is *not* wrong before we go ahead and do it, since if it’s wrong, then it’s *very* wrong. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness–these things are limited by the rights of others. Your rights to those things must be balanced against my own rights and the rights of other human beings. If animals warrant moral consideration, as I argue in the talk linked above, then their rights place constraints on what we may do in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness–that’s just how it goes. The difference between me and a religious zealot is that I’ve given an argument that appeals to premises that most people already believe. I don’t claim any special moral authority; the authority is in the argument. Don’t believe me–believe the argument.

        • 1) Sentience is defined by an arbitrarily selected set of biological characteristics. It’s no more or less arbitrary in principle than drawing the line between humans and animals.

          And that you would draw the line at sentience, as opposed to a different characteristic, is also an arbitrary choice, not based on anything essential to existence.

          These choices are based on beliefs than can be neither proven or disproven. The arguments are at equipoise.

          2) Your seemed to be arguing that that eating animals is horribly wasteful and therefore immoral. I argued that waste is not itself immoral, poiting out that we too are wasting our time in this exercise. You disagreed.

          Because it’s very unlikely that you or I will change the other’s opinion–or anyone’s opinion–it seems to me that you and I are wasting our time. Our arguments here will fail, while we could be adding to society instead.

          My point is, on the other hand, that it’s kind of fun, and self-fulfilling–that alone is meritorious, if unproductive in a pecuniary way or in a way that benefits society generally. And that waste is not immoral. And for many people, eating animals is also self-fulfilling, if similarly unproductive or wasteful. That eating animals is “costly” does not alone make it immoral. It may make it foolish, but not immoral.

          3) So you agree that it’s okay to kill some animals for human sustenance–the delivery of vegetables, for instance. You believe an excess of killing is immoral. It is an objection of degree, not kind. Two points.

          First, many of the deaths of animals in the production of non-meat are avoidable as well. The options are just not efficient in a pecuniary sense. And we accept that. And it is not immoral. We accept avoidable deaths of animals in the production of other foods as not immoral, so we should too in the case of meat.

          Further, there’s a strong argument that the suffering of animals is different in kind than the suffering of humans. That is based on a belief that cannot be proven or disproven, but there’s a fair argument that hurting a baby is very different from hurting a puppy.

          4. (Sorry. Not personal. I would no doubt incorrectly reiterate your point and commit a straw man fallacy, which would be a waste of my time. So I have no interest in following your link.)

          5. Again, you’re talking an essential belief about the basic moral unit, which cannot be proven or disproven. We don’t know that Bessie the cow is entitled to more rights than the bunny we run over in delivering Boca burgers, or more rights than the 500 year old, deeply scarred oak tree.

          We are in consensus that humans are entitled to life, liberty, property, and so on. We do not know whether animals are. You assert that they are, but that is based on an essential belief that cannot be proven or disproven–what is the basic moral unit. Much like debating the existence or non-existence of god, the merits of your belief and that of a contrary view are at equipoise because neither belief can be proven or disproven,

          A view to the contrary imposes a belief, which cannot be proven or disproven, on someone else. Under these facts, I object to that process on moral grounds.

          Yet we all agree that humans do have the right to life, liberty, and property. My fundamental argument is we should strike on the side of what we agree on in terms of preserving life, liberty and property until the belief can be proven to be more than that.

          Again, I personally believe eating animals is gross. It is wrong for me, personally. But I think imposing that view on someone else would be absolutely wrong.

          • Mario, I don’t quite know what to say at this point, since my moral argument is provided at the link you say you have no interest in following. I certainly don’t take it personally, so no hard feelings there, but on the other hand it makes it impossible for us to actually engage each other’s positions, since you’re making arguments that I’ve already tried to answer in writing elsewhere and don’t have the time or patience to reproduce here. At this point, I reckon you’re right that I’m wasting my time.

  10. Andrew says:

    I’d like remind the crowd of the philosophers J. Travolta and S. Jackson:

    It’s unethical to eat animals that are charming.

  11. You may want to check out Bovinova .. not my thing obviously, but it looks interesting. (Also, next time I go to Spain I will remember to bring back some homemade Chorizo for you.)

    The ethics argument over meat isn’t even worth entertaining. Vegetarians who get into these arguments over meat (and meat lovers as well) just get tiring to me. If you like meat, eat it. Go for it. Do it in a way that’s healthy or that works for you. If you don’t, don’t. This is one of those classic don’t try to press your views on others categories for me. (I wonder what sort of conversation takes place over the Ethicist’s dinner table. It has to be nothing short of scintillating.)

    Interestingly, my argument for not eating meat is almost the same as your argument for eating it. I just don’t like the way it tastes. There’s a Karmic angle as well, but it would be silly to try to impress that on others.

    • I LOVE Chorizo, thank you!

      And, what’s funny is I actually agree with the karmic angle against eating meat. I get it. It even makes persuasive sense to me — just not enough to bring me over the fence. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be enlightened enough that I’ll be there. Maybe not.

      I’ve cut down on meat ever since my little cancer scare. But, prior to that, I was eating about three steaks a week. I now try and keep it down to a couple steaks a month.

      I can respect the “intensive farming” argument against meat — but that would be an argument for regulation of how the animals are raised, not against eating them. I do my best to eat meat (and vegetables too) that have been farmed by low-impact and organic means. I’d imagine that the cow isn’t consoled much that it had a nice life before it got killed and cut up, but at least (I hope) I contributed a bit less pollution.

    • V, you say that “If you like meat, eat it. Go for it. Do it in a way that’s healthy or that works for you. If you don’t, don’t. This is one of those classic don’t try to press your views on others categories for me.”

      The problem is that this merely assumes the very thing that needs to be demonstrated, namely, that there is no moral issue here. It can’t, on its own, serve as a reply to a moral argument, because the moral argument purports to show that this *isn’t* in the classic “don’t try to press your views on others” category.

  12. Observer says:

    From an ethical perspective……

    I have chosen to ONLY eat animals I like the taste of…….

    I have choosen NOT to eat certain foods…,1-0,how_to_cook_squirrel,FF.html

  13. C@GM says:

    If animals don’t want to be eaten they need to stop being so tasty.

  14. The Geographer says:

    Meat is excellent for you. Correlation is not causation. I don’t know how many times I have to tell people that these studies are bullshit.

  15. pencil illustrations…

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