In Defense of Eating Meat
Why is it ethical to eat meat? It is ethical to eat meat because it is hard not to.
We live in a world wrought with crises. Genocides and devastating droughts are frequent. Malaria, AIDS, and other infectious diseases kill more than a million people a year. Economic instability threatens the prosperity of the world’s most powerful countries. And these are all second tier to what are deemed “existential risks”: global warming, nuclear proliferation, and the advent of artificial intelligence are just a few of the potentially catastrophic scenarios that may shape the future of our species.
One of the multitude of problems we face concerns the consumption of meat. There are at least two reasons that ought to make us seriously consider retiring our legacy as omnivores. Firstly, there are compelling reasons to believe that the suffering of sentient life, even nonhuman, is tragic and wrong. Secondly, the ecological damage done by the meat industry is severe. The question we must ask ourselves is: which problems should we tackle? What is the most cost-effective use of our collective resources?
Some problems can be solved extremely cost-effectively. As the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has demonstrated, a small part of one man’s fortune is enough to save hundreds of thousands of lives every year when spent in prevention of infectious diseases. In the tropical regions of the world, millions have already been spared painful deaths by mosquito nets that can be purchased for ten dollars (which includes both transportation costs and the cost of instructing people to use them properly). Global warming, on the other hand, is (theoretically) so expensive to solve that it is hotly contested whether it is at all worthwhile. It is of critical importance for us, as nations and as individuals, to decide which causes it is most cost-effective to get behind.
I contend that vegetarianism is not a cost-effective cause. The high cost of vegetarianism is not a monetary cost, though. The resource that vegetarianism drains is willpower.
Many people expend no extra willpower to maintain a vegetarian diet. Meat repulses them, physically or morally, and so they need not spend energy and time warding off temptation. But for many people the effort it would take to abstain from meat is colossal. There is a large and rapidly growing body of knowledge on the science of willpower, and the consensus is that willpower, like money and time, is a finite resource that we deplete. In particular, dealing with hunger has been demonstrated to greatly reduce people’s thoughtfulness, self-control, and ability to plan for the future.
We are not perfect, and a strict, ascetic approach to dietary habits is not a healthy life choice for most people. If meat were harder to acquire, it would be much more cost-effective to abstain. Sadly, McDonalds sells burgers, not falafel.
Eating meat is ethical a lot of the time for a lot of people. If you find it easy to cut meat out of your diet, it is likely that becoming a vegetarian is the morally correct choice. But if it would be a great sacrifice, I urge you to make sacrifices that do more good for the world. Donate to cancer research, volunteer at a hospital, or work to become the best parent you can be. Have a steak once in a while too. But pass on the bacon on days when you’d be just as happy with toast and jam.