An anonymous commenter recently posted on my “How to Be Vegan” article that he or she wanted Spoon to “[devote] some critical thinking to ethical or environmental veganism.” Lucky for that Spoon devotee, I had just submitted an essay with two friends, David Argoff and Benjy Liebowitz, to a section of The New York Times Magazine called “The Ethicist.” In March, the magazine challenged its readers to provide a moral rationale for meat eating. The piece was so difficult to write that consequently, I have almost entirely stopped eating meat. Nevertheless, I do believe meat eating is ethically permissible. Here’s an abridged version of our entry:
In response to the question, “Is eating meat ethical?” we will only argue here that if one has the desire to eat meat, then it is ethically permissible to do so. That is, we are not claiming that eating meat is a moral good. Given certain conditions, omnivores can satiate their carnivorous cravings free from ethical scorn. For ease of argument we will restrict our discussion to cattle, but our claims will apply equally to all livestock. Most would agree it is permissible to eat animals that are already dead, or that have died of natural causes. The issue, therefore, is not whether it is ethical to eat meat but if it is ethical to rear animals with the sole intention of killing them prematurely for consumption.
Ethical meat eating requires animals to be reared on a close approximation to what we shall call an “idealized farm.” A farm of this sort feeds animals correctly and healthily, mitigates avoidable pains (especially during slaughter), and in general provides a comfortable surrounding for all livestock. However, even in these pristine ethical settings, at some point animals will die. Hastening this process for our purposes is permissible for the primary reason that the from the animals point of view, quality of life supersedes length of life, provided animals reach reproductive maturity.
The core biological right of a cow is to reproduce. Therefore, we assert that it is ethical to raise an animal purely for the purpose of killing it for food if the animal is afforded a life free from undue pain and is allowed to accomplish its biological right of extending genetic lineage and then raising the young. Cows have no ability to distinguish a life of X years from one of X+1 years. They simply do not have the mental acuity to conceptualize nonexistence. If you were to tell a man that he was only going to live until he was 40, he would feel as though he were being robbed of something that had previously belonged to him; however, cows have no ability in principle to distinguish this. Even if our intuition seems to suggest there is something wrong with taking away years of a cow’s life, the cow has no way of knowing this. As a result, we feel it is ethically permissible to end a cow’s life prematurely for the purpose of eating the meat and manufacturing other animal products.
In addition to the above argument, current U.S. agricultural policy restricts the use of antibiotics on certified organic farms. If we are truly worried about the suffering of animals it seems both prudent and merciful to end a cow’s life before complications (like communicable diseases) arise that would create preventable pain and also pose a threat to the herd. So, when faced with the choice between chickpea salad and beef carpaccio, fret not.