As an ethical vegetarian, I strongly believe that eating an animal when I have the option not to is morally objectionable. Full stop. However, as a relativist; I don’t believe in objective morality. If you choose to eat animals, in full knowledge of what that entails, I don’t think it’s my prerogative to judge whether your choice is morally correct for you.
Morality is neither innate nor stable. Your perception of whether something is moral is dependent upon both the way it’s being framed and the frames your own background creates. Take something like abortion. You can frame it as protecting the rights of individuals over their reproductive systems. Or you can frame it as the murder of innocent and helpless creatures (oddly enough, the same terms vegans often frame animal slaughter in). Abortion is controversial because there are multiple ways of framing it, and many of them have moral legitimacy to the people on both sides. It’s moral to protect women’s reproductive rights over their own bodies and it’s moral to protect the defenseless. But you can’t do both.
Although I hope I’ll never have to make that decision for myself, I’m strongly pro-choice: I want people to have the freedom to make their own moral decisions in their own lives. I really want people to think for themselves, dammit. I want to have my moral decisions respected. And that requires me to respect other people’s moral decisions, even at the cost of animal lives that I try to avoid harming in my own life. Vegangelical, I’m not.
Like most vegetarians, I frame other animals as intelligent beings worthy of respect and compassion. As an atheist, I don’t think humans are entitled to feel superior to other mammals. Being squeamish, I can’t walk past a hunk of raw meat and not think, “I bet that’s what I look like inside, too.” As an animal lover, some of my closest friends have not been human. These are my frames, and for me, not eating animals is clearly the right moral decision.
But other frames are possible, too. Joel Salatin and Barbara Kingsolver see animals as crops, to be raised responsibly and harvested responsibly. True, killing a chicken is less pleasant than pulling up a carrot, but both involve the taking of life. For others living in areas with poor productivity in which local plant-foods can’t provide complete nutrients or require too many resources (like water), eating some animal products is, if not absolutely necessity, a more ecological and nutritious way to eat. (See The Heifer Foundation.) And some people, including a good friend of mine, simply don’t feel physically good without modest amounts of animal products. Morality is adaptable; I’d say that shaking muscles and physical weakness would probably allow me to legitimize eating small amounts of meat. Fortunately, my body is fine without meat.
I’m not defending the abuse or inhumane treatment of animals, or the mindless consumption of meat. All of the above frames include a certain appreciation, consciousness, and respect for the animals being consumed. But I am arguing that, from some perspectives, eating animals can be a morally acceptable act. Not on the scale and not in the way most first world meat-eaters do it, of course. I doubt many of them consider their meat-eating default from a moral, conscious, or responsible standpoint, and I’m all for educating them so they can. I’d like to think that some of them would go vegetarian if presented with the full story of their steak. But I also think people should come to their own moral decisions.
I wish I lived on a planet that allowed me to respect animal lives and well-considered human moral decisions equally. I err on the side of humans because I think the ability to respect different human perspectives is that important. Perhaps it is speciesist. But at the same time, it’s pragmatic: humans are the only creatures with the ability to wipe out all life on Earth.