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Do good people eat meat?

For most people, the question of whether to eat meat or not relies on other questions, like whether the animals can feel pain, or whether a higher authority permits us to eat animals. Should we add one question? Does the way we treat animals say something about ourselves?

Science tells us that some organisms have the neurophysiological capacity to feel pain, while others don’t. While the lack of this capacity seems easy to accept for broccoli and seaweed, and while the jury may be out for lunch when it comes to fish and lobsters, it seems we have no choice but to accept and relate to the pain cows, chickens, pigs and sheep feel. But even if we rely on the lines that science draws for us, the lines are blurry and subject to change. And there’s more. We don’t seem all that consistent with the data we get from science. If we do accept that cows and dogs are equally capable of feeling pain, why do we eat cows and not dogs?

If we take the “pain perspective”, another question may arise. Does eating animals require us to hurt them? The hunter in the African bush who kills an antelope with a well-aimed clear shot, and the small-scale farmer who eats the cow that has happily grazed the land and has come to the end of her natural life, may be the best candidates to reply negatively. But the mass-meat industry, with its torturous breeding, living and slaughtering practices, may face more difficulties to do this.

So how can we balance our desire to eat meat with our desire to be good? Let’s look at four different perspectives.


Am I causing any pain by eating animals?
To know right from wrong, the consequentialist will try and measure the consequences of our actions. An action that increases happiness for a majority, is always the better action. We may decide to eat animals, but only if we’re not causing more pain than happiness.

Measuring the consequences of our actions surely gives us a user-friendly, seemingly clear-cut balance of pros and cons, but there are problems too. Whose happiness are we measuring and comparing? People’s or animals’ happiness? Scientific data in this regard is not always conclusive. How do you balance the happiness of a human meat-eater with the pain of an animal – assuming animals have the capacity to feel pain? Exactly how do we measure all the consequences of our actions, and exactly what do we measure? Is only excruciating, bone-crushing pain taken into account, or do we also include mild discomforts? Only physical pain, or also mental pain? Do we include immediate consequences, or all consequences that may stretch over an animal’s lifetime? How do you measure pain in a snail? Science may reply that the very lack of neurophysiological structures is a sufficient indicator for proving the absence of pain. What if science is not yet able to measure their pain? What if we measure pain from a narrow, one-sided human perspective?

So, while doomed to be based on an incomplete and inconclusive analysis, the consequentialist does seem to permit eating animals if we manage not to hurt them in the process.


What does the rule book say?
We may question what our duty is towards animals, and whether animals have any rights. To find out where our duty lies, we may refer to religious scripts, or laws of the land, or rational consistency. If God proclaims that animals may be eaten, then so shall be it. If the laws of the land say that I am allowed to cut the throat of an unsedated animal, then so shall be it. If rationality tells me that I need to be respectful to other rational beings, then there shouldn’t be a problem with disrespect to non-rational animals.

These claims seem clear-cut enough, but seem problematic too. One may question the authenticity and the authority of what a so-called God has so-called proclaimed. One may question the universality of the laws of the land – aren’t laws simply a matter of convention, relative to place and time? And if we only need to respect other rational beings, what do we do with humans with impaired rational capacities? Are we allowed to eat them too?

So, the deontologist’s permission to eat meat seems to simply depend on higher rules, and on how these rules are interpreted.


How do you feel about eating animals?
David Hume claimed that we aren’t motivated by reason, but rather by sentiments. Reason can provide guidance in the background, but our actual drive is powered by sentiments, by how we feel. No reason is strong enough to overturn how we feel. It doesn’t feel wrong for many people to eat meat, so what is the problem? One may say that eating meat is really enjoyable. One can’t really argue with that. Or that it has been done for generations before us. Or that it is good for you, that it is an essential part of a healthy diet. Or that eating meat is good for the economy.

There may be two problems with these claims. For one, some of these claims are not the result of a well-reasoned analysis, but rather passionately invoked in support of eating meat. They can be easily and passionately argued against. Perhaps meat is not essential in a healthy diet. Perhaps other commodities could be even better for our economy, but are currently suppressed in favour of the meat industry? Secondly, one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”. It’s not because something is a fact, that we derive moral value from its being a fact. Just because eating meat has been done for generations across cultures, does not create a moral permission for us to continue doing it. There are many examples of things we used to do, which are heavily and embarrassingly frowned upon today. Unfortunately, it is very hard to argue with a person that relies on sentiments – on both sides of the argument. If what you feel is right for you, and what I feel is right for me, then there is no middle-ground. Anything goes. We seem to have lost the animal’s perspective, or the bigger picture, entirely.

So, it seems that the non-cognitivist leaves eating animals up to you and your personal sentiments.

Virtue Ethics

What kind of person does hurting and eating animals make of you?
Whether or not there is conclusive scientific evidence about whether animals can feel pain or not, is irrelevant. Whether or not we afford rights to animals is irrelevant. Whether or not an authority gives me permission to eat animals, is irrelevant. What counts is the integrity of your moral character. You have to live with yourself.

The virtue ethicist believes that living ethically leads to a more content and fulfilled life. In other words, and somewhat poorly simplified, being good makes me happy in the long run. You could say that taking the perspective of your own happiness, is a flawed motivator for morality, and I have questioned various problems with virtue ethics’ in detail here. Be that as it may, it adds an interesting perspective, a new angle, to our discussion.

Let’s have a look at how the virtue ethicist may approach our question. For the virtue ethicist, living ethically means sticking to virtues, while resisting unreasoned temptations. Virtues are “morally desirable characteristics” in a person, and while these may change over time and across cultures, virtues are usually defined in opposition of uncontrolled passions or temptations, and are found in a rational balance between two vices. For example, the virtue of courage is found between the vices of rashness and cowardice. When faced with a moral dilemma, like eating meat, one should steer away from whatever random temptation tries to get hold of us, and let reason get hold of our decisions. When it comes to eating meat, the virtue ethicist will want to strike a balance between what you are tempted to do, without thinking (if you like it, grab it, kill it and grill it) on the one hand, and flatly denying your urge for a delicious, medium-rare steak on the other hand. None of these options is reasoned, so none of these can be virtuous. The virtuous mean should be found somewhere in the rational middle: finding a way to manage your temptation while steering clear of unnecessary pain and damage.

So, the virtue ethicist seems to permit eating animals, if we do so in a way that conforms with the persons we aim to be.

If you must eat meat, there is a strong incentive to avoid hurting animals in the process. Consequentialism offers a strong incentive to take into account the pain we cause in animals. Virtue ethics adds the dimension of the integrity of our moral character, so while eating animals is not good or bad in itself, it may be inconsistent with the moral character you aspire to.

Hello, I'm Jeroen. I study philosophy at the Universities of Oxford and Stellenbosch. I use this website to gently wrap my head around the new concepts I learn, to practise my writing skills, and to occasionally vent an opinion. Here's one: I like hats. [+]