Strong opinions, weakly held

Deep thoughts on meat

As a meat eater, I feel obligated to think about the ethics of the habit. Given that we can easily survive without meat, I think it’s important to be conscious of the fact that it’s a luxury that we indulge in at the expense of the lives of other animals.

In this month’s Atlantic, James McWilliams argues that eating the meat of animals raised in a “free range” is not more ethical than eating factory farmed meat:

But this position—the idea that free-range is automatically a responsible choice simply because it’s more attentive to animal welfare—is morally blurred. Better does not mean acceptable. Consumers of free-range meat who oppose factory farming on welfare grounds (however partial) cannot escape an inconvenient question: Doesn’t killing an animal we don’t need constitute the very thing that factory farming perpetuates—which is to say, harm? This, as I see it, is the free-range albatross.

After reading it, you should read Heath Putnam’s response. He’s a pig farmer in Washington, and consistently writes interesting stuff on the practices of farmers and the ethics of them.

Two additional thoughts. The first is that from an animal welfare standpoint, eating dairy foods is no more ethical than eating meat, mainly because meat is an unavoidable by product of dairy farming. Only female animals produce milk and eggs, and half of the offspring of farm animals are male. Many male dairy calves become veal, male goats on a goat farm become meat, and male chicks on big egg farms become fertilizer.

The second is that without farming most of the animals on farms just wouldn’t exist. So when we talk about the lost potential for happiness and fulfillment among farm animals when they are slaughtered, we’re talking about animals that would not exist at all were it not for farming.

Heath Putnam says we should eat what tastes good. I continue to agree with him, at least for now.


  1. An absolute classic article on the subject of the ethics of eating meat is David Foster-Wallace’s “Consider The Lobster”: http://www.gourmet.com/magazine/2000s/2004/08/consider_the_lobster

  2. another additional thought: there’s more than animal welfare to the question, as production of any animal-based products take hugely more environmental resources than producing the same amount of nutrition directly from plantmatter. so there are environmental (and long-term-survival practical) arguments for lessening one’s reliance on any animal products, however gradually one can do so.

  3. Yep, if you’re an environmentalist or care about sustainability, you should minimize your consumption of animal products for sure.

  4. I do think it’s wrong to kill and eat animals for no more reason than the titillation of our palates, but I hesitate to get into this debate on the internet. I recommend “Introduction to Animal Rights” by Gary Francione if you’re interested in this topic. His FAQ answers your second point. Your first point is an argument for veganism so I’m not going to argue with it.

  5. I just finished Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals by Hal Herzog. A very thoughtful read that considers all sides of the human-animal relationship. Can’t recommend it enough on this subject.

  6. Is there a difference between different animal husbandry methods? Sure, read “Slaughterhouse” by Gail Eisnitz, get the full picture.

  7. Extraordinarily complex issue to be knowledgeable about but there’s some seemingly plausible claims that grain farming actually kills more animals: rodents, rabbits, etc. plus fish due to runoff. I’d be very leery of taking sides without spending considerable time sorting it out. And how do you know who to trust?

  8. I was really surprised at the shallowness of the response by Heath Putnam…well not really. Those who profit from the exploitation and death of others are unlikely to provide much depth when examining what they do. Such behaviors and practices aren’t deep, just pervasive and tragic.

    It is sad that the best he could do in rebuttal was to point to something else (referencing road kill, mosquitos, in vitro flesh, non-sentient life forms) or assert that the animals who are being deprived of their freedom and lives don’t care about what is happening to them.

    Anyone who doesn’t apprehend that all animals love their lives and will fight or flee attempting to protect themselves is someone so out of touch with reality that looking to them for insight or understanding is beyond problematical.

    Human animals kill other animals because they can….this behavior is a prime example of the notion that “might makes right”. Pretending that it doesn’t cause unnecessary pain, suffering, terror or harm is simply posturing.

    Using the feeble rationale of “eat what tastes good” doesn’t cut it. Exploiting and killing sentient beings because they “taste good” is indefensible.

    We exploit and kill because of cultural and social conditioning and those that defend these practices are either benefiting from them or are too indoctrinated or unmotivated to examine them to any degree.

    Remember this, no other species has agreed that human animals have the right to kill all others, we have appointed ourselves as the ultimate ones.

    We have, at least in practice, said…if a living being doesn’t speak a human language…then that being counts for nothing (historically, and sometimes currently, even speaking a human language afforded you no protection…if you had no power).

    Good grief, if we are going to behave like narcissistic, violent sociopaths toward other sentient beings at least own up to it, instead of pretending otherwise.

  9. I do entirely agree with the responses left by veganelder… Only I don’t think I shall be as nice in what I have to say. It is very difficult to speak in a civil manner to someone who justifies breeding and killing innocent life because of the mere, frivolous want of their flesh. And as this article pointed out – We KNOW there is no “need” for this flesh… There is only the gluttony for it. Ironically all based on what? Our “superior” ethics and the hierarchy of “our” morals (soul) compared to them… The Other “lowly” ones. What a joke! Supposedly we are so advanced; So much “better” than all the rest. Yet hardly any (even in our own species) benefits much from our “gOd-like” wisdom. What a pity! To have all this potential for compassion and to be so stingy with it… Because we like how blood, flesh and bone crushes beneath our teeth. Until we change this cruel way of inflicting harm – We are nothing more than ogres sporting a fancy and false vocabulary that intends to blind us from the ugliness of our acts.

    There’s never been a better time or a more compelling reason to give a plant based diet it’s chance. Indeed it is the only way our species will ever evolve to it’s full healthy and enlightened potential.

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