There Is No Moral Case for Meat

The non-profit environmental magazine Grist is doing a month-long feature on the future of meat. Monday's piece considers the morality of meat. There's not nearly the same sort of sophistry in the piece I've come to expect from foodie writing. Nonetheless, it merited a reply.

In Monday's piece, Nathanael Johnson argues that "we should strive to do better by animals, but that doesn’t mean we should condemn ourselves for eating meat." We should treat vegetarianism "the way religious traditions treat virtues" - as something to strive for but not to condemn ourselves for failing. Interestingly, this proposal by philosopher Paul Thompson fails by the philosopher's own standard that we "should also be prepared to apply it to humans." Would we be okay treating cannibalism in this way? No, because we know that eating someone is such a bad, easily avoidable harm that committing it is reprehensible. If this is Jesus-level sacrifice, as the the piece suggests, then our population is at least 2% Jesus.

The arguments that the piece essentially admits are irrefutable - from Singer to Scully - do not just argue that vegetarianism is nice. They argue that eating animals should be condemned, and their arguments are, as the author more or less admits, correct. So if you want to lump vegetarianism into the category of nice but not morally required things (the official term is supererogatory), you have to say where those arguments go wrong. This is not some philosophical pipe dream - there are real lives at stake here - such as the resilient, affectionate, and elegant hen who died yesterday of complications from having been bred for food.

The problem is perhaps a motivational one - it's just hard to give up the taste even if it's wrong. This I must say I find deeply troubling as a gay man who can remember countless times in my childhood that people expressed blatant homophobia, as is common, on the basis of thinly rationalized disgust, an emotion that shares a psychological and linguistic kinship with taste.

The piece concludes, bizarrely, that the "the black and white strategy hasn’t gotten many people to become vegan." Our culture is replete with articles calling for better treatment of farmed animals, improved welfare, and modified farming facilities. Animal welfare, not animal rights, is the prevailing dogma. It's rather odd to conclude that the black-and-white approach has failed, when it has barely even been tried.

(Besides, there is far more to a strategy than its message - there is also the delivery, which has thus far not included the strong grassroots work that has carried the day for past movements. The issue extends beyond the content of the message.)

In announcing this special journal series, Grist announced that "We're asking the tough questions on meat." That may be the case, but, like many environmentalists, they do not appear prepared to offer the tough answers. There is one tough question they have not asked: why is it okay to kill someone who does not want to die?


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