The Morality of Eating Meat

I consider myself a vegetarian. I never cook meat for myself at home. When I’m out to dinner and it’s possible, I generally eat vegetarian. But my approach to eating meat might be called ‘flexible’ or, less charitably, plainly inconsistent. If invited to a dinner party where only meat is served, I will tuck in with the best of them. So I want to explain the reasoning behind my vegetarianism, and sketch out a coherent foundation for my apparently erratic eating.

I start with two basic assumptions. First, that the suffering of animals is morally relevant. Second, that the commercial rearing and slaughter of animals for eating involves significant suffering. These two assumptions are uncontroversial. At the very least, anyone who rejects these starting points will find all vegetarianisms problematic, not just mine.

I am yet to meet someone who seriously questions the moral relevance of animal suffering. You need only basic contact with dogs, cats, horses, cows, or pigs to see that their mental lives have depth and substance: the kind that we generally take into account in our moral reasoning. When I accidentally step on the tail of my dog, Charlie, I don’t see how I could but interpret his high-pitched yelp as a cry of pain. Put another way, I have no difficulty in applying the concept of pain to Charlie in this situation, as opposed to if someone tried to tell me that a bunch of flowers I had bought were ‘suffering’.

Regarding the second assumption, I don’t reject the idea of eating meat out of hand. If you presented me with a cow who had lived a wholesome life, free from pain and free to roam, and had been killed quickly and humanely, (I think) I would hold little objection to eating it.

But reality departs from this fantasy in important ways. The rearing and slaughter of animals for eating on a commercial scale does not occur in this way. The profit motive demands otherwise. Chickens are crammed into sheds by their thousands, with less than half an A4 sheet of space each. In Gail Eisnitz’s Slaughterhouse, a factory farm worker described the realities of industrialised slaughter:

“Down in the blood pit they say that the smell of blood makes you aggressive. And it does…You’re already going to kill the hog, but that’s not enough. It has to suffer…You go in hard, push hard, blow the windpipe, make it drown in its own blood. Split its nose. A live hog would be running around the pit. It would just be looking up at me and I’d be sticking, and I would take my knife and – eerk – cut its eye out while it was just sitting there. And this hog would just scream. One time I took my knife – it’s sharp enough – and I sliced off the end of the hog’s nose, just like a piece of bologna. The hog went crazy for a few seconds. Then it just sat there looking kind of stupid. So I took a handful of salt brine and ground it into his nose. Now that hog really went nuts, pushing its nose all over the place. I still had a bunch of salt left on my hand – I was wearing a rubber glove – and I stuck the salt right up the hog’s ass. The poor hog didn’t know whether to shit or go blind…I wasn’t the only guy doing this kind of stuff. One guy I work with actually chases hogs into the scalding tank. And everybody – hog drivers, shacklers, utility men – uses lead pipes on hogs. Everybody knows it, all of it.”

The industry is deliberately constructed to insulate consumers from this brutal reality. We come in only at the end of the line, to pick up our chicken, lamb, beef or pork from the supermarket refrigerator. It’s clean. Neatly wrapped. Sterile. We have no idea where it’s come from. In all likelihood, it’s the product of a process of intense pain and suffering. And there is no practical way to guarantee otherwise.

These assumptions provide the basic rationale for a vegetarian diet. But they do different work in my mind than they do for someone like Peter Singer. Singer’s vegetarianism stems from his utilitarianism. For Singer, the morally right thing to do is produce the best consequences, by maximising the satisfaction of preferences. Similar preferences – like the preference to avoid pain – should be weighed equally, whether they are held by human or non-human animals. Singer argues that this principle (combined with the two assumptions outlined above) leads to the conclusion that we should be vegetarian.

I think this argument overlooks the fact that a single individual has a negligiblecausal impact on meat production. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australia’s meat production industry turned over $13.8bn in 2010-11. In the same year, the average Australian spent approximately $1277 on meat, consuming 34.5kg of beef and veal, 10.1kg of lamb and mutton, 25.5kg of pig, and 41.7kg of poultry.

Given these statistics, my buying power makes up only 0.0000092% of the meat production industry – nine millionths of one percent. Thinking realistically, removing my $1277 per year from the pockets of those companies will have no impact on how many animals are slaughtered. Singer cares only about consequences. But eating vegetarian will not mean that any more animals have their preferences satisfied. The causal link is simply too tenuous. Singer might respond that this does not take into account the impact of your vegetarianism on the people around you. The ethical impact of your dietary choices is multiplied by the change you catalyse in others. But you would have to convince many thousands of people to permanently change their diets to register even a blip on the meat industry’s radar. This seems implausible.

What emerges from this discussion is the impoverished nature of the utilitarian picture. Consequences aren’t everything. Imagine stumbling across a person, Sally, who insists on using a lampshade made from human skin, an old Nazi relic. In response to your visible revulsion, Sally protests: “The man from whom this was made died long ago. I didn’t kill him, and I’m not causing him any further pain by using  it. Anyway, it’s a really good lampshade.” Such a response would be almost unintelligible. What upsets us about Sally’s behaviour is not its consequences, but what it says about her character. Part of what it means to be compassionate is to be sensitive to instances of cruelty, and to refuse to be party to them, whether or not one contributes causally. Being compassionate is an integral part of a full, flourishing human existence. Sally’s callous disregard betrays a gravely attenuated moral imagination. That is what alarms us.

I think these considerations provide a good argument for vegetarianism, grounded not in utilitarianism, but in the kinds of personal qualities and dispositions that are constitutive of a good human life. However, this position requires qualification. We can accept the connection between vegetarianism and compassion, while still recognising that there are other things of value in our lives, many of which involve food in an integral way. There is something very important about being able to sit down at a table with friends and family, and share a meal. It is one powerful way in which we commune with others, sharing conversations and a common fare. I think this is what Jonathan Safran Foer is getting at when he talks about ‘telling stories with food’:

“[T]he stories that are served with food matter. These stories bind our family together, and bind our family to others. Stories about food are stories about us – our history and our values. Within my family’s Jewish tradition, I came to learn that food serves two parallel purposes: it nourishes and it helps you remember. Eating and storytelling are inseparable.”

Strict vegetarianism is sometimes destructive of these goods. Accepting a friend’s invitation only to turn your nose up at what is served is plainly rude. It upsets the harmony of the table, isolates you, and means you are unlikely to be invited back. Plenty of vegetarians might welcome this response: it indicates that their message is getting through. But surely these aspects of the situation deserve deeper consideration? Aristotle’s concept of practical wisdom is helpful here. An integral part of living well is being perceptive to the particulars of a situation, and developing a practical understanding of the way in which different goods and values interact. Morality is not simply a matter of applying rules or making calculations. It’s messy. If your friend wears a particularly unfortunate outfit to a party, and asks your opinion, the right thing to say is that she looks great! Your behaviour reflects a proper understanding of how the virtues of honesty and friendship interact in this particular situation, rather than a slavish adherence to absolute commands like ‘Do not lie’.

I believe the same principle applies to vegetarianism. Blindly and dogmatically insisting to your host that “Sorry, but I’m a vegetarian” just misunderstands the value of being a good guest, of eating harmoniously together, of sharing in the stories we tell with food. For me, this justifies my flexible vegetarianism. Given the value of compassion, and the cruelty that goes into meat production, it is important to care about what you eat. To do so at the exclusion of all else, however, ignores other important human goods.

Jack Maxwell has an Honours degree in Philosophy from the University of Melbourne, and is currently studying Law at the same institution. This article was first published on his blog, Four Sciences.

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