COUNT on The New York Times to take a basic topic and vault it into the stratosphere of esoteric, philosophic discussion. Food, for instance.
Other daily newspapers and Web sites tell you about restaurants, recipes and diet. The Times does that, of course. But it also tells you about the ethics of eating. Whether you like it or not.
In the Sunday magazine today, The Times completes an essay-writing contest initiated a few weeks back by Ariel Kaminer, who writes the column “The Ethicist.” Today’s column announces the winner from among 3,000 essayists who responded to Ms. Kaminer’s request to “tell us why it’s ethical to eat meat.”
The contest stirred a fuss even before it was over, as bloggers, commenters and e-mailers lodged objections on every conceivable side of the question, while others jumped in as participants. In addition to the 3,000 people who took the time to write an essay of up to 600 words, almost 17,000 people submitted votes for their favorite essay among the six finalists selected by a panel of judges.
I asked Ms. Kaminer about the origins of the contest — was this a topic that bubbled up from readers or something of interest to her personally?
“I got to thinking about how vegetarians and vegans frequently explain their position in terms of ethics,” she told me in an e-mail, “but meat-eaters favor other kinds of arguments, like whether meat is good for you, whether we were built to eat it, whether we should have the right to eat what we want without feeling judged or how delicious a Shake Shack burger is. Lots to say, but not about ethics per se.”
She added, “Food and animals are two subjects that our readers have shown they care about deeply, so I figured it’d be fun to invite them to make the case their fellow omnivores had so far largely ignored.”
It was fun, unless you were a meat-eater who just wanted to dine in peace. The setup of the contest virtually ensured that no unapologetic ode to meat would win. That’s because the six judges were, in Ms. Kaminer’s words, “some of the most influential thinkers to question or condemn the eating of meat.”
The winning entry, as selected by the panel, argued that eating meat was ethical only under certain conditions — so many conditions that I am just going to have to refer you to the essay in the magazine, because it’s awfully complicated.
There was a different winner in the popular vote by readers. That essay, written by Ingrid Newkirk, a founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, argued that the only meat that can be ethically consumed is in vitro meat.
According to Ms. Newkirk, this form of laboratory-grown meat will be available later this year and is “real meat, grown from real cow, chicken, pig and fish cells, all grown in culture without the mess and misery.”
I think you get the picture. The case for eating meat, as presented in The Times, is a pretty narrow one. If you can crawl through the eye of the needle with your in vitro burger in hand, you may feel free to chow down in good conscience.
A range of objections emerged to all this. Linda C. Cork, a professor emeritus of comparative medicine at Stanford University, wrote me to say she thought Ms. Kaminer’s approach lacked balance, citing the columnist’s statement that omnivores had yet to answer the “powerful ethical critiques laid down by vegetarians and vegans.”
“Why are vegetarians’ and vegans’ critiques either ‘ethical’ or ‘powerful’?” Ms. Cork wrote in an e-mail. “They may be to her, but they aren’t to me and many other readers.”
She added: “An Alaskan Inuit near Barrow Point would have a hard time being a vegan. Nomads living in arid climates survive because they follow their flocks of small ruminants (goats and sheep) which can convert the indigestible cellulose in brush and grasses into products humans can digest. Are these individuals ‘unethical’? I think not.”
Closer to home, Lisa Henderson, a sophomore at Kansas State University writing on thePork Network Web site, objected that the judges’ predisposition made the contest a sham.
“Does anyone really think this collection of judges could pick a winning essay that says anything positive about the eating of meat?” Ms. Henderson wrote. “Not likely.”
(To this criticism, Ms. Kaminer said that having meat skeptics as judges made the competition more interesting: “If you can get someone who’s not already in your corner to take your argument seriously, then you’ve really got something.”)
Elsewhere in her article on the pork producers’ Web site, Ms. Henderson wondered why The Times didn’t just send out some reporters to find out what meat-eaters thought. So I called Ms. Henderson, who is studying agricultural economics and communication, and asked her what she thought.
She said: “I believe that humans are omnivores and that meat provides protein and other things that are essential for health. Animals utilize the grass. Animals help us utilize more of the earth. I am not anti-vegetarian, but they seem to be anti-meat, and they seem to want to take that choice away from me.”
On a roll, I called up another meat-eater. Calvin Trillon, a product of Kansas City’s barbecue-centric culture and the author of books on the pleasures of food, wondered if the arguments on behalf of in vitro meat might indicate that “our species has advanced too far.”
Mr. Trillin, a New Yorker magazine reporter and what he calls a “deadline poet” for The Nation, agreed to try his own hand at an essay on why it’s O.K. to eat animals. I gave him 600 words, but he used only nine: “If they had a chance, they would eat us.”
To which I would add: if only to silence us.
Disclosure: The public editor ate a lot of barbecue during his years in Kansas City, but he quit eating meat a while back and is unwilling to explain himself on the subject.
Arthur S. Brisbane for The New York Times