Some days back I got wind of this contest in The New York Times Magazine.
Ethically speaking, vegetables get all the glory. In recent years, vegetarians — and to an even greater degree vegans, their hard-core inner circle — have dominated the discussion about the ethics of eating. From the philosopher Peter Singer, whose 1975 volume “Animal Liberation” galvanized an international movement, to the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, who wrote the 2009 best seller “Eating Animals,” those who forswear meat have made the case that what we eat is a crucial ethical decision. To be just, they say, we must put down our cheeseburgers and join their ranks.
In response, those who love meat have had surprisingly little to say. They say, of course, that, well, they love meat or that meat is deeply ingrained in our habit or culture or cuisine or that it’s nutritious or that it’s just part of the natural order. Some of the more conscientious carnivores have devoted themselves to enhancing the lives of livestock, by improving what those animals eat, how they live and how they are killed. But few have tried to answer the fundamental ethical issue: Whether it is right to eat animals in the first place, at least when human survival is not at stake.
So today we announce a nationwide contest for the omnivorous readers of The New York Times. We invite you to make the strongest possible case for this most basic of daily practices.
Here’s the panel of judges: Peter Singer, Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Jonathan Safran Foer and Andrew Light.
I went back & forth with myself as to whether to tender an entry at all and if so, in what style; i.e., serious, rant, ironic, humorous, or some combination. I’ve decided to go ahead with it, and to do it most sober & serious. So here goes. 600 words or less.
In words Dickens would revive some 200 years later in Oliver Twist, this, from the 1654 George Chapman play, Revenge for Honour:
Ere he shall lose an eye for such a trifle… For doing deeds of nature! I’m ashamed. The law is such an ass.
The point is, what good are ethics or laws if they don’t fundamentally contemplate the human being qua animal? Notions of ethics—the right or wrong of things—must logically begin by asking the question “what kind of animal is the human being?”
We know a lot about that question from paleo-anthropology. Humans are meat eaters. From Kleiber’s Law—the chief metabolic difference between humans and primate ancestors is the tradeoff between brain and gut size—to archeological digs with piles of scavenged bones, to isotope analysis of fossilized teeth: everything points to an evolution where the hunting and eating of nutritionally dense animals was key in human survival and its ultimate success in becoming a generalist, able to migrate to and thrive from equator to arctic and sea level to 16,000 feet during spring, summer, winter and fall.
Rather than approach the question from the unsupportable notion that humans are somehow biologically herbivorous, but with an insatiable taste for meat that may be unnatural, we must acknowledge that humans evolved eating meat and other animal nutrition, that it was key to their survival and ability to thrive and grow; and given all that, it’s more likely that natural animal products are beneficial to human health rather than harmful.
At what point can it be said that behavior wholly subsumed in the nature of a species of animal can be wrong, unethical to practice? To even ask the question requires an introspective, intelligent conscience—the qualitative aspect of our being that differentiates us from other animals. Because otherwise, the question we’re asking demands first that we identify and explain how ethics could arise external to our own natural experience, from some super-existent realm sporting an external authority that trumps our own individual authority over our own behavior. In simpler terms: we are ethical beings. Ethics, a sense of right and wrong, is as much a part of what makes us human as the consumption of other animals along the way made us human. It’s all baked into the cake: meat gave us the nutritional density to evolve big brains, big brains gave us the intelligence to introspect, and conscious introspection gave us ethics. Eating meat made us ethical beings. As such, eating the flesh of non-ethical beings can’t logically be unethical.
At base, one might begin with the notion that the proscription of certain human behaviors start with a logical principle: The Golden Rule. Because otherwise, who gets to decide which rules are Golden and which aren’t? It’s at least logically consistent to hold that to the extent some act is permissible or proscribed for you, the same goes for every other human being.
Perhaps once we evolve enough to get The Golden Rule squared away—i.e., to the extent that humans mind their own business first, setting aside the desire to impose their personal values and choices upon others via the guilt or force-backed machinery of church & state that harms other human beings in the millions—we’ll be in a better position to tackle some of the more egregious harm that befalls other animals.
…Suppose the big cats suddenly got a conscience? Would that conscience demand that by virtue of its existence, they are now ethically bound to violate their own nature, desire, pursuit of life?
Alright, that’s 596 words out of 600 allowed. Any comments, criticisms, suggestions?