An Informal Discussion of the Ethics of Eating Meat

I wrote this piece in two stages. In the first stage, I felt fairly grounded in my position and in the second, I grappled with it more heavily. Throughout this piece I struggle with my own thoughts and perspective on this issue.

The other day, Firefox suggested an article called Are we wrong to assume fish can’t feel pain? Curious, I clicked on it. It was a fantastic article explaining and presenting evidence that fish are smarter, more socially adept, and overall more complicated creatures than we usually assume. Seriously, go read it if you haven’t. It’s long but it’s easy to read and digest while also packed with fascinating information.

It also brought up a question of ethics. Is it ethical to eat fish, given that they obviously feel pain? Do we need to rethink fishing methods?

This leads to other areas of similar thought, namely, is it ethical to eat meat at all?

I want to ask, is this even an ethical issue?

To some extent, yes, it is something to grapple with, a question of whether we should or should not eat animals. There are people on both sides for various reasons.

I can understand bringing ethics and humane treatment into how we obtain meat. The animal shouldn’t needlessly suffer. That, in fact, is often a reason people stop eating meat.

But I don’t think eating meat is itself wrong.

I’m finding that as I work through my reasoning for this that I’m questioning my motives for this belief. Do I think it’s okay to eat meat because I always have? Do I think it’s okay to eat meat because it tastes good? If that is why I think it’s okay, should I change my mind? Is taste and habit a real defense?

I have biases on this issue, and I’m well aware of them. I’ve gone hunting. My family has raised rabbits and ducks for food. In the case of the ducks, we ate the eggs and later the ducks. I helped my dad slaughter the ducks and I’ve helped him skin a deer. He processed rabbits, deer, and fish in our kitchen.

There are ways to avoid eating all animal products, but it is expensive and time consuming. If this became less of a barrier, it might change more people’s minds. Vegans have to put in a lot of extra effort to keep their food entirely plant-based.

Vegetarians, on the other hand, simply don’t eat meat, but may enjoy eggs, dairy, and other animal products which vegans don’t. Not all of them will, but it is possible.

There are ways to be vegan or vegetarian and get enough vitamins and minerals. That sometimes includes taking supplements to keep from having deficiency. Those supplements also increase the cost of the diet. In most cases, though, all the vitamins and minerals necessary can be obtained entirely from plants. That could change for people with allergies or other dietary restrictions.

I freely admit that eating meat or animal products isn’t required to live, at least in the developed world. If it was, this would not be a question of ethics, it would be of survival.

It is not a moral issue among other animals when one animal eats another, from our human perspective. Presumably the animals don’t discuss the ethics of what they eat and how they obtain their food. If they were capable of such discussions, they are still in a state of struggling to survive such that they wouldn’t have the conversation. Additionally, many animals are carnivores by necessity.

Humans are omnivores. Other animals, like some turtles, are omnivores. Gorillas eat insects and plants. Even dogs will enjoy apples, carrots, and other plants, though they are primarily carnivores.

This ethical discussion of eating meat only applies to areas of the world where the standard of living is high enough to suffer little consequence by cutting out meat.

If an animal is being put through massive suffering and poor living conditions to bring it to the table, I would feel that unethical. If, however, it was a free range chicken with plenty of space and good food and was killed quickly, I would have fewer reservations about consuming meat.

Ethics and morality are highly contextual. If you have ever explored the multitude of variations of the trolley problem, for example, you will know this. In the problem, either one person or five will die because of an oncoming train or trolley. In some iterations, you can push someone into the path of the train, in others you pull a lever to change the path. Depending on what is required to sacrifice one to save five can change a person’s answer.

It is the same with the ethics of eating meat. I’m thinking through everything and it’s complicated. It might be a simple thing for some people, but I went into this piece to defend eating meat. Now, I am open to changing my mind and my diet. In fact, that may be how this concludes.

To do more research for this piece, I watched this video from a vegan speaker. He brings up a lot of points and questions that I am grappling with. He used to eat meat and he grappled with it as well. This is very much a discussion with myself to explore what I think and why.

I don’t think I was wrong about what I said already, that if it were a question of survival, it would be different. If it were about maintaining an ecosystem, it would be different. If the animals were not bred specifically to be food and then slaughtered, it would be different. If there wasn’t needless suffering in the meat and dairy industry, it would be different.

There is a difference between the meat industry and hunting. In the latter, the animal was wild and you know how and when it was killed.

In Illinois, there is a problem with overpopulation of deer because humans killed off a lot of wolves in the area. There aren’t any predators for the deer anymore. Deer die because of cars, hunting, and hunger.

Why would it be gross to eat a deer but not a cow? If you eat beef, why not venison? Why the animals we do eat and why is it reprehensible to eat others? Why does eating veal (the flesh of a calf) and eating beef feel different? Why do I feel more disgusted by the former?

As far as survival is concerned, I view meat as acceptable. I’m not against animal products as a whole, either. But should I change my mind about eating meat? Since it isn’t necessary for me, should I stop?

I feel very stuck on this issue. I’m struggling to find valid reasons to excuse it.

The animals are not euthanized, they are slaughtered. Would that make a difference? If they were able to live good, full lives and did not feel pain when they died, would that be better?

I don’t want to give up meat, if I’m being honest. But I also don’t know that I can comfortably continue eating it without considering the animal that had to die. It’s unfortunate that something has to die for us to live, since none of us are plants or photosynthesize. The least we can do is give it the best life possible. I don’t feel that that is happening in most cases based on the information I have.

Due to my research and this complicated and rambling discussion with myself, I’m going to reduce and mostly eliminate meat from my diet at least until there is change. There is potentially a solution in lab grown meat, and if it becomes affordable I would be open to trying it. I have problems with the treatment of animals in the meat industry, so I will not support that for the sake of my taste preferences.

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