Is it Morally Permissible to Eat Meat?




Holmes Rolston III  “Higher Animals:  Duties to Sentient Life”



Rolston considers the following argument for vegetarianism:


1.  Pain is a bad thing, whether in humans or in animals.

2.  Humans (at least most of them) can live nutritiously without causing animal pain.

3.  It is immoral for humans to kill and eat humans, causing them pain.

4.  Food animals suffer pain, similarly to the way humans do, if killed and eaten.

5.  There are no morally relevant differences between humans and food animals.


6.  It is immoral for humans to kill and eat animals, causing them pain.



Rolston denies premise 5.


whether or not there are differences in pain thresholds between sheep and humans, the value destruction when a sheep is eaten is far less, especially since the sheep have been bred for this purpose and would not otherwise exist.”


Also:  “Chickens can live in ignorant bliss of their forthcoming slaughter…persons in such a position could not, because they are in the world culturally and critically.”



A regimentation of Rolston’s argument for the permissibility of eating meat


1.   Animals, even domestic animals, cannot participate in human culture.  “They cannot live in the world ethically, cognitively, and critically in those superior ways.”


2.  Therefore, humans have no moral duties to animals stemming from interhuman ethics.

          (E.g., moral prohibitions against murder and other rules that are part of human culture do not apply to animals).


3.  Thus, whatever obligations humans have to animals are rooted in environmental ethics.


4.  Environmental ethics implies that if it is natural for a species to do X, then it is not wrong for that species to do X.

(It is not clear what he means by “natural”, but perhaps he means caused by biology, as opposed to being caused merely by culture).


5.  It is natural for humans to eat (nonhuman) animals.



6.  Therefore, it is not wrong for humans to eat (nonhuman) animals.



Rolston considers an objection:


The differences in rules for those with superior gifts means that the only moral animals should refuse to participate in the meat eating phase of their ecology, just as they refuse to play the game merely by the rules of natural selection.  Humans do not look to the behavior of wild animals as guide in other matters (marriage, truth-telling, promise-keeping, justice, charity).  Why should they justify their dietary habits by watching what animals do?


Rolston’s reply:


But these other matters are affairs of culture.  Marriage, truth telling, promise keeping, justice, charity–these are not present at all in spontaneous nature.  By contrast, eating is omnipresent in spontaneous nature; humans eat because they are in nature, not because they are in culture.  Eating animals is not an event between persons but a human-to-animal event, and the rules for it come from the ecosystems in which humans evolved and which they have no duty to remake.  Humans, then, can model their dietary habits on their ecosystems, but they cannot and should not model their interpersonal justice or charity on ecosystems.”


However, Rolston agrees with the following “hedonist” principle concerning the treatment of domestic animals:


“Domestic animals ought to be spared pointless suffering, but they have no claim to be spared innocent suffering.”


So, according to Rolston, we do have an obligation to spare animals pointless suffering.  This would include suffering that serves no ecological purpose (such as increasing efficiency of producing food.)  An example would be the suffering caused in live animals sacrifices, in which the animal is killed without being stunned first.


          Rolston leaves some questions unanswered:


Since culture is natural for human beings, how can one make an intelligible distinction between what is natural for humans and what is merely cultural?


                   Why does the fact that something is “natural” give rise to moral obligations (or a lack thereof)?


                   Since animals are not part of culture, why is causing pointless suffering to animals morally wrong?



John Mizzoni  “Against Rolston’s Defense of Eating Animals:  the Nutritional Factor in the Argument for Vegetarianism”



…the nutritional “need” to eat meat is a cultural creation, not a natural event.”


Comment:  Rolston did not claim meat was a nutritional need.  He did claim that meat-eating was natural for humans.  Humans did not invent meat-eating, and it is in fact a widespread phenomenon in the animal kingdom, including among some of our closest relatives, such as chimps.  Moreover, humans have done it throughout all of human history.  Does this not establish that it is natural for humans to eat meat?  Perhaps Mizzoni has in mind a strong sense of “natural” according to which it means something like “necessary for survival”.  It is true that meat-eating is not natural in that sense.  And, of course, it is also true that not everyone does it.



Mizzoni asks, “Why is it that Rolston maintains that we ought to model our eating habits on the ecosystem, but not our interpersonal justice?  It must be that Rolston really is asserting that


It is impermissible to model interhuman conduct on animal conduct but permissible (and obligatory) to model human-to-animal conduct on animal conduct.


Comment:  This is not quite right.  Rolston does not claim that human-to-animal conduct should be modeled on the behavior of other animals.  His idea is that human-to-animal conduct should be modeled on what is natural for our species, rather than by human culture.  (Unfortunately, Rolston does not defend this claim in his paper).


Mizzoni goes on to argue that because there are so many culturally grounded reasons for eating meat (prestige, convenience, the “protein myth”) it is more accurate to say that meat-eating is a cultural phenomenon rather than a natural phenemenon.


          One reply to this line of argument is to say that meat-eating is both cultural and natural.


Mizzoni makes a stronger point when he questions the idea that nature dictates morality.  He quotes Peter Singer:


“It is, no doubt, ‘natural’ for women to produce an infant every year or two from puberty to menopause, but this does not mean that it is wrong to interfere with this process.”


Mizzoni:  “So, although meat eating occurs in the wild and is thus a candidate for us to consider, this alone does not make it acceptable.”



Mizzoni’s main point:  Rolston doesn’t give any weight to the second premise of the vegetarian argument.  Meat-eating would be justified if it were necessary for human health.  But it isn’t.  According to Mizzoni, since meat is not a nutritional need, it is a luxury.  It is wrong to prioritize our desire for luxuries (e.g. meat) over the basic needs (e.g. survival) of other animals.





Social Contract Theory


According to social contract theory (SCT), “morality consists in the set of rules governing how people are to treat one another, that rational people will agree to accept, for their mutual benefit, on the condition that others follow those rules as well. 

(James Rachels, Elements of Moral Philosophy, p. 150)


SCT begins with the observation that the existence of an enforced moral code is to our mutual benefit.  For SCT, the fact that a moral code is to our mutual benefit helps to explain why we have a moral code.


According to Thomas Hobbes, anarchy (where there are no enforced laws and everyone must fend for themselves) is not in anyone’s interest.  Hobbes refers to this as a “state of nature”.  Even the very strong and intelligent would be much better off under a system of laws.  This is because of 4 features of the human condition:


·  equality of need

·  scarcity

·  the essential equality of human power

·  limited altruism


          When you put these together, they imply that the life of a human being in the state of nature is “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

If people are living in a state of nature, there can be no industry, no technology, no education system, no farming…in short, there can be nothing that requires large scale or long term cooperation in order to create or maintain.  In other words, there can be no social goods.

          In order to avoid this fate,


(1) there must be guarantees that people will not harm one another, and

(2) people must be able to rely on one another to keep their agreements. 


Without (1), people will live in a state of constant fear and distrust, keeping to themselves and using much of their energy on self-protection.  Without (2), people will be unwilling to enter into agreements, which are necessary for any large scale or long term cooperative activity.

Only a government can provide for (1) and (2).  Therefore, we need a government.  In establishing a government, people give up some of their personal freedom and give the government the authority to enforce laws and agreements.  Those living under a government are parties to a social contract—a contract between each person and each other person.  Each person agrees to follow the laws of the state on the condition that everyone else does the same.  That way, we are all relatively safe from each other and we all benefit from the other social goods that will result.

According to SCT, “the state exists to enforce the most important rules necessary for social living, while morality consists in the whole set of rules that facilitate social living”.  (Rachels, p. 144)  Thus, government is needed to enforce the basic rules of social living (e.g. don’t rob people, don’t break agreements), while morality may encompass some rules that are important for social living but are outside the scope of the state (this might include, for example, don’t insult people for no reason).


Implications of SCT


Suppose that everyone could sign a contract with each other governing how people are to treat each other.  The aim of the contract is to create social order, ending the state of anarchy and making it possible for people to cooperate and produce social goods.  So, what things should everyone (or just about everyone) agree to as part of the contract?


The Basics  --  These are things that are necessary for the survival of any society.


·  Protection of life and property.  This means there will be prohibitions against murder, assault, theft and vandalism.  A police force will be needed.


·  Other rules needed to secure the benefits of social living.  This means there will be prohibitions on breaking contracts (e.g. promises) and a general requirement of truth-telling.


·  Protection of society against outside threats.  An army might be needed.


Other important stuff – These are things that, arguably, should be part of the social contract (i.e. it would in everyone’s interest to have them included).  However, a society might be able to survive (if not thrive) without them.


·  It is in everyone’s interest to have a criminal justice system that is effective at prosecuting lawbreakers while at the same time protecting rights of the accused and providing for fair trials and reasonable punishments. 

·  Freedom of speech

·  Freedom of religion

·  Freedom from arbitrary discrimination (e.g. based on race, gender, etc.)

·  Protection of the environment.  It is in everyone’s interest to have breathable air and a healthful environment in which to live.  Some prohibitions against damaging the environment or claiming it as private property seem to be in order.  (Note that this justification does not cover protecting endangered species).


Animals are not part of the social contract


In order to be party to a contract, one must be able to understand the contract, agree to it, and follow its rules.  Nonhuman animals cannot do this, and so are not part of the social contract.  As a result, animals lie outside the scope of morality, according to SCT.  It seems to follow that we have no moral obligations to animals.






Carl Cohen, “Why Animals Have No Rights”

     “[Nonhuman animals] are not beings of a kind capable of exercising or responding to moral claims. Animals therefore have no rights, and they can have none…The holders of rights must have the capacity to comprehend rules of duty, governing all including themselves. In applying such rules, the holders of rights must recognize possible conflicts between what is in their own interest and what is just.”

     “Humans have such moral capabilities. They are in this sense self-legislative, are members of communities governed by moral rules, and do possess rights. Animals do not have such moral capacities. They are not morally self-legislative, cannot possibly be members of a truly moral community, and therefore cannot possess rights. In conducting research on animal subjects, therefore, we do not violate their rights, because they have none to violate.”

             A common objection, which deserves a response, may be paraphrased as follows:

"If having rights requires being able to make moral claims, to grasp and apply moral laws, then many humans -- the brain-damaged, the comatose, the senile -- who plainly lack those capacities must be without rights. But that is absurd. This proves [the critic concludes] that rights do not depend on the presence of moral capacities."

     “This objection fails; it mistakenly treats an essential feature of humanity as though it were a screen for sorting humans…The issue is one of kind. Humans are of such a kind that they may be the subject of experiments only with their voluntary consent. The choices they make freely must be respected. Animals are of such a kind that it is impossible for them, in principle, to give or withhold voluntary consent or to make a moral choice.”


Cohen’s argument that animals don’t have rights:


1)      A right is a claim that one party may exercise against another.


2)      Rights exist only among beings who can make moral claims against one another.


3)      The attributes of human beings that give rise to their ability to make moral claims against others are lacking in animals.  These attributes are intellectual, and include the ability to understand ethical principles and guide one’s actions accordingly.


4)      Therefore, animals cannot make moral claims against others.



5)      Therefore, animals do not have rights.






The Basic Principle of Equality



BPE:  The interests of all persons are deserving of equal consideration.


This is widely regarded as the ethical foundation for equal legal rights among persons.  There are different ways in which we might give people “equal” consideration, and these give rise to different forms of equality.


Maximum equal liberty*                                           libertarianism

Slogan: “My freedom ends where yours begins.”


Equal liberty and equal opportunity                         liberalism

Slogan: “Level the playing field.”


Equal liberty, opportunity, and outcomes               radical egalitarianism

Slogan: “No one deserves more than anyone else.”


Each person’s happiness counts equally     utilitarianism

Slogan: “Maximize happiness, everyone considered.”



*Note that maximizing equal liberty is not the same as maximizing liberty.  One way to maximize liberty might be to enslave certain people so that others would have more freedom to do as they please.  But this would not be equal liberty.



Utilitarians are egalitarian in that they count everyone’s happiness equally.  As we have seen, this doesn’t imply that everyone is owed an equal amount of happiness!


A utilitarian would say that we have one basic interest, and that is to be happy and avoid unhappiness.  All other interests would derive from this basic interest.  Mill’s definition (pleasure and the absence of pain) will serve well enough for our purposes.


Utilitarianism does not have any built-in provisions for recognizing rights.  (Jeremy Bentham referred to rights as “nonsense on stilts”.)  It is somewhat ironic, then, that Peter Singer uses utilitarianism as the basis for arguing that animals have rights.




Peter Singer, “All Animals are Equal”



Speciesism:  The belief that the interests of (a member of) one’s own species count for more than the interests of (a member of) another species.


Singer likens “speciesism” to racism and sexism.  He asks:  What is the ethical basis for opposition to racism and sexism?


An answer he rejects:  The sexes and all of the different races are equal with respect to their intellectual and moral capacities.


There are two problems with this response.


(1)  Even if the sexes and races are all equal in these respects, it is still not true that individuals are.  For example, some people have greater intellectual capacities than others.  Does it follow that those with greater capacities should be given more consideration than those with less?  No. (IQ example)  So, factual equality between groups does not establish equal rights for individuals.


(2)  It suggests that if the sexes and races were not equal in these respects--if there were a difference, on the average, between two groups--then sexism or racism would be justified.  But racism implies that someone belonging to a certain race is owed less moral consideration than someone of another race.  Why would racism be justified by there being differences—on the average—between groups?  It wouldn’t.


Singer claims that the real basis for opposition to racism, sexism or elitism is not that individuals or groups are in fact equal in terms of their abilities, but that their interests count equally.


Equality and the interests of animals


BPE extended to animals:  The interests of all beings are deserving of equal consideration.


If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering—in so far as rough comparisons can be made—of any other being. If a being is not capable of suffering, or of experiencing enjoyment or happiness, there is nothing to be taken into account. This is why the limit of sentience…is the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others. To mark this boundary by some characteristic like intelligence or rationality would be to mark it in an arbitrary way. Why not choose some other characteristic, like skin color?”


Singer:  The capacity for suffering and enjoyment is both necessary and sufficient for having interests.


For Singer, a being has rights if and only if it has interests; it need not have autonomy, membership in a community, the ability to respect the rights of others, a sense of justice, etc.


Singer’s view seems to be that what matters is not who or what suffers, but the suffering itself.  If the suffering itself is equal, then our concern for that suffering ought to be equal.  This follows from the idea that suffering is intrinsically bad.


Singer concludes that “speciesism” is unjustified.


What follows is not that animals have the same rights as humans, but that their interests should be given equal consideration.  Because they have different capacities they will have different rights.  “Since dogs can’t vote, it is meaningless to talk of their right to vote.”



On Factory Farming...


Having argued that the interests of animals deserve equal consideration, Singer goes on to argue that factory farming is unjust discrimination against animals:


It is not merely the act of killing that indicates what we are ready to do to other species in order to gratify our tastes. The suffering we inflict on the animals while they are alive is perhaps an even clearer indication of our speciesism than the fact that we are prepared to kill them. In order to have meat on the table at a price that people can afford, our society tolerates methods of meat production that confine sentient animals in cramped, unsuitable conditions for the entire durations of their lives. Animals are treated like machines that convert fodder into flesh, and any innovation that results in a higher "conversion ratio" is liable to be adopted…

Since, as l have said, none of these practices cater for anything more than our pleasures of taste, our practice of rearing and killing other animals in order to eat them is a clear instance of the sacrifice of the most important interests of other beings in order to satisfy trivial interests of our own. To avoid speciesism we must stop this practice, and each of us has a moral obligation to cease supporting the practice.”


On Animal Experimentation...


Singer objects to experimentation that causes harm to animals on the same grounds.  Such should be undertaken only in cases where an experiment that caused similar harm to humans would be justified.


objection:  A typical human would suffer more than, say, a rat, from the same kind of stimulus (e.g. an electric shock) because a typical human being is more self-aware, has a sense of dignity and self-worth, would experience more emotional suffering, etc.  Moreover, a typical human has a family that would suffer greatly from his/her captivity and torture.


reply:  In that case the harm is not similar.  So it is true that it would be worse to shock a human than a rat, other things being equal.


However, the harm would be similar in a case where the human is an infant orphan with irreversible brain damage preventing further mental development.  We should be willing to shock the rat only in cases where we are willing to shock the infant.


Singer thinks that most animal experimentation that harms its subjects should be eliminated on these grounds.  He thinks that such experimentation seldom has enough utility value to justify the suffering it causes.


Singer’s main argument:


1)  Suffering is intrinsically bad.


2)  If suffering is intrinsically bad, then what is morally relevant is not who or what suffers, but the suffering itself.


3)  Therefore, the suffering of all beings is deserving of equal consideration.


4)  Therefore, we ought to cause suffering to animals only in cases where causing an equal amount of suffering to humans would be justified.


5)  The factory farming of animals would not be justified if it caused an equal amount of suffering to humans instead.


6)  Most experiments that cause suffering to animals would not be justified if they caused an equal amount of suffering to humans instead.


7)  Therefore, the factory farming of animals is morally wrong, and most experiments that cause suffering to animals are morally wrong.




Questions, comments for Discussion


·  Is it just the suffering of animals that Singer objects to, or does he also object to the shortening of their lives?  A utilitarian might object to the former but not the latter, which would leave room for humane factory farming.


·  Would Singer object to altering animals so that they do not suffer from factory farming?  (Douglas Adams’ example from “Restaurant at the End of the Universe”, genetic engineering example)


Singer says that sentience implies moral significance:  To mark this boundary by some other characteristic like intelligence or rationality would be to mark it in an arbitrary manner.  Why not choose some other characteristic, like skin color?”


·  Many philosophers would take issue with this statement, and consider it question-begging.  Why think that any other characteristic would mark an arbitrary boundary?  It is one thing to say that equal suffering counts equally, but it is another thing to say that it is the only thing that counts.


Suppose we agree, with Singer, that equal suffering counts equally.  We can still maintain that there are other things that count, such as our obligation to treat autonomous agents with dignity, an obligation we don’t have to animals.


· Some animal experimentation has great utility value.  Virtually every vaccine, medical procedure, etc. was developed with the help of animals, would have been difficult to develop otherwise, and would have required human suffering in the place of animal suffering.  Do viable substitutions exist in most cases?  This seems doubtful, especially in new forms of research.


· Suppose that a house is burning and we have just enough time to save (a) an orphan, or (b) a family of rats.  Does Singer’s position imply that we should save the rats?  If it doesn’t, if one orphan’s interests outweigh those of a large number of rats (1,000+ rats) then does this suggest that animal research can be justified?


· Singer follows the lead of Jeremy Bentham.  But Mill contended that the higher faculties give rise to higher quality pleasures.  Higher quality pleasures count for much more than lower quality.  Since humans, but not animals, are capable of higher quality pleasures, this would seem to imply that the interests of humans count for more than those of animals, for Mill.  The higher faculties of humans are morally significant not only because those who have them experience greater happiness and suffering, but also because they lead to accomplishments that can create even greater happiness in the future.


· How would Singer respond to a social contract theorist who argues that we have no obligations to animals because they aren’t part of the social contract?