Is There an Ethical Argument for Eating Meat?

A while back, my good friend Virak told me that a client once hit him with this comment: “What do you eat in your culture, dogs?”

Ethnically, Virak is Cambodian. Nationally, he’s one of the most American people I know. He was rightfully pissed about the snide, racist comment. But the comment made me wonder: what does someone eating a dog matter to a meat eater? What sets a dog apart from a pig or a cow?

No, this post will not be an ethical argument for eating dogs; the thought of eating a dog makes me retch. Here’s the thing: I love to eat meat, but I’ve cut my consumption heavily in the past few years. My reading of “Omnivores Dilemma” by Michael Pollan was a wakeup call as to how the animals are treated in factory farms.

Pollan’s book made me sign up for a local meat CSA – a community supported agriculture program – from Slagel Farms. I’ve been to the farm and have seen that they seemingly treat the animals as well as a farm possibly can. They’re true pros and give a shit about the animals (somewhere, a vegan is rolling their eyes – stick with me, pal). I try to limit my meat intake to the farm as best as I can. I slip up quite often when away from the house.

Lately, I’ve been considering the arguments of Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher who argues that all animals – both human and non-human – are equal.

Singer makes some potent points, including:

  • Equal consideration: Just because a cow doesn’t have the same consciousness as a human doesn’t mean it deserves to be slaughtered. We don’t see fit to slaughter the mentally handicapped because they can’t read a book or speak, for example.
  • Equality is a moral idea: If all humans deserve equal treatment, no matter their race, sex, or size, why wouldn’t that follow for animals? It seems to be an arbitrary line in the sand done out of habit that is drawn at species.
  • Suffering: All animals – this includes humans – suffer when put in shoddy conditions or when they’re bludgeoned to death. To cause unnecessary suffering is to commit a terribly unethical act. The most obvious, yet most potent, argument.

“Their pain ought to count just as much as the pain of a human being where it’s a similar amount of pain,” Singer says in the below video.

Another interesting argument from Singer is that with the amount of land and grain we use to raise animals, we lose space to grow plants that could potentially feed more people across the world for less money.

My question: Are there any ethical arguments in favor of eating meat?

I seem to recall a couple of pro-small farm arguments within Pollan’s book. If we get rid of factory farming, we’d get rid of a lot of the awful treatment of animals. An argument that I can recall having sway with me was that even if we were to completely stop raising meat altogether, we’d still be killing many animals in farming the plants. Perhaps I’m getting the argument wrong – someone please chime in and correct me if so – but it now looks like a bit of a “perfect is the enemy of good” argument.

My struggle in reading Singer is that I have trouble detaching the immorality of eating meat from conviviality of dinners out with family and friends. Early in his argument, Singer asks readers to not think as a meat-eater, but I find this rather hard to do. I associate a lot of joy with eating meat. Like I said, we do it out of habit, but part of that habit is likely due to certain parts of our brain lighting up with joy whenever we see a hamburger.

I find myself in a bit of a conundrum: I strive to live an ethical life, a life where I do the best that I can in all aspects of life. But meat is difficult. It makes me feel selfish to hang onto something so simple, but here I am.

What do you think? Is there a good reason to keep eating meat or is it simply a bad habit to break?

If you have any arguments in favor or against eating meat, I’d love to hear them.

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5 thoughts on “Is There an Ethical Argument for Eating Meat?

  1. Most people approach eating meat through the assumption that humans rule over animals or at least are higher on a hierarchy in terms of life worth. But, I can’t find any basis for this belief (outside our gigantic egos, but that’s not a basis). I don’t see how we have more rights to Earth than animals, we all just kinda showed up and here we are.

    There’s also no choice for a cow to “give” her milk or a happy, farm-raised chicken to die to provide food. If I’m living a happy life, I’d prefer to keep living that life, personally. Other animals hunt for food, but humans have the reasoning capacity to see the pain of death how that impacts families/packs.

    Also, I was that vegan rolling her eyes, nice catch. 😛

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    1. All good points. The best points I can find in support of eating meat are 1) Supporting small farms is an economic vote against factory farms (fair, but doesn’t cover the suffering too well) 2) Social expectations 3) Health (I haven’t fully investigated this and I’m fairly sure it’s bogus). None of these leave me feeling good morally. I’m starting to consider giving some different ways of eating a trial period.

      I am, however, very excited for companies like Memphis Meats to use cellular ag to grow actual meat in labs. I think that will win over a lot of meat eaters, perhaps to the point of creating a tipping point toward reduction of factory farms.

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  2. Have you watched the movie Cowspiracy? I think they cover the small farms point well. And yes, social expectations is a big one. When I became vegetarian (and later vegan), I realized how deeply ingrained these beliefs were in me & everyone around me. As far as health goes, I’ve been meticulous in the past tracking my nutrients, especially as an athlete. Ultimately, whether you eat plants directly or you consume the flesh from an animal who ate plants, protein still comes from plants. 😛

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    1. Haven’t seen it. I’ll ask the question everyone asks when getting a movie rec in 2017: Is it on Netflix?

      Any favorite/go-to meals? I’m intrigued to try a few new things. It seems India has a lot of useful fare to play with.

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  3. On Netflix! Yes!

    I have lots of go-to meals, I’m the laziest vegan. After 10+ years I’ve really perfected my craft and don’t feel like I miss out on any flavors or meals. In fact, I made a vegan hamburger helper dish last week that was incredible. Also– eating veg doesn’t have to be expensive. I spend about $15-20 per week on groceries. I’ll send you some recipes.

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