The debate over eating meat

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Date: Fall 2012
From: Journal of Animal Ethics(Vol. 2, Issue 2)
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,252 words

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During the past four decades, four questions have shaped the debate over eating meat: (1) What hurts the most? (2) Are animal lovers nature haters? (3) Are vegetarians bigots? (4) Do animals have rights? The following conclusions are advocated: (1) Where general welfare is the issue, numbers count, and they will always count against a small minority profiting by repeatedly exploiting the majority. However, how most effectively to respond to this injustice is not obvious. (2) Despite disagreements about the relationship between biology and morals, vegetarians and environmentalists agree that factory farming is immoral because of what it does either to suffering animals or to the natural order. (3) Whether humans using animals for food can be a respectful relation--especially when we humans make all the decisions--is the real question here. So far, this extension of fairness beyond our own species is one for which we have shown little capacity. (4) Whether or not animals have "rights," morally concerned Westerners should not partake of factory-farmed products and should work for the abolition of such farms.

KEY WORDS: animal rights, exploitation, factory farming, multiculturalism, unnecessary suffering, vegetarianism

The debate over eating meat has been ongoing for millennia and has been waged on grounds ranging from the transmigration of souls to physiological determinism. The contemporary, Western incarnation of the debate, dating from the early 1970s and stemming from the call for animal liberation and animal rights, began with revulsion at the horrors inflicted on animals closely confined, unnaturally reared, and treated as nothing more than meat, egg, and milk producing machinery on factory farm subsidiaries of massive agribusinesses. From that visceral response to anemic calves imprisoned in narrow crates, sows chained to rape racks, debeaked chickens crammed, up to a dozen at a time, into small cages, and terrified cattle being haphazardly killed and eviscerated at assembly-line slaughterhouses, the philosophical debate over the moral significance of such practices and what morally concerned people should do about them has evolved into four areas of contention.

1. What hurts the most? Relying on theories of mind that make linguistic ability the sine qua non for conscious feelings, neo-Cartesians have argued that bellowing, squawking, moaning, and screeching--but not "complaining"--animals who are farmed do not really feel any pain at all. These philosophers doubtless convince themselves of this while alone with their thoughts in the quiet of their studies. Out in the world, people know better; they know that the experience of pain is not a judgment and can be had without putting a name to it.

Though more in touch with reality than the neo-Cartesians, social welfare philosophers still argue over whether the suffering endured by these animals is outweighed by the goods derived from meat, dairy, and egg production. These benefits include not only the pleasure humans get from eating these animal products but also the economic benefits enjoyed by people involved in producing meat and animal products and the survival of peoples in adverse climates who would not be able to live there at all were it not for meat. However, since the world's human population is around 7 billion, and estimates place the number of animals we slaughter every year at two to three times that number, it is hard to consider such cost/benefit analyses to be more than self-serving excuses. Where general welfare is the issue, numbers count, and they will always count against a small minority profiting by repeatedly exploiting the majority.

But if animals who are factory farmed suffer greatly, and not to any greater good, what should we, as moral people committed to reducing avoidable pain in the world, do to relieve their suffering? Vegetarianism is an obvious response, but there are others as well: returning to traditional forms of animal husbandry, eating only less sensitive animals, or eating meat only from hunting or fishing. Among these alternatives, the debate is real, especially since the global growth of the middle-class population is stimulating a growing clamor for "luxuries" such as meat. In this environment, a crusade for vegetarianism may be quixotic and have less actual benefit for animals than advocating less demanding regimens, such as avoiding "red meat," going organic, or eating lower on the evolutionary scale.

2. Are animal lovers nature haters? Along with animal liberation, the past four decades have witnessed the development of environmental philosophy, which advocates rejecting the traditional emphasis on the differences between the human and natural orders in favor of emphasizing human participation in the biotic community. These philosophers insist we must accept the science of Darwin and his descendants and learn from it how we fit into the natural order and how we should behave accordingly. An obvious lesson here is that nature is composed of food chains, and we are predators in many of those chains. These philosophers contend that vegetarians continue to view humans as outside of and better than nature and that vegetarians' dismay at animal suffering is an expression of their hatred for the predatory natural order.

At least some environmental philosophers are prone to the blunder of confusing personal lifestyle preferences and even biological facts with moral values. Nonetheless, this too is a real, complex debate, with animal defenders pointing out that factory farming bears scant resemblance to natural predation and even some environmentalists acknowledging that compassion is also a part of nature. Biology can never resolve this debate: Since moral values always include inhibitions and other redirections of what we are "by nature" inclined to do, we can never simply translate laws of nature into moral law. However, because moral ideals out of touch with human nature have long caused terrible suffering, we cannot afford to turn a blind eye to nature, either, in fashioning moral rules. So after rejecting the human/nature dichotomy, we still have a thicket of issues to hack our way through before we find the moral high ground. One thing vegetarians and environmentalists thoroughly agree on, though, is that factory farming is immoral, because of what it does either to suffering animals or to the natural order.

3. Are vegetarians bigots? Many feminists are vegetarians, seeing in the human exploitation of animals an element of the patriarchal, hierarchical worldview and social structure of which the exploitation of women is another element. On the other hand, some feminists see in the call for universal vegetarianism an insensitivity to the differences between men and women since a healthy vegetarian diet, they contend, is more difficult for women to attain than men. Similarly, philosophers sensitive to the differing values among cultures and committed to respecting those differences contend that animal liberationists are hubristically projecting the values of upper-middle-class, urban, Western white people as the moral values. The values and practices of others are demeaned as poor approximations to this true morality or as exceptions condescendingly made for those unable to lead the righteous life.

Of all the areas of the current debate over meat-eating, this one generates the greatest heat, with charges of "holier than thou," "Nazi," "ignoramus," and "chauvinist" abounding. As usual, such heat is a substitute for light. Vegetarian philosophers are not true believers advocating that animal protection groups send missionaries abroad to convert the heathens to God's diet. Nor is there evidence that women, even during pregnancy, cannot have a healthy diet without eating meat. Also, our commitment to multicultural respect needs to be balanced thoughtfully with our commitment to combating genocide, slavery, racism, female circumcision, and the like, even when these are well-established cultural traditions. Respecting the values of other cultures is, after all, another one of those values pioneered by upper-middle-class, urban, Western white folks; so if such an origin is enough to condemn a value, multiculturalism is a snake consuming its own tail.

The tremendous variety of ways in which women and animals are treated analogously is amazing. The feminist literature on the subject is truly impressive. But what follows from this conjunction of rhetoric and exploitations is not obvious. Certainly contrary to the position taken by some feminist vegetarians, it does not follow that in order to liberate women, animals must also be liberated. Contemporary Western societies guarantee women all sorts of civil liberties, including many more than they were guaranteed two hundred years ago, yet these are the very societies that practice factory farming, in that way treating animals much worse than they were treated in past, low-tech centuries.

Utilizing others without respect for their happiness is a hallmark not only of sexism and speciesism but also of racism, uninhibited capitalism, and slavery. What all such injustices cry out for are respectful relations in which we benefit from others as they benefit from us. Whether humans' use of animals for food can be practiced as such a respectful relation--especially whether this can be honestly done when we humans hold overwhelming power and make all the decisions--is the real question here. So far, this extension of fairness beyond our own species is one for which we have shown so little capacity that it is even commonly mocked as a logical blunder.

4. Do animals have rights? If the calves in their crates, the sows on the rack, the chickens in the battery cages, or the cattle being hoisted in the slaughterhouse were human beings, disputing how much these people hurt and whether their suffering is outweighed by the benefits others gain from their rearing and slaughtering would be considered morally depraved. Doubtless, there is an instinctual basis for this visceral reaction--a species that finds routinely eating its own repugnant is more likely to survive than one which does not, particularly when the species does not have large litters and must invest years of effort in rearing its young. But is there more than an instinctual attachment to one's own at work here?

Traditionally, this is where the superior quality and value of human life are brought in. This quality and value are considered the product of consciousness or reason or spirit or some such ability that is characteristic of humans but lacking in other animals, either entirely or almost so. The corollary of this special value is "human rights"--that is, entitlements all and only humans have not to be treated merely as a means to the satisfaction of others' interests.

Here again, the debate can be real and complex. J. S. Mill (1957) said the empirical basis for comparing the qualities of different lives is living them. (1) But we cannot live the lives of other species, so what basis is there for us to assert the superior quality of human life and, consequently, cite this as the basis for human rights? Again, we can question whether anything even resembling "natural rights" is not really a myth--"nonsense upon stilts," as Bentham (1816) mocked--all rights actually originating in self-protective social contracts made by rational, vulnerable, equally powerful parties. Although this debate over the basis and nature of moral rights is lively, informed, intriguing, and consequential, its relevance to relieving the animal suffering that inspired the animal rights movement is questionable. It may even be detrimental to accomplishing the goals of that movement because it provides a labyrinthine diversion from and excuse for not pursuing an end to the massive suffering we routinely inflict on animals.

It is Western societies that practice and consume the products of the factory farms which treat animals so abominably. That animals feel pain and can be treated cruelly is common belief in these societies, as is belief in the wrongness of causing suffering when it is unnecessary to promoting some greater good. Finally, even if it is not common belief, there is abundant testimony that those of us living in these societies can lead rich, rewarding, fulfilling, happy, healthy lives without raising and slaughtering animals for food and without fishing or hunting either. Put those beliefs and that testimony together, and you have a simple, powerful argument for why, regardless of whether animals have "rights," morally concerned Westerners should be vegetarian. At the absolute minimum, even if we believe there are other, equally basic moral values that might be compromised if meat were removed entirely from our tables, this argument unambiguously directs us both not to partake of factory-farmed products and to work for the abolition of such farms.


(1.) Experiences--and lives--are superior when "all or almost all who have experience of [them] give a decided preference" to one experience (or life) over others (Mills, 1957, p. 12).

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Steve F. Sapontzis, California State University, East Bay, Hayward, California.

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