Monday, 21 February 2011

What are the ethical implications of eating meat?

An essay I wrote for Ethics about a year ago that you might find interesting


Few, if any, ethical issues polarise views the way vegetarianism does. There are certainly other questions that are more vociferously debated – but this is exactly the point. What is unusual about this debate (and perhaps the question of ‘animal rights’ in general) is that only one side consider it a debate at all.

The majority of people appear to believe that deciding what to eat simply isn’t an ethical consideration. Yet many of those who favour vegetarianism insist that eating meat is as abhorrent as condoning racism or slavery in past centuries. Indeed, the parallel of speciesism to racism is commonly drawn in the course of discussions about our treatment of animals, the implication being that future generations will look upon our actions with the same distaste and incomprehension we feel towards slave-owners and racists. To take just one example of this view that our moral progress is far from complete, W.E.H. Lecky writes:

“At one time the benevolent affects embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity, and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world”.[1]

The purpose of this essay is not to argue directly either for or against vegetarianism. Rather, it is to examine the accusation that we are morally inconsistent in failing to consider the ethical claims of animals, and its corollary, that this implies we ought to change the things we eat.

This is a two stage process. The first stage is identifying and sketching out different moral positions that advocates of vegetarianism might appeal to. The second stage is to draw out and evaluate the arguments defending and rejecting the consumption of meat for each ethical position. However, because many of these arguments are applicable to multiple positions, they are grouped together in the second section to avoid repetition. The first section of this essay therefore describes the four moral positions discussed: contractarianism, Kantian deontology, utilitarianism and virtue ethics, and gives a summary of the pertinent considerations of these philosophies relevant to animals. The second stage assesses different arguments in turn, examining the salience and persuasiveness to the different doctrines.

A. Theories

Contract Theories

“The moral theory of contractarianism claims that moral norms derive their normative force from the idea of contract or mutual agreement”.[2] In other words, contractarians believe that our moral duties are nothing more and nothing less that the obligations that rationally self-interested beings would agree to. Contractarianism is usually traced back to Hobbes, who argued that the only way for man to escape the state of nature, an anarchic situation of brutal war of each against all, was for such moral norms to develop.

On this conception of ethics, then, the only reason we have for avoiding wrongdoing is the tacit understanding that this will ensure others do not wrong us either. So, for example, we do not think it is morally permissible to murder another person, because we would not like to live in a society where people are free to murder one another. Similarly, we have a moral reason not to make false promises to one another, because a society where we could not trust people to keep their promises would be a society where it would be considerably more difficult to engage in cooperative activities.

Animals cannot participate in the social contract. They are not capable of making such explicit reciprocal agreements, and are not bound by moral convention in the same way that humans are. The contractarian is only interested in extending moral consideration where it is mutually beneficial, and so has no reason to confer moral status on aminals. As Regan puts it, “As for animals, since they cannot understand contracts, they obviously cannot sign, and since they cannot sign. Like children, however, some animals are the object of the sentimental interest of others”.[3] Contractarians may agree that we are morally obliged not to harm pets, as in doing so, we indirectly harm their owners. But given that the owners of farmed animals willingly give them up for slaughter, this point does not seem relevant here.

Contractualism, in contrast with contractarianism, requires a degree of impartiality: it is grounded in moral equality, rather than self-interest. “According to contractualism, morality consists in what would result if we were to make binding agreements from a point of view that respects our equal moral importance as rational autonomous agents”.[4]

Contractualism, like contractarianism, has been conventionally wary of granting moral status to animals, simply because they are not the sort of rational autonomous agents capable of forming a contract. In Rawls’ words, “It does seem that we are not required to give strict justice to creatures lacking the capacity (for a sense of justice)”.[5]

Nevertheless, there are a couple of reasons why contractualists may be more amenable to the idea of animal rights than contractarians. Firstly, Rawls’ work is primarily a work of political, not moral philosophy, focusing on just one of many ethical considerations, justice. Therefore, it is plausible that contractualists may believe that animals are outwith the scope of justice, but not that they have no ethical significance.

The second thing to remember is that Rawls’ ‘original position’ thought experiment is intended to abstract away from ‘morally arbitrary’ characteristics. Therefore, if we believe that our species is a morally arbitrary attribute, we can use a Rawlsian framework while rejecting Rawls’ own intuition about the moral status of animals.[6]

Kantian/Deontological Theories

Kantian theories do not traditionally admit we have any duties to animals, either. According to Kant, the moral law is binding on all rational creatures. However, since he refused to credit animals with rationality, they exist outwith the scope of Kantian morality. Kant explicitly argues “so far as animals are concerned, we do not have any direct duties. Animals are not self-conscious and are there merely as a means to an end. That end is man”.[7]

However, this perspective has been rejected within the Kantian framework by philosophers who disagree with the claim that rationality is a prerequisite for moral consideration. Most notably Tom Regan has argued that all ‘experiencing subjects of life’ are due certain moral rights. The issue of what (if anything) separates humans from animals will be discussed below, but what is important to grasp here is what achieving moral status means within a deontological moral philosophy.

Deontological ethical theories, of which Kant’s is the most prominent, conceptualise ethics as the process of determining the moral rules which set out our obligations and the restrictions on our action. Depending on the theory in question, the rights secured by having moral status may differ, but it seems unlikely that on any deontological conception, it is morally permissible to slaughter and consume a moral agent. For example, the Kantian notion of never treating a moral agent as a means, but always respecting them as an end in itself would seem to preclude eating meat.

The central issue at stake seems therefore to be whether animals are worthy of moral respect, and if so, does the concept of moral respect entail non-consumption.


Utilitarianism is the most conceptually simple of ethical theories. The rightness of an action depends solely on its consequences, by which is meant the net change in pain or pleasure it brings about. The right action is the one which maximises utility.

Unlike Kantians, utilitarians make only one consideration in determining the moral status of a being: its ability to feel pain or pleasure. Consequently, utilitarians have traditionally always been sympathetic to the moral claims of animals. This attitude can be traced as far back as Bentham, who used utilitarianism to argue for ‘animal rights’ (in the loosest sense): “The question is not, Can they reason? Nor Can they talk? but Can they suffer?”.[8]

This may appear to be a rhetorical question, but a surprising number of people have sought to deny that animals feel pain, or at least in the same way that humans do. If it were true that animals were incapable of suffering, this would of course mean that they carry no weight in utilitarian moral calculation. Singer responds to this suggestion with the observation that “Nearly all the external signals that lead us to infer pain in other humans can be seen in other species”: writhing, facial contortions, moaning, yelping, attempts to avoid the source of the pain and the appearance of fear.[9] Moreover, they have nearly identical nervous systems to ours, with the same evolutionary function. Singer quotes pain expert Richard Sarjeant as insisting, “Every particle of factual evidence supports the contention that the higher mammalian vertebrates experience pain sensations at least as acute as our own”.[10]

Of course, it is absurd to class all animals as alike, and it seems possible that mammals, birds and fish all have different capacities for pain. But this does not imply that their pain is incommensurable. The only animals that are plausibly incapable of feeling pain are some molluscs, such as oysters and scallops (but not squid and octopi). In the name of consistency, Singer accepts that may be morally acceptable to eat them.[11]

Once utilitarians have admitted that animals are worthy of moral consideration, the issue is then whether the action of eating meat on balance increases or decreases aggregate utility. Initially, this seems clear-cut. The utility from eating meat is relatively small. Many humans do get a lot of pleasure from eating meat, but it is far from an essential interest. We can certainly survive without eating meat, and indeed it is often suggested that a vegetarian diet is healthier. On the other hand, there is a large degree of suffering involved in (most) processes of meat production. Farmed animals are herded into cramped, unsanitary conditions, which lead to psychotic, neurotic and repetitive behaviour from madness to cannibalism. To avoid the death and disease such awful conditions would usually entail, they are force fed growth hormones and antibiotics. A number of painful surgical procedures are performed on them without anaesthetic to stop them harming themselves or others (usually out of frustration at their unnatural environs): beaks, toes, tails and teeth are removed, they are castrated and branded without a second thought. Of course, not all farms are as cruel as this, depending on legal restrictions and the type of meat. Yet even the best meat can still be criticised on humanitarian grounds: for example, the legal requirement to stun all chickens before slaughter involves a process that is only 95% successful.[12] Thus, at first blush, at least, it seems the utilitarian ought to be committed to vegetarianism.

Virtue Ethics

The doctrine of virtue ethics posits that ethics ought not to be about judging action, but rather that we should focus on characters. Living a moral life, on this conception, is not a case necessarily of performing right acts, but rather of developing virtuous tendencies and dispositions. The definition of virtue is controversial, but it is usually conceived of in one of two ways. Virtues can either be seen as character traits necessary for a flourishing, eudaimonic life, or as attributes which are generally aretaic (admirable).

When debating the rightness of actions, such as eating meat, virtue ethics usually conceptualises the problem thus: “An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would do in the circumstances”.[13] The question a follower of virtue ethics needs to ask themselves is whether eating meat is a virtuous or vicious act. Gruen suggests that vegetarianism displays virtue: “in eating animals or using them in other harmful ways, we do not display the traits of character that kind, sensitive, compassionate, mature, and thoughtful members of a moral community should display”.[14] Similarly, Shafer-Landau appeals to aretaic conceptions of virtue: “seeking and deriving satisfaction from ‘products’ that are known to derive from cruel practices diminishes one’s admirability”.[15]

Initially then, virtue ethics and utilitarianism seem to favour vegetarianism, which deontology and contract theories do not.

B. Arguments against eating meat

Arbitrariness of human-animal distinctions

The first line of argument against eating meat questions why we are justified in eating non-human animals, but not humans (assuming, of course, that it is morally repugnant to eat humans). What feature of humanity justifies granting humans greater moral status? It cannot merely be the fact of being human, since this is as morally arbitrary as the feature of being black, or of being a woman. We cannot consistently condemn racism and sexism, and embrace speciesism.

A number of candidates have been proposed, but none of the characteristics have been uncontroversially human. Humans are not the only animal to develop familial ties: for instance, orang-utan mothers stay with their young for eight years, and maintain relationships after parting. Most animals are capable of social coordination, from packs of dogs to birds with their ‘pecking order’. Any dog owner will be able to tell you that humans are not alone in expressing emotions.

As we have seen, both social contract theorists and Kantians honed in on rationality as the key trait of human beings. Yet this argument draws the marginal cases objection, spotted by Bentham when he wrote:

“What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps, the faculty for discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversible animal than an infant of a day or a week or even a month old”.[16]

Bentham’s point was that for every suggested distinguishing feature between human and non-human animal (such as reason), there are some members of the human species, namely babies, that do not possess that trait. While it may be objected that babies have the potential to develop reason, this is not the case of certain severely disabled individuals.

Cohen attempts to wriggle out of the marginal cases objection by insisting that “The capacity for moral judgement that distinguishes humans from animals is not a test to be administered to human beings one by one…What humans retain when disabled, animals never had”.[17] This does not seem plausible – it is stereotyping of crudest form. It is analogous to preventing a woman from taking a manual job because in general men are stronger than women. If rationality is so important a distinction, why should the distinction not be made on an individual basis, but across the generalities of species?

Some may accept this criticism, and pull up the moral drawbridge. Moral status is not a question of humanity, on this conception, but a question of personhood, where person is defined as a “rational and self-conscious being”.[18] By contrast, a human is a biological member of the species homo sapiens. Those humans who have not reached a rational and self-conscious state have no greater moral status than animals.

However, in the same way as Kant grants that we have indirect duties to the owners of pets, it could be argued that we have stronger obligations not to harm human non-persons because of the affection their families feel for them. This is a tenable philosophical position, but it seems terribly callous. In effect, what it implies is that a person who sets a cat on fire, or who rapes a coma victim does no wrong to the being they harm, but rather the wrong is to the people who care about them. And if the cat is a stray and the coma victim has no family, then apparently it is morally permissible. Clark damns the paradoxical nature of this position: “We are absolutely better than the animals because we are able to give their interests some consideration: so we won’t”.[19]

Deontologists and contractualists are therefore forced into a position where they must choose between affording equal moral status to animals (which would presumably render eating them immoral) or reducing non-persons to the status of animals. Of course, reducing non-persons to the status of animals could also be interpreted as raising the moral status of animals to that of non-persons. The pertinent question is whether this status substantively rules out being eaten. The indirect duties we have to the families and loved ones of non-persons seems to account for why we should not eat humans that are non-persons. However, given that the farmers who raise animals voluntarily give them up for food, the same argument seems to work for relatively few animals.

Hardening of Emotions

There is another argument which may persuade the deontologist not to eat non-persons. It is an argument used by Kant to promote consideration towards animals:

“If a man shoots his dog because the animal is no longer capable of service, he does not fail in his duty to the dog, for the dog cannot judge, but his act is inhuman and damages in himself that humanity which it is his duty to show towards mankind. If he is not to stifle his human feelings, he must practice kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men”.[20]

The point is that if we treat animals cruelly, than this cruelty will inevitably begin to show in our dealings with humans. It is for this reason that the citizens in Thomas More’s Utopia are vegetarian: “Killing, unless it is done as a merciful act, must involve a deliberate withholding of sympathy from the victim. Done repeatedly, it results in a hardening of the emotions”.[21]

Notice that this is almost identical to the virtue ethics argument in favour of vegetarianism: “Becoming caring and compassionate about animals invariably seems to have ‘trickle down’ positive effects for the rest of one’s life”.[22] The difference is that virtue ethicists are interested in the virtues humans develop in their dealings with animals intrinsically for their own sake, whereas Kantians are only interested in them insofar as they indirectly influence the agent’s dealings with humans.

How plausible is this connection between hardness of emotions towards animals and a dereliction of moral duty to humans? It assumes that we see animal suffering and human suffering in the same way, such that if we can make an animal suffer we can do the same to a human. This is not obviously true, in the same way that people who enjoy hitting balls with bats have no necessary predilection towards hitting people with bats. A Welsh farmer, on leaving to fight in Spanish Civil war is reported to have said “If I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascists”. But the words seem na├»ve and hollow. There is a world of difference between being a farmer and a soldier, and the latter are far more likely to be negatively affected in their dealings with humans.

The causal connection is even weaker in the case of ordinary people whose only encounter with meat is on the supermarket shelves. They do not kill their own meat, they probably barely think if it as ever having lived, so it seems implausible to suggest there is any heartlessness being displayed. However, the virtue ethicist can object to a person who, understanding the cruelty involved in farming practices, persists in eating meat.

C. Arguments in defence of eating meat

Why stop at animals?

One response to the arguments for the extension of moral status to animals is to ask why these arguments are not applicable to plants, attempting to drive the argument to absurd conclusions. The onus is then on the advocate of animal rights to explain the morally relevant difference between plants and animals.

The utilitarian has a ready-made answer. The morally relevant quality is just the one Bentham identified: the ability to feel pain. However, it has been suggested that some plants can feel pain. Clark observes that some plants emit ‘galvanic twitches’, which have been interpreted as a sign of distress. The evidence for this interpretation is sketchy, and given that plants lack a central nervous system, it is certainly not pain in any recognisable sense. Even if it is demonstrated that plants are capable of feeling pain, this need not be a persuasive point for the utilitarian. The absurd consequence the line of reasoning is supposed to lead us to is that we cannot eat any once-living thing. But this would only be implied if the utilitarian were committed not to eating the produce of processes involving pain. This is not the case – the utilitarian’s only moral commitment is to maximising utility. So if it were to be demonstrated that plants do have the capacity to feel pain, utilitarians would have to seek out food sources that involved minimal suffering – most likely to be plants, which probably feel less pain than animals.

Deontologists, such as Regan, employ slightly different terminology for a similar notion. While denying pleasure and pain have the moral significance granted to them by the utilitarian, Regan holds that the true condition of moral equality is to be an ‘experiencing subject of life’. According to Regan’s definition, subjects of life:

“want and prefer things, believe and feel things, recall and expect things. And all these dimensions of our life, including our pleasure and pain, our enjoyment and suffering, our satisfaction and frustration, our continued existence or our untimely death—all make a difference to the quality of our life as lived, as experienced, by us as individuals. As the same is true of … animals … they too must be viewed as the experiencing subjects of a life, with inherent value of their own”.[23]

While this is a definition which may well lead to problem marginal cases within the animal world, it seems highly unlikely that any plants will fit Regan’s definition of a subject of life. Consequently, Regan can escape the absurd consequences objection.

‘If we were all Jews, there would be no pigs’

Another objection to vegetarianism points out that farming leads to the creation and continued existence of numerous animals, who would not have been alive otherwise. If we believe that life is a good thing, the argument runs, surely farming is good because it brings into existence animals that would not otherwise be.

The force of this argument for the utilitarian depends on whether they agree that a farmed animal’s life is better than not existing. The utilitarian has no a priori commitment to the sanctity of life. If a life, on balance, involves more pain than pleasure, the utilitarian is perfectly consistent in arguing it would be better had it never happened. Given the extreme suffering involved in many farming processes, it seems highly likely that many animals would (on the utilitarian conception) be better off never having been born.

Deontological, rights based arguments here enter the murky world of the rights of unborn creatures. It seems most plausible to say that potential creatures have no rights, at the very least until the point of conception. Otherwise, we risked being dragged into absurdity, with every sperm and egg having rights and moral claims.

The more general claim, that species are better off under farming, is highly contentious. As Clark observes, “Species have vanished in historical time, but few have done so because man did not interfere with them”.[24] In any case, if the conservation of species were the real aim of farming, it seems that there are far more humane ways of achieving the same goal.

Causal Impotence

Another major objection to vegetarianism is what Norcross calls ‘causal impotence’.[25] This is the claim that, even if we agree that the treatment of animals in meat production is morally wrong, there is no point in adopting vegetarianism, since the actions of one individual will have no effect on the overall quantities of meat being produced. This objection holds with equal force for both the utilitarian and the deontologist, since it claims that forgoing meat will prevent neither the suffering of animals nor the loss of their lives.

Norcross admits that incremental conversions will have no impact on meat production, but argues that large shifts in demand will.[26] So, for example, if it takes 10 000 people stopping eating meat to save 100 000 chickens a year, there is a 1 in 10 000 chance that you will be the individual whose conversion crosses that threshold. Thus, the expected effect of your decision is to save 10 chickens a year, and so from either the utilitarian or the deontological standpoint, the decision is a rational one. The numbers are, of course, illustrative, but the point holds.

The causal impotence objection does not appear to have any force against virtue ethical arguments for vegetarianism, which argue that vice is shown merely by association with meat production. Nobis argues that to continue to eat meat simply because you believe your actions will not influence the farming industry is as distasteful as buying a lamp carved from the bones of concentration camp victims, and defending yourself with the knowledge that there is nothing you could have done about the holocaust.[27]

D. Arguments for Demi-vegetarianism

There is one final position which we ought to consider before concluding our discussion. We have looked at arguments suggesting we give up meat entirely, and arguments insisting there is nothing wrong with the status quo, but what about the third alternative? Hare’s response to the arguments for and against vegetarianism is to propose a diet which involves reduced and carefully selected meat consumption.[28]

Hare’s argument is premised on the belief that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the consumption of meat. This would seem to put him at odds with absolutist deontological theories which, if they accept the moral status of animals, would see their slaughter as morally repugnant. Hare, on the other hand, believes that if farm animals are reared in comfortable conditions, and slaughtered humanely, it is permissible to eat them. Indeed, Hare argues that such an existence is even better than the animals would enjoy in nature, and so it would increase overall utility to have more, rather than fewer, of these ‘ethical’ farms. He points out that the only way to encourage such farming methods is with the consumer’s market power: the power that vegetarians relinquish. Consequently, Hare concludes that the optimal action is to eat only ethically produced meat.

Hare’s case is impeccably argued and perfectly consistent with the utilitarian perspective. It may also have appeal for those virtue ethicists who agree that to ensure farm animals have a good life and to slaughter them humanely is to act compassionately. However, Hare’s empirical claim that such ethically produced meat is available is a debatable point. This appears to be Singer’s objection to demi-vegetarianism: “the important question is not whether animal flesh could be produced without suffering, but whether the flesh we are considering buying was produced without suffering”.[29]

E. Conclusion

The question posed at the start of this essay was whether it is morally consistent for us to eat meat. The answer, unsurprisingly, depends on your moral convictions. Contractarians have little reason, on their conception of morality, to give any thought to the suffering of animals, and so are not inconsistent in eating meat. However, such a nakedly egoistic moral philosophy seems unpalatably callous and selfish. The verdict contractualism, if it is a complete moral theory (and not just a political philosophy), rests on the question of whether animals are to be considered moral agents. Given its focus on rationality, this seems unlikely. However, if it were possible that you might emerge from the veil of ignorance an animal, it seems unlikely that you would be willing to undergo the present-day farm experience, so a few contractualists may be amenable to vegetarianism.

Deontologists must also resolve the issue of the moral status of animals. The problem of marginal cases makes it difficult for the deontologist to reject the moral claims of animals, and deontology makes it difficult to countenance the eating of a moral agent (this seems the epitome of using them as a means, not an end in themselves). However, a few deontologists may be comfortable with the belief that certain non-rational humans are of lower moral status, and equivalent to animals. These few are consistent in their consumption of meat.

The position of utilitarians seems to rest decisively on the empirical question of whether any current farming methods are humane enough to ensure that farmed animals are better off than had they never been born. If they are, it seems the utilitarian’s duty to support such farms. Yet environmental concerns would seem to suggest that excessive consumption of meat is also bad. If farming methods do not reach this standard, the utilitarian ought to be a vegetarian.

It is difficult to make out the virtue ethics position in all this. It seems compassion is the chief virtue at stake. Insofar as virtue ethics has anything to say on this, it is that it is probably better to support more humane farms. The idea that the consumption of meat in itself is an act of vice seems rather implausible.

[1] Quoted in Singer (ed.), In Defence of Animals, 9.
[2] Cudd, Ann, "Contractarianism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
[3] Regan, ‘The Case for Animal Rights’, in Singer (ed.), op. cit.
[4] Ashford, Elizabeth, Mulgan, Tim, "Contractualism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
[5] Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 512.
[6] See Clark, The Moral Status of Animals.
[7] Quoted in Hursthouse, Ethics, Humans and Other Animals, 75.
[8] Quoted in Singer, op. cit., 5.
[9] Singer, Animal Liberation.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Singer and Mason, Eating.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Hursthouse, ‘Virtue theory and abortion’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 1991, 225.
[14] Gruen, Lori, "The Moral Status of Animals", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
[15] Quoted in Nobis, ‘Vegetarianism and Virtue: Does Consequentialism Demand Too Little?’, Social Theory and Practice 2002.
[16] Quoted Singer (ed.), op. cit., 5.
[17] Quoted in Norcross, ‘Puppies, Pigs and People: Eating Meat and Marginal Cases’, Philosophical Perspective 2004.
[18] Hursthouse, Ethics, Humans and Other Animals, 51.
[19] Clark, op. cit., 108.
[20] Quoted in Hursthouse, Ethics, Humans and Other Animals, 75.
[21] Quoted Schliefer, ‘Images of Death and Life: Food Animal Production and the Vegetarian Option’, in Singer, In Defence of Animals, 67.
[22] Nobis, op. cit.
[23] Regan, ‘The Case for Animal Rights’, in Singer, In Defence of Animals.
[24] Clark, op. cit., 48.
[25] Norcross, op. cit.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Nobis, op. cit.
[28] Hare, ‘Why I am only a Demi-vegetarian’, in Jamieson (ed.), Singer and his critics
[29] Quoted in Hursthouse, Ethics, Humans and other Animals.

1 comment:

  1. If I consider animals to have moral status, and thus conclude that it is wrong to eat meat, can I still by food for my dog that has meat in it, or do I have to essentially impose my ability to discern right from wrong onto my dog as well?