The Meat of the Matter

A number of weeks ago, I became aware of an essay contest conceived by The New York Times Magazine’s resident “ethicist”—a columnist, that is, who entertains readers’ questions about moral or ethical quandaries they face. The essay assignment was to make, in 600 words, the strongest ethical case for eating meat.

Sitting in judgment to select the winning essay was a panel of judges that included a writer who is a vociferous vegan; and a philosophy professor, Peter Singer—who has advocated not only for extending greater “rights” to animals but for killing severely handicapped newborn human babies.

With judges like that, I didn’t really entertain any hope of winning, especially with an essentially religious argument, the one I would make. But, hey, I thought, why not give it a whirl? If only to clarify my thoughts for myself.

Believe it or not, my submission in fact didn’t win. More insulting still, the winning essay selected from the 3000 entries, didn’t even present an argument at all, but rather a simple assertion. Its essential point was:

“For me, eating meat is ethical when one does three things. First, you accept the biological reality that death begets life on this planet and that all life (including us!) is really just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form. Second, you combine this realization with that cherished human trait of compassion and choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain and/or meat. And third, you give thanks.”

Very nice (especially the “thanks” part, though the writer doesn’t say to whom the thanks should be addressed). But I still like my entry better. And I hereby foist it on you:

The Talmud teaches that an am ha’aretz—variously translated as an ignorant or uncouth person—is forbidden to eat meat. The more confounding a Talmudic statement is, the deeper the truth it harbors.

In a sort of parallel to the Darwinian description of things—in hierarchy if not mechanism—ancient Jewish texts speak of the world as comprised of four strata. At the foundation lies inert matter: soil and stones, the sun and the air, water. A level above the inanimate is the vegetative, alive but not sentient. Above that, the animal, mobile and determined. At the pinnacle are “speakers”—creatures with minds and consciences: we humans, the reason, in this view, for all of Creation.

Each stratum, in this philosophy, exists to support the one above it in the hierarchy. The mineral/chemical world nourishes the sphere of plants, allowing them to grow; the green world in turn feeds the animal universe—and the human sphere, the point of it all, partakes of what the lower levels can provide it.

Such partaking need not be limited to eating animals’ meat. There are other ways of allowing the animal world to support the human, like using animals for transportation and labor (with due concern for their comfort, a Jewish religious requirement), or their skins after their deaths. But neither does it preclude utilizing animals in the most direct means imaginable: consuming them, in the most literal sense of the word.

When we do so, this worldview teaches, the animal is sublimated, for having nourished a human being who can, in turn, serve a higher purpose. The eaten animals become parts of ourselves, and hence parts of our service to our callings as choosing beings. Thus, to return to the am ha’aretz, someone whose life is insufficiently focused on higher purpose is “forbidden to eat meat.” He has no justification to do so.

To be sure, this vision of our world may be shocking to many moderns; it is, moreover, baldly religious. In fact, its religiousness is likely the reason it dismays. But the bifurcation of truth into secular and religious realms is an artificial one. Religious teachings can not only contain truths as deep as science’s but often deeper ones.

Eating animals is not only natural for humans but, in a way, part of what makes us human, as it reminds us that we are something more sublime than the animal world below us, that we must act in ways that justify our occupation of the highest stratum of Creation.


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