Searching for Common Ground on Meat Eating and Public Policy

Michael Huemer’s essay is refreshing in its willingness to challenge genteel opinion regarding animals in the name of a more rigorous view. Two features of Huemer’s argument are especially attractive. First, it relies on parsimonious premises. The claim that pain and suffering are bad is much less controversial than its denial. Second, the argument is compatible with a range of political and moral philosophies. Libertarians, socialists, deontologists and consequentialists alike can accept Huemer’s conclusions, as his argument takes no stand on the issues that divide them.

Huemer is not the first philosopher to make an ecumenical argument on behalf of animals. Unfortunately, when presented with such arguments, defenders of meat-eating sometimes fail to address the issues at hand.

One common reply for example is to assert that a moral concern with animals must come at the expense of our concern for human beings. But we can accept Huemer’s argument and still rank a typical human life over that of a sentient animal. Even many vegans will agree that, had we to choose between running over a human person and a mouse, it would be appropriate to run over the mouse. Vegans just ask that we not kid ourselves in thinking a similarly tragic choice occurs in choosing between meat and plant-based meals.

Sometimes the claim that a moral concern with sentient animals is bad for humans is put in a different way: it is that every minute we spend advocating on behalf of animal interests is one less minute we can spend advocating for important human interests. But we are again fooling ourselves if we frame the dietary debate this way. There is no great human project that comes crashing down the first time you order the veggie burger.

Moreover, we don’t generally approach moral advocacy in a zero-sum way. When a candidate for municipal office asks for my vote, for example, I don’t ridicule their desire to solve local problems on the grounds that they should be devoting themselves to global poverty or some other issue from a different sphere of concern. It is perfectly acceptable to devote attention to a range of issues at various levels of scale and domain, as they pertain to humans and animals alike.

One reply to ecumenical arguments on behalf of animals that is not an evasion is the claim that species membership is morally significant. This is sometimes confused with the separate idea that beings who possess self-consciousness, moral agency, and other traits of personhood should enjoy a higher moral status than merely sentient entities. Being human and being a person are not synonymous, however, as is illustrated by the existence of human beings who are born with congenital conditions that prevent them from ever attaining personhood.

If the fact of being Homo sapiens matters, then the beginning of a defense of human favoritism presents itself. We might justify doing things to merely sentient animals we would never accept in the case of merely sentient humans.

A problem bedeviling many defenses of “speciesism” however is that they are formulated as assertions rather than arguments. Consider one such defense, by the distinguished philosopher Bernard Williams. “This is an ethical concept we already have,” Williams wrote of species favoritism. “This is the ethical concept that is at work when, to the puzzlement of the critics, we afford special consideration to human beings because they are human beings.”

The weakness of Williams-style views can be seen by asking to whom “we” refers. Williams suggests that it is just a fact about us all that we recognize species membership as morally important. But then how are there critics who reject this supposedly inescapable view? Defenders of the human prejudice, as Williams dubbed it, need to do more than appeal to a false consensus about the moral significance of being Homo sapiens. They also need to explain why, when species is swapped out for race or sex (or genus for that matter), these parallel defenses of prejudice do not also succeed.

Once speciesism is in doubt, it suggests a step that is consistent with Huemer’s argument but which his essay does not take. This is recognizing that sentient animals can be harmed not only by suffering, but also by being killed.

It seems obvious that merely sentient humans possess a very strong moral interest in not having their lives prematurely ended. Many people accept that something similar is true of animals they care for. Animal ethicists for example have asked us to consider a case in which a dog has a condition that, while painless, would prematurely end its life. Surely we would be helping the dog by giving it a shot to clear up the condition. But if so, this suggests it has a welfare interest not only in avoiding suffering, but also in continued existence: otherwise giving the dog a painful injection to extend its life would do it no good. Ethical vegetarianism is a way of making our view of the moral status of farmed animals cohere with cases in which it seems clear that we can wrong sentient beings by killing them. Ending animals’ lives because we prefer the taste of meat over easily obtainable plant foods seems an inadequate motivation.

In addressing libertarians, Huemer asks them not to be distracted by questions of policy. Shifting the discussion to the policy realm can indeed be a way of avoiding a personal moral inventory regarding animals. But once we have accepted our individual obligations, most obviously by swearing off meat, questions of policy inevitably arise.

One overdue policy change is the abolition of agricultural subsidies. In his book Meatonomics (2013) author David Robinson Simon argues that when American meat and dairy subsidies are calculated correctly they total in the billions, while subsidies to plant agriculture are only in the millions. Perhaps Simon’s calculations exaggerate the difference. The fact that factory farming is subsidized at all however is a further wrong beyond that done to animals.

Contemporary animal agriculture is also a menace to free speech. Recent years have seen the introduction of so-called “ag-gag” laws in many states, which seek to criminalize whistleblowing that exposes animal abuses at factory farms. Enhanced animal welfare laws by contrast are difficult to get through legislatures because agriculture is a textbook case of regulators being “captured” by the industry they are supposed to oversee. (This is one reason animal welfare initiatives now often take the form of ballot initiatives, which routinely see voters demonstrate a preference that farmed animals be treated humanely.)

Most libertarians will readily grant the distorting effects of agricultural subsidies and regulatory capture. Some however have sacrificed their libertarianism on the altar of their omnivorism. “Factory farms aren’t designed to maximize suffering,” Daniel D’Amico wrote in a 2018 debate with Huemer in Reason, the libertarian magazine. “They, like all production chains, are emergent outcomes that look to maximize productivity within the constraints of prices, technological capacities, and consumer wishes.”

D’Amico’s description of the meat industry is a fantasy. The reason to note it is not to insinuate that other libertarians will necessarily agree. It is rather to see the power of the conformity to which Huemer refers. To be sure, ballot initiatives on behalf of animals raise the possibility that our conformity has limits. But if meat-eating is the result of socialization rather than careful ethical reflection, that would explain why full-throated defenses of omnivorism can come at the expense of basic value commitments that apologists otherwise accept.

There are no good arguments for factory farming, the American version of which is an enemy of both animal and human freedom. Huemer’s essay raises the welcome possibility that libertarians and non-libertarians will someday come together to bring such evil to an end.

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.