Is it Ethical to Eat Meat?

The premise of this blog is that restaurants ought to do a better job of accommodating vegetarians.  A question I’ve largely avoided (intentionally) is why people — including me — are vegetarians in the first place.  There is an ethics column in The New York Times, and “The Ethicist” recently posed a question:  is it possible to make an ethical case for eating meat.  This was, according to The Ethicist, a reasonable question, because “omnivores had yet to answer the powerful ethical critiques laid down by vegetarians and vegans“.

But Arthur Brisbane, the Times‘s Public Editor, took The Ethicist to task.  He quoted a couple of those omnivores, one of whome pointed out that The Ethicist assumed her conclusion, i.e., that there were “powerful ethical critiques” (which were not discussed) against eating meat.

I think this is an interesting question.  I think of myself as largely “culturally vegetarian” — it’s not “required” of me in any real sense of the word — I ate meat till I was about ten years old or so — but most people from my cultural background are vegetarian.  My rationale for being vegetarian is this:  if it’s reasonably possible to have a nutritious diet without killing animals, then we should.  That doesn’t mean everyone should be a vegetarian:  a Stanford professor quoted in Brisbane’s column said, “An Alaskan Inuit near Barrow Point would have a hard time being a vegan. Nomads living in arid climates survive because they follow their flocks of small ruminants (goats and sheep) which can convert the indigestible cellulose in brush and grasses into products humans can digest. Are these individuals ‘unethical’? I think not.”

Nor do I, and that’s what goes to the “reasonably possible” prong of my position.  For the Inuits and nomads, it’s not:  because of circumstance, because of culture and history, and so on.  But it’s also true that — I think, I haven’t done the research — most of us aren’t Inuits, or nomads.  We’re eating at home, or in restaurants, in circumstances where we have a lot of control over what we eat.  So the extremes aren’t particularly helpful examples.

Now, I don’t want to get too preachy here.  As I’ve said before, “to each his own”.  I think it was sloppy of The Ethicist to start from the premise that vegetarianism (but why not veganism?) is “ethical”, and that therefore the burden was on meat-eaters to justify themselves.  My only point here is to take a step back from the restaurant reviews to say a few words about why I’m a vegetarian.  I don’t think meat-eaters are unethical (I’m married to one) and I don’t think a position is necessarily more ethical than the other.  Note, I’m not adopting a sort of postmodern, all-view-are-equal position here; I do think there are more and less ethical ways to nourish ourselves.  I just think it’s not obvious that all vegetarians are inherently ethical eaters.

But enough about me.  Dear Reader, what do you think?  Is it ethical to eat meat?  Is it ethical not to?

(Image at the top of this post from this link.)

4 thoughts on “Is it Ethical to Eat Meat?

  1. Rajneesh

    I agree with your point that if its possible to get nutritious diet from vegetarian food then why kill animals. I think bigger problem is lack of knowledge about being vegetarian. People think that only way to get protein is to eat meat, they dont know that there are many vegetarian options available. So I think its not ethical to kill animals for lack of your knowledge.

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