Is it ethical to eat meat?

Posted on April 7, 2012

Is It Ethical to Eat Meat?


Essay in response to

“Calling All Carnivores” competition

at the New York Times, 2012


Download pdf of this essay here

Finalists in the competition can be found here



“Is it ethical to eat meat?”

This is the question posed. And it is the wrong question.

I am attracted to the idea of vegetarianism but, in our Western societies, the concept still remains marginal. The question as posed implies an acceptance of meat eating as an issue for debate in the ‘ethical’ or ‘moral’ realm. For mainstream Western society this is, today, simply not the case.

Peter Singer and Tom Regan have been at the forefront of attempts to turn meat eating into an ethical question. Nobody has made the case as thoughtfully or as cogently as they have. Have they been successful?

Buying into Peter Singer’s views on the use of animals implies acceptance of the totality of his utilitarian philosophy. We therefore have to be willing to buy into the full implications of such a philosophical position including, for instance, the acceptability, in certain circumstances, of human infanticide. The same is true if we are to follow Tom Regan’s rights-based philosophy. Regan ‘moves the line’ by expanding the concept of ‘rights’ to incorporate sentient animals while choosing to strip all non-sentient beings of any rights (and we won’t even get into the issues with the definition of ‘sentience’). Regan therefore argues non-sentient beings do not even have the right to survival. In this view, the Human may be entitled to wipe all non-sentient beings off the face of the Earth.

I suggest that neither of these philosophies taken in its totality is likely to find widespread resonance in our societies. Thomas Scanlon suggests that we should judge those moral principles that we would like to see widely accepted not by whether we judge them as being reasonable to accept (that is a matter of personal inclination that others may, reasonably, not share), but rather by whether such principles seem unreasonable to reject. I submit that most people, including many animal lovers and animal rights activists, would not find it unreasonable to reject the totality of Singer’s and Regan’s philosophical positions. Their support for Singer and Regan rests on cherry picking those aspects that confirm positions already reached, while expediently ignoring the less convenient implications of the very foundations on which these philosophies are based.

Meat eating is embedded in many cultures and is the social norm in a large proportion of human societies. Meat eating fits the values that most people feel they should live by and that, in itself, makes it ethical behavior in today’s world. The case that whether or not to eat meat (as opposed to which meat to eat) is even a question for discussion in the ‘ethical’ realm has not yet been convincingly made.

Frances Kamm suggests that we cannot construct morality. Ethics and morality represent the values that we should live by. These values are fluid; a function of the interaction of many factors – many emotional, others socio-cultural and a few rational. Values bubble up. Except under totalitarian regimes they cannot be constructed and imposed. For our societies today, meat eating is not an ethical issue and will not become one by cherry picking parts of this or that philosophy and attempting to impose them on others. Cultural behaviors do not become ethical questions simply because some individuals or pressure groups will them to be so. In today’s world, it has become a habit for groups too readily to label as ‘unethical’ behavior with which they personally do not agree – seemingly in an attempt to insulate the issues from further discussion or disagreement. Animal rights activists, environmentalists and others are all guilty of this, using terms like “ethical living” to describe what may be values shared only by tiny proportions of the population.

To my mind, the absolutist position that tries to position meat eating as socially unethical (rather than as a matter of individuals’ personal choice) is a distraction and potentially harmful to the cause of animals in our society. It takes attention away from other issues – such as animal welfare in commercial farming, the health effects of commercially farmed food, etc. – that are more likely to find resonance among broader sections of society, where progress is more likely to be made and which are more likely to be widely seen as issues deserving of debate in the ethical realm.


Is it ethical to eat meat?

Yes. Socially, meat eating is the norm that (with some exceptions based on religious ritual) fits with societies’ current values. Nobody has made a convincing case that meat eating is even a question that belongs in the ethical realm. The philosophical positions fall down because most would reject them when the implications are evaluated in their entirety.

And if you care about animals, as I do, then stop asking the question of whether it is ethical to eat meat. It is a harmful distraction to more productive debates that could significantly improve animals’ lives.