The following is an excerpt from the new book The Moral Complexities of Eating Meat edited by Ben Bramble and edited by Bob Fischer, (Oxford University Press, 2015):
Are we permitted to bring things into existence in order to kill and eat them? Certainly we are. Otherwise we wouldn’t, and with a clear conscience, eat potatoes. Are we permitted to do the same with animals—start them, kill them, eat them? This is less straightforward. And the major reservations relate not to meat eating as such but to its usual consequence that animals providing the meat thereby live bad lives, or at least worse lives than they would otherwise live. And these lives are bad, or worse, in at least one of two respects. Either they contain more pain than otherwise, or they involve the animal in a premature death. It is allegedly bad for animals to suffer this pain, and allegedly bad too for them to die.
I’ll say more about death than pain. I’ll argue, although not at length, that killing animals is in some circumstances permitted, and in some circumstances required. These claims are, I hope, more or less uncontroversial—controversy starts in detailing the circumstances. And I’ll argue—more controversially and at greater length—that killing animals is very often permitted and, further, at least suggest it is very often required. Having killed them, we may as well eat them. So then meat eating is permitted. Is it also required? I won’t claim this. What I will claim, however, is that it is perhaps required that there be in place procedures and practices that have the production and consumption of meat as one of their primary aims. Or at least, that there are good reasons for sustaining such practices. My concerns here are with morality rather than expedience. And the predominant, but not the only, concern is not with what is good or bad for us, or for the universe, but what is good or bad for animals, and particularly for those we eat.
I mean by meat the fleshy parts of animals, including so-called red and white meat, birds and poultry, fish, shellfish etc. I am not here counting the fleshy parts of nuts, fruit and vegetables as meat, and not counting those who use animal bones for gelatine as a meat eaters, even though they are not vegetarians. I make this point because it is not uncommon to find that fish eaters are classed among vegetarians. And after making what appears to be, and is said to be an argument for vegetarianism David DeGrazia (2009, p.164) insists that he has ‘no position’ on eating fish and invertebrate seafood. To my mind this is tantamount to having no position on vegetarianism.
Even if killing human animals becomes in some circumstances acceptable, eating them is likely still to be proscribed. And this could be the case for some non-human animals also.
Meat, Pain and Death
Someone says, I do nothing wrong in eating meat. The animal is dead, was dead when I cooked it, even when I bought it. It’s past caring. This is, of course, mere sophistry. Eating and wanting to eat meat has many consequences, and plays a pretty direct causal role in several of the practices determining the contours of animal lives. How do our proclivities, and their fortunes interact? Consider the various ways we might come by meat:
Perhaps it is, or soon will be, possible to fabricate meat in a laboratory. Producing and eating this meat will have no direct consequences for any animal. There will be indirect consequences however. Insofar as such a practice takes off there may well be fewer animals living bad lives and fewer living any kind of life at all.
Suppose it is possible to cut and eat meat from a living animal which then recovers. Suppose that even when repeated, this practice doesn’t hasten death. Still, insofar as it causes the animal some pain (as is likely), such a practice is morally dubious, to say the least.
We might eat animals whose pains and deaths are independent of meat consumption, and are caused by traffic, other animals, weather, bad luck. Some think that eating such victims of circumstance is altogether morally innocuous. But there are consequences for other animals. Some are thereby deprived of food. Others may lose the opportunity to grieve or to mourn.
But won’t this synthetic meat encourage a taste for the real thing? Some version of this slippery slope counter-argument can be made to all the methods of meat production sketched here. Such arguments are, I think, overrated. I know, for example, many fish eaters who are no more tempted to eat poultry or red meat than vegetarians.
Perhaps there are some instances of a clean kill but typically hunting animals for meat—and I include shooting and fishing here—causes pain as well as death. It brings about, of course, a premature death—the animal dies earlier than otherwise it would. Does it bring about also an increase in pain, causing the animal to suffer more than otherwise it would? Very probably not. Overall lifetime suffering is very likely decreased. Of course, lifetime pleasure will be decreased also. So, in assessing the death, it may be of both interest and importance to know what life had in store.
I mean this to cover what are elsewhere referred to as family farming, non-intensive farming, hobby farming, organic farming and the like. Meat animals here undergo premature deaths, some pain, and some restrictions on freedom.
Animals in factory farms suffer a premature death, considerable pain throughout their lives, and considerable, and discomfiting, restrictions on their freedom. I shall say almost nothing more about this. There is little point either in defending the indefensible or in attacking a practice which almost every reader here will already condemn.
It should be noted in particular that the production of organic meat reveals a concern for human health, but none especially for animal health.
Recall the opening. Why is it uncontroversial to claim that we can raise, kill and eat vegetables? It is because nothing we can do to them, absenting side effects, is of moral concern. Shall we say that what we can do is in no way bad for them? Hardly. Killing, mutilating, confining, force feeding and starving plants might all, and in recognisable ways, be bad for them. All might interfere with and impede their flourishing. But though it is bad for them, it isn’t bad in a way that matters. There is no reason for us to be concerned, just for their sakes, about their well-being. Plants, we might agree, lack moral status. Similarly, killing, mutilating, confining, causing pain to animals is bad for them. Does this matter? Surely pain matters. And surely they do have moral status. There are always reasons, even if defeasible, for not causing animals pain. But it is more complicated with death. This is why the focus lies here.
As we can do things that are bad for plants, so too can we do things that are good for them. They can be harmed, and they can be benefited. And, following from this, I suggest we can talk of plants living bad, or good, lives. Yet, as they lack moral status, it isn’t bad or good in the way that matters that they live these lives. There aren’t reasons, for the sake of the plant, to end their lives when their lies are bad, Nor to sustain them, when their lives are good. Animals can similarly live bad, or good, lives.
The Badness of Death
Farming and hunting both curtail animal lives. Is it bad, and in a way that matters, for these animals to suffer a premature death?
If, as Epicureans claim, it is never bad for one of us to die, then surely also it is never bad for animals. But this Epicurean View is not well argued. Even if it is true that being dead isn’t intrinsically bad—it won’t involve you in feeling pain—it may still be relationally or comparatively bad, may still be worse for you than life. Better, then, is the Deprivation View, holding that death’s badness is a function of the good life it takes from you. So when further life would have been good then death is bad because, and to the extent that, it deprives you of this life. Yet though better this is still, I claim, not altogether correct. For it asks us to believe that death is bad for the one who dies, or worse than life, or worse than some other death, over a range of cases where, intuitively, this seems not to be so. It suggests that (on the assumption that future life will be good) as death at 20 is worse than death at 80, so death at 2, or at 2 weeks, or 2 days is worse still. It suggests also that given a choice of six months good life and then death, or a radical mind-altering operation followed by six years good life and then death, you should choose the latter. More generally, it seems to suggest that the badness of death is independent of your desires for and interests in further life. Plausibly, we need restrictions. And I claim:
Death is bad for you (in the way that matters) only when it cuts off a good and unfolding life that, not unreasonably, you want now, or wanted earlier, to live.
This is offered just as a necessary condition of death’s badness. Death robs you of future life. But even if this life would be good, it is not bad for you not to live it, unless it relates appropriately to your life so far. It isn’t bad for you not to live the life of a wholly different person. Nor is it bad if, though recognisably your life, you have, and have earlier had, no desire to live it.
Imagine a depressed teenager who wants right now to die. Death is still bad for her. She used to want the life that, assuming recovery, she will again enjoy. If she never wanted this life then the badness of death is less clear.
Although this amendment to the Deprivation View aligns it more closely with several of our intuitions it has what many will see as unwelcome implications. Controversially, I claim it is not bad, in the way that matters, for babies to die. Even when, predictably, their future life will be good and, again predictably, they will at some time want very much to continue with it, this life isn’t something in which they have any interest now. Again, the point here concerns just the fate of those who die. The death of infants is of course very often a tragedy for the parents. And their deaths, on a wide scale, may be a tragedy for all of us. The critical term here is ambiguous in a way that is worth noting. Living on may be good for, or in the interests of the human organism, just as it may be good for a tree. But the baby has now no desire for, or interest in, its future life.
I claim also that it is not bad, in the way that matters, for most non-human animals to die. Is this simply because, even if they can live good lives, they have no future-directed desires? Perhaps this is true but the argument needs only the weaker, and surer contention that they don’t have desires for more life, or desires for that which gives them reason to want more life. Squirrels, for example, don’t want now to go on living so that they can eat the nuts they have stored away in the winter months. Hens don’t want to survive in order to meet up soon with the farm’s new cockerel. Am I claiming this of all animals? No. Higher mammals have a more complex psychology, and perhaps some of these can have future concerns relevantly similar to ours. But certainly it is true for most animals, and certainly for most of those that we eat. These animals. I claim, are best thought of as having psychologies comprising more or less discrete series of episodes which, even if they resemble one another, are not perceived as such from the inside. And it is not a matter of regret, I contend, if this series should at any time come to an abrupt end.
If it isn’t bad for animals to die, does it follow that we are permitted to kill them? And if death is good are we, further, required to kill them? I make no such sweeping claims. There are very often reasons not to kill an animal—it is someone’s pet, it belongs to a rare breed, other animals depend on it. Still, if we are thinking just of what is good for the individual animal these reasons carry no weight. A further reason, linked now to the animal’s good, is that killing might cause it some pain. Though I believe it is possible to bring about a wholly painless death, this contentious view is not needed for the argument. And killing is first permitted, second required, in a range of cases even when pain is involved.
Consider these claims in relation to veterinary practice. The idea that we should sometimes put an animal ‘out if its misery’ is widely accepted. And though we might take extreme measures to relieve pain and extend a pet’s life for the sake of its owner, it is often accepted too that if we are thinking just of the animal then death now might be best. Further, and more controversially, it may be that a pain-free animal ought to be killed. Here’s a plausible case. The vet detects a tumour in your cat which doesn’t yet, but soon will, cause it pain. He offers to put down the cat now. Let’s suppose you’re planning some sea voyage, with the cat, and will be out of contact for some months. You should accept the offer.
The vet will, in killing an animal, cause minimal pain. What about cases involving more than minimal pain? Shooting a badger is permitted, even when the shot isn’t clean, if the badger is already wounded, and in pain, and will suffer more pain overall if it isn’t shot. And shooting a healthy rabbit is permitted, I claim, even when the shot isn’t clean, if, unless it is shot, the rabbit over its life will suffer equal or greater pain.
In the first of these cases not only are you permitted, you are plausibly required to kill. What does a requirement depend upon? If death would be good (or at least better than life) for the animal, we are thinking just of its good, and other things are equal—it would be relatively straightforward, it doesn’t have young that depend on it, you are not sentimentally attached, not generally squeamish, not otherwise engaged—then, I suggest, you ought to put an end to its life.
In the second case there is no such grounding of a requirement. Death now wouldn’t be good for the animal. But if death wouldn’t be bad for it then (again absenting side effects) the permission remains. And if, supposing it isn’t killed, inevitably it will go on to suffer a more painful death (say, when attacked by a fox, or by crows, or when succumbing to some agonising disease) and if it isn’t killed now, then it can’t be killed at all (say, this is the last time it will be within range) then killing now, even if its life is good now, is required.
Which animals, thinking just of what is best for them, are such that there are not in this way reasons for killing them now? First, those that don’t feel pain; second, those (if any) that have desires for a future life; third those (and there are many) that feel no pain now, and can be killed later.
Consider the animals that we are permitted or required to kill. Are we then permitted or required to eat them?
Other things equal, I suggest, we are permitted to eat dead animals. But other things may not be equal. The permission is moot if other people, owners or onlookers, object, and moot too if other animals, hungry or grieving, have some competing claim. It is moot in a different way insofar as the animals, or their parts, are inedible—either there is no meat, or the meat is in some way tainted.
Assume the permission. It doesn’t, of course follow, that you are then required to eat the meat. And only rarely will there be any such requirement. Perhaps someone might be required to eat meat on health grounds, either because of some strange idiosyncrasy of their metabolism, or because there is no other food available. There may be religious or cultural practices that involve meat eating. Or perhaps, more fancifully, you fall into the hands of gangsters who promise not to kill some villagers if you eat hamburger. But for almost all of us, almost all of the time, eating meat is unnecessary. Those who do it do it for pleasure or for convenience. And it isn’t among the higher pleasures. No one will say you ought to enjoy eating meat, even if they say you ought to give it a try. No one will say that the lives of meat eaters, like the lives of opera lovers, go better than otherwise they would. So meat eating will be at best permitted.
Yet now there is a complication, and this may turn out to be a paper permission only. If you kill an animal you might as well, if so inclined, then eat the meat, but if you kill enough there will sooner or later be no more meat available. Many species have been driven to, or near to, extinction by our using them for food. Animals disappear through our greed and short-sightedness. But, of course, I’ve suggested that there are moral reasons also for causing them to disappear. We have, I’ve suggested, reason often to end the lives of existing animals. But we have also, and more plainly, reason to prevent their coming into existence in the first place. For if a life can never be in the right way good enough to make it worth continuing, and can, and most likely at some time will, be bad enough to make it worth ending, then this life is probably best not started. Certainly, many of the animals we eat, and many others besides, have lives of this kind. Aiming just at their good, and ignoring side effects, will have us be rid of them. Inevitably this will impact on our diet.
What we might call this Animal Annihilationist argument might find allies, or partial allies, elsewhere. It is, of course, more or less the game plan of many so-called Animal Liberationists, who seek not so much to give to animals a life of freedom as to prevent their being born. If they, along with vegetarians and vegans, win the argument then farm animals (sheep, goats, pigs, cows), managed animals (deer, pheasants, grouse) along with laboratory animals (rats, mice, guinea pigs) will all of them virtually disappear. For there just isn’t a viable alternative wherein we breed and manage such animals, and then provide care for them in old age. And so those wanting to continue to eat meat will need to find reasons for keeping food animals in existence. What needs to be considered, then, is whether it is in any way required that there be in place the practices and procedures connected with eating meat. So suppose there are reasons for sustaining certain animal populations. But suppose also that, in spite of these of these reasons, there are unlikely to be these animals unless there is some benefit, or perceived benefit, direct or indirect, for human beings. For otherwise, given the various costs involved, we just might not do what, overall, we ought to do. The availability of meat is such a benefit, and might motivate us to do what overall is for the best. But why might it be good to have these animals in existence?
The Value of Life
Which lives are worth living? We might, in considering this, ask also which are worth continuing, which worth starting? Human lives are often worth continuing. It is often worth paying some price, perhaps undergoing a painful operation, to sustain a life. Often, we want, and have reasons, to live on. As well as this, we often, on a moment by moment basis, enjoy and take pleasure in our lives. They are, in this sense, often worthwhile, or worth living. Whether or not our lives are ever worth starting is more complex. None of us wants to come into existence. But even if it is not straightforwardly good for us if our lives are started, someone may think it is still a good thing, good in itself, or good for the universe, if lives like ours come to be. There are, other things equal, no reasons against, and perhaps some reasons for, starting such lives.
Animal lives contrast here. These are, I’ve claimed, rarely worth continuing. Even if some do, none of those we eat want, or have self-directed reasons, to live on. Nor are these lives, for their own sake, worth starting. No animal wants to come into existence. Are they worth living? The lot of most of them is at best dull and nondescript, and often involves a near-endless struggle just for mere survival. Even if it can be good for others, it is hard to see how it can be good for these animals, or good in itself, or good for the universe that such lives are lived. It seems it may well be best, for them, that they never exist.
Yet two kinds of qualification need to be made here. First, even if animal lives are overall never worth living, and even if taken as a whole each of them will be worse than nothing, and best not started there can be, as I’ve said, and especially with domestic animals, managed and early exits. The lives of both pets and farm animals in particular can be ended before they become worse than nothing. Second, there are some that very plausibly are worth living. Pet dogs appear, often, to have pretty good lives and to get various pleasures and enjoyments from, and throughout, their existence. We might think that their lives, once under way, are in a recognisable sense good for them. Even so, it isn’t clear that they want to live on, isn’t clear we should subject them to painful operations so they can live on, and isn’t clear that it is bad for them to die. Are their lives worth starting? Assuming they are, as appears, mostly pleasant and enjoyable then even if it isn’t good for them, it might be good in itself, good for the universe that they begin to exist. Certainly there seems to be no reason not to start such lives. And if or when there comes to be reason to end them, they can be ended. Dogs, more clearly than people, can be expected to enjoy lifelong pleasure. Certainly, then, there are reasons overall to bring some dogs into existence. It is good for us, perhaps good in itself, and either good or at worse neutral for them that they exist.
Are we permitted to eat animals? The argument has been that as we’re permitted to kill them so we might then eat them. And killing is permissible as, even if they can lead good lives, these are not lives that they want to live. Are we required to eat animals? No argument has been offered for this. I’ve suggested, however, that we might be required to bring animals into existence, but that we’re in fact unlikely to do this unless adequately motivated. And meat motivates. Yet there is a puzzle here. Is it at all plausible to suppose we might be required to bring some things into existence and at the same time permitted to kill them?