Ethical Issues Relating to the Consumption of Meat
John Brownridge Ed.D.
Vegetarianism is not a new phenomenon, and indeed there are references to the practice dating back as far as the sixth century BCE in India, Greece, and some parts of Europe. Virtually all of these references seem to indicate that the fundamental rationale for a meatless diet in ancient times was based on a cultural or religious belief that violence towards animals was morally unacceptable. It is only in more recent times that other ethical issues relating to meat eating have become apparent. Chronic food shortages, environmental destruction, widespread pollution of air and water, and climatic changes have all had a serious impact on the ethics of meat production and meat consumption. The question as to whether meat eating is ethical, then, must be addressed on two fronts: Are humans morally justified in killing animals for food? And if they are, should the current world concerns about food shortages and environmental problems cause us to re-examine the ethical status of meat eating?
Charles Eisenstein in his 2002 article, The Ethics of eating Meat, argues strongly against some putative unethical practices involved in meat production. He points out the unimaginable suffering of animals kept in filthy, crowded confinement; chickens packed in at twenty to a cage; pigs kept in narrow, concrete stalls which prevent them from ever turning around. Certainly, the abuse of animals in this way is appalling but, as Eisenstein readily admits, it does not directly address the ethics of meat eating. Rather, it is more relevant to the ethical issues involved in meat production. In other words, cruel treatment of animals that are destined for the dinner table does not in itself lead to the conclusion that meat consumption is wrong. Perhaps more humane care is called for, and the conditions in which these animals are kept should be substantially improved, but the central ethical question remains. Is it wrong to kill animals for food?
Vegetarians in today’s world may abstain from meat for a variety of reasons. For some, it is a health or dietary concern amid the many reports that proclaim the adverse effects of animal fats on our hearts and arteries. For others, it is a religious issue. Ethical vegetarians, however, are singularly unambiguous in stating their reason for meat abstinence. They are inspired by the simple, primal conviction that killing is wrong; it is brutal, barbaric, and totally unnecessary, and they refuse to be a part of the meat-eating majority of modern western society. Those who hold this view apparently believe that respect for the sanctity of life should apply not only to human life, but to all life. If it is wrong to kill a human being, they claim, then it is equally wrong to kill an animal. If humans have the right to live, then so do animals. If we go to such great lengths to ensure the safety and protection of people, then should we not do the same for animals?
There are a number of significant problems with this view which seems to be based more on emotion than on sound reason. First of all, despite our natural empathy for the plight of animals and a desire to prevent unnecessary suffering, there are some important differences between human beings and animals. In his book, Animal Liberation, Peter Singer builds a strong case for animal rights, but even he admits that they cannot be on a par with human rights. “There are obviously important differences between humans and other animals,” he says, “and these differences must give rise to some differences in the rights that each have.” Most people would agree with this. Animals are not humans and they cannot be afforded the same rights as humans. Because of his unique ability to think and reason, man has been forced to accept responsibility for the welfare of this planet and the continued sustenance of all its inhabitants. This responsibility often requires him to sacrifice the viability of other forms of life, whether animals or plants, for the general good. A major part of this dominance is obviously related to the production of food.
Some ethical vegetarians take issue with the claim that man is superior to the rest of the animal kingdom, and they dismiss such a superior view as arrogant and cynical. Man is part of nature, they argue, and as such he should play a humble part by respecting all other forms of life; killing other animals for food is a blatant disregard of his sacred responsibilities as a member of the animal kingdom. But such a position raises another question which seems to support rather than oppose man’s propensity for meat eating. If man is just another member of the animal kingdom, why are we surprised or shocked that he would kill for food? As L. Neil Schulman points out in his book, The Illogic of Animal Rights, "If human beings are no different from other animals, then like all other animals it is our nature to kill if it serves the purposes of our survival and well-being, for that is the way of all nature.”
It is indisputable that man, despite his unique abilities to reason and think, is part of nature and part of the animal kingdom, but as such, he finds himself at odds with his intelligence and his primal instincts for survival. Nature has determined that some animals are carnivores and some are herbivores, but man seems to be a natural omnivore, eating both plants and other animals. It is difficult to see how he can be condemned for being what nature made him. No one feels the need to condemn the lioness as she kills the antelope for food, because we recognize that this is consistent with the balance of nature. The hunter survives on the meat provided by the prey, and the hunted species benefits by having the weak, the slow, and the less perfect removed from the herd. This is the way of nature, and humans as part of nature cannot be condemned for eating meat as such. But there are other ethical issues pertaining to our carnivorous habits.
Many committed vegetarians, so-called environmental vegetarians, recognize and accept that hunting for food and meat production on a large scale are not in themselves unethical, but they make a strong case for vegetarianism on the grounds that meat production is one of the main causes of environmental degradation and world food shortage. Their claim is not unfounded. According to worldwide studies of the livestock industry, initiated and conducted by the United Nations (2006), meat production ranks as one of the top three contributors to global environmental problems, including deforestation, air and water pollution, and climate change. Furthermore, the massive use of precious topsoil for producing animal feed seriously limits the world’s ability to grow sustainable crops for human consumption, leading to widespread food shortage and even starvation in some parts of the world.
Humans cannot simply turn a blind eye to these pressing problems. Indeed, Dr. H. Steinfeld, one of the officials involved in the U.N. 2006 report, concludes that “urgent action is required to remedy the situation” before it becomes irreversible. According to the report, more than 30% of the earth’s surface is currently being used to raise livestock, including the vast areas of land needed to produce animal feed. It is estimated that almost three acres of land are required for the grain needed to produce a year’s worth of meat for the average meat eater, while the same three acres could produce eighteen years’ worth of food for a vegetarian. Up to fifteen pounds of vegetable protein is needed to produce a single pound of meat, and nearly half of the U.S. water consumption goes to the meat industry. The fact is, meat is an expensive, wasteful, and unnecessary food, and in today’s world we need to seriously consider whether the meat industry is ethically viable. Should we not turn our efforts to producing significant quantities of crop food that can alleviate the hunger and starvation that is so evident in third world countries?
These are compelling arguments against meat consumption, though they are not necessarily conclusive. Eisenstein points out that these dreadful statistics apply to the meat industry as it is now. There are other ways of raising livestock, he claims, ways that would be more efficient, making animals an environmental asset rather than a liability. He suggests traditional mixed farming, for example, where a variety of crops, pasture land and orchards can be combined. In responsible farming manure, for example, would not be a pollutant or a waste product; it could be a valuable resource contributing to soil fertility. Animals need not be an obstacle to crop production; they would actually help to produce the crops we need.
The ethical status of meat eating is not easily determined, and the fact that strong opinions on both sides of the argument persist clearly illustrates this. Most people, including many vegetarians, would agree that it is not so much the fact of eating meat that presents a problem – this seems to be natural enough. Rather it is the environmental implications of meat eating for the welfare of the planet that cause concern. If radical improvements in the meat industry can address these concerns adequately, then meat consumption on a reduced scale can perhaps be justified. Failing this, however, it seems to be clear that the time has come for humans to move towards a vegetarian diet.