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Question of the Month

Can Eating Meat Be Justified?

Each answer below wins a book. Apologies to the entrants not included.

An argument against eating meat can be made from both environmental and health-related points of view, but the case from the moral consideration of animals – brilliantly expressed from a utilitarian perspective in Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation – seems to me to be the most compelling. As Jeremy Bentham wrote in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, “The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk ? but, Can they suffer?”

Sentience appears to be the sufficient and necessary characteristic for someone to have interests. When a living being has the capacity for suffering, it follows that it will at the very least have an interest in not feeling pain. When it comes to fellow human beings, we like to apply the principle of equal consideration of interests: we do not favour specific individuals or groups over others based on some particular characteristics (sex, race, etc). To be morally consistent, I believe we should extend this principle to non-human animals in virtue of their capacity for suffering, and we should regard as morally irrelevant any other characteristic that distinguishes them from us.

The inequality of our moral consideration for non-human animals appears even more obvious when we take into account that the interest we have in eating meat is trivial and outweighed by the very basic interest animals have in not suffering. In most areas of the world, eating meat is not a necessity to survive or to live a healthy life, therefore when we choose to eat meat we are implying that our sensory pleasure is more valuable than the life and well-being of an animal. Furthermore, it seems to me that in most of our societies we inhabit a contradiction: we love and protect our pets, we even put laws in place against animal cruelty, and yet at the same time we perpetuate one of the worst crimes in history, factory farming. Perhaps one day, when we get rid of the cognitive dissonance caused by this hypocrisy, we will finally look back at meat consumption and other animal exploitation as just another unjustified ethical horror of our past.

Rosario Micalizzi, Messina, Italy

There are compelling reasons for not eating meat. Specifically, as Francis Vergunst and Julian Savulescu have noted, eating meat (1) negatively impacts the environment; (2) requires massive amounts of ‘grain, water, and land;’ (3) ‘hurts the global poor;’ (4) ‘causes unnecessary animal suffering’, and (5) ‘is making us ill’ (‘Five ways the meat on your plate is killing the planet’, The Conversation, April 2017).

I accept these points. We also know that humans have made a great deal of moral progress over the last several hundred years. Practices that were once acceptable no longer are, and meat eating might seem the next heretofore generally accepted immoral practice that will be banished. It is quite possible that, in the not-too-distant future, humans will recoil at the very thought that their forebears ate meat.

None of this analysis, however, clinches the case that eating meat is unjustified. We are omnivores and, so far as we know, have been so throughout our history as a species. This makes meat eating entirely different from the many things that humans justified in the past but do not justify today. Slavery, gladiatorial contests and scores of other activities were never morally justifiable, and societies which justified such practices had serious moral shortcomings. Eating meat, however, has clearly been truly justifiable through most of human history, even as a matter of simple survival.

This, of course, does not mean that meat eating will always be justifiable; but a practice that is as natural and deeply engrained as meat eating becomes immoral only when it is generally recognized as such. That is not yet the case.

Howard Landis, Naples, Florida

Writing as a red-blooded vegetarian, it might surprise you to find that I think eating meat can be justified… sometimes. However, those situations where it would be permissible to tuck into Chicken Little and his friends, would, in my view, be where starvation is the only alternative. In poverty-stricken regions of the world, or other places such as the Arctic where crops will not grow successfully and the essential nutrients and minerals cannot be obtained from another source, then it would seem justifiable for humans to eat meat. For some, there is no alternative. This does not presume some kind of anthropocentric dominion over other creatures, but is a consequence of the basic instinct to survive. A blanket prohibition on meat-eating would not be in spirit of the compassion and care that should be shown to those in dire need.

However, for those of us lucky enough to not face deprivation, the consumption of animal flesh seems more difficult to justify for three reasons. First, a vegetarian lifestyle can help reduce one’s carbon footprint. According to the Vegetarian Society, a plant-based diet produces 2.5 times less carbon emissions than a carnivorous one. The environmental crisis facing us means that is becoming increasingly unjustifiable to eat meat. Second, we are not the only creatures who experience pain. Pigs squeal in terror while queuing for the killing floor. Current research also indicates that even fish can feel pain – a refutation of the old arguments for eating aquatic beings. The final argument is that we simply do not need to eat meat. Gastronomic titans are lining up to produce meat-free alternatives. Thanks to horticultural technology, we are now able to access nutrient-rich vegetables year round. Moreover, protein can be obtained from beans, pulses, eggs, and meat substitutes. The diet is also proven to fight against diabetes and heart disease. And, for the parsimonious, it’s cheaper! Therefore, for those of us in a position to be vegetarian, it would appear that there can be no justification for eating meat.

Gareth Richards, Abergavenny

To swallow anything but a yes answer is like trying to stand between a sports fan and a meat pie at half time! The eating of meat may never stop, whether the reasoning be health, climate change reduction or even price. But there is no justification for the merciless disrespect to our fellow sentient creatures.

At the heart of this issue is ‘speciesism’ – humans see their interests as having more value than the interests of the other species. But all complex animals are sentient at least to the extent that they feel pain. They have survival instincts, they communicate and show compassion within their species, and they feel loss, as with dogs when their owners die. Yet there is a hierarchy of animal worth. Society does not allow the eating of chimpanzees, elephants or koalas; we abhor the mistreatment of pets; yet we are prepared to torture ‘livestock’ just for our consumption. Human superiority is said to be based on our ability to intellectualise, or to be moral agents; why can’t we see that our virtue is degraded by the acceptance of these inhumane processes! Surely if the animal has to be killed, it deserves a good life and a quiet death? But ‘money changes morality’. Consumers’ desire for abundant low-cost fast food, means profits have to be made through volume production, and that has driven inhumane factory farming methods. This paradoxical demand for ‘instantaneous indulgence’ is just one aspect of human hedonism. And the more we eat, the more we throw away.

Just as humans continue to justify increasing the population of the planet, the justification of eating meat will not stop – but the immorality of factory farming should! There is an increasing impetus towards ethical consumption. If people must eat their fellow sentients, more are wanting the animal to have a good life before a swift death. To accelerate this trend, we would have to alleviate three forms of disparity: the disparity of poverty that forces people to only afford the cheapest; the disparity between the value of all sentient creatures; and the disparity between a hedonistic human life and a valuable human life.

How do you stop eating a cow? One person at a time!

Jack Parr, Beaumaris, Victoria, Australia

The simple answer to this question is yes, and this is, or should be, the view of most ethical vegans, including myself. On utilitarian grounds, one is justified in killing and eating sentient beings if doing so is necessary to increase overall well-being. For example, Inuit communities in the Arctic may be justified in hunting seals, walruses and whales, given the near impossibility of cultivating plants. Another sanctioned sustenance under veganism is roadkill: one may eat meat that has died of ‘natural’ causes that would otherwise go to waste. However, these scenarios are unlikely to apply to the readership of Philosophy Now.

There are typically five pillars of the vegan argument against eating meat: ethical objections, environmental damage, nutrition, antibiotic resistance, and the increasingly apposite concern of the spread of viruses from animals. The scientific consensus of any one of these pillars is sufficient grounds for veganism for most of Western civilisation (although the science of nutrition is notoriously messy). But it is the first of these pillars – ethical objections – that is so often dismissed by people who are born into a culture in which some animals exist only for our pleasure and are none the worse for it. I would like to answer the question by forwarding a meta-ethical argument for veganism I first read in the philosopher William MacAskill’s book Moral Uncertainty. Suppose you are uncertain as to whether animals suffer, or whether their painless killing and consumption is morally wrong. Or maybe you agree with some, but not all the arguments posed by Peter Singer et al. Well, what are the consequences of persisting with a carnivorous diet, given this uncertainty? If we later conclude that animals do suffer, then you have been complicit in probably the most abominable acts of the Twenty-First Century. If we conclude they do not, then your act was morally neutral. I hope the readers will acknowledge this vast asymmetry, and that the meat-eating dice roll that assumed these animals are not sentient is not worth the payoff.

Matt Poulton, Epping

Every day, millions of animals are slaughtered for food around the world. There are at least three reasons why this is felt to be a problem. Firstly, killing animals may be simply wrong, if ‘Meat is Murder’; secondly it contributes to animal suffering, as many animals are kept in appalling conditions; thirdly eating meat, particularly beef and lamb, contributes to climate change. However, the best way to respond to these facts is for us to eat meat.

First, if killing for food is wrong, then it is preferable to kill fewer animals. By stopping eating meat individually we can each save a small number of animals every year; but this is a drop in the ocean, so we would do better to influence others. And most people will feel that veganism is a standard they can’t keep up with. On the other hand, by eating a smaller amount of better-quality meat, and serving this to our friends and family, we may influence more people. On balance, it is not clear whether completely stopping eating meat will have a greater overall effect than reducing the amount we eat.

Secondly, animal suffering can be directly reduced by supporting smaller producers who keep animals in better conditions. Over time, momentum can build to argue for stronger regulation on animal welfare, and the mass producers of meat will improve their practices. On the other hand, if all those who care about animal suffering stop eating meat, the smaller producers will go out of business, and meat produced under bad conditions will continue to be the norm. So, in order to reduce animal suffering, we should eat meat.

Thirdly, we can shift our meat consumption over to chicken and pork, which produce lower amounts of greenhouse gases than lamb and beef. By doing this we may influence friends and relations, restaurants, and food producers. On the other hand, by stopping eating meat, we again lose our influence.

For these reasons, eating meat selectively is good for animal welfare and the environment, and so can be justified, and indeed should be encouraged.

David Hall, Cheltenham

I suspect that our attitude toward meat eating is strongly affected by our fear of death. But as the wildlife rehabilitator Ted Andrews observes in Animal Speak (1993), “Those in the natural world do not worry about death. Their focus is on living. If death approaches, they fight fervently, not giving in and living to the fullest.”

Fearful of death, we apply the paradigm of ‘murder’ to meat eating. But it is no more murder for a human to eat a cow than it is for an owl to eat a mouse, or a spider to eat a fly. It is nature in action, and if it is wrong, then nature is wrong.

This is not to say that cruelty or wanton killing is justified. To kill is a solemn and even a terrible thing, as traditional hunting cultures have always maintained. But it is a natural thing. This makes us uncomfortable. As Joseph Campbell writes in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), “our conscious views of what life ought to be seldom correspond to what life really is. . . When it suddenly dawns on us, or is forced to our attention, that everything we think or do is necessarily tainted with the odor of the flesh, then, not uncommonly, there is experienced a moment of revulsion: life, the acts of life. . . become intolerable to the pure, the pure, pure soul.”

We may hope to achieve purity of soul through our diet. By nature eaters of meat, we seek to perfect ourselves by giving it up. But as the Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa says in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (1973): “If you are attempting to be good and give up everything, ironically it is not giving up at all; it is taking on more things. It is easy to give something up but the byproduct of such renunciation could consist of some very heavy virtue.”

Virtue, even heavy virtue, can seem mighty attractive, and I confess that despite my own argument, my conscience is not altogether clear. My own decision has been to adopt a plant-based diet which includes a limited amount of meat. I suppose I would summarize my attitude thus: better a hamburger with gratitude and humility, than a carrot with self-righteousness.

Paul Vitols, North Vancouver, B.C.

When he was still acting like an animal, as a hunter-gatherer, mankind was part of a balance present everywhere on Earth, as when a few wolves keep the numbers of their prey in check, so avoiding the collapse of the vegetation that those prey rely upon. In Nature, all is connected, having an inner intelligence and knowledge we haven’t yet understood. Everything is in debt with each other, in communion. But about twelve thousand years ago we started an experiment called agriculture, whose consequences are seen today. With agriculture, mankind started to destroy ecosystems, transforming places rich in life and biodiversity into endless expanses of mono-crops, which since the beginning never resolved famine. Instead, agriculture amplified the problems of human life, creating oligarchy, oppression, and accumulation of power. A few people started to hoard cereals, not as food but as a commodity, used to buy power, creating armies to colonize and steal the land of neighbours (which in truth belongs to Nature).

I don’t want to contemplate here the undeniable nutritional and health advantages of an animal-based, hunter-gatherer diet, proved not only by research but from hundreds of anthropological accounts of the diet of indigenous people who have never suffered the diseases that have always afflicted agricultural humans. I’m not criticizing the intention of those who have decided not to eat animals. That sentiment is the expression of our highest ability to feel compassion and empathy towards other creatures. But this intention lacks the deep knowledge of the connection that all creatures share, which our ancestors and indigenous people always had. Being aware of this is being aware of a Sacred Meal: that communion in which, when I eat an animal I’m no better than him, but instead I’m part of nature, and I realize his sacredness and my place in the circle of life. It’s better to eat one single fish that will feed you for a day, than eating a bowl of rice that has killed many other animals in its creation.

Samuele Zara, Edinburgh

In short, justification means that an agent (an individual or a group of actors) has an allowance which stems from beliefs the agent has. When someone is justified in believing something, it does not nevertheless mean that the belief would necessarily be objectively true. I want to argue that eating meat cannot be justified objectively, but from a subjective viewpoint it is justifiable.

The first argument is objective: ‘People must eat meat to stay healthy. John is a person. Therefore, John must eat meat to stay healthy’. The structure of the argument is logically valid, but the truth of the first premise is false, and so therefore is the conclusion. Current research data from nutritional sciences shows that this objective justification for eating meat cannot be sustained. People do not need to eat meat to stay healthy. We can therefore say that this argument does not objectively justify eating meat.

Now my subjective argument that supports eating meat. I call this an argument for prudential justification. Prudential justification is not interested in looking at the objective truth-values of beliefs, but rather cares about the subjective feelings that are the outcome of someone believing something: ‘There are some people who think that, for example, some medical conditions can be treated by eating meat and believe that eating meat will enhance their well-being. Therefore, those people are justified in eating meat. John has a medical condition that he thinks can be alleviated by eating meat. He concludes that eating meat improves his well-being. So John is justified in eating meat.’ This argument shows that eating meat is a justified act for John if and only if he forms a belief that i) his medical condition is of the kind that can be treated by eating meat, and ii) it will enhance his well-being. Justifying one’s actions to increase a subjective experience of well-being lies at the heart of this kind of justification.

Anna Penttilä, Kuopio, Finland

I’ve tried making shepherd’s pie with Quorn, and I’ve tried Gregg’s non-meat pies and sausage rolls. They just don’t taste the same as the meat equivalent. So, solely on that basis – just to keep me happy – meat eating is OK! But hang on. One good personal reason for adopting a non-meat lifestyle is that it would reduce both my blood cholesterol and my chances of developing diabetes. A solemn warning to a sixty-seven year old who wants to see his five year old granddaughter graduate. But is health promotion the sole reason for avoiding meat? Might religion provide another reason?

Certainly there are references to non-meating in the writings of the Dharmic religions as early as the 9th C BC. What reason did the Indian sages give for meat avoidance? Ahimsa. This is usually translated as ‘non-violence’, a term often associated with Gandhi. It’s easy to forget that Gandhi, a Hindu, trained as a lawyer in the UK. From its conception in the 1830s, Britain’s vegetarian movement was associated with health promotion; but Victorian vegetarianism appears to have been driven by religion as well. Eastern religious beliefs were well known to Victorian society as were Buddhist ideas. In the 1930s Gandhi would address the UK’s Vegetarian Society, emphasising and consolidating the spiritual aspects of non-meateating. But does vegetarianism have to be restricted to the religious community? Clearly not. According to one website at least, Richard Dawkins – hardly a religious man! – is a vegetarian.

‘Speciesism’ is a popular buzz word, but the argument is that being consistent and laying aside prejudice I shouldn’t exploit pigs and chickens any more than I should exploit people of other races or an alternative sexual orientation. Delicious meat substitutes such as tofu are readily available. And consider the environment. Large scale pig rearing in particular needs large quantities of protein-rich bean feed supplement. Why not process the beans into food humans can eat directly? Pig rearing is also notorious for the amount of sewage it produces. So perhaps eventually we’ll have no choice.

Kevin Chubb, Cadoxton, Barry

Next Question of the Month

The next question is: What Is A Person?

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