In 2003, Steven Davis published an article (PDF) in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics that caused vegetarians (and vegans) worldwide to gag on their tofu. In it, he made the case that humans would harm fewer animals if they ate large herbivores rather than an exclusively plant-based diet. Davis’ argument hinged on a largely unappreciated agricultural reality: Harvesting plants kills millions of sentient animals (rodents especially)—maybe more than are killed to provide pasture-raised meat. “Perhaps,” Davis wrote, “we are obligated to consume a diet containing both plants and ruminant (particularly cattle) animal products.”
Veggie advocates regained their composure when subsequent articles—especially Gaverick Matheny’s rebuttal in the same journal (PDF)—corrected several of Davis’ flawed assumptions. Most notably, Matheny showed that Davis’ numbers were skewed—that he had, in fact, made “a mathematical error” in the calculation underscoring his thesis. In essence, Davis assumed that the same amount of land would produce the same amount of plant and animal-based calories. This turns out to be wildly inaccurate. Although Davis’ argument is still commonly used to skewer the vegetarian ethic, Matheny’s careful rebuttal dulled its edge.
When it comes to eating animals, the further we move away from conventional agricultural and hunting practices, and closer we get to a foraging mentality, the better.
Still, if Davis failed to convince veg-types to find the nearest steakhouse, he succeeded in sneaking a subversive—and ultimately productive—question into the conventional vegetarian discourse: What if there are viable ways to reduce intentional harm to animals by eating them? The proposition will surely strike most vegetarians as absurd, if not heretically threatening to their identity. But the undeniable fact remains: Animal flesh is available for consumption without humans having to intentionally kill critters to obtain it. That complicates matters for those who insist that eating animal flesh is ipso facto morally unjustifiable. Furthermore, given the extensive animal slaughter currently required to harvest plants, one could even make the case that vegetarians are obligated to eat unconventionally sourced forms of animal flesh in order to reduce the intentional harm done to sentient creatures.
That’s exactly the argument (PDF) that Penn State philosopher Donald Bruckner advances in a draft of a forthcoming essay on the ethics of eating roadkill. When it comes to the factory farmed products that comprise 99 percent of the meat we eat, Bruckner writes, “We are obligated not to purchase and consume such meat because doing that supports practices that cause extensive, unnecessary harm to animals.” Instead, we must eat “something else.” Vegetables are an obvious something else. But so, too, he explains, is roadkill.
There’s nothing hypothetical about any of this. Not only are the legal logistics of roadkill consumption in place—most states allow for the personal collection of roadkill (with some reporting requirements)—but so is a common-sense justification for doing so. Bruckner reminds us (PDF): “Picking up road-killed animals does not harm any animals.” Unlike animals churned up during harvest, “Road-killed animals are already dead.” The upshot is that vegetarians are not only permitted to eat a little roadkill, but, according to their own “do-the-least-harm principle,” they should be required to do so. “Strict vegetarianism,” Bruckner writes, “is immoral.” With auto insurance agencies reporting over a million claims a year due to deer, elk, and moose collisions, eating roadkill may the stone that kills two birds. Bad metaphor, but still.
Bruckner will naturally take some flak over his argument. And much of it will be legitimate. The unintended consequences of privileging roadkill as an ethically viable form of meat consumption creates disincentives to reduce the vehicular death of animals through measures such as “critter crossings.” Moreover, if roadkill ever did become an alternative to factory-farmed meat—something that climate change makes entirely possible—it’s easy to imagine drivers deploying their cars as weapons to run down the weak. And given that one in 50 drivers will swerve to hit a turtle in the road, according to a Clemson University study, there would be no way to know for sure, as an ethical consumer of roadkill, that you were eating the result of an honest accident.
Objections aside, Bruckner—and, to a lesser extent, Davis—are challenging the ethics of eating in a way that promises to push consumers to rethink consuming domesticated or hunted flesh. For those (such as me) who argue that it’s ethically unjustifiable to raise and kill sentient animals for food we don’t need, but at the same time remain sympathetic to the perceived difficulties of complete abstinence, the promise of a roadkill revolution is encouraging.
When it comes to eating animals, the further we move away from conventional agricultural and hunting practices, and closer we get to a foraging mentality, the better. And, in the day and age of the thoughtful eater, who better to lead us down the road than a bunch of philosophers?