The New York Times parade of meat-defenses is in -- let's have a look. One of them is a defense of eating lab meat, not natural meat, so let's throw that out, no matter how well written it is. I also happen to know who the author is, and she's actively seeking votes. I think that's a no-no in a contest like this. The idea is to find out which of the six essays appeals most to Times readers, not who has the most friends and supporters.
Then there are essays that make some use of philosophy - perhaps written by philosophers. For What Shall We Be Blamed -- and Why? grants that not eating animals is morally ideal, but says all evils don't have "equal claim to our energies." Inevitably, we'll do some bad things ("the moral world is tragic") and we need to avoid the worst things first. So when many things are vying for attention, we may make avoiding meat-eating less than our first priority. A single mother with two jobs and three kids may serve her kids chicken instead of trying to figure out how to make lentil stew. A young vegetarian may eat the roast beef his mother prepared when he goes home for a family visit. I hope the judges don't pick this essay, because it gives people a pass to eat meat in pretty rare circumstances. What's wanted is a more general, frequently applicable defense.
Meat is Ethical. Meat is Bad. makes use of philosophy too, but I think not well. The author says there's a difference between harming someone by making her worse off during some time period and "making her worse off in some way in her life considered as a whole." The author then says "It is only by harming someone in this second way that something can count as bad." But this is seriously nonsensical, so we don't need to bother with the paragraph that comes next--on why we should think animals can't be harmed in the second way. Obviously you can
More philosophy. Sometimes It's More Ethical to Eat Meat Than Vegetables. turns on a principle from Aldo Leopold's land ethic: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." On that basis, the author thinks it's sometimes going to be right (in fact, obligatory) to eat meat, but often wrong. "A well-managed, free-ranged cow is able to turn the sunlight captured by plants into condensed calories and protein with the aid of the microorganisms in its gut. Sun > diverse plants > cow > human." So--you can treat individuals any way you like, so long as you aren't haring the "biotic community." This will make no sense to people who take animals seriously as individuals--like most people do, when it comes to their dogs and cats. So I think this fails to make an effective defense of meat-eating.
And now let's talk about the two manure essays. I think one of these is going to win. This is the Deal We've Made is nice and straightforward. The author says "the domestication of animals and the cultivation of vegetables go hand in hand." You have to enrich the soil to grow vegetables, and animal manure plays a crucial role. Then there's an argument about "the deal" we've made --"we humans create an environment in which the plant or animal can thrive, we encourage reproduction and, in exchange, we harvest a portion of the crop." The author wisely points out that we have to live up to our end of the deal. "It's not enough to simply ensure the safety and survival of my animals. As fellow sentient creatures with whom I am engaged in a partnership, I have a responsibility to show both respect and benevolence, in life and death." So: no factory farming allowed, but it's ethically defensible to eat meat from well-treated animals. If you're eating vegetables grown in manure, your diet depends on meat-eating, even if you don't eat meat. So how could a vegetarian diet be any more ethically defensible than a meat diet? I think this is a good question.
We Require Balance. Balance Requires Meat. makes some manure points too, but I prefer "This is the Deal" for two reasons. One is that the "deal" talk is essentially ethical, so the "deal" author does a better job of making an ethical case for eating meat. The other problem is that in the "Balance" essay focuses explicitly on organic farming, whereas the "Deal" argument centers on any plant farming that uses manure at all. The "Balance" reasoning is: we must confine ourselves to organic farming; organic farming requires manure; manure comes from the animals we eat. I don't think we can really feed 7 billion people with organic-only farming, because the yields per acre are too low. So this defense of meat eating rests on an unstable foundation.
So: "This is the Deal" gets my vote. But here's the question I'm left with. What percentage of plant farming involves animal products as fertilizer? What would manure-free conventional agriculture be like? (Let's not add the restriction "organic" -- as I said above, I don't believe the world can go all-organic.) Could we work toward a world in which plant farmers don't depend at all on animal agriculture? Would a future like that be viable? If plant agriculture not only does depend on animal agriculture, but must depend on animal agriculture, then I think "This is the Deal" makes a pretty formidable argument.
So: which essay did you like best?
p.s. Some people don't care for this contest, but I do. Most people who think about meat eating a great deal are against it, particularly people who write about it (as journalists or philosophers), so it's interesting to have an airing of possible defenses. It's also useful to have the winnowing of defenses done by people like Peter Singer and Michael Pollan. This raises the level of discussion, eliminating defenses that are flat-out speciesist, or wrapped up in hopelessly unimpressive ideas about human privilege. None of the final six essays say anything like "Humans are rational and self-aware; so they have rights and animals don't; so animals are on the menu. " Thank God! With long and careful thought, most people will ultimately not find that sort of thing to be a convincing or satisfying defense of meat-eating. I think the final six essays do include some of the thoughts that stand the best chance of surviving careful reflection about the ethics of meat.