Why is eating meat morally unacceptable?

June 25, 2012 6:00 pm

Most arguments for the moral obligation of vegetarianism either follow Peter Singer’s lead and demand equal consideration for animals on utilitarian grounds, or they follow Tom Regan’s deontological rights-based theory. I will try to defend utilitarianism as the ultimate ethical theory that is able to compromise an active solution to the problems of eating meat and speciesism. In response to speciesism, I will argue that no argument can undermine our feeling and rational impulse of a fair world without the basic “principle of equality”. There is no moral excuse to keep  other sentient beings outside the scope of this principle, since other animals possess all the qualities that are needed in order to be listed as equal.

Singer as a utilitarian “regards an action as right if it produces as much or more of an increase in the happiness of all”. His utilitarianism also implies the “principle of equality” which means that we must give equal weight to all sentient beings. For this reason, Singer states that we should give equal weight to the interests of people of different races or different species with lower cognitive powers. Singer points out, for this type of prejudice, in Practical Ethics chapter 3, “the fact that some people are less intelligent than others does not mean that their interest may be disregarded”. This principle can be defined as giving equal weight to all sentient beings on consequentialist grounds, since everyone feels that they would not like to hurt others on moral basis but also by thinking about the consequences of not doing it so. If we did not apply this basic principle in our lives, we would feel more vulnerable. Therefore, people have to extend the “principle of equality” to all beings that possess interests, even if those interests are different. Whether the interests in question happen to be yours or mine does not matter. The principle of maximisation states that we should compare and weigh together these interests in one single collective set and then try to get a result that maximises the satisfaction of the interests. In the extreme case, it may even come to sacrificing the life of an innocent human being. Singer does not condemn however, that killing animals is wrong in principle, but that from a consequentialist standpoint it should be rejected unless necessary for survival.

Singer is against eating meat whatever the case since meat is not a necessity and therefore, cannot be defended on moral grounds. Singer justifies this by pointing out that, “the overwhelming weight of medical evidence indicates that animal flesh is not necessary for good health or longevity. Nor is animal production in industrialized societies and efficient way of producing food, since most of the animals consumed have been fattened on grains and other foods that could have eaten directly (…) only about 10 per cent of the nutritional value remains as meat for consumption”.

If we are to accept that the principle of equality is convincing, we cannot force or manipulate the interests of others because that is not their interest. We should encourage others to become vegetarians because the consequences would be the reducing of suffering which is good. But how can we all become vegetarians without resulting in bad consequences for most if we like having meals with our family; if due to financial problems we eat meat; if due to our health or even geographical conditions we have to eat meat to survive; and if our religion wants me to eat meat; and if eating meat will deteriorate the advance of our species; and so on.

Tom Regan is a rights-theorist argues that animals possess inherent value and therefore must be viewed as ends in themselves, not as means to an end. Regan opposes utilitarianism with the example of Aunt Bea who is an inactive old person. She is not ill and prefers to go on living. Aunt Bea is rich and Tom would be able to make a fortune if he could have her money now even if he has his inheritance guaranteed after her death. But she stubbornly refuses to share any of it now and Tom has plans. In order to avoid huge taxes he will donate a considerable amount of the money to the children’s hospital. Many children will benefit from his generosity, as will their parents, relatives and friends. The problem is that Tom needs that money immediately in order to make a very profitable investment, and without it the plans cannot be realised. So, why not kill Aunt Bea? Provided that it can be done without any risk that anybody else finds out and thereby jeopardises the whole project. Now, suppose Tom kills Aunt Bea, and that all the ideas about the investment work out exactly as planned. Has Tom done anything wrong? Not according to utilitarianism, because the amount of satisfied interests is greater than would be the case if Aunt Bea had lived on for a while longer. Yet such conduct would of course be contrary to what people in general would consider to be a legitimate moral action. The problem here seems to spring from the utilitarian focus on feelings or preferences as such, whereby the individuals having them are insignificant in the ethical context. The emotion of one person is counted as fully replaceable by that of another as long as the emotions in question have the same quality and intensity.

There are two problems here. One of them deals with the impossibility of measuring and comparing the subjective experience of different individuals. If an evaluation of an action implies that we have to weigh the interests of Aunt Bea against, and Tom and the children, then we need an objective yardstick where these interests can be added together and subtracted. As Scruton notes, “Even if they are calculating for the long-term good of all sentient creatures, we are critical of them precisely for the fact that they are calculating, in a situation where some other creature has a direct claim on their compassion”.

The second problem involves the fact that some of the acts imposed by utilitarian ethics seem to run counter to our moral intuition about right and wrong. It is true that our moral intuition is not always a reliable tool for judging good and bad actions. Actions that at first glance seem to be absolutely wrong may on second thoughts appear to be quite reasonable.

The first problem concerns applicability whereas the second is a problem of correctness. Against this line of reasoning an animal right defender might object that in cases where rights come into conflict with each other, one has to appeal to higher principles. One such principle suggested by Tom Regan is the so-called “Liberty Principle”: “Provided that all those involved are treated with respect, and assuming that no special considerations obtain, any innocent individual has the right to act to avoid being made worse-off even if doing so harms other innocents.” This principle surely opens up for the possibility of violating the rights of animals in the case where killing them is necessary for the survival of a human being.

Regan’s deontological defence of “animal rights” differs from Singer’s in that it makes no compromises. Animals must not be slaughtered, tormented or exploited. And that’s that! The abolition of animal exploitation is a must, irrespective of the consequences for human interests. Not surprisingly it is the Regan wing that is the most militant and uncompromising.

Each reform taken is a step in the right direction and it is just a question of never stopping demanding new reforms. However, one must not compromise about the rights of living beings. Murder is wrong even if it is done painlessly. What would happen if we accepted the murder of infants on the condition that it was done with no pain? Singer and Regan would agree that human interests may carry more weight than the interests of an animal do. It may be the case, as Singer speculates, that a hen is not intelligent enough to be capable of taking an interest in its life as a whole. According to the utilitarian calculus this implies that an adult human being has an automatic priority simply because he has more interests. This may also imply that letting a new hen be born and raised could wholly compensate for the painless killing of a hen. Given that the positive experiences of the new hen are as many and as intensive as those of the old one, the utilitarian maximising principle has been satisfied and life still has the same meaning.

Scruton claims, “on the direct utilitarian approach, I concentrate solely on whether the actions will maximize”. But deontological and virtue ethics tells you to consider whether I would be acting compassionately or callously, in the particular circumstances in which I find myself. The fact that virtue ethics employs the large vocabulary of the virtue and vices enables it to bring in the great variety of moral consideration. In Midgley’s Animals and why they matter, she gives us the case of the man on the way to his uncle’s party who comes across an injured dog. In stopping to help the injured dog we would be minimizing suffering. But imagine that the man had promised his uncle to come at a particular time? How do virtue ethics and deontological ethics assess this particular action?

There are many circumstances in which breaking a promise is unjust and dishonourable and therefore, I think we have to make a utilitarian calculus in the best way we can. This confirms my idea that these ethical theories are not the way forward to make people stop eating meat, because one of its features is that the vocabulary is too large but also vague. Although virtue ethics does tell us what to consider, it does not make our moral decisions easier or straightforward. If my uncle was also injured who should I rescue first? Virtue and deontological ethics lacks consistency and gives no response to problems of “particular circumstances”.

But the fundamental thing is that concepts of equality and rights are “essentially tools for widening concern” (); “the notion of equality is a tool for rectifying injustices within a given group” to be “used for practical reform”. “Racists violate the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of their own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Sexists violate the principle of equality by favouring the interests of their own sex. Similarly, speciesists allow the interests of their own species to override the greater interests of members of other species”. However, there has been a historical, step-by-step, and widening of social rights to include slaves, workers, women and children. So, is it not logical to widen the “circle of compassion” also to include animals?

Some people argue that, “it is mental anguish that makes the human situation so much harder to bear”, but how do they know? We cannot always be sure that “sometimes animals may suffer more because of their more limited understanding”, and also some physical features such as size or sensitivity to external events. Singer gives the example of the amplitude of slapping a horse and a baby. Indeed, a horse’s skin is harder and less sensitive than ours and therefore a baby would suffer more by being slapped than a horse would do. However, if a horse is blown with a heavy stick, “that would cause the horse as much pain as we cause a baby by a simple slap”. Singer argues that “if we consider wrong to inflict that much pain on a baby for no good reason then we must, unless we are speciesists, consider it equally wrong to inflict the same amount of pain on a horse for no good reason”. In terms of capacity of intelligence, “non-human animals and infants and severely intellectually are in the same category; and if we use this argument to justify experiments (or mass farming) we have to ask ourselves whether we are also prepared to allow experiments on human infants and severely intellectually disabled adults.”. An animal, can equally suffer much more in captivity than a person with more intellectual faculties, simply because they have much less awareness of what is going to happen. They can suffer and become traumatized as a human being would do. We even have drugs to treat our pets and farm animals since they seem to suffer from the same mental problems as we do. I find teasing how animals can also empathize with our suffering. Many pet owners and farmers recognize that they have experienced receiving attention from their animals when being perturbed by a life problem. Many times dolphins have saved man’s lives; in our everyday lives guiding dogs help blind people live their lives; etc.

speciesist can argue that animals tend to protect their own species and that applying the principle of equality is unjust. Consequently, we do not need to worry about eating meat because other species would also eat us if they were more intellectually advanced than us. But does that mean if you are more intelligent you can overrule other’s interests? I don’t think so. And If a speciesist cares so much about their own species why not using people with severe learning disabilities in experiments to find in a more quick and effective way a cure for cancer. Speciesism loses its purpose when applying its principles within our own species. Midgey urges us to try to understand our elitist, racist, sexist forebears who said they believed in equality, not just dismissed them as hypocrites, but to a certain extent to be tolerant towards them.

Speaking about the “pseudo-Darwinist” objection, that to stop eating meat would put at risk the development of our own species, although some historians and anthropologists say that man is historically omnivorous, our anatomical equipment ­ and digestive system favors a fleshless diet. The American Dietetic Association notes that “most of mankind for most of human history has lived on vegetarian or near-vegetarian diets”. Note that until the beginning of the XX only wealthy people in the western world could afford to eat meat on a daily basis. The scientist Karl von Linne states, “Man’s structure, external and internal, compared with that of the other animals, shows that fruit and succulent vegetables constitute his natural food.” When we look at the comparison between herbivores and humans, we compare much more closely to herbivores than meat-eating animals. ADA and most medical researchers have found that vegetarian diets reduce a high number of diseases, including cancer and cardiovascular problems, and that eating meat is actually unhealthy. Another logical point against eating meat is that it will be impossible to keep doing it since there won’t be enough earth resources in future to feed everyone on meat

Consequently, we don’t need to eat meat; we can survive in the same way just by eating vegetables and additional nutrients. But then, what should we say about the Eskimos who cannot cultivate vegetables to eat? Well even Greenland imports goods and therefore they can purchase more frozen vegetables and additional nutrients in order to stop them killing animals. For these reasons we will have to embrace utilitarianism in relation to the issue of eating meat. Because as we have seen other ethical theories do not seem to compromise in any step forward and meanwhile people keep demanding more meat on speciesist basis or on habits that seem to be a luxury in a planet that is not capable of sustaining such demands for much longer. Although Scruton and Regan present a few cases that could make us doubt if eating meat is really that bad in some situations, my opinion from a philosophical point of view is that eating meat is morally unacceptable whatever the case. As I concisely tried to show utilitarianism offers a radical solution to a problem that needs an urgent response. Deontological based rights as well as virtue ethics do not bring any active responses but only denounce the unjustifiable torture in the animal kingdom.


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