Carnivory as Conformity

I appreciate the calm and scholarly tone of Aeon Skoble’s defense of meat-eating, but as a piece of moral reasoning his commentary is disappointing in the way it repeats arguments that have long been subject to decisive criticisms. To cite but one example, the thought that we should eat meat because other animals do has obvious problems, as Peter Singer pointed out in the second edition of Practical Ethics (1993). They include the fact that it does not make sense to model our ethical behaviour on that of animals who lack moral agency. Skoble’s other arguments all similarly fail, for reasons that will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the animal ethics literature.

Skoble mistakenly characterizes Huemer’s argument as Benthamite, when in reality a concern with reducing suffering is consistent with a wide range of moral views. Insofar as Skoble’s essay appears to defend speciesism, it exhibits the same problem I noted in my original commentary, that of assertion taking the place of argument (“Maybe humans value human well-being over the well-being of non-humans.”) Skoble mentions the permissibility of killing insects, which is only relevant if such animals are sentient, a doubtful claim for which his essay provides no evidence.

If Skoble’s essay has a central argument it is found in his characterization of meat consumption as an “entirely natural process.” One reason he may emphasize this is to suggest that avoiding meat is somehow unnatural. But if so, this claim lacks scientific support. As the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has long noted, “appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy.” Our bodies are adapted to require protein, which can come in both animal and non-animal forms. A concern with what is natural thus provides no reason to favor meat-eating.

A second problem with Skoble’s appeal to nature is that, even if meat-eating were especially natural, that would carry no weight, as a phenomenon being natural has no bearing on its ethical appropriateness. The smallpox virus is perfectly natural, for example, but that provides no reason to permit its spread. Indeed, Skoble himself gives the example of dogs attacking a child. It is a natural fact that many animals have claws and digestive systems that allow them to hunt and eat human beings, yet that is not a reason to condone animal attacks. Even if meat-eating were especially natural, in short, that by itself would provide no defense against ethical criticisms such as Huemer’s.

A final problem with Skoble’s naturalness argument is that, even if nature could serve as a moral guide, that would call into question many aspects of meat production. Consider for example the description Temple Grandin offers of a commercial pig breeder who employs artificial insemination, a common industry practice:

Each boar had his own little perversion the man had to do to get the boar turned on so he could collect the semen. Some of them were just things like the boar wanted to have his dandruff scratched while they were collecting him. (Pigs have big flaky dandruff all over their backs.) The other things the man had to do were a lot more intimate. He might have to hold the boar’s penis in exactly the right way the boar liked, and he had to masturbate some of them in exactly the right way. There was one boar, he told me, who wanted to have his butt hole played with. “I have to stick my finger in his butt, he just really loves that,” he told me.

The process Grandin describes is a form of bestiality. It is unnatural in the obvious sense that human beings and pigs are not capable of breeding. The sexual element may make us squeamish, but it typifies the larger truth that contemporary meat production has long involved many unnatural processes.

Most meats are cooked before consumption. As such eating them presupposes the human control of fire, a skill we owe not to nature but culture. Similarly, neither chicken nor cattle are indigenous to North America: their presence in the average American diet is in that sense unnatural. Factory farms are only possible in cultures that have refrigeration and other technologies that make possible the slaughter of animals far from where they are eaten. Animal agriculture systematically violates animals’ own natural behaviors, as by debeaking them, separating them from their mothers and confining them in conditions in which they cannot turn around or see daylight. If what is natural is what is right, most meat on display in the grocery store is morally heinous.

Skoble’s dog-attack example obliges us to consider cases in which we must choose between animal and human interests. But if we have a human person in mind, a strong concern with animals still permits saving the person over the animals. In The Case for Animal Rights (1983), for example, Tom Regan wrote that if we were faced with a choice between saving four human persons or a million dogs, it would be appropriate to save the people. What such cases show is that persons have a higher moral standing than merely sentient beings. But as I noted in my commentary, we do not face such a tragic choice when it comes to our diet. A more analogous scenario would be having to choose between causing the painful death of three dogs or uprooting three or more plants. Given than plants are not sentient, it seems obvious that we should save the dogs.

A strange feature of Skoble’s essay is its unsupported assertion that plants can suffer. One does sometimes come across headlines to that effect. But when we read the actual news stories, let along the research on which they are based (which I discuss in my book Duty and the Beast) it becomes clear that recent findings in botany do not support the view that plants are sentient. Certainly Skoble’s essay does not present any evidence for such a view, which, even if true, would not justify meat eating. Given that animals’ bodies inefficiently convert plants into animal protein, we would save plants and animals alike by replacing meat with plants.

Skoble writes that “the factory farming practices that might seem more morally objectionable are what make it possible for many poorer humans to have access to meat.” But who cares if anyone has access to meat? Insofar as equally nutritious plant protein is widely available, meat is strictly optional. Even if the food system were structured so that respecting animal interests had to come at the expense of helping poor people, that would be grounds to restructure the system, not an excuse to cause animals unnecessary suffering.

But is the food system in fact structured in this tragic way? On a global level, the poorer a person is the less meat they eat. This is why meat consumption has risen in China, for example, as large numbers of people have escaped poverty and entered the middle class. Here in North America, there is no evidence that meat is an economic means of feeding anyone. One peer-reviewed study for example found that a vegetarian diet costs $740 less per year than an omnivorous diet. Skoble again presents no evidence to support a different view.

Skoble’s appeal to nature has something in common with his unsupported empirical claims about plant pain and the price of meat. In most other contexts these kinds of arguments would be too obviously deficient to bear mentioning. No anger management counsellor for example has ever said that because some animals throw their feces at one another when enraged we should too. Similarly, Skoble’s assertions about plant suffering and home economics fail to meet basic standards of empirical adequacy, standards that are taken for granted not only in the natural and social sciences but in much popular debate. It is as if, when the goal is defending meat, normal standards of rigor and evidence do not apply.

I believe this lends support to Huemer’s suggestion that conventional thinking about animals is the product of conformity rather than conscientious reflection. Human beings engage in meat-eating for reasons unrelated to their capacity for unbiased moral inquiry. As such, even when omnivorism is defended by distinguished and capable academics such as Skoble, such defences inevitably rest on unsustainable claims, philosophical and empirical alike.

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.