Sunday, April 8, 2012

No, Virginia, it is not "ethical" to eat meat

The New York Times has been having trouble with its ethicists of late.

Seemingly as a sign of these troubles, it has resorted to a contest.

Tell us why, the New York Times asks, it might be ethical to eat meat?

And one notes the presence of popular voices, including cookbook authors, shades of Damon Knight's little story "To Serve Man" and its play on words and expectations, as "judges."

No John Grey here, although he might be able to make a good case for the carnivores. No Matthew Scully, no Gail Eisnitz either. Peter Singer, but his argument goes by the numbers, as a good utilitarian should.

It is not "ethical" -- a weasel word, if ever there was one -- to eat meat.

But it is the case that we do.

The problem here is thus to argue from what is so to what ought to be so.

None of the 814 comments were able to make that leap.

The essays the committee will judge may well do so, but the task is considerable.

That the argument is already stacked in favor of something one will 'vote' a winner is clear in advance. The NYT has to and will print something.

What was argued in the more philosophically minded of the comments made offered variations on an array of philosophical fallacies: that it has always been done (argument from tradition), others do it (bandwagon argument), or else the mindset du jour of sustainabilism or the related contention, usually articulated in seemingly environmentalist terms (whereby the idea is always that the world environment is for the sake of no other creature but the human being) that the eating of meat is the lesser of two evils (a manifestly inaccurate point on a number of levels, although meat eaters who deny that animals suffer are often happily prepared to argue that carrots, say, do feel pain).

An ethical argument for the moral righteousness or goodness of meat eating has yet to be produced.

One might be able to do so, as I once reflected, if one lived as the original inhabitants of the Americas did, and thanked the animals one killed and sought to live in one's life up to the level of the animal. To kill a deer one would then have to meet or exceed all the best qualities of the animal life that is lost for our sake: beauty, speed, gentleness etc.

But as it is, it is quite difficult to measure up to the level of or the qualities of a decent carrot.

Hint: we human beings are not there already, or automatically, if only because where a good carrot is nothing but what it is, the human being often manages to fall short of what it is, a deficiency that is sometimes also the occasion for transcendence.

Thus we are able to ask ourselves whether it is ethical to eat meat. And we are able, provided we are honest, provided we are what we should be, to admit that it is not "ethical."