The Morality of Eating Meat, or Why Vegetarianism is a Disease of Civilization



This is my 600 word essay I submitted to the New York Times Essay Contest on why eating meat is moral. 


ld argue that getting eaten by humans is the greatest thing that has ever happened to the species we consume. There are 19 billion chickens, 1.5 billion cows, and over a billion pigs and goats in the world. The fact that we farm and eat these animals has made their species and ours the five most successful vertebrate species ever to walk on land.

But to do so would miss the point of why eating meat is ethical, or better put-it is not unethical.  Any decision about ethics needs to be wrapped in a framework of an ethical theory that makes rational sense.  Unfortunately, none do.  As philosopher Richard Joyce has effectively argued, morality is a myth. Evolutionary psychology reigns.

If a great white shark has a twin, he will eat his brother in the womb. Is this shark unethical for doing so? In a gene-centered view of evolution, this kind of cannibalism is in the shark’s genetic interests.  Not as self-sufficient as our gill-bearing distant cousins, our biology dictates that we are better served to survive and pass on our genes with help of others. Our innate moral preferences are really just the encoded set of behaviors and emotions that helped our ancestors survive and replicate in the millions of years humanoids roamed the earth in a hunter-gatherer existence. We do not eat our brothers when we are young because we need them to help hunt woolly mammoths when we grow up.

This is not to say that humans can’t have subjective wishes for their own life. Like to be happy and healthy. Or make rational choices to increase our well being with other’s we share society with. But it does mean that there is no objective binding force that requires us to live our lives in such a way. And subsequently, there is no binding force that would require humans to devote their efforts to the emotions of non-human animals who can’t reciprocate in the social contract.

Visit any extant hunter-gatherer society in Africa or the Amazon and you will find the happiest, healthiest, and psychologically well-adjusted people on earth. You will also see they have absolutely no qualms about killing animals.  They innately know that humans in their group are to be loved and respected and other animals are food.  Pygmy children will start hunting small game around the camp as early as age three.

The vast majority of people living in modern society today have never killed a creature larger than an insect.  This discord between modern society and the environment of our evolutionary adaptation has led to a situation where we have become overly sensitized to the cycle of life.  While our ancestors shot wildlife with arrows, the majority of our interactions with animals today comes in form of having pets. In vegetarians, the mechanisms in the human brain designed to feel empathy for fellow tribesman has become misplaced and spilled over to mammals once relegated to things we eat.

From the perspective of raising our own subjective well-being, it is hard to see how this misplaced empathy is anything but a psychological defect.  The meat eater feels plenty of joy while eating a nice cut of steak. The vegetarian, ostensibly feels disgust at this same action. Perhaps one day vegetarianism will be placed alongside heart disease, cancer and the other diseases of civilization.  As Nietzsche famously put it over a century ago, the moralists say little about objective ethics, but revealed much of their own psychology.