Had I seen that it was in the “Ethicist” column, I would have skipped over the announcement in The New York Times Magazine; the ethical issues raised in that column are typically less interesting than the ones raised in “Dear Abby,” or, for that matter, in “Savage Love.” But the headline had already caught my eye: “Defending your dinner.” The columnist claimed that while it was easy to find ethical arguments against eating meat, it was difficult to find ethical arguments in favor of eating meat. And so the columnist was soliciting such arguments from the readers.
From my perspective, there is an obvious argument stating why it is ethical to eat meat — or at least, why it is just as ethical to eat meat as it is to eat any organism. So I quickly wrote up a brief outline of that argument and sent it off, where it will no doubt be lost among the deluge of such arguments submitted by other overzealous readers of The New York Times Magazine. Rather than waste my efforts, I figured I’d share my argument with you here on this blog:
If we say we’re not going to kill animals to eat, we have to look at where we draw the line in our killing. If there’s an aphid on your broccoli and you eat it by mistake, is that OK? Most Americans would say that’s OK, but some Jains would say no. And if it’s not OK to raise animals to eat, is it OK to kill an animal that’s eating your garden? Henry Thoreau, a committed vegetarian, killed the woodchuck who ate his beans, then felt bad about it afterwards. Modern agriculture kills animals through habitat destruction, monoculture, release of pesticides and fertilizer into the ecosystem, etc., all of which kills animals — is it OK to kill those animals in order that we have vegetables to eat? In other words, should today’s vegetarians, like Henry Thoreau, feel bad that the agriculture they depend upon kills animals?
This can lead us to consider the ethics of eating animals, not in terms of individual rights of animals, but in terms of the total health of the ecosystem. When we start using an ecosystems approach, we find that significant damage is done to animals and other organisms through the use of fossil fuels in growing and transporting agricultural products, through the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and further that agricultural monocultures change the landscape in such a way that many animals can no longer live. From an ethical perspective that considers total ecosystems, growing vegetables using typical agricultural methods can conceivably kill larger number of animals, or a greater biomass of animals, than a CAFO (Confined Animal Feedlot Operation); that is, if one considers all animals, vertebrates and invertebrates, that could be maintained if that land were not in a monoculture crop.
Using an ethics that considers whole ecosystems can help us understand that it’s possible for humans to manipulate ecosystems to allow maximal health for other organisms while raising food for our species. In ecosystems with a long winter (Alaska, say), this might mean that humans would do less damage by eating some locally-raised animals than transporting the majority of foodstuffs from far away. In areas where plants can be grown all year round, eating some animal flesh still could be ethical, using an ecosystems perspective: rather than monocultures, humans could raise food in a mixed-species ecosystem where, e.g., chickens control insects on vegetable crops, their feces fertilizes the soil, and extra roosters are eaten in order to maintain the overall health of the flock.
An ecosystems approach to the ethics of eating leads us to ask different questions than an individual rights approach to the ethics of eating animals. Instead of asking whether the rights of individual organisms are being violated, we tend to ask questions about the overall health of the ecosystem. Rather than questioning whether human rights should be extended to which other organisms, thus separating out those chosen organisms from the rest of the ecosystem, the ecosystems approach tends to consider humans as an integral part of the ecosystem. In Western culture, humans have been considered separate from animals and therefore privileged; the individual rights approach extends human rights to certain other species; while the ecosystems approach would imply that no species is truly separate.
This brief description can’t go into all the interesting philosophical and theological implications of a systems approach to the ethics of eating. But it should be said that the individual rights approach to the ethics of eating is much more compatible with American individualism, albeit more destructive of the ecosystem, than the systems approach.
I added the following postscript to the email message I sent off to The New York Times Magazine:
I can’t resist adding that any discussion of eating animals should probably take into account contemporary taxonomy. Are “animals” the same as the Kingdom Animalia? If so, should we not also consider the ethics of eating the three other kingdoms humans usually eat from, viz., Plantae, Fungi, and Bacteria (in, e.g., yogurt)? Shouldn’t we pay attention to the fact that a simple binary distinction between “plants” and “animals” doesn’t correspond with how contemporary taxonomy understands living organisms? We might well ask: Why is it OK to eat from one taxon, but not from another? (Good old Heraclitus had it right in fragment DK B35.)
As always, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. But do remember that this is a very emotional issue for some folks, so let’s all try to be polite to one another. (Now please excuse me as I duck down behind this stone wall, just in case people start throwing things at me….)