Here’s the winning essay from the New York Times Magazine‘s contest to ethically justify eating animals. Hard to believe that Andrew Light, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Peter Singer approved this entry, as it would not have survived the Philosophy 101 class I took in high school. Nothing on animal sentience–this in an essay on the ethics of eating animals. Pathetic. Plain pathetic. I promise you that this contest was driven more by concern for advertising revenue than ethics. Pathetic. Pathetic. Pathetic.  -jm

By Jay Bost

As a vegetarian who returned to meat-eating, I find the question “Is meat-eating ethical?” one that is in my head and heart constantly. The reasons I became a vegetarian, then a vegan and then again a conscientious meat-eater were all ethical. The ethical reasons of why NOT to eat meat are obvious: animals are raised and killed in cruel conditions; grain that could feed hungry people is fed to animals; the need for pasture fuels deforestation; and by eating meat, one is implicated in the killing of a sentient being. Except for the last reason, however, none of these aspects of eating meat are implicit in eating meat, yet they are exactly what make eating some meat unethical. Which leads to my main argument: eating meat raised in specific circumstances is ethical; eating meat raised in other circumstances is unethical. Just as eating vegetables, tofu or grain raised in certain circumstances is ethical and those produced in other ways is unethical.

What are these “right” and “wrong” ways of producing both meat and plant foods? For me, they are most succinctly summed up in Aldo Leopold’s land ethic: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” While studying agroecology at Prescott College in Arizona, I was convinced that if what you are trying to achieve with an “ethical” diet is the least destructive impact on life as a whole on this planet, then in some circumstances, like living among dry, scrubby grasslands in Arizona, eating meat, is, in fact, the most ethical thing you can do other than subsist on wild game, tepary beans and pinyon nuts. A well-managed, free-ranged cow is able to turn the sunlight captured by plants into condensed calories and protein with the aid of the microorganisms in its gut. Sun > diverse plants > cow > human. This in a larger ethical view looks much cleaner than the fossil-fuel-soaked scheme of tractor-tilled field > irrigated soy monoculture > tractor harvest > processing > tofu > shipping > human.

While most present-day meat production is an ecologically foolish and ethically wrong endeavor, happily this is changing, and there are abundant examples of ecologically beneficial, pasture-based systems. The fact is that most agroecologists agree that animals are integral parts of truly sustainable agricultural systems. They are able to cycle nutrients, aid in land management and convert sun to food in ways that are nearly impossible for us to do without fossil fuel. If “ethical” is defined as living in the most ecologically benign way, then in fairly specific circumstances, of which each eater must educate himself, eating meat is ethical; in fact NOT eating meat may be arguably unethical.

The issue of killing of a sentient being, however, lingers. To which each individual human being must react by asking: Am I willing to divide the world into that which I have deemed is worthy of being spared the inevitable and that which is not worthy? Or is such a division hopelessly artificial? A poem of Wislawa Szymborska’s, “In Praise of Self-Deprecation,” comes to mind. It ends:

There is nothing more animal-like
than a clear conscience
on the third planet of the Sun.

For me, eating meat is ethical when one does three things. First, you accept the biological reality that death begets life on this planet and that all life (including us!) is really justsolar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form. Second, you combine this realization with that cherished human trait of compassion and choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain and/or meat. And third, you give thanks.

Jay Bost, who says he has been “a farmworker, plant geek, agroecologist and foodie for the past 20 years,” teaches at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C., and plans to head to Hawaii next year for a Ph.D. in tropical plant and soil science. His deepest interest is in agrobiodiversity, a field he will be better able to explain once he and his partner, Nora Rodli, get their 5-month-old son, Kailu Sassafras, to sleep.


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.

22 Responses to Pathetic.

  1. C says:

    Calling this an argument seems risible.

    “If “ethical” is defined as living in the most ecologically benign way, then in fairly specific circumstances, of which each eater must educate himself, eating meat is ethical; in fact NOT eating meat may be arguably unethical.”

    So, if we define “ethical” in an absurdly narrow way then eating meat is justifiable. And if we define “ethical” in this way, then not murdering your neighbor may be arguably unethical.

    And if you are thankful for getting your neighbors used stuff (rather than damaging the environment through new purchases), then its OK.

    My best read of this, is that the entries were so pathetic that picking something that had the veneer of an argument would be better than admitting that there is no intellectually respectable and coherent defense.

  2. M (@MFIoFV) says:

    No surprise given that four (Foer, Singer, Pollan and Bittman — I dunno who Light is) of the supposed expert judges are non-vegan and have all attempted to defend the so-called ethical use of other animals in their writings in the past. Could this contest have possibly ended any other way? It’s doubtful. But that they would have picked that sad example of a piece of writing as a winning entry reflects on them even more broadly and poorly than it does on their ability to assess the soundness of an argument. What a true shame.

  3. Tim says:

    So pathetic that they always attempt to use that “irrigated soy monoculture” example as a rationale, but always, always forget to mention that the vast majority of all that “irrigated soy monoculture” exists solely to feed and fatten animals for meat and dairy production. Yet another typical round of misinformed Price “foundation” propaganda regurgitation.

    • Mountain says:

      Kind of like how vegans always use factory-farmed meat as a rationale, always forgetting to mention that humane permacultural farms can & do raise animals without reliance on the irrigated industrial monoculture of corn/wheat/soy. If it is fair to note that most of the meat people eat is factory-farmed, it is fair to note that most of the meat “alternatives” people eat come from “irrigated soy monoculture.”

      The fact that meat “alternatives” are terrible for animals & the earth doesn’t make eating factory-farmed meat any more acceptable, but it would be nice if more vegans would realize they aren’t earning a halo either.

      • Chris says:

        You’ve missed the point, which is this: even if 100% of vegan ‘meat’ products came from soy monoculture, 95% or more of the total soy monoculture exists to feed livestock; factory and ‘free range’.

        Take out the animals, and you take out monoculture (since the amount of soy it takes to cater for vegans would not warrant vast monocultured tracts of land).

        I’d be interested to hear just how much of the United State’s meat consumption comes from ‘Mom & Pop super-ethical-organic-grow-our-own-feed’ farms, I’d wager that it is not even worth consideration.

        Yes, vegans need to be conscientious consumers too. But, you’ll find that many vegan products already source their potentially unethical ingredients from ethical/sustainable sources because producers understand that their customer base tends to be conscious of inequality/oppression/environmental devastation in general, not just animal rights.

      • CQ says:

        Thanks to you, Mountain, I’ve set aside my halo. Seriously. Now I know better than to assume that my heavily monoculture-grown diet (pasta, bread, cookies, crackers, processed soy-and-wheat-based foods) is angelic. Your comments have sent me on a new search for more earth-friendly, earthling-friendly ways of thinking and acting.

        For most of my life, I didn’t know I was participating in killing animals. When I became aware of first one form of complicity, then another, it felt horribly wrong. I couldn’t justify it. I didn’t want to defend it. I knew I could change it. So I did, bit by bit.

        Since that initial realization, I’ve kept growing in my respect for animals as individuals whose lives matter — to their Maker, to themselves, to their friends and family, and to me! I’m only at the start of this endless journey in learning to love more selflessly.

        If something no longer feels moral, then it can’t possibly be necessary for me to do or essential for me to have. That wouldn’t make sense. The power that patterns and preserves the universe, which I call Good (yes, Good), it wouldn’t be so illogical as to instill in me a desire to follow my highest sense of right and then not give me the ability and capacity to do so.

        It’ll be interesting to see how my purchasing and eating habits evolve still further, now that I’m learning about monoculture grains and am owning up to my role in their production. I won’t waste the grain-sourced products already stocked in my house. But after that? Well, I can only say that already my appetite for more fruits, veggies and nuts has been whetted, thanks to you. Again, seriously!

        Can’t wait to don a hypocrisy-free halo again! Except that’ll probably never happen, seeing as how I keep discovering more things about my life that need fixing. 🙂

        P.S. Oh, I just remembered, this is supposed to be about the “pathetic” winning essay. I do agree, James, that it’s pathetic to excuse annihilating any innocent animal for needless nutrition or sensual satisfaction or pecuniary payoff or upside-down ethics. As pathetic as it would be to mercilessly (and gratefully, no less) do away with a human life. Of that I am convinced.

        P.P.S. I agree with Chris that ethical vegans tend to be “conscious of inequality/oppression/environmental devastation in general,” but what I’ve recognized is that I can do better. And I do think that, absent animal feed, grains would be still grown with an eye to maximizing profit. That is, monoculturally. Which is why I agree with Mountain that it’s time for vegans to source their grain-based products from polyculture systems. (If I’m using the wrong terms, forgive me. This is all fairly new to me.)

      • Mountain says:

        @CQ– so good to hear. I don’t have a halo, either, but we can all keep growing. It’s easy in these discussions to anger people & make things adversarial. It’s a delight when that doesn’t happen.

        @Chris– didn’t miss the point. Most soy & grains in this country are fed to livestock. That’s a terrible thing, and I think we agree that industrial grains & soy should not be fed to farm animals. Where I differ with you is cause & effect. The massive surpluses of subsidized grain preceded & made possible factory farming, in which animals suffer in confinement & are force-fed an unnatural diet. Get rid of the grain & the CAFO system of factory farming will run out of fuel.

  4. diana says:

    To whom did we think the ‘prize’ would go? Big newspapers are owned by big business that, in turn, owns big agricultural industries,factory farms, transportation industries,energy industries,pharmaceuticals, fast food industries and restaurants, the list goes on………….The entire so called contest, is a farce performed at the expense of all sentient beings!!!

  5. Lisa Viger says:

    I never understood the “giving thanks” part. I once read an article by someone participating in a “humane slaughter” operation. They had hand painted tiles expressing gratitude installed on the slaughter floor. That was a big part of their idea of being humane. And they didn’t seem at all aware of how ridiculous/pretentious/bizarre that idea was.

  6. camillelabchuk says:

    I found this essay to be the absolute weakest of the bunch. Very surprising to learn that it won.

    Bost defines ethical in terms of human consciousness and emotions, instead of animals’ interests, environmental considerations, the reality of the production process, etc. The way humans conceive of and feel about eating meat has nothing to do with the ethics of doing so, especially not the vague and subjective notion of “giving thanks.” Thanking someone or something (the animal? the universe?) will never make needless killing into an ethical practice. The animal could care less that the human responsible for her confinement and death was thankful.

    PS. It was nice to meet you in Ottawa last weekend — I am the lawyer who said hi just before your talk began!

  7. fireweedondi says:

    Agreed that the notion that ‘giving thanks’ magically makes killing ethical is one of the weakest arguments for eating animals. Interesting that the author ends with the ‘giving thanks’ bit, as if to say that this ‘last word’ sums up his self-proclaimed attitude as a thoughtful, considerate, caring human being. End of story. Uh, no. Giving thanks and saying prayers over the deceased are really meant to appease ears that can still hear. Blurring the distinction between life and death may read as bloodless on the page, but in reality underscores the ‘hopelessly artificial division’ so many meat eater’s use as a psychological prop for their behavior.

  8. brian lindberg says:

    Well, I don’t agree with calling this essay pathetic (but the judges on the other hand…perhaps this is McWilliams intended meaning). Let me explain why. Bost’s ethical framework is derived from consideration of the health of the biosystem as a whole, and he pointedly declines to make a distinction in the value of any particular life form in the context of the food chain. In this scenario, humans are an equal participant in the biosphere, and Bost returns to the ethic of the best hunting societies of yore.

    I can understand his point of view because we have 60 acres of oak woodland/ grassland on our ranch which in previous generations was only used for grazing cattle. For the last couple of decades, it has been used as a great walking park. From time to time, I get a bee in my bonnet and try to come up with some way to make it part of a sustainable human food chain. Every time, it seems, the only possibility was grazing cattle for the grass-fed carnivores among us. Seems like a free lunch. Any time I ruminated thusly to my wife, her immediate response, “but that involves us in killing cows.” (As she has explained to me, cows designate a babysitter cow for all of their calves, when necessary, among other remarkable social behaviors….no need to elaborate fully on the full ethical implications for Man and evolution in this venue.)

    So, I got to thinking about how the Chumash Indians lived on this land (we are in the “upper” reaches of the Salinas River drainage in California). Acorns and pine nuts were staples in their diet, the pine nuts coming from Digger pines (now gray pines…how blandly p.c.). The Digger pine produces a nut which is second largest in the pine family, 50% monounsaturated fat, 25% protein, and delicious……and, they are produced with nothing but benefit to the ecosystem. Now, why is it that there are so damned few of them on that 60 acres? Decades of grazing pressure. Digger pines belong in that community. Cattle do not.

    Now, I am planting several hundred Diggers back into that plant community, and determining how to bring the nuts into the food market. And I only wish that I lived in one of those pinyon/juniper communities that Mr. Bost references in Arizona, as the nuts of Nevada Pinyons are soft-shelled (obviating the need for an expensive shelling machine) and accessible from the ground (wow, pine nut nirvana…did I mention that those little pine nuts fetch $15/lb.?…check out Unfortunately, most of those incredible trees are on BLM land, where the plant community has suffered from cattle grazing (yup), and, horrifically of late, tree harvesting for biofuel (are we nuts?)

    So I encourage Mr. Bost to keep on thinking….he’ll get there. As for the judges, well, they are a bunch of city boys, really….academic types….what do they really know? Have they ever killed a cow?

    • Ellie Maldonado says:

      I think Bost will probably sit back and enjoy his victory. Hunters of wild game use guns, or bows and arrows, against living beings who have no weapons, not even sharp claws. I can’t see this as equal footing. I think the stakes are also uneven — for the hunters, it’s a meal that could be replaced with nutritous plant foods; for the animals, it’s their lives.

  9. CQ says:

    Mrs. — yes, Mrs. — Lindberg has my vote for President of the U.S.A. No, for Ruler of the Earth!

  10. Ellie Maldonado says:

    I didn’t know until today that the essay which promoted lab meat was written by none other than Ingrid Newkirk….. makes sense since PeTA thinks lab meat is the answer:

    It’s not the answer I’d expect for most vegans, including myself, but at least it didn’t offer pathetic excuses for eating meat.

  11. gena says:

    I’m fairly depressed, since the last time I checked the lab meat essay was so clearly in the lead. Sigh.

    To be honest, I was blown away by how bad the entries were. Vague, imprecise, and some called upon the very things the Times said not to: the idea that meat is tradition, and the idea that it’s somehow vital for health.

    This essay doesn’t cite those criteria for the ethics of meat; instead, it cites criteria so narrow that of course his argument would slip into it. It is also sentimental, poorly written, and at times unintelligable. Even as a passionate, animal rights vegan, I am intellectually dissapointed that we weren’t at least given a better and more interesting argument to quibble with!

    Most of all, the essay does what all meat defenses ultimately do: they appeal to our self-interest. Veganism asks us to push that self interest aside, just as we do 100 times each day for other ethical imperatives. We resist stealing, raping, slandering, and violence; we hold doors and take turns and defer to others. None of these things is in our best interest, but we do them anyway, simply because we have deemed the well being of those around us important. Veganism is precisely that kind of choice; it’s astonishing that we can be selfless in so many ways, but not in this one.

    Thank you, James, for consistently writing such brilliant and thoughtful posts.

    • deveryminou says:

      “Hey man, chill out — we’re all just sunlight energy in a transitory form! Rape, murder, pillage away, it’s all good, just say thanks and remember that sunlight thing I just said. Dude! ”

      There’s my shorter version of the winning essay.

  12. Provoked says:

    Hum… I wonder if I committed some unspeakable act against my neighbor and went to court claiming that it didn’t really matter because my neighbors were “just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form” – would my defense hold up? Not hardly! I’d probably be charged as a looney-tune! Yet… Use that same phrase-ology regarding nonhumans and instant-presto… We’ve got what passes as moral justification for (gratefully) killing them. Pathetic… Truly, pathetically awful.

  13. Pingback: Episode 121: “I belong to no party and am militant for no one. All my causes, including the most radical, are motivated by the defense of animals.” | Our Hen House

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