Vegetarian Society Holds Debate on Meat-Eating

Students Fill Science Center to Listen to PETA and Debate Society

A Saturday afternoon debate, organized by the Harvard College Vegetarian Society, featured a representative from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animal. Students who were packed into a Science Center auditorium raised abstract objections founded in social contract theory to the PETA representative, instead of directly contesting the official’s arguments against eating meat.

A heated exchange about the ethics of the food served by Harvard University Dining Services occurred between Bruce G. Friedrich, vice president of policy and government affairs for PETA, and Wesley N. Hopkin ’11, a member of the Harvard Speech and Parliamentary Debate Society.

Hopkin praised HUDS, saying that it is “moving in the right direction.”

“We can, generally speaking, eat meat or eat meat products with a relatively clear conscience even now,” he said.

Friedrich disagreed, noting that although HUDS buys eggs from cage-free farms, other aspects of its food procurement were still unethical.

“Eating meat in HUDS when they are doing nothing for farmed animals, and eating meat in the real world, in any restaurant around here... is unethical,” he said.

Friedrich argued that eating meat is bad for the environment, for the world’s poorest citizens, and for the conscious experiences of animals.

“There really is no such thing as a meat-eating environmentalism,” he said. “And on that ground alone eating meat is unethical.”

Instead of disputing Friedrich’s practical moral arguments, Hopkin and Harvard students in the audience asked questions that could have come from Social Studies 10 or “Justice”: How can we compare animal pain with human pain? And can animals be a part of the social contract?

Hopkin conceded that today’s factory farming practices are “unconscionable, and should not be permitted.”

But he questioned whether better farming techniques could ever create a world in which eating meat was ethical. Instead, Hopkin advocated an approach to animal rights that focused on the social contract instead of utilitarianism, and on leveraging consumer power to work for better farming practices instead of abstaining from eating meat.

Friedrich, however, argued by using quotations from vegetarians ranging from Paul McCartney to Leo Tolstoy to Cameron Diaz—who compared eating bacon to “eating my niece.”

During the question and answer session, audience members asked questions such as, “Is it ethically permissible to eat the meat leftovers of your friend sitting across the table at dinner?” and “Is it morally responsible to own a pet—or must you buy a bonzai tree?”

Vegetarian Society co-president Jessica M. Luna ’10 said that she was thrilled by the large turnout and the substance of the debate.

“It’s clear from both sides that no one likes factory farming,” Luna said.

Jaymin Kim ’12 said that the debate changed her views of PETA for the better, but that she plans to continue eating meat.

“I maintain that we should try to improve the current system, and not abstain totally,” she said. “Killing and eating animals is not completely unethical if done humanely.”

—Staff writer Alex M. McLeese can be reached at amcleese@fas.harvard.edu.