Is Eating Meat Bad? For Whom?

In his response to my essay, I fear Andy Lamey has misread me in some instances, and in others is responding fallaciously. By the latter I mean, for instance, Lamey’s claim that my positions have already been “subject to decisive criticisms”—surely it’s begging the question to cite Singer’s book as pre-emptively refuting my argument, when the entire point of my argument is that Singer’s position is mistaken. That would be as if a Rawlsian claimed that Nozick’s argument couldn’t be right, because those views were already subjected to decisive criticisms in A Theory of Justice. Actually, I’ve seen Rawlsians make just that move, so perhaps that’s not the best analogy. But to go to the substance of the Singerite objection: it looks like the argument goes something like this:

Skoble says it’s ok for humans to do X because other animals do X.
But other animals are not moral agents.
So what other animals do can’t be a model for human action.

That argument presupposes that our moral agency, perhaps a function of our rationality, imposes on us duties to act in ways that can be rationally justified, an expectation we do not have of non-human animals. That’s true, but this by itself doesn’t undercut my point, partly because it’s misconstruing my point (and maybe this is my fault, if I wasn’t clear enough). I wasn’t arguing that because foxes eat chickens that therefore it’s right for us to eat chickens. I was noting that all animals consume living things, and that humans and foxes are both animals. The question then is, what determines what sorts of living things an animal eats. The answer is, the animal’s evolved nature. Different organisms have different nutritional needs. There is no moral component to that.

Lamey notes that the smallpox virus is natural, but we combat it when we can. I don’t see how that’s a criticism of my position—all creatures resist threats when possible. But in any case, I’m not arguing “whatever is natural is good.” I’m simply arguing that we have the evolved nutritional needs we have. Our evolved nature as omnivorous is not moral or immoral—it just is. Is there a place for a nature/reason split? Of course: acting on instinct may not always be optimal. Our rational faculties allow us to solve problems more effectively than merely relying on instinct. That’s how it is that early humans developed agriculture and livestock—these are more efficient than foraging and hunting.

Lamey suspects that I note the naturalness of meat-eating because I want to “suggest that avoiding meat is somehow unnatural,” which he then says is absurd, because nutritionists have figured out that meat-avoiding diets can be made to be healthy. I’m not sure that works; even if meat-free diets can be shown to be nutritionally adequate, that wouldn’t make them not unnatural. But it doesn’t matter: just as I am not arguing that whatever is natural is good, I am also not arguing that whatever is unnatural is bad. If a person chooses a meat-free diet that meets his or her nutritional needs, that’s fine, although, as even Lamey notes, it will require additional work to ensure that this happens.

So at this stage, I imagine the response is, “Ok, if you admit that meat-free diets can meet human nutritional needs, then shouldn’t we prefer those to omnivorous diets, because then we don’t have to kill non-human animals?” But why do we think it’s wrong to kill non-human animals in the first place? Because they’re sentient? Lamey thinks I’m being silly to analogize killing insects, because they’re not sentient, but I’m not sure where that line is—how sentient are shrimp? But in any case, why would sentience mean “it’s wrong to kill them”? I almost want to say “it’s their job to be our food,” but the howls of derisive laughter that would elicit are too certain. Nevertheless, food chains exist. The irrelevance of “naturalness” cuts both ways I think. It won’t give us a moral reason to justify meat eating, but neither will it give us a moral reason to condemn it. So we’d need some other reason—what makes it wrong to kill them? What seems to be my “speciesism” implies that if we’re killing them for food, that means we’re prioritizing our good over theirs, which I don’t yet see a moral argument against, other than the Benthamite.

Lamey thinks I’m wrong to characterize Huemer’s argument as Benthamite, because it’s really just about reducing total suffering. I think if reducing total suffering is the main point, that is Benthamite, but in any event, arguments like this invariably end up conflating cruel practices that happen to be used in some kinds of killing with the mere fact of the killing. I objected to this in Huemer, and Lamey is doing the same thing. He documents some examples of gross abuses, and then implies that it’s all abusive. Consider, for contrast, the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments. You could give some examples of punishments that are exceedingly cruel, but that wouldn’t imply that the very concept of punishment is cruel. So, in this case, can we even imagine slaughtering livestock in a quick and relatively painless way? If so, then the fact of cruel slaughterhouse practices doesn’t imply that we can never kill. This would give us an argument against cruelty, not against eating meat per se.

Lamey says “A strange feature of Skoble’s essay is its unsupported assertion that plants can suffer.” Here I fear he has misconstrued me, and again perhaps I was unclear. I didn’t mean to imply that I think plants are sentient and experience the kind of pain humans or dogs do. I simply meant that they do get torn up and killed. Plants are diminished in their flourishing when you rip off their leaves, or peel the bark off a tree, or cut it down. When a mass of tent caterpillars eats up the leaves on the tree, we describe the tree as suffering without implying that it’s sentient or conscious of pain. In some cases, eating flora is conducive to the plant’s flourishing. Berries are the obvious example; when you eat berries, you not only do not kill the plant, you’re helping it. But lots of plant consumption involves killing the plant. I’m not saying it’s bad because the plant feels pain; I’m saying it’s not bad at all, not in and of itself. Animals eat living things, some plant, some animal. Now: when the tent caterpillars destroy a tree, is that “bad”? This is the question I was getting at in my essay. Bad for whom? It’s certainly bad for the tree. It’s good, though, for the tent caterpillars. If it’s a tree in my yard, it’s also bad for me. So I might choose to destroy the caterpillars. That’s bad for the caterpillars, but I don’t see why this is a moral concern for me. If I were to kill six shrimp because they’re a delicious source of several vital nutrients, that’s similarly bad for the shrimp, but I don’t see why that’s a moral concern for me either. This brings us back to the moral agency argument: if animals are not moral agents, then we can’t look to them as models for human behavior. But if they’re not moral agents, why can’t we kill them?

Lamey concludes by saying “Human beings engage in meat-eating for reasons unrelated to their capacity for unbiased moral inquiry.” That’s probably true. That doesn’t make it immoral, though.

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.