Confessions of a Conflicted Carnivore
Daniel Mullin

12 December 2013

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.

Comments (3)'s picture


Sunday, December 22, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

Thanks for your interesting

Thanks for your interesting thoughts on this topic.  I have also struggled with the ethics of meat eating.  Many years ago I read Singer's arguments and decided to become vegetarian; but later I decided that it was not the taking of animal life for food that was problematic for me, rather it was the unnecessary suffering inflicted by conventional/factory farming methods.  It's hard for me to understand how anyone can defend today's industrial animal farming methods considering the suffering it imposes throughout the animals' lives and during slaughter, including deprivation of natural conditions and social interaction with other animals, filthy enclosures, physical abuse, sloppy and inhumane stunning and slaughter techniques (the Humane Slaughter Act is routinely ignored), proceeding with dismemberment when the animal is still kicking and conscious, etc.  Then of course there is the overuse of antibiotics and hormones to speed and increase growth, lack of hygiene on the production line, the bullying conditions under which typically undocumented workers have to toil, and industrial sized environmental degradation.  The system brutally exploits millions of animals, treated as nothing but food products for whom even minimally humane conditions are rarely if ever considered.  I don't believe that keeping meat cheap for people of modest means is a valuable enough end to justify so much suffering considering that other forms of protein are readily available, including organic/humanely raised meat that, while more expensive, can be afforded if consumed less often (which is fortuitously in line with the recommendations of medical organizations).  For these reasons I do still eat meat but only occasionally and if organic or otherwise certified as humanely raised.  I also eat non-farmed fish as they too are allowed to enjoy natural conditions largely free of suffering before they are taken. 

Daniel Mullin's picture

Daniel Mullin

Tuesday, January 7, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

Thanks for your thoughts on

Thanks for your thoughts on the subject, Robin. I think we're largely on the same page in terms of our dietary practices and the rationale behind them.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, February 8, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

I became a vegan (with no

I became a vegan (with no nuts or oil in my diet) a little over two years ago.   I did this for health reasons but the ethical arguments have taken new meaning for me now that I've committed to a vegan diet.  I found it hard to change over initially but after a couple months I lost my hankering for meat and oil based foods (oil by far is harder to hone than meat believe me.)  
Singer's arguments take on new meaning when you consider the politic of food production.  Hunger is rampant and man made.  There is food for all if we all would just eat lower on the food chain.  If I were to posit to you that this is true - does that give you more moral motivation?  If eating meat were taking food from other human beings instead of humanely slaughtering animals does that give you reason to reconsider your diet?  I don't think you are afforded the luxury of being spiciest when it comes to eating resource intensive proteins like meat and dairy - when there are millions of humans who are deprived of any protein in order to fill your supermarket.
I don't think moral motivation is lacking when people eat meat.  When people slaughter animals their adrenaline runs high.  It's a stressful  occupation and heavy task.  If we had to do it ourselves - we all would eat less meat.  Instead I think it's a gastronomical inertia induced by the industry of our food production.   Once you are free of this ... and it took me a little over two months... it's liberating and transcendent.  It's cliche but you do have to be the change here.  No moral argument can win in a knock down with your gut without heavy consideration.  
Your moral arguments here only go half way - then you summarily dismiss them in light of greater moral evils to fight.  If you take the moral argument all the way - that meat production causes hunger and suffering in fellow human beings - I put it to you that it becomes a worthy moral effort to stop eating animal products.  I would explore your dubious feelings here.  Where there is smoke there is fire.
There are few things more personal than diet.  Criticizing someone else's diet is a low blow and affront to their liberty.  Thank you for writing this very personal note.  I just wanted to share my own odyssey more than anything.  I never would have thought I could give up meat until I did.  Now that I have... I don't know why I didn't do it years ago.