In Defense of Eating Meat

by Dwight Furrow

CowThere are many sound arguments for drastically cutting back on our consumption of meat—excessive meat consumption wastes resources, contributes to climate change, and has negative consequences for health. But there is no sound argument based on the rights of animals for avoiding meat entirely.

Last month, Grist's food writer Nathanael Johnson published an article in which he claims philosophers have failed to even take up, let alone defeat, the influential arguments against eating meat in Peter Singer's 1975 book, Animal Liberation.

My enquiries didn't turn up any sophisticated defense of meat. Certainly there are a few people here and there making arguments around the edges, but nothing that looked to me like a serious challenge to Singer.

I continue to be unimpressed with journalists' ability to do basic research. Even a simple Google search would turn up several arguments against Singer's view, including the well-known argument for speciesism by Carl Cohen. (No, a Google search isn't research but it's a good place to begin) Furthermore, Singer's arguments are based on utilitarian premises which have been subject to a host of substantive objections raised in the philosophical literature. I don't have current figures at hand but I doubt that even a majority of moral philosophers today are utilitarian. Thus, most moral philosophers would reject the foundations of Singer's argument; and indeed his argument is profoundly mistaken.

I don't want to get too deep in the philosophical weeds here, but essentially Singer argues that any being that suffers has full moral status. Since non-human animals suffer, their interest in not suffering should receive equal consideration to the interests of humans. To fail to give animals equal consideration is to be guilty of speciesism, which according to Singer is as indefensible as racism or sexism. There are many refinements that can be made to this argument but that is the basic idea.

There are all sorts of problems with this argument even if we were to accept the basic utilitarian idea that only overall consequences matter in assessing the moral quality of an action. Why is the capacity to suffer pain the only moral relevant capacity and the reduction of pain the only proper goal? Why isn't the production of good consequences (understood as pleasure or well-being) an equally important aim? But if our actions are to aim at maximizing good consequences we run into the following so-called “repugnant conclusion”. Imagine a world in which only 10 cows exist and they live insanely happy lives. (I'm not sure what that would mean but it surely involves as little pain as possible). But we can easily imagine a better world—one in which 10,000 cows exist but their lives are barely worth living. The second 10,000-cow world is better from a utilitarian standpoint because it contains more good than the 10-cow world. The general point here is that any loss in the quality of lives in a population can be compensated for by gains in the quantity of a population.

How does this apply to the debate about eating meat? If we did not eat beef, we would have no reason to continue to raise the millions of cattle that are slaughtered for food every year. Cattle would have no function except for display in zoos, and they would not be adept at survival in the wild. Thus, in the future, few cattle would exist. That is similar to our 10-cow world, and from the utilitarian view, not as good as the world of industrial-raised cattle we have today. If you find that conclusion repugnant, you're in good company—the same argument applied to human beings would entail the appalling conclusion that a large population of slaves is to be preferred to a small population of contented people—but it is the logical result of utilitarian reasoning. Singer's argument depends on treating only suffering as morally relevant, but there are no compelling utilitarian reasons for treating the minimization of suffering to be more important than the production of good. This is hardly a sufficient defense of eating meat but it shows the case against eating meat is built on shaky foundations.

Furthermore, if suffering is bad then according to utilitarianism it does not matter whether the suffering is caused by disease, accidents, predators, or overcrowding in stockyards. Why then is human-caused suffering worse than the suffering animals endure in the wild? And why is suffering caused by eating meat worse than that the unintended suffering caused by any form of human development that destroys natural habitat. Most utilitarian views focus on realizing the best state of affairs independently of how that state of affairs is brought about. Yet, many utilitarians including Singer seem indifferent to the suffering of wild animals, focusing only on suffering caused by raising animals for food. Granted, when animals are killed for food they are killed intentionally. Animals killed by predators, disease, or the building of human settlements are not killed intentionally. But intentions are not supposed to matter for utilitarians; only states of affairs matter. The logical result of utilitarianism is that all civilization may be unwarranted if the cost to animal suffering is sufficiently great—a repugnant conclusion indeed.

All of which raises doubts about the most important empirical assumption in the argument against eating meat—it is assumed that growing non-meat foods causes no pain or suffering. But of course that is not true. The planting and harvesting of crops destroys massive numbers of sentient creatures and their habitats. How much destruction and how this compares to the destruction and suffering of animals raised for meat is a matter of some controversy but there is some evidence that the carnage from factory plant-farming is enormous. Of course, these are the unintended consequences of actions that seem benign, but remember, according to utilitarianism, intentions don't matter, only outcomes. If all suffering is equal then the suffering of wild animals as the result of human practices matters as well. When it comes to securing our food supply there are no clean hands and no painless policies.

However, all of this is foreplay, circling without getting to the heart of the real issue. That issue is the moral equivalence Singer assumes between human and non-human animal suffering. Because non-human animals experience pain, they have interests that should receive equal consideration with that of humans, according to Singer. To deny this is ‘speciesist', with obvious comparisons to racism and sexism. These comparisons are absurd and offensive, a bit of rhetoric intended to persuade the unwitting. There are no morally relevant distinctions between races or genders that would justify unequal treatment. There are morally relevant distinctions between non-human animals and humans.

It is not at all clear how to evaluate the badness of animal suffering. Obviously animals don't like pain and try to avoid death. But pain suffered without the explicit memory of it or reflective doubts about its meaning seems less “painful” than human pain which has these psychological aspects. Of course all of this is more or less speculation. We don't know enough about animal psychology to make firm generalizations about the meaning of their experience. But this applies to the utilitarian as well. From the fact that animals experience pain, Singer infers they have interests. But until we have a clearer understanding of animal psychology it isn't obvious what kind of interests animals have aside from a desire to survive. Yet, it is the fate of all animals to die; how much weight to assign the costs of early death for a cow depends on what it is like to be a cow—and we really don't know much about that. If animals have interests independently of their awareness of those interests, then we would be forced to admit that plants have interests as well. Should we refrain from eating plants? Clearly we are in the realm of the absurd.

Given the unknowns in all this talk of animal well-being it is probably best not to rest an argument on them. Happily an argument for the permissibility of eating meat can avoid these worries about the nature of non-human animal experience because there are other clear differences between humans and non-human animals that rule out Singer's claims about equal consideration.

Singer's argument is based on the idea that animals have moral status because they suffer. As a utilitarian he may not be comfortable using “rights” talk but it surely fits here. He thinks animals have a right to equal consideration. But animals cannot have moral rights, simply because the treatment of animals falls outside the scope of our core understanding of morality. Morality is not a set of principles written in the stars. Morality arises, because as human beings, we need to cooperate with each other in order to thrive, and such cooperation requires trust. The institution of morality is a set of considerations that helps to secure the requisite level of trust to enable that cooperation. That is why morality is a stable evolutionary development. It enhances the kind of flourishing characteristic of human beings. Rights, then, are entitlements that determine what a right-holder may demand of others that we decide to honor in order to maintain the requisite level of social trust.

We are not similarly dependent on the trustworthiness of animals. (Pets are a special case which is why we don't eat them). Our flourishing does not depend on getting cows, tigers, or shrimp to trust us or we them, and thus we have no reciprocal moral relations with them. From the standpoint of human flourishing there simply is no reason to confer moral rights on animals. Of course, over the last several decades we have discovered that human flourishing depends on taking care of our environment. It might behoove us to confer some moral status on ecological systems. Perhaps it is not too much of a conceptual stretch to argue we should cultivate relationships of trust (or at least non-exploitation) with the environments in which we live. But that does not entail refraining from killing individual animals. There may be environmental reasons to refrain from eating meat but no moral reasons based on the interests of animals. Note that this is not a speciesist argument. If somehow we became dependent on relations of trust with say dolphins, then dolphins would have moral status. It is not being human that matters, but rather being the sort of organism with certain specific needs and capabilities that requires we live with them in a moral community.

This is not to say we should be cruel to animals, lack empathy for them, or ignore their welfare. The reason is not that they have rights. Rather it is because cruelty is a character flaw that we should strive to overcome. But our moral energy is not infinite. The humane treatment of animals is one among many moral projects we should undertake, but it has no special priority over the many more pressing human needs that cry out for our attention.

It is often assumed that vegetarians have the moral high-ground. Indeed, individuals whose empathy for animals leads them to refrain from eating them are admirable because they practice what they preach and their actions reveal a praise-worthy sensitivity toward animal welfare. But there is no moral obligation to refrain from eating meat and thus no moral high ground to occupy.

For more on the philosophy of food and wine visit Edible Arts

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