A response to the “ethic” of eating meat currently spreading around the internet

The spread of this piece around the internet attests not to its quality but to the consumer demand for such an argument. We live in a time when the contradiction between a feeling towards consuming meat and our practices is becoming increasingly prominent, and it is normal that people look to a solution which makes the solution look like a modified form of the status quo.

In short, the argument is that meat raised in terrible conditions, which today accounts for nearly all meat, is not acceptable, but that we need not refrain from killing and eating animals fully because essentially animals are solar energy, and meat is a part of human culture.

We might try to dismiss the popularity of the argument, even if we agreed with its substantive point, as a kind of pathology of aversion towards the recognized real problem. After all, it only defends a very specific form of meat consumption, one which refers to a tiny minority of the meat consumed, and one which is priced out of availability from most consumers. The fact that so little meat is consumed in this way suggests there is something disingenuous about the popularity of the argument – at least 90% of meat eaters, to in their actions agree with this will have to substantively modify their behaviour and often eat vegetarian in reaction simply to the lack of availability of acceptable meat.

I would make this point, but maybe it is better to do an analysis rather  this is a pretty terrible argument. Just in case you haven’t seen it, I’ll cite it here:

eating meat is ethical when one does three things. First, you accept the biological reality that death begets life on this planet and that all life (including us!) is really just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form. Second, you combine this realization with that cherished human trait of compassion and choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain and/or meat.

The fact that in a certain perspective animals are merely solar energy doesn’t imply anything ethical, because it is not an ethical fact but a descriptive theoretical fact which is true from a scientific perspective. Unfortunately, scientific description doesn’t allow a passage to normatively – no amount of describing the world in terms of the interchange of atoms and energy tells you what form of interchange is right, this always requires a supplement of felt knowledge (which we could call psychological or phenomenological). This isn’t to say that science can’t be terribly useful in ethical questions, but only in clarifying implications from normative facts which are essentially not in themselves scientifically descriptive.

To clarify this further and add an example, we might say that if we take for granted that animals are solar energy, we might also take for granted that humans are animals (an obvious scientific fact so often left out from scientific description regarding questions regarding food animals), and that therefore humans are solar energy. And if specifics of human culture can justify the use of solar energy stored in animals into human food, then human sacrifice and consumption can be justified. But this is clearly absurd, because insofar as ethics is concerned with universal propositions then the consumption of humans by humans can’t be ethical as by instantiating itself it takes away the possibility for human consumption by those humans consumed. Any serious argument in favour of the consumption of animals must draw a boundary between what animals are acceptable for consumption and which are not, and there are various ways that this can be done.

For example, you could make an argument stemming from an affirmation of a certain form of humanist tribalism. We could say: humans in order to survive must band together and draw a strict in-out group distinction, and extend moral consideration to those in the in group while using those outside purely as a means. I think this argument can seriously be considered when thinking about human history of enslavement, because while I would want to always condemn the enslavement and killing of people and non-human animals for the use of an in-group, I also recognize that the establishment of non-tribal or less tribal groups (perhaps reaching an ideological high point in the as yet poorly fulfilled UN declaration of human rights) seems to have progressed via the establishment and strengthening of more tribal group. An example of this which I would be quite sympathetic to would be the role of the nation in anti-colonial resistance – which I would hope that the liberated colony might move from national consciousness to consciousness, and the state-of-mind required to oppose the oppression of the settler might reveal to itself its own one-sidedness when the anxiety of threat passes. Of course, the anxiety of the threat often does not pass, but instead constantly re-inscribe itself as a social pathology to prevent the undoing of existing power relations and the apparent danger of the end of nationalism, which is not simply apparent to those who hold power in the revolutionary institutions which would need to be reformed again to be adequate to a truly post-colonial situation.

To speak more explicitly about food animals, and in quite a different way, we might think that the enslavement of non human animals was a necessary part of the emergence of civilizations. The use of an animal to pull a plough was quite important at some times, and the use of flocks to turn solar energy into food people can eat in a situation where agriculture or gathering isn’t an option might be a requirement for human life in some circumstances. But what is essential to me about these examples is that these needs have passed – we no longer need animals to turn grasslands habitable, and we no longer require the labour of the ox to pull our agricultural machinery. Thus, the continued enslavement of animals is an example of a cultural decadence, a continued in-out difference inscribed long past its point of usefulness or requirement for the social welfare of humankind. The consumption of animals shares something essential with ideologies of national liberation movements which, having succeeded, maintain through the productive of apparent conflict the in-out group distinctions that might have been required during the liberation itself.

But what if, in fact, the presence of this argument in prominence across the media and internet actually speaks a different truth than the one it tries to articulate. It is not insignificant that it becomes more and more unacceptable today to defend the current realities of meat production. This nightmare, barely hidden under the surface, has been largely unearthed by vegan propaganda like Earthlings, as well as more mainstream critical films like Food Inc. More important than its epistemic unveiling however is the way people today not only know, but can’t deny to know this nightmare. The objective existence of knowledge in peoples minds is never enough to break a standing contradiction – that knowledge must become social and contested in third spaces, and this is what happens as a precondition for articles like this one.

The reason why this unveiling is revolutionary, rather than simply attesting to some incremental progress is that the internal logic of the contradiction doesn’t bear out the conclusion at which the argument arrives. The assertion that animals are simply solar energy (unlike human animals?), if it has any moral significance at all, is simply to exclude animals fully from the realm of considerability. In other words, it is not actually an argument for treating animals better, it is only the old argument in favour of not considering their feelings or interests at all. This more explicit formulation of an in-out distinction has the virtue of clarity and honesty, and its disappearance is a sign of the inability of meat eaters to with honesty affirm their moral position – the position of the meat eater can only be maintained today by a kind of internal hack job, one must at the same time believe that the feelings of animals matter, but not matter enough not to kill them. But if animals have interests and feelings that matter, then it follows that to kill them those interests have to come into a contradiction with the feelings and interests of another being whose feelings and interests matter. This happens in conflicts – you might argue you must kill your enemy because they will kill you. And this might happen in pastoral societies – you must kill the animal because otherwise you will die. But this doesn’t happen today, today we kill animals for pleasure rather than survival. There is an uncanny similarity between the way we treat animals, and the way conquering powers treat subjugated peoples, and defend their right to treat them this way. In the future I’ll write an entry tracing these similarities more explicitly by comparing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the vegan-vegetarian-meat eating controversy.

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13 thoughts on “A response to the “ethic” of eating meat currently spreading around the internet

  1. What is sad is how separated people are from animals. Animals are not “meat” they are living things, and should be treated with dignity. If their lives are taken to feed a human being then thanks should be given to that animal for feeding the body of the human. At the very least human beings should treat animals with integrity. The cruel treatment of animals disgusts me.

  2. The fact that in a certain perspective animals are merely solar energy doesn’t imply anything ethical, because it is not an ethical fact but a descriptive theoretical fact which is true from a scientific perspective

    I agree that the solar energy claim is irrelevant.

    If someone wanted to do so, it would be perfectly simple to raise an animal without using the sun at all. You could raise plants with light from a nuclear reactor and feed those to an animal. Both the plants and the animal would have sun-fed ancestors, but there is no essential requirement of solar input into any particular piece of meat.

    It doesn’t matter, though. I see no fundamental moral relevance in the source of energy in meat. The source of energy may be important insofar as its production had an impact on other living things, but being sun-sourced doesn’t grant meat ethical legitimacy.

    All that said, I do think it can be ethical to eat meat. The priority is to find a way for humanity to live in the world without destroying it. That may involve a re-acceptance of humanity as part of nature. That being said, factory farming is an abomination that persists because people prefer their food cheap and aren’t too bothered about where it comes from unless they are constantly reminded about it.

  3. More important than its epistemic unveiling however is the way people today not only know, but can’t deny to know this nightmare.

    People are amazingly skilled at remaining ignorant about what they would rather not know, and at rationalizing why actions they sense to be wrong are in fact perfectly acceptable for them to undertake.

    the position of the meat eater can only be maintained today by a kind of internal hack job, one must at the same time believe that the feelings of animals matter, but not matter enough not to kill them.

    I think this argument pre-supposes too much about the interpretation people have about the ethics of killing animals. The claim that the suffering of animals makes killing unacceptable or unethical would be rejected by many people, and they wouldn’t be making an absurd statement. Nature – which we tend to venerate in our thoughts even while destroying with our actions – is full of death and suffering. You can argue that as conscious beings we should work to minimize that, but I don’t think meat-eaters generally accept the premises you do, so your argument will likely not be convincing to them. They have some sort of an answer to the question of suffering – though their conviction in it may well waver when presented with more evidence of what their perspective causes.

  4. “People are amazingly skilled at remaining ignorant about what they would rather not know, and at rationalizing why actions they sense to be wrong are in fact perfectly acceptable for them to undertake.”

    I agree. I’d also say that people are amazingly skilled at continuing to act even in their own mental events as if they didn’t know something inconvenient, even when they do know it. However, when that knowledge becomes social – when the inconvenient truth becomes a conversation, it becomes much harder to continue with this schismatic thinking. Of course, that just means that the knowledge needs to be publicly (and therefore at a more explicit level of consciousness) acknowledged, and more stories can be adopted so as to detach the knowledge from a demand for action. Hence, with respect to Global warming, when people can no longer deny it is real that knowledge must instantly come with another belief which does away with the need for action. For instance, the belief that “nothing can be done”. There are many versions of this (either because it is too late, or because individual action isn’t possible because it’s all up to larger forces), but in the important detail of how the belief attaches to action they are the same.

  5. “The claim that the suffering of animals makes killing unacceptable or unethical would be rejected by many people, and they wouldn’t be making an absurd statement.”

    That seems true insofar as we only talk about suffering. However, in my post I used the assertion of a belief “that the feelings of animals matter”. That’s importantly different from just talking about suffering because it also acknowledges the animals as subjects which suffer, and which have an interest not to suffer. Now, you might be right that the common problem with maltreatment of animals in meat is really just a worry about suffering as such, and in that case your point might be correct. But I think caring about the suffering of animals without caring about them as subjects which suffer is incoherent, a kind of “internal hack job” as I said above. And as soon as you care about them as subjects of suffering, you acknowledge they have interests and that is going to include an interest in experiences which are not suffering, like raising their children for instance.

  6. The issue isn’t suffering, pure and simple. It’s suffering for an unworthy purpose. We don’t have the right to impose miserable lives on animals just so that we can eat their flesh.

    Of course, the same arguments apply for milk and leather and other animal products that mostly come from factory farming.

    I am a bit sympathetic to the idea that leather is more tolerable than meat or milk. A pair of shoes or a garment that lasts for years seems to me like a more worthy purpose than a meal that exists only briefly.

    1. That’s possible, but only if we consider the suffering as abstracted from the individuals concerned, because the suffering isn’t taken on voluntarily. There is an important difference, say, between the justification of the suffering of allied fighters in their struggle against the Nazi threat, and the justification of the firebombing of towns in Germany and Japan which killed and destroyed the livelihood of civilians not directly involved in the conflict. In one case, the suffering is consequence of a voluntary action, and in the other case it is imposed. Some will argue that there is not an important difference between these different forms of suffering, and will try to compare the suffering of the Japanese killed in the nuclear attacks with the potential suffering of soldiers should the conflict have continued with conventional weapons, but I think this makes quite a basic moral mistake of taking suffering as such to be the unit of moral salience, rather than the relationship between suffering and voluntary action. But, I suppose that is because I take a freedom based approach to moral and political questions, if I were a utilitarian and grounded my defence of freedom in the idea of utility, then I might take the other side. And in that case, it would be consistent to debate the moral rightness of suffering on the basis of mere consequence rather than the relationship between consequence and decision.

      1. Everything that happens to non-human animals is imposed. We may be able to guess fairly accurately at what conditions they might prefer, but non-human animals inevitably live within the conditions established by their environments.

      2. “Everything that happens to non-human animals is imposed. ”

        That’s just not true, and really expresses a speciasist bias. Lots of non human animals establish homes, relationships, communal networks, rudimentary tribes, rituals to establish and reform dominance hierarchies, some even use tools (although I think we’re wrong to focus so heavily on that). Animals do lots out of their own will, and concretize their will and social will into built environments that serve individual and collective purposes.

        “If the moral imperative is “reduce the suffering experienced by animals” ”

        Are you contending that there is no moral difference between preventing a suffering caused by nature, and causing a suffering through imprisonment and torture? This is a slightly sloppy terrain when we try to apply universal prescripts to questions like “what is the difference between killing and letting die”, but in fact we do recognize salient differences in the context of particular actions. It is different to cause someone harm than to prevent harm to be caused to someone, although the difference disappears as the difference between action and inaction becomes less substantive and more technical (i.e. if you set up thought experiments about pushing or not pushing buttoms). But I’d say that happens only when “inaction” is actually contextually transformed into a form of action.

        “The moral question – as I see it – is whether the use we make of those animals justifies the suffering they experience”

        Well that’s a utilitarian approach which assumes that I’m wrong about the difference between subjects-experiencing suffering and brute suffering. What you’re doing is quantifying the suffering as such and using that as the morally salient quantity. I think that’s wrong. I think it’s more apparently wrong when you do it for humans, but doing it for non-human animals just depends on an in-out group bias which is not essentially different from tribal or racial biases. Why do you care about people who live in other countries? Maybe we should quantify their suffering and justify it in terms of our purposes – what’s the morally relevant difference between humans and non-human animals? If you try to find it biologically, then you find many non human animals have similar capacities for emotion and for willful action. Of course they lack language and sophisticated reasoning, but no one advocates excluding humans who lack those capacities from the moral realm, and the argument is always on the basis of their ability to experience compassion, emotion, suffering and joy. I think unless you’re willing to advocate quite a draconian approach to the mentally disabled, it’s not possible to seriously draw the in-out group boundary to make this kind of analysis possible. And even if you do, I think it’s just wrong – I would disagree with a draconian approach to the mentally disabled, because I think it’s a pure mistake to identify sophisticated cognitive functioning with moral inclusion.

      3. If the moral imperative is “reduce the suffering experienced by animals” then perhaps we should be out there giving birdseed to wild birds in the woods in winter, killing especially menacing predators, and generally trying to make nature more pleasant.

        To me, that seems like a rather immoral course of action – as there seems to be a (difficult to describe) value in leaving nature largely as it is.

        When we talk about farming, however, we are describing facilities intentionally created to serve human purposes. We create these facilities with at least some knowledge about the mental lives of the animals that live in them. Based on what we know, it is likely that the animals involved suffer a lot. The moral question – as I see it – is whether the use we make of those animals justifies the suffering they experience. There are other linked moral questions. For instance, factory farming depends to a large degree on antibiotics, and the use of those antibiotics makes human disease worse. Just as we can ask whether the suffering of a pig intended for bacon makes bacon eating unethical, we can ask whether the death of people to antibiotic resistant bacteria makes eating bacon unethical.

      4. If you think animals are morally considerable, then it isn’t sufficient to ask only “whether the use we make of those animals justifies the suffering they experience”, one must also ask whether such use could justify that suffering, or whether the key moral demand lies in their use rather than their suffering.

        And while you’re right that the larger conversation is only started with such a recognition, the sheer size of the catastrophe which is our contemporary relationship with animals means that the conversation can’t only be directed at the theoretical-moral question of how all the particularities are to be figured out, but also at the practical-political question of how to bring our practical activity into the realm where a serious moral discussion is even possible. Because of the practical requirement of moral thought, sometimes emphasis on complexity must be sidestepped with simplifying prescriptions. On that basis I find it practical to advocate the relatively simple positions that can be the basis of a campaigning slogan, and there are various which may be pragmatically suited to different political contexts, from the assertion of the importance of the feelings of animals, to the need for animals to be recognized as having rights, to the absolute requirement not to eat the flesh of animals, to the absolute requirement not to eat the products of animals. The absoluteness of all of these prescriptions is somewhat disingenuous because the real import of a prescription is its effect on a situation in which it always appears as one sided but, if effective, has a transformative effect on the centre.

  7. I think all animals are appropriate targets for moral reasoning, and none of them can be appropriately used entirely as an instrument for serving other purposes.

    That being said, recognizing that cockroaches, children, foreigners, and the severely disabled all have legitimate moral claims that affect how they can be legitimately treated by others only begins the moral conversation. Once we accept that they have some sort of claim, we have a lot of work to do in sorting out exactly what that means in terms of what we can or cannot do that affects them.

    Deciding what course of action is morally appropriate is especially challenging in cases where we cannot meaningfully communicate with the other entity. It is a fair guess that whales would rather live quietly in the sea eating krill than be harpooned and cut apart for lamp oil. It is far less clear that wild dogs are preferable to domesticated pets, or that severely disabled people should be kept alive indefinitely by artificial means.

    My key point is that establishing that non-human animals are morally considerable only begins the ethical discussion. It certainly doesn’t end it.

  8. The practical message seems pretty clear: use fewer animal products, especially animal products originating on factory farms (as well as those coming from endangered species, I would add).

    P.S. The comment threading system on this site is very annoying. It should either be possible to ‘reply’ to any comment or to none at all. It makes a confusing mess when you can reply to some comments but not others.

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