Today, the typical American diet consists of eating meat at least three times a day. It is because of this seemingly insignificant dietary choice that the environment suffers, the rest of the world suffers, and our health suffers. Clearly, it seems, something has to be done, but what should the solution be? Should Americans stop eating meat altogether? As I wade through the fat of this debate I do so as a conscientious omnivore. This writing represents my honest efforts to look into the situation with ethical considerations, but it is merely a first step towards an ongoing process. At this point, I find the act of eating meat less objectionable than the methods by which we obtain it and the quantities we consume. This essay is not a call for vegetarianism nor a volley against it. It is a small movement toward being a more responsible consumer and a more ethical human being on this planet.
Part 1: To Meat, or Not To Meat?
Is it ethically wrong to eat meat? I tend not to think so. If the act of eating meat, of chewing and swallowing the flesh of a dead animal, were wrong, it seems that it would follow from the argument that life has inherent value. However, as I see it, life does not have inherent value, either human or nonhuman. Or at least, it is not treated as if it did. Humans often find life’s value compromised and even rightfully ended for various occasions, such as in the act of self-defense or war, or even “pulling the plug” on an irreparably comatose loved one. The value of life is relative, dependent on one’s capacity to enjoy it.
Also, other animals eat meat. They kill and consume flesh as part of the natural order. Many species cannot survive without it. Of course, this does not in turn give humans the free rein to do likewise. Our physical composition is obviously designed for the consumption of meat, but also for vegetation. Nevertheless, our incisors evolved for tearing flesh from the bone. We have evolved and survived with the eating of meat, especially in cold regions where vegetation is low. Even so, people from warmer climates obviously share the same basic make-up for meat consumption. Killing and eating meat are both part of the human character, it appears. We are omnivores by nature.
So, is nature ethical? Can nature be wrong? We owe our very lives to this system. Everything that makes us human, as fallible as it may be, is a direct result of the evolutionary process. We are but stardust, subject to nature’s whim. Then again, maybe not. We have, in many instances, believed it better, or at least beneficial, to suppress and control many of our natural urges. For the betterment of society and ourselves (or for plain old etiquette), we have deliberately changed. The strength of a person’s character is often judged, after all, by how well he or she is able to control his or her natural urges. Such control can even be a reason for veneration in some instances. However, these suppressions of our natural impulses have throughout our history nearly always been reserved for relations between humans. Nonhumans did not, until relatively recently, warrant much consideration.
Nature is not subject to ethical restrictions. We do not judge the eagle for eating the mouse. Nature is simply the way things are, regardless if we agree with it or not. Omnivorism, humanity’s natural state, can be accepted within this viewpoint. That does not mean that we act unthinkingly and without feeling. Humans are capable of eating an animal, and yet still sympathize with it. Nevertheless, we need not suffer ethical qualms over the eating of meat as an act in itself. We can be realists and recognize that death is a part of life. Just as we can create and nurture life, so can we destroy and sacrifice it, as is our natural right as animals on this planet. We participate in the system, bringing life and shedding blood.
Even if it can be argued that some animals somehow have a right not to be killed (and this is justly so for various reasons), we still do not have to refrain from eating them unless those animals have a right not to be eaten. We can respect the animal, and yet still fulfill our right to use its body as sustenance. Indeed, nature has clearly made a distinction between prey and predator. Meat eating can even be seen as a spiritual act, if one wishes to take it that far. Though some would find spiritual fulfillment through harmony and ensuring the lives of animals, which is noble and reasonable, it may be no less noble to be the animals we are, and kill a nonhuman for a human’s sake. Native American cultures (among others) seem to epitomize this. For them, the animal was a subject of worship, and their meat sacred. Eating meat can also be a confrontation with mortality. By killing an animal and digesting it, one cannot pretend that an end to life does not exist. It may help us accept our own fate in the natural order, as we will feed nature with our bodies (though admittedly many preferred American burial practices negate that). The act could bring us closer to the human animals we were, and not the packaged, benignly brutal imitation we have become. The butcher could thank the creature for its flesh, and honor it. It is not speciesist to kill and eat another animal, but an acceptance that we live on a horizontal scale with other creatures, and we are subject to each other’s hunger and needs. This is all well and good, however, hard lessons are learned when those scales begin to tip too greatly. It seems that something in American society and its relation to meat has gone terribly wrong.
Part 2: Meat in America
Though humans are animals, and influenced by natural impulses, we are also blessed (or burdened) with intelligence. This includes a conscience and the seemingly unending capacity for sympathy, pity, and compassion. This leaves us with ethical obligations, as our own emotions, bodies, and minds lead us to feel the suffering of animals, and even their fears. For most of man’s history, this has been compensated by the lives the animals lived before they were slaughtered for meat. We have been able to take part in our natural right of being omnivorous because we have obliged their natural right to a fulfilled life, devoid of unnecessary fears and suffering.
Firstly, there is hunting: humanity’s oldest way of killing animals for their meat. This has survived even today as a prized and ritualized endeavor. Mankind goes out into the animal’s natural habitat, where it has been able to live free in the wild, and takes it from there. Usually only one or two carcasses come back with the hunters on such excursions. Up until the time when the arrow or bullet entered the nonhuman, its life was fulfilled according to its nature. The hunter also has an intimate relation by not only being its killer, but also the one with the task of butchering the animal and eating it. In this case we could also apply a sort of holistic omnivorism, where it would not be the animal that meat-eater revered, but nature. This is not meant to include trophy hunting or any other type of hunting where one does not intend to eat the animal (and especially not something like canned hunting, where exotic animals are put in small enclosures and hunters pay to shoot them). This is neglects the considerations of the animal and treats it only as a commodity. Man’s predatory rights to kill and eat other animals are based on the actions of other natural predators. As was said, predatory nonhumans kill only for sustenance (leaving out actions like that of the housecat playing with a dead mouse, for domesticity has affected its natural hunting instincts). Therefore, humans hunt ethically when the animal is to be consumed. Hunting for trophies goes against this principle, and therefore the argument of predatory right is refused.
Secondly, there is traditional farming, as it has been done for millenia. A family would raise the cows, chickens, pigs, sheep, goats, and horses, among other animals, on their land. They would feed the animals, let them run through the farm, assist in their births, and care for their shelters. A great deal of love and devotion was involved in the farms of yesteryear. Nevertheless, the animals were still slaughtered and eaten, but usually after they had lived a full life with their own kind, protected from danger by their own human predators, and most of all, respected (there are, of course, exceptions). Sometimes the animals eaten were even named, perhaps in recognition of their individuality. The animals were not just food, but a way of life, and a way to survive (not only with their meat) as they often provided a source of income with milk or manure or other animal-born resources. This last part shows also that the farmers depended on their animals in different ways. For example, the cows’ manure helped the crops grow (so it was in the farmer’s best interest to not eat them all or let them suffer and grow ill). Daily on the farms, cows would be seen grazing in the fields, chickens running around one’s feet, looking for feed, and pigs happily lounging in the mud, trying to stay cool on a hot, lazy day. This is an overtly picturesque portrayal, but it is not far from the mark.
A century ago, Americans were generally much healthier with regard to their diets. The foods that people consumed were fitting enough to their biological needs. It was mostly a diet of grains and bread, and a lot of potatoes. Meat was a luxury for most people, sometimes eaten on Sundays, and sometimes even less often. It was an event to eat flesh, for it was expensive. Therefore, people appreciated each bite, savoring the taste and not being able to overlook the dead animal on their plates. Traditionally, meat was a food only the wealthy could afford to partake in each night. Meat was therefore a symbol of wealth and a luxury for the privileged class.
Success and social mobility have always been staples of the American spirit, and so as the economy improved and the middle-class grew richer, average Americans began seeking the foods that the wealthy ate to show their new status. Being the die-hard capitalist nation that we are, people began to find new methods of obtaining the huge amounts of meat that the public demanded. This is also a continuous trend in America: when people wanted more cars, Henry Ford built a factory assembly line to accommodate them, building cars more cheaply and quickly, and so on. The big fish began swallowing the little fish in the dog-eat-dog world of economics. The nation grew and moved faster, and the small businesses and farms gradually became memories of a bygone era, save a few. Nevertheless, the consumption of meat skyrocketed year after year, as did American belt sizes. Meat equaled success! With the small farms and homesteads fading, where was this sudden abundance the meat coming from? Meat that every American could afford and have on their dinner plate, or could bring home in their take-out bags from the drive-thru. Meat that danced in the form of a big, happy cheeseburger on their television screens, pleading for them to spend their well-earned dollars to eat him, because he tasted so good and they deserved it!
The truth is appalling and sad, and makes good intentioned omnivores ashamed. Those contented animals that roamed the farms, which were even sometimes named by the family that owned them, have become anonymous victims of the most abhorrent representative of the capitalist spirit: the factory farms. These hells are not the subject for children’s books. Instead of chickens running at our feet, the are cramped in dark cages until they die or are pushed down disassembly lines; instead of cows grazing in fields, they are corralled into small enclosures where they never leave and eat poisons until they are butchered; and the lazy pigs who lounged in the mud are stuck in tight pens, where they can’t move, and then shoved off to the butchering room. Our farm animals are now victims of sorrow and insanity. No figures or stories are needed to prove that these are immoral, horrible institutions. No respect for the animal can be found here. No freedoms of any kind are allowed for these animals. Our killing them and eating them in this manner cannot, in truth, be justified. Although their life is so devalued due to the existence they are submitted to, we have a conscious and moral obligation, with our intelligence and ability to feel sympathy, to end these atrocities. Ford’s model has become a machine of killing, not of assembly. We have violated our natural right to be predators.
Part 3: Change
With three meals a day of meats, and a plethora of other food sources out there, we have greatly moved beyond the stipulations of what evolution and nature intended in our predatory rights. War may sometimes be justified, like in ending Nazi terror in WWII, but no excuse can be made for Hitler’s death camps. Likewise, our killing another animal for food, whether crucial to our survival or not, is justified, but not by creating death camps of our own. Even those who work in such facilities have shown psychological damage and a depletion of moral understanding. The danger of the work environment, the cries of animals, the smell of death, sloshing and slipping in blood — it is no wonder such conditions imbalance people. They must intentionally devalue the animal before putting it through (or out of) its tortured misery. It is a far cry from Old McDonald’s Farm to the golden arches of McDonald’s restaurant, and a direct contradiction to how it should be.
This system, aside from the inherent ethical violations it clearly has, has given America new problems to worry about. The ridiculous amounts of meat we consume each day has taken its toll on our health, environment, and moral responsibility to the rest of the world. Here is the obvious chain of effect and cause: heart disease is the number one cause of death in the country, and eating meating is one of the leading causes. Clearly, our luxurious diet is slowly killing us. It has also caused obesity to rise, making us the fattest nation in the world. Not to mention the hormones and genetic alterations now found in factory farm meat. We have pushed aside our grains, fruits and vegetables, and substituted them for a food that was meant to only be a small part of our diet, and we are paying the price. We owe it to ourselves to stop this self-destructive pattern.
The environment is paying the price as well. Precious forests all around the world are cut down each day to make more room for profitable cattle, sold to industrious nations like America and those in Europe. Irreplaceable water resources are drained to irrigate land for cattle feed, and the manure from factory farms pollute remaining fresh water supplies. Driving through the Midwest, one cannot help but find miles upon miles of crop fields, an ocean of golden wheat, soy, and corn as far as the eye can see. Surprisingly, only 27 percent of that grain ever reaches humans; 67 percent goes to feeding livestock. To be fair, most crops from livestock feed are inedible to humans. Nevertheless, it is costly in the extreme to our natural resources to feed cattle, especially. This has had devastating effects on the world. For instance, the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest aquifers, has seen rapid depletion, mostly due to water irrigation for farms. Farms that mostly grow crops for livestock feed. As countries such as China and India continue to grow and consume more meat and animal products, more strains will be placed upon the world’s resources. By reducing consumption of, and therefore demand for, meat, such strains would be alleviated. The methane in cow farts is even hurting our atmosphere. The last one should definitely be a sign that something has gone horribly wrong. We owe it to our fellow humans throughout the world to stop this pattern.
Clearly, as conscientious and philosophical omnivores, there is no way to ethically justify factory farms nor the insatiable appetite for meat that they support. The way in which we obtain the meat spoils it on all grounds with regard to its moral consumption. So how do we stop it? What horrid sacrifices must we make so that our health, environment, and worldly brethren may be happier? The answer appears simple enough: eat less meat. As has been considered, eating meat is not immoral under better circumstances, and so does not have to be completely done away with. America need not become vegetarian (although that would not exactly make the problem worse). If Americans cut their meat intake down to half, so much would improve. Consider it. Our diets would greatly improve as more grains, vegetables, and fruits were eaten, and therefore heart disease and obesity would decrease naturally. We would use half the fresh water supply that we do now, and we would not even need to cut down forests to make room for more livestock, as what we now have should be more than adequate.
Factory farms, hopefully, would no longer be needed. But if they did exist in some form, there would be half the cows grazing in feedlots, pigs could have areas twice as large to move around in, and there would be half the chickens in a cage, giving them more room to move and spread their wings. Although this is not the utopian solution we would all like, it is practical, beneficial to humans and to nonhumans, and most importantly, easily accomplished. I am not so naive as to discount other factors, but there nevertheless remains room for substantial improvement.
Eating meat in today’s America is wrong with regard to the factory farms producing it or the industries supporting them. If one is to eat meat, as one ethically can, it should be seldom and in small quantities. One should look for meat that is acquired ethically and which comes from an industry that respects and supports the health, both physical and mental, of its animals.
As a final note, I do not claim to be perfect. This is not a treatise. It is not a manifesto. It is one person’s journey through the ethical pitfalls and landmines of meat eating, and the journey continues. I am still learning and, more importantly, I am guilty still. I do not go into a restaurant and inquire about where their meats come from. I do not refuse a burger from the grill. I am simply trying to raise awareness in myself and in others that we could and should be doing better.
I have cut my meat intake drastically. I am highly selective of the meat I buy in grocery stores (I refuse to buy pork, for instance). I buy free-range eggs, even though the cheaper options are tempting. Yet I still make mistakes and I forget, and sometimes my craving overrides my ethical sense, and I forgive myself. But I am trying and I continue to try, and each little change brings me closer to being the ethical person I strive to be.