One common approach to debating the ethics of meat is to argue within the context of utilitarianism.
Put is simple terms, for the utilitarian, an action is right if it creates more utility for the morally relevant beings than disutility. A key part of the debate for the utilitarians is the moral status of animals: are they morally relevant or not?
If animals are not morally relevant, then their treatment would not be morally significant. If animals are morally relevant, then their treatment would be relevant to the moral assessment of actions.
Of course, it is possible to accept that animals are morally relevant, but to argue that humans count more than animals. For example, Mill argues that sentient beings count morally but he also argues that humans have higher faculties. This can be used to argue that humans count more than animals and this can, in turn, be used to justify treating animals worse that humans.
One way to argue that animals count is to argue (as Mill did) that pleasure is of positive value (utility) and pain is of negative value (disutility). Since animals feel pleasure and pain, they would play a role in the calculation of utility and hence would be relevant beings.
The template for arguing on utilitarian grounds has the following steps:
1) The utility generated by the practice is assessed.
2) The disutility generated by the practice is assessed.
3) If the disutility outweighs the utility, then the action is immoral.
4) If the utility outweighs the disutility, then the action is moral.
As an example, consider the following argument about veal: Humans enjoy eating veal and gain some pleasure from this. The creation of veal involves imprisoning a calf in a stall that is too small for movement, force feeding the calf which causes the calf to have various problems, and then killing the calf. The horrible treatment of the animals creates more pain than the eating of veal generates. Therefore the treatment of the animals is morally wrong.
Of course, the utilitarian approach can also be used to argue for treating animals not so well. For example, humans test important medicines on animals and develop treatments for serious health conditions. The animals involved in the testing suffer from these experiments. However, the animals are treated as humanely as possible and the medicines significantly increase the patients’ quality of life and even permit them to keep on living. The benefits of such testing outweigh the suffering of animals, therefore the testing is morally acceptable.
Getting back to the matter of meat, utilitarian arguments can be given for eating meat. One argument can be based on pleasure: while the suffering of animals creates pain, the enjoyment that people get from eating meat outweighs this suffering. Therefore the eating of meat is morally acceptable.
Of course, this sort of argument could be used to justify any sort of seemingly wicked activity. This would be done by merely showing that those committing the apparent misdeeds enjoy their misdeeds more than their victims suffer. This problem is not specific to meat, but rather a general concern with utilitarianism.
A second sort of utilitarian argument can be based on need: humans need to consume meat in order to remain healthy. While animals suffer from being killed for food, the need of humans outweigh the needs of animals. Therefore eating meat is acceptable.
This argument can, of course, be challenged. There is considerable debate over whether humans actually need meat or not. The best evidence seems to be that humans can do fine without meat, provided that they have access to foods that can replace meat. Naturally, in some contexts, people do not have an alternative to meat. Of course, this line of reasoning can also justify cannibalism, at least in survival situations. However, just as cannibalism is unacceptable when there are alternatives, it would seem that eating animals is also unacceptable when there are alternatives.