Ethics of Eating Meat

A recent Toronto Star piece on the ethics of eating meat quotes me, briefly, on the topic of lab-grown meat (something I’ve blogged about before).

The main point of the article, however, is to make an attempt to marshall a range of arguments specifically in favour of meat eating, generally. It’s a valiant effort; unfortunately none of the arguments put forward holds any water.

I’ll offer here just a few quick points of rebuttal, before offering some thoughts of my own:

1) The fact that “all animals die” anyway doesn’t count for much, when we are the ones who raise them in vast numbers just in order to kill them. Aside from wild animals killed by hunters, animals we eat only die because we raise them for that purpose.

2) The fact that animals are slaughtered more-or-less humanely is, in itself, a good thing, but does little to respond to several key arguments against eating meat.

3) No, eating meat is not just a “personal choice.” At very least, the environmental impact of meat makes it a social issue. So yes, you personally have to choose, but you have an obligation to choose well. It’s no more a mere personal choice than the choice of whether to drive a gas-guzzling car.

4) No, we don’t need meat, nutritionally. Yes, it’s still in Canada’s food guide, but as the article notes the food guide lists “meat and alternatives” as the relevant category.

5) The fact that there is some evidence some plants can communicate in some ways is not relevant. It doesn’t imply biologically that they can feel pain. Even if (if!) plants can feel pain, we would still have reason to stick to eating whatever things feel pain least, or least intensively, etc. That is, plants would likely still be the least-cruel option.

6) Chimpanzee diet isn’t relevant. Chimps do lots of things that would be considered unethical if we humans did them. Infanticide, for starters.

7) The fact that we’ve got certain physiological features that suggest we are built for hunting and/or eating meat doesn’t mean that eating meat is right. The fact that something is “natural” doesn’t make it healthy or good. Counter-examples are easy to generate.

8) The fact that meat is in certain ways highly nutritious doesn’t count for much, given that it is very well established by now that humans can eat very high-quality diets low or lacking in animal proteins. That goes for competitive athletes as well.

OK, so much for critique. Let’s move on to the arguments against meat.

There are three or four main kinds of ethical objections to meat, different reasons given by different people in advancing either philosophical or casual arguments against eating animals:

1) If animals have rights (e.g., a right to life), then it would be wrong to eat them. Rights are essentially a moral line drawn in the sand. When someone has a right to something, it is generally unethical to violate that right.

2) If animals deserve moral consideration (even in the absence of rights) then we might have an obligation to minimize their suffering. That is, if pain — all pain — is bad, then we should try to reduce it (and not to cause it). Despite efforts to render slaughter more humane, animal agriculture still causes plenty of suffering.

3) The meat industry is notoriously bad environmentally. Millions of acres are dedicated to growing crops to feed animals — and those millions of acres require gazillions of gallons of water and immense quantities of pesticides. Oh, and raising those crops requires immense petroleum inputs. From an energy point of view, meat is an incredibly inefficient way to feed people. So even if animals don’t matter, eating (much) meat might be a failure of your obligations to your fellow humans.

4) Eating large quantities of meat isn’t particularly good for you. That in itself isn’t really an ethical issue — you can do whatever you want to yourself. But how you treat your kids, for example, is certainly an ethical issue. So you might have an ethical obligation to limit your kids’ consumption of meat, just as you have an obligation to limit their consumption of sugary foods.

So, is eating meat ethical? I don’t think it can be declared categorically unethical, because I don’t think the animal rights argument works: there’s no sound philosophical foundation for attributing rights to animals. Feel free to disagree. In fact, I think the environmental argument is the most compelling. But that means that it’s not a black-or-white issue. If you think about meat as an environmental issue, then it’s a matter of degree. You should eat less, rather than more, the same as you should use less, rather than more, gasoline. Is eating any meat at all unethical? No. Are we all obligated to reduce or minimize? I think clearly yes.

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
This entry was posted in agriculture, animal rights, animal welfare, choice, health, kids, meat, nutrition. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Ethics of Eating Meat

  1. Donald Skinner says:

    I just wanted to touch on the 4th point pertaining to the nurtritional aspect of this argument. Granted it is true that we do not ‘need’ meat to survive – there are a number of alternative protein sources and dietary supplements that make vegetarian/vegan diets possible – however, it has been shown that an ideal human diet that is best suited for proper development and maintenance includes animal protein (i.e. http://www.bioone.org/doi/pdf/10.1579/0044-7447-31.2.126). Plant sources are deficient in certain nutrients that our bodies cannot produce and these nutrients are present in animal protein sources (i.e. milk, eggs, meat). I realize that in North America we are often guilty of overconsuming meat but I do feel that it is important to point out that meat (in the proper proportions) is part of a healthy diet.

  2. Vadim says:

    I agree that an animal-rights argument fails. However, it fails because any argument based on rights, including human, fails. For example, while we commonly invoke a person’s right to life, there are times when we violate it. War and self-defense, for instance. OK, perhaps you might argue that both these examples illustrate that we take lives to save others; hence, the right to life is still at play. But the examples still show that sometimes, it may be OK to kill. Hence, if we can’t think of rights categorically. Therefore, any talk of rights is moot or simply using the wrong language. I prefer to look at issues in terms of interests, which all sentient beings have. I believe in equal consideration of like interests, weighing them, and acting in a way that maximizes them. (My thinking is very heavily influenced by the philosopher Peter Singer’s writings on animal “rights” and utilitarianism. You won’t find a more fervent utilitarian than I!) A person’s interest to consume meat seems less than an animal’s interest not to experience pain, which almost all animals do at some point in the food production process. Granted, that says nothing about the ethics of giving an animal a pleasurable life followed by a painless death. But then you run into questions of why it would not also be OK to painlessly kill humans (perhaps newborn orphans), where answers must, I believe, avoid speciesism. Because I haven’t worked out for myself whether I’m entirely a preference or hedonistic utilitarian, I tend to, for now, err on the side of preserving and increasing pleasure in the world. To do otherwise is ethically wrong. Of course, I could go on and on, but those are just some quick thoughts. :)

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