Why Eating Meat is Ethical

This essay was submitted to the NYTimes essay contest, Calling all Carnivores.

Why Eating Meat is Ethical?

The astute reader will notice that the title is not a statement, but rather a question. The purpose of the “Calling All Carnivores” essay contest is to explain why it is ethical to eat meat. The article accompanying the contest couches the question in a more precise way: is it ethical to eat animals when human survival is not at stake?

This question can be phrased in a more approachable way: is it unethical to eat meat, even when human survival is not at stake? One might choose to phrase the question this way for two reasons. First, let us make the assumption that if something is not unethical, then it is, by the very dichotomous nature of ethics, ethical. Second, if one cannot find reason to determine something as unethical, then it falls to the conclusion that the behavior or action is ethical. This is, in daily living, how the common person seems to make most of their decisions about ethics; we subconsciously assume a behavior is ethical, unless instructed otherwise.

To determine whether eating meat is unethical, there are a few distinctions that must be made. The most important distinction to be made is this: the ethics of eating meat and the ethics of killing animals should be addressed separately. If one opposes eating meat, then it does not matter how the meat came to the table, they will never eat it. However, if one simply opposes killing animals, they would still be able to eat meat that came from an animal that perished from natural causes. Additionally, opposition to killing animals stretches far beyond the dinner table, while the opposition to eating meat does not. The second distinct ethics question is that concerning the rearing of animals destined to be eaten. This issue is clearly detached from the ethics of eating meat, as demonstrated by discussions among meat eaters of various meat sources and rearing methods. Therefore opposition to the inhumane treatment and killing of animals should be separated from the ethical argument for, or against, eating meat.

With these distinctions made, there is one more question that should be addressed. As mentioned earlier, the description of the “Calling All Carnivores” essay contest couched the question of eating meat in a specific way: is it ethical to eat animals when human survival is not at stake? This question conflates the issue at hand: if it is unethical to eat meat or to kill animals for their meat, then why would human survival make such actions ethical? This turns the question of ethics away from that of an absolutist question (is it ever ethical to eat meat?) to a conditional question (does human survival determine ethics?). I can not think of any other dietary choice which is ethically questionable based on survival, except perhaps cannibalism. Therefore this question should be dismissed as contrived diversion. Human survival should not determine whether eating animals is ethical. It either is ethical, or it is not.

Finally, health concerns and scientific data might influence ones dietary choices, but similar to the way smoking is generally viewed as ethical but unhealthy, eating meat is still a personal choice, even though it’s impact stretches far beyond the individual. The act of eating meat is not demonstrably unethical, even if certain methods of producing meat for human consumption arguably are. Therefore, the answer to the question “why is it ethical to eat meat” is simple: because it is not unethical. It is a disappointing answer, but that is the answer to the question that was posed.

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