I sat there looking down at my friend’s plate. He’d gone vegan a few months ago and I was an avowed meat-eater. To catch up, we’d gone into Manchester for food and drinks. Our establishment of choice? Nando’s. In front of the man who had been sending me YouTube videos and Netflix documentaries about veganism and vegetarianism for months now was a plate of South America’s finest butter chicken. We hadn’t even gone to get cutlery before this seemingly polite young man turned into Conan himself before my very eyes and ripped into the flesh in front of him. There was a smug part of me sat there watching him. Despite his protestations that I shouldn’t knock veganism before I tried it and that his lifts at the gym had actually gone up while being on this new diet, the reality was that the alluring smell of peri-peri chicken was too tempting.
It wasn’t the first occasion this summer that I had to deal with friends and their dietary requirements. Many of them had turned to the dark side and gone vegan, vegetarian and even ‘flexitarian’. I’m never going to change my carnivorous tendencies, but I realised that my argument for eating meat was basically ‘because I like it’. Despite clearly inferior food being put down in front of them, at least they had moral reasoning behind their choice. It got me thinking, was there a moral argument for eating meat?
An important thing to consider when talking about morals is their relativity – in other words, something can be ‘good’ but in relation to what? A lion killing an antelope is good for the lion but bad for the antelope. You can love nature and living things, but the chances are that you’ll still mow your lawn. At some point, you have to not care whether or not an action negatively impacts something else. When people argue that veganism or vegetarianism is ‘good’, what do we mean? Is that for an individual? For humankind? For every sentient creature? Importantly, you need to understand where you draw the line on when you care about whether or not something is good. Humans can’t photosynthesise so we have to kill something to get energy and it’s important to recognise this. Raising more crops to support animal rights is good for the cows perhaps, but less so for the insects and local ecosystems in that area. As a scene in Yellowstone points out, how cute does a creature need to be before you care about it? Perhaps more importantly, how sentient does it need to be? To round out this series of questions, is indirectly killing creatures through crop agriculture really less bad than directly killing them for food?
It has to be said that this line of questioning is a fallacy. What I mean to say is that even if this interrogation is fair, it doesn’t itself provide a case for eating meat – it’s the equivalent of saying ‘but what about X?’. I wanted to see if there was a moral argument for eating meat, so I set about watching things like the Oxford Union debate Beyond Meat and listening to farmers on YouTube. I also asked three friends their views on the morality of being a meat eater vs being vegetarian/vegan. For me, the three friends in question represent all aspects of the spectrum. On the one hand is a friend who has IBD and so, to some extent, would benefit from eating meat given that it is digested by the stomach, yet nonetheless chooses to be vegetarian. In the middle is my ‘flexitarian’ friend, a Rugby lad who thinks that for health and environmental reasons, being vegetarian is a better option but still occasionally eats fish and meat. On the other side of the debate is a muscle-bound gym-rat who shares my bloodthirsty tendencies.
In my quest for a moral argument for eating meat, there were a few different takes that I heard. On the one hand, there were arguments claiming that it’s ‘natural’ since we’re biologically adapted towards eating meat as seen through our stomachs and our predatory eyes. Furthermore, eating meat is healthier – it reduces the need to eat sugars and carbs and potentially has benefits against certain autoimmune diseases. On the other hand, being vegetarian and vegan is kinder to animals and were they to be considered humans, their treatment would be considered a human rights catastrophe. It also helps to save the planet and can still provide the right nutrients. There was one underlying point that caught my attention though. Both sides seemed to agree that veganism and vegetarianism is a product of a civilised culture. In other words, only a civilised culture can provide the advanced technology and science needed to support that dietary lifestyle. Between these two sources however, I still couldn’t find a truly moral argument in favour of eating meat.
Finally, I turned to my friends. They’re all smart people who have graduated from top universities, so I hoped my faith was not misplaced.
The vegetarian girl with IBD felt that being vegetarian/vegan is morally better on an environmental basis but conceded that it can be expensive and cultural sensitivities are also important to consider. The focus, then, is on humanity more broadly – our world is at stake and eating less meat protects it.
Onto the flexitarian. For him, the question was on whether a person believes it’s morally wrong to eat creatures that are deemed intelligent. We have the capacity to satisfy calorie goals (though he admitted that in a survival situation, this goes out the window) so it’s better to eat these alternatives than kill sentient animals. Interestingly, he argued that being vegetarian/vegan isn’t a matter of morality but rather one of personal preference. Nonetheless, beyond supporting local farmers, he didn’t think there was a moral argument for eating meat.
This left me with the gym-rat. It was down to the muscled meat-eater to provide a moral argument in favour of eating meat. He didn’t disappoint. His answer was that yes, it was more moral to eat meat. Not only is meat the most ‘nutrient dense food that humans are adapted to digest’ but also on moral terms, if you were to put a child on a vegetarian/vegan diet, you’d be depriving them of important nutrients which is in essence a bad thing. Furthermore, pasture raised livestock in the UK has a better quality of life than that which they’d get in the wild which also leads to the point that many of these species wouldn’t exist today had we not created a demand for them.
It all seems to come down to where you put your moral border. Meat, nutritionally, is ‘good’ for us in that it can better support a lifestyle that makes us healthier and more competent (going to the gym, for example). It’s accessible and, as mentioned earlier, it doesn’t require the same science and technology to support it thereby making it more reliable. We also have the capacity to provide animals with a reasonably safe and good life where they would otherwise suffer and perish in the harshness of the wild. Nonetheless, for broader humanity, there are environmental issues to contend with and if we care about sentient creatures, then we are still cutting their time short. Furthermore, we shouldn’t shy away from the issues within the meat and dairy industry.
For me, then, it does seem ‘good’ to eat meat. Whether or not you agree with the points I’ve made here, I hope you’ve taken something away from this. People are generally a lot less vehement about their dietary choices than you might expect if all you did was watch the news. As I finish typing this, I think I’ll fry some burgers made from British beef and from cows that have – one hopes – lived a good life.