The Conscience of an Omnivore

Michael Huemer is an excellent philosopher, but he fails to persuade me that we do wrong to eat meat. He leads with the claim that those of us who eat meat are in the grip of some sort of failure of conscience, wherein we know what the right thing to do is, yet fail to do it. He speculates “that the vast majority of human beings are motivated to avoid moral wrongs only when those wrongs either (a) are socially disapproved, or (b) conflict with the dictates of the powerful,” and so, like the Milgram experimenters, we know it’s wrong to eat meat, but we do it anyway. But of course, a third possibility is that most meat eaters simply disagree that it is wrong. This is the position I will be defending here—it is not a moral wrong to eat meat.

What gives Huemer’s argument some traction is his frequent comparisons between our treatment of other people and our treatment of animals. “The most abject cruelty,” he notes, “cruelty that would horrify us if perpetrated against any other human being, scarcely troubles us when it is done to members of another species.” Two things are unsatisfactory about this move. First of all, that crushing a child would be morally objectionable simply doesn’t entail the wrongness of stepping on a roach or mosquito. That would require some additional premise, along the lines of “it’s immoral to treat an animal in any way that a human may not be treated,” but to insert that premise would beg the question. And second, I think he’s just mistaken to say that abject cruelty to animals scarcely troubles us. When news stories break about someone torturing an animal, the outpouring of indignation in the community is typically enormous, and in cases where it makes national news (e.g., the Michael Vick case), the outcry is national. People often call for harsher penalties for animal abusers than they do for thieves and muggers. There is no reason to think that most people “don’t care” about cruelty to animals, which is indeed a criminal offense in most jurisdictions, and deeply socially disapproved. What Huemer must mean, then, is that eating meat is morally equivalent to lighting a kitten on fire, but that we turn a blind eye to that. This is what I deny. It is not a moral wrong to eat meat.

Huemer notes (correctly, I should think) that animals can experience pain and that their pain is the same sort of thing as the pain we experience. So, he says, we ought to take that into consideration when we figure out what’s right and wrong. “If non-human pain is even a little bit bad, therefore, the total quantity of suffering must make this among the world’s greatest problems.” This is a utilitarian argument of the pre-Millian, Benthamite sort: pains and pleasures do not differ in any qualitative way but are substantively the same and only need to be added up. So if a large amount of chicken pain is caused by the meal I intend, and the number attaching to that amount is larger than the quantified amount of pleasure I’d receive from that meal, the meal is immoral. Leaving aside the lack of any actual method for doing Bethamite quantification, this calculus implies that I ought not to remove a hornet’s nest from my attic or set out mouse traps in the basement. A Benthamite would reject this reductio ad absurdum, but this gets at the fundamental point: it’s not immoral for humans to count the good of humans as more important than the good of non-humans.

“If someone does not see what is bad about suffering,” Huemer says, “I don’t see how I could explain it. If someone only sees the badness of his own suffering, then that individual lacks a conscience, and, again, I don’t think anything I say could remedy that. If someone sees the badness of his own suffering, and that of other people, but does not see the badness of suffering in other species, then I desire that person to explain why suffering would only be bad when felt by members of his own species.” One possibility is that while the pain experienced by non-humans can arouse some level of empathy, we also measure the badness of non-human pain against human good. Nothing is just “valuable”; things are valuable to a valuer. Maybe humans value human well-being over the well-being of non-humans. If I came across three dogs attacking a child, and I needed to kill all three to save the child, I would not only do so, I would expect to come in for severe reproach had I failed to do so. Here I am prioritizing human good over dog good. That’s not to say dog good never matters—again, we disapprove of people who mistreat their dogs. But they’re not indistinguishable goods.

It’s not clear that this prioritization entails indifference to animal suffering, as Huemer claims. Many cultures practice a kind of reverence for the animals they consume. Other cultures may lack a specific practice to this effect, yet there too it’s not surprising to see individual farmers wanting to kill the animal as quickly and painlessly as possible. Huemer tends to elide “it’s morally permissible to use animals for human purposes” and “it’s fine to be cruel just for fun”—but these are very different positions. The duty not to be cruel for fun doesn’t entail “can’t use them for food,” nor even “can’t kill them to avoid annoyance.” Many animals eat other animals. There’s no natural duty not to do so.

Is it morally wrong for a fox to eat a chicken? Of course, it’s bad for that chicken to get eaten. But it would be bad for that fox to not eat. So the moral question isn’t just about whether it’s a bad outcome, since it’s a bad outcome for someone either way. The chicken is entitled to try to escape the fox just as the fox is entitled to chase the chicken. Whichever outcome results will be “bad” for one of them, but not immoral. Foxes eat chickens. Big fish eat little fish. Humans eat chickens and fish.

Humans are a subset of the larger category “animal.” We’re not somehow outside of nature, we are part of nature. In nature, everything consumes something to sustain its life. Some of the things we eat are themselves consumers of animals. Some of our prey eat plants. Indeed, some of our prey is plants. It’s in our nature to eat both plants and animals. When we eat plants we are also causing death and suffering. The “distress” caused to plants when they are killed may seem too alien or minimal to be relevant, but I don’t see how Huemer can use that as a distinction, given the numbers argument he invokes. It would be an odd model for right and wrong on which we must act against our nature. Our natural capacity for empathy is part of that nature; it gives us a way to know that cruelty-for-fun is wrong. But eating other animals is part of that same nature. It’s not merely that this provides optimal nutrition for humans, but the fact that we find them tasty is both a reason in itself and evidence for the naturalness of the connection.

Besides killing for food, we also kill for annoyance-avoidance, as when we use poison to kill carpenter ants or cockroaches, or swat mosquitoes. Arguably, the latter is self-defense, as the mosquito is literally attacking you, and depending on where you live, could well be threatening your life. But the ants can damage your house. We’re just as entitled to defend our houses as beavers or wasps are. Even if we concede that this causes some suffering, this doesn’t make it immoral.

Why then do we object to people caught pulling the wings off flies for fun, or kicking puppies for fun? Because those examples indicate sociopathy: they are signs of vicious character, and the sort of person who would light a kitten on fire is the sort of person who would also harm other people, the sort of person for whom others—of all species—are merely a tool. The lack of empathy we see in the puppy-kicker is evidence of a general character flaw. But kicking a puppy because you find it pleasurable to inflict pain or see helplessness is bad, not because you’re doing it to a puppy, but because only a vicious character would find it pleasurable to inflict pain or see helplessness in the first place. None of this tells us about the entirely natural process of eating other living things.

To underscore this last point: saying that it is not a moral wrong to eat meat is not to say that there is no such thing as mistreatment of animals. Huemer conflates the worst examples of factory farming with the idea of meat-eating generally. But it’s not as if the moral space is completely exhausted by “I’m vegan” and “I kick puppies for fun.” We must avoid the conflation of factory farming (or whatever other particular practices we should consider cruel) with the entire concept of eating meat. The factory farming practices that might seem more morally objectionable are what make it possible for many poorer humans to have access to meat. Even if ceteris paribus we should prefer animals killed with less collateral suffering, it’s not obvious that denying meat to poor people is the more moral choice. Maybe ultra-minimal levels of animal suffering are a luxury that wealth allows people. But the fact of the eating itself cannot be immoral, any more than it’s immoral for an eagle to eat a fish.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Michael Huemer argues that even if the pain experienced by nonhuman animals is only a little bit bad, the total quantity of pain that we inflict on animals must mean that we are committing a grave wrong in the ways that we use animals for food and clothing. Huemer addresses some of the key objections to this claim, and he emphasizes that while the full extent of our duties to animals isn’t entirely clear to him, we ought “at a minimum… to refrain from inflicting enormous pain and suffering on other beings for the sake of obtaining comparatively small gastronomic pleasures.”

Response Essays

  • It is not a moral wrong to eat meat, writes Aeon J. Skoble. Analogies between human suffering and the suffering of animals are facially implausible, and it is not obviously wrong, for a human, to privilege human well-being above that of other species. It is not from a failure of conscience that we eat meat, but from our natural inclination toward it, and from the nutritional benefits that meat provides. In this we closely resemble many other animals.

  • Andy Lamey argues that animal suffering is indeed worth taking seriously as a moral concern. So too, he adds, is animal killing. He observes that animal cruelty and the desire to hide it have prompted at least some policies that should be opposed on libertarian grounds, including farm subsidies and ag-gag laws, which prohibit reporting about conditions in factory farms.

  • Shawn E. Klein denies that the badness of animal suffering is such that we should always avoid it. Many types of suffering, he notes, are instrumental to higher values. While we should avoid suffering when other things are equal, that may not be the case for the uses that humans make of animals. While Klein agrees that animal cruelty should be avoided when it can be, he proposes that eating and otherwise making use of animals for human benefit is in keeping with an ethical code that seeks to further human life.