Is There a Morally Justifiable Reason for Eating Meat?
The philosophy behind vegetarianism
Us humans have been killing and eating animals for centuries.
Such behavior stems from our animalistic and ravenous instincts — back when we lived in caves, hunted, and ate meat out of necessity. As a primitive species, we had little access to fresh food — and, even when we did, our instincts led us to eat meat for evolutionary reasons.
Here in 2020, we don’t need to eat meat. We could quite comfortably survive without it — there are a variety of foods at our disposal that are good sources of protein. But, given our ancestry, our brains are hard-wired to desire meat as a means to seek out energy-dense sources of protein.
And this causes us to do things like:
- Mass farm, and kill, over 9 billion chickens a year.
- Allow the neglect, mistreatment, or cruelty of animals in the name of factory farming.
- Consume, on average, 43KG of meat per person, a year.
All for no apparent reason, other than because we like the taste.
Let me level with you. I’m not vegetarian. I’m not vegan. I’m not even pescatarian. But I do often sit and wonder —
Is there a morally justifiable reason for eating meat?
Strong Anthropocentrism on Eating Meat
The most common justification for eating meat is exemplified in Strong Anthropocentrism.
This claims all and only humans are intrinsically valuable. Thus, it claims, animals are only instrumentally valuable — in so far as they help humans achieve their intrinsic ends.
Kant offered support for this: arguing “personhood” is sufficient for intrinsic worth. Because humans are rational, they have personhood. By comparison, animals lack the required rationality, so can be used as a mere means.
On this account, mistreating animals isn’t wrong — unless it leads to some wrongdoing of a human. Instead, animals can be used at our disposal, and this is justified wherever it benefits a human.
Following this reasoning: eating animals is right wherever it benefits us. If you enjoy the taste of it, you can indulge yourself.
The Demise of Anthropocentrism
Strong anthropocentrism is an interesting theory. But, upon reflection, it’s clear the proposal humans have a higher moral status than animals is unfounded.
For this to be justified, either: being human is enough to justify the claim, or every human has a property that all animals lack (that justifies the claim). As it turns out, neither is true:
- According to Peter Singer, both humans and animals have interests and preferences (such as an interest not to be eaten). Ignoring a beings’ interests based on their species is speciesist (comparable to racism). And Philosophical research has shown no evidence or explanation indicating species membership is important in moral inquiries — meaning it’s probably insignificant.
- People who claim all humans have properties that animals lack appeal to things like intelligence and rationality. Both are unsatisfactory for our purposes. Illustrated by marginal cases: Singer, for example, has reported cases where infants are less intelligent than chimpanzees. On this account, we could justify eating infants on the basis they lack the required level of rationality. That’s absurd, and should be avoided.
Given this, it’s clear anthropocentrism isn’t a justifiable reason for eating meat.
“If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans?” ― Peter Singer, Animal Liberation
The Philosophy Behind Vegetarianism
Given our instinctive justifications for eating meat are evidently false — let’s discuss two theories that entail the belief eating meat is impermissible.
Regan’s Right’s View
Thomas Regan argues humans and animals have similar fundamental qualities. In short, he claims, we are both “subjects of a life.” After all, animals have a psychological presence: they’re aware of what happens to them, and have a set of desires/interests for how their life goes.
Like us, animals are “somebodies,” not “somethings” — they are beings rather than recourses to be used by us.
According to this view, being a “subject of a life” is sufficient for having intrinsic worth. And, as a deontological theory, it claims these beings have a right to be treated with respect — so their value shouldn’t be measured by how beneficial they are to others.
Overall, advocates of this view claim, given humans and animals both have intrinsic worth, any right a human has, animals have the very same rights. Moreover, they claim: an action is morally impermissible wherever it opposes someone’s right.
Given it’s widely accepted humans have a right not to be eaten, animals have an equal claim to that right. As such, eating meat opposes an animal’s right to life — so is morally impermissible.
Similarly, animals have a right to freedom (in the same way humans do,) and mass factory farming violates that right — so is unjustifiable.
“Being kind to animals is not enough. Avoiding cruelty is not enough. Housing animals in more comfortable, larger cages is not enough. Whether we exploit animals to eat, to wear, to entertain us, or to learn, the truth of animal rights requires empty cages, not larger cages.” — Tom Regan
Singer on Preference Utilitarianism
According to Peter Singer, a being is only morally considerable when they have interests (like the ones you or I have). He also claims all beings who have a psychological capacity to experience pain have these interests. Animals have this capacity, so have interests and are morally considerable.
Moreover, as a Utilitarian, he concludes an action is permissible if it maximizes the interests satisfied.
But, to avoid being speciesist, he doesn’t favor human interests over animals. Instead, Singer considers all interests — and gives each of them equal consideration.
To work out whether interests are maximized, he weighs up the intensity and quantity of every interest, and then subtracts those that are frustrated (not satisfied) by the number that are satisfied by the action.
On this account, therefore, it’s sometimes permissible to eat meat. But only when our interest to do so outweighs the animal's interest not to be eaten. That’s unlikely to be the case when our only interest is based on taste, but could be in rare circumstances where meat is the only available food recourse (so our interest is based on survival).
Therefore, those who adopt this theory acknowledge that, in our day to day lives, there is almost never a justification for eating meat.
“What we must do is bring nonhuman animals within our sphere of moral concern and cease to treat their lives as expendable for whatever trivial purposes we may have.” ― Peter Singer, Animal Liberation
Us humans are hardwired to eat meat. But in 2020, killing and eating an animal is far from essential given our ability to survive without doing so.
Despite not being vegetarian, I do often sit and wonder — is there a morally justifiable reason for eating meat?
- The claim only humans have intrinsic worth is unfounded — for either it is speciesist or allows for the killing and eating of infants (who are less intelligent than certain animals).
- According to Regan, as subjects of life — all animals have identical rights to those of humans. Thus, killing and eating animals is a direct violation of their rights.
- By comparison, on Singer’s account, eating meat day to day is impermissible because, all things being equal, our interest to eat meat doesn’t outweigh an animal's interest to stay alive.
Despite a clear inability to justify our behavior, a lot of us are still guided by our evolutionary instincts to eat meat.
Perhaps we have a moral duty to ignore these instincts and become vegetarian, or perhaps not. That’s a conclusion you’ll need to come to and internalize yourself.
For me, vegetarianism is something I’ve contemplated for a long time. Perhaps it’s time I made a change.