Essay:Why You Shouldn't Eat Meat
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Replies
- 2.1 "I just don't really care."
- 2.2 "I know I should be a vegetarian, really, but it's too hard."
- 2.3 "Human beings need to eat meat for a complete and healthy diet. It's how we evolved."
- 2.4 "It's natural to eat meat. Lions eat gazelle, cats eat mice, and so on. We're part of the food chain, and we just happen to be on top."
- 2.5 "People are special because human beings are the only rational animals, and our capacity for reason and reflection gives us the right to decide."
- 2.6 "All kinds of animals are killed during grain production, too."
- 2.7 "God gave us dominion over the animals. We can do with them as we wish."
- 2.8 "Factory farming of animals is bad. But if we could raise animals happily and then kill them painlessly, then it would be okay to eat them. Killing doesn't make them suffer."
- 2.9 "There is no universal moral code, there's simply what people have agreed upon. People all agree it's okay to eat animals, so it's okay."
- 2.10 "There are still a lot of people suffering. Human problems come first."
- 2.10.1 "This is such a privileged problem! A lot of people don't have any choice. Are tribespeople in Papua New Guinea evil just because they catch and eat birds sometimes to avoid starving?"
- 2.10.2 "Animals like cows and pigs can be fed inedible grain and silage, and graze on useless land, that would otherwise all be wasted."
- 3 Reasons Beyond the Moral
- 4 Ever-Popular Hypotheticals/Special Cases
- 5 Quotes
- 6 Footnotes
Because people have so many different beliefs, it's hard to build a rationale for vegetarianism that will answer everyone's needs. Some people think it's natural to eat meat, others think people have a special status in the world, and some think that God said it was okay. So the best way I could figure to engage on this topic was to write up a short statement, and then try to answer some of the most common counter-arguments.
My main argument against eating meat is that it causes a sentient and feeling creature to suffer and die merely because of taste preference, and that is unethical and morally repugnant. In the same way that it is abhorrent to torture a cat for the sake of viewing pleasure, it is wrong to eat a cat (or cow) for the sake of tasting its flesh. You don't need to hurt and kill animals to live, so to continue to do so is wrong.
Please note that I will be speaking of meat-eating as it exists today: dominated by factory farming but with some minor availability of alternatives. I am also not making any rhetorical distinction between killing animals and meat-eating - while it's hypothetically possible to raise animals in perfect happiness and eat them after they die of old age, this is not a practical solution in any way right now. Similarly, I'm not addressing in vitro meat or other futuristic replacements. Those are interesting, but I am talking about practical ethics for our current lives. We can't defer making the right choices until it becomes convenient to do so.
For more about my own journey towards vegetarianism, you can read this essay.
"I just don't really care."
I probably should have become a vegetarian long before I did - maybe as long as a decade ago. Because even back then, I knew that something wasn't quite right. Most of the time, I could order a hamburger or fry up some chicken without giving it a second thought, but every so often I would pause in front of the butcher's case in the grocery store and look at the rows of shrink-wrapped fat-limned steaks and think to myself, "That used to be an animal."
I didn't get much further. It was not a comfortable thing to think about. So I didn't think about it too much, in that quicksilver-fast way the human mind can slither sideways away from something that is discomfiting. I liked meat. I didn't want to stop eating it.
I think many people are like that. They know instinctively that there is something rotten in their thoughtless acceptance of the flesh they fork into their mouths, but... hey, what's on TV?! Oh, awesome, that episode of Friends when Chandler has to get into that box on Thanksgiving! What was that about animals? Hey, maybe later, okay?
Now, if you really "don't care," I guess I can't say much of anything that will matter. If it is immaterial to you whether or not something is right or wrong, then what do you care about any rationales or discussions or anything of the sort? Go steal someone's watch or something, and know that you have my pity.
"I know I should be a vegetarian, really, but it's too hard."
I'm going to assume here that you accept that killing animals for their meat is wrong, but that you just love meat too much to give it up. A lot of people are in this group.
I'm not going to beat you up about it, because I know it's hard. It was hard for me, too, and sometimes it still is. When I first began, a vegan once sneered at me, "Pedophiles also say it's hard to stop!" He was an asshole.
We're in a culture where killing animals for meat is almost universally and casually accepted as normal. Our society is actually arranged so as to actively promote the practice, as any vegetarian who's ever gone to a picnic, barbecue, or restaurant can attest. Meat is also delicious in its own right, and has a satisfying heartiness and rich flavor that really can't be matched. So it really is hard to stop eating meat, and I recognize that.
But if you know it's wrong, you have to act. You really do. You know that. You want to be able to look into the mirror with unblinking eyes, and be proud.
If it's too hard for you to just quit altogether, move in steps. Try a meatless day of the week. Or better, try only eating meat on the weekends and holidays. Or try eliminating beef and pork. Take it in steps. Every little bit helps.
"I can't make a difference."
It's true that you probably won't overturn the national or global system in your lifetime. Indeed, it seems likely that most people will be eating meat for generations to come. And depending on your location and lifestyle, it's even possible that all of your friends and family will continue to eat meat until the day you die. Your butcher might not even notice that you stopped coming by. You should know that, right up front.
But it's also true that you can still make a difference. You can take responsibility for your own life and your own choices. Even if no one knows you're a vegetarian, even if you go to dinner and you're sitting in the middle of an orgy of scorched grease and cooked flesh, even if your scoffing buddy waves a chunk of sirloin in front of your eyes, and even if hey, no one gives a damn what you eat just try a bite of these ribs, okay?, it's not like it will kill you -- you can say no. Not today.
It's really not something to make a fuss over. You don't want any. Today, you don't want anything dying for your dinner, and you won't eat it. It may not matter to anyone else, it may not even matter to the already-dead cow that's been sliced up, but it will matter to you. Because you'll be doing the right thing.
That's the only difference that should matter: the difference between doing the right thing - and not.
There is hope in the larger world, though. Your choices do make a difference in the marketplace, which is why they used to run those "Beef, it's what's for dinner" commercials. If people's individual choices didn't matter to producers, then no one would ever put "Diet" on any labels.
Dum spiro, spero.
"What would I eat? Every meal needs meat."
It's true that meat can be presented in all kinds of creative and new ways, and that in many Western diets it can seem almost inseparable from a meal. Particularly in the modern era, where factory farming has made meat cheaper than any other time in history, a meat-centric tradition has grown up around our food. Breakfast needs ham or bacon, lunch needs chicken or ground beef, and the centerpiece of dinner is often a big slab of cow. But rest assured, this is a very modern development only made possible by massive subsidization of meat. It's a part of modern culture, but not a long-standing part or a necessary part.
Because of this, though, changing your diet can mean changing your culture. For some people, this might be better achieved by developing specific vegetarian meals several times per week, until they have a good enough grasp of the possibilities. And if you really can't imagine a meal without meat, here's a small sample:
|A small sampling of varied and delicious vegetarian dishes|
Yes, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals are ridiculous idiots. They don't represent my views. Many vegetarians and vegans feel the same way. If you stop eating meat, you can continue to hate PETA - just like I do.
"Human beings need to eat meat for a complete and healthy diet. It's how we evolved."
I am not a dietician. But as far as I am aware, it is easily possible to have a balanced diet as a vegetarian and be completely healthy. Anecdotally at least, I can tell you that I am much healthier than I was a few years ago (when I ate meat) and that my wife has been a vegetarian for fifteen years and is probably even healthier.
Some of the nutrients supplied plentifully by meat are fatty acids, Vitamin B12, protein, and iron. However, all of these can be supplanted by non-meat sources. And some of them are not any kind of problem at all if you are a lacto-ovo vegetarian.
- Fatty acids - Seaweed makes a great source for fatty acids, which is why I frequently eat it in soups or salads. But if it's not to your taste, algae-based supplements can supply these acids. Or if you continue to eat eggs, they will also take care of this nutrient.
- Vitamin B12 - There is really no good way to get B12 beyond supplements, it seems. I take a multivitamin for vegetarians most days, for this reason. There are numerous products available that are fortified with B12, however, such as soy milk.
- Protein - There is an abundance of available protein for a vegetarian. While it's true that meat has more protein per pound, it's harder to digest - less "bioavailable." This means that soy protein actually supplies your body with more protein than beef! And if you're still comfortable with milk and eggs, they will also help meet this requirement easily, although really no one should have trouble if they eat a varied diet that includes beans and nuts.
- Iron - This should not be a problem for any vegetarian, since there are all kinds of fortified things available - most breakfast cereals are packed with iron! If you have any concerns, a multivitamin should relieve your worries.
If you don't believe me, then you can check with the authorities. For example, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the Department of Health and Human Services (thanks Wikipedia!) states that "[i]n prospective studies of adults, compared to nonvegetarian eating patterns, vegetarian-style eating patterns have been associated with improved health outcomes—lower levels of obesity, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and lower total mortality. Several clinical trials have documented that vegetarian eating patterns lower blood pressure. On average, vegetarians consume a lower proportion of calories from fat (particularly saturated fatty acids); fewer overall calories; and more fiber, potassium, and vitamin C than do non-vegetarians. Vegetarians generally have a lower body mass index. These characteristics and other lifestyle factors associated with a vegetarian diet may contribute to the positive health outcomes that have been identified among vegetarians."
Some people criticize the health claims of vegetarians by pointing out that comparative studies always compare vegetarians with the average person - and the average person in America has an incredibly unhealthy lifestyle. So if I were to tell you that vegetarians are 35% less likely to get cancer compared to meat-eaters, you could rebut by pointing out that you could just reduce the amount of meat and quit smoking and probably get this same result. However, this is undercut by such studies as studies of Seventh Day Adventists, a population that is generally homogeneous (living healthily and avoiding tobacco and alcohol) except that half of them eat meat and half of them do not. Conclusions: the vegetarian half has a lot less cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other diseases. This seems to be because of the nutrients, but may also be because of a phenomenon known as "bioconcentration": toxins in nature tend to become concentrated in animal flesh far more than grains. To borrow a sentiment, when you eat a cow you're eating all the mercury that cow ever ate.
A side note on male hormones: there is a widespread belief that eating too much soy can affect male hormones, increasing the production of estrogen. This is false, as a peer-reviewed 2010 meta-analysis, conducted "[t]o determine whether isoflavones exert estrogen-like effects in men by lowering bioavailable T" indicates: "[N]either soy foods nor isoflavone supplements alter measures of bioavailable T concentrations in men."
"It's natural to eat meat. Lions eat gazelle, cats eat mice, and so on. We're part of the food chain, and we just happen to be on top."
Ah, so you think that because our ancestors killed to eat meat, and other animals kill to eat meat, that it's only natural we should kill to eat meat, eh? This is by far the most common defense of meat-eating. There's really two arguments here, which merit separate replies.
"Animals eat meat. It's natural."
Generally speaking, most people wouldn't consider it a good idea to look to the animal kingdom for moral guidelines. Animals do many things that are considered to be abhorrent: rape is very common, cannibalism is frequent, and murder is a daily practice.
When the male bedbug wants to reproduce, it seeks out a female companion by finding a bigger version of itself. It then pins down its partner and stabs it in the abdomen with its genitalia, piercing into the body. Sometimes a male bedbug will come across another male that has freshly fed (swelling it in size) and mistake it for a female, and will stab it in the abdomen as well. I shudder to even guess what this would mean for humans who tried to use it as an example of a "natural" behavior.
The Kashmir langur, a type of monkey, lives in small social groups of women ruled by a dominant male. While these animals are typically very protective of their young, sometimes another male - either a stranger or a newly mature monkey - manages to kill or drive off the dominant male. He will then proceed to establish the sovereignty of his genes by killing all of the young. This is usually done by crushing blows from the male's arms or smashing the babies against a tree or the ground.
Dozens of cuckoo species lay their eggs exclusively in the nests of other birds. Their fast-hatching young erupt from their shells early enough to push the other eggs out, prompting the unaware mother to feed and raise its real children's murderer.
The phenomenon of "savaging," or a mother cannibalizing her own young, is particularly prevalent among pigs. It is estimated that something like 5% of all new porcine mothers will crush and eat her newborn piglets.
The ant species Protomognathus americanus does not forage for food. It kidnaps the larvae of other ants, raises them as slaves, and forces them to forage.
In some people's view, animals don't have the capacity for moral judgment. At a minimum, that capacity is drastically inferior to our own. They should not be our guides.
"If we didn't eat them, they'd overrun us."
Well, since they're overrunning us anyway, it sure doesn't seem like it's helping.
Actually, for some animals there's not much danger in the first place. Chickens, for example, have genetic maladaptions that have been encouraged as it suits us, making them overmuscled and ridden with congenital disease.
But pigs, which go feral amazingly quickly, are serious threats. They're big and dangerous and they eat everything they see or smell. To quote Ian Frazier's "Hog Wild" from The New Yorker, a very partial list of the damage done by wild pigs includes:
“”They just eat the eggs of the sea turtle, an endangered species, on barrier islands off the East Coast, and root up rare and diverse species of plants all over, and contribute to the replacement of those plants by weedy, invasive species, and promote erosion, and undermine roadbeds and bridges with their rooting, and push expensive horses away from food stations in pastures in Georgia, and inflict tusk marks on the legs of these horses, and eat eggs of game birds like quail and grouse, and run off game species like deer and wild turkeys, and eat food plots planted specially for those animals, and root up the hurricane levee in Bayou Sauvage, Louisiana, that kept Lake Pontchartrain from flooding the eastern part of New Orleans, ... And eat red-cheeked salamanders and short-tailed shrews and red-back voles and other dwellers in the leaf litter in the Great Smoky Mountains, ... and root up a replanting of native vegetation along the banks of the Sacramento River, and root up peanut fields in Georgia, and root up sweet-potato fields in Texas...
And these feral pigs are spreading everywhere. Eating their domestic cousins isn't helping - it's arguably hurting, in fact, since some pigs escape from private pens and hunters will trap wild hogs and release them in other areas.
As for the danger from cows if we don't eat them - well, we don't eat horses, yet somehow we manage to stagger past the crowds of wild horses that roam every street, right?
"If we didn't eat them they wouldn't exist. They'd just all be gone."
This intriguing argument suggests that cows and pigs and chickens would be unable to sustain themselves in their millions if we stopped breeding them. It's worth noting that this is absolutely true. We have raised their numbers to levels that are a thousand times where they would be naturally - or perhaps they would indeed simply stop living. The domesticated versions of many of these animals are so different from their wild cousins that they'd probably be swift prey as a species if left to the survival of the fittest. Their evolutionary niche is now firmly with humans - as a species their eggs are all in our basket. That might be sad and it might have been wrong to do in the first place, but it's the case.
Using this fact as an objection to vegetarianism, because it would reduce their numbers, presumes two things: (a) it is a good thing that these species are not extinct, and (b) it is a good thing that there are millions of them, rather than a few.
As to the former concern: I agree, but we have zoos. If people worldwide stopped eating cows and pigs and chickens, and also stopped using their bodies for other purposes, thanks to some miraculous shift in ideals across the planet, I feel fairly confident that some zoos would still preserve specimens of these animals (which are now of course well-adapted to such captivity). The chances of your grandchildren tugging on your sleeve and asking forlornly, "But why are there no more chickens?"... well, that seems pretty minimal to me. It seems so unlikely, in fact, as to border on farce. We keep and maintain tigers, so I think we'll manage to raise up some cows, one of the most well-understood creatures in history that is already demonstrating an ability to live in captivity.
The latter concern is a stranger one. It suggests that sheer volume of life is a desirable thing: better a million pigs than a thousand, as it were. I suppose this argument can be made, but it would have a lot of other implications as well. For example, birth control would be wrong, because it reduces the volume of life. It's a strange principle to say that "the more things living, the better," without taking into consideration quality of life. This would lead to some odd conclusions: under this principle, you yourself are morally at fault for failing to raise up as many chickens and cows and pigs as you can, and you would most certainly be required to have as many children of your own as possible.
"Our ancestors ate meat. It's natural."
In much the same way we don't look to animals for moral guidance, we also tend to avoid looking to our ancestors for moral guidance. In times as recent as just a couple of thousand years ago, women in many (most?) cultures were chattel, to be disposed of as it pleased the ruling men of the house. There's no more reason to look to ancient cave-dwelling man as a moral compass than there would be to look to modern Iran: they're just another bunch of people. Maybe it would be better to make up your own mind.
"People are special because human beings are the only rational animals, and our capacity for reason and reflection gives us the right to decide."
Many people make this argument, although they may not make the particular distinction of "reasoning." Sometimes it's "capable of reflection" or "able to experience real suffering" or some other supposed distinction between animals and man. My suffering means something because I'm human, the idea goes.
There is a very specific argument to rebut this point. It's called the Argument from Marginal Cases. Essentially, there are members of the human race who aren't rational or capable of reflection or any other such distinction you might care to make. Infants, the severely disabled, the comatose, and so on. With some of these groups you might hedge, and claim that they have the potential to develop rationality, and that this is the clincher. But there will always be some humans who are so marginal as to fall outside of your arbitrary definition of what gives them special rights. And at that point, you have to either acknowledge that they are the moral equivalent of animals or acknowledge that whatever your favored trait might be, it isn't enough to be the sole arbiter of what makes someone worthy or moral consideration. In other words: under a definition of rights that springs from reasoning power, doesn't a person in a persistent vegetative state have the equivalent rights of a housecat?
When you get right down to it, most people just scramble to find something, anything that sets humans as a species apart from all other animals, and then use that as their new definition of what gives humans the right to kill and eat other species. The problem is that as we learn more, people very fluidly change their justifications. Before Jane Goodall went to Gombe, humans were thought to be the only animals that made tools, and so that was part of the justification: man was the tool-maker, and this was part of why man was special and able to do what he pleased. As soon as we found out that chimps (and now other animals) make and use tools: poof! New definition, new justification.
Eventually, we have to admit that people want being human to automatically confer special rights, because it's convenient and simple and tidy. But there's no reasoning behind it.
"All kinds of animals are killed during grain production, too."
There are a lot of variations on this response. It can be pointed out (correctly) that my house is probably held together with glue made from animals, and that I'm probably wearing animals, and that all kinds of mice and voles have died to produce my vegetarian food, and that pest control obliterates rats and roaches around me, and so on. The upshot is essentially to imply hypocrisy - why, it is asked, are you so concerned about the chickens you eat but not about all these other animals?
This is an excellent point. And it would certainly be desirable to stop using animal products entirely, as well, and develop technology to eliminate any deaths during food production. But this gotcha game would never end. I could build a shack out of fallen pine on bare rock, eat only berries and grain I had gathered myself, and sweep the ground before my feet like a Jainist monk, and still I would end up hurting or killing another living creature.
As these objections all indicate, it's impossible to live your life without hurting animals in some way.
But with that admitted, does it then become moral to do so, when we have easy alternatives?
An analogy might be with people. It is impossible to live your life without hurting someone's feelings. Even if you went to the middle of the desert and had no contact with anyone, you'd probably then be hurting the feelings of your abandoned family and friends. So it is inevitable that you're going to be accidentally cruel to someone in some degree. Does that then mean you can spit on your neighbor three times a day?
The possibility of being perfectly virtuous notwithstanding, we should all try to be a little more virtuous. Don't you think?
"God gave us dominion over the animals. We can do with them as we wish."
In Genesis 1:29-30, God told Adam that "every plant yielding seed ... and every plant with seed in its fruit, you shall have them for food." As is generally acknowledged, in the state of grace of the Garden of Eden, there was no killing for sustenance.
That soon changed, of course. Adam and Eve sinned and were expelled from paradise. In the hard scrabble of the outside world, at some point they began to eat animals. This sinful state remained even after the Flood wiped out all but Noah and his family, at which point God mentions that "every moving thing that lives shall be food for you." (Genesis 9:3)
There is a clear message here: violence was not part of God's original will for His Creation. It is something that is part of a sinful world, and a sinless Adam and Eve didn't kill, even to eat. This is reinforced by Isaiah's vision of the new paradise to come, when the "wolf shall dwell with the lamb." (Isaiah 11:6)
Now, it seems clear that there is no Biblical prohibition against killing and eating animals - God has granted his permission. But it seems equally clear that God considers it better not to kill and eat animals - it is a relic of sin. And while it's true that Jesus said that "no one is good but God alone," (Luke 18:19) we should probably still aspire to be as good as possible. In a world stripped of resources, Noah and his kin might have needed to eat meat, as might the Israelites in times of trouble. But if we do not - and almost no one does - then we should strive to be like the sinless humans of the first garden and the heaven to come.
"Factory farming of animals is bad. But if we could raise animals happily and then kill them painlessly, then it would be okay to eat them. Killing doesn't make them suffer."
An interesting argument, this one relies on the strange idea that when you kill an animal, you aren't hurting it. I think that's prima facie wrong, but let's examine it.
Even assuming this ideal scenario, in which animals live happy lives and then are killed immediately and painlessly, isn't it still a bad thing to die? It's better that you're not torturing it first and that it's happy, but ending its life is still something that is still tragic for the animal.
Animals want to live.
They want to live even more than they want to avoid pain, in most cases. A dog will walk the streets at night, claws clicking on the asphalt, scrabbling through trash cans for a few scraps to keep it alive. Even as its ribs stand out through manging fur and as it limps from a broken limb, it will cling to life. You can beat it and starve it and ravage it with disease, but it will struggle on.
Life is a wonderful thing. Having it taken away means that everything that goes with it will be taken away. Even if there is no afterlife to reflect on that loss, the loss remains.
I know that if I die, I will have lost the pleasure of waking up early on a cold morning and going back to sleep, folded under the warm covers. I will have lost the crisp snap of my teeth into an apple. I will have lost quiet moments spent reading on a sunny beach while the surf sundered down among the rocks. I wouldn't know I had lost those things - assuming there is no afterlife - but I would have been harmed just the same. Animals lose a lot when they die, as well.
Just like a person does, an animal wants to breathe and eat and fuck and live. Taking that away is wronging that animal - hurting it, in a very real way.
So the only question is whether or not it matters that the animal is being hurt. I think it does.
"There is no universal moral code, there's simply what people have agreed upon. People all agree it's okay to eat animals, so it's okay."
This is a strange sort of fatalistic morality. Such morality would be fine with slavery as long as everyone agreed, indifferent to female genital mutilation if a culture supported it, and malleable to accommodate any practice if it was popular.
If you are really convinced that majority-rule is the best way to decide on ethics, then I suppose we will just have to save your contingent for last. When a majority of people are vegetarian, you'll switch immediately, right?
Think about that. If 51% of your society agreed that it was wrong to kill animals for meat, would you then change your mind? One summer morning you open the paper and see the new poll - do you shrug resignedly and throw out your bacon?
I think it's more likely you would shrug defiantly and eat your bacon. After all, people in other countries still eat meat. Or maybe a majority of your town still eats meat. Or your family. Or some group of people. Because, really, you're just looking for some reason to let you do something you suspect is wrong. You don't really believe that morality is decided by majority vote. If you were transplanted to Virginia in the eighteenth century, you'd take a stand and become an abolitionist. If you were plunked into ancient Rome and had the opportunity to watch debt-criminals be forced to fight for your amusement, you'd run for praetor and try to eliminate the practice. Some things are wrong, some things are right. You just don't want to look too closely at such a tasty practice. Think about it.
"There are still a lot of people suffering. Human problems come first."
Let me say that I certainly agree that human problems come first. If a bull is charging a person, shoot the shit out of that bull. Kill it dead.
But when it comes to dietary choices, I'm not sure why you are constrained by whatever your sainted good deeds might be. Even if you're headed to Habitat for Humanity after a long day of pediatric brain surgery, it doesn't cost you anything to get a hummus wrap instead of two beef tacos. Solving human problems and avoiding the needless slaughter of animals are not mutually exclusive in any but the most infrequent circumstances.
"This is such a privileged problem! A lot of people don't have any choice. Are tribespeople in Papua New Guinea evil just because they catch and eat birds sometimes to avoid starving?"
My argument relies upon there being an easy alternative. It won't hurt most people in the first world to give up meat - in fact, it will probably help them in a lot of ways.
Now, there are some people in the world who have no easy alternative, and even a rare few who have no alternative at all. Remote tribes are one example, although increasingly climate change is eliminating these traditional ways of life everywhere. Some of the poor in other countries, and even (in rare cases) in America also benefit from the high-calorie low-cost density of canned mass-production meat. Sometimes meat is the cheapest thing you can buy (although this is almost wholly a product of cultures that massively subsidize meat production). And finally, there are some claims that some sorts of people have health problems that simply require some small amounts of meat consumption, although this seems to be vanishingly rare.
People who have no easy alternative might have a good case for why they need to eat meat, and that's something that they have to decide for themselves. But it's like murder or theft: something that is usually wrong, but might allow exceptions in extreme circumstances (like defending a loved one). It makes no sense to allow a practice just because some unusual situations may require it: the Donner party's struggles don't mean that you can go pick up a haunch of human from the butcher's.
"Animals like cows and pigs can be fed inedible grain and silage, and graze on useless land, that would otherwise all be wasted."
This is a question of fact, and it's easy to get bogged down in the details. How many acres in America are we talking about? Can they really not be used for anything else? Is it harming or helping the land to intensively graze there? And so on.
This argument misses the point, though. Even if we assume that none of the grain, water, land, and other resources that go into the production of animals for human consumption could be better-used, does that have an impact on the morality of that production? At best, this simply eliminates one secondary reason not to kill and eat animals. The primary reason remains: that it is wrong to cause pain to a sentient animal, and kill it, because of a taste preference. Just as we might recoil away from someone who insists his meal be accompanied by the sound of cows being tortured with knives, so should we recoil away from someone who insists that his meal consist of a cow that's been tortured with knives.
Reasons Beyond the Moral
While it has been the moral reasoning that has always seemed most persuasive to myself, others have felt that there are more persuasive arguments.
The production of meat consumes a huge amount of resources and produces a huge amount of pollutants. This is the result of two basic elements: a developed world that treats animals like a factory product, and the fundamental nature of the hierarchy of species.
Factory farming is something that almost everyone agrees is wrong in principle. It has led to animals crammed into squirming dense crowds, crammed full of unnatural foods and antibiotics, and living in a hellish squalor that is unimaginable for most people. Films such as Food, Inc. help illustrate the horror of the factory farming system. It's not the occasional oversight that's the problem, it's the sheer scale. One example: "The 500,000 pigs at a single Smithfield subsidiary in Utah generate more fecal matter each year than the 1.5 million inhabitants of Manhattan."
The more direct problem is that animals are... well, animals. They eat grain or grass, and we eat them. It's an additional step between humans and the energy of the sun, and as with all such steps, a great deal is wasted. A pound of flesh represents many times its own weight in grain. One Cornell ecologist calculated the ratio of fossil-fuel use - how much fossil-fuel was used to produce types of meat versus their grain.
Chickens are the most efficient, yielding about a 4:1 return on their grain. A pound of chicken only represents about four pounds of grain. That's pretty wasteful, but not too bad. It gets worse when we move on to pork, which has a 17:1 ratio. Imagine your pork cutlet with septendecuple its weight in grain piled up next to it.
Ah, but beef. Beef has a 54:1 return. That's so disproportionate that I had to get out my old Latin textbook to even figure out the "tuple" word (it's quattuorquinquagenuple).
Even if you dispute these actual numbers, it's pretty impossible to deny that feeding grain to animals and eating them is much less efficient than just feeding the grain to people. It's an essential inefficiency in the process. It's also reflected in a more basic resource: water.
It takes twice the amount of water to produce chicken. Three times as much water to produce pork. And ten times as much water to produce beef. And that's not even counting the water used to grow their feed - add in that, and you quadruple that number! Here's a great visualization from GOOD magazine.
I'm not interested in quibbling over numbers - maybe my sources are wrong, and it doesn't take forty times as much water to produce a pound of beef compared to a pound of corn. Maybe it only takes twenty times as much. The overall thrust of the argument is sound, I believe: the production of meat consumes far more resources than the production of grain.
Need I even get into the carbon emissions?
This has led to deforestation, drought, climate change, disease... the raising and slaughtering of animals for human consumption is terrible for the planet. Don't be a part of that damage.
Ever-Popular Hypotheticals/Special Cases
It is extremely common for meat-eaters to object to my arguments with a hypothetical or unusual case. In some ways, this is a good thing: it means that there's no obvious weakness in my overall approach. But mostly, it tends to turn out like some kind of complicated "gotcha" game. The idea seems to be to push my principles into the utmost extreme and see if I would still stick with them, or to propose ways in which my concerns would be nullified and eating meat would be acceptable. In this way, the arguments tend to take the form of one of two kinds of statements.
"You might not eat meat, but I bet you ____ !"
Vegetarian or vegan?
Yes, I do eat eggs and drink milk. Cage-free eggs, at least, but still eggs. And yes, some cows and chickens probably did suffer to some extent in the production of these products. Even though I can make the argument that the chickens probably didn't suffer very much at all, the cows may have suffered somehow.
My excuse: Everyone can always be a little more moral, and I am no exception. If you're a lacto-ovo vegetarian, you can stop eating dairy and eggs. If you're a vegan, you can stop eating grains kept fresh with pesticides during planting. If you live in a remote log cabin and grow your own food and pick off the ladybugs by hand, then... well, stop tilling so much.
I've come a really long way, so cut me some slack, huh?
Leather, glue, and Jainism
Similar to the above, I am also perfectly aware that I am surrounded by animal products that benefit me daily. For example, bone char is used to produce both sugar and petroleum jelly. Unfortunately, there is really no way around this. Animal products are everywhere. Buy vegan sugar and pass on the petroleum jelly, and you're still walking on a patterned carpet whose colors were stayed with a chemical derived from shrimp chitin and wearing a shirt whose sizing chemicals came from mutton tallow.
My acceptance of this does not entail indifference, as I actively promote alternative products when possible and try to maintain my awareness of these things. Thus I try to use things like Barnivore to find vegetarian beers.
It's important to note that my failure to shrive myself of animal products does not imply my reasoning or my morals are flawed, only that I am (a fact I readily admit). An 1850s abolitionist is not wrong about the evils of slavery just because he's clad in cotton.
I'll just be frank and say that I don't yet know enough about this. I don't use cosmetics or really much of anything similar, and I'm not on any medications. It hasn't come up. I would say that medical testing on animals is probably warranted when it will save human lives, but I also would say I am not competent to make such judgments.
"But what if we only ate meat when ____ ?"
In vitro meat
For some years, scientists have been working on growing meat in vats, separate from any animal. This technology is still many years away, though. While meat cells have been grown, the difficulty is in coaxing them to form muscle fibers, rather than mush. In other words, while this might be a solution someday, it is not even near to being a viable answer to our contemporary moral dilemma.
That said, however, I will admit that such a scenario would not impose any suffering or death on any animals, and so it would be fine to eat that meat without any guilt. It's not a good excuse now, though.
Idyllic lives for livestock
People's ideas of what constitutes ethical meat varies fairly widely. For some people, it's just meat that isn't factory farmed. Others think that it's meat from animals that live and are killed without any pain. Some few believe that only animals that are allowed to live until late maturity are acceptable, although that seems particularly weird to me. I think all of those scenarios are not acceptable, by one or the other of the arguments listed in the Replies section, above. While minimizing suffering is good, you're still ending the animal's life for the sake of a taste preference.
A rare few people, searching for a way to eat meat that might be ethical, have hit on the idea of scavenging. This ranges from the relatively simple "roadkill stew" to scaled-up versions that involved eating animals that die from old age or something similar.
This is probably the most compelling hypothetical, and really the only one that seems like a fair inquiry. If a deer is hit by a car outside of my house, and dies, then how is it wrong to eat the carcass? You're not inflicting any pain or death to the animal - maybe you could even euthanize a fatally injured deer and spare it some pain! And you're also not letting it go to waste. Letting a deer spoil and rot seems like a shame.
When I consider it, I think that I personally would not eat the deer. But this is a preference, because I know that it's been easier for me not to eat meat the longer I have been at it, and a nice slab of venison might make it harder for me again. But I also have to admit that I can't see anything inherently wrong in the action of eating the animal, either. It would be a practical decision for me.
Ultimately, though, practical considerations make me leery of this "solution." The fact is that if there is a scenario that allows people to enjoy a nice steak, they will tend to edge towards causing this scenario. I'm not saying that people will start tearing down "Animal Xing" signs from nearby roads, but I will say that after a nice breakfast of deer sausage, they're going to be less likely to keep putting new signs in place.
I guess, in the end, I'm just not sure. It's probably fine, but for practical reasons doesn't seem like a smart principle.
“”The day has been, I am sad to say in many places it is not yet past, in which the greater part of the species, under the denomination of slaves, have been treated by the law exactly upon the same footing, as, in England for example, the inferior races of animals are still. The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been witholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognised that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog, is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
“”Those who claim to care about the well-being of human beings and the preservation of our environment should become vegetarians for that reason alone. They would thereby increase the amount of grain available to feed people elsewhere, reduce pollution, save water and energy, and cease contributing to the clearing of forests. When nonvegetarians say that "human problems come first" I cannot help wondering what exactly it is that they are doing for human beings that compels them to continue to support the wasteful, ruthless exploitation of farm animals.
“”Can you really ask what reason Pythagoras had for abstaining from flesh? For my part I rather wonder both by what accident and in what state of soul or mind the first man did so, touched his mouth to gore and brought his lips to the flesh of a dead creature, he who set forth tables of dead, stale bodies and ventured to call food and nourishment the parts that had a little before bellowed and cried, moved and lived. How could his eyes endure the slaughter when throats were slit and hides flayed and limbs torn from limb? How could his nose endure the stench? How was it that the pollution did not turn away his taste, which made contact with the sores of others and sucked juices and serums from mortal wounds?
“”Vegetarianism is harmless enough, though it is apt to fill a man with wind and self-righteousness.