December 03, 2010

The Meat Question

Sam Mowe

Note: This post was originally published on July 19, 2010
I don’t know the answer to the Meat Question. Is it OK to kill a sentient being for food? What are the environmental impacts of eating meat? What are the health issues? Whatever side you’re on, you probably have a ready-made (and passionate) response to the Meat Question. You might be judging me for not agreeing with your answer. But you know what? Meat eating has become such a black and white issue that I’m proud to be in the grey area. Clearly, eating too much meat is not healthy for the planet. However, I’m not at all convinced that eating meat is evil. And moreover, I don’t believe that humanity is going to stop eating meat any time soon. A more interesting question is trying to figure out an ethical way to consume meat for those who choose to do so.  In the last few weeks I have been very conscious of the meat that I have eaten—both the amount and where it comes from/how it is produced—and yet, because I cannot tell people that I am a vegetarian, many would consider me unmindful or worse. Perhaps we need a new term for those who choose to eat meat and do it mindfully. Moderation-meater?

There has to be a middle way answer to the Meat Question. That answer is probably much closer vegetarianism than those who eat meat would care to consider. Moderation is important, and a start to answering the Meat Question is definitely eat less meat. I also think that more tolerance for grey area regarding these issues would be a step in the right direction. If vegetarians can concede that there are ways to eat meat that are not purely evil, and if meat-eaters can concede that vegetarians and vegans are not completely wacky, then I think a healthy balance could be on the horizon.

This post was inspired by a Mother Jones article I read this morning, "Steak or Veggie Burger: Which is Greener?" and the comments below where people revealed themselves as so passionate about the question that they can no longer hear what anybody has to say about it.

Image: from joshbousel's Flikr photostream.

UPDATE: "10 Ways to Eat Less Meat" from Fine Cooking.

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jjwalker7730's picture

It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles the body, but what comes out of it. Buddha and Jesus

Monty McKeever's picture

Hi everybody,

I just came across this this passage in the archives in Joe Franke's piece "The Appetite of Birds: The Challenge of Nonkilling" ( ) from the Summer 2003 issue. I thought it might be good to share in this discussion.

"In the pali canon (Mahavagga 6.31-2), the Buddha offers a definitive pronouncement on meat consumption, at a feast presented to him by a newly converted military leader. He makes the distinction between two kinds of meat: “meat destined for a specific person’s consumption” (uddissakatamasa), which was forbidden for monks to consume, and “already existing meat” or “meat at hand” (pavattamasa), which was perfectly fine to consume. Meat in this latter category was available to consume without serious karmic consequence if three conditions were met: (1) the monk to whom it was offered did not see the animal killed; (2) it was not killed expressly for him; and (3) even if it was killed for him, he did not “suspect” or have evidence to this effect. Some have tried to suggest that by using the term pavattamasa, the Buddha had in mind meat from animals killed accidentally or by nonhuman predators, or those that had died of old age."

John Bussineau's picture

The Buddha was said to say, "All Beings tremble before danger, all fear death. When a man considers this, he does not kill or cause to kill. All beings fear before danger, life is dear to all. When a man considers this, he does not kill or cause to kill. He who for the sake of happiness hurts others who also want happiness, shall not hereafter find happiness. He who for the sake of happiness does not hurt others who also want happiness, shall hereafter find happiness."

What about the happiness of the chicken? How does that work with the middle way? I don't really think there was a middle way with the Buddha when it came to killing sentient beings. The first precept is do not kill. It doesn't say it's OK to kill animals when you get hungry.

There are so many reasons not to eat meat: ethics and cruelty, health of yourself and the planet, ability to use the grain fed to livestock alone in the U.S. to feed 1.3 billion people (talk about compassion and loving kindness).

I think that Western Buddhists are too attached to their meat and come up with fantastic ideas/rationalizations to justify eating meat. It's just like every other attachment and addiction.

I think that anyone, who calls themselves a "Buddhist" who cannot walk up to a chicken, kill it themselves, clean it, cook it and serve it, should not eat chicken, etc. Don't hide behind industry and the slaughterhouses to do your dirty work. If you believe in meditation and sit daily on a cushion. I seriously think you should kill your own meat also. After you do that then let's have a talk on this blog about the middle way, the moderate way to eat meat.

Blue Eyes's picture

Good Morning,

I would like to share my experiences with you on eating meat. When I was younger my food supply consisted of the vegetables out of my backyard garden. I ate very little meat if none at all. The meat that was placed on my plate came from the animals that my family grew and took very good care of. Even though it was placed on my plate I pushed it aside and ate my vegetables. After I married I began to eat meat more often mainly because my husband eats meat. Directly after I had my son (he is now 22 and I am much older as well) I began to become sick. This consisted of cluster migraines, anxiety, celiac disease, female health issues. After countless doctors visits and doctor's never able to give me an answer. I began doing my own research. The past 5 years I have been journaling what I eat. For a solid three years I have not consumed meat. (I do not eat wheat, gluten or soy. I know this does not pertain to the meat question but it's helping me to make my point.) I research everything I put in my body. I have learned that the food that we consume is probably the most toxic thing that goes into our body. The meat that is sold to us comes from animals that tortured, stressed, anxious, and depressed. The animals are pumped full of growth hormones and synthetic estogens. The meat supply is altered and mutated. There is nothing normal about a chicken breast that is the size of a dinner plate. There is nothing normal about opening up a package of chicken that smells from the injections that growers are putting into chickens or pigs, and cows. You ask yourself is the meat rotten or is it the hormones? When you have to ask yourself these questions there is something terribly wrong. My belief is that the growers for our meat supply are making women sterile. Women are electing to have hysterectomies. Women are suffering from cystic fibroids. Women are estrogen dominant. Next to my work place is family mental health facility. The traffic to the facility is constant. It leads me to wonder what they are eating to cause so many mental issues. I recently had invasive surgery to correct my health issues. If I had not been so mindful of my food consumption the past 3 years my health would be so much worse.
Our food supply has been altered so much over the years that it is making us extremely ill. Consumers are allowing growers to pad their wallets. Consumers are allowing the growers to abuse the food supply. I once read food is love. There is no love in consuming flesh that is tortured to the point that when it is placed on your plate it reaks like a sesspool. We are truly a product of what we eat. If we eat an animal that is depressed, anxious, angry and sick from injections we become that animal. That is our punishment for not speaking up and standing up for our beliefs. If this is our punishment what is the punishment for the growers of these helpless creatures. The thought of placing a chunk of meat in my mouth makes me sick.


John Bussineau's picture

I completely 100% agree with you. Thank you for sharing.

waspwasp's picture

Hi Guys
May I simply add billions of insects die in the name of vegetarian or meat consumption (growing grain for animal feed).Harvesting and pest control cause massive damage ,so killing becomes inevitable.
Take care
Dave ......................

Tricycle » The Ethics of Farming Animals's picture

[...] farming, is that worth looking into? Do human-rights issues trump animal-rights issues? In an earlier blog post I suggested that there was some “gray-area” regarding the ethics of meat eating. I [...]

John Bussineau's picture

Not authorized to view this page according the server, have no idea what you are refering to. Not sure there is a grey area.

Joanie Albrecht's picture

I just can't seem to find any grey in the Buddha's words:

“Since all sentient beings are equal as my only son, how can I allow my followers to eat the flesh of my son? Eating meat to me is out of the question. I have never allowed, I am not allowing, and I will never allow this practice – I have strictly condemned eating meat in every way.”

John Bussineau's picture

Equally interested in attribution

Sam Mowe's picture


I haven't seen that quotation before, could you kindly provide attribution?


Vicki Seglin's picture

This is only a grey area to us. The sentient beings who are killed to appease our desires and cravings no doubt would consider it quite black and white. They are alive - or they are dead. Are we seriously even considering the proposition that our intellectualizations and rationalizations are more important than compassion? More important than not killing another sentient being? Do we take seriously "May all beings be happy" or do we really mean "all human beings"? But grey areas and uncertainty? Only in our heads. Not to them.

Kara's picture

If one believes that a steer is a sentient being, then, in accordance with that belief, would killing a steer not be murder? Yet you have harsh words for someone who implies that killing a steer is even commensurate with murder.

Even if you do believe that killing a sentient non-human is different from murder, your response seems inconsistent with the idea that there is a lot of "gray area" involved. (To be clear: I read "gray area" as synonymous with "uncertainty.") If you truly embrace a deep uncertainty on the issue, shouldn't you be open to the idea that certain things are still wrong when we do them to other species?

Perhaps you mean something different by "gray area." It doesn't seem very uncertain to proclaim yourself "proud" that you believe one thing and not another!

larry's picture

Here's a good video on meat:

raisin spice oatmeal recipe?'s picture

[...] Tricycle » The Meat Question [...]

Tom's picture

I'm rather realistic at this point. So I focus on the things everybody may agree upon.

We may not agree upon the food issue. However: I believe that even convinced carnivores agree with vegetarians that no creature should be tortured or killed for fun or making money (without producing food).

So we've seen in the passed that companies e.g. were breeding pigs, killed them and threw the flesh away, due to reason of market regulations (and got paid for doing so). I believe we all agree that this is unacceptable: no matter if you are a vegetarian or not.

So why don't we start just here. If we can agree on that, we might find common ground on other issues as well.

Justin's picture

I went vegetarian for ethical reasons, knowing that any meat on my plate came at the price of an animal suffering. That issue was pretty black and white for me - you either want to perpetuate suffering or you don't. And I felt privileged enough culturally and economically to make a choice about my food intake. I've since gone almost entirely vegan for similar reasons, and also in personal protest of the planet-destroying meat and dairy industries.
But you're right, Sam, about the need to keep this question from becoming polarizing or adversarial. Look at today's political climate of obstruction and willful ignorance and you can see that judgment and unflinching conviction get us nowhere. And that brings me to the arena in which I think the gray area is most valuable: politics.
Legislation is a game of compromise. Extremes generally get filtered out, beaten down until they become more palatable to politicians and the public. We won't see a dramatic overhaul of the meat industry in our lifetimes, or in the general consumption habits of the majority of non-thinking Americans. But the promotion of grass-fed ecologically sound beef production rather than and all or nothing approach may see some success.
Washington lobbyists won't be much for that, but the current administration has proven willing to battle them openly.
Idealism is great for the individual and for personal lifestyle choices. But it doesn't play for the masses or for popular movements, and that's where the fledgling gray community will hopefully find momentum. That won't happen if parallels are drawn to rape and murder by vegetarians, and it won't happen if meat eaters dismiss the alternatives as wacky or, as my own brother puts it, as the products of guilt and self-loathing.
It's interesting that this comment thread emerged out of your advocating an end to polarizing arguments exhibited just that in several instances. That's the lesson, really, for the people who got militant and put on their condemnation hats: if someone, like Sam, is curious and questioning then you should encourage that line of thought rather than make resolutions from on high.

Sam Mowe's picture


Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I would just like to clarify that I wasn’t trying to say that “to argue any position other than mine–or to seek any kind of ethical clarity, rather than resting in the gray area–is irresponsible.” It’s not that I think that black and white positions are wrong re: meat eating, just so long as people have a tolerance for gray. Unlike murder or rape, there is a gray area with meat eating—like James points out, there is a moral spectrum. Less is better. For myself, the possibility of going full-on vegetarian or vegan is very much in the cards as I continue to explore the idea (it’s a point of pride that I’m forever willing to “shed my deepest convictions” upon re-examination). However, because I personally know many individuals who will not stop eating meat in their lifetimes, I believe that it’s valuable to try to convince such people to eat less meat. I believe that more people might be receptive to such an approach and that it would have a positive effect on the earth. I don’t think that painting the issue in black and white terms (and using such jarring examples for comparison) will have the desired result of a healthier planet. I should have stated that idea more clearly.


Rehn Kovacic's picture

Although Kris was extreme, ask the animal being murdered if these are appropriate examples. I don't judge what someone else does, but one who eats meat must admit that doing so means the killing of other sentient beings. (Of course, we are superior sentient beings, so it's ok. Right.) Again ask the animal--and perhaps its parents or friends-- their opinion. All I say is don't candy-coat what is being done to millions of animals.


James Shaheen's picture

@ Kris - To mention raping a woman and murdering a child in this context makes little sense to me. Perfectly reasonable people eat meat and from their perspective, there may be nothing wrong with it. Unless you're ill, however, you can't believe rape and murder are fine, and even if, as Adam thinks, you did not mean to suggest that they are commensurate acts, I can't see how bringing them up in a discussion of eating habits (however you may feel about meat-eating) strikes a balanced tone.

How are these examples to be understood unless eating meat is as clearly wrong--and even perhaps as vile--as the jarring examples cited?

The point is that if we believe eating meat is not good, we may concede that eating less of it is better. I think eating less meat is a step in the right direction. On the other hand, there is no such broad moral spectrum in the other examples, which are not in the least analogous. In fact, the third example is so bizarre it made it difficult to read the rest of the post, although I am sure that was not your intention.

@ Monica - As for vegans, vegetarians or meat-eaters being judgmental: wasn't the thrust that people identifying themselves as members of these groups should not sit in judgment?

Bob Wallace's picture

As a Vegan Buddhist I understand and accept the reality that my path will always be a minority one. Human nature will not change for the majority about consuming other beings or worship of a god. All we can do is welcome those who travel the path with an open heart and mind...Metta.

Adam's picture


Our interpretations of Kris's argument seem to diverge quite a bit.

You seem to believe that drawing the comparison to rape and murder involves arguing that they are "commensurate" with eating meat. When I read the comparison, I see something much simpler: when we see that a behavior is harmful, we do not seek a compromise between that behavior and not doing harm. We stop doing harm. Murder is a very clear example of this.

I would also point out that your response uses the word "simply" in a rather slippery way. It takes a thought-out, sincere argument on Kris's part and attempts to erase its ability to provoke thought, to have effects beyond alienation.

In other words, you seem to be saying something like this: "My position is closer to widespread contemporary beliefs. People are incapable of hearing anything too far from their beliefs. Therefore, to argue any position other than mine--or to seek any kind of ethical clarity, rather than resting in the gray area--is irresponsible."

Am I misunderstanding?

If I am not, then my response would be this:

Many people, from the famous (Buddha, Gandhi, Locke) to inspiring people in my personal life, have demonstrated to me that being firm in an unpopular way of life is not simply alienating. It can be very powerful. Gandhi did not draw people toward nonviolence by being slightly less violent than the mainstream; he did it by taking nonviolence as deep as he could go.

As a Buddhist, I don't see the Middle Way as being between compassion and how people usually feel, between right action and how people usually behave, but as a way that should take me toward all-embracing compassion, unwavering right action. And when I advocate something, I will advocate unwavering right action as I see it. Monica pointed out that this does not need to involve condemning anyone--in fact it wouldn't make sense if it did.

As a vegan, I celebrate the fact that you eat less meat now, and that you do it more mindfully. Of course, I would also encourage you to continue exploring veganism as a way to expand the circle of your compassion, but this does not dim my happiness at your increased mindfulness.

While I value depth of conviction, I do agree with the underlying idea of this post: we should always be ready to listen to each other, to re-examine ourselves, to shed even our deepest convictions in the light of that re-examination, even (and especially) on the issues most important to us. Don't-know mind is everything!

NellaLou's picture

When we confound scientific/medical evidence with moral superiority we do a disservice to the truth.

It has been demonstrated repeatedly that decreasing intake of meat, particularly from warm-blooded animals, has both health and ecological benefits.

Anything beyond that is personal opinion and preference.

Sam Mowe's picture


I don't believe that eating meat is commensurate with rape and murder. By writing in such a polarizing manner you are simply helping to alienate the many people who might support the idea of eating LESS meat, which is certainly better than doing nothing.

Monica Causey's picture

To say that vegetarians need to concede that there are ways to eat meat that are not pure evil is implying that we (vegans/vegetarians) judge others in this manner. That is being black and white, an un- fair assessment. I don't think my family and friends that eat meat are evil at all. I choose to eat a plant based diet because I don't want to participate in the suffering of another being. Aren't we all one? Humans were given the opportunity to be mindful and practice compassion. Once one becomes aware of the suffering, a choice must be made mindfully each time we partake of food. Looking for ways to justify eating other beings is not why we were given this blessing of becoming human and a mind that can develop awareness and compassion. I just meditate on compassion, on a world in which we will one day be "all one".

Kris Short's picture

Is there an ethical way to rape a woman? How about an ethical way to murder a child? While I do appreciate the "middle way" effort, I think that in this case the middle doesn't lie between eating or not eating meat, but in realizing that, aside from our taste buds, there is no responsible reason for killing and consuming flesh (and the "tastes good argument" is, I hope, clearly a poor one; viz., "I think tender, pre-pubescent children taste good"--does that justify it?), and that in an effort to avoid harming sentient creatures--and, as you mention, for countless other reasons--we need to realize that the time has come in our evolution to simply stop doing it. Your point about "humanity not stopping any time soon" just seems silly. So what? Because others do or do not do something, is that how you tune your moral compass? Come on. We can do better, as Buddhists or otherwise.

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