The Ethics of Eating Meat

Periodically I enter contests. I don’t know why, because I rarely win. (You may still remember my entry to the Los Angeles Times “Best Burger” contest, which I was certain I would win until I discovered it was actually a “Burger with the Most Facebook Likes” popularity contest.) But hope springs eternal.

A couple months ago, my pal and sometime-Skinny-Girls-sidekick Nat sent me a link to a contest in the New York Times. “You should enter this,” he said. It was an essay contest on the ethics of eating meat.

More than an actual desire to win (the prize in this case being not a car or a trip to Hawaii but simply that your essay got published online), I enjoy entering these sorts of contests because it is a good impetus to think and write about things I might not otherwise think and write about. And though I often think and write about an ethical approach to eating meat, I had never gotten down to the actual marrow-bones ethics of it. (Nice recipe for marrow bones here, by the way…)

So here, without further preamble, is my essay on the ethics of eating meat. I did not win. Perhaps I was one of the “27 semifinalists,” I’ll never know. (The guy who won did write a pretty good essay, you can read it here for comparison if you’d like. Although I think mine was funnier.) Cheers.

*   *   *

 “Grub first, then ethics.”­ –Bertolt Brecht

At a recent dinner party where a succulent Dominican pernil roast pork shoulder was being served, I found myself faced with self-righteous 14-year-old who had recently gone macrobiotic.

“I don’t eat meat anymore,” she declared, turning her nose up at the roast. “Only fish.”
“A pig is a fish!” I said earnestly.
“A pig is a fish??” she replied with understandable skepticism.
“Yes! Pigs might not fly, but they swim!”

Years ago as an obnoxious older teenage brother, I used to try this trick on my pre-teen kid sister during her brief flirtation with vegetarianism. They didn’t have to kill the chicken to get the chicken breasts, I offered — they just cut them off and they grew back, like a stone crab claw. Likewise with chicken broth — no life was lost; they simply wrung the chicken out like a sponge to get the broth.

As a sensitive poet-type with Buddhist leanings, I’ve struggled with the idea of eating meat. But the hawkish cook and carnivore in me always beats back the timid dove. The ethics of eating meat is tricky business. In the “old days,” when our ancestors were hunting and gathering and generally fighting to survive, the eating of meat was a necessity. But today, as we get in our sports utility vehicles to drive to the market for a shrink-wrapped couple pounds of ground beef to make tacos for the kids, this is no longer the case. The kids could eat yam tacos and survive just fine. So where does that leave us?

I’ve known plenty of self-described vegetarians who eat fish. Is a fish a vegetable? Or, according to their own creative ethical guidelines, a lesser animal than a cow or a pig? Many a vegan will happily smash a spider beneath the sole of shoe. And to what purpose that sacrifice, assuming they won’t be eating the arachnid? I read recently that scientists are close to creating sheets of meat creating in laboratories for human consumption. No death required. How goes our ethics then?

Albert Einstein once said, “Relativity applies to physics, not ethics.” But when it comes to food, I’m not so sure. I do believe that our choice in what we eat represents an important ethical decision. But I don’t believe it is one that necessarily excludes meat. Men have been eating meat as long as they could throw a spear. It’s a personal ethical decision. I admire those who give up meat for ethical reasons, and I understand those who don’t. I am one of them. I love animals — at home, we have a pig and 13 chickens. I am often asked if we are planning to eat them. When I say no, the next question is: “So, you’re not going to eat pork or chicken anymore?” I offer the following explanation: while it may seem contradictory to own pigs and chickens as pets, and still eat pork and chicken, I want my children to know what they are doing, and to understand that meat is not something that comes from a Styrofoam container at the Safeway. And if I am going to eat meat, I want to be reminded with every bite of the fact that an animal died for my dinner. It is a sacred thing and one not to be taken lightly.

And so here I reside, having made peace with my personal system of ethics, at the intersection of my contradictions — at once family man and restless troubadour, literate snob and pop culture consumer, and yes… animal advocate and lusty, unapologetic carnivore.

16 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mom
    Jun 29, 2012 @ 00:30:55

    You still sound conflicted to me.


  2. Lisa Gaskin
    Jun 29, 2012 @ 01:46:41

    Conflict is a fish 😉


  3. Michelle
    Jun 29, 2012 @ 02:07:16

    I liked the essay that won when I read it then. But I think you’re right: yours is funnier. Plus it reminds me of the famous T. Keller rabbit story, which I like very much. I remain conflicted about it all, but can assuage my conscience by only buying animals I know lived well and, as they say, had only “one bad day.”


    • scolgin
      Jun 29, 2012 @ 03:31:42

      “one bad day,” that may be the funniest thing I’ve ever read. I guess we just have to admit it’s an ethical quandary and get on with it.


      • Michelle
        Jun 29, 2012 @ 03:44:34

        Hadn’t you heard that before? It’s a Michael Pollan thing. Quoted to me often by the guy (now retired) from whom we used to buy meat.

  4. Greggie
    Jun 29, 2012 @ 02:46:50

    I wonder if Anthony Bourdain entered the contest ):


  5. Benjamin Thompson
    Jun 29, 2012 @ 14:32:52

    For me, like many, ‘Omnivore’s Dilemma’ answered my questions about the ethics of eating meat, once and for all.

    BTW, I hate vegetarians who eat fish. They’re not vegetarians. They’re pescetarians and I wish they would introduce themselves as such. Another thing, why do vegetarians and vegans always have to bring it up in conversation? I never introduce myself as an omnivore.


  6. Andy
    Jun 29, 2012 @ 18:47:16

    If life is a conflict, and conflict is a fish, then it follows that life is a fish.


  7. mijnheer
    Jun 30, 2012 @ 16:47:57

    I don’t think you’ve actually addressed the ethics of eating meat: you’ve simply pointed out that there is an issue and that you’re okay with eating meat. Your only hint at a justification seems to be that it’s “a sacred thing”. (God says it’s good to eat meat? By eating meat we have a profound spiritual connection with the universe that we could not have otherwise?)

    Thanks for the Einstein quotation. (Einstein eventually became a vegetarian.)


  8. silver account
    Jul 07, 2012 @ 13:34:49

    The most unavoidable ethical consequence of eating meat is that an animal must die to provide the meat. For some people, that consideration is sufficient to dissuade them from eating meat at all. For those who do choose to eat meat, they may wish to consider the circumstances under which an animal was raised. In most cases, if a market or restaurant does not make specific claims about the care and feeding of an animal, it may reasonably be assumed to have been raised under less than ideal conditions.


  9. Trackback: Would you? | BURGER BROADS -The BrOadHouSe

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