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Big Ears, Meat and Morals

by Liz Mabbott

How big are your ears? This is a serious philosophical inquiry so don’t tell me to mind my own business. Furthermore, not only is this a philosophical inquiry in general, it is a philosophical inquiry from a specifically moral point of view. The size of your ears could also drastically improve your chances of your having the right to life recognised – or it could result in an untimely death – it all depends. Depends on what? Well, on your philosophical position of course. Contrary to what you might be thinking, I haven’t overdosed an obscure form of moral relativism which sees morality as confined to those with ears of a precise size, nor have I identified a previously unheard-of gene which extends the life-span of the small-eared, and mistakenly announced my findings in a philosophical publication. In fact my argument is directly linked to vegetarianism – and has nothing whatsoever to do with cauliflower ears either!

What I want to suggest is a hypothetical theory that the consumption by those with small ears of those with large ears will dramatically reduce the incidence of, say, heart disease in the former group. I admit there are no such theories, but for the purposes of this article, let’s suppose that there were. Where would that leave the unlucky members of our society with big ears? What would be the reaction of philosophers called upon to sit on ethics committees to discuss whether the eating of people with big ears was morally defensible?

Of course, we all (hope) we know the answer to that question. The benefits to the small-eared people would hardly even come into the discussion. What would matter in any moral argument would be the gross infringement of the rights of the big-eared, the curtailment of their lives against their will and a general rejection of such a grotesque parody of utilitarian thinking – and quite rightly so. But this is where the relationship of my hypothetical theory to vegetarianism is relevant.

Firstly, I have to state that I am a vegan, so my own position on meat eating is fairly clearly defined. However, I believe that my arguments are as relevant for those who are neither vegetarian nor vegan, because what concerns me is the muddling of philosophical positions which does philosophy a disservice, and which is merely demonstrated in the meat eating debate. I also became a vegan as the direct result of doing philosophy, (who says philosophy can’t change your life?) so I’m reasonably familiar with the philosophical arguments advanced for renouncing the eating of meat and/or animal products. But in the course of becoming familiar with some of those positions, I became more than a little uneasy. Take for example the arguments of Peter Singer, a great champion of animal welfare who has done much to take discussion about the injustices of meat-eating out of the philosophical ghetto and into the mainstream of debate.

In Chapter 3 of his book Practical Ethics, Singer lists the philosophical difficulties in continuing to discriminate against animals and to exploit them for our own pleasure and benefit. He points out that animals have a central nervous system, they feel pain just as we do. They are not all highly intelligent, but then neither are all human beings, but we don’t treat human beings as mere breeding machines. They are not rational, or at least may not be rational, but neither are some human beings – infants, the comatose, the mentally disabled – but we don’t experiment on human beings against their will, or rear them for food. Such unjust discrimination Singer identifies as speciesism, arguing convincingly that our present treatment of animals is no more defensible than the treatment meted out to members of ethnic minorities by certain prejudiced groups in society, which usually provokes condemnation by more morally developed individuals. Yet many of these moral athletes eat meat. Singer rejects any disposition towards speciesism – rightly in my view – but it is at this point that the arguments frequently advanced for vegetarianism/veganism become blurred and even in danger of arguing themselves round in circle.

Having argued with fervour against the rearing of animals for food, Singer moves on, in Chapter 8 of Practical Ethics, to discuss the ramifications of intensive meat production for people in the Third World. His argument is that feeding grain to animals before we feed it to human beings wastes up to 95% of the food value of the animal feed, and it would therefore be much more efficient to feed the grain to human beings directly, thereby eliminating the famines which periodically beset under-developed countries.

While not questioning Singer’s calculations, it seems to me that he has shifted the emphasis of his argument away from the rights of animals and straight back to the needs of human beings. He has moved away from a position which claims the exploitation of animals to be morally indefensible and towards one which points out the advantages to human beings of rejecting meat eating – and if this isn’t speciesism it’s something fairly close to it. On Singer’s argument, what makes meat-eating wrong is not only the amount of suffering it causes worldwide, but also the inefficiency of the present system of food production in the West. While I acknowledge that this system is inefficient, it is my contention that this is of no moral significance whatsoever from the point of view of animal rights. What has happened to the concern for the individuals, human or otherwise, who are affected by our current dietary practices? It seems to me that this is a form of thinking which manages to shoot itself in the foot in a spectacular fashion, and is surely inadequate for those who question our right to exploit anybody purely for our own convenience – and I would contend that all animals are somebody in the sense that their lives are not of no consequence other than that of their usefulness to us as we would reasonably claim of a car, for example.

Singer himself tentatively suggests that we may be able to rank the value of different lives in some kind of hierarchical order, based on the degree of self awareness and rationality, but this is problematic – and speciesist – in itself. His basis for making this claim is that the greater the degree of self awareness and rationality, the more likely we are to prefer it. But it is not our preferences which count here, but the preferences of the individual animals – or at least the preferences they could reasonably be supposed to have if they were capable of preference. Since few can imagine wanting to be something so radically different from what we are that we become a member of another species, it seems reasonable that we should suppose most animals would wish to be what they are – and to able to be what they are without the risk of interference or exploitation for no better reason than the convenience of others.

All of which brings me back to size of your ears. Would the benefit to my health justify my eating you, always assuming that your ears are a touch on the large side? Clearly not, but surely the reason it would not be justified has more substance to it than the usual repugnance to cannibalism in our society. As mentioned earlier, the response which refutes my right to eat you because your ears are bigger than mine must be framed in terms of the infringement of your rights, autonomy and legitimate freedoms.

There seems then to be a degree of confusion among some philosophical defenders of non human animals, although perhaps they can be forgiven a little bewilderment, since the lack of direction seems to be shared even by those who are solely concerned with this issue. The April/May 1994 edition of Animal Times, the magazine published by P.E.T.A. (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) gives details of its campaign against chicken. It lists the appalling conditions in which the chickens exist, their drastically curtailed life-span and the resulting mutilation of some birds by others, unable to establish a satisfactory pecking order. This alone seems a fairly strong reason for refusing to buy chicken and thereby discouraging such barbaric practices. But where the argument begins to lose direction is the inclusion of an insert in the middle of the article listing the many and various health risks to human beings of eating chicken and eggs, high in cholesterol and fat, and one in three chickens contaminated by salmonella.

It seems to me that this is a huge red herring in philosophical terms, just as the potential benefit to the majority of eating the minority of big eared people is insufficient to justify their mass slaughter and consumption. Whether meat eating is good or bad for human beings is a complete irrelevance. If arguments about the potential damage to human health are to be employed, we have moved from a clearly defined moral position to a vague emotivism which uses any facts to provoke a change of heart in our audience and becomes nothing more than a psychological prod to produce feelings akin to our own. Any such move can only weaken the argument for animal rights if its proponents are seen in fact to be safeguarding their own interests, and not those of an oppressed group as they claim.

So why do we still manage to justify the eating of some animals in terms of the alleged (and very questionable) benefits to human health, or just because we like the taste? As I have said, these arguments would hold no water if applied to the eating of people. What are we left with which allows us to justify the cruelty shown to animals in the course of food production? Is there lurking beneath our philosophical approach a lingering belief in the existence of the human soul which sets us above the other animals? We have surely moved beyond Descartes’ belief that the living dogs upon which he performed experiments and which he dissected were not really screaming in pain, but merely a making noise as any machine would if interfered with. We do recognise the pain of animals as being true pain, but yet we still feel it to be justified if it furthers the ends of human beings. But how is it possible to justify this kind of behaviour unless there is something radically different about human beings and other animals? Since no such radical difference has been identified which holds between all humans and all other animals, and yet we still treat animals with complete disregard, are we not tempted towards the suspicion that there is an element of belief in the human soul clinging to the fringes of our philosophy, even when the religious systems which founded that belief have been largely rejected? This argument is reminiscent of both Anscombe and MacIntyre, who have both recognised the fragmentation of our moral tradition, beset as it is by residual moral and theological notions from earlier moral frameworks. Most people today would probably reject the fundamentalist Biblical view of the world which sees all other living things on this planet as provided by a benevolent creator for our personal use, but it seems to me that this uncomfortable theory is alive and well and living in abattoirs.

For those of a fundamentalist Judaeo- Christian persuasion, presumably the discussion stops here, as it does for those who see human beings as inherently more valuable than other animals for reasons of their own. But for those concerned with animal rights/welfare and the question of how much, if any, use of other animals by human beings is legitimate, there is a need to sort out the philosophical confusion which besets so many of the arguments advanced in favour of non-human animals’ freedoms. In my opinion, there is no place in those arguments for a discussion regarding the potential benefits to human beings of vegetarianism/veganism, whether those benefits are personal or global. If the argument put forward is that it is wrong to exploit animals, on the grounds that it is unjust, immoral and an infringement of rights, then those alone are the grounds on which the argument must conducted. Claims which rely on further advancing the lot of our particular species to gain ‘converts’ to vegetarianism/veganism merely pander to the discriminator, inhibit the advance of moral thought and can only be counter productive. Moral theorists concerned with nonhuman animal rights and/or welfare must identify the real moral issues involved and work towards furthering the recognition of those issues – or else hope their ears are no larger than average.


Peter Singer Practical Ethics (Cambridge Univeristy Press) 1979.
P.E.T.A.’s Animal Times April/May 1994.

© Liz Mabbott 1994

Liz Mabbott is a post-graduate student of philosophy at Hull University

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