Articles

The Ethics of Eating Meat (and Other Animal Products)

We all know where we’re at with regards to farming. It is a ubiquitous practice throughout human culture that has persisted for millennia.

But in modern times, as our collective ethical conscience has evolved and flourished, consternation and outrage towards the continued existence of the practice has begun to snowball.

We are seeing ever more intelligent, thoughtful people flock to join the ranks of die-hard animal lovers in their dogmatic abstinence from the consumption of animal products, as their ethical judgments lead them to conclude that such unrestrained exploitation of animals is morally unjustified.

And certainly, with the constant emergence of images and stories decrying the abysmal conditions suffered by many farmed animals, it is not hard to sympathize with the cause.

Yet, as we will see, a wholesale boycott of all animal products may not be the most ethically favorable option.

This article will demonstrate the somewhat counterintuitive idea that eating farmed meat can actually be a more ethical choice than not eating it.

And with that controversial bombshell, let’s dive right in.

A thought experiment, to kick things off

Consider the following scenario.

You are approached tomorrow, by a group of suit-clad agents and whisked away to some strange underground facility. A bespectacled man in a lab coat, with implacable eyes examines you in a small room.

“You are about to be culled, so that your organs can be harvested”, he says, without a trace of sympathy in his cold voice. “You were conceived and raised for this express purpose – your father was barren, so you could not have existed without our intervention.

Before we proceed with the harvest, I have an important survey question to ask you:

Are you happy that you were at least permitted to live the years we had allotted to you? Or given the choice, if such a choice was possible, would your preference be to have not existed at all – since your life is about to be terminated in a manner you undoubtedly consider premature?”

Reflecting upon the question, you should perhaps consider whether your life has, on balance, been one of flourishing, or suffering.

If your existence has been woven with threads of misery and depression – where you cannot recall a time when you would have considered yourself ‘happy’ – then perhaps you would tell the doctor that no, you would rather not have lived at all.

But most people, I suspect, have indeed lived a life that is, overall, a positive one. Thus, most people would grudgingly tell the doctor that they are grateful for the life they have lived up until this point.

Precisely the same question is relevant to the life of farmed animals.

Their entire existence would, well, not exist – were it not for the demand for their meat.

It stands to reason then, that if that existence was, on balance, a positive one – where the animal experienced the various pleasures proffered by life’s colourful palette – then, like the human in our thought experiment, it would prefer the farming industry to exist, so that it would exist too.

On the other hand, if an animal’s life was one, primarily, of suffering, then it would probably not care much for its own existence, and therefore, for the existence of farming.

Now, one might quite justifiably refute my assumption that, in my hypothetical scenario, people would generally prefer having existed, despite the sham nature of that existence.

If one were to be thrust into this cruel situation, they might find themselves overwhelmed with horror and disgust. They might bitterly resent the sudden curtailment of their dreams and aspirations – perceiving the meaning of their life to be smothered and starved under this revelation so that they perhaps they would rather not have existed after all.

All of this is quite fair, and may indeed heavily influence your answer to the doctor’s question.

But a cow has no notion of life and death, and certainly no concept of ‘living a meaningful life’. These abstract notions are unique to fanciful creatures with a much more developed conceptual landscape – like humans.

Cows, and other animals lacking a hyper-complex frontal cortex, are very much creatures of the moment. Their concern is for satisfying immediate urges and emotional imperatives – running away from danger, or suckling their calf.

Therefore, when we evaluate the analogous question for a farmed cow, namely, whether it would prefer to have lived or not, then our consideration must be for the quality of that life; the number of positive experiences and whether they outweigh the negative ones.

What gives us the right?

You may be committed to the belief that we do not have a right to dictate and control the existence of other beings, and that the practice of farming can never be justified.

But I must point out that any notion of inalienable rights is not a part of a utilitarian moral framework.

If your opposition to farming rests on this presupposition of inherent rights, then you will not agree with the thesis of this article.

The arguments herein laid out consider only the concern for maximizing flourishing, and minimizing suffering of conscious creatures.

Such a utilitarian approach does not assume any universal ‘rights’ (though often, rights can, in general, be derived from utilitarian deliberations).

To accept the conclusions presented in this article then, you must grant that the only moral foundation and agenda is to create the best possible world – consisting of ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’ (though it never ceases to amaze me how people refuse to accept this as the ultimate project of morality).

Is a farmed animal’s life worth living?


Now, in light of our thought experiment above, we can see that the morality of farming boils down to the single, fundamental question: is a farmed animal’s life worth living?

If the answer is no, then the process of rearing the animal for our own purposes is morally unjustified. The well being bestowed on us – the beneficiaries of the animal’s suffering, is likely insufficient to outweigh the suffering itself.

If the answer is yes, then we must conclude that farming, and thus the consumption of farmed animal products is morally favourable. Because a reality which consists of more positive lives lived (i.e. where ethical farming exists), is preferable to the reality where less positive lives are lived (where ethical farming doesn’t exist).

So, what is the answer to the question?

Well, what would make any life worth living? In the case of humans, this question is somewhat more difficult to answer, since we are plagued with grand notions of purpose and success – which often become the metrics with which we evaluate our lives.

Yet no one would deny the inherent value of the ‘hedonic pleasures’ that we are capable of experiencing, from the more basal, yet lambent sensations like warmth, or sexual satisfaction, to the iridescent brilliance of such complex emotions as love, and wonder.

Most of us would agree that a life in which the vast range of life’s delectations (from the primal, to the transcendent) are experienced in high concentration, is a life worth living.

So we should apply a similar standard when evaluating the life of an animal.

Picture the life of Patrick the farmed cow who, unbeknown to him, has an inexorable appointment with death in a year’s time.

Of course, if you tried to tell Patrick this, he wouldn’t understand. He has no conceptual framework with which he could understand. And so he is doomed (or blessed) to blissful ignorance, never contemplating his end – because he does not know such a thing even exists.

Concepts of purpose, death, or philosophy are not part of Patrick’s simple existence.

For Patrick, his existence is dominated instead by the pleasing, crisp aroma of the grassy fields on which he spends his days.

He heeds only the warmth of the morning sunlight as it cloaks his body in a comforting, shiny brilliance – slowly warding off the numbness from the previous nights’ cold.

He sees only the dew-speckled grass, and tastes only its satisfying succulence.

He revels in the comfort of his herd-mates; he even has a best friend with whom to share his comfortable life.

And then eventually, sometime in the future, after countless days filled with these familiar comforts, Patrick finds himself in a strange new place. There is a sense of uncertainty, and a shimmer of panic that ripples through the herd as they stand inside a strange shed.

Patrick doesn’t enjoy this day – his final day.

But if he was able, he might reflect with warm satisfaction upon the days that he did enjoy – the pleasures he got to experience – and maybe, probably, he would agree that they markedly outweigh the discomfort of his final hours, and so, perhaps, were worth it.

Obviously that little vignette was a tad flowery and sentimental, but I believe it paints a reasonably accurate picture of the life of an ethically farmed cow.

Crucially, Patrick the cow was raised on an ethical farm in New Zealand, with free range over a wide expanse of fresh pastures.

However, Patrick’s less fortunate counterpart, Hubert – born and raised within the muddy pens of a Texas cattle yard, probably has a very different opinion of his own life.

And so we can see that the morality of farming depends on the specifics of the environment in which an animal is raised.

Specifically, the question we need to ask of a particular farming establishment is this:

Are the animals’ natural/evolutionary needs being met?

Natural selection was the programmer that instilled pleasures and agonies within the mental landscape of every creature, so that emotions and sensations like pleasure and pain would arise to promote behaviours that serviced (usually in some indirect manner) the creature’s survival and reproduction.

So by understanding something about the creature’s evolutionary origins, we can, in essence, peep under the hood of evolution’s handiwork, to see what kind of behaviours we need to facilitate, what environments we must provide, for the creature to thrive.

For example, we know that a chicken’s natural behavior is to scratch the ground. Deprived of this possibility, might the chicken therefore experience something like agony, or frustration? Are caged hens thus fraught with this perpetual dissatisfaction as they tread the cold bars of their metal prisons?

We also know that if any animal does not perceive itself to be in a safe environment, it will experience stress, and suffering.

A key requirement of any ethical farm should thus be the availability of shelter, for the animals’ protection from the elements and from predators, as well as a general commitment to taking whatever other measures are required to ensure that the animals feel safe.

Of course, there are a multitude of other considerations, each specific to different animals, but in essence the conclusion is this:

If you nurture the animal’s evolutionarily instilled desires, you will likely have a ‘happy’ animal – one whose life might be worth living.

Selecting for more ethical farming practices

We, the consumers are the ultimate arbiters of farming ethics. The market will shift to satisfy the dominant demands, so if enough people choose to buy free-range, ethically farmed animal products, then these are the kind of products we will be supplied with.

Thus, us meat-eaters should do our due diligence. We should ask ourselves questions like: is a free-range chicken’s life worth living? Is a caged hen’s life not? Would a pig immobilized in a tiny pen for a large chunk of its life reflect upon its existence with satisfaction, or misery? Does this steak come from Patrick the cow, or from Hubert?

You can indeed enjoy farmed animal products without moral recrimination – provided you are considerate to the life of the animals that provide them.

Environmental Concerns

I would be remiss if I neglected to acknowledge the environmental concerns of farming, and the potential ethical consequences.

Obviously, if it can be demonstrated that the environmental consequences induce sufficient suffering to outweigh the pleasure, and well-being of the beneficiaries of farming – the (ethically-raised) animals themselves, and the human consumers – then a utilitarian morality must concede that farming is immoral.

But I have yet to witness such a demonstration.

Regarding greenhouse emissions: as of 2015, agriculture contributed around 9% of the total human greenhouse emissions, compared to around 60% from electricity and transportation.

Thus the most effective means of curtailing climate change would not be to target farming, but instead, for example, to implement non-fossil fuel energy generation, and to transition to electric cars.

Even modest success in either of these directions would significantly outweigh the reduction in emissions that is possible with a blanket ban on farming.

Of course, there are a host of other environmental concerns: land conversion, habitat loss, soil erosion, etc

Yet the most ethical approach would not be to ban farming altogether, but rather, to impose regulations that would require the industry to mitigate these concerns. This is undoubtedly possible, and certainly more realistic than a wholesale ban. And better yet, this option ensures that the life of Patrick the cow is possible. Patrick thinks this a good thing.

Hunting

I have encountered many arguments that condone the practice of hunting, usually though some sort of comparison with farming.

“Farmed animals lead unnatural lives, and are often killed inhumanely – whereas with hunting, the animal has lived a life of freedom and flourishing, and is usually killed with the same swiftness as a bullet’s supersonic velocity.”

Yet these arguments miss the point.

A hunted animal is deprived of the life and pleasures that it would otherwise have experienced – had you not killed it. Here there is a clear dichotomy: kill the animal, and destroy its ability to flourish, or let it roam free, and allow that flourishing.

The moral question of hunting boils down to this:

Is the pleasure the hunter receives from killing and eating the animal worth more than the animal’s experience of life, that it would otherwise have had?

I leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Conclusion

The consumption of a (farmed) steak is ethical, provided the life of the cow that produced it was worth living.

And it is up to us, the consumers, to demand ethical farming practices, so that we can ensure that the animals’ lives are indeed worth living. We should select for farming ideals that grant the experience of the farmed animals as sacrosanct.

By understanding more about the life and experience of farmed animals, and how they might be improved, we, the consumers, are in a powerful position to overhaul the agricultural industry such that it can rightfully claim to be, counter to prevailing notions, a morally righteous endeavor.

Aaaaand… cue the outraged retorts.

10 comments

  1. Interesting read, but I think there may be a fairly big criticism that you haven’t considered yet.

    I hope you would agree with me that it would be immoral to prematurely end the life of a being who’s life was worth living without a very good reason. After all, a life worth living (almost by definition) should be a life worth continuing. Now, your argument for the permissibility of buying and consuming meat is that it allows for the actual existence of the killed animals, and they could have lives worth living under certain conditions that you advocate.

    The big problem with your argument is that the way in which you want to support the creation and killing of animals with lives worth living guarantees that their lives are taken in an unjustified and immoral manner. Of course buying meat leads to the creation of animals that would have a shot at a life worth living under your ideal, but once the animals attained such lives it would be wrong to prematurely kill them without a very good reason, and you haven’t argued for why an animal’s food potential is a good enough reason to end it’s life prematurely if it had a life worth living.

    Thus your argument for the permissibility of buying and consuming meat doesn’t succeed in demonstrating it. If your argument is genuinely motivated by a utility-maximizing concern for the animal’s own sakes, then your argument is essentially for creating animals that live lives worth living for as long as possible, like well-treated pets. It does not support the premature killing of animals created with lives worth living.

    I hope this makes sense 🙂

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    1. Thanks for your comment! I understand where you’re coming from, and I’ve been hit with this criticism elsewhere – but hopefully you’ll see that it doesn’t actually conflict with the thesis of the article.

      Now, in my conception of morality, an action can only be evaluated as moral/immoral if it came about as a result of a conscious choice, in which the anticipated consequences for the various decisions were represented. Thus for a given choice, we weigh the moral utility of each of the outcomes, and the choice which provides the most utility is the ‘morally correct’ one.

      As consumers, we have a pretty restricted choice – to eat meat, or to not eat meat (we also have the ability to choose ethically raised meats over non-ethical, but forget about this for now).
      The outcome of each choice is reasonably clear: eating meat raises the demand, and thus the supply of meat (more happy cows exist); refusing to eat meat leads to less supply (less happy cows) – assuming the cows are ethically raised.

      We do not have the choice to bring cows into existence such that they won’t eventually be slaughtered. This outcome is not within the sphere of our moral influence – if it was, then it would obviously be the ethical choice.
      But as it is, we have a very narrow window of influence; to eat meat, or not to; to promote the existence of animals that will eventually be slaughtered, or to not promote this existence. So these are the only choices we need to consider in conferring morals around a consumer’s choice to eat meat.

      Does that answer your concern?

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      1. The only comments I’m seeing are the two already on here?? Your comments should be approved and posted automatically.

        Edit: it was in the spam queue for some reason – I’ll respond to it now 🙂

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  2. That does not answer my concern, but before I explain why I need to ask a quick question.

    Do you concede that eating meat is very rarely ethical at this time under your view? The overwhelming majority of the world’s livestock is factory farmed and those animals suffer miserable lives and deaths. Since “free-range” doesn’t actually have a legal definition, buying meat that is “free-range” may also not guarantee the animals significantly better lives either.

    Now, the reason why your post does not answer my concern is that it sets up a false dichotomy:

    1) Buy meat in such a way that we can guarantee the existence of animals with lives worth living (that will be cut significantly short).

    2) Don’t buy meat and don’t guarantee the existence of those animals with those worth-living lives.

    You state that we don’t have the choice to have an Option 1.5 where the animals with the lives worth living aren’t killed significantly prematurely, but I’m not defending such an option.

    I’m pointing out a third option:

    3) Don’t buy meat and create animals with lives-worth living that won’t be cut significantly short.

    The plausibility of Option 3 is demonstrated by the existence of many pets with long lives in loving families across the world (not just cats and dogs, people sometimes keep pigs, cows, horses and sheep too). If your argument is genuinely motivated by a utility-maximizing concern for the animal’s own sakes, then Option 3 is clearly the superior option, since Option 1 guarantees the premature ending of every single life-worth-living made under that option, whilst Option 3 does not.

    In summary, even though ending a life-worth-living prematurely without good reason is immoral, you’ve defended the system because there is no other way to guarantee the existence of animals with lives worth living in the first place. However, since Option 3 is demonstrably plausible, that isn’t a convincing defence.

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    1. Yes, I concede your point that eating meat is unethical in many instances, given the widespread ethical failure to provide truly free-range and wholesome lives for the animals. I have the fortune of living in New Zealand where in the case of beef farming, for example, our cows are generally raised on vast expanses of grass, with freedom to roam and socialise etc.

      I made this clear in the article – eating meat is only ethical for practices akin to (the majority of) New Zealand beef farming.

      But on to your argument.

      There is no false dichotomy in the choice I proposed. By definition there are only the two choices; eat farmed meat or don’t.

      The ability to raise animals as pets is a completely separate issue. Sure, everyone also has this choice – but this choice does not affect, and is not affected by, the decision of whether or not to eat meat.

      Edit: Also, how would we instantiate your proposed choice 1.5 – ensuring farming continues without the actual slaughter? What could you or I do to bring this about?
      There is no realistic way to do so, thus this ‘choice’ doesn’t exist.

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      1. Firstly, I am glad to hear that even if we disagree on the killing of animals with lives-worth-living, we at least agree that they should have the best possible living conditions.

        Secondly, I’m not accusing you of setting up a false dichotomy where you said I have. Obviously there is no third option in between eating meat or not eating meat. However, you begin to set up the false dichotomy when you state this:

        “to promote the existence of animals that will eventually be slaughtered, or to not promote this existence.”

        This isn’t a false dichotomy if you are strictly applying the dichotomy to the choice of buying meat, but you seem to be objecting to ethical abstaining (not promoting the existence of these animals) on the basis that animals with a chance at a life worth living won’t be created otherwise, and that is the false dichotomy I am referring to. As I said, this is not defensible given that there is at least one manner in which we can guarantee the existence of such animals without cutting their lives-worth-living prematurely.

        So when you say:

        “The ability to raise animals as pets is a completely separate issue. Sure, everyone also has this choice – but this choice does not affect, and is not affected by, the decision of whether or not to eat meat.”

        I would argue the opposite; it is an intrinsically linked issue if you are defending the premature killing of animals with lives-worth-living on the basis that such animals wouldn’t be created otherwise, which is what you have done here.

        I explicitly said that I do not defend the hypothetical Option 1.5, because as you stated it is not possible.

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      2. you seem to be objecting to ethical abstaining (not promoting the existence of these animals) on the basis that animals with a chance at a life worth living won’t be created otherwise, and that is the false dichotomy I am referring to

        What I’m saying is not that animals with a chance at life worth living won’t be created otherwise, I’m saying that the specific animals that would otherwise be reared on farms to be slaughtered, won’t be created otherwise.

        This is just trivially true.

        I don’t understand what you mean by your claim that the choice of whether or not to eat farmed meat is “intrinsically linked” to raising pets. You have claimed it is intrinsically linked but you have not demonstrated how it is. What are you “argue[ing] the opposite” of?

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      3. (I’ve responded to your most recent comment at the bottom of the page if you can’t see it)

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  3. The choice of creating pets is intrinsically linked to the choice of buying meat in the context of this discussion in the same way that the choice to work for a living is intrinsically linked to the choice of thieving for a living.

    Most of the time, the thief cannot ethically justify his practice because the benefit that he uses to justify it can be obtained in alternative ways without incurring the same injustice and harm that his practice causes. Similarly, you haven’t ethically justified the premature-slaughter practice because the benefit you’ve used to justify it can be obtained in alternative ways without incurring the same injustice and harm that the premature-slaughter practice causes.

    Of course, adopting the pet practice over the premature-slaughter practice doesn’t provide an identical benefit; the existence of specific farm animals would decrease, and the existence of specific pet animals would increase. However, logically, why is this a bad thing given the justifications we have been using?

    You could lament the non-existence of specific farm animals under my reasoning if wanted to, but the non-existent animals themselves couldn’t care less, and surely it is better to bring into existence animals with longer lives-worth-living (that are deliberately ended only when there is good reason), than animals with shorter lives-worth-living (that are deliberately ended for the trivial reasons)?

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