Are There Purely Environmental Justifications for Eating Animals?

Yes, but don’t mention them to Fido.
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Yes, but don’t mention them to Fido.
(Photo: Tewan Yangmee/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Tewan Yangmee/Shutterstock)

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a four-part series on the philosophical defenses of eating animals. Read the first, “Can Eating Meat Be Ethical?” here; the second, “Can an Animal Have Rights and Still Be Dinner?” here; and the third, “Do We Have a Contract With the Animals We Eat?” here.

My last three columns have explored philosophical defenses for eating animals. I’ve done this from the perspectives of utilitarianism, animal rights, and contractualism. My intention with this series has been, in part, to reiterate how difficult it can be to justify eating animals, but also to defuse the off-putting “total abstinence” dictum inherent in the vegan ideology. There is, after all, almost certainly moral space for consuming animals.

But it’s not necessarily an easy space to find. It’s often neither consistent with the way we currently source meat nor tolerant of a business-as-usual approach to agriculture. It may require radical behavioral changes as well as structural shifts that are pragmatically beyond our control. Ironically, given the current configuration of our food system, these changes may be so difficult to achieve that choosing veganism by default could prove to be the easier option.

That said, there appear to be legitimate ways to eat meat, ways that are consistent with the ethical principles that we rely on to guide us through life, and ways that the future’s food architects might consider accommodating.

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Wendell Berry has famously declared eating to be “an agricultural act.” This phrase has become a rallying cry for an agrarian reform movement that seeks to know the sources of our food supply. But, perhaps even more so, eating is also an ecological act, an elemental behavior that extends beyond the local farm and the farmers’ market to the endlessly interrelated biotic community. It is from this latter perspective—deep ecology—that I want to suggest a fourth philosophical defense for eating meat.

Deep ecology is inseparable from Aldo Leopold, father of the field and the staunchest adherent of what would later be called “the land ethic.” Leopold’s signal contribution to environmental ethics was, as he put it, to “enlarge the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals; or, collectively, the land.” And that land, conceived in the broadest terms, called for “an extension of ethics” that warranted our “love and respect” to the entire biosphere.

Leopold never said much about eating animals per se. But philosophers have since nudged questions of animal ethics into the fold of Leopold’s moral territory, and a valuable debate has ensued. Essential to the animal question is Leopold’s foundational dictum that a “thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Call it the original commandment of environmental ethics.

If you plan to use the land ethic to justify your decision to eat hunted game, you must also honestly concede that we have a moral imperative to kill our pets.

In light of this imperative, virtually all forms of contemporary animal domestication would seem, given its radical ecological de-stabilization (not to mention well-documented pollution) to be verboten. But the ethical meat eater can, like Leopold himself, hunt and kill animals. He may not get to blow away endangered species, but the prevalence of invasive critters that harm natural ecosystems makes them seem like fair game in an ethical system that favors the “integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community” above all else.

Predation, moreover, is integral to the proper functioning of the global biota and, as philosophers such as J. Baird Callicott and Roger Scruton have argued, there’s ostensibly nothing in the land ethic (such as animal rights) preventing responsible hunters from selectively participating in that predation. In fact, they could even be morally obligated to do so.

This biocentric logic has inspired various calls for culling animals deemed to be overpopulated. “Eat the invaders,” one organization advises, suggesting that, if you can’t beat them, feed them. Whether it’s wild exotica such as Asian shore crabs, nutria, and lionfish, or more conventional creatures such as deer and wild boar, the ethical justification for killing and eating overpopulated animals remains the same: it adds to the stability and integrity of the biota. In perfect land-ethic fashion, human predation leads to ecosystem stabilization and ecosystem stabilization leads to ethical improvement.

If this justification seems altogether too easy, well, it may be. Critics of the land-ethic justification for killing and eating animals remind us that the most horribly invasive species in any environment, the species that has done more than any other to de-stabilize, sully, and alter the integrity of the global biota has, of course, been the human being. Point being: If we adhere to the full logic of the land ethic in order to justify killing animals deemed invasive, we have to ethically condone the selective culling of humans—starting, one would suspect, with the world’s wealthiest citizenry, especially those who don’t give a hoot about the environment.

This is obviously an absurd proposition. Not unexpectedly, defenders of the land-ethic justification for killing animals have pushed back against this so-called eco-fascist critique. Most notably, Callicott has argued (and I’m summarizing deeply) that humans belong to numerous communities besides the biotic one (familial, regional, national, and so on), that these communities create unique obligations, and that our loyalty to these communities requires us to prioritize moral duties in order to keep the peace closest to home. Killing your friends and family to preserve the Earth’s ecological integrity hasn’t been shown to maintain peace on the home front.

Personally, I find this justification weak (the animals we hunt, after all, also have other communities besides the biotic one). But rather than dismiss it outright—and thereby dismiss the land ethic as ipso facto an inadequate justification for hunting animals—I want to charitably accept it and explore one troubling implication of doing so.

If we allow Callicott’s defense of the land ethic to protect selective hunting of wild animals but put the brakes on killing ecosystem-de-stabilizing humans, we must then acknowledge that his defense, while distinguishing humans from non-humans, does nothing to distinguish the animals we will eat from animals that we won’t. It does nothing, in other words, to protect our pets from the same moral logic that allows us, under the land ethic, to kill overpopulated wildlife.

There are too many pets. The United States alone has (according to 2008 statistics) 95.5 million fish, 85.8 million cats, 77.8 million dogs, 14.3 million birds, 9.3 million reptiles, and 7.5 million horses. Humans spend around $56 billion a year to care for these creatures, selling almost 18,293,200,000 pounds of pet food annually. The resources required to sustain pets exacts a huge toll on the ecosystem, and the damage is every bit on par with that done by wild boar and deer that eat suburban flora.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no intention of killing and eating my three dogs, two cats, lizard, frogs, and fish. But if I want to use the land ethic to morally justify my decision to hunt and eat animals, I have to concede that, even if I refused to kill and eat my own pets, they are fair game for being culled for the same virtuous reason that the invasive boar and deer can be culled under ecological justifications.

In other words, if you plan to use the land ethic to justify your decision to eat hunted game, you must also honestly concede that we have a moral imperative to kill our pets.

Bon appetit.

The Things We Eat is a regular Pacific Standard column from James McWilliams on food, agriculture, and the American diet.

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