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.


“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:

 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.

The Slavery Analogy Part II: Gary Francione’s Jan 4 Blog Entry

After I posted yesterday’s piece on slavery and animal liberation, a subscriber alerted me to the fact that the Rutger’s philosopher Gary Francione had posted on the same topic the day before. So, here it is. A different, and quite fascinating, take on the issue:

Francione writes:

Many vegans become irritated with non-vegans who claim to care morally about animals but who continue to consume them. The former will often invoke an analogy to human slavery. It goes like this: we all agree that the use of humans exclusively as resources—the condition known as human slavery—is morally abhorrent. Similarly, if people think that animals are members of the moral community, then we ought not to be treating them exclusively as resources either and we ought to oppose animal slavery. And if one opposes animal slavery, one adopts and promotes veganism.

Does the analogy work?

Yes and no. The slavery analogy, which I have been using for two decades now, is not particularly compelling if one maintains that nonhumans, unlike human slaves, only have an interest in not suffering and do not have an interest in continued life or in autonomy. And that is a core belief of the welfarist position going back to Bentham—that animals can suffer and have interests in not suffering but are cognitively different from us in that they are not self-aware and do not have an interest in continued existence. To put the matter another way: welfarists maintain that animals do not have an interest in not being slaves per se; they just have an interest in being “happy” slaves. That is the position promoted by Peter Singer, whose neo- or new-welfarist views are derived directly from Bentham. Therefore, it does not matter morally that we use animals but onlyhow we use them. The moral issue is not use but treatment.

Add to this that most welfarists are utilitarians—they maintain that what is right or wrong is determined by what maximizes pleasure or happiness or interest satisfaction for all of those affected—and you end up with the view that as long as an animal does not suffer “too much,” and given that the animal does not have an interest in her life, her having lived a reasonably pleasant life and ended up on human plates is better than her not having lived at all. If we provide a reasonably pleasant life and relatively painless death for animals, we actually confer a benefit on them by bringing them into existence and using them as our resources.

Therefore, it is understandable that, if one is a welfarist, one does not accept the slavery analogy. “Happy” slavery is not only not a problem; it is a good thing. The problem with human slavery is that even “humane” forms of slavery violate fundamental human rights in continued existence, autonomy, etc. But if animals do not have those interests, then “humane” slavery may be just what is needed. And that is precisely the thinking that motivates the “happy” meat/animal products movement and the entire welfarist enterprise of trying to make animal use more “humane,” more “compassionate,” etc.

I have argued that this sort of thinking is problematic in at least two regards:

First, the notion that nonhuman animals do not have an interest in continued existence—that they do not have an interest in their lives—involves relying on a speciesist concept of what sort of self-awareness matters morally. I have argued that every sentient being necessarily has an interest in continued existence—every sentient being values her or his life—and that to say that only those animals (human animals) who have a particular sort of self-awareness have an interest in not being treated as commodities begs the fundamental moral question. Even if, as some maintain, nonhuman animals live in an “eternal present”—and I think that is empirically not the case at the very least for most of the nonhumans we routinely exploit who do have memories of the past and a sense of the future—they have, in each moment, an interest in continuing to exist. To say that this does not count morally is simply speciesist.

Second, even if animals do not have an interest in continuing to live and only have interests in not suffering, the notion that, as a practical matter, we will ever be able to accord those interests the morally required weight is simply fantasy. The notion that we property owners are ever going to accord any sort of significant weight to the interests of property in not suffering is simply unrealistic. Is it possible in theory? Yes. Is it possible as a matter of practicality in the real world. Absolutely not. Welfarists often talk about treating “farmed animals” in the way that we treat dogs and cats whom we love and regard as members of our family. Does anyone really think that is practically possible? The fact that we would not think of eating our dogs and cats is some indication that it is not.

Moreover, a central thesis of my work has been that because animals are chattel property—they are economic commodities—we will generally protect animal interests only when we get an economic benefit from doing so. This means that the standard of animal welfare will always be very low (as it presently and despite all of the “happy” and “compassionate” exploitation nonsense) and welfare reforms will generally increaseproduction efficiency; that is, we will protect animal interests in situations where treatment is economically inefficient and welfare reforms will, for the most part, do little more than correct those inefficiencies. For example, the use of gestation crates for sowsis economically inefficient; there are supposedly more “humane” alternatives that actually increase production efficiency. Similarly, “gassing” chickens is more economically efficient than electrical stunning.

So I understand why welfarists have a problem with the slavery analogy. I think that they are wrong in multiple respects but they never really engage the arguments. Instead, they claim that I am “divisive” and “do not care about animals suffering now” because I make these arguments. Some get even more dramatic.

The rights paradigm, which, as I interpret it, morally requires the abolition of animal exploitation and requires veganism as a matter of fundamental justice, is radically different from the welfarist paradigm, which, in theory focuses on reducing suffering, and, in reality, focuses on tidying up animal exploitation at its economically inefficient edges. In science, those who subscribe to one paradigm are often unable to understand and engage those who subscribe to another paradigm precisely because the theoretical language that they use is not compatible.

I think that the situation is similar in the context of the debate between animal rights and animal welfare. And that is why welfarists simply cannot understand or accept the slavery analogy.


If you are not vegan, please consider going vegan. It’s a matter of nonviolence. Being vegan is your statement that you reject violence to other sentient beings, to yourself, and to the environment, on which all sentient beings depend.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

More Thoughts on “Humane Meat”


Conscientious consumers have known for decades that animals raised in factory farms are animals that have experienced immense suffering. The litany of horrors hardly needs repeating, but most consumers are familiar with the crushing confinement, the disease and manure-ridden stalls, over-breeding, mechanized fertilization, the incessant dosing of antibiotics and vaccines, the cold lack of affection, and the essential reduction of the animal to the equivalent of a heartless machine.

Although physically hidden from view, the grim realities of the factory farm are now widely known due the pioneering work of an influential cadre of writers. Peter Singer (Animal Liberation), Anna Moore Lappe (Diet for a Small Planet), Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), and Jonathan Safran Foer (Eating Animals), among others, have succeeded in rattling mainstream nerves with their forthright analyses of factory farming. Passively or actively, we have absorbed their messages in all their gory detail and, with good reason, declared ourselves to be disturbed–often deeply so–with factory farming. Consumers are disturbed for the simple but powerful reason that, however unexamined the sentiment might be, we believe that farm animals deserve better.  Deep down–again, however vague the notion is– we oppose factory farms because we know that animals matter enough not to be unnecessarily harmed.

The outrage generated by exposes of factory farming have led to a number of responses, but by far the most popular has been the rise of progressive systems of animal production designed to be more humane. Free-range pork and chicken, cage-free eggs, and grass-fed beef are prime examples of consumer options that have become mainstream alternatives to factory farmed meat. Within these arrangements, farm animals enjoy greater freedom to move about, socialize, eat from the land, interact with other forms of wildlife and, if they are lucky enough, have sex outside.  We purchase products from these farms in part because we believe that an animal raised under such conditions was an animal that lived with dignity. It enjoyed being alive.  And we are, of course, absolutely correct  in these beliefs.

But therein lies a problem.  Conscientious consumers base their vehement opposition to factory farms, and their active support of the alternatives, on the premise that animals have genuine feelings. Presumably, one would care little for the way an animal was raised if it could not distinguish between pleasure and pain, if it could not suffer, or if it did not care wether or not it existed in a crate or on a verdant pasture. But the conscientious consumer cares about farm animals because she believes the exact opposite to be true–again, that they matter. And not just nominally. They matter to the point that they are said to deserve dignity, respect, and compassion. And then we slaughter them. Not because they are old and sick, but we slaughter them while they are in the prime of their lives because they have market value. We boldly declare the moral worth of their lives, vote with our forks to honor that worth, and then render the animals into commodities. This strikes me as a problem.

Indeed, it is hard to think of a food-related issue as ethically charged as the act of raising a sentient being for the purposes of killing it for food we do not need. In an age when we are constantly urged by leading authorities to be thoughtful and deliberate about what we eat, this matter seems as ripe as any for a fruitful and in depth analysis. It is thus all the more surprising to find that the popular writers, journalists, and documentary film makers who urge us to avoid factory farms and support more humane systems of animal production avoid the question altogether. Instead, it is as if an alternative system, by virtue of not being a factory farm, is automatically assumed to be an inherently ethical way to raise animals. Case closed. But this kind of logic is dangerously flawed. So, here we have the elephant in the room: How can one raise an animal under more humane conditions (essentially because he knows that animal to be sentient, feeling being), slaughter that animal for the sole reason that a local restaurant wants to serve it on its menu, and then deem this system compassionate?

It is my firm belief that you cannot.

Reason to Vegan #3: Henry Spira


I think most ethical vegans would agree that undue frustration comes from the fact that the simplicity of our message belies the popular resistance to it.This unfortunate paradox came to mind as I was reading Peter Singer’s Ethics into Action, an inspiring analysis of Henry Spira, the great animal rights activist.

Two aspects of this book drove me to articulate yet another reason to go vegan. The first is the purity of Spira’s passion. He’d never thought much about how we treat animals until he reached his 50’s, acquired a cat, and read Peter Singer’s 1973 “Animal Liberation” essay in the New York Review of Books. The cat totally seduced him, as did the power of Singer’s arguments. He dedicated his life to helping non-human animals, the most vulnerable creatures among us.

The second aspect was a quote included in the book from Animal Liberation:

A liberation movement demands an expansion of our moral horizons, so that practices that were previously regarded as natural and inevitable are now seen as intolerable.

And hence, a third reason to go vegan:

Violence and suffering are bad. Humans should choose to avoid violence and suffering whenever possible. Killing an animal for food and clothing–no matter how that animal was raised– causes violence and suffering. Humans not only do not need animals for food and clothing, we are often better off–at least with food–without them. Thus when we eat and wear animals we are (no matter what kind of hopeful story comes with our food and clothing) causing undue suffering and violence. That is bad. 

To fail to embrace such a simple and obvious message, indeed, strikes me, as it did Henry Spira, as “intolerable.”