I have consumed meat for almost all of my life and never questioned the ethical ramifications of doing so until I started to notice arguments which I have never considered. I have seen, on all sides of the argument, as is with many issues that can get quite heated, really horrible arguments for and against consuming meat, so I am authoring a lengthy blog post that will address common arguments I hear for and against consumption of meat and how these arguments dramatically fail. People need to be philosophically informed…and this post can be quite the journey because I discuss many topics relating to vegetarianism from a philosophical perspective noting, identifying, and explaining various logical fallacies and other failures of sound logic.
As you might expect, religion often creeps its way into the realm of ethics and can serve as a roadblock, a failed justification for certain actions, or perhaps might lead someone to a good action (although secular reasons can be had, therefore religion need not be invoked). In the intersection of vegetarianism and theistic religious belief — particularly that which includes some version of the Old Testament and/or a creation story — two main ‘branches’ of theists, stewards (those who believe that God gave people resources and they must be responsible with said resources) and dominionists (in this case, theists who believe that resources need not be conserved because they do not have an eternal significance) arise.
While stewards and dominionists certainly are not the only two options here and I recognize this, let’s consider these two for purposes of this discussion and to limit the scope of the discussion. People from both camps would often agree with the statement “God gave us animals, therefore we are ethically justified in eating them.” This line of thinking is patently fallacious for several reasons.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that a god exists and created animals. How are we to go from the statement “God gave us animals” to “we are ethically justified in eating them?” A famous dialogue from Plato introduces what is called the Euthyphro Dilemma which I really enjoy and commented frequently on in this blog and have used in public forums, essays, and general discussions is important to understand here. The central question asked, updated for modern readers is “Is an action justified because God endorses the action or is an action ethically justified because it is endorsed by God?”
If an action is justified because God endorses the action, morality is nothing more than a ‘might makes right’ morality and we fall into what is often called one of the most failed ethical theories in philosophy that is known as divine command theory. If we are to endorse divine command theory, we would have to admit that if God endorsed rape, rape would be permissible, but this obviously is not the case. Some modern-day and past apologists try to get around this by asserting that God would never or could never endorse something like rape, but this means that there is some sort of standard that limits God that can be viewed as external, thus we need not evoke a deity in the moral realm. Others may assert that God’s character is what makes God’s commands moral, but this backs the dilemma up a step and forces the theist to consider “Is an action justified because God’s character endorses/is in line with the action or is an action ethically justified because it is endorsed/is in line with God’s character?”
Another main problem is how we can even establish, in the first place, that a god is good or, in the case of many theists, that a god is omni-benevolent. When we consider whether a person is moral or not or, in the case of god, whether a god is moral or omni-benevolent, one would, I would wager, look at the actions and inactions, in many cases, of a being. What examples, exactly, do we have to draw from to establish that god is good? With threats such as the problem of evil or specific religious passages in which gods endorse abominable actions, it’s quite hard to establish this.
Some theists will assert that God, by definition, is omni-benevolent because he is the greatest conceivable being, but where does this get us? I can assert that a gooblegoop exists and is, by definition, an omni-benevolent being, but this, simply like asserting things about a god, makes no progress to establish a conclusion. Why, also, must the greatest conceivable being be all-good? Is not a ‘greatest conceivable being’ subjective from person to person and how can we objectively declare what a greatest conceivable being is? I can formulate a very good argument, for example, that the greatest conceivable being is actually a being which interferes least in human affairs and designed the universe in such a way that humans would only die to old age, violence, and accidents. I could posit that such a being might be simply good, loving, and very intelligent, but not maximally so and perhaps this would be best because if an omni-God existed and humans knew this, bad consequences would follow (I don’t necessarily agree with this, but am simply positing it here for sake of argument although many theists actually do argue that bad consequences would follow if God frequently intervened in human affairs and revealed himself unequivocally).
On the other side of the coin, theists who would identify as stewards of God’s creation may argue that God really didn’t intend for humans to eat animals and animals should instead be loved just like humans or something very similar to this. For many of the reasons above, including “how can we even know God’s intentions if he existed,” appealing to God for an ‘answer’ to whether or not meat should be consumed tremendously fails.
The Naturalistic Fallacy and Other Fallacies
Some theists and even atheists, when not using God as a justification for eating meat or not eating meat often commit what is known as the naturalistic fallacy. The naturalistic fallacy is committed when someone argues that, because something exists in a state of nature (or is ‘natural,’ an action is morally justified. The problem, though, and the main point of the naturalistic fallacy and, what is called the is-ought problem, is that one cannot derive a moral basis from something simply because it exists in a state of nature. Instead, one needs to establish a value judgment to bridge the ‘is-ought gap’ and thus can not reason from one premise of ‘something exists in nature’ to ‘an action is justified.’
Further, it is very unclear as to what the world ‘natural’ means because it is often very ill-defined, ambiguous, not explaining anything, or a combination of all of these. Is it, for example, not ‘natural’ for humans to take synthetic medications? If this is the case, and one honestly believes that because something is ‘unnatural,’ the action would not be justified, we would reach a quite absurd conclusion and might even enter into the realm of special pleading in which one unjustly uses different standards when employing similar lines of logic and makes excuses for certain instances when there is no rational basis for doing so. To be charitable and for some clarity, I will refrain from using the word ‘natural’ and instead use ‘exists in a state of nature.’
Hopefully you see where this is going. One might, when arguing for meat-eating, argue that because animals such as lions, tigers, and bears eat meat, it is permissible for humans to eat meat. This should immediately make you utter “oh my” and raise various red flags before even considering the naturalistic fallacy. Lions, tigers, and bears are very much unlike humans; they cannot justifiably be designated as morally equivalent to humans because they do not have the extent of self-awareness and cognitive capacities that humans possess and thus cannot be morally ‘guilty’ for killing other animals because they don’t have the ability to understand morality.
This compassion of lions, tigers, and bears to humans is what philosophers may call a fallacious argument from analogy; the entities being compared are simply too different and cannot justifiably be similarly compared to demonstrate a point. And then, of course, the naturalistic fallacy kicks in; just because lions, tigers, and bears, in a state of nature, kill other animals/consume meat does not entail that this is morally justified and, as you can see, we cannot extrapolate from the lack of cognitive capacity that animals have to justify an action for a human.
Along the lines of the last argument that a person may propose for eating meat, someone may assert that because other animals, in addition to humans, kill other animals/consume meat in nature, it is justifiable for humans to kill other animals/consume meat. This, of course, also commits the naturalistic fallacy, but this argument is slightly different because it is so sneaky that the informal logical fallacy of equivocation is committed here. Equivocation occurs when someone presenting an argument uses a term twice or more in an argument, but defines it differently, thus causing the argument to fail. In this case, the person who would levy this argument is equivocating when using the word ‘animal.’ Lions, tigers, and bears, when compared to humans, as previously mentioned, are very different. This argument also fails to establish a justification for meat-eating/killing other animals.
Other ‘interesting’ flawed argument that attempts to establish a justification for meat-eating is the following: eating meat and killing animals is part of our evolutionary past, therefore eating meat and killing animals is justified. This argument commits, once again, the naturalistic fallacy and another fallacy known as the non-sequitur which simply means “it does not follow.” How does one properly reason that an action is moral simply because it is part of our evolutionary past without committing the naturalistic fallacy? One can argue that eating meat has been useful, needed for nutrients, etc., but this is an entire different argument altogether (and they may or may not succeed).
Another argument, which actually appeared on a status of a Facebook friend of mine, was that because we are alive and meat contributed to this, eating meat is ethically justified. Verbatim, the argument read “We fucking eat other animals…It’s why I could write this long ass boring status.” This argument has several problems. The first glaring issue is the false cause fallacy otherwise known as post hoc ergo propter hoc. This fallacy is committed when someone argues that because of an alleged specific cause, an alleged specific effect follows. Here, we can see that eating meat is not necessarily the reason (or at least one of the main reasons, to be charitable here) that contributed to people being alive today or, in other words, if we were to remove meat from the equation, we would still be living today.
Even if it were the case that meat-eating lead humans to be alive today, this does not entail that meat-eating is ethically justified. The ends do not necessarily justify the means. It can also be the case, as I previously alluded to, that some other source of nutrients could have allowed humans to survive. Further, this also does not entail that specific meat eating or practices associated with or leading up to meat-eating were or are ethically justified. For example, need all of those animals have gone extinct by human causes have gone extinct? As you also may have guessed, the argument that generally says “the reason we are alive today is because we eat meat” also commits the naturalistic fallacy.
Some may also argue that certain animal products are needed for survival, as above, but let’s refine and strengthen the argument to be an argument that is also quite common:
(1) Humans need animal product x to survive.
(2) Humans have more moral worth than animals and can contribute much more to society than said animals.
(3) Therefore killing and eating other animals is ethically justified.
Premise one, I would argue, is quite contestable, but let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that premise one is true for whatever given animal products, if any, are needed for humans to survive. Premise two is quite uncontroversial and let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it is true. Conclusion three simply does not follow, though, from (1) and (2); it is, as should be quite evident, when considering the argument for a moment, that needing an animal product for humans to survive, even granting that humans have more moral worth than animals and contribute more to society than said animals does not entail that killing and eating other animals is ethically justified. Animal product x can be had without killing and eating other animals and, even if it is the case that the animal needed to be killed. To notice an easier example, perhaps if you aren’t ‘seeing it,’ simply replace (3) with “Juju Monster.” Juju Monster doesn’t follow from (1) and (2).
Another odd argument that was presented in response to my explanation of the naturalistic fallacy that attempted to establish a justification for meat-eating was “You can’t change evolution overnight.” This, while it is a non-sequitur (meat-eating is permissible simply does not follow from “you can’t change evolution overnight), is also known as a red herring. A red herring is an irrelevant topic brought up in a discussion that really has nothing to do with the [main] argument. Red herrings may often divert attention away from the real issue at hand (whether this is done intentionally or not) and do not allow the persons arguing to arrive at a justified conclusion. Besides, this is also skirting on the naturalistic fallacy.
Some may argue that since infants need meat to survive, therefore meat-eating is permissible. “Meat- eating is permissible” simply does not follow from “infants need meat to survive;” even if it were the case that infants need meat to survive, this does not entail that meat-eating is permissible for all humans or that our current methods involved with meat consumption are morally permissible.
Some other variants of the previously mentioned arguments that all fail because they commit similar errors to those I previously mentioned that I will not go into too much detail with because I already have (and these, or close variants of these), but rather will note the main fallacies taking place with each argument with the presumed conclusion of “meat-eating is ethically justified.” These actually appeared in a recent Facebook discussion in a thread that was a trove of fallacious thinking and what might have just inspired this post. The arguments are bulleted and the fallacies committed are listed under each argument in italics.
- “Our brains developed [just fine] ‘under the influence’ of meat, so who are you to use your brain to preach against it”
Naturalistic Fallacy, Red Herring, Non-Sequitur
(Ironically, this argument, presented by an atheist, is eerily similar to the absurd argument from Christian Philosopher Alvin Plantinga known as the “Evolutionary argument against naturalism.” Besides, who am I not to ‘preach against my brain’ (whatever that means)? We repudiate many behaviors and lines of thinking that are probably a result of evolution such as racism and xenophobia.)
- “Evolution is not always pretty”
Naturalistic Fallacy, Red Herring, Non-Sequitur
(and how about special pleading? Are other ‘unpretty’ processes somehow justifying every potential outcome?)
- “Life is not free of cruelty”
Naturalistic Fallacy, Red Herring, Non-Sequitur
(So, shall we be complete moral skeptics about every issue, then, because life is not free of cruelty? Shall, we, for example, argue that we should take a ‘neutral position’ toward disasters?)
- “How do you think we gained the skills we have today [by eating meat]”
Naturalistic Fallacy, Red Herring, Non-Sequitur…and perhaps a false premise
(Can we really even demonstrate that without meat eating, we wouldn’t have ‘gained the skills we have today?’)
- “There is no reason to suggest that we have evolved beyond meat-eating”
Non-Sequitur, Red Herring, Naturalistic Fallacy…and some really juicy special pleading
(Shall this person also argue that other practices that we have not ‘evolved beyond’ as permissible too simply because we have not ‘evolved beyond’ them? We certainly haven’t ‘evolved beyond’ stealing, abuse of children, etc., so does this entail that these actions cannot be said to be immoral?)
- “We have teeth that have adapted to meat eating/If we weren’t supposed to eat meat, why would we have the teeth we have”
Naturalistic Fallacy, Red Herring, Non-Sequitur
(While I am not a dentist, I need no dental expertise to find this argument to be a rotten one. While it certainly may be the case that our teeth have adapted to meat eating, this doesn’t entail (as per the naturalistic fallacy) that meat eating is justified.)
- “You can’t change biology/evolution”
Naturalistic Fallacy, Red Herring, Non-Sequitur, Special Pleading
(Shall we say this about other issues, too? If this person were to take this position, wouldn’t he/she have to admit that any given action that is a result of biology is morally justifed simply because biology dictates it…and we actually can ‘change evolution’ because humans have a large hand in artificial selection.
- EXACT QUOTE: “Here’s nature… Mothers and babies feasting on mothers and babies… Get over it. Take away the comforts of society, and you are just food to everything else.”
Red Herring, False Premise, Naturalistic Fallacy, Non-Sequitur, Equivocation, Faulty Argument from Analogy, Ad-hominem (?) , Appeal to Fear (?)
(This one might be the oddest in the thread I pulled these arguments from. While other animals who are mothers may feast on babies, humans certainly do not…and so what if they do? The weirdness comes in when I was told to ‘get over it’ (as if, for some reason, I don’t recognize nature?) and that I would be “food just like everything else” if “the comforts of society” were taken away.)
Does meat eating have anything to do with morals?
Perhaps as a last ditch effort, some may try to argue, in quite a surprising manner, that meat-eating has nothing to do with morals (and might even, to much frustration of those who mention the naturalistic fallacy) because meat-eating exists in nature, it is permissible. This would, I suppose, be outright denying the naturalistic fallacy, but this obviously does not work for reasons stated above.
It should be quite evident that our current (and past) methods associated with meat-consumption should raise moral concerns simply because sentient creatures, even if they do not have the same cognitive capacity as humans because animals are experiencing needless [amounts of] suffering. Many ‘factory farms,’ as you probably know, do not ethically kill animals (and some may even object that there is no such thing as ethically killing animals, but let’s simply move past that) because animals are housed in very poor conditions, animals are ‘artificially selected’ — through years of breeding practices — to grow to capacities that the animals simply can not handle, some methods of killing animals are not swift and painless deaths, and many animals — not even used for their products because of overcrowding, disease, and other issues — experience suffering that does not lead to any animal products on the dinner table [which takes away from the argument that killing animals for their products is justified…if not all animals which die in the process aren’t consumed], and various other concerns.
As more persons, as you would expect, populated the earth, people failed [or may have continued to fail] to recognize moral obligations toward animals, and profit became more important than anything else [or even some concerns, to be charitable], more animals were needed to please the demand and the process from the farm to the dinner table became more and more inhumane.
It is clear that many [common] arguments for meat-eating fail quite tremendously. Some arguments and positions of people who are called ‘radical animal rights activists’ (I’m not making this term up or endorsing its use) are also quite absurd when they advocate ‘total animal liberation,’ [assume that this link is true and not a strawman, I am sure some of the positions described here exist] no animal testing whatsoever (even on rats and insects!), and no animal products used in human medicines even if an animal were not mistreated are also quite flawed for their own reasons. We, as a society, ought to make ethical decisions – and they need not be an extreme position on either end being “We have no moral responsibility toward animals” or “Total animal liberation.” This, of course, is a false dichotomy; there are not the only two valid choices and many others are in the ‘middle.’
Personally, I became a vegetarian of sorts (the only ‘animal products’ I consume are fish and dairy products although I try to use dairy products as sparingly as possible). I would say that Massimo Pigliucci and Julia Galef’s Rationally Speaking Podcast episode on vegetarianism, the book Heroes and Philosophy, and Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save [these books will be pictured in the bottom of this post if you are interested in more information or even buying these books] played major roles in leading me to my current vegetarian position. Vegetarianism or variant forms need not be an all-or-nothing ideal; I can, for example, only consume fish and some dairy products and still make a huge difference.
I also take the general moral position, as far as most issues are concerned, with some exceptions, that one should only be compelled to do that which is reasonable. At first, I thought it would have been extremely difficult to abstain from red and white meat, but it actually didn’t turn out to be too bad and merely was and is inconvenient on some occasions. I can live just fine with cutting out some foods. Completely abstaining from fish and dairy, in addition to red and white meat, including all other animal products was very difficult when I tried it mainly because of what my local college cafeteria provided and the cost associated.
I know that I didn’t focus on many ‘really good’ arguments for meat eating here, but this was not much of the topic of this post; I primarily discussed why common arguments for eating meat fail and how they fail. Feel free, though, to comment on anything I wrote (as always) and perhaps levy new concerns. Thanks for your time.