Bruce Friedrich, the vice-president of policy and government affairs for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), debated the ethics of eating meat with the MIT Debate Team on Monday night in 10-250. Shireen S. Rudina ’13, the debate team’s vice president of tournaments, argued against Friedrich’s proposal that eating meat is unethical under all circumstances.
Instead of the suit and tie typical of vice presidents, Friedrich was dressed simply in tan khakis and a red dress shirt. He started the debate with a speech arguing that a vegetarian lifestyle is ethical for environmental, energy, and animal-cruelty reasons.
“Vegetarianism is simply a matter of aligning your values with your actions,” Friedrich said.
“How many people believe that animals should be legally protected from abuse?” Friedrich asked. The majority of the audience in 10-250 raised their hands. Americans almost unanimously agree on this point, Friedrich said, claiming that this showed that people view animals to be an “ethical good.”
Friedrich pointed out that more power is needed to produce meat-based food compared to plant-based food. The vast majority of calories that we feed to an animal is expended for them to simply exist, Friedrich said. As a result, he asserts that “if we are eating meat, we are basically stomping on the Earth in combat boots.”
Friedrich then proceeded to show a sequence of videos from factory farms. The films showed chickens on industrial farms with their beaks clipped off to prevent them from pecking each other to death, along with several birds strung upside-down by their feet on their way to the slaughterhouse.
Rudina countered that Friedrich did not provide an adequate definition of ethics. While Friedrich believes that a person who eats meat and a person who does not recycle is unethical, Rudina disagreed. She argued that just as a person who neglected to recycle once is not unethical, neither is a person who makes the environmentally less-efficient choice of eating meat. She further disagreed that humans owe a moral responsibility towards animals.
“In order to be given moral consideration, [animals] must be capable of taking moral consideration of others as well,” Rudina said. She encouraged MIT students to question the scientific robustness of Friedrich’s claims that plant-based food is fourteen times more energy-efficient than meat, because of the complex nature of statistical studies.
As the debate went on, both sides became increasingly involved with the concept of “black or white” ethics. Friedrich brought up a famous situation proposed by philosopher Peter Singer: in a situation where a man must veer and crash his car in order to save a girl on the street, most people would conclude that an ethical man is compelled to sacrifice his expensive car in favor of a human life. However, in an essentially equal choice where the man could buy a car or donate the cash towards a charity and save hundreds of lives, the decision is not nearly as unanimous.
Friedrich refused to concede his position that eating meat is unacceptable even in regards to organic or grass-fed meat products.
“How many people would choose to spend an afternoon slicing chickens’ throats open on a humane farm?” Friedrich asked. “No one!” He has been a vegan since 1987.
This public debate is part of a series of debates about meat ethics that Friedrich has been having on campuses of “top universities” including Harvard, Yale, and the University of Chicago.
“Doing public debates are a great way of letting people see what debate is like and allow them to look at how to approach certain interesting issues” said Julia A. Boortz ’12, president of the debate team. “The philosophy of a debate tournament … involves being put on a side that you do not necessarily believe in personally.” Boortz added, “It is a great educational experience.”
Rudina was chosen to be the devil’s advocate for the tournament. “I am definitely more middle-ground than my arguments in this debate,” she said.
During the cross-examination, Rudina was cut-off by a member of the audience who objected to her arguments.
“This extends way beyond dogs or cats” he interrupted loudly, shaking his head. Both Friedrich and Rudina refused to respond to him and Friedrich asked the audience-member not to continue with his statement. According to Boortz, the man who interrupted may have been a local animal rights activist.
A large group of activists were in the audience, though it is unclear how they heard about the event, Boortz said. Friedrich had apologized to the debate team for the presence of the activists. According to Boortz, Friedrich said that he did not know the activists would be at the event and did not like to advertise similar events to local activists because he believed it contributed to a negative debate atmosphere.