Is Meat Immoral? Thoughts on Eating Animals

Whether eating meat is morally acceptable is too complex an issue to address fully in a blog post.

But I’ve been reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and it’s tough not to think a little about this issue.

One of the more impressive arguments in his book is from a PETA representative who sees no justification for eating meat in an era where it’s simply unnecessary: we’re fully capable of feeding ourselves with plants.

One argument he makes is against advocating more sustainable meat production as an alternative to factory farm meat production.  This is an important point because, while it’s easy to oppose factory farm production once you’ve read Foer’s book, or Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, or if you’ve seen PETA’s or the Humane Society’s undercover videos of what goes on in factory farms, it’s much harder to oppose the more “natural” type of sustainable animal farming that goes on at an operation like Niman Ranch.  Animals living outdoors, grazing pasture, basking in the sun, getting to know each other as nature intended, makes meat eating far more palatable.

Niman Ranch

Raised with Care, Then Slaughtered.

But the PETA rep thinks it’s little better.  Most “sustainable” meat producers still castrate, brand and of course slaughter animals, often during adolescence.  And why?  So we can enjoy the taste of pork, or beef, or chicken, rather than tofu, nuts or spinach.

James McWilliams made a similar argument recently in The Atlantic, in a piece I responded to here last week: Why Attack Sustainable Meat.  No doubt there are legitimate arguments  even against sustainably raised meat.

But I want to focus on one argument made by the PETA rep, both because it’s an argument I make myself and because its imperfections show how complex the issue really is.  That argument compares animal farming to slavery.

Slavery, the argument goes, was morally accepted not long ago.  And it has been, in places, at times, throughout man’s history.  The Romans held slaves.  (Think Spartacus.)  So did Thomas Jefferson.   But we don’t do it today.  (Not in the U.S., anyhow.)  It’s unthinkable today.

Even though we’ve always done it.  And if we don’t accept the argument that slavery is acceptable because we’ve always done it–that it’s “natural”–then why do we accept the argument that eating meat is acceptable because we’ve always done it?

And when we we don’t accept that the solution to slavery is to treat our slaves better, rather than stop enslaving them, then why should we accept that the solution to meat eating is to treat our animals better–a la Niman Ranch–rather than stop eating meat?  A slave, however well treated, is still a slave.  And a food animal is still a food animal.

This argument sounds convincing.

But there’s a big difference between slavery and meat that sticks in my philosophical craw.  If you abolish slavery, slaves can live a free life.  (In theory at least; legal segregation existed in much of this country nearly a century after the Emancipation Proclamation.)  Former slaves are still alive, and have a place in society (again, not necessarily a good or equal place but a place, and great potential for an even better place sometime down the road).  But what happens if you abolish meat?

Today’s pigs, cows and chickens, as they’re raised for food, don’t have a place these days outside of our agricultural system.  Set these animals loose tomorrow, and what happens to them?  Where will they go?  What will they eat?  How good will their lives be, and how peacefully will they die?

Now, I’m not just asking about the animals alive today, as some defenders of meat consumption do.  These people argue that cows, chickens and hogs, removed from our factory farms, would be torn apart by coyotes in the most brutal of fashion, hardly a compassionate solution.  But I’m less worried about the current generation of food animals.  We can do with this current generation what we’ve always planned to do with it: slaughter it and eat it.  Then just not breed another generation.

But my concern goes well beyond the current generation of food animals.  If these animals, in all likelihood, wouldn’t exist if we weren’t raising them for food, then the question isn’t, as it is with slavery, whether it’s better to keep them enslaved or set them free.  It’s whether it’s better for them to have been born and lived, only to be castrated, branded and slaughtered, than for them never to have lived at all.

For factory farms, I can comfortably answer this question.  (For myself, at least.)  After reading Foer’s account of what happens to these animals in factory farms–during their lives, and not merely during slaughter–I’d rather not be born.

But for animals raised on Niman Ranch, I’m not so sure.  Let’s say I was born, castrated, and branded.  But then I lived a normal life, with my family, my friends, nature, the works.  And then at the age of 12 (the human equivalent at the time of slaughter for most Niman animals) I’d be taken into a dark room, stunned unconscious, and then slaughtered.

It sounds worse than my life today.  (After all, I’d be dead.)  But is it worse than never having lived?  To spare infant castration, a branded rear end and an early death, would I choose to forgo twelve years with my family, my friends and the natural earth?  That’s a much harder choice to make with confidence.  I tend to think I’d choose that life over no life at all.

And if you think animals would choose the same, then it’s hard to say that meat eating is inevitably wrong.  Maybe you can say that with ease about factory farming.  But it’s tougher to say about sustainable farming.

Eating Animals

Its So Much Easier To Think of It as Eating Meat.

And this isn’t the only “natural” argument in favor of eating meat.  Bill Niman himself, as quoted in Foer’s book, argues that agriculture itself is unnatural, and that typically animals fertilize plants; plants use that fertilizer and the sun to grow and store energy; animals eat the plants to get energy for themselves; and then animals die and once again fertilizing the plants.  The plants and animals need each other, and if you eliminate the animals, you need some other way to support the plants.  It’s all very Lion King.  But it’s hard to argue against.

And if animals are going to live and then die and be eaten by something (carcasses rarely decompose fully before something or other eats them, even in the wild), why don’t we let them play their role in nature, and then eat them ourselves?

All this may sound a bit crazy.  And even Niman-style ranching is horrific in many ways.  But if you’re willing to admit that you’d rather live those 12 years and suffer those agonies, than never live, or that our ecosystem relies on the presence of animals, then suddenly we’re talking not about whether it’s right or wrong to eat meat, but about how we treat animals.  And then it’s far better to treat them “sustainably” than to keep them in factory farms.

And maybe we can make their lives even better–let them live past the age of 12, find an alternatively to hot metal branding, let them keep their genitalia.

But I digress.  I have no definitive answers to these question, as I noted from the start.  But I thought I’d respond to some arguments in Foer’s book because they really get you thinking.

Do you think eating meat is immoral?

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6 Responses to Is Meat Immoral? Thoughts on Eating Animals

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