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Can Eating Meat Be Ethical?

Maybe! Here’s why we should care.
The Salt Lick BBQ in Texas. (Photo: Wally Gobetz/Flickr)

The Salt Lick BBQ in Texas. (Photo: Wally Gobetz/Flickr)

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a four-part series on the philosophical defenses of eating animals. The arguments presented here are arguments made within the utilitarian framework. Naturally, many philosophers and animal advocates reject utilitarianism in favor of a rights-based (or other) framework. Accordingly, the second column in this series will explore how philosophers have challenged animal rights arguments in a way that might clear room for eating animals ethically.

A recent Grist column by Nathanael Johnson explored a question that food writers usually don’t touch: Is there a moral case for eating meat? Cue the raised eyebrows because this column took guts. The ethics of eating animals is not a topic that excites the foodie elite, who tends to elevate meat to the status of religious experience. But Johnson, who’s respected for his careful research and objective tone, not only openly grappled with the question, but offered an answer that must have caused a fair number of his readers to choke on their humanely raised, organic, grass-fed, locally sourced burgers. “I was,” he wrote, “left with the conclusion that the vegans were right.”

I admire Johnson’s column. But—despite the fact that I am staunchly veganish—I think he’s wrong. I will spend this column (and the next three) presenting cases in which it might very well be ethical to eat animals. I am doing this neither to be contrarian nor contentious nor to piss off vegans.

I’m doing it because a more critical understanding of when it might be justifiable to eat animals provides us with realistic moral parameters for our culinary choices—choices that can and should be consistent with our rational belief systems. And if you think establishing realistic parameters for our rational beliefs isn’t all that important—that is, if you think humans are somehow prepared to live consistently under an extreme moral dictum such as “don’t eat meat”—consider what Johnson did the day after he reached his momentous conclusion: he made himself a turkey sandwich. The morality he articulated—it’s wrong to eat animals—was, as it is for so many of us, just too much to bear.

The realistic prospect of ethical meat consumption defuses the categorical “give-up-all-animal-products” shock of veganism while enabling ethically concerned consumers to eat according to their deeply reasoned values.

Johnson makes his case against eating animals through Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. This seminal book articulated an argument for which Johnson couldn’t “muster a defense for meat eating.” Philosophically, Singer is a utilitarian. Utilitarians believe that the moral choice is the one that produces “the greatest good for the greatest number” of sentient beings. Within this framework, it certainly seems irrefutable that, as Singer argues, whatever pleasure a meat eater derives from eating meat is outweighed by that animal’s suffering. Calculate the suffering involved when an animal is raised and slaughtered for food, as well as the harmful ecological consequences of animal agriculture, and then measure it against your little burst of gustatory pleasure, and, no matter how tasty the meat, it’s difficult to see how the vegans, or Singer, could be wrong on this one.

But utilitarianism cuts both ways. Popular discussions of utilitarianism often overlook the philosophy’s most critical premise: Animals, per se, do not have moral standing; only their interests do. Therefore, because an animal has no inherent rights under utilitarianism, it becomes possible to justify that animal’s intentional death for our culinary pleasure if that animal’s suffering is less than the mass culinary pleasure derived from it. But is such a situation ever likely?

Writing in the Journal of Animal Ethics in 2013, Joel MacClellan, a philosopher at Washington State University, thinks it is. He argues that unusually large wild animals—he mentions a whale—might fit the bill. “Utilitarian evaluations of the moral permissibility of eating meat,” he explains, “will vary widely as a function of animal size.” Whales pose a problem for Singer’s utilitarianism, MacClellan explains, “since the suffering of a single whale needs to be weighed against the vast quantity of pleasure its flesh could generate.” “It would be rather surprising,” he writes, “if the pleasure resulting from eating whale meat did not yield higher overall utility than the suffering inflicted on the whale.”

Without delving into a million caveats, MacClellan’s point creates room for a qualified and carefully regulated form of hunting or culling, and an even more qualified and regulated form of animal agriculture—albeit one that (fortunately) looks nothing like what we have today—within the utilitarian framework.

This possibility gathers further steam when you consider the untold numbers of sentient animals killed by combines and pesticides to grow the essentials of a vegan diet—edible plants. In 2003, Oregon State agriculture scientist Steven L. Davis created a dust-up in vegan camps when he calculated that the number of small animals killed to grow plant crops was high enough to justify using more land to raise large ruminants rather than edible plants. Because overall suffering would be diminished if we ate more large ruminants, he concluded, “humans may be morally obligated to consume a diet from plant based plus pasture-forage-ruminant systems.”

The philosopher Gaverick Matheny quickly (and convincingly) took issue with Davis’ numbers. But the essential fact remained untouched: A vegan diet requires harming sentient animals. A lot of them. So we can reject Davis’ flawed calculations, as well as his claim that we should be eating large ruminants raised on pasture, but the question he forces us to consider doesn’t go away: Are there sources of meat with a suffering threshold low enough to justify reducing our consumption of plants, and thus the number of animals killed to grow plants, by eating from those sources?

Eating roadkill to offset the suffering of animals caused by growing plants makes so much moral sense that we’re obligated to do it.

In The Moral Complexities of Eating Meat (an edited volume forthcoming from Oxford University Press), the philosopher Donald Bruckner offers one answer: roadkill. Don’t laugh. There’s nothing marginal about roadkill. Americans kill more animals driving than they do hunting. This meat—the unintentional outcome of a necessary human activity—offers what appears to be an ethically free lunch. There’s thus a case to be made on utilitarian grounds that eating roadkill to offset the suffering of animals caused by growing plants makes so much moral sense that we’re obligated to do it. In the same vein, one could also consider the inclusion of insects, oysters, in-vitro-meat, and—one day perhaps—animals genetically modified to feel no pain, as part of an ethical omnivorous diet within the utilitarian tradition. Philosophers have made serious cases for all of these options.

Arguments such as these should not be dismissed as academic nitpicking of the question that Johnson boldly asks. After all, the realistic prospect of ethical meat consumption accomplishes something pragmatic: it defuses the categorical “give-up-all-animal-products” shock of veganism while enabling ethically concerned consumers to eat according to their deeply reasoned values. It allows consumers to acknowledge an ethic and live by it consistently rather than acknowledge an ethic and make a morally inconsistent—and even dangerous—excuse for not adhering to it.

To wit, consider Johnson’s stated reason for that turkey sandwich. He writes, “saying it’s wrong and immoral to eat meat is just too absolutist.” As a cultural observation, he’s right. But such an excuse—and versions of it—has been used throughout history to justify all manner of behavior we now condemn as horrific. To dismiss the possibility of behavioral moral consistency because it’s “too absolutist” in light of contemporary attitudes and conventions is to deny the moral forces that emancipated slaves, gave women the vote, and allowed gays to marry. Alas, it’s a meritless response.

Fortunately, ethically logical arguments in favor of eating meat (albeit in a very different kind of way) get Johnson and others who resort to the “too absolutist” excuse off the hook. These arguments do more than lay the preconditions for a new way of eating; they allow us to declare something ethically wrong, justify that declaration on rational grounds, and, finally, eat with a clearer conscience on a question we are, at long last, starting to take seriously.

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