In light of all the jokes about dead turkeys I have had to endure in the last week or so I started thinking about what it is exactly that is wrong with eating meat.
Is there something that is morally unacceptable about eating meat? This is a very interesting question, and having been raised as a vegetarian I have always felt that the answer is a resounding YES! I have argued elsewhere that eating meat is something that at least needs to have an argument in its favor and that the typical arguments given as to why it is OK to eat meat horribly fail to work. But let me take another look at this issue.
Utilitarianism does not have much to say on this question. The modern Singer-ish view is that it is suffering that matters, the killing and eating are not the morally relevant properties. So, as Singer himself admits, were it possible to kill the animal in a way that did not cause it to suffer then there would be nothing morally wrong with doing so. Suppose that we raised cows on a beautiful farm and delighted their cow senses in all ways science prescribes. We let them live rather long lives, in an open pasture, with their families. Then one night when the cow is asleep we simply come and painlessly kill it. The cow experiences no pain, and we cannot really say that it suffers in the sense that it will not get to enjoy its life tomorrow because it is not the kind of animal that can have these sophisticated kinds of suffering (they require, as Singer is right to point out, higher mental capacities), nor, because of this can we say that the other cows will suffer very much, or even at all, due to the dead cow’s being absent. If this could be arranged then what, according to utilitarianism, is wrong with butchering the cow and eating it? You might even say that it is better that the cow live this kind of life than no life at all, and so it is morally laudable to raise and slaughter cows in this manner. Singer’s response is to point out that this would severely limit the kinds of killing allowed; so much so in fact that it would rule out the kind of slaughter-house meat industry we now have. It may be the case that Singer is here taking a ‘let’s fix the serious problem first’ kind of attitude, because after all we know that the meat industry is producing a huge amount of animal suffering or it may be the case that he is simply acknowledging a consequence of his theory that he is willing to live with. At any rate there are those who think that there is still something wrong with the cow killing I described earlier. These people are attracted to Regan’s position that makes appeal not to utilitarianism but to Kant.
Regan’s view is that we are forbidden to treat animals as simply means to our ends. This is because to do so is to violate their rights. They have, Regen argues, the right to live in virtue of the fact that they are the subject of a life. To be the subject of a life is to have experience such that it matters to you what happens to you. That animals express preferences is evidence that they are subjects of a life and so they have the right to live. We know that cows must have this right on Regan’s account, because to deny that cows have it is to deny that infants do. So, on Regan’s view all subjects of a life have what Kant called value beyond compare, or dignity. A lot of people balk at this point because of intuitions about what it takes to have a right.
I have argued that we can get the same results that Regen wants without having to say that animals thereby have a right to be treated in certain ways. Rather what we argue is that we, as moral agents, have duties towards animals in spite of the fact that they don’t have rights. These obligations towards animals are grounded in the two concerns that Regen and Singer each point to. We ought not to cause animals to suffer because suffering matters, we also ought not to kill them, even painlessly, because their life matters to them. It is not that they (the animals) recognize this that makes it important. It is the fact that we recognize, through our ability to universalize, that we cannot but help but contradict ourselves when we make it be the case that sentient beings are used simply as a means because that would entail that we, as sentient beings, could be treated that way. No, as Kant rightly points out, we want it to remain the case that we cannot treat sentient beings in certain ways but then make an exception to that universal rule (in the case of nonhuman animals).
So the critics of Regen (I’m looking at you Cohen-lovers) are right that animals lack the capacity for morality (though there may be rudiments there, to be sure I think there are) because they lack the ability to apply general rules to particular situations. But wecan do this, and doing so reveals to us that we are obligated to treat sentient beings in certain ways. Thus we get Singer’s prohibition against suffering. Then we can argue about what we are to count as sentient (insects? Plants? Etc..) but we know that cows are and so we have an obligation not to cause them unnecessary suffering. We can similarly get Regen’s intuition via universalization arguments. We cannot will that it is morally acceptable to take the life of a creature who prefers to live because that would mean that someone could take my life even when I prefer to live and that can’t be right. No, we of course want murder to remain immoral, but we want to make an exception in this case (nonhuman animals). None of this suggests that animals have rights, that is none of this suggests that animals make claims on us. We make claims on ourselves; morality is a law that we give unto ourselves. It is literally irrational to act immorally and to the degree that we respect reason we respect morality.
All of this is very well and good but all that it says is that we ought not to kill animals in order to eat them. Why can’t we be like some Buddhists who argue that if the animal dies of natural causes it is OK to eat it? Thus we finally arrive at the question we have been considering. Is there something morally wrong with eating meat? So far in answering this we have found instead that there is something morally wrong with causing suffering, and with treating animals as a means only. But if we avoid doing this and we still end up with some meat, should we be allowed to eat it? It is hard to see how you would be harming the animal, and overcoming its preference to live was caused by something that you were unrelated to (I hope!). It is helpful to think about this in the human case. Why don’t we want to eat people who accidentally demise? Besides the obvious answer that we don’t need to because of all the animals that we eat, the point here is that even so we would think there was something wrong about it. No doubt we could get over it, we know that there are and have been cannibals, but we would still feel that something was wrong (as evidenced by the fact that it normally takes desperate situations to even get people to consider this option). So what is going on?
One natural kind of thing to think is that we somehow don’t respect that person as a person when we consume them. We feel as though we are treating their body simply as a means to our ends, i.e. whatever we use the energy derived from their flesh to do. You turn that person completely and ultimately into a thing when you eat it. Now of course I understand that there have been cultures where eating someone is not thought disrespectful in this way but rather seen as a way to make the deceased person a part if you in a very intimate way. Notice however that this is implicitly the same thing as I have been saying in that it acknowledges that you ought not treat the body simply as a means (to get nourished or gustatory delight). You eat the body out of a profound sense of respect, with a sense that they are becoming one with you. I think there is an interesting question here about whether or not there is a way to determine what the correct answer is in this respect.
So if this is right we can say that the reason it is wrong to eat meat is because it fails to be universalizable, which surely is a basic requirement for what counts as moral. If something remotely like physicalism is true then eating the person’s body is eating the person, and so we are treating them as a means only. Granted they are dead and it probably does not matter to them (or maybe, as Nagel has argued, you can harm the dead) you still use them as a means. This may actually be the psychological reason that people feel compelled to respect the dead (i.e. the body). They want to respect the person, as they want to be respected. This is the sense that you cannot but help to notice that you are eating that person. Now if we grant the likely hypothesis that animals are very much like us in certain respects (yes, yes, I know NOT ALL!) then to the respect that they are like us is to the respect that we ought not to eat their flesh as purely a means to get nourishment or even worse gustatory delight.
Notice also that if we did the above mentioned kind of cow slaughter it would be very likely that we would become attached to the animal and this would further make it evident that we were eating an individual. On this view it is wrong to eat flesh because you treat the creature whose flesh it is simply as a means to nourishment.
One objection may be that on this view it seems possible that there be a person who would not mind being eaten after he was dead. So it is not the case that we are talking about something truly universilizablile. Not everyone will see that they simply want to make an exception of themselves to a general moral rule. They may be convinced that there is more to the person than the body (I doubt this, but even so remember that in most major religions you will get your body back (i.e. in the resurrection)) or they may think that even if the person is their body, when it stops working and you are dead there is no longer any reason for you to care what happens to you. Each of these critics agree that in some sense the person is no longer there and so you are not using them as a means. Sure you are using the body, but not the person so why should you care if that happens to your body when you die? Do you feel that way about your car? To see that you don’t imagine that your kids had your body stuffed and mounted in their living room simply because they thought that it made the room look nicer and perked them up as well. It seems to me that this is imply a case where they treat the body in a disrespectful way. Not because they harm the person who used to be (in) that body but because the person who does it sees that they are using the person strictly as a means. They are not respecting the person who that body belonged to. So if one buys this line of argument, have we arrived at the conclusion that it is immoral to eat meat?
There is a further wrinkle. Scientists are now starting to make cloned meat in laboratories. This meat is cloned from a few animal cells and so it seems as though a vegetarian should not have a problem with it. The problem here is that the texture of the artificial flesh is not like that of regular meat because the muscle is not exercised. So what they do now is to stretch the cultured meat over a think flexible sheet and grow it in layers. They then try to stack those layers. Alternatively they have tried to grow it in little balls that expand and contract. It looks like they will have to just build artificial legs and grow the meat on that. Next thing you will now they will say that they need to add some regulatory functions to the legs to let them run on their own. Pretty soon it looks like what you are saying is that in order to cultivate meat you need to cultivate a cow. If that turns out to be the case then lab meat is just as bad. But what if it doesn’t? What if they can grow it on artificial legs that are controlled by very simple brain stem-ish mechanisms? Just the body without any of the other things that make cows alike to the way that we are. Could we eat it then? I don’t know that we would. Again it is useful to consider the human case as an analogy. Would we allow people to grow human cultured bodies that were run by the computer equivalent of a brain stem? If not why not?
Shsesh! That turned out to be a lot longer than I thought it would be!!!! Guess I better get to actually doing some grading!
Filed under: Applied Ethics