Is It Ethical to Eat Meat?
by Ashit Sarkar – Entry sent in response to NYT Magazine Contest
Needless to state that my article did not even make it to the 'short list'!
You may click here to see the Short List selected by NYT
Published in The Flaneur subsequently
Hungry - foodies? Looking for something good to eat?
o What choices are available?
o What do I enjoy or prefer eating? Is it tasty?
o Am I adventurous to try something different?
o Is it affordable and satisfying?
Normally, just the answers will determine what to eat. Eating habits, medical restrictions and social/religious practice/belief will always be relevant, and could be overriding for some, and may even be the decider. Ethical aspects of the food origin, or how or why it reached the table, are generally unlikely to be given much serious thought, but there will surely be some who will question 'eating meat (or fish/eggs etc)' with varying levels of intensity, and the issue of taking life for this purpose, or how the livestock was cared. Whether these views are mild preferences as 'likes' and 'dislikes', or be questioned from the ethical view point is itself debatable for some!
What is ethics? Wikipedia explains➀: “It is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior…. From a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right action is one that produces a good outcome, or consequence… Pragmatic ethics holds that moral correctness evolves similarly to scientific knowledge: socially over the course of many lifetimes. Thus, we should prioritize social reform over attempts to account for consequences….”
At a fundamental level, it is the method by which we categorize values to answer logically, "What is right or wrong?”
Human reasoning is complex - varying viewpoints are often equally valid. The philosophy of ethics has changed with time, and unlike mathematics is not absolute. Most pragmatic ethical conclusions vary for different persons with uncertain results depending on prioritizing. Many vegans and vegetarians do so due to sheer custom; avoiding going against traditions; and, only some due to convictions. Choice is mostly influenced by personal social/religious beliefs/practices. Taste remains important to most. Ethical consideration about food source is limited, not many will anyway observe such conclusions strongly for their food! Some may experiment. Vegans (only 0.3% in UK & 1.0% in USA➁) remain firmly convinced about “not eating animal flesh” as a paramount principle for various valid reasons. An interesting article "Vegetarian or omnivore: The environmental implications of diet" by Tamar Haspel in Washington Post discusses the greenhouse effect and impact, and may be relevant for many concerned with the carbon emission perspective. All such convictions may be respected, but not debated excessively, and majority others should not be forced to conform. It may be argued that even plants have life➂; similar logic should make them uneatable, as also breathing from atmosphere with living cells!
Every organism needs to obtain energy in order to live. Some animals eat plants, and some animals eat other animals. From time immemorial, food chain is the sequence of who eats whom in a biological community to obtain nutrition➃ in order to survive. Many didn’t. No ethical principle is involved, but was an essential rule for survival. For humans, fishing and hunting became necessary - whilst for sport or collecting trophies may be deemed to be wasteful and unethical.
Evolution of food for humans➄ started initially with agricultural products from around 10,000BC. With domestication of sheep and cattle, milk, meat/beef, breads, eggs or fish became human foods by 4000BC. For thousand of years the evolving human race had eaten its food raw, before developing cooking - starting with roasting over an open fire, and boiling. From ancient times, all parts of slaughtered animals including blood was consumed in sausages, puddings and soups on the mythological notion that blood contained life force and soul. Other than fruits and some plants, all major domesticated plant foods like wheat, barley, rice, millet, rye or potatoes required cooking for human consumption➅. In medieval times inns, taverns, monasteries and hostelries served food. Food historians have traced the earliest written Mesopotamian recipes to 2000BC➆.
From very limited choice of eating whatever you could get locally or easily, with progressive civilization humans have now much greater choice, especially as tasty recipes have been developed worldwide, and comparative benefits of different foods have been researched. Fish, Meat & Eggs occupy significant ranking in both, and many delicacies have resulted, similar to the excellent vegetarian cuisine, with the use of herbs, spices and cooking techniques and skills. Modern cold storage, refrigeration, packaging etc. have enabled storage and extended their quality or shelf life substantially, and also distribution to every nook and corner of the world. Other than rather narrow-minded interpretation for some, ethics has little space on decisions on food choice for most. Each may exercise their choice for whatever may be their logical interpretation, without debating excessively on ethical issues, imagined or otherwise - just relish and enjoy whatever you eat, or choose to eat!
To conclude, ethical reasons involve only minor number of vegans, whose choice may be respected, as should equally be for the greater majority of non-vegetarian meat eaters. Don’t let the tail wag the dog!
➀ Ethics – Wikipedia Definition: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethics
➁ Vegan Statistics: http://www.imaner.net/panel/statistics.htm#reveal
Washington Post Article by Tamar Haspel: "Vegetarian or omnivore: The environmental implications of diet"
➃ Food Chains: http://www.enchantedlearning.com/subjects/foodchain/
➄ Food Timeline by Lynne Olver, reference librarian: http://www.foodtimeline.org/
➅ Cambridge World History of Food (2000) Page 1571 – Edited by Kenneth F Kimble & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas: http://www.cambridge.org/us/books/kiple/default.htm
➆ Mesopotamian recipes: http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodfaq3.html#mesopotamia