“Perhaps the Only Ethical Meat”?: The “Ethicist’s” Finalists

The finalists are in for the New York Times Magazine’s “Ethicist” contest seeking an essay justifying the choice to eat animals.  While there’s little doubt in my mind that two of the judges– Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan–will (based on their previous work) find most of the chosen answers adequate, I’d be shocked if the others– Peter Singer, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Andrew Light–allowed these often thoughtful, but consistently speciesist, accounts to see the light of day. The exception, of course, may be the call for in-vitro meat, which I’ve included below.

The other finalists can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/04/20/magazine/ethics-eating-meat.html#/#ethicistpoll2.

 From “The Ethicist”:

I’m About to Eat Meat for the First Time in 40 Years

My father was an ethical man. He had integrity, was honest and loathed needless cruelty. He was also a meat-eater’s meat-eater. He loved sitting at the elevated gourmet table (“gourmet” actually meant something back then) at the fanciest hotel in Sydney to take his evening meal.

He hung up game until it “ponged” to high heaven and enjoyed local meat dishes: wild boar in Switzerland, giant crabs on Easter Island and, in the Persian Gulf, sea turtles whose shells he pierced so that he could stake them at the water’s edge, keeping them fresh until they were popped into the pot.

His habit killed him in the end: the first sign of trouble came with gout, then colon cancer, heart problems and strokes, but he enjoyed meat for decades before all that “wretched bother” in a time when ethical issues were raised only by “a handful of Hindus and Grahamists.”

He taught me, the animal lover, to enjoy meat, too. It did not occur to me that while I would never dream of using a firearm to dispatch a deer or a duck, the specialty butcher’s package, with blood seeping through the paper, came from animals who knew what hit them, who saw and smelled it coming, their hearts thumping in their chests, their eyes wide with fear.

I busily ate my way through the animal kingdom. My father and I hunted for mollusks — mussels and winkles — on the rocks around the Cornish coast. We relished organ meats like liver and kidney and even tripe, which my mother cooked reluctantly for us, a hankie covering her nose. We picnicked on raw triple-ground steak, smashing it messily into the palms of our hands, and mixing in, with our fingers, a raw egg, capers and a dash of Worcestershire sauce. If peckish, I would make a sandwich from the roast beef drippings congealed in a pan left in the larder.

Is it ethical to eat meat? Some 40 years ago, I took a long break from eating any animals, but soon I will be able to eat meat again without any qualms, without worrying about my health, cruelty to animals, or environmental degradation. That’s because this autumn, 14 years after it was just a gleam in the eye of the Dutch scientist Willem van Eelen, the very first laboratory-grown hamburger is to make its debut.

Dr. Van Eelen, while a prisoner during World War II, had been badly treated, but what bothered him more was the abuse he saw meted out to animals destined for the guards’ tables. He was determined to find a way to reduce animals’ suffering, and eventually, he and the scientists he inspired all over the world succeeded. It is thanks to him that I can return to the table with my lobster bib tucked into my shirt front, my conscience clear.

In vitro meat is real meat, grown from real cow, chicken, pig and fish cells, all grown in culture without the mess and misery, without pigs frozen to the sides of metal transport trucks in winter and without intensive water use, massive manure lagoons that leach into streams or antibiotics that are sprayed onto and ingested by live animals and which can no longer fight ever-stronger, drug-resistant bacteria. It comes without E. coli, campylobacter, salmonella or other health problems that are unavoidable when meat comes from animals who defecate. It comes without the need for excuses. It is ethical meat. Aside from accidental roadkill or the fish washed up dead on the shore, it is perhaps the only ethical meat.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

25 Responses to “Perhaps the Only Ethical Meat”?: The “Ethicist’s” Finalists

  1. cobalamin says:

    Interesting article.

    Can fish cells ever contain essential fatty acids? Since EPA/DHA comes from algae.

    I don’t see any positive benefits to eating meat, ethical or not, however I have been pondering on eating fish lately because of our evolution and how high amounts of EPA/DHA with a high amount of available protein does look like it did make our brain increase in size, plus improve our cognitive abilities. Or, maybe I am reading too many one sided stories and there is information that I am missing?

    • Ellie Maldonado says:

      Eating fish (and fish oil) provides Omega 3 fatty acids because small fish eat algae, and then larger fish eat small fish — but I think ancient humans probably ate large amounts of algae, rather than fish. We all need protein, but it doesn’t have to come from other animals. Baby chicks can do arithmetic; elephants are known to be quite bright — both are vegetarians.

      • Mountain says:

        Actually, chickens are– like us– omnivores, and quite voracious ones, at that. They are highly social, too; when one finds a worm, an impromptu game of tag will inevitably break out as the rest of the flock chases her, trying to take her worm.

      • Ellie Maldonado says:

        Humans are behavioral omnivores, but our anatomy is far closer to that of herbivores:


        I think chickens are essentially herbivores as well, even though they eat an occassioanl insect:


      • Mountain says:

        Right. Nevermind the observed behavior, over millenia, in every imaginable culture and environment. The website you linked to ignores behavior, examines structures, and then ignores the multiple functions those structures serve.

        As for chickens, you are free to think they are basically herbivores, but observing their behavior would disabuse you of that notion. Even the Cornish Cross, the breed most thoroughly bred to subsist on a forced diet of corn & soy, will eat any animal source it comes across. As you move to the other side of the spectrum, you find that wilder chickens like heritage breeds & game fowl not only are voracious omnivores, but will expend significant effort locating & pursuing animal sources of food.

        Chickens do not want a forced industrial vegan diet of corn & soy. They want the freedom & autonomy to gather their own diet, one consisting primarily of weeds, seeds, worms, and bugs.

      • Ellie Maldonado says:

        Observations aren’t always correct. If we simply observe what humans eat, we wouldn’t know our anatomy is most similar to herbivores. Similarly, if we observed gorillas eating insects, we’d think they’re omnivores, yet they’re considered herbivores.

        I posted the website to Chicken Anatomy to offer a comparison to ours, and at first glance at least, it seems chickens have long intestines in comparison to their height, which would make sense if all or most of their diet is vegetation. However chickens are classified, the point is animal protein is not required for the development of the brain.

      • cobalamin says:

        I did state that EPA/DHA is derived from algae.

        “but I think ancient humans probably ate large amounts of algae, rather than fish.”

        Algae tastes horrible; if humans did eat it, they ate it as a side dish. Humans ate fish to survive however my question was specifically geared towards EPA/DHA fatty acids and our brain evolution.

        We aren’t completely omnivores because I can prove how humans produce Vitamin B12. My only concern is EPA/DHA omega 3 fatty acids at the moment. From reading research, my understanding is that the brain uses Omega 6 fatty acids when Omega 3 fatty acids are scarse, specifically arachidonic acid(AA), an Omega 6 fatty acid high in oils. AA being inferior to DHA.

        I didn’t state anything about protein source. For everyone’s sake, only vegetation and microorganisms contain the enzymes for the biosynthesis of the essential amino acids. Eating animal products is eating recycled protein.

      • Ellie Maldonado says:

        I imagine early humans had to be opportunists — they ate whatever was available, learning by trial and eror what wouldn’t kill them.

        About ten years ago, I either saw a program or read somewhere that early humans who traveled coastal areas survived on algae. I couldn’t find a link for that, but I did find there’s evidence meat-eating Neanderthals ate algae and shellfish. The algae industry thinks it’s the answer to world hunger: http://www.algaeindustrymagazine.com/part-3-algae-history-and-politics/

        I didn’t know the human brain uses Omega 6 when Omega 3 is not available. Since I don’t want to take fish oil, I get my Omega 3 from algae capsules, but they’re not easy to find in local drug stores. Canola and walnut oils also have Omega 3.

      • Ellie Maldonado says:

        I take a Vitamin D supplement, too. I’ve read the human body converts sunshine into Vitamin D, but it’s often not possible to get enough that way. As of 2010, the recommended daily dose of Vitamin D is 600 IU:

        But too much of a good thing can be harmful. Vitamin D is toxic in high doses: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/vitamin-d toxicity/AN02008

        I take Omega 3 from algae capsules and I also use canola oil. I haven’t heard of a bad reaction to Omega 3 previously, except that too high doses can cause bleeding problems. Do you think your headache might have been caused by something else?

  2. jcberger13 says:

    Just a quick rebuttal to each argument:

    1: “While they may be capable of relationships of a kind, it is doubtful that these can grow and develop in the ways ours can. Indeed, it is uncertain whether most animals even have identities that span weeks, let alone years.”

    Clearly this person does not have a pet. My pets’ identities and my relationships with them have grown and developed profoundly over their lifetimes; I think most other pet owners would say the same. This writer also sets up an arbitrary meaning of “bad” upon which his/her argument rests.

    2 and 4: “And if there are no animal inputs on the farms, then that energy has to come from fossil fuels and other nonorganic sources.” and “The fact is that most agroecologists agree that animals are integral parts of truly sustainable agricultural systems.”

    This has nothing to do with eating meat. As you often say, James, why not let the animals live out their lives on the farm- dropping fertilizer, clearing vegetation, and finally dying on the land and decomposing there? By eating them–removing them from the land– we actually throw off the very balance the writers speak of.

    3: This one gets my vote. But it must be introduced as a replacement rather than simply an alternative to unethical meat. Otherwise it may be seen as the “fake” meat… this could make “real” meat more desirable.

    5: “Eating meat ethically, on this view, requires explaining why we kill by pointing to other things of moral worth.”

    I’m not sure that this writer even attempts to make a case that eating meat can be ethical. I don’t agree with his/her arrangement of a hierarchy of ethics. Just because many of our life choices may be immoral (having instead of adopting children, for example) does not mean these choices are ethical. The writer basically makes the case that we can’t do everything right; therefore the actions beyond our “limits” are all ethical, albeit wrong.

    6. “While it’s fair to acknowledge a difference between plants and animals, they are part of the same system, feeding each other and guaranteeing the ongoing survival of all parties involved. A sustainable system requires interdependence and balance.”

    This writer wrongly assumes that non-human animals must be involved in this system. Vegan agriculture is already possible. Green manure and nitrogen-fixing cover crops are two widely-used methods of restoring nutrients to soils without animals. Additionally, once more municipalities begin composting residential food waste, other biodegradables, and human waste (biosolids) (Austin, TX and little Goldsboro, NC are two of many cities already doing this) it will be easy to close the nutrient loop without animals and without applying synthetic fertilizers.

    • Mountain says:

      Vegan agriculture is a myth. Large-scale production of plants is premised on the wanton slaughter of birds, rodents, and insects. Whether you literally ingest the animals (like the countless insects ground up into grain), or simply ingest food that caused their death, a vegan diet doesn’t spare the world from needless suffering, it just shifts it from one set of species to another.

      • Gabe says:

        I don’t think jcberger was referring to Industrial Agriculture. He was probably referring to veganic permaculture.


      • Ellie Maldonado says:

        Crop farmers kill other animals in large scale production to protect their profit, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Vegan agriculture is not a myth — it works. Check out veganorganic.net: “…… From large farms to window boxes, we show farmers and home growers how to use vegan-organic methods …….”

  3. brian lindberg says:

    Meat has a debilitating effect on the human psyche. In the context of human evolution, it is a dilatory choice, irresponsible. Time to get with the program.

  4. Ellie Maldonado says:

    I voted for the essay above on the NY Times website – “I’m About to Eat Meat for the First Time in 40 Years.” Although I’m happy with the delicious vegan foods I have now, laboratory meat may be the answer for the millions of people.

  5. Britt says:

    I voted for this article as well. Laboratory-fashioned or not, I don’t think I’ll personally ever be able to bring myself to eat meat again. I tried a piece of vegan jerky the other day that freaked me out because the texture was too similar to how I remember it actually feeling. I couldn’t take another bite. Franken-flesh obviously won’t address the health issues associated with consuming animal products (which sort of still leaves the ethics open to debate), but if it can help in keeping the carnists from killing sentient beings, great.

  6. CQ says:

    I’ve been mulling over the audience favorite, to which this blogger gives a reluctant nod, and suddenly it struck me why the vat meat essay is both good and bad.

    It’s good in the sense that its voters are admitting they feel guilty about causing sentient beings physical and emotional pain. In an attempt to assuage that guilt, today’s more conscientious meat-eaters pay beaucoup dollars for grass-fed animal flesh. This act tells me that their own momentary sensual pleasure wins out over the animals’ momentary pain (they pretend to themselves that the slaughter process is quick and clean). With vat meat, they think they can eliminate the last vestiges of deep-down guilt and still get their flesh fix.

    It’s bad in the sense that they continue to place a high priority on satisfying their taste buds with flesh, to the point where they still regard animals as being made for eating. Of course, if they didn’t have this mindset, they’d have switched by now to one of the meat analogs, whose taste and texture improve every time a new processed plant-based product appears on the shelf or in recipe books, which is often these days.

    I wouldn’t doubt that many vegan and vegetarian voters chose the vat meat alternative, perhaps holding their nose as they did so, simply to make the point that it’s the least offensive.

    But when it comes down to it, isn’t it still offensive that most humans see nothing wrong with eating animals, albeit in vitro? Those same people would be horrified at the thought of purchasing vat-grown flesh of Homo sapiens. Wouldn’t they?

    I wonder when we will reach the point in our ethical journey where we not only refuse to kill an animal to satiate our pleasure or secure a profit, but we also can’t countenance putting nonhumans in a subservient position, period!

    • Jamie Berger (jcberger above) says:

      Really great point, CQ. When plant-based diets are so easy and accessible in the Western world, why must we eat flesh at all? Doing so has become revolting to me, and I hope that it will for everyone someday. I’m glad I voted for that entry (and glad to see it has the most votes by far), but flesh is flesh.

  7. Ellie Maldonado says:

    That’s true for me, as I wouldn’t want lab meat, but it would be a whole lot better than the heinous system we have now. I think in vitro meat would still require the breeding of some domesticated animals, which I also don’t agree with. I hope someday we can be fair enough and honest enough to admit we were wrong to make other animals dependent on us so that we can exploiting them, but that would require a whole overhaul of cultural traditions and beliefs.

    Kudos to the NY Times for having this essay contest, though I wish it offered the opportunity to rebut the articles we disagree with.

  8. Melody M. says:

    This essay is highly problematic in that it suggests that in-vitro or “test tube” meat can be ethical. It cannot.

    The very development of it requires the creation and use of domestic animals from which to obtain the fertilized eggs and cells needed to grow the meat. That would require the exploitation, forced imprisonment, rape–and in the case of skeletal tissue, death of certain individuals in order to satisfy the wholly unnecessary consumption of animal products. Moreover, most effective mediums used to grow these cells often contain animal-muscle tissue or require animal-based organ growth factors (from animals that were killed) thus ensuring that animals are exploited even further in the making of in-vitro meat. (All of this information can be verified by academic journals and scientific research on the engineering of lab-grown muscle tissue.)

    As such, the development of in-vitro meat has involved vivisection and animal testing, and will continue to. Vivisection, and therefore a violation of an individual’s rights, is an integral part of the process of the creation of in-vitro meat, which is then tested on animals for safety for human consumption. So, you see, the ends DO NOT justify the means. This is especially true because the consumption of animals products is unnecessary and so providing in-vitro meat for humans to consume will only further entrench the notion that animals do not have rights, that they can and should be used as human resources.

    Even if only ONE animal of each species was exploited and then killed to create a “parent” cell that “gives birth” to a line of cells that are un-sentient and could be used for generations in the mass production of in-vitro meat, it would still require violating the rights of those individuals in order to satisfy the unnecessary consumption of animal products. In a world where veganism is possible, healthy, ethical, and safe, there is no need for in-vitro meat of any kind. It is not needed to save anyone’s life–it is not a cure for disease or the answer to world hunger.

    Additionally, the very support of it wrongfully (from a health perspective) and immorally (from a rights perspective) suggests that humans need animal products in order to be healthy, happy, or to survive.

    The truth is, in-vitro meat perpetuates the system of exploitation, whether it does so in its development, or whether it pushes the collective mentality that animals are nothing more than human resources and that we can exploit them, or parts of them, in order to satisfy our pleasures.

    I urge all vegans and activists to reject in-vitro animal products for what they inherently suggest about the status of non-human animals. In-vitro meat is NOT an “exception.” Veganism is the only ethical way to behave towards non-human animals. When advocates suggest otherwise, it supports the very ideology behind “humane” animal exploitation.

    • Ellie Maldonado says:

      I agree with you, Melody, though I foolishly assumed lab meat only involved the removal of a few cells from living beings. I should have known better, since I first learned about it years ago through PeTA, which promoted it. Still, I think it’s important to vote against the other essays, which gave the usual excuses for animal exploitation. The problem is the NY Times is so far not offering us a chance to comment on the essays. If given the chance, we could offer sound arguments against all of them.

    • Provoked says:

      Hi Melody – Like others the idea of eating animal flesh repulses me… And I also understand your valid concerns about the testing and experimenting to get to the point of having an end “product” AND the fact that cells still need to be stolen from a forced subject.

      But as CQ mentioned vat meat could be made from any animal cells – human as well. The thought of consuming one’s son, mother or even “themselves” has a bounty of yet-to-be-seen ethical issues. However if we could assume the human subject was a volunteer I don’t know that that would be one of those problems.

      Granted the original “science” would have been founded on nonhuman testing… But I use a seat belt and they were also once tested on primates. I just don’t know where that “line” should be drawn on future technology when it’s development was rooted in unethical (old) practices. (?)

      Honestly… If it’s animal “meat” they want and it could save the lives of billions – I’ll be the first to volunteer to make it so. :/

  9. Ellie Maldonado says:

    I think there might be psychological issues with consuming human lab flesh. Perahps, that’s also true for nonhuman lab flesh, though to a lesser extent: if it’s flesh consumers want, then it’s flesh they’ll get.

  10. M (@MFIoFV) says:

    My friend and colleague Jeff Perz form the Alice Springs Vegan Society in Australia wrote an excellent piece a while back called “The Case Against Test Tube Meat”. Newkirk should give it a read.


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