Dear New York Times: Why Are You Trying So Desperately to Defend Meat Eating on Ethical Grounds?
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Free From Harm
April 2012

If it’s so natural and normal and necessary, why does the New York Times try to defend meat eating and the meat industry with many elaborate, convoluted and often bizarre arguments from its panel of “experts” in its recent forum on the subject?

Philosophy professor John Sanbonmatsu of Worcester Polytechnic Institute submitted the following amazing letter to The New York Times Magazine incorporating the concerns that many of us felt about the contest and its judges.

Dear Editor,

We are a diverse group of scholars, researchers, and artists from such disciplines as philosophy, women’s studies, sociology, law, political theory, psychology, and literary studies, writing to take sharp issue with the Magazine’s decision to run a “Defending Your Dinner” contest.

Do ethical vegetarians, a growing but still quite small percentage of the population, pose such a “threat” to the meat and dairy industries that the Times Magazine must now invite its millions of readers to shout them down? Is the point of this contest really to open up honest debate about the meat industry, or is the point, rather, to close it down?

We find it disturbing that the Magazine would organize such a one-sided contest, and moreover that Ariel Kaminer should introduce it with such frivolity. “Ethically speaking, vegetables get all the glory,” Kaminer writes, caricaturing vegans as members of a “hard-core inner circle” who have “dominated the discussion.” With her very breeziness (“Bon appetit!”), Kaminer seems intent on trivializing the warrant for ethical veganism. A more serious-minded critic would have given at least cursory attention to the empirical basis of the position, namely, the known facts about animal cognition and the unspeakable suffering that farmed animals endure so that they can end up as meat on our plates.

First, there has been an explosion of scientific research in recent decades showing beyond any doubt that many other species besides our own are emotionally and cognitively complex. Farmed animals are capable of a wide range of feelings and experiences, including empathy and the ability to intuit the interior states of others. The evidence suggests that they experience violence and trauma to their bodies as agonizingly as we do.

Second, most people are now aware of the horrific cruelty and violence that goes on behind the locked doors of the meat industry. Billions of cows, chickens, pigs, turkeys, geese, ducks, and aquaculture fish suffer each year in abominable conditions, then are brutally slaughtered, many of them while they are still fully or partially conscious. Such so-called factory farming accounts for 99% of the meat consumed in our society. The mass slaughter of oceanic fish, meanwhile, is so catastrophic to marine life that even the Fisheries Centre of the University of British Columbia (the academic arm of the Canadian fishing industry) has frankly compared today’s commercial fishing campaigns to “wars of extermination.”

These and other facts have led a majority of contemporary moral philosophers who have studied the question to conclude that killing animals in order to eat them is not a morally defensible human interest, certainly not in a society such as ours, where vegan alternatives are widely available.

Even on purely prudential grounds, i.e. human self-interest, meat finds no rational justification. Numerous studies have shown meat-based diets to be associated with myriad negative health outcomes, including higher risks of cardiovascular disease and cancer (to name but two). Meanwhile, animal agriculture has proven to be an ecological and public health catastrophe, poisoning human water supplies, destroying vast tracts of the rainforests of Latin America, causing soil erosion, and creating dangerous new pathogens like Avian Flu and Mad Cow Disease. Animal agriculture is also one of the leading sources of global warming gas emissions.

Given these and many other facts demonstrating the nightmarish consequences of the meat industry for humans and nonhumans alike, why has the Magazine invited its readers to defend that industry, their essays to be judged chiefly by proponents of “humane” meat eating?

Kaminer implies that she has assembled the most judicious and meat-averse line-up of judges, a “murderer’s row” that will be hard to persuade of the case for eating meat. But is that true? Michael Pollan promotes Joel Salatin and other organic meat producers. Mark Bittman publishes meat recipes. Peter Singer has consistently defended, in principle, the killing of nonhuman beings for human purposes (provided that it be done “painlessly”). Jonathan Safran Foer, in his otherwise admirable book “Eating Animals,” defends small animal farms and backs away from open advocacy of vegetarianism. Only Andrew Light seems to hold a position that finds no ethical justification for meat eating.

So the contest’s overt bias (“Tell Us Why It’s Ethical to Eat Meat”) is compounded by its pretense with respect to the judging. Kaminer might instead have tapped any of dozens if not hundreds of prominent scholars, writers, critics, and well-informed activists who unequivocally oppose meat production for ethical reasons. The fact that she did not tells us everything we need to know about how seriously Kaminer takes the “ethical” issues at stake in this debate.

Kaminer’s lack of balance reveals itself further in her having stocked her bench solely with men, when there are so many prominent feminist theorists and writers available to provide a critique of our society’s masculine penchant for organized violence against vulnerable populations, whether against women and girls, foreign peoples, or other species.

There is an important debate to be had about the ethics of killing and eating animals. But this is not the way to have it. Honest ethical inquiry begins with the question, “How should we live?” or “What should I or we do about ‘X’?” It does not begin with a predetermined conclusion, then work backwards for justification. To throw down a rhetorical gauntlet–”Defend X as a practice”– is not to open up an ethical conversation; it is to build closure into the inquiry, and to stack the deck from the outset.

Signed by:

Karla Armbruster, Ph.D., Professor of English, Webster University

Anurima Banerji, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of World Arts and Cultures, UCLA

George Bates, DVM, Associate Professor of Veterinary Medical Technology at Wilson College

Kimberly Benston, Ph.D., Francis B. Gummere Professor of English, Haverford College

Susan Benston, M.D., Visiting Assistant Professor of Writing, Haverford College

Chris Bobel, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Women’s Studies, University of Massachusetts, Boston

Carl Boggs, Ph.D., Professor of Political Science, National University

G.A. Bradshaw, Ph.D., Director of the Kerulos Center & President of the Trans-Species Institute

Thomas Brody, Ph.D., Staff Scientist, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland

Matthew Calarco, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, California State University, Fullerton

Jodey Castricano, Ph.D., Associate Professor Critical Studies, University of British Columbia (Okanagan Campus)

Elizabeth Cherry, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Sociology, Manhattanville College

Sue Coe, Artist (represented by Galerie St. Etienne, New York City)

Susana Cook, Playwright (New York City)

Ellen F. Crain, M.D., Ph.D., Professor of Pediatrics, Albert Einstein College of Medicine

William Crain, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, The City College of New York

Karen Davis, Ph.D., President of United Poultry Concerns

Maneesha Deckha, LL.M., Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Victoria (Canada)

Margo De Mello, Ph.D., Lecturer, Central New Mexico Community College

Josephine Donovan, Ph.D., Professor Emerita of English, University of Maine

George Eastman, Ed.D., Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, Berklee College of Music

Stephen F. Eisenman, Ph.D., Professor of Art History, Northwestern University

Barbara Epstein, Ph.D., Professor, History of Consciousness Department, University of California at Santa Cruz

Amy Fitzgerald, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology, University of Windsor (UK)

Gary L. Francione, J.D., Distinguished Professor of Law, Rutgers University Law School-Newark

Carol Gigliotti, Ph.D., Faculty, Emily Carr University, Vancouver, BC (Canada)

Elizabeth A. Gordon, M.F.A., Instructor of English, Fitchburg State University

Roger Gottlieb, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Michelle Graham, M.A., Lecturer, Department of Writing, Literature & Publishing, Emerson College

Kathy Hessler, J.D., LL.M., Clinical Professor & Director, Animal Law Clinic, Center for Animal Law Studies, Lewis & Clark Law School

Laura Janara, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia (Canada)

Victoria Johnson, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Missouri

Melanie Joy, Ph.D., Professor, University of Massachusetts, Boston

Joseph J. Lynch, Ph.D., Professor, Philosophy Department, California Polytechnic State University

John T. Maher, Adjunct Professor of Animal Law, Touro Law Center

Bill Martin, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, DePaul University

Atsuko Matsuoka, Ph.D., Associate Professor, School of Social Work, York University (Canada)

Timothy M. McDonald, M.F.A., Assistant Professor of Art, Framingham State University

Jennifer McWeeny, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, John Carroll University

James McWilliams, Ph.D., Associate Professor, History, Texas State University

Helena Pedersen, Ph.D., Research Fellow, Faculty of Education and Society, Malmö University (Sweden)

Steven Rayshick, Ph.D., Professor of English and Humanities, Quinsigamond Community College

Carrie Rohman, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of English, Lafayette College

John Sanbonmatsu, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Kira Sanbonmatsu, Ph.D., Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University

Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Mathematics, College of Staten Island

Michael Selig, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Emerson College

Jonathan Singer, Doctoral Student, DePaul University

John Sorenson, Ph.D., Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology, Brock University (Canada)

H. Peter Steeves, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, DePaul University

Gary Steiner, Ph.D., John Howard Harris Professor of Philosophy, Bucknell University

Marcus Stern, M.F.A., Lecturer in Dramatic Arts, Harvard University

Deborah Tanzer, Ph.D., Psychologist and Author

Susan Thomas, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Gender and Women’s Studies, and Political Science, Hollins University

Gray Tuttle, Ph.D., Leila Hadley Luce Assistant Professor of Modern Tibetan Studies, Columbia University

Richard Twine, Ph.D., Department of Sociology, Lancaster University (UK)

Zipporah Weisberg, Doctoral Candidate, Programme in Social and Political Thought, York University (Canada)

Tony Weis, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Geography, The University of Western Ontario (Canada)

Richard York, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies, Director of Graduate Studies for Sociology, University of Oregon 

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