Eating more humanely

In response to my earlier post on the hostile response that vegetarians and vegans experience, commenter Mary Jo said she became a vegetarian but later returned to eating meat but with a renewed sensibility, saying “I still feel really sorry for the animals I eat. I eat meat that is certified to be humanely raised and slaughtered by the Humane Farm Animal Care organization.” She gave a link to Certified Humane, an organization whose label on products certifies that it “Meets the Humane Farm Animal Care program standards, which includes nutritous diet without antibiotics or hormones, animals raised with shelter, resting areas, sufficient space and the ability to engage in natural behaviors.”

But Mary Jo added that despite taking the care to eat certified humane meat, “I have been really mocked about this because, of course, suffering is still involved.”

Peter Singer is one of the foremost ethicists of our time who has written voluminously on the topic. He is someone who in all areas of his own life tries to meet the principles of ethical behavior. He is a vegan but he argues that what is important is not absolute purity but the willingness to minimize the suffering of other sentient beings. In his book The Ethics of What We Eat co-authored with Jim Mason, they take a non-judgmental approach and try to provide people with all manner of diets a way to eat ethically within the framework they have chosen or been forced into. They look at three families, one fast-food based, the second consisting of concerned omnivores (like Mary Jo), and the third being vegan, and for each family they provide practical suggestions for eating more humanely.

In the section titled Food is an ethical issue-but you don’t have to be fanatical about it (p. 281-284) they point out:

[I]t is important to avoid the mistake of thinking that if you have ethical reasons for doing something, you have to do it all the time, no matter what. Some religions, like Orthodox Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, have strict rules against eating particular foods, and their adherents are supposed to follow these rules all the time. If they break them they may feel polluted, or disobedient to their god. But this rule-based view isn’t the only possible approach to ethics, nor the best one, in our view. Ethical thinking can be sensitive to circumstances.

Amanda Paulson, writing in the Christian Science Monitor about “One woman’s quest to enjoy her dinner without guilt,” describes the ethics of Daren Firestone, a Chicago law student who won’t buy meat, but will eat the remnants of a big Thanksgiving dinner before they get tossed out. Whether or not you agree with that view-don’t eat meat unless it will otherwise be wasted-there is nothing that disqualifies it as an ethical principle. Yale philosophy professor Shelly Kagan takes the same view about airline meals. A vegetarian in his everyday life, he orders meatless meals when he flies. Airlines, however, sometimes fail to deliver on such requests. If that happens, and he is offered a meat meal that he knows will be thrown out if he doesn’t eat it, he’ll eat it. In these circumstances-in contrast to buying meat at the supermarket-his consumption of meat seems to make no difference to the demand for it.

How relaxed can we be? Firestone’s dietary rules also include what she calls “the Paris exemption:” if she is lucky enough to find herself in a fine restaurant in Paris-or, very occasionally, in a truly outstanding restaurant elsewhere-she allows herself to eat whatever she likes. We wondered whether she believes that on these rare occasions, the pleasure that she gets from eating meat outweighs the contribution her meal makes to animal suffering. When we contacted her, however, she readily admitted that her “Paris exemption” is “more self-indulgence than utilitarian calculus.” But that doesn’t mean that her general opposition to eating meat is not ethical. It is, but she gives more weight to what she wants to do than she would if she were acting on strictly ethical principles all the time. Very few of us are in any position to criticize that, and most of those who do criticize it are deceiving themselves about their choices when their own desires are at stake. A little self-indulgence, if you can keep it under firm control, doesn’t make you a moral monster, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you might as well abandon your principles entirely. In fact, Firestone believes that by allowing herself to satisfy her occasional cravings-maybe once every three months-she has been able to be faithful to her principles for many years, while other vegetarians she knows have given up the whole practice because one day they could not resist the smell of bacon frying.

Singer has a utilitarian philosophy that seeks to minimize the suffering of sentient beings. It is not always easy to carry out the calculus (whether it is ethical to use animals in research that could lead to cures for diseases is one difficult question) but some ethical lines can be more easily drawn. Other things being equal, when it comes to minimizing suffering via our food choices it is surely better to be a vegan than a vegetarian. It is surely better to be a vegetarian than an omnivore. It is surely better for omnivores to eat less meat than more meat. It is surely better to eat meat from animals that have been raised humanely than those that have been raised in factory farms, and so on. The mockery that Mary Jo receives for not being 100% pure is entirely unwarranted.

Singer and Mason also realize that financial hardship poses some restrictions on the ability to eat ethically and healthily. They say that if you are forced to choose, avoiding factory-farmed food is a higher ethical principle than eating organic.

Food that is both more ethical and more economical is available in every supermarket. Buying organic food without incurring extra expense, on the other hand, is usually not possible. Taking that into account, and considering that there are more powerful grounds for avoiding factory-farmed products than for buying only organic food, it is reasonable to limit the obligation to buy organic food to what one can afford without undue hardship, while seeing the obligation to avoid factory-farmed products as more stringent.

The Ethics of What We Eat is an excellent book that I can strongly recommend. It not only provides a good understanding of the ethical principles involved in our food choices, it also provides practical advice for those who want to eat ethically but are not sure how best to go about it.


  1. says

    One of the biggest hurdles I had to being vegetarian was the idea of “never again” then I reminded myself this wasn’t like getting married or my tubes tied or something. I can take a break if I want. So I eased into it. I didn’t remove meat food, I added vegetarian food until the meat was crowded out. And yes, since becoming vegetarian, I have had some meat on rare occasions for various reasons. If anyone wants to take my badge, I don’t care. 🙂
    I support Vegan Outreach even though I am not vegan. They take the same view point. They say veganism is a tool, not a purity contest. They hand out pamphlets that are titled, “Even if you eat meat.” that state the issues, but emphasize even a little less is good. They also don’t play fast and loose with the facts. I also recommend this podcast episode. And this TED talk on being a weekday vegetarian. And don’t let people tell you it’s more expensive to be vegetarian. You don’t have to buy fake meats. Carbs, beans, frozen and canned veggies are all inexpensive, and people should be eating fruits and veggies anyway. Meat is sold by weight (and we are subsidizing it with our tax dollars) and a lot of that is water, bones and fat. Unfortunately most people don’t know how to cook anymore!

  2. says


    Perhaps you have already made this point in an earlier post on animal sacrifice, but there is a troubling connection between the way mankind treats animals and the dictates of religion. In particular, the strand of Christian fundamentalism that seeks to influence so many aspects of public policy in the U.S. sees animals as lower life forms put here by God for the convenience of his chosen children.

    These Christians will go on railing against any abortion of a human fetus, while turning a blind eye to the concentration-camp conditions in which millions of animals suffer unheard. They will soon celebrate Easter while countless male chicks will be ruthlessly destroyed, having no use to the egg industry. The female chicks, meanwhile, will have their beaks cut off with a hot wire and spend the rest of their lives in cages or overcrowded barns, pumped full of hormones and antibiotics to maximize production.

    You continue to make a compelling case against religion, but for me this horrific example of cognitive dissonance represents one of the most damning indictments of all. And it is only going to get worse as the human population soars relentlessly toward nine billion. If there is any justice in the Universe, the Christians will get to their heaven, only to find the “quiver” so full of human souls they’re crammed in like battery hens.

  3. Manik says

    I try to be vegan at home and a vegan/vegetarian outside. I am a chocoholic and hence I break this rule even at home. I try to be a vegan for 3 reasons. 1) the usual, cruelty to Animals, 2)Protecting the Environment and 3)Food Security. It takes much more land to produce a kilo of meat than a kilo of Veg or Fruit. Food Security may not still be a problem, but I believe it may soon be. I am hoping that by my example I will raise awareness of these 3 issues. I don’t advertize, preach or act superior, but invariably people ask me why. Then I tell them. I think this more effective, although I am not sure if I should play a more active role than a passive one the issue. For the moment I have taken the passive route.

  4. says

    Trying to find ammunition (poor word choice perhaps) for a debate with a friend about food ethics. Great timing on this. And as always a great read.

  5. says

    As somebody that grew up eating meat as a way of life, I feel fortunate that I found my way to “veganism”. Within the first 3 weeks, the extra 30 lbs I had on my body seemed to go away without struggle, but more importantly, I had energy that I don’t remember having since I was 5 years old, seriously. Personally, I didn’t become a vegan because of ethical reasons, simply because I wanted to reach the next level with my health.
    However, something strange happened. After three or four weeks, my mind became so clear, almost like I had been meditating for the past 5 years, and I began to see the harm there was in eating meat, not just to myself, but the other sentient beings as the article puts it.
    Ethically, I look at it like smoking. Everybody has their own free will and is responsible for their own decisions, but I’m a vegan because it is what’s right for me.

  6. says

    In response to the comment about humans being omnivores for a reason, that used to be my excuse. However, upon further reflection, I realized that human’s aren’t born omnivores, carnivores, or vegans, rather our diets are a learned habit. Furthermore, look at our teeth. The surely don’t resemble those of the lion, dog, or even cat who are all carnivores. Our teeth look much more like the horse, or the gorilla, both of whom are vegetarians.
    And speaking of efficiently assimilating protein. Again, I’ll point to the gorilla, who is strictly a vegetarian, yet has enough strength and muscle to pop your head like a balloon. A great resource to check out is a book called “The China Study” for more info on the benefits of being a vegan.

  7. says

    We in OZ are currently in dilemma as to whether selling live cattle is the right thing to do. A country we sold live cattle to was shown to have treated the animals very badly prior to the slaughter… at least in our eyes. The Government put a stop to that trade, but cattle farmers now say their cattle must now be shot to rot in the ground because they cannot sustain food and water for them with no one buying them. I find it incredible that this is so, is it greed or what? Why not sell them locally albeit cheaply at less profit?

  8. says

    After seeing the movie Food, inc. I really started thinking about my eating habits.

    Seeing how animals are raised in factories really disgusts me. Right now I do still eat meat, but I only buy meat that comes from real farmers, not factories.

  9. says

    My wife stopped eating meat 28 years ago. Her story
    is pertinent to this discussion. She was cooking a lamb roast for a dinner for her and I and another couple, one of whom was an MD.

    In the field adjacent to my home, a sheep was struggling to give birth to a lamb. Our doctor friend went to the sheep’s rescue and helped deliver the lamb.

    From that day, my wife has not eaten meat.

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