Tuesday, June 17, 2008

In Defense of Omnivores

I originally posted this article here, but thought it might be of interest to readers of this blog as well.

I grew up on a meat and potatoes diet. Every dinner, there would be a meat (most often chicken, but also pork or beef), either rice or potato, and a veggie. Lunches would be similar, perhaps with a fruit instead of a veggie or bread instead of rice or potato. Vegetarianism wasn’t really on my radar until high school or college. Even when I was aware of it, it certainly never occurred to me that it might be an option for me. But now I do see it as an option, something that I have to consider.

And I have considered. I haven’t given the matter a great deal of thought, but I have noticed the arguments for vegetarianism, and I’m not yet convinced. Below I’ll express my dissatisfaction. But feel free to put your two cents in the comments. Maybe you’ll be the one to convince me.

My guiding principle is that meat-eating is permissible (that is, there is nothing morally wrong with it, but it is not morally required) until shown to be otherwise. In some ways, I’m denying a level playing field to vegetarians. I’m not a neutral observer who needs to be swayed by both the carnivores and the herbivores. In real life, I’m starting as an omnivore, so the arguments have to sway me from that position. I simply like food of all kinds, and like it a great deal. I like crispy bacon at breakfast or on a sandwich, an occasional tender steak, nicely broiled tandoori chicken, curried goat, and a host of other meat dishes. Unless I am convinced that eating these are impermissible, there is a presumption in favor of eating meat.

I’ll take a few key arguments for vegetarianism one by one, and explain why they don’t convince me to give up meat entirely.

1. Pain is bad
Pain is a bad. Since eating meat requires killing an animal, it comes as a result of pain. The badness of pain is only justified if there is a great deal of good to offset it. “I like the taste of meat” isn’t enough good pleasure to offset the pain that comes from killing. So eating meat is wrong.

Pain sure isn’t good, so this has some pull. The way I’ve stated this argument suggests that all killing involves pain, which isn’t strictly speaking true (but it probably does in most relevant cases: see argument 2 below). I’m not convinced that failure to enjoy future pleasures is itself a bad, so a pain-free killing might not be a bad. But let’s set that aside for now.

Given that most of the meat comes as a result of a process that likely involves significant pain for an animal, should I stop eating meat? I don’t think so. For one, I don’t think that the pain suffered by animals counts morally as much as the pain or pleasure experienced by humans. That pain matters, but not as much. Second, I don’t think that in all cases benefiting from the pain of someone or something else makes that thing wrong. There are plenty of cases where we benefit from others’ pain, and I don’t see any case for a general prohibition of denying oneself the benefits simply because there was pain involved.

There are some wrongs that are so grievous that it would be wrong to benefit from them. For example, knowingly receiving goods that were stolen or resulted from exploitation of the people producing them. But in these cases, it is not the pain that justifies refusing the benefits, but other wrongs. (As a side note, what I am advocating here is a rejection of hedonic utilitarianism which reduces all goods to pain or pleasure, suggesting that there are other, more significant wrongs that focus on dehumanizing or disrespecting persons.) So I am not convinced that animal pain produces any moral prohibition on eating meat.

2. Cruelty of slaughterhouses
The process by which meat comes to your grocery store or restaurant involves an incredible amount of pain or suffering (graphic examples are abundant). Even if animal suffering is sometimes okay, this much animal suffering is not.

We could take this argument in two different directions. One would be to make it structurally like a version of the problem of evil for theism that says that evil is compatible with the existence of God, but not this much evil. The other is to make it structurally like the argument offered by some opponents of the death penalty in the U.S. who say that it might be justified for a government to take a citizen’s life, but our current system is so deeply flawed that we should cease the practice indefinitely. I’ll focus on the second version.

If the descriptions of slaughterhouses are remotely accurate, and the only meat available came from them, I would have a hard time responding to this argument. However, I think that to many people who live close to the source of their food, which is a good proportion of the world, this is not a factor. Even within the U.S., some people know quite well the conditions of their animals because they are ranchers or know the ranchers. The rest of us can choose to buy meat that is labeled as being free-range or organic (not that those labels are terribly trustworthy), that is free of hormones, that is from local producers, and that does not come from corporations known to use the worst techniques. I do think there is an obligation to seek out meat that came from more humane living and slaughtering conditions. (I know some vegetarians who would eat meat if they could ensure humane conditions.) This obligation is sometimes trumped by other factors, I think, which include not being able to afford the typically more expensive but more humanely produced meat. Perhaps availability also plays a factor here.

One side note: Many people are more repulsed the closer they are to the source of their meat or the more they know about how the food got on their plate. However, I think this is exactly the wrong response here, since I think it is better (and perhaps morally obligatory in some cases) to become aware of the conditions.

3. Healthier diet
Conditions in slaughterhouses, antibiotics, growth hormones, mad cow disease - all of these are examples of how the way we get meat could/does result in greater health problems. Add to this all the negative health effects (e.g., obesity, high cholesterol) that come from eating meat. Eating meat is worse for you than strict vegetarianism.

The negative health effects suggest a diet that is not too heavily dependent on meat, and in which the meats chosen are high in the good stuff and low in the bad stuff. I don’t see any compelling case for the benefits of a vegetarian diet. In fact, for many people who are not well enough informed about what nutrients they would be lacking if they switched off of meat, it would be dangerous to jump into an all veggie diet. For those who can be informed, and who can afford to do so, this should push them toward reducing or eliminating meat from their diet, especially if they are at risk for these health problems.

As for those health problems that arise from bad conditions, given that there is no independent reason for banning meat and that it is unlikely that this will actually happen, these provide excellent reasons for greater scrutiny of the animal lifecycle by independent watchdog organizations and the federal government. If you want some really scary reading, look into what has happened over the last fifteen years to U.S. government agencies like the FDA and the EPA that ensure our health. That is a problem that deserves our attention.

4. Better use of resources
When one compares the natural resources (especially water, land, and fossil fuels) that are involved in producing meat versus those involved in producing vegetarian foods, there is an incredible difference, often by a factor of 10 or 100. Given the limited supply of natural resources and the negative consequences to people and the world of our continued rate of consumption, we have an obligation to switch to the diet that uses fewer resources.

This was the first argument for vegetarianism that really struck a chord with me. My (modest) reading of the impact of raising farm animals, particularly in portions of the world not well suited to cattle, like Brazil, has reinforced this for me. However, I think it is a pretty weak argument for vegetarianism, and a very strong argument for reducing our intake of meat.

And so that’s what I’ve done. When our meals involve meat, I’ve reduced the portion sizes of the meat. We’ve sought out vegetarian dishes to become part of our regular rotation of meals. When given the choice between beef and chicken, I choose chicken. I’m still working on choosing fish over chicken and vegetarian over any meat, but I’m slowly getting there.
I’m a committed omnivore, who is seeking out new and exciting vegetables, fruits, and grains. I’m looking for ways of making my diet more vegetarian, and looking for ways to ensure that the meat I eat comes from the most human conditions that I can reasonably expect. I buy local when I can. But become a vegetarian? I just don’t think the arguments require it.

Addendum: Mark Bittman has a nice article on how to eat less meat without going vegetarian.
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