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The Ethicist | The Results Are In
The Meat You Eat
The Winner of Our Contest on the Ethics of Eating Meat
By ARIEL KAMINER
Published: May 3, 2012 77 Comments
Is it ethical to eat meat? That short question, posed in these pages a few weeks ago, inspired a debate heated enough to roast a fatted calf (or a really enormous zucchini, depending on your dietary orientation).
Read the Winning Entry
Read the Other Finalists’ Essays
Related in Opinion
Room for Debate: Is Veganism Good For Everyone?(April 17, 2012)
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To encourage omnivores to do some of the same hard thinking that vegetarians and vegans have done, I invited them to make, in 600 words or fewer, the strongest ethical case for the meat they eat. And to judge those arguments I gathered some of the strongest ethical critics of meat, or at least of the way we consume it — Mark Bittman, Jonathan Safran Foer, Andrew Light, Michael Pollan and Peter Singer.
Immediately, incensed blog posts, e-mails, radio broadcasts and tweets started appearing. Carnivores condemned the contest as antimeat propaganda. Vegans condemned the contest as pro-meat propaganda. Yet others said that I was trying to impose a single moral code; they were matched by those who said I was abetting moral anarchy. People dismissed the contest as either too elitist or too populist. And then there was the outrage over the demographics of our judges. “I would like to propose the next subject for debate in The Ethicist,” one critic wrote. “It can be titled, ‘Defending Misogyny: Why Women Are Not Needed as Experts in the Year 2012.’ ”
Despite all of that — or because of it — the contest was a stupendous success. We hoped to get a few dozen responses. We dreamed of getting a few hundred. In the end we got around 3,000. And the quality of the entries was as exceptional as the quantity.
Of course, any haul that big (which I sifted through with the invaluable assistance of Gwynne Taraska, the research director for the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University) will inevitably include some bycatch. In this case, that meant arguments like these:
• Lions eat meat. Would you accuse a lion of being unethical?
• The Bible says it’s O.K.
• I have pointy teeth. Ergo, meat!
• Would you accuse a shark of being unethical?
• It’s nutritious/delicious.
• It’s a free country.
• Would you accuse a Venus’ flytrap of being unethical?
Pointy teeth or tasty dinners are noteworthy, but they aren’t arguments about ethics. And lions or sharks can’t be unethical because they can’t reason that an action might be more or less ethical. (Same goes for plants.) But we can.
Some critics insisted that even contemplating a life without meat was an indulgent luxury, a silly game for a wealthy first-worlder. I found this puzzling — as if the poor feast nightly on roast suckling pig and only the 1 percent eat boiled tubers. Over all, rich nations eat much more meat than poor ones, and raising animals for food takes more agricultural resources than raising crops. In any case, a vast number of the world’s ethical vegetarians live in India. Caviar is a luxury. Ethical discussion is not.
The judges considered 29