The Ethics of Eating Meat
Four moral theories and their views
To approach the question of the ethics of eating meat in terms of philosophical ethics, we would have to first look at the various moral theories that allow us to decide which action is ethical and which is not. Four are very common:
- Utilitarianism would say that an action is morally right if it maximises happiness or benefit and minimises pain for all concerned parties.
- Kantian ethics would say that the motivation of an action counts more than the result; that an action needs to be possible to be performed by all people (and not only by some); and that we should treat all human beings as ends and not only as means.
- The Social Contract theory is primarily concerned with the rights of citizens towards each other and with the relationship between citizens and government, and does not really apply well to this problem.
- Virtue ethics would say that an action is morally right if it expresses the right “virtues” of a person, i.e. the properties of a person’s character that benefit both this person and others, and that help everyone reach their highest potential as human beings.
Is meat-eating ethical?
The ethics of meat consumption are complex, but it seems that most moral theories would advise against eating meat, at least if meat is produced involving a great amount of animal suffering and environmental damages (as it is now). Utilitarianism, the most common way to approach this question, would particularly oppose eating industrially farmed meat. But occasionally eating small quantities of organic meat that has been ethically raised and sourced is probably morally right.
Let’s apply the theories one by one to the ethics of eating meat:
Utilitarianism requires quite a lot of calculations and research to answer this question. You’d have to consider the pain of the animals (both as they are kept and when they are killed), but then, this pain could be minimised for ethically raised, sourced, and killed animals. But you would also have to consider the health effects of meat (at today’s levels of consumption these are mostly negative). Also, you’d have to consider the environmental impact of meat farming, not only in terms of methane emissions, but also the destruction of tropical forests, overuse of antibiotics, pollution of water etc. All in all, it seems that only very little, very high quality meat consumption might be permissible. Today’s industrial meat farming certainly is not.
Kant would not particularly care about animal rights. For him, the question of the ethics of eating meat would be if we treat all humans as ends and if our meat eating is sustainable. Treating humans (meat consumers) as ends might require us to respect their choices, so Kant would say that we have to do that. On the other hand, meat is probably not sustainable in the form we farm it today (see global warming), so Kant would probably be inconclusive about that.
Aristotle would say that we have to look at the virtues involved: compassion is a virtue (in the right amount), as is temperance and respect for all life. Killing and inflicting suffering for no good reason are probably not virtues. Eudaimonia (the ultimate happiness) can be reached through a healthy body and a healthy environment, in which we act rationally, benefiting others. This seems to generally point towards not killing animals, except when it would be necessary for medical reasons (small children might need to eat meat in order to grow well, or some kinds of patients). Otherwise, it seems more virtuous to abstain from meat.
Thanks for reading! What do you think? Tell me in the comments!
Photo by José Ignacio Pompé on Unsplash.