Ethical Omnivorism

Thanks in large part to Michael Pollan, there’s a new movement that is sometimes called ‘ethical’ or ‘humane’ meat-eating. Even long-time vegetarians like Barbara Kingsolver are going back to meat. Adherents continue to eat meat, but limit themselves to humanely raised animals: free-range, pasture fed cows, chickens, pigs, etc. who have spent most of their lives in green fields under blue skies. The idea is that grass-fed, responsibly raised animals are healthier (for us, too), lighter on the environment (if not our wallets), and altogether easier on our consciences.

There’s plenty to applaud about this movement, especially as an alternative to industrialized factory farming, whose only saving grace is its low upfront sticker price. I don’t question that ‘ethical’ meat-eating is more environmentally sound and sustainable. But since when did ‘ethical’ and ‘humane’ encompass the unnecessary killing of a healthy and intelligent animal?

Full disclosure: I’ve been a vegetarian for a few years now, and a guilt-stricken occasional meat eater for years before that. My vegetarianism is based on two main factors: the deep friendships I’ve had with animals, and the conviction that I don’t want to be in any way responsible for the deaths of animals I could have been friends with. I’m an ethical, not an environmental, vegetarian, and as such, my ethics might differ from yours.

But tell me, exactly what is so ethical about killing a healthy, unthreatening, sentient being for no other reason than the fact that it tastes good?  What’s so ethical about putting your tastebuds in front of your ethics?  Regardless of what an animal’s life was like, that final act is unavoidably violent, bloody, and profoundly distasteful even to people who do it for a living. Killing an animal we classify as ‘non-food’ — especially a pet or an endangered species — carries extreme moral stigma. Yet the distinction is a totally arbitrary one: your average pig is probably smarter than your average dog. It’s just as sensitive to pain. Maybe killing methods have gotten less painful, but then again, how would we know?

Switching from conventional to sustainably farmed meat strikes me as just another way to soothe our uneasy consciences so we can continue eating the foods we love.

Choosing to eat meat (barring the test tube variety still in beta), however it was raised, is a violent act. But is it unethical? That depends on what your ethics have to say about violence towards animals, including your own pets. At a guess, you would be horrified to think about killing and eating your dog, even if it had a happy, full life first. Call your grass fed beef humanely raised meat, if you will, or more ethical meat (because anything is more ethical than factory farms). That doesn’t make it either humane or ethical.

I’ve thought about this so much that I am beginning to question my own vegetarianism. I have been troubled for a long time about certain practices related to dairy cows and egg-laying chickens, free range and organic or not. I keep eating dairy and eggs for many of the same reasons why people continue eating meat: milk and eggs taste good, I need the B12 vitamins, I deliberately don’t look into the details, and the people around me eat them all the time. I used to see veganism as an extremist movement, but I’m getting to the point where I wonder whether being merely vegetarian lives up to my moral code.

Eating is a violent act: gnashing teeth, tearing incisors, grinding molars, the total dissolution of one thing in another. Even so, as PETA likes to say, tofu doesn’t scream.

(Oh, and if you haven’t read it already: read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals for a more thoughtful and extensive take on the subject.)


4 responses to this post.

  1. Look there’s a better way. We can enjoy mmmmmm……… MEAT. AND be friendly to our legged friends:


  2. […] for the deaths of animals I could be friends with. (For more on this, see my earlier post, Ethical Omnivorism.) I’m just not seeing how you could get the dairy without the veal unless you can manage to […]


  3. […] I feel a lot of empathy for animals and thus am a vegetarian […]


  4. I love that you’re willing to examine your egg/dairy habit as part of the moral code you apply to meat. For me, it’s all the same, since meat animals and dairy/egg animals are treated in the same manner.

    Either I’m vegan or I’m not. Vegetariansim on ethical grounds has always seemed a bit strange to me, because dairy cows are treated no better than meat cattle, and egg layers are often treated worse than fryers. Since I think it’s quite natural for animals to kill and eat one another, and in fact our omnivorous diet is what allowed the human species to evolve, I don’t find anything inherently repugnant about the killing of animals for food. However, the place we find ourselves in now is so far removed from the basic act of killing for food. We have what are essentially animal concentration camps, in which animals are endlessly brutalized and tortured for meat or milk or eggs.

    Like you said: our ethics all differ. We have to decide what we are OK with and what we cannot tolerate, and we have to be willing to honestly examine that (head OUT of the sand). For me, it’s the cruelty and environmental degradation aspects that violate my ethical code. Thus, my tastebuds are NOT coming before my ethics.

    And I do eat a LOT less meat (and only local, “humanely raised” animals) now that I fully understand its impact. I even went to kill chickens the other day so I could truly understand what goes into my dinner…


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