Since the next episode of Philosophy Talk is about the demands of morality, I wanted to share the following post that I wrote last year for my blog. The area of food selection is one where many philosophers, myself included, feel the demands of morality. But how strenuous can we make those demands on ordinary people? This essay is an attempt to find a middle ground and, in the end, may please no one. Nevertheless, I hope it will provide food for thought (sorry, couldn't help myself).
I recently participated in this online poll about the eating habits of philosophers. I voted as a carnivore — more accurately omnivore — who views his diet as ethically problematic. I think it’s safe to say that there is a higher percentage of vegetarians among philosophers than other academics or the general public. My mentor in philosophy was a vegetarian for a combination of health and ethical reasons. Although 69% of the respondents to the poll identified as carnivores, 37% of them worried that their eating habits were ethically problematic.
The ethical argument against eating meat has been made most famously by Peter Singer. He argues along utilitarian lines that it is wrong to increase suffering unnecessarily. Killing and eating sentient animals, i.e. animals capable of experiencing pain, does increase suffering unnecessarily. Therefore, it is wrong to kill and eat sentient animals.
I’m of two minds on this subject. I sometimes do worry about the pain inflicted on animals in the factory farm system. The mass production that enables us to have affordable meat no doubt increases the suffering of animals. However, the ethical difficulties surrounding factory farming don’t necessarily impugn meat-eating per se. For example, one could simply consume meat that is raised on small production farms. The animals arguably enjoy a decent life until they become food. It’s also more likely that the animals are slaughtered humanely in this context. After all, it isn’t the killing itself that utilitarians find objectionable; it’s suffering. We euthanize animals painlessly everyday and don’t seem to have any ethical qualms about it.
However, the ethical vegetarian might reply that animals that are sufficiently sentient — i.e. animals sufficiently like us — are subjects of a life. Therefore, even if they are killed painlessly, the ending of their life, as a means to an end, is wrong. Here we’re straying from utilitarianism into deontology. I confess, I do worry about eating animals like pigs and cows more than I do about chicken and fish (not to mention shrimps, scallops, oysters, etc. which seem to be pretty far down the sentience scale). I’m not sure how self-aware the average lobster is. Nevertheless, there is an argument here for sparing the higher animals. But one could be a selective carnivore and conceivably still be ethical.
Some carnivores defend meat-eating by saying that domestic animals in most cases have a better life than they would in the wild. I don’t find this argument very persuasive, however, because these animals, at least in their domesticated form, wouldn’t exist if we didn’t use them for food. Non-existence is not necessarily an evil and existence isn’t necessarily a good. If I hadn’t been born, obviously I couldn’t be happy or sad about it. However, if I had been born under different circumstances, for example, in which I experienced intense suffering, that might be worse than non-existence. So I don’t find that particular pro-carnivore argument very convincing.
Having said that, I still eat meat, even if I am somewhat ethically dubious about it. Currently, I’m on a dairy and gluten free diet for health reasons, and giving up something else in my diet would require a lot more moral motivation than I have. For me, this is the crux of the matter: I’d rather people invest their moral effort in remedying other evils that I think are much worse than animal suffering. Maybe I’m being ‘speciesist’ to use Singer’s term. So be it. I think human suffering does trump concern about lower animals. At the risk of sounding as though I’m defending the factory farm system, mass production does make meat affordable and were that to disappear overnight, the cost of meat would skyrocket. This would disproportionately impact the least well-off in our society for whom, I suspect, meat makes up a great deal of the nutrition in their diet. Some vegetarians may think that the suffering of animals is such a great evil and dismantling the system such a moral imperative that it’s worth the human and economic costs. I’m just not as convinced as they are.