The Philosophical Lens (April 2019): Meat, Morality, and the Meaning of Harm

With April 22 being Earth Day, I wanted to discuss the ethics of meat. This is a really big topic that I can’t hope to cover in one post, but I want to take a look at what is presumed to be one of the most common reasons against eating meat, harm to animals, and reflect on what intuitions might motivate this way of thinking. I’m not a vegan, but as someone interested in ethics, I think this is a topic worth exploring and I hope you find this post valuable.

Taking meat (or murder) off the menu

The term vegan was coined by the British animal rights advocate Donald Watson who as a young boy witnessed the slaughter of a pig and came to see meat production as imposing great suffering on animals. One of the most common criticisms of meat production is the sheer scale of harm it causes to creatures who appear to have sentience, if not a sense of consciousness much like our own. Although this far from the only concern many vegans have, the idea that meat production harms animals is very likely to appear in discussions about meat. Some vegans argue that it is in fact immoral to harm and/or kill animals because, like humans, they deserve some degree of moral consideration. To distinguish this line of thinking from others, some have called this position “ontological veganism.
1” Although I’m using the term here, I want to note that it’s merely as a shorthand until we disambiguate the types of positions falling under this broad umbrella.

Defining ontological veganism

Many types of arguments falling under so-called ontological veganism are likely motivated primarily by the intuition that unnecessary harm to animals is immoral. While animals provide calories, it’s clear that there are other sources of food in the world that can meet many people’s dietary needs despite some omnivores’ insistence on the contrary. 2 It’s likely that many of us non-vegans hold a similar, if not the same, intuition toward specific animals (i.e. pets), a concept that is sometimes called speciesism, where select positive attitudes, and even rights, are given to members of preferred species. Animals like cats and dogs, for example, are often treated like family members, despite sharing features with some of the animals that we eat.

The prime intuition against causing harm

What justifies this intuition against harm? Among many vegans it seems to be the fact that animals have some capacity to suffer or experience pain, even if appears to be in a way that differs from our own experience of suffering.

Due to advances in neuroscience and comparative psychology, research has not merely affirmed that animals suffer, but that many animals have deep, emotional inner lives. These qualities, however, by no means are distributed equally across the animal kingdom. While animals like elephants appear to grieve and hold funerals (even for dead individuals of other species), we know that on the other end of the spectrum there are many animals not capable of such complex behaviors, and presumably the emotional and subjective experiences associated with these behaviors. Still, the breadth of animals capable of experiencing emotions or emotion-like stimulation is quite substantial with even insects showing displays of basic emotion.3 Of course, it’s difficult to know if there’s an intelligible sense of “what-it’s-like-to-be-ness” for a something like a bee and, as exemplified by the philosophical zombie thought experiment, there may never be a way to know if such a thing exists. This brings into question what exactly matters when it comes to harming an animal.

What makes harm harmful?

Does complexity of consciousness matter when we talk about harm and a moral obligation to not eat meat? While nearly all animals have the ability to experience physical pain or nociception, we can’t quite know the internal or subjective character of some animals’ pain. That might not be the case with more complex animals, like mammals, who have brains structured like ours and in a variety of cases exhibit behavior similar to ours, indicating that they might have a sense of self. My use of language here may conjure valid concerns of anthropomorphism, but science is increasingly coming to the conclusion that there are many animals who, based on their behavior and neurophysiology, likely experience some type of inner world. Basically, you’re not crazy if you find yourself trying to guess what’s going through your cat’s mind as it’s scratching up your sofa.

If complexity of consciousness factors into our discussion about harms, the million dollar question might be whether the same is true for a chicken or an alligator, or for any other animal who would be increasingly removed from our particular evolutionary path. Following this line of thinking, some have argued for limited types of speciesism, like a bias privileging mammals (presumably more than we already do).4

For some number of vegans, though, conversations about complexity of consciousness, at least exclusively, are missing the point. There are many forms of ethical veganism that are not naïve appeals to the sanctity of animal consciousness or appeals to some sense of “like-us-ness” that simply wholesale project our capacity to experience on all animals as if they experience the world in the exact same ways we do. In my opinion, this sort of view can be seen in its most extreme and worst forms through many of the various controversial ads PETA has produced over the years, which swap animals with human (usually female) bodies in various portrayals of hunting and farming. More mature and nuanced forms of vegan ethics acknowledge that there could be substantial differences in animals’ subjective experiences of pain, but that we can still respect that all living things have a capacity to suffer without falsely attributing to animals a human-like experience of the world.5

Which acts are harmful?

The question of what actions count as harm is something that’s arguably even more important. One important distinction that can be made between vegan ethical positions are ones that see meat production as harmful because it results in the murder of animals, and ones that see the act as harmful because (at least in its current form) it results in the suffering of animals. While the distinction seems arbitrary, it’s important to make.

Death as deprivation

Death is seen as a bad thing within most ethical frameworks, but this is especially the case when a given death is a murder or otherwise an intentionally caused death. There are often many reasons why death is bad but one of the simplest is that death is in effect a form of deprivation from all of the things in existence that are enjoyable. The philosopher Marc Larock, who was mentioned in this blog’s post on antinatalism, has written a detailed account of death as deprivation. If deprivationalist intuitions about the badness of death hold true, then it’s a moral intuition that is likely relevant in the case of humans killing animals, and a possible position of a number of the ethical vegans who see meat production as an inherent wrong.

Other harms of death

There are non-deprivationalist perspectives on the types of harm that death causes. For example, the philosopher Christine M. Korsgaard gives a deontological assessment of how killing animals may reduce them to tools, and thus is a type of moral violation.

Separating suffering from death

A number of animal welfare advocates, be they vegan or not, point out that our current factory farming practices are inhumane and produce vast amounts of animal suffering. While there are some individuals who might include death and/or deprivation among the harms that factory farming produces, not all ethical vegans are necessarily opposed to meat production or even other activities that necessitate animal death, so long as these activities are done humanely. The scope of what counts as humane can include both the treatment of an animal when it is alive, and the manner in which an animal is killed. The specifics of humane meat production may differ among varying vegan views, but it’s in this debate that some vegans and animal welfare advocates have argued that we can do the most good for animals.

Weaknesses with harm-based intuitions

Harm to animals isn’t the only reason why people are vegan, nor is it necessarily the strongest justification of ethical veganism. Still, it’s likely one of the most intuitive and appealing arguments within ethical veganism, if only because of our intuitions about animals’ ability to suffer. That said, are there issues with harm-based accounts of ethical veganism?

One problem is an issue we’ve talked about before on this blog – the non-identity problem. In the case of animals bred for consumption, what this means is that if the demand for meat were lessened, then many of the animals we’ve eaten simply would have never existed. While it’s a mistake to assume that existence is necessarily preferable to non-existence in all circumstances – as our friendly neighborhood antinatalist would remind us – it is true that in some conceivable world, especially one with more humane animal treatment accompanied by a painless death, that livestock could potentially have a life worth living, even if it’s one that ends with being served on a plate.

Another issue of harm-based approaches is simply that the nature of our obligation to animals, if such a thing exists, might not revolve around whether or not they’re like us in terms of self-awareness or even if they can experience pain.6

Beyond this, even if we could agree on how and why meat production harms animals, there is some difficulty involved in connecting consumption to production. While the two are inextricably linked, a full account of the harm of meat would have to include the ways in which consumption contributes to, or furthers, the harm done to animals that are killed for meat.

It’s worth noting that, thus far, most of our discussion has centered around what can be considered “direct” harms to animals, which, while important, may not be sufficient for the reduction of animal suffering. This is worth noting if we’re trying to reduce animals’ suffering overall as opposed to simply stopping pain from farming and hunting.

Ultimately, vegan ethics is a complex topic where we might find our basic intuitions stretched. What’s more is that harm towards animals is but one area of concern. Harm to the environment, and even to other humans, are additional concerns worth noting. Furthermore, the practice of veganism itself can be (and in some cases is) divorced from the ethical and physical harms of meat