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NY Time's Ethicist asks why is it ethical to eat meat

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The New York Time's Ethicist is running an essay contest to discover the best ethical justification for eating meat:

[T]hose who love meat have had surprisingly little to say [in response to arguments advocating vegetarianism]. They say, of course, that, well, 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.

I thought and thought and thought some more but I can't come up with an ethical justification (though I am not a vegetarian--rather I'm just a hypocrite). The best I can come up with is something I don't believe: that under a utilitarian understanding of ethics, in which one should maximize happiness, consuming delicious, delicious bacon greatly maximizes my happiness and that trumps any duty I may owe to the source of such bacon. (I think the basic problem with this theory is that it assumes Descartes is correct when he suggests that animals do not suffer and are not conscious--something I certainly reject.)

So if anyone has a good ethical justification this could be your chance to be published in the Times.

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"If I'm smarter than you, and faster than you, then chances are I'm going to kill and eat you." - Anthony Bourdain.

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The New York Time's Ethicist is running an essay contest to discover the best ethical justification for eating meat:

I thought and thought and thought some more but I can't come up with an ethical justification (though I am not a vegetarian--rather I'm just a hypocrite). The best I can come up with is something I don't believe: that under a utilitarian understanding of ethics, in which one should maximize happiness, consuming delicious, delicious bacon greatly maximizes my happiness and that trumps any duty I may owe to the source of such bacon. (I think the basic problem with this theory is that it assumes Descartes is correct when he suggests that animals do not suffer and are not conscious--something I certainly reject.)

So if anyone has a good ethical justification this could be your chance to be published in the Times.

The problem with the whole exercise is that the question presupposes the answer.

The reason most people eat meat with a clear conscience is that they don't consider eating meat to be within the realm of ethics. Some do, and it then sometimes becomes the reason they don't eat meat. But I'd venture that vritually no one who eats meat would every say they are doing so because it is the "ethical thing to do".

To use a rediculous gedanken:

Is leaning against a tree ethical? I would be very hard pressed to make the case that leaning against a tree is an ethical act. In fact, if I have to lump it into the 'realm of the ethical' - I'm forced to consider - can the tree feel my lean? Does it dislike my lean? I certainly can't show that it LIKES my leaning on it, so therefore it more than likely DOESN'T like my lean. So if I had to judge my leaning act in an ethical way, it probably couldn't make the case. But no one would reasonably say that tree leaning is an ethical act, either way, so it never comes up.

Yes, this is a fine line with meat. We walk down the street and squish bugs, we cut down trees to make homes...to some degree, we can't live and NOT have an impact on our surroundings - so if meat eating HAS to be an ethical question, then maybe the argument is that it would be more unethical to lock ourselves in a closet forever and never interact with the world - to include bug squashing, tree cutting and meat eating.

But I more believe that meat eating is not within the scope of an ethical determination. I suppose if I wrote about ethics for the NYT I'd try to expand that scope and would never see it otherwise....and hope no one put me in my place. But for most of us, ethics isn't in this equation.

Bottom Line: Eating meat is either unethical OR not a matter of ethics. This is a poor attempt by a (probably) vegetarian ethicist to justify their actions (which is what ethicists do, tautologically)

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"If I'm smarter than you, and faster than you, then chances are I'm going to kill and eat you." - Anthony Bourdain.

I have a doctorate and can run a mile in under eight minutes. I wonder if chain-smokers taste like bacon?

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I have a doctorate and can run a mile in under eight minutes. I wonder if chain-smokers taste like bacon?

Smoked bacon?

I agree with jayandstacey. The notion behind this presupposes that humans eating meat is unethical. If you don't start from that point, there's no controversy.

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I agree with jayandstacey. The notion behind this presupposes that humans eating meat is unethical. If you don't start from that point, there's no controversy.

I think that these responses are too easy. Eating meat does raise ethical issues, if you believe (as I think most of us do believe) that every way of obtaining meat causes some pain to animals, that the vast majority of meat in our country is obtained in ways that cause much more suffering to animals as well as bad effects on humans (present and future), and that these are things that "matter" in an ethical sense. (You can say "it's natural for us to eat meat," but a lot of things that most of us would call unethical are also natural.) Now, you can certainly say (and I do say) that it is "ethically ok" to eat meat in some situations despite these ethically-relevant negative factors. But it's not exactly obvious why that would be. On the other hand, it's also not exactly obvious why it's ethically ok to do all sorts of other things that we lucky prosperous few do all the time. We give ourselves ethical breaks, as a matter of course. It is worthwhile sometimes to make ourselves think about how often we do that, and why we do it, and whether we should do less of it, I think.

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How much meat? Any meat?

What about eating meat from cattle that has been fed on the best grass available? Not even "finished" on corn but fed grass until the day he perished of old age, having spent his happy days roaming freely about an enormous pasture?

Or are we talking about Michael Pollan's Steer #534 (http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/power-steer/) which, at six months of age, was sent to a feedlot where he was forced to stand all day, knee-deep in excrement and stuffed with corn and antibiotics?

Are we talking about cattle raised in grass-rich environments at sustainable stocking rates or are we talking about cattle raised in the arid southwest where they destroy the vegetation and the waterways?

Or are we talking about eating the meat of an endangered species?

Are we talking about once a month? Once a year? Every day?

The ethics of the situation revolve around the way the animal is raised and the damage to the environment.

Your question is too broad and simplistic to be answered, unless the answer is "never have any impact whatsoever." In which case the answer is "it is unethical to have been born."

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To use a rediculous gedanken:

Is leaning against a tree ethical?

To use a more relevant gedanken:

Is driving a car ethical?

But back to the point, I don't know how you can't question the ethics of eating meat. Considering that it's inherently bad for you (or so they now say) and assuming that you're not Jeremiah Johnson, what is the justification behind killing a living thing for food, whether it's lived a wonderful life or a terrible one?

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what is the justification behind killing a living thing for food, whether it's lived a wonderful life or a terrible one?

Plants are living things. :)

Carry on.

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I have a doctorate and can run a mile in under eight minutes. I wonder if chain-smokers taste like bacon?

I'm thinking AB is more pickled at this point :ph34r:

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[Please excuse the paws in this discussion]

I'm going to bring this question up next time I encounter a grizzly bear.

<Picture me hauling ass through the woods, every few steps yelling back over my shoulder, "Ethics, dammit! Ethics!">

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To use a more relevant gedanken:

Is driving a car ethical?

But back to the point, I don't know how you can't question the ethics of eating meat. Considering that it's inherently bad for you (or so they now say) and assuming that you're not Jeremiah Johnson, what is the justification behind killing a living thing for food, whether it's lived a wonderful life or a terrible one?

Isnt that essentially the same question raised by the NYT writer?

You seek justification and know it likely doesn't exist - because probably the first rule of ethics is the respect for life. I lump eating meat in with eating lettuce- I dont believe justification is required. If pushed, my justifications for both meat and lettuce would be identical, and both would likely fall short of acceptable to someone judging my justifications.

So what's left? Water and mineral supplements? I'm going to have to kill and eat living things to survive. And at this point, with two kids dependent upon me, it would be fairly unethical for me to stop eating.

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[Please excuse the paws in this discussion]

I'm going to bring this question up next time I encounter a grizzly bear.

<Picture me hauling ass through the woods, every few steps yelling back over my shoulder, "Ethics, asshole! Ethics!">

You'd be wasting your time as bears speak Russian.

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Isnt that essentially the same question raised by the NYT writer?

You seek justification and know it likely doesn't exist - because probably the first rule of ethics is the respect for life. I lump eating meat in with eating lettuce- I dont believe justification is required. If pushed, my justifications for both meat and lettuce would be identical, and both would likely fall short of acceptable to someone judging my justifications.

So what's left? Water and mineral supplements? I'm going to have to kill and eat living things to survive. And at this point, with two kids dependent upon me, it would be fairly unethical for me to stop eating.

Are you seriously equating killing animals for food with killing vegetables for food, or have we moved into the Swiftian portion of the evening?

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Are you seriously equating killing animals for food with killing vegetables for food, or have we moved into the Swiftian portion of the evening?

No. I'm equating eating meat with leaning against a tree, squishing bugs as I walk, killing vegetables, thinking about freedom, skipping a stone into a pond and the million other things I do where ethics isn't applicable.

You appear to believe it is applicable. I don't wish to change your mind, I understand why another would consider it an ethical concern. But to ask me how I can ethically justify my actions is to ask me to assume there's an ethical application.

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Are you seriously equating killing animals for food with killing vegetables for food, or have we moved into the Swiftian portion of the evening?

That's sort of the downside to a high ethical standard, is it not? I mean, that the world becomes a brutish, unethical place. Seems depressing to me, as it would seem that to ascribe to "meat is murder" is to know that most folks are unethical, and be faced with choices like "Mary likes burgers - will speaking to her be unethical or violate my own principles?"

I'm not advocating that ethics is entirely relative, rather that it has a fairly narrow realm of applicability.

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Or are we talking about eating the meat of an endangered species?

Which reminds me of the quirky and endearing 1990 movie The Freshman, with Matthew Broderick, Maximilian Schell, Marlon Brando doing a wonderful parody of his role in The Godfather, and a bizarre and wonderful turn by Bert Parks as himself, who sings Bob Dylan's anthem "Maggie's Farm", as well as doing a remarkably well-placed version of "Tequila", all tangled up with the ostensible feasting on the flesh of the Komodo dragon. If you've never seen this film, I think you ought to make it a priority to do so.

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No. I'm equating eating meat with leaning against a tree, squishing bugs as I walk, killing vegetables, thinking about freedom, skipping a stone into a pond and the million other things I do where ethics isn't applicable.

You appear to believe it is applicable. I don't wish to change your mind, I understand why another would consider it an ethical concern. But to ask me how I can ethically justify my actions is to ask me to assume there's an ethical application.

If eating meat involved only the kind of treatment of animals that eating meat involved through most of the time that human beings have eaten meat, I think your point would be entirely valid. Considering the horrors of modern industrial meat production, though, I find the views you've expressed in this thread utterly unreal, and I say that as a dedicated but conflicted carnivore.

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One way to look at this issue is to consider it bigger than food. I’ve been examining it through the broader lens of consumer ethics.

Key questions that come up for me include:

  • As a consumer, what obligation does one have to research the level of perceived suffering (or individual, environmental, and/or perceived societal harm for that matter) that went into developing an acquired product?

  • Assuming some level of research is conducted, what threshold of discovered suffering will ethically compel the consumer to chose a different product?

This could apply to sweatshops, puppy mills, migrant workers, CAFOs, all manner of product development.

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Once upon a time, the midwest United States was blanketed by an incredible ecosystem known as prairie. Both tallgrass prairie and short grass prairie. Less than 4% of the 140 million acres of tallgrass prairie remains, much of it in small, isolated patches that have little value for wildlife. Not surprisingly, the animals that depended on prairie habitat are in steep decline. Grassland birds in North America have experienced, as compared to other groups, the steepest and most consistent declines.

From a bird's point of view, the midwest is essentially a corn-soy desert.

What is the ethical justification for eating corn and soy?

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What is the ethical justification for eating corn and soy?

Oh! Oh! I know! Because corn and soy are obviously bad actors and should be punished and eaten? :)

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Oh! Oh! I know! Because corn and soy are obviously bad actors and should be punished and eaten? :)

No, of course not! The answer is "they chased Don Rockwell and tried to make a meal out of him."

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Once upon a time, the midwest United States was blanketed by an incredible ecosystem known as prairie. Both tallgrass prairie and short grass prairie. Less than 4% of the 140 million acres of tallgrass prairie remains, much of it in small, isolated patches that have little value for wildlife. Not surprisingly, the animals that depended on prairie habitat are in steep decline. Grassland birds in North America have experienced, as compared to other groups, the steepest and most consistent declines.

From a bird's point of view, the midwest is essentially a corn-soy desert.

What is the ethical justification for eating corn and soy?

I am not an expert on meat production, but I believe (and some quick research backs up my belief) that the great majority of that corn and soy is being eaten by livestock. In other words, going towards meat. Not sure whether you were just being funny, or positing an ethical quandary for soy-burger-eating vegetarians, or throwing up your hands and saying "everything sucks why bother," but ...

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