Why I Didn't Write to the Times

April 15, 2012

According to the World Bank, the criterion for “extreme poverty” is an average income of €1.00 per day, which works out to be about $1.30. When you earn $2.60 per day, you leave “extreme poverty” and are then (by World Bank standards) simply poor. Roughly 3 billion people in the world are below the poverty line, and about half of them live in extreme poverty. According to research by household economists, when people move from extreme poverty to just being poor, the main thing that they spend their second Euro on is animal protein. They buy a little meat to eat, or possibly some eggs or (less frequently) milk.

I mention this factoid because I’ve been getting e-mails about the New York Times writing contest on the ethics of meat eating. It seems that someone at the Times thought it would be fun to see who could come up with best ethical argument in defense of eating meat, so they offered a prize and put together a jury of white males from the industrialized world to judge the entries. The winning entry is probably being published in the NY Times Magazine today.

I’ve heard from friends who thought I should enter, and I also heard from people in the world of livestock production who wanted me to complain about the judges. It’s not that livestock producers see a problem with an all white male jury, mind you. They think the whole contest is biased against them.  As for myself, I think the whole contest is biased against people who are just now starting to earn their second Euro, and have started integrating meat into their diet a little more frequently than they did when they were extremely poor.

I do not have the temerity to present myself as someone who could speak on behalf of someone who lives on $2.60 per day, so I was loath to even try to justify the dietary preference of people who do to the Editors of the New York Times. I was not surprised by this contest, however. You can’t live in the world of food ethics without being aware that many philosophers who live on considerably more than $2.60 a day have decided that eating meat is a “trivial pleasure” which people are morally obligated to forego in light of the fact that producing animal protein (and this would include eggs the way we do it in the industrialized world, by the way) requires the death of animals.

Although I can’t really imagine what it would be like to emerge from extreme poverty into a world where I am now earning a second $1.30 per day, I cannot convince myself that such a person would spend their “windfall” income on trivial pleasures. I have thus become exceedingly cautious about pontificating on the ethics of eating meat. I feel that someone who is spending a portion of their second Euro on some meat or eggs deserves at least this modicum of my respect for their preferences.

This is not to say, mind you, that there are no ethical problems with meat eating. Readers of the blog know that I work with mainstream livestock producers to help them think through the ways that they can improve the welfare of animals in their care. And the planetary ecosystem simply cannot tolerate a world where everyone ate as much animal protein as the typical American eats. But a contest calling for an ethical defense of meat eating? I think I have to pass on that one.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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