Consuming the dead flesh of what were once living, sentient creatures, is becoming a heated point in the face of rising global meat consumption. The announcement of the New York Times’ competition, ‘Calling all carnivores: tell us why it’s ethical to eat meat’ demonstrates an anxiety about killing non-human animals for food, and seeks to find an answer to the growing vociferous groups which claim the very opposite. This competition, in short, was looking for a solid excuse as to why unnecessarily killing and consuming the flesh of a sentient being can be considered an ethical act.
The winning essay is extraordinarily interesting, not for its convincingness, but for its ability to wriggle out of the central question, whether killing sentient beings is justified. The essay also ignores reality, casts vegans and vegetarians in the role of the oppressor, and co-opts the language of compassion.
Upfront we are told that the writer is an ex-vegetarian, so it is no surprise that they are at pains to defend their current culinary choices. The author begins by ignoring reality:
The author skilfully twists away from reality. The realities of meat production are merely coincidental, the only ethical question entailed in meat consumption is the act of killing a sentient being. The interrelated factors of cruelty, world hunger, and deforestation need to be swept aside, for they are not what the question boils down to.
But in a fantastic rhetorical about face the author too decides to skirt the central problem of killing a sentient being by defining what is ‘ethical’ in such a way as to exclude any concern for individual sentient beings, ‘While studying agroecology at Prescott College in Arizona, I was convinced that if what you are trying to achieve with an “ethical” diet is the least destructive impact on life as a whole on this planet, then in some circumstances, like living among dry, scrubby grasslands in Arizona, eating meat, is, in fact, the most ethical thing you can do other than subsist on wild game, tepary beans and pinyon nuts.’ The author now wants to invert the environmental reasons for abstaining from meat, claiming that in some cases (and that is important to remember) it might be more environmentally friendly.
Although he mentions ‘some circumstances’ here, it is a gross denial of the reality of how most live in the Western world. Most people don’t live in the grasslands of Arizona. They live in cities, and suburbs, in many climes and regions. This argument focuses only on the rare cases where it might be ‘more ethical’ (in a ‘biotic’ sense) to eat meat. It is a form of carnistic locavorism, set up as a more ethical alternative to abstaining from meat.
The author further denies reality in his pseudo-scientific account of energy transference and how he rails against the friend of the vegetarian/vegan - soy: ‘A well-managed, free-ranged cow is able to turn the sunlight captured by plants into condensed calories and protein with the aid of the microorganisms in its gut. Sun > diverse plants > cow > human . This in a larger ethical view looks much cleaner than the fossil-fuel-soaked scheme of tractor-tilled field > irrigated soy monoculture > tractor harvest > processing > tofu > shipping > human’. What we have here is a false dichotomy which also ignores peer-reviewed evidence. Firstly, the choice that most people have isn’t between free-range cow and soy. This little false dilemma allows the author to apparently demonstrate that it is much more efficient and earth-friendly raising a cow than eating soy. These are not the only two options, people also eat other plants too.
This line of reasoning, soy bad - cow good, also skilfully ignores the problem of greenhouse gases associated with the production phase of animal products, whilst accusing soy production of being dirty and ‘fossil-fuel-soaked’. In the peer reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology, a study was conducted which took the locavore’s core defence (‘food-miles’) to task. What the study found was that transporting food constituted only a small portion (11%) of total GHGe. The production phase for meat products was the main culprit for GHGe, and hence, the authors of the study ‘suggest that dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food-related climate footprint than “buying local.” Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food’ (Food Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States)
The main issue of whether killing a sentient being is justified comes back to haunt the author: ‘The issue of killing of a sentient being, however, lingers. To which each individual human being must react by asking: Am I willing to divide the world into that which I have deemed is worthy of being spared the inevitable and that which is not worthy?’ The accusation of anthropocentric hubris, usually employed by those who abstain from unnecessary harm, is thus turned against them. It’s those do-gooders, those vegetarians and vegans, who separate the world with an imperialistic mindset, bestowing their merciful attitudes to some, but not others. How the world is divided by vegetarians and vegans can only be extrapolated from the twisted logic of the essay: vegetarians and vegans divide the world into plant and animal. Animals are worthy of mercy, whilst plants and eco-systems are not. If this extrapolation is correct (and who can tell, the logic is so obscure), then it represents an enormous about turn from the initial reasons put forth for why eating meat is unethical in most circumstances: because it harms people, planet, and animals.
In the final breaths of the essay, the author puts forward three facets of when it’s ethical to eat meat. Curiously, the specific circumstances (like living in the grasslands of Arizona), upon which the whole argument has rested on up until now, has disappeared. Whilst casting those who would abstain from such violence in the role of the violent, imperialistic oppressor, he then casts those who refuse to ask themselves, truly, if killing someone is indeed moral, as enlightened: ‘you accept the biological reality that death begets life on this planet and that all life (including us!) is really just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form’. By this logic, we could dutifully follow the advice of Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’, and not truly feel guilty for the individuals whose lives we have stolen to sate our gullet. We should not feel sad when a loved one dies, and should not seek justice against murderers. After all, to do so would be to divide the world into those ‘who are worthy’ and those who are not.
The author’s second criterion for ethical meat is when, having transcended any idea that anything matters (after all, everything is temporary solar energy), ‘you combine this realization with that cherished human trait of compassion and choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain and/or meat’. The author co-opts the language of compassion. This is hardly the first instance of a carnistic locavore demanding, unfounded, that their violent acts of oppression and slaughter are the embodiment of pure, disinterested compassion. But compassion involves caring, and caring involves asking yourself what and who matters. For many who abstain from meat and other animal products, they have made the choice that the animals, people, and planet matter, as the author points out early in the essay.
The third criterion is arrogant while being platitudistic: ‘you give thanks’, as if it matters to the animal that you thanked it for its sacrifice, for letting you free it from the shackles of its earthly bonds. It matters naught to the animal, and it seeks only to assuage a guilty conscience.
The winner of this competition has not provided an ethical argument for eating meat, but instead an essay which is slippery, obscure, and relies on empty rhetoric. It depends on the 'common sense' logic of food-miles rather than looking at the science. Furthermore, the essay perpetuates violence and oppression by co-opting the language of compassion and casting vegetarians and vegans in the role of imperialistic oppressors.
- Stevie Schafer, 2012