A couple weeks ago, Professor Saray Ayala-López wrote a post entitled The ethics of talking about the ethics of eating, to which I offered a somewhat tangential comment about the ethics of eating meat. So as not to take away from the main point there, I decided to develop this issue separately here. I’ll include some of our dialogue there to begin the discussion.
Here are a few different views on eating meat:
- Veganism: no use of animal products
- Vegetarianism: no eating of meat, but use of some animal products
- Conscientious omnivorism: conscientious and selective eating of meat and use of animal products
Here's my initial defense of conscientious omnivorism.
“…I apply a standard of justice that relies on a baseline on nonhuman animals in their natural habitats or species-appropriate environments. A violation of justice occurs when we intentionally do something that places nonhuman animals below the baseline. I also do not assume that death is itself a bad thing; there can be good and bad deaths….[M]y standard of justice is violated:
(1) when we consume more meat than necessary or healthy;
(2) when we engage in practices that involve additional pain and suffering beyond what an animal would experience in its natural habitat, or
(3) when we contribute to conditions that:
- (a) create dependency (e.g., captivity) [and] invoke additional duties (of care, including with respect to (2) above) and;
- (b) we violate these additional duties.
My view is motivated by the practices of some indigenous peoples, who also ate meat (and engaged in other practices involving nonhuman animals) in a way that avoided (1), (2), and (3). If a Native American hunted and killed a buffalo to feed his family, was this morally wrong? If a grizzly bear seeking food attacked and killed me, would that be this morally wrong? What makes these acts *morally* wrong depends on an intentional violation of some standard of evaluation.”
“...Some people would respond to you that if you can afford avoiding inflicting the pain, objectification, and/or death involved in meat eating, then you have good reasons to stop eating meat….”
Here, I want to address the objections to eating meat on the grounds that it causes pain, death, and objectification.
As a deontologist, I don’t think the consequences alone are morally relevant. Pain and death in and of themselves are neither good nor bad (e.g., pain of a medical intervention that is necessary for health or death of a soldier who sacrifices his life to save his troop). What makes the infliction of pain or death morally wrong, as mentioned in my initial defense, is when a person causes pain beyond what nonhuman animals would experience in their natural habitat.
Objectification, unlike pain and death, is not morally neutral. A deontologist may believe some principle P that a person ought to treat another consistently with the other’s species-specific capabilities. Objectification may be defined as a violation of P or, specifically, a violation of P in which a person treats another as less than appropriate given the other’s species-specific capabilities. If I step on a cockroach, I am not objectifying the cockroach because I am not treating it as less than appropriate given the cockroach’s species-specific capabilities. If I use a chimpanzee as a test dummy for testing vehicles (which involves isolation, captivity, and other physical and psychological harms), then I am treating another as less than appropriate given the other’s species-specific capabilities.
One can argue that objectification does not occur when we kill animals for food. Consider a world where there are extreme and isolated conditions (e.g., base camp of Mount Everest) and a small population of advanced intelligent animals, A1, A2, A3, A4, A5, etc. After the A's deplete all their other natural resources, they turn to each other for food. They start with the sick, weak, and elderly among them and, because their rate of consumption exceeds their rate of reproduction, the population eventually dies. If A1 hunted and killed A100, who was elderly, we may say that A1 objectified the elderly. But what about when A1 hunted and killed her equal, A2? A1 did what was necessary for her survival. Setting aside other possible moral offenses, she did not treat A2 as less than appropriate given A2’s species-specific capabilities. Indeed, A1 may have had to devise inventive traps knowing that A2 was her equal in intelligence and the typical traps used on the sick and elderly were useless. She also may have had to ensure a quick kill, not wanting A2 to experience any unnecessary physical or psychological harm.
An objector may might say "Well, this may be fine for your imaginary world of scarcity, but that’s not our world. Today we have sufficient plant-based sources of protein as well as new and improved synthetic sources of meat."
Here are two responses:
First, when the synthetic sources of meat become as accessible as (and qualitatively similar to) real meat, I think there is good reason to transition to these synthetic sources (over a long period of time, given our evolutionary preference for meat).
Second, whether we are primitive and small in number or advanced and 7.6 billion in number, the killing of another for food does not necessarily involve objectification. It can be viewed as involving a kind of competition: a survival of the fittest. When one competitor defeats another, the intent is not to objectify (i.e., treat the other as less than appropriate given the other’s species-specific capabilities), but to win the contest for survival. In the same way that A1 does not objectify A2, humans do not necessarily objectify other intelligent animals. While spears and open plains have been replaced with large-scale farms and ranches, what is morally wrong is not that animals are killed for food, but that we have cut corners to save money rather than doing what is right and, as a result, have placed animals in conditions that are inadequate given their species-specific capabilities.
Department of Philosophy