The New York Times “Ethicist” column recently challeged its readers to submit essays making the case for why it’s ethically okay to eat meat. The submissions are supposed to offer a pro-meat answer to the question “Whether it is right to eat animals in the first place, at least when human survival is not at stake.” The essays will be judged by a panel consisting of Peter Singer, Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Andrew Light.
One interesting thing about this contest is that it puts the onus back on meat-eaters to justify a practice that’s usually taken for granted as the normal thing to do. Getting people to question this assumption is a worthy goal in itself.
But for the sake of clarity, let’s flesh out (so to speak) the anti-meat (or pro-vegetarian) argument. Here, in schematic form, is what I take to be a simple, but powerful, moral argument for vegetarianism:
1. It’s wrong, other things being equal, to be the cause of avoidable suffering.
2. Meat-eating causes avoidable suffering.
3. Therefore, meat-eating is wrong.
The first premise is about as close to a moral truism as you could find. It would be a very different value system from any most of us would recognize that endorsed the idea of causing avoidable suffering. Most of us also think, of course, that sometimes there are good reasons for being the cause of suffering (e.g., a painful medical procedure that saves someone’s life). But to cause suffering when it’s not necessary seems like a paradigm case of acting immorally.
The second premise is more contentious. Let’s stipulate, along with the Times, that we’re talking about cases where meat-eating isn’t necessary for human survival. The question then becomes: is the suffering caused by meat-eating justifiable on some other grounds?
For this infliction of suffering to be justifiable, the human interest in meat-eating would have to outweigh the animals’ interest in avoiding suffering. So what human interest is at stake? Well, pleasure is one obvious one: many people really like the taste of meat. There are also cultural and culinary goods associated with the practices of preparing and eating meat which, in a meatless world, would have to be abandoned or at least modified (the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, for example).
Now, the tricky thing is that there’s no mechanical way of weighing competing interests to find out whether the animal’s interest in not suffering should trump the human’s interest in having a tasty meal. That being said, though, I think it’s intuitively quite plausible that an animal’s interest in not suffering is greater than my interest in the pleasure I’d get from eating a steak. Consider the case of a sadist who derives great pleasure from torturing kittens: would any of us say that his pleasure outweighs the kitten’s interest in not being made to suffer? The only way I can see to decisively tip the scales toward meat-eating is if you’re willing to say that animal interests count for nothing, or for so little as to be trumped by even the most trivial human interest.
You could also develop a parallel argument where “avoidable suffering” is replaced with “avoidable death.” That is, even if animals could be raised and slaughtered for food without being made to suffer (a questionable proposition, but let’s concede it for now), they would still be killed, and, other things being equal, killing a sentient being seems like a significant harm. Now, there are some philosophers (including, ironicially, Peter Singer) who say that painlessly killing an animal doesn’t actually harm the animal, because they don’t have a concept of death and thus can’t take an interest in not being killed. This response only works, though, if you’re willing to accept Singer’s particular version of preference-based utilitarianism, and other philosophers have argued (persuasively, in my opinion) that death is indeed a harm for animals.
Assuming this is all correct, or at least plausible, let’s note a couple of things about this argument. First, it doesn’t require accepting that humans and animals are “morally equivalent” or denying “human exceptionalism.” It’s quite possible to hold that humans are more important than animals but that trivial human interests don’t justify overriding or disregarding vital animal interests. Second, it doesn’t rest on detailed claims about the horrible state of factory farming. So long as raising and slaughtering animals for food entails any significant suffering–which includes both factory and traditional farms–the argument can get some traction. Finally, it doesn’t require adopting any controversial ethical theories like utilitarianism or a particular notion of animal rights. All it assumes is that it’s wrong to cause avoidable suffering (or death) and that animals’ interests count for something, even if not as much as comparable human interests. I think these minimalist assumptions help make it a pretty strong argument.
What do you think?