Face off: Is eating meat ethically justified?

PRO – MIKEY                                                                                                                                                  ANTI – RACHEL

Rachel: The topic of vegetarianism is an odd one. At first glance, it’s pretty straightforward: animals are conscious creatures. Imposing needless pain and death on conscious creatures is a bad thing. Let’s not do it.

But this is rarely how we think about it; rather, it gets complicated by many related issues: climate change, the meat industry, economics and poverty, health, and natural law. Relevant though these things are, it seems somewhat strange that the basic ethical issue so often gets overlooked. Vegetarians are so often the subject of scorn and suspicion (see the recent, ridiculous article by Ronan McGreevy in the Irish Times for a case in point) that they jump to tangential arguments to defend their position. One such popular bandwagon is that of the “eco-veggie”; the vegetarian out to save the planet by decreasing carbon emissions caused by meat production. Although defenses like these are reasonable, and important issues in themselves, they lose their relevance to the vegetarian cause with every new book explaining how the meat industry is really not as big a deal for our planet as we thought it was, and force us to move onto some new issue. I’m inclined to agree with Barbara Ellen when she implores vegetarians to “say meat is still murder”. Of course, recognizing the moral action, and realizing that moral action, are very different things, and the preachy and self-satisfied veggie-warrior is as much my least favourite person as it is almost everyone else’s. Living in the world we live in makes it almost impossible not to do something morally dubious nearly every day – whether it’s buying clothes in a high street store or buying coffee produced by exploited farmers – the lengths you have to go to to be ethically sound are enormous. But the trivializing “but look at that tasty bacon!” and “sure we’ve been eating meat since time began, we couldn’t stop now” arguments one sees legitimizing a carnivorous diet are nothing more than clouded statements that we ultimately don’t care about the implications of our dietary choices. As a person living in Ireland today, there is really no defensible reason to eat meat.

Mikey: The defence of carnivorous attitudes is also an odd one. Awkward shrugging of the shoulders, puffed-up grimaces and the raising of skyward palms are the usual reaction to the occasional airing of “the meat question.” How should I defend my position without appearing to be some glorifier in the hot black steaming blood of mammal flesh?

Well, this might be surprising for the myopic veggie, but carnivores do feel a kind of guilt about eating meat. But why do we eat it? On the one hand, it is a nutritious aspect of a healthy diet, but on the other, the animals, which vegetarians are so keen to “protect” by living off ground nuts and lentils, have been bred over centuries to be eaten – without this function, they simply would  not exist. We carnivores distance ourselves from imagining a once alive and sentient creature on our plate, notably through language (nobody has “roast cow” for Sunday lunch), but also by respecting the thought that this is of an animal that has been ethically treated towards its inevitable olfactory end. Modern farming practices – especially in Ireland – incorporate increasingly humane practices in the production of food so as to treat these animals with the respect due them and spare them as much pain as possible.

Carnivores are actually all for the ethical treatment of animals: notice the rising interest in a restaurant’s supplier and how it is with joy that we observe the growing popularity of Free Range foods to the extent that sausages culled from open-field pigs are readily available in supermarkets. Thus the idea that there is “no defensible reason” for eating meat is absurd, as animals cultivated for food are treated with the respect, admiration and humanity that is often forgotten by that specimen of the blinkered, smug and self-righteous veggie.

Rachel: To the person who cleverly points out that certain animals only exist in order for us to eat them, and asks “would you rather there were no cows in the world, you purported animal lover?!”, the answer in my view is pretty simple. Yes. If hundreds of thousands of animals exist for the sole function of being hurt (they are) and killed and put on shelves in Tesco, then it is better that they don’t exist at all. Where is the harm in not existing? There isn’t any. The harm only comes about when existing means being raised in a space so small you can’t turn around in it, or having your beak cut off so you can’t peck the neighbours who share your over-crowded pen, or being transported over long distances in dark containers with a high chance of dehydration and being trampled on. That animals suffer in the meat trade is an incontestable fact. Practices of farming and slaughter are arguably becoming more humane all of the time, but the best standards are far from perfect, and far from the norm. The recent ‘horsemeat scandal’ may have captured the public imagination mainly because very few of us can reconcile the idea of horse with the idea of a tasty dinner, but more significantly, it illustrates the unreliability of the regulations governing meat production, and the unfortunate reality that, a lot of the time, we don’t really know the process by which what we’re eating came to be on our plate.

Mikey: To address your first point, while it’s arguable to say that there’s no problem with “not existing”, the fact is, they simply exist. In no way do I see the solution to be a mass genocide of farmyard animals – which seems to be the implication of your point – but the only real solution is a continuation of current, increasingly humane practices. While I acknowledge your allusions to the barbaric treatment of animals shown in such documentaries as P.E.T.A.’s Meet Your Meat, I have to point out that ever since the revelation of these extreme (and irregular) examples, the meat industry has responded swiftly in adopting ethical treatments. The references made to de-beaking and spatial deprivation are pertinent only in that consumers as well as suppliers avoid such disgusting procedures with vigour. I also have to deride the notion that the ‘horsemeat scandal’ is an example of “unreliable” regulations. Irish testing was so thorough that the scandal would not have come to light and we’d be left chowing down on equine lasagnes. In short, we’ve reached a stage where the information about our food is very much there and the onus is upon us to research and make ethically informed decisions.

Rachel: ‘A mass genocide of farmyard animals’, if you’d like to get extreme about it, is exactly what happens every day under the status quo; I’m certainly not suggesting it, but you are advocating we carry on with it. What I mean is that it is circular and illegitimate to justify our use of animals for meat by saying that they exist only for that purpose, because they only exist because we continue to breed them into existence, for that purpose – we could not do that. Obviously you could never make the world meatless overnight, nor would you want to, due to the myriad of problems this would no doubt cause – but if demand for meat decreased, so too would the population of those farm animals in question, because producers simply wouldn’t have a reason to breed as many of them. There are also problems with calling the practices I mentioned ‘irregular’. Firstly, because comprehensive global statistics on farming practices are incredibly hard to come by; secondly, because exposés of the kind you mentioned have happened too many times to assume the things they unearthed were anomalies; and thirdly, because when you go to most supermarkets the majority of the chicken on sale is still not free range. Partly because the ethical consumers you speak of just aren’t the norm, and partly because buying ethically and sustainably produced meat is very expensive. And even for those consumers who manage to make well-informed decisions about the meat they eat (I’m dubious as to the practicality of this), the animals they’ve eaten have still been killed, at the end of the day. Humane slaughter is (humane) slaughter.

Mikey: Firstly, those are absolutely “extreme” examples, as they are propagated by an extremist organisation (P.E.T.A.) whose intention is to flog their “vegan starter kits.” Secondly, these exposés are rare in that the Meet Your Meat film is still P.E.T.A.’s only film on the topic despite it being over a decade old, and if you could specifically detail any more exposés that showed similarly irregular cruelty on a broad scale and not just similarly isolated incidents since then, I would completely welcome them.

I think you’ve misread or misunderstood my use of the word “genocide.” “Genocide”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the deliberate and systematic extermination of an ethnic or national group.”- it is a word referring solely to senseless, barbaric murder and is to be used towards people alone. My earlier use of the word was to show that merely ending the lives of animals that are an in-demand food source is a an inhumane, meanwhile your point that “Humane slaughter is (humane) slaughter” shows that you do not know that “slaughter” comes from the Old Norse for “Butcher’s Meat.” While the media uses the word blindly to refer to nightmarish wars or Liverpool’s thrashing of Norwich, it is a word that inherits dehumanising traits.

Ultimately, the production of meat is humane as it is an act ending the life of an animal, not a human, for food’s sake. There is a huge disparity between the two that is often forgotten in the use of such rhetoric in debates that causes a blurring of the lines between humanity and beasts. Ethically, “Man” is not “Meat” and that should be remembered.

“The defence of carnivorous attitudes is also an odd one. Awkward shrugging of the shoulders, puffed-up grimaces and the raising of skyward palms are the usual reaction to the occasional airing of “the meat question.” How should I defend my position without appearing to be some glorifier in the hot black steaming blood of mammal flesh?”

Rachel: I didn’t know the etymology of the word ‘slaughter’? How embarrassing.

I’m a bit unclear as to what point you’re making, but it seems to be something about the essential difference between man and animal. I think the essentialising of that difference is little if anything more than an arbitrary speciesism. Nothing makes “Man” not “Meat”, apart from the fact that we are disgusted at the thought of it, and so afford our own kind privileges that we do not extend to other sentient beings; either because we find them impossible to relate to, or think them sufficiently less intelligent that they are ours to use and abuse. If you base your understanding of ethics on the basic principle of not causing needless pain to others, as I would suggest most people do or at least profess to do, then animals simply come under that umbrella of beings not to be mistreated. You can rally against the extreme examples of organizations like P.E.T.A., but even if the humane world of farming that you say exists does exist, I am in no way convinced that those animals being raised and killed are having a swell time, or that that state of affairs is somehow morally neutral.

At the end of the day, the non-necessary consumption of meat (by people who have access to a wide variety of other food with which to constitute a healthy diet), is not justifiable, and our increasing preoccupation with ‘humane’ practices and regulations contributes to our ability to distance ourselves from something we know is wrong.

Mikey: While etymology might seem a queer thing to obsess over, it is vital in understanding the origins and functions of language- the one thing that truly binds us together in reality. Language is malleable, and its manipulations need to be pointed out- especially when one tries to shock by using the word “slaughter” without knowing what it actually means.

The difference between animal and man is not some shaky “essentialism”, but one respected for centuries. The father of Modern Philosophy, Descartes, had famously thought of animals as being no more than soft, fleshy machines, and while I view this as ridiculous, I recognise how it’s a wonky corollary originating from his famous validation of identity- “I think therefore I am”. Animals simply don’t think like humans do – while man assimilates complex information, constructs hypothetical scenarios, and plans ahead, animals live immediately, looking for kind treatment and simple pastures. Believe it or not, modern farming provides them that. The Bórd Bía Quality Mark insists upon farm animals being well fed, given shelter and open space to roam, and the scheme’s regulations are noticeably strict. Even the act of killing is done to cause as little pain possible- most commonly in Ireland, farmers use a device to render the animal unconscious before ending its life.

You can have your own opinion that this is immoral mistreatment, but such a view to prize animals as equal to humans seems to come from no found rationalism, but a subjective “instinct”. The eating of meat is performed with the most ethically and humane practices possible in mind, with regulations chosen to uphold this.