At the coffee shop debate this week, Lucius Flatley posed the question, “Is eating meat ethical?” Before Bill Rusty, a retired beef farmer, could spill his coffee, Lucius offered a definition of ethics: “Conforming to the standards of a given profession or group.”

This definition was not a source of joy to Joey Wagner, well-known bird watcher from Cape Elizabeth, who claimed it to be as broad as Newt Gingrich’s waistline. He objected, “How about a Nazi being ethical when he ‘conforms to the standard of his group’ by killing Jews?”

There were similar strong opinions, mostly along the lines that ethical standards vary sharply from group to group. Manhattan vegans have little in common with the barbecue disciples of West Texas. The 40,000 ultra-orthodox Jewish men, who filled a Brooklyn stadium recently to give thanks that they were not born women, would be dismayed if the long-awaited Messiah turned out to be female. A brace of Mormons wearing the required secret undergarments would hardly enjoy a NASCAR rally on a North Carolina hot August afternoon where the fans smoked Camels and drank Budweiser.

However, the debaters agreed that, in a general sense, meat eating could be ethical if it meets three standards: 1. The economical use of resources – food production should employ the most efficient methods of converting plant energy to human use; 2. The absence of cruelty to a sentient being – meat animals must be treated humanely; 3. Damage to the world – production of meat should not endanger or damage the environment.

With the aid of the micro-organisms in its several stomachs, a cow is able to turn the sunlight captured by plants into condensed calories and protein. But a cow does not capture the “economy of scale” so dear to the hearts of Bain Capital investors. Ten pounds of grain baked into bread will nourish more people than a pound of cow. Therefore, under standard No. 1, the group agreed that “factory-type meat production is an economically foolish endeavor.”

However, if handled properly, most of the agro-ecologists present agreed that animals help land management, cycle nutrients and convert sun to food in ways that otherwise would require fossil fuel. (Try eating a parsnip au naturel.) In some circumstances, not eating meat may be arguably unethical.

Standard 2 found general agreement. Most animals raised and sold for food from “factory farms” are treated cruelly. It is unethical to eat pork from hogs that never leave an enclosure only an inch or two wider than their body. Goose liver produced from a forced feeding that verges on horror should not be eaten by those concerned with ethics. No more pate de foie gras.

A small debate occurred over whether ethics should be extended into law. Along with animals, politicians have no conscience and, for a few campaign contributions, government edict can be used to enforce anything from euthanasia to the Pledge of Allegiance. Just how far should one’s feelings about meat extend into the majesty and force of government? If law can forbid the consumption of a common vegetable such as cannabis, why not deny rump roast or rack of lamb?

No complete agreement was reached.

There was sympathy for the so-called pink slime. The group thought it was healthy, avoided waste and reduced hunger. Anyone who can eat oysters on the half shell is way past the unappetizing appearance of pink slime.

By the time the group got to discuss the third standard, about the environment, Burly Lovering and two others had overdosed on caffeine and were standing in line for the men’s room, so the group decided that they’d leave the question of global warming to any Al Gore fans who wished to work on it.

The group’s overall conclusions on meat-eating ethics were: 1. It would be difficult to convince a Red Sox fan that his hot dog was an unethical anything; 2. Vegans need to cool their jets.

Thought for the week

Last year, Lindsay Lohan’s underwear received more coverage on Fox News than any two congressional debates.

Rodney Quinn, a former Maine secretary of state, lives in Westbrook. He can be reached at [email protected]