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Apr 19, 2012 04:42 AM

NY Times Ethics of Meat Eating

A couple weeks ago, the Times ran a contest asking for 600 word essays asserting an ethical support for eating meat. We discussed it here: As that discussion appears to have run it's course, I am going to post my essay (which I wound up not submitting) here. It's pretty long (600 words, coincidentally).

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  1. All living things require some form of sustenance to survive. To humans the consumption of a certain minimum amount of calories containing certain basic nutritional value is required for a healthy life. The act of eating, however, is not solely physical; neither are the requirements for a healthy life.

    Experiencing pleasure is beneficial to the psychological well being of the individual. Similarly, experiencing pleasure has been shown to be beneficial to physiological well being, including the body’s ability to heal. It follows that the experience of pleasure, like the mere consumption of fuel, is required for a healthy life.

    Eating for many, if not most, is a source of pleasure. Taste, texture, temperature, are all factors in gastronomical pleasure. The decision to eat the flesh of an animal for the inherent joy of the experience is, when made knowingly, a decision to provide the self with multiple benefits.

    All things must die; all life is finite. All life is based upon the death of other life. The decision to seek pleasure through consumption must be made with an awareness of the death that such consumption requires. Although this suggests that we would benefit both physiologically and psychologically from some limits on our consumption, it does not mean that we prohibit significant sources of it.

    As humans, we can enter into both explicit and implicit social contracts with one another, as well as society as a whole. Consequently, we can accept the notion that since I do not want to be eaten, I will not eat another human. This type of agreement results in a diminution of the concept of pleasure associated with such a source of consumption, thereby reducing, if not destroying, any benefit to be derived from it. In a sense, we enter into similar agreements with those animals we choose as companions and comforts; thus, reducing any notions of pleasure to be attained through their consumption.

    For other animals, as well as plants, we generally have no benefit to be derived from any type of social contract. The exception being that we can agree to sustain them and grow them and honorably derive pleasure and sustenance from consuming them.* Therefore, we have them to turn to for our benefit and to help satisfy our requirements for a healthy life.

    There are, of course, other sources of psychological and physical pleasure. Sex, for example, is an activity that can be enjoyed simply for the pleasure that it can provide. As is running. It is nonsensical to assert that sex without procreation is unethical, given the fact that it is impossible for a man to foretell if conception is even possible at the time of the event. Moreover, what ethical objection could there be to someone deciding to run when neither pursuing nor fleeing? Human health requires the experience of pleasure. The fact that the acts that produce pleasure are tied to other functions does not mean that the benefits of those acts are solely based upon those other functions.

    At bottom, the decision to eat meat can be made ethically. It should be approached with an awareness of both the nature and the purpose of the consumption as well as an acceptance of the moderation with which we enjoy our pleasures. There is, of course, such a thing as too much. Given that, however, I submit it is laudable to occasionally revel in the soul satisfying pleasure of an aged, marbled, perfectly cooked steak.

    *I make no attempt to justify “factory” farming practices and submit that the ethics of such industry is beyond the scope of the instant issue.

    Note: I never really finished "tightening" it up, so I didn't submit it over a very busy Easter weekend. As you may have noticed, it is decidedly, and intentionally, Epicurean. Given the premise of the "contest," I couldn't resist.

    3 Replies
    1. re: MGZ

      I realized on my walk to work this morning that I failed to include a "moderation" paragraph. It needed to explain that pleasure, like sustenance, can be overdone and therefore no longer provide benefit to the self, no longer permit a healthy life. When the pursuit of pleasure becomes excessive it is detrimental. The elements of balance and awareness need to be a part of it.

      Oh well . . . .

      1. re: MGZ

        Thanks for writing up your response. I was curious what you'd come up with. I'm also wondering to what extent the thread influenced your argument?

        You bring up a couple points that didn't get mentioned much in the thread; the concept that pleasure-seeking on its own can be a viable justification of behaviors, and the somewhat Hobbesian argument of the social contract or lack thereof when applied to food animals. I think the social contract argument is an especially strong one applied here - every time I hear someone speaking of 'animal rights' I can't help thinking that they're using the word 'rights' thoughtlessly - where do these 'rights' come from?

        There are a few (semi)obvious counterarguments to your case, but that's not to criticize. I don't think I, personally, am going to be fully swayed by any argument either that meat eating is wholly ethical or that it is wholly unethical; my views are pretty much set. But yours is a pretty nice argument either way.

        1. re: cowboyardee

          The basic Epicurean premise was something that I had thought of almost immediately. I hacked out the piece is pretty much one sitting after ruminating on it a bit. The fact that the other thread had so much interesting discussion, that I read, was part of the reason I did not submit anything (that and preparing a typically overindulgent Easter dinner).

          600 words is a very short space to try any sort of global ethical system. Especially one so charged and diverse. A few redrafts would have helped, but, what can I say? I really like a good steak!

      2. I noticed this on the Huffington Post page today:

        I don't know when the Times is posting the winner. I am curious though.

        5 Replies
        1. re: MGZ

          I actually entered (my entry is posted on my blog) and am wondering the same thing: they sure haven't breathed a word to the entrants.

          I have a lot of problems with the contest itself, from the one-sided panel (not one person on it has any direct experience with agriculture) to the number of words - every member of the panel put their position on the subject in a book, 600 words seems pretty paltry.

          The point I didn't get to make: why the focus on meat? There are so many ways in which human beings are either cruel or wasteful, how can we walk across rugs hooked by slave children in artificially heated and cooled houses that have so many rooms that one is exclusively dedicated to eating and argue about what's on people's plates?

          1. re: mhays

            I had been wondering if any other 'hounds might have entered. I don't recall your participating in the earlier thread. Sadly, that devolved from a discussion intended to be based on the contest to arguments based upon personal diets and tangential issues. Hence, the necessity to try and refocus here.

            The word limitation was a problem, making it impossible to deal with potential responses, as well as fully develop related principles, examples, etc. A thousand words or more might have been better. But, after all, that's what made it a game.*

            As to the focus on meat, I had no problem with that. It is clearly a subject that Bittman has been wrestling with for some time. I think it's ok to deal with sub-topics in a discipline as vast as ethics. There are certainly much broader issues at play in our contemporary society, but it's refreshing to see something in the mass media that provoked some thought on the subject. To that end, the New Yorker recently included a consideration of books on the subject of whether or not its ethical to have children. I found it similarly thought provoking.

            I look forward to reading your essay. Let us know if you hear anything about the announcement of results.

            *I guess it's better than a contest restricted to 140 characters.

            1. re: MGZ

              Truthfully, I don't participate here as much as I probably should, so I missed the thread entirely.

              I guess the difference I see in the sub-topic is that most anti-meat arguments apply without much alteration to many broad categories of consumption/behavior, in which case, it's silly to restrict the discussion to diet alone. It's like arguing the ethics of mobile phones.

              I suppose you're right about the 140 characters...;-)

              1. re: MGZ

                Damn! I was going to expand my original post on the first CH thread into an essay....but its one of those things that, if you don't do it right away when you are inspired, you just don't do it. Oh well.

            2. re: MGZ

              You can read the 6 semi-finalist essays and vote for your favorite here.

            3. Well, they posted the top six essays, and are showing that my concerns about bias on the panel were valid: Most of the "winning" entrants are self-avowed vegetarians. Seriously.

              Next week's ethicist column: is it ethical to host something called a "discussion of ethics" if you're not willing to entertain ideas different from your own?


              8 Replies
              1. re: mhays

                Thanks for posting that. I enjoyed reading the essays. To me, the commonality they exhibited was, as might have been expected, that they were well written, deeply personal narratives.

                I think the concept to be derived, at least in light of my own thoughts on the subject, is that it is ethical to eat meat if we approach eating meat in an ethical way. Personally, my own ethic of "think before you consume," which applies beyond the world of food, is in accord with such a conclusion.

                Perhaps the question should have been, "Is it ethical to continue to support the present food production industry?" Sadly, the answers most might offer to that question are likely not to be so diverse. Even more depressing is the realization of what it might take to change it. Perhaps we could call it the Starvation Revolution.

                1. re: MGZ

                  Another reason to be glad that meat eaters chose the non-vegan life:

                  1. re: Servorg

                    I'm not sure that reaching a human population of 7 billion as quickly as possible has been a good thing. Why the hurry, if time is infinite? Where do we go from here?

                    1. re: Veggo

                      Of course it has not been a good thing. Read a disturbing article today about how China is buying massive numbers of U.S. chicken and pork breeding stock, with the intent of establishing CAFOs throughout China, using superior American genetic stock and production techniques. They have an enormous pollution problem already, just imagine how bad it's going to get. Too many people!

                      1. re: pikawicca

                        China's ill-conceived (pun intended) one-child law, selective sex abortion of girls, and its export of girls for adoption has created a demographic nightmare for the country that will persist for decades. They will accomplish an objective of lower population growth, at a high price to come. More immediately, the emerging chinese middle class wants meat, and the world scrambles for a new paradigm that draws ethics into the calculus.

                      2. re: Veggo

                        IMO, this is a bigger issue than any "green" initiative, including meat-eating. I think if we can prevent all unwanted pregnancies from happening, it will go a long way towards stabilizing population. Reversible male birth control is a big part of that - why aren't we focusing on that?

                      3. re: Servorg

                        This totally makes sense, considering that plants don't walk, and even if you bring seeds, you have no immediate source of food (unless you eat them, thereby eliminating future food.)

                    2. re: mhays

                      I also found it interesting that I posted my concerns as a comment yesterday, and as of now - no comments are posted with this article. Curious.