The Case for Meat

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 harm do something bad to someone, even if the harm badness doesn't mar her life as a whole.  No reasonable person thinks that smacks, lies, thefts, broken promises, etc., when delivered to humans, only harm are only bad when they harm the victim's life as a whole.  The author goes on to say meat is bad, but only because it horrifies us to think of the animal we killed.  We shouldn't feel horrified (because we don't really harm do anything bad to animals), but we do. "And until we cease to be so we will have a powerful self-interested reason to not eat meat."  A strange conclusion to end with for someone trying to defend eating meat. If the judges pick this essay, I'll eat my hat. [corrections thanks to "anonymous"]

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.


hmetz said...

Have you heard of the Haber process? We don't need animal manure for fertilizer. Most nitrogenous fertilizer is already produced by the Haber process, and it's been estimated that half the the nitrogen in our bodies comes from Haber. The animal shit produced by factory farms does not help us -- quite the opposite. According to Jonathan Safran Foer ("Eating Animals"), animal waste is probably the biggest environmental menance in the country. For example, pork producer Smithfield (one company!) racks up an astounding 7,000 violations of the Clean Water Act a year. And one Smithfield manure cesspool spill (1995) was twice as big as Exxon Valdez.

Jean Kazez said...

Sure, conventional plant agriculture uses chemical fertilizer. But what if it used nothing but chemical fertilizer--no manure, no fish meal, no ... whatever. Is that perfectly feasible and no problem at all, or would there be problems? I don't know enough about plant farming to answer this question.

hmetz said...

I'm not a farmer either... but I'm pretty sure that nearly all conventional farming is already done without the help of animal manure. If this is the leading argument in favor of eating animals, I would like to see some rigorous fact-checking.

Anonymous said...

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.

But, even if it does require manure that surely doesn't show that raising animals and killing them for food (i.e. at an optimal time for tastiness) is ideal and likely not justified either. Sure the economics would change a bit, but I can't see any reason that "no-kill manure operations" would be so onerous that this wouldn't be the best option if we need manure for growing vegetables. Perhaps the Hindi relationship with cows would become the model of animal husbandry.

I once worked in an animal shelter that kept a stray dog for blood transfusions. Although it might not meet Francione-like strictures, it seems to me that it is possible to have respectful relationships with animals who are "used" in this way. But, it seems difficult to me at least to see how killing the animal for food could fit in a respectful relationship.

So, I have to say that although there are a couple of interesting ethical considerations in these essays, overall the fake meat is the only one that offers an adequate defense of some form of meat eating.

Aeolus said...

Here's the deal: there is no deal. We impose conditions on already-domesticated animals, and they try to make the best of it. They don't get a choice. The idea that there is some mutual agreement is a convenient myth that we use to comfort ourselves. That's the prime function of any ideology: not, in the first place, something the dominant group uses to pull the wool (or polyester or whatever) over the eyes of the exploited, but to pull the wool over their own eyes in order to justify to themselves their practices.

With that little rant out of the way, I will say that the "Argument from Manure" (if I may coin a phrase with your help) is something to take seriously -- to see whether it flies, or merely contains flies.

Anonymous said...

Jean, I agree with you that the manure ones were pretty good. I definitely think one of them will win. But I think you've misunderstood the second entry. You say: "Obviously you can harm someone, even if the harm doesn't mar her life as a whole. No reasonable person thinks that smacks, lies, thefts, broken promises, etc., when delivered to humans, only harm when they harm the victim's life as a whole." But the author of that entry clearly agrees that such things harm individuals -- they harm them (at least) at a time. The point is that such harms count as bad only if they ALSO reduce their subject's LIFETIME well-being. Some of these might, others might not, depending on the circumstances. What do you think?

Jean Kazez said...

Anonymous--You're right, I didn't explain that well. But even with the clarification, I don't find the idea plausible It's bad to scream at your kids, whether or not it's bad for their lives as a whole. It's bad for me to grade a paper unfairly, even if the student never finds out I did so, and it has no impact on their life as a whole. I would say it's actually quite rare for it to be important how a harm affects someone's life as a whole. The "as a whole" standard does come into play sometimes, but not frequently.

Faust said...

"Humans are rational and self-aware; so they have rights and animals don't; so animals are on the menu."

You disparage this view above, but isn't this the "capacities" view that you give at least a partial nod to in your book?

Wayne said...

I'm not sure if this "deal" argument works. I might make individual deals with individual animals, but surely, I'm not making a deal with the entire species. And no part of this deal involves them necessarily reproducing. We selectively breed for a reason.

So if I don't breed anymore animals, I'm not continuing placing myself in this deal. We choose to continue this deal every time we breed animals.

And manure isn't a necessary ingredient to farming. Plenty of nitrogen fixing bacteria is produced from composting of plant parts that we don't utilize. Like others have said, we also use chemical fertilizers. But if we were more efficient with our food waste and turned it all into compost, we could probably support organic farming fine. (Just a guess, no factual support here.)

Martin said...

The mannure argument seems like a nonstarter.

First, no facts are presented to support the premise that animal manure is necessary for robust human plant food production.

Second, even if animal manure was necessary, it is not necessary to kill and eat animals to get manure. It may be more expensive to have manure production where the workers aren't killed and eaten but a desire to save some money does not justify killing and eating someone.