Making a Separate Peace: The Ethics of Eating Meat

Our Submission for the NYTIMES Contest

Nothing we eat has an interest in being eaten. We eat ethically, therefore, only when we eat consciously, by knowing the origins of our food and by recognizing the sacrifice of the life we have taken.  We eat according to our own value system, which has been constructed through our own experience – a sense of place, a feeling of home, our memories. 

While the vegan movement certainly has staked the ethical high ground, making an all-encompassing argument that eating meat harms animals, the human body, and the environment, the movement often does so while challenging the ethical value of eating meat.  The movement has in some instances taken the easy way out – equating animals and humans while never acknowledging that plants are species that deserve the same respect. 

PETA, furthermore, claims that eating vegan is “one of the single most effective things that you can do” to protect the environment.  Most who care about the issue, however, are well versed with the often abhorrent conditions–for livestock, humans, and the environment–in which much of the meat we eat is produced. While we can all agree that it’s not ethical to eat meat that has been produced in such unsustainable and inhumane conditions, we can also argue that it’s not ethical to eat plants that have been produced in similarly poor conditions.

If we find the form of production abhorrent, therefore, we should not purchase that product no matter the content: vegetable or meat, cotton or Nike shoes. It is not for us to judge the product’s intrinsic value, but it is our duty to judge the mode in which that product was produced. Or as Thoreau reminds us, we should not pursue our own concerns “while sitting upon another man’s shoulders. [We] must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.”

However, if we harvest that content in maximally sustainable ways and in humane conditions and we still denigrate meat consumption, then we expose the underlying ideology involved. We are clearly saying, then, that we value life that has brains over life that doesn’t.  In short, we privilege the frog over the ramp, a cow over a carrot.  After all, when we harvest a carrot, we are killing it, even if it does not scream or blood doesn’t flow from its veins.

In both cases, we’ve made dead what had a clear interest in staying alive.  If under equal conditions, we still argue that eating the carrot makes me more ethical than eating the cow, then I’m valuing the cow’s life over the carrot’s.  And that’s simply a subjective judgment of what each of us thinks has intrinsic value. 

And if all life– animal or plant–has intrinsic value, then by eating anything, we are sacrificing another life form to sustain our own.   In other words, we must make a separate peace with the life we ultimately consume, no matter the form that life takes. Ultimately, we should not privilege any animate life over another.

Competing value systems will always exist. Those who value biodiversity, for example, have a particular interest in consuming meat, such as invasive or overpopulated species.  This value system collides with the vegan value system, which often priviledges animal life over plant life.  These competing and equally valid ideals address different issues which have ethical value — depending on the perspective.

So in defense of eating meat – or eating anything for that matter — as long as these value systems have been seriously considered and we consume consciously, ethically – then eat away.

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