Delicious Living Blog

Is eating meat ethical?

The New York Times recently posted a reader essay contest—and it's widened the schism between carnivores and vegetarians.

Earlier this week, The New York Times announced an open reader essay contest to explain the ethics of eating meat.

While the web-o-sphere is rife in arguments defending vegetarian and veganism, the Times explains, “Few [carnivores] have tried to answer the fundamental ethical issue: Whether it is right to eat animals in the first place, at least when human survival is not at stake.”

I find this contest particularly interesting because I have been a vegetarian for roughly six years. While there are several reasons I choose not to eat meat (that unfortunate incident with an undercooked cheeseburger need not be elaborated upon) my main rationale is that I would be hypocritical if I did eat it. I don’t want to hurt an animal, so why would I participate in a result of its harm?

Apart from the odd coincidence that the judges are all male (what gives, Times?) I praise the newspaper for cultivating such a conversation. The tensions between carnivores and vegetarians may never be resolved, but it’s important for an honest dialogue over the morals of eating—and thus treating—animals to occur.

But some food theorists don’t support the contest. In a recent Huffington Post article, public health lawyer and author of Appetite for Profit (Avalon, 2006) Michele Simon writes “It saddens me that given all the pressing problems of our day, many of which caused by excessive meat eating (global warming, contaminated air and water, chronic disease, worker injury, and yes, animal suffering, just to name a few) the Times is promoting such a self-indulgent contest. I am sure the meat industry is jumping for joy.”

Simon does have a point. A concise piece on the good ethics of meat eating in a major newspaper would make any beef, hog, or chicken farmer happy. But stifling a smart and civilized discussion has never elicited any sort of productive change.

This contest reminds me of an essay about the annual Maine Lobster Festival written by the late David Foster Wallace for Gourmet magazine. Apart from describing the event in all of its touristy peculiarities, Wallace offers the best discussion over the cognitive process of eating meat I have ever read:

“Given the (possible) moral status and (very possible) physical suffering of the animals involved…what makes it feel okay, inside, to dismiss the whole issue out of hand? That is, is [the diner’s] refusal to think about any of this the product of actual thought, or is it just that they don’t want to think about it? Do they ever think about their reluctance to think about it? After all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet?”

Perhaps we can simplify this long-winded (albeit brilliant) argument further with another exceptional author—Ernest Hemingway—with advice from his memoir about bullfighting, Death In the Afternoon. “About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.”

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