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About the project

I spent my last year of college as an unrepentant bottom-feeder living with three vegetarian friends. It wasn’t until I’d moved out that I stopped focusing on defending my eating habits and started to try to eat more ethically, by restricting myself to free-range meat and sustainably caught fish.

That didn’t quite satisfy those vegetarian friends, though – they kept tossing annoying little facts my way, like the one about free-range chickens having no more than a tiny crawlspace to the outdoors that might, if they’re lucky, actually be open a few months of the year. So I embarked on a half-hearted attempt to find out what exactly free-range meat was. The answer is not simple. The answer, as my friends knew, is not “meat from animals that range freely”. Well, I thought, maybe I’m just barking up the wrong tree. Maybe “pasture-fed” is what I should be looking for. Turns out animals can be pasture-fed without ever setting foot on pasture. What about organic? Fine if you care about chemicals, not if you care about animals.

Just when I thought I was sufficiently mired in complexity, the environmental impact of eating animals added itself to the list. My decision to eat animals impacts not just them but also the land and water resources used to raise them and the mix of global-warming gases in the air. If we agree that environmental degradation is an ethical problem, those impacts have to be considered too.

Thus my half-hearted attempt to investigate the ethics of eating animals became a full-blown research project, and a blog was born.

For those who understandably want to know what makes me a credible figure to extemporize on food ethics – I do hold a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Princeton University, if that helps. Having said that, the only ethical principle this project assumes is that we shouldn’t make the world a worse place, and it doesn’t take years of ivory-towered brain-racking to figure that out. The question is, how do we put that into practice when we eat?

And while I’d like to rely on the authorities to answer that question, I don’t trust them. I don’t trust the National Pork Producers Council to tell me whether I should eat that pork chop; I don’t take the United Egg Producers at their word when they say that their hens are just happy as can be. The agenda of a business council is to do everything possible to increase the sales and profits of the companies engaging in that business, and that means that any information it disseminates will be geared to that purpose, not to public edification.

Organizations like PETA and the Humane Society of the United States, though they are charitable organizations and doubtless well-intentioned, also have agendas. Their drive to prevent cruelty to animals leads them to conclude that it would be best to avoid animal consumption altogether. However, they understand that most of their audience isn’t salivating at the prospect of UnSteak for dinner every night, so they try to inch us there, Meatless Monday after Meatless Monday. Perhaps they’re right that avoiding animal use altogether is the best ethical option, but I’m not so sure. And I’m not going to rely solely on their presentation of the facts to decide whether I should agree with them.

I don’t know what the right answer is. My agenda is to figure it out. In pursuit of that goal, I’d like to explore and evaluate the many practices used to raise and kill animals for food – and only then decide under what conditions, if any, eating animals is ethically acceptable.

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