There’s an article in The Atlantic written by two ex-vegetarians and one who is still a vegetarian but supports other people’s decision to eat meat. However I find their arguments that vegetarianism is not the best way to a healthy, ethical, and ecologically sound diet unconvincing.
The strangest of the three here is Nicolette as she still maintains her vegetarianism, strengthened during her early years as an ecological lawyer, but supports meat consumption after seeing well-run pasture and sustainable farms.
Animals can increase soil fertility, contribute to pest and weed control, and convert vegetation that’s inedible to humans, and growing on marginal, uncultivated land, into food. And as I visited dozens of traditional, pasture-based farms, and came to know the farmers and ranchers, I saw impressive environmental stewardship and farm animals leading good lives.
It sounds very nice, and from an environmental standpoint it is, but it actually misses out on the real ethical questions. The increase in soil fertility and pest and weed control are achieved while animals are alive but the last one is where it conflicts with vegetarianism and becomes problematic ethically. Animals are being used to convert this plant matter into food and are then killed for it. Killing is, without question, a harmful act and one which we cannot thoughtlessly commit on any being which deserves ethical consideration. Farm animals are sentient, being able to feel and have desires, and perhaps even empathy, so therefore we must treat them ethically. It is no good to say, “we treated the animal well so it’s fine for us to treat it badly later.”
The second person to weigh in presents an even bigger switch, going from vegan to hunter, over what is actually very poor reasoning.
From habitat destruction to combines that inadvertently mince rabbits to the shooting of deer in farm fields, crop production is far from harmless. Even in our own organic garden, my wife and I were battling ravenous insects and fence-defying woodchucks.
He is absolutely correct that crop production is not harmless. Everything we do comes at a cost of something else, even if that something is as abstract as time we could have spent doing something else. However just because something has costs doesn’t mean that you should just give up. One must look at crop production in comparison with other methods of food production. So yes, maybe rabbits might get killed inadvertently but that is better than killing them deliberately and, as a whole, crop production is less harmful than meat production, which necessitates deliberate killing.
The flawed reasoning of something not being perfect and so not worth trying is best seen when you consider it in a different context. We are too used to the idea of eating meat as normal that we accept it almost without question but in this case what is really being said is the same kind of reasoning as this.
“Even with seatbelts, speed limits and air bags people are killed in car crashes every day. My sister had all of those features in her car but when she crashed she died.”
Here you can more clearly see that someone has missed the point. Something may not be perfect but it can still be better than the alternative. People still die in car crashes even with safety features but they are less likely to die than without those safety features. In the same manner crop farming can cause harm but it causes less harm than meat farming.
The third testimony is very similar to the first and, again, ignores the ethical problem of killing unnecessarily.
Once I saw how the meat we were selling had been raised, and met the farmers who were striving to raise animals sustainably and ethically, I overcame my aversion to consuming meat. I realized I didn’t have a problem with meat. I had a problem with the inhumane practices of the commercial meat industry.
The article then moves away from their personal experiences to a more general view, criticising the idea that a vegan diet is necessarily more healthy. Veganism is a rather extreme position where you don’t consume even animal products such as eggs and milk. I don’t think there’s a real ethical reason for veganism as egg and milk production does not have to be harmful to the animal. If you don’t follow a vegan diet and instead merely abstain from meat a lot of their health criticism falls away as you are now getting some animal-source food.
As any attentive observer of nature knows, life feeds on life. Every living thing, from mammals, birds, and fish to plants, fungi, and bacteria, eats other living things. Humans are part of the food web; but for the artifices of cremation and tightly sealed caskets, all of us would eventually be recycled into other life forms. It is natural for people, like other omnivores, to participate in this web by eating animals. And it is ethically defensible — provided we refrain from causing gratuitous suffering.
This is the appeal to nature. Just because something is natural does not mean that it is good or should be encouraged. There are any number of natural things that we try to stop, death from childbirth, diseases and killing to name just a few. What we consider good must be justified in our system of ethics, not by seeking to emulate the rest of the natural world or follow our instincts.
The point that is being missed is that a meat-containing diet is always gratuitous suffering. Animals suffer and die for us to have meat, there is no way to prevent it even if we can lessen it. But that meat is completely unnecessary and so all suffering caused by our desire for it is, by definition, gratuitous. As they note at the beginning of the article they have lived a combined 52 years on either a vegetarian or vegan diet, a length that could not have been attained had meat been a necessary element of our diet.
Whether eating meat has some health benefits or can be done in an environmentally sound way is unimportant as long as it is unethical. Killing gently is still killing and there is nothing in the article that has convinced me that animals do not deserve ethical treatment or that there is need to eat them or that any of the benefits of meat in the diet outweigh the ethical costs of that meat’s production.