Five Stupid Arguments Against Ethical Eating
by Jeremy Smyczek
So you are a “compassionate carnivore,” vegetarian, or vegan. You’ve put a great deal of thought and research into how to make life better for the many millions of animals who suffer needlessly as a result of human dietary choices. And yet, faster than a creationist can ask, “If we come from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” you run into some smug omnivore who is certain that he or she can defeat you with a single tired, intellectually bankrupt, meme that still seems convincing to him. This list briefly addresses some of the more prevalent ones.
- “But other animals eat animals!”
This argument has one thing going for it: it is, at least, factually correct, if mind-numbingly stupid. Other animals—especially other primates—also steal, rape, commit infanticide, and throw feces. Factual observations about how things are often serve as remarkably poor guides to determining how things ought to be. As Darwin was quick to point out, looking at kingdom Animalia as an ethics textbook is only likely to get one into trouble.
- “Don’t some vegetarians wear leather (or insert other supposed vice)? Come see the hypocrisy inherent in the system! Come see the hypocrisy inherent in the system!”
This argument has a small practical problem and a huge logical problem. First, cows are not raised and killed for leather; it is a secondary product, and one that lasts for years instead of hours, so refusing to wear it when animals are already slaughtered for meat simply combines waste with cruelty. But let’s forget that for a minute, and assume that wearing leather is wrong. At root here is a distressingly common tendency to value doing something consistently wrong over inconsistently right. I ate chicken at Golden Corral recently, knowing that they buy their chickens from factory farms where the birds are treated atrociously. I shouldn’t have done that, but I was hungry and weak-willed. It would not make me a better person were I to do this every day instead of admitting that I failed to live up to my own standards, and it’s bizarre that many people imply that it would.
- “People need to eat animals to live! Look at all those trim vegans teetering on the edge of death! Let’s have a pound each of porterhouse!”
There is a kernel of truth to this that is used to justify an egregious lie. People need protein to live, and some research indicates that small amounts of animal protein provide health benefits that nuts, beans, and other plant-based protein sources do not. But the next step—implying that the possible benefits of a twice-weekly serving of fish or shellfish justify the systematic torture of millions of birds and mammals housed in factory farms—is a bit like saying that somewhere prior to the arrival of Europeans to the American continent there was a bad Indian, and so the ethnic cleansing of said continent was fair game. The solution is both suspiciously self-serving and horrifically out of proportion to the problem. If animal protein is a need, it can be addressed without massive cruelty.
- “Tens of thousands of field mice and rats are killed in grain harvests! There’s no avoiding killing things, so we should all eat whatever we want.”
Aside from the fact that this argument is a transparently desperate attempt to drag an opponent down to the moral low ground with you, it overlooks the fundamental facts that: a) said rodent-killing is unintentional, and at best an argument for more humane harvesting techniques; and b) the main point of the ethical eating movement is reducing suffering, not purging death from the world. There is a giant moral difference between a field mouse living happily until a regrettable chance meeting with a combine and bleeding out three seconds later and a pig living its life in a metal box in the dark, force-fed antibiotics and having its tail cut off without anesthetic so that people can have cheap bacon.
- “Ethical eating is a snotty limousine liberal fetish. The Third World doesn’t have the luxury of picking and choosing what to eat. Anthony Bourdain told me so!”
It may be proper to suspend judgment about what people in poverty do to survive. We don’t live in one of those countries, however, and so the argument is merely a red herring. Affordable ethical food choices abound in the U.S., and ways to access and prepare them are a Google search away. We should man (or woman) up and accept it.