The NYT is asking carnivores to ethically justify eating meat. As they note, vegetarianism is all the rage and it’s especially popular among philosophers (which makes it difficult to choose a restaurant if a bunch of them are going out for dinner). Peter Singer, one of the judges of the NYT contest, has argued that meat-eating is morally wrong. Now I’m an omnivore, which almost makes me unique in philosophical company, and I’ve often thought about how I might justify my dietary choices philosophically. Below are some scattered thoughts on how I might go about it. But first, why are vegetarians against meat-eating?
Of course, people are vegetarians for many reasons. Some make a health argument, but that’s not my concern here. From now on, when I say ‘vegetarian’ I’ll mean something like ‘philosophical vegetarian’ or one who makes a philosophical, specifically ethical, argument in favour of vegetarianism. Vegetarians, like Singer, often argue along utilitarian or consequentialist lines: we shouldn’t eat meat because it causes sentient creatures pain. This may be true in practice, but it’s not in principle. It’s possible to euthanize animals painlessly. So it can’t simply be a matter of avoiding pain; there’s a deeper objection here. Some might argue that it’s not just causing pain to which they object, but to the ending of life. But this objection assumes that animals are the subjects of a life in roughly the way humans are. How do we know that, especially for any order lower than mammals? Is a lobster sufficiently conscious such that killing it is a grave violation of another subject, or self, the way that killing a human would be? I don’t think we can conclude this with any degree of confidence.
Granted, there are two dangers here: imagining that animals are just like us or imagining that animals are nothing like us. I’m certainly not claiming that animals are simply automata that don’t feel pain (although there is some debate about whether they experience pain in the same way that humans do). Some probably also experience certain emotions. But our ability to ‘inhabit’ another creature’s experience is severely limited. Thomas Nagel (in a very different context) wrote an essay called “What is it Like to be a Bat?” He assumes that there’s something-that-it’s-like to be a bat, but we can’t know what that is. We might be able to equate human to animal experience in some cases (primates or other mammals very close to us), but in most cases, this is arguably a fallacy. It’s even more problematic with creatures lower than mammals. Is there even a something-that-it’s-like to be a lobster? A scallop? A prawn? Are we doing harm to these creatures’ subjectivity or self-hood by killing and eating them? Do they even have such a thing? I don’t think that vegetarians have sufficiently demonstrated harm in these cases.
If there are no reasons not to eat meat, are there reason to do so? Arguably meat eating is pleasurable, not only in a sensory way, but also socially. Many (though not all) vegetarians admit this, but make the sacrifice. However, I don’t think one can be morally blamed on consequentialist grounds for not making that sacrifice. It might seem hedonistic to argue from pleasure, but pleasure and happiness are relevant to moral considerations. Granted, you cannot consider only your own pleasure, but pleasure, generally, counts if you’re a consequentialist. Some may argue that the trade-off between human and animal pleasure as a result of meat-eating doesn’t balance out. But even if there are trade-offs, sophisticated hedonists from Epicurus to J.S. Mill have recognized that there are higher and lower pleasures. Mill said, “Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” We are qualitatively different creatures than animals and are capable of enjoying higher order pleasures. So the quality, not just quantity, of pleasure is a relevant consideration. So eating meat can make life more enjoyable without necessarily decreasing the net happiness in the world. Vegetarians might argue that this works in theory, but not in practice. I’d agree that meat production is messy; much can be done to change that at both the local and industrial level. But if these practical problems are overcome, I’ve argued that there’s no reason to object to meat-eating in principle.