The Ethics of Eating Meat: A Radical View

By Charles Eisenstein

Most vegetarians I know are not primarily motivated by nutrition. Although they argue strenuously for the health benefits of a vegetarian diet, many see good health as a reward for the purity and virtue of a vegetarian diet, or as an added bonus. In my experience, a far more potent motivator among vegetarians–ranging from idealistic college students, to social and environmental activists, to adherents of Eastern spiritual traditions like Buddhism and Yoga–is the moral or ethical case for not eating meat.

Enunciated with great authority by such spiritual luminaries as Mahatma Gandhi, and by environmental crusaders such as Frances Moore Lappe, the moral case against eating meat seems at first glance to be overpowering. As a meat eater who cares deeply about living in harmony with the environment, and as an honest person trying to eliminate hypocrisy in the way I live, I feel compelled to take these arguments seriously.

A typical argument goes like this: In order to feed modern society’s enormous appetite for meat, animals endure unimaginable suffering in conditions of extreme filth, crowding and confinement. Chickens are packed twenty to a cage, hogs are kept in concrete stalls so narrow they can never turn around.

Arguing for the Environment
The cruelty is appalling, but no less so than the environmental effects. Meat animals are fed anywhere from five to fifteen pounds of vegetable protein for each pound of meat produced–an unconscionable practice in a world where many go hungry. Whereas one-sixth an acre of land can feed a vegetarian for a year, over three acres are required to provide the grain needed to raise a year’s worth of meat for the average meat-eater.

All too often, so the argument goes, those acres consist of clear-cut rain forests. The toll on water resources is equally grim: the meat industry accounts for half of US water consumption–2500 gallons per pound of beef, compared to 25 gallons per pound of wheat. Polluting fossil fuels are another major input into meat production. As for the output, 1.6 million tons of livestock manure pollutes our drinking water. And let’s not forget the residues of antibiotics and synthetic hormones that are increasingly showing up in municipal water supplies.

Even without considering the question of taking life (I’ll get to that later), the above facts alone make it clear that it is immoral to aid and abet this system by eating meat.

Factory or Farm?
I will not contest any of the above statistics, except to say that they only describe the meat industry as it exists today. They constitute a compelling argument against the meat industry, not meat-eating. For in fact, there are other ways of raising animals for food, ways that make livestock an environmental asset rather than a liability, and in which animals do not lead lives of suffering. Consider, for example, a traditional mixed farm combining a variety of crops, pasture land and orchards. Here, manure is not a pollutant or a waste product; it is a valuable resource contributing to soil fertility. Instead of taking grain away from the starving millions, pastured animals actually generate food calories from land unsuited to tillage. When animals are used to do work–pulling plows, eating bugs and turning compost–they reduce fossil fuel consumption and the temptation to use pesticides. Nor do animals living outdoors require a huge input of water for sanitation.

In a farm that is not just a production facility but an ecology, livestock has a beneficial role to play. The cycles, connections and relationships among crops, trees, insects, manure, birds, soil, water and people on a living farm form an intricate web, “organic” in its original sense, a thing of beauty not easily lumped into the same category as a 5000-animal concrete hog factory. Any natural environment is home to animals and plants, and it seems reasonable that an agriculture that seeks to be as close as possible to nature would incorporate both. Indeed, on a purely horticultural farm, wild animals can be a big problem, and artificial measures are required to keep them out. Nice rows of lettuce and carrots are an irresistible buffet for rabbits, woodchucks and deer, which can decimate whole fields overnight. Vegetable farmers must rely on electric fences, traps, sprays, and–more than most people realize–guns and traps to protect their crops. If the farmer refrains from killing, raising vegetables at a profitable yield requires holding the land in a highly artificial state, cordoned off from nature.

Yes, one might argue, but the idyllic farms of yesteryear are insufficient to meet the huge demand of our meat-addicted society. Even if you eat only organically raised meat, you are not being moral unless your consumption level is consistent with all of Earth’s six billion people sharing your diet.

Production and Productivity
Such an argument rests on the unwarranted assumption that our current meat industry seeks to maximize production. Actually it seeks to maximize profit, which means maximizing not “production” but “productivity”–units per dollar. In dollar terms it is more efficient to have a thousand cows in a high-density feedlot, eating corn monocultured on a chemically-dependent 5,000-acre farm, than it is to have fifty cows grazing on each of twenty 250-acre family farms. It is more efficient in dollar terms, and probably more efficient in terms of human labor too. Fewer farmers are needed, and in a society that belittles farming, that is considered a good thing. But in terms of beef per acre (or per unit of water, fossil fuel, or other natural capital) it is not more efficient.

In an ideal world, meat would be just as plentiful perhaps, but it would be much more expensive. That is as it should be. Traditional societies understood that meat is a special food; they revered it as one of nature’s highest gifts. To the extent that our society translates high value into high price, meat should be expensive. The prevailing prices for meat (and other food) are extraordinarily low relative to total consumer spending, both by historical standards and in comparison to other countries. Ridiculously cheap food impoverishes farmers, demeans food itself, and makes less “efficient” modes of production uneconomical. If food, and meat in particular, were more expensive then perhaps we wouldn’t waste so much–another factor to consider in evaluating whether current meat consumption is sustainable.

Moral Imperative
So far I have addressed issues of cruel conditions and environmental sustainability, important moral motivations for vegetarianism, to be sure. But vegetarianism existed before the days of factory farming, and it was inspired by a simple, primal conviction that killing is wrong. It is just plain wrong to take another animal’s life unnecessarily; it is bloody, brutal, and barbaric.

Of course, plants are alive too, and most vegetarian diets involve the killing of plants. (The exception is the fruit-only “fruitarian” diet.) Most people don’t accept that killing an animal is the same as killing a plant though, and few would argue that animals are not a more highly organized form of life, with greater sentience and greater capacity for suffering. Compassion extends more readily to animals that cry out in fear and pain, though personally, I do feel sorry for garden weeds as I pull them out by the roots. Nonetheless, the argument “plants are alive too” is unlikely to satisfy the moral impulse behind vegetarianism.

It should also be noted that mechanized vegetable farming involves massive killing of soil organisms, insects, rodents and birds. Again, this does not address the central vegetarian motivation, because this killing is incidental and can in principle be minimized. The soil itself, the earth itself, may, for all we know, be a sentient being, and surely an agricultural system, even if plant-based, that kills soil, kills rivers, and kills the land, is as morally reprehensible as any meat-oriented system, but again this does not address the essential issue of intent: Isn’t it wrong to kill a sentient being unnecessarily?

One might also question whether this killing is truly unnecessary. Although the nutritional establishment looks favorably on vegetarianism, a significant minority of researchers vigorously dispute its health claims. An evaluation of this debate is beyond the scope of this article, but after many years of dedicated self-experimentation, I am convinced that meat is quite “necessary” for me to enjoy health, strength and energy. Does my good health outweigh another being’s right to life? This question leads us back to the central issue of killing. It is time to drop all unstated assumptions and meet this issue head-on.

The Central Question
Let’s start with a very naïve and provocative question: “What, exactly, is wrong about killing?” And for that matter, “What is so bad about dying?”

It is impossible to fully address the moral implications of eating meat without thinking about the significance of life and death. Otherwise one is in danger of hypocrisy, stemming from our separation from the fact of death behind each piece of meat we eat. The physical and social distance from slaughterhouse to dinner table insulates us from the fear and pain the animals feel as they are led to the slaughter, and turns a dead animal into just “a piece of meat.” Such distance is a luxury our ancestors did not have: in ancient hunting and farming societies, killing was up close and personal, and it was impossible to ignore the fact that this was recently a living, breathing animal.

Our insulation from the fact of death extends far beyond the food industry. Accumulating worldly treasures–wealth, status, beauty, expertise, reputation–we ignore the truth that they are impermanent, and therefore, in the end, worthless. “You can’t take it with you,” the saying goes, yet the American system, fixated on worldly acquisition, depends on the pretense that we can, and that these things have real value. Often only a close brush with death helps people realize what’s really important. The reality of death reveals as arrant folly the goals and values of conventional modern life, both collective and individual.

It is no wonder, then, that our society, unprecedented in its wealth, has also developed a fear of death equally unprecedented in history. Both on a personal and institutional level, prolonging and securing life has become more important than how that life is lived. This is most obvious in our medical system, of course, in which death is considered the ultimate “negative outcome,” to which even prolonged agony is preferable. I see the same kind of thinking in Penn State students, who choose to suffer the “prolonged agony” of studying subjects they hate, in order to get a job they don’t really love, in order to have financial “security.” They are afraid to live right, afraid to claim their birthright, which is to do joyful and exciting work. The same fear underlies our society’s lunatic obsession with “safety.” The whole American program now is to insulate oneself as much as possible from death–to achieve “security.” It comes down to the ego trying to make permanent what can never be permanent.

Modern Dualism
Digging deeper, the root of this fear, I think, lies in our culture’s dualistic separation of body and soul, matter and spirit, man and nature. The scientific legacy of Newton and Descartes holds that we are finite, separate beings; that life and its events are accidental; that the workings of life and the universe may be wholly explained in terms of objective laws applied to inanimate, elemental parts; and therefore, that meaning is a delusion and God a projection of our wishful thinking. If materiality is all there is, and if life is without real purpose, then of course death is the ultimate calamity.

Curiously, the religious legacy of Newton and Descartes is not all that different. When religion abdicated the explanation of “how the world works”–cosmology–to physics, it retreated to the realm of the non-worldly. Spirit became the opposite of matter, something elevated and separate. It did not matter too much what you did in the world of matter, it was unimportant, so long as your (immaterial) “soul” were saved. Under a dualistic view of spirituality, living right as a being of flesh and blood, in the world of matter, becomes less important. Human life becomes a temporary excursion, an inconsequential distraction from the eternal life of the spirit.

Other cultures, more ancient and wiser cultures, did not see it like this. They believed in a sacred world, of matter infused with spirit. Animism, we call it, the belief that all things are possessed of a soul. Even this definition betrays our dualistic presumptions. Perhaps a better definition would be that all things are soul. If all things are soul, then life in the flesh, in the material world, is sacred. These cultures also believed in fate, the futility of trying to live past one’s time. To live rightly in the time allotted is then a matter of paramount importance, and life a sacred journey.

When death itself, rather than a life wrongly lived, is the ultimate calamity, it is easy to see why an ethical person would choose vegetarianism. To deprive a creature of life is the ultimate crime, especially in the context of a society that values safety over fun and security over the inherent risk of creativity. When meaning is a delusion, then ego–the self’s internal representation of itself in relation to not-self–is all there is. Death is never right, part of a larger harmony, a larger purpose, a divine tapestry, because there is no divine tapestry; the universe is impersonal, mechanical and soulless.

Obsolete Science
Fortunately, the science of Newton and Descartes is now obsolete. Its pillars of reductionism and objectivity are crumbling under the weight of 20th century discoveries in quantum mechanics, thermodynamics and nonlinear systems, in which order arises out of chaos, simplicity out of complexity, and beauty out of nowhere and everywhere; in which all things are connected; and in which there is something about the whole that cannot be fully understood in terms of its parts. Be warned, my views would not be accepted by most professional scientists, but I think there is much in modern science pointing to an ensouled world, in which consciousness, order and cosmic purpose are written into the fabric of reality.

In an animistic and holistic world view, the moral question to ask oneself about food is not “Was there killing?” but rather, “Is this food taken in rightness and harmony?” The cow is a soul, yes, and so is the land and the ecosystem, and the planet. Did that cow lead the life a cow ought to lead? Is the way it was raised beautiful, or ugly (according to my current understanding)? Allying intuition and factual knowledge, I ask whether eating this food contributes to that tiny shred of the divine tapestry that I can see.

Divine Tapestry
There is a time to live and a time to die. That is the way of nature. If you think about it, prolonged suffering is rare in nature. Our meat industry profits from the prolonged suffering of animals, people and the Earth, but that is not the only way. When a cow lives the life a cow ought to live, when its life and death are consistent with a beautiful world, then for me there is no ethical dilemma in killing that cow for food. Of course there is pain and fear when the cow is taken to the slaughter (and when the robin pulls up the worm, and when the wolves down the caribou, and when the hand uproots the weed), and that makes me sad. There is much to be sad about in life, but underneath the sadness is a joy that is dependent not on avoiding pain and maximizing pleasure, but on living rightly and well.

It would indeed be hypocritical of me to apply this to a cow and not to myself. To live with integrity as a killer of animals and plants, it is necessary for me in my own life to live rightly and well, even and especially when such decisions seem to jeopardize my comfort, security, and rational self-interest, even if, someday, to live rightly is to risk death. Not just for animals, but for me too, there is a time to live and a time to die. I’m saying: What is good enough for any living creature is good enough for me. Eating meat need not be an act of arrogant species-ism, but consistent with a humble submission to the tides of life and death.

If this sounds radical or unattainable, consider that all those calculations of what is “in my interest” and what will benefit me and what I can “afford” grow tiresome. When we live rightly, decision by decision, the heart sings even when the rational mind disagrees and the ego protests. Besides, human wisdom is limited. Despite our machinations, we are ultimately unsuccessful at avoiding pain, loss and death. For animals, plants, and humans alike, there is more to life than not dying.