The ethics of eating meat
As submitted to the Daily Maverick
It goes without saying that industrial meat production entails harm to animals. While much of this harm might be avoidable, the costs of producing meat ethically (if such a thing is possible) in sufficient quantities to satisfy a hungry market could end up making meat unaffordable to most. But lay debates on whether it’s ethically permissible to eat meat often don’t touch on these economic factors, preferring the extreme positions of either asserting human dominion over other animals, or the essential wrongness of killing animals for food (where, for most of us, this food source is fully replaceable).
The argument for human dominion is of course largely a matter of cultural habit, and as Peter Singer has pointed out in talking about speciesism, it is by itself difficult to distinguish from racism or sexism. In his paper “Eating animals the nice way” (pdf), Jeff McMahan succinctly highlights our prejudices on this matter by pointing out that “human intuitions about the moral status of animals are so contaminated by self-interest and irrational religious belief as to be almost wholly unreliable”.
The position that it’s always wrong to kill for food also seems extreme, in that it’s surely possible to imagine meat without suffering, even if only on a small scale. So, the harm caused and whether it’s needless or not, compared to the benefits of meat production and consumption, need to be part of the debate for our vegetarianism or our meat-eating to be ethical.
I’m of course already taking a stand in the paragraph above in not giving significant attention to some vegan positions, where the treatment of animals as a commodity is universally regarded as ethically wrong. This is simply because I’m not persuaded that we have a duty to maximise the lifespans of (some) other animals, because “being alive” is not something they can value. For those animals that do have a theory of mind, I’d think we would have that duty. As for chickens and cows, though, the issue of suffering seems to be what would determine the ethical status of meat-eating.
The position I’m taking is that, for a practice to be ethically wrong, someone or something’s interests need to be harmed. The thing being harmed needs to be capable of experiencing harm (whether emotional, financial, or other) – this is what it means to be a moral agent. However, even harm is in itself not sufficient for ethical wrongness, as some cases could justify causing a certain amount of harm in order to prevent a larger amount of harm.
When considering whether it’s ethical to eat meat, utilitarian arguments are most commonly marshalled in defence of the view that meat-eating is ethically wrong, due to the harms caused to animals. But the harms cited are not convincing, or are at least not an argument against meat-eating per se, but rather against the particular conditions under which most animal meat is produced.
Non-human animals can suffer pain. If we assume that causing them unnecessary pain is wrong – as I do – what follows is that we need to produce and consume meat in ways that don’t cause unnecessary pain. It would only be ethically wrong to eat meat, in principle, if meat production necessarily caused harm to animals. But meat can be produced under non-harmful conditions, and animals can be slaughtered without distress to themselves or other animals in their immediate environment.
As I say above, farming of this sort would be more costly than factory-farming, and this approach would mean a significant increase in the price of animal meat. But here again, there is no necessary harm – those who cannot afford to eat meat will not suffer significant harms through being forced to eat less or no meat, and farmers who cannot compete under these conditions would have to develop alternative ways of making a living.
There would certainly be some harms resulting here – to the farmers – but these harms would on balance be less than animal suffering under factory-farming. Again, though, the key point is that meat-eating per se would not be ethically wrong, even if certain market-orientations in the production and consumption of meat could result in more harms than others.
Regarding the more general economic arguments around the production and consumption of meat, if meat was a significantly more wasteful sort of foodstuff to produce than alternatives, the argument could be made that eating meat is ethically wrong. But only if a) we grant that we have moral obligations to others and/or the environment; and b) if we have good reason to believe that meat production is indeed more resource-intensive.
Point (a) does stand in need of support, but I’d imagine that most of us would accept its truth. But even if true, it remains possible that a significant price-premium on meat – putting it only in the hands (or rather, mouths) of the wealthy – could result in a net benefit to those less fortunate. The farmers and others involved in meat production could receive greater profits, and potential taxation revenue could be directed explicitly at poverty-relief, or feeding programmes (whether involving meat or not). Much could go awry with this sort of scheme, of course, but the practical problems of allocating this revenue are again not an argument from principle.
On point (b), the argument is far less settled than many seem to believe. It’s often cited as a truism that meat-production is vastly more resource-intensive, but evidence cited in books such as Simon Fairlie’s Meat: A Benign Extravagance offers good reason to be suspicious of this truism (as is often the case with dogmatic utterances of any sort).
It might well be the case that 50 years from now, we’ll look back in disbelief at our current dietary practices, perhaps considering them a form of savagery and exploitation. Our cultural practices don’t always overlap with what’s ethically right, and it can take time for us to realise this. And I can’t deny that part of the reason I eat meat is simply because I assume that it’s okay to do so, and refrain from (potentially) burdening my conscience by thinking about it too much.
But if it’s true that ethical wrongness entails actual, necessary, harms rather than potential harms, then arguments against meat-eating that appeal to potential harms (under existing rather than immutable conditions) aren’t persuasive. The precautionary principle is a poor justification for restricting liberty – if harms cannot be demonstrated, we should be free to eat whatever we like.
The burden of proof should always fall on those who want to restrict liberty, and as things stand, it seems to me that the only justified restrictions on what we eat relate to some ways of producing and eating meat – but not meat-eating in general.
This column was prompted by The New York Times, and their call for submissions to the Put Your Ethics Where Your Mouth Is contest.