Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty


Why you should eat meat

Not eating animals is wrong. If you care about animals, then the right thing to do is breed them, kill them and eat them

by Nick Zangwill + BIO

Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty

If you care about animals, you should eat them. It is not just that you may do so, but you should do so. In fact, you owe it to animals to eat them. It is your duty. Why? Because eating animals benefits them and has benefitted them for a long time. Breeding and eating animals is a very long-standing cultural institution that is a mutually beneficial relationship between human beings and animals. We bring animals into existence, care for them, rear them, and then kill and eat them. From this, we get food and other animal products, and they get life. Both sides benefit. I should say that by ‘animals’ here, I mean nonhuman animals. It is true that we are also animals, but we are also more than that, in a way that makes a difference.

It is true that the practice does not benefit an animal at the moment we eat it. The benefit to the animal on our dinner table lies in the past. Nevertheless, even at that point, it has benefitted by its destiny of being killed and eaten. The existence of that animal, and animals of its kind, depends on human beings killing and eating animals of that kind. Domesticated animals exist in the numbers they do only because there is a practice of eating them. For example, the many millions of sheep in New Zealand would not begin to survive in the wild. They exist only because human beings eat them. The meat-eating practice benefits them greatly and has benefitted them greatly. So, we should eat them. Not eating them is wrong, and it lets these animals down.

Of course, the animals we eat should have good lives, and so the worst kind of factory farming is not justified by this argument, since these animals have no quality of life. Life is not enough; it must be life with a certain quality. But some farmed animals do have good lives overall, and sheep farming in New Zealand is an example. Perhaps a minority of meat produced in the world today involves such happy animals. But it is a significant minority, one that justifies much eating of those happy animals. If demand shifted to these animals, there would be fewer animals in existence than there actually are. But that is OK, since the argument is not a maximising one, but an appeal to history.

Yes, there is the day of the abattoir, and the sad death of the animal, which is not usually as free from pain and suffering as it might be. And there is other pain and suffering in the lives of those animals, such as when mothers are separated from their young. However, the pleasure and happiness of animals also matters, and it may outweigh pain and suffering – something usually overlooked by most of those who affect to care for animals. The emphasis among the defenders of so-called ‘animal rights’ on animal pain and suffering while ignoring animal pleasure and happiness is bizarre and disturbing. Human beings suffer, and their deaths are often miserable. But few would deem their entire lives worthless because of that. Likewise, why should the gloomy and unpleasant end of many of the animals we eat cast a negative shadow over their entire lives up to that point?

I suspect that the pleasure and happiness of animals is overlooked because they are not of our species. This is a kind of speciesism that particularly afflicts devotees of ‘animals rights’. All lives have their ups and downs; and this is true for animals as well as human beings. Both ups and downs are important.

It is this ongoing history of mutual benefit that generates a moral duty of human beings to eat animals. Were the practice beneficial only to one of the two parties, that would perhaps not justify persisting with it. But both benefit. In fact, animals benefit a lot more than human beings do. For human beings could survive as vegetarians or vegans, whereas very few domesticated animals could survive many human beings being vegetarians or vegans. Indeed, if many human beings became vegetarians or vegans, it would be the greatest disaster that there has ever been for animals since the time that an asteroid strike wiped out the dinosaurs and many other species.

Vegetarians and vegans are the natural enemies of domesticated animals that are bred to be eaten. Of course, not all vegetarians and vegans are alike. Quite a few vegetarians and vegans are not motivated by animal rights or welfare, but by a feeling of taboo or pollution – a revulsion at the idea of eating animal flesh. For such vegetarians and vegans, roadkill is off the menu. Unlike the appeal to animal rights or the welfare of animals, this is a reason I respect. But such vegetarians and vegans should admit that acting on these feelings is bad for animals.

Do the motives of carnivores and farmers matter? Typically, they are not high-mindedly concerned with the welfare of animals. But if there are beneficial effects on animals as a side-effect of impure motives, we might think that is all that matters. Or: we might follow Immanuel Kant in distinguishing between treating humans or animals as a means, which may be acceptable, and treating them merely as a means, which is not. So long as carnivores and farmers have the former motives, not the latter, there is no complaint against them.

Small-scale farming in which animals have good lives does not harm the environment much

It is because history matters that we should not eat dogs that were originally bred to be pets or for work. The dog-human institution licenses only the behaviour that is in accordance with its historical function. Eating dogs would violate that tradition. The reason that these domesticated animals exist makes a difference.

Carnivorous institutions do not exist in isolation. Whatever may be the benefit or harms to the animals and human beings that are its participants, there are also further effects of the practice that may be considered. First, consider some positive effects. There are the gustatory pleasures of human beings. There are some health benefits to human beings. There is employment for many who work in the meat industry. There are the aesthetic benefits of countryside with charming grazing animals in elegant, well-maintained fields.

However, the big negative, for many people is climate, and the effects, mostly, of cattle burping and farting. Does not climate give us reason to be vegetarian or vegan? Well, since the problem mostly comes from cows, one option would be to move to eating other kinds of animals in greater numbers. Moreover, the climate damage is mostly due to very intensive factory farming, which I do not defend because the animals do not have good lives. Indeed, the evidence is that small-scale farming in which animals have good lives does not harm the environment much, and it may even benefit it.

The argument from historical benefit does not apply to wild animals, which are in an entirely different category. Human beings did not create these animals with a purpose, and so we do not owe them anything in virtue of that relationship, although, as sentient beings, their lives deserve respect. Can we hunt them for food if we are hungry, or kill them if they harm us? Probably yes, depending on the degree of need and the degree of harm. Can we hunt them purely for sport? Perhaps not. They have their conscious lives, and who are we to take it away from them without cause?

The lives of wild animals are an endless cycle of trauma, pain and death. Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s phrase about nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ hardly begins to do justice to the extent of the hunger, fear and agony of the lives and deaths of animals in the wild. They kill and eat each other relentlessly, by the billion. This awful truth about wild animals is concealed from children in the vast majority of children’s books and films in which fictional animals of different kinds are represented as chummy friends, instead of ripping each other apart for food. Where they get their food is usually glossed over. Most of what adults tell children about animals is a spectacular lie.

In nurturing animals that we raise for food or other purposes, human beings seem to do better than God

The ‘problem of evil’ is a standard problem for belief in God’s existence, and the usual focus is on human suffering. But the suffering of wild animals should also be a major headache for God, and perhaps more of a headache than human suffering. Why would an all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful god make animals suffer so much? The nature and extent of animal suffering makes an even more compelling argument against God’s existence because the usual replies in the human case, especially the appeal to the value of free will, are not available for animals. If there is a good god, we might well wonder why such bloody horror was unleashed on these creatures.

Human beings are in fact a rare light in the darkness of the animal kingdom when we nurture some animals in order to eat them. Many domesticated animals are bred and raised for food in conditions that should be the envy of wild animals. The daily life of some of the animals we eat is almost like a spa! If vegetarians and vegans are the natural enemies of domesticated animals, carnivorous human beings are their natural friends. Indeed, in nurturing and caring for animals that we raise for food or other purposes, human beings seem to do better than God.

Does this pro-carnivorous argument apply to eating human beings? Does it imply that we should enslave, kill and eat some human beings if it is to their benefit? No. For one thing, the situations are entirely different. Domesticated animals, such as cows, sheep and chickens, owe their existence to the fact that we prey upon them, whereas human beings do not owe their existence to being preyed on. As far as I know, there are no human beings who owe their existence to a cannibalistic meat-eating practice. And even if there were, they could survive without it, if liberated, which is radically unlike domesticated animals. The situation of human beings and domesticated animals is entirely different.

More fundamentally, human beings have rights of a kind that animals lack. Having rights does not just mean that the lives of human beings and animals matter – of course they do. It means something more specific, which implies that it would be wrong to kill and eat human beings against their will, even if the practice were to benefit them. So, for example, when one human being innocently goes for a hospital checkup, a doctor should not cut them open for the purpose of harvesting their organs for transplants that will save the lives of five other human beings. But a veterinary surgeon may, I believe, cut open one innocent ownerless dog who wanders in off the street to save five other ownerless dogs. In that sense, animals do not have ‘rights’. These rights mark a moral line between human beings and animals. Suppose, though, that we are less particular about how we use the word ‘rights’, and animals having ‘rights’ just means that their conscious lives matter. In that case, we respect those ‘rights’ when we kill and eat domesticated animals. Indeed, if we did not do that, there would be no such animals to have rights.

What, then, is the source of these rights, which human beings have and that animals lack? Along with many others, I think that source is our ‘rationality’, where that is an ability to think things, do things or make decisions, for reasons. Of course, we do not always reason as we should. But all that rationality means here is that we often do or think things because we think it was the right thing to do or think. The philosopher Christine Korsgaard seems to have got this right with her idea that reasoning, or at least the kind of human reasoning that is self-conscious, involves what she calls ‘normative self-government’. This is more than the ability to think about our own thoughts (often called ‘metacognition’) but is also the ability to change one’s mind, for instance, in forming beliefs or intentions, because we think that our mindset demands it. In reasoning, of the more self-conscious kind, we apply normative concepts to ourselves and change our minds because of that.

We should kill and eat them, so long as their lives are good overall before we do that

It is true that human babies cannot yet use reason, and that there are adult human beings who cannot reason, due to a mental disability. Rationality theorists have stumbled over these cases. But they can easily be finessed if we say that human beings have reasoning as their nature or telos, as the ancient Greeks might have said. Being rational is a function of human beings, which they do not always fulfil, just as not all hearts pump blood and not all coffee machines make coffee. We may say that dogs have four legs even though there are a very few unfortunate dogs with only three legs who have had an accident or were born with a genetic deformity. Likewise, we may say that human beings are rational animals, despite human babies and adult human beings with mental disabilities that preclude reasoning, because mature human beings often have reasons for what they think, do and decide.

A Butcher’s Counter (1810-12), by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. Photo courtesy the Louvre Museum, Paris

In 1780, Jeremy Bentham said of animals: ‘The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?’ I agree that the suffering of animals is important, but, as I have complained, so is their pleasure and happiness. And I would also like to complain that just because suffering is important does not make reasoning unimportant. Perhaps both are important, in different ways. If, unlike Bentham, we admit rights (he thought they were ‘nonsense upon stilts’), then the question is very much ‘Can they reason?’ Because they reason, human beings have rights, whereas animals lack rights because they cannot reason. Since they lack rights, we can paternalistically consider what is good for them. And this good dictates that we should kill and eat them, so long as their lives are good overall before we do that. They have no rights standing in the way of the mutually beneficial carnivorous practice.

Someone might wonder whether we should rest all of our special worth, and our right to protection from intraspecies predation, on our rationality. We have other impressive characteristics that might also generate rights. However, one of the advantages of the appeal to rationality is the way that it embraces many other aspects of human life that we think are important and valuable. Consider our impressive knowledge or creative imagination – these might also be intrinsically valuable in such a way as to generate distinctive rights, including the right not to be eaten against our will. These valuable characteristics also seem to be distinctive of human beings. However, many of these characteristics depend on rationality. Knowledge, of the extent, and acquired in the way that much human knowledge is acquired, is also possible only for reflective rational beings. The scientific project, for example, is predicated on a certain self-reflectiveness about methods and evidence – especially measurement.

So, these phenomena seem still to be within the orbit of rationality. What about the creative imagination? Many Surrealists thought that excessive rational thought was responsible for the horrors of the First World War, and as a response they valued creative imagination over rational deliberation, as in André Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism (1924). However, what is human creative imagination? Do animals imagine in this way? Perhaps a pet dog can imagine being taken for a walk. But this is not like the creative imagination of human beings who invent interesting or beautiful works of art or literature, who revolutionise scientific theories or who envisage novel ways of living. Only the reflective rational mind can have creative imagination of this sort. Thus, it seems that many phenomena of human beings that seem special and distinctive, and that are of moral significance in the sense of having potential to generate rights, turn out to depend on rationality.

With this conception of rationality in hand, let us now turn the spotlight on the minds of animals. Let us begin with our close cousins – apes and monkeys. Do they share the rational capacities of human beings? The research on apes and monkeys is currently inconclusive. Researchers do not agree. There is some evidence suggesting that some such creatures can engage in a kind of reasoning, or at least that they have modes of thought continuous with human reasoning. In fact, the best evidence for primate reasoning is a kind of upside-down evidence, that some apes and monkeys appear to suffer from irrationalities similar to those besetting human beings. The psychologists Laurie Santos and Alexandra Rosati argued this in an article in 2015. And surely: if the animals are reasoning badly, then they are reasoning. The conclusion that they reason is controversial but, if it were right, it would mean that such animals should be protected by moral rights like those of human beings in virtue of their rationality. However, at present, we do not know enough to go one way or the other with full personhood rights for apes and monkeys.

By contrast with these cases, the research is less ambiguous concerning most of the domesticated animals that we eat: cows, sheep, chickens, and the rest. Hardly any researchers think these animals reason. They are conscious, they have pleasures and pains, and they show intelligence of a kind when they use tools, for example. They can pursue means to an end. However, many highly intelligent species, such as elephants and dogs, pursue means to an end, but only inflexibly, so that they carry on pursuing the means when the two are visibly disconnected. Such inflexibility suggests that the psychological mechanism in play is association, not reasoning. And if elephants and dogs are not reasoning, it is unlikely that cows, sheep and chickens do better on this score.

We do not have to wait to see what the research turns up; we may proceed directly to the dinner table

Even Lori Marino, who is an enthusiastic advocate for the sophistication of the minds of domesticated animals does not suggest that these animals have anything like the self-conscious reasoning that is characteristic of human beings. There just seems to be no evidence suggesting that cows, sheep and chickens can reason in Korsgaard’s self-reflective sense; and that means that they lack rights. Of course, lacking rights does not mean that their lives have no value, unless one deploys a uselessly obese notion of rights. Their consciousness matters. But that is exactly why we should kill and eat them. With these animals, we are doing them a favour if we kill and eat them. The exceptions among the animals that we breed to eat are pigs, whose surprisingly adept operation of computer joysticks demonstrates cognitive flexibility that may indicate reasoning.

In all, the state of play of the evidence in animal psychology suggests different degrees of certainty for different animals. There is uncertainty concerning our nearest relatives – apes and monkeys – while there is more clarity about most of the domesticated animals that we breed to eat. Apart from pigs, it is clear that farmed animals cannot reason reflectively, and therefore they lack the rights that would prevent us eating them for their benefit. With cows, sheep and chickens, we do not have to wait to see what the research turns up; we may proceed directly to the dinner table.

A chicken may cross a road, but it does not decide to do so for a reason. The chicken may even be caused to cross the road by some desire that it has; and the chicken may exhibit intelligence in whether or not it crosses the road. But the chicken makes no decision to follow its desires, and it makes no reasoned decision about whether or not it is a good idea to cross the road. We can ask: ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ but the chicken cannot ask itself: ‘Why should I cross the road?’ We can. That’s why we can eat it.