The editor of a recently published volume of essays examining food from a philosophical perspective says entrants in a New York Times contest to demonstrate why meat eating is ethical face "an uphill battle."
"My wife says 'how can you eat a hamburger when you know what you know?," says David Kaplan, a philosophy professor at the University of North Texas and editor of The Philosophy of Food. "I say 'because it tastes really good.' Her question is better than my answer. It's possibly indefensible."
The Times this month issued a call for thinkers with carnivorous streaks to submit 600-word essays defending the practice of eating meat on moral grounds. As the contest's rules make clear, the "murderer's row of judges" - four white men who've thought long and hard about dietary choices, and are outspoken vegetable advocates - aren't interested in arguments that pivot on the humane treatment of animals before they're slaughtered. They're trying to determine "whether it is right to eat animals in the first place, at least when human survival is not at stake."
The contest is complicated, Kaplan says, by the difficulties of thinking about food, since very few eaters fully understand the subject's scope. "When you're dealing with nature and health, we become a little bit passive, because we're relying on experts," Kaplan says, adding it's hard to formulate a persuasive scientific argument without command of the relevant data. Still, there are a few approaches an essay writer without technical knowledge could conceivably take, although Kaplan suspects none of them will ultimately prove satisfactory.
Beef Daily, the online offshoot of the nation's leading cattle magazine, is recommending its readers base their essays on the sanctity and fragility of the American family farm. "Food doesn't come from a grocery store; it comes from people who care," contributor Amanda Radke wrote in a post outlining how ranchers might structure their submissions.
Kaplan is unmoved by the economic argument.
"I don't have a moral obligation to support any particular economic activity," Kaplan says. "I could make the same case about cocaine farms or wagon wheel manufacturers."
An essay writer could resort to Kaplan's "it tastes really good" defense, which is properly termed an aesthetic argument. According to this line of reasoning, a person's horizons are broadened by omnivorousness, meaning meat-eating makes for better citizens.
But it's a slippery slope from broadening horizons with a chicken's liver to broadening horizons with a human ham.
"My horizons can be broadened in all kinds of ways," Kaplan says. That doesn't mean there's an ethical imperative to do so: "I deprive myself of sex trafficking, so I know nothing of the various customs of that industry."
A common argument - so common that the Times cites it as an example of an excuse, not a theory - is that people eat meat because they've always eaten meat.
"That's a pretty weak one, that we're designed to eat meat because of our teeth," Kaplan says. "This accident of evolution makes no moral claim. The fact I've evolved just means I'm capable of doing something. I have opposable thumbs, so I can now strangle a human neck."
And any argument which hinges on design also raises the questions of who's doing the designing, and Kaplan doesn't think this conundrum can be legitimately solved through supernatural explanations. "Design arguments are weak," he says.
That said, Kaplan thinks an essayist might have some luck with the contention that eating meat is a way of indulging in life. "Culture, manners, tradition, these are probably better arguments," he says. "The religious, spiritual dimension isn't bad either."
But Kaplan isn't talking slam-dunk.
"What's interesting about this challenge is there are 100 reasons you can give not to eat animals," he says. "It really makes us reflect on our ethical commitments, and I think anything that helps people to think more critically about what we eat, it's good for all of us."