In March, the New York Times’ Ethicist column asked: Is it ethical for humans to eat meat? As omnivores, human beings have always relied on meat as a significant source of nutrition. Evidence of specialized hunting techniques dates back 50,000 years to the origins of human culture. But just because humans have always eaten meat does not mean we ought to continue doing so. Similarly, just because most of the meat consumed today comes from animals whose living conditions are, well, unlivable does not mean that raising livestock and killing them for meat is inherently unethical.
Human beings are animals, despite our delusions to the contrary. We occupy a large niche in the global ecosystem and the top spot on most food chains. We also possess two formidable skills: the power to alter the natural order and a capacity for moral reasoning that created the ethical dilemma over our meat-based diet in the first place.
Rather than rely on hunting, scavenging and gathering like other omnivores, ancient humans transformed the environment to better serve their own interests. We planted crops and domesticated animals, providing the necessary ingredients for long-term human settlements to flourish into civilizations. With science and technology, our power over the environment has grown to the extent that we can alter ecosystems at will. We exert our authority over the rest of the food chain by raising livestock for meat, protecting endangered species and hunting those that flourish in the wild.
Transforming the environment to increase human welfare is not without cost or unintended consequences. We have significantly altered the natural order by creating genetically modified organisms, clearing large swaths of land for monoculture and raising animals in unnaturally concentrated feedlots. Such change in itself is neither a good, or bad thing, but human beings, as distinctly moral animals, make value judgments about the way things are and ought to be.
The most compelling argument for why eating meat is unethical stems from the total disregard for animal welfare in the industrial food system. As Peter Singer argues, we must grant non-human animals equal consideration of interests because they are also sentient beings. Their suffering outweighs the purely economic benefits derived from raising livestock in inhumane conditions.
Many vegetarians satisfy their hunger and assuage their guilt by passing on the chicken and opting for tofu or seitan instead. It’s an idealized way to live life, but the rationale for individual abstinence is more sentimental than ethical. Advocating a murder-free diet is tempting for its lack of moral ambiguity, but it doesn’t solve the problem at hand. Rather than clinging to our principles in the face of a very practical problem, we need to be realistic about the repercussions of choosing whether or not to eat meat.
Consider, for a moment, what would happen if we all call it quits because enslaving and killing other animals doesn’t sit well on our collective conscience. What exactly is going to happen to the billions of cows, pigs and chickens we are currently raising for food? Domesticated animals depend wholly on humans to provide for their needs, and the new species of livestock we’ve created wouldn’t last a generation in the wild.
What’s more, animals are necessary for even a meat-free food system. Our ability to increase productivity and decrease the consumer costs of certain foods – whether they are endless supplies of chicken breasts or enough soybeans to meet vegetarians’ protein needs with tofu – have blinded us to the negative externalities that result from artificially isolating the cultivation of crops from the life cycle of animals. In nature, everything is interconnected. The most sustainable forms of food production mimic natural ecosystems and incorporate both plants and animals.
For better or worse, we’ve assumed responsibility for the fate of the animals we’ve domesticated. Rather than acting selfishly as natural selection intended and continuing on our path of exploitation, we can use our moral judgment to devise a more ethical order and our technology to make it reality.
In this more ethical order, humans would still eat meat. We owe non-human animals a certain consideration of interests because they are also sentient beings, but we cannot simply care for them out of the kindness of our hearts. One can only keep so many pets. The most ethical approach to the animals we’ve domesticated employs the logic of utilitarianism. Raise them in a way that maximizes total welfare and minimizes suffering. Guarantee that – in the words of Temple Grandin – they live a decent life and die a painless death. And then enjoy the nutritional benefits of eating a nice piece of meat.
Lauren Schleimer ’12 would rather hunt and gather, but the pickings are slim these days on College Hill.