Morality and Eating Meat


Some people are puzzled by people who don’t eat meat. Others understand, but most don’t care either way.

What makes me smile are those few others, who are also vegetarians or vegans as I am, but are so very militant about their choice --- so very passionate about it all. In social circles, if the subject comes up, they tend to go as far as stating eating meat is immoral, possibly hoping to shame anyone who does?

I don’t agree.

The consumption of meat is not a moral issue and I’ve yet to be convinced that it is by any argument so far. It’s usually a non-sequitur. The treatment of other creatures is not a precursor argument against eating them. These are two different issues. Eating meat or not is simply a nutritional choice --- never a moral argument.

If you ate your neighbour’s pet cat that would usually be considered an immoral action. Based on society’s sensibilities such as they are, and especially our propensity to knee-jerk reaction, we’d all tend to quickly agree. We'd all be wrong. Sure, the creature’s mortality or our arbitrary choice to end its life could certainly be the basis for some sort of moral objection, as could questions of the neighbour’s economic investment in the being, or the emotional attachment the people had to the cat or/and the cat to them, etc. All these may be considered in an argument against it being moral to take the cat’s life away and I agree that these may all be valid. But be clear, merely eating the meat is not a violation of morality. Eating your neighbour's pet cat is not an immoral action.

With morality there are two different issues in play.

There are moral obligations and then there are moral virtues. As such, being morally obligated demands a greater burden of proof than moral virtue does. To clarify, if there was a child standing out in the street, you are not morally obligated to rescue that child but you would always be morally virtuous to do so. Being morally virtuous requires very little explanation for your actions. On the other hand, being moral obligated relies on a whole number of other factors. For example, is there a risk to you to run out into a traffic gnarled street to save a kid, or are you in a custodial relationship with that child where you may be expected to assume greater risk and responsibility for their safety than a stranger would, etc. It can get very convoluted.

Another example: I’m not morally obligated to donate a kidney to anybody but it would be considered morally virtuous to do so. It would be considered greatly virtuous if it was for a family member but interestingly, it would be an even greater virtuous gesture if it was for a stranger. Yet, I would certainly never be judged harshly by society if I shunned donating to a stranger or even to a family member. Moral obligation doesn't come into question here and indeed, all evaluations of morality seem to have many 'shades of grey'.

Also, to complicate matters even more, we hold people responsible for their moral obligations in proportion to their ability to understand those obligations. I notice that this is also very ‘speciesist’ in that we extend this rule to all members of the human species only, including those who could not understand and who are only excused from responsiblity of their actions in proportion to how deeply they are judged to understand the consequences of their actions. That they are human beings is enough to give them special priority of consideration. A smooth running human social engine relies on this caveat and configuration.

So morality, it turns out, appears to be about interactions between thinking human beings. If there is not equity in the ability to understand, comprehend, and express moral views then there is not a parity of moral responsibility. For example, I’m more morally responsible than a toddler because they don’t yet understand many things. Humans are always considered to be more morally responsible than other creatures because 'speciesism' trumps all and we assume we alone are capable of completely understanding the consequences of our actions.

A tiger, for example, has no moral responsibility for attacking a defenceless human, killing him, then eating him. Yes, the tiger will probably be executed because it took a human’s life, based on mankind's judgement and rules, but not because it chose to eat the human as well. We certainly wouldn't think the tiger was intrinsically immoral in any of its actions --- for the killing or the eating. We’d just chalk it up to the 'nature' of the creature since it is not one of us anyway. It does what it does because it is what it is. Yet, are we much different than a tiger in how we kill another creature and eat it afterwards? Our moral justification of such actions is purely a humanly contrived view and usually includes our assumption of superiority to all other creatures and our priority of primarily maintaining human well-being and flourishing.

We live by “idea-action-consequence” with the help of our evolved brain. Our endowed advanced capability allows us to consider any stage of these steps before we perpetuate any of them. We can mull it over and then can optionally choose to not proceed if we wish, based on how we perceive the greater good of our actions for both ourselves and/or our fellow humans. It guides all we do. We are a highly socially conscious species and that steers all our behaviour.

Most of us would not kill, prepare, then eat another of our own species (except cannibals, which is a whole other interesting conversation) but we don’t feel very badly about doing this same thing to a lot of other species. A tiger is no different. I’m not sure of the rate of ‘tiger cannibalism’ but they certainly have our exact same proclivities as far as killing and eating other species. They have their preferences, for whatever reason, just like us. They have no regret or guilt, just like us. Some of their kills we do not care about (gazelles, buffalo); others are a big problem to us (us, our pet animals). What they choose to eat rarely is an issue to us but what they choose to kill is a bit more important.

So when we ask “Is it moral to eat meat?” I think there is no valid argument against it. It is simply another form of sustenance that a lot of humans and other creatures prefer.  However, there just may be a weak argument in saying it’s ‘morally virtuous’ to not eat meat. But understand, not being morally virtuous is not equal to being immoral.

"But we need to be good to all creatures!" This is a mantra often preached. It's about the karma thing to some people. But disregarding that and all other unsupported metaphysical beliefs I'd ask, "Why do we need to be 'good' -- exactly?" It's strictly an emotional stance.

The carrying out of actions of ‘good’ towards other beings always seems to apply broadly and selectively in arguments and practice. It is usually quite individual, arbitrary, and emotional. Consider how we tend to 'graduate' our actions of compassion based on our biased attitudes towards the 'chain-of-command' we have societally constructed about all living beings, throughout the ages. Different species of creatures receive different treatment based on what they are and how they historically appeal to us or not. Think 'fuzzy kittens' or 'yellow chicks' as opposed to 'slimey snakes' or 'hairy spiders'. For example, we won’t shoot a stray neighbourhood dog in our town and eat it, but many people wouldn’t think twice about taking rifle shots at a wandering coyote or wolf on their acreage in the remote Canadian north and killing it. Even then, however, they probably won’t eat it. On the other hand if it were a deer it may quickly end up dead, butchered and freezer meat! And its skin making a new pair of slippers.

Think about the slapping of a mosquito; a creature that is simply doing what it is genetically programmed to do but that annoys some of us and thus apparently merits its immediate execution. Is it moral or not to kill it? Its most likely not an issue hey? That's fine, it's how our society has evolved. But the question remains, is it immoral to kill it? See how selective it all becomes? Morality basically becomes what society deems it to be.

Killing for food production and making money. Killing for annoyance. Killing for retribution. Killing for sport or fun. Eating is secondary and non-sequitur in most cases. Why would the manner of raising or killing a cow have anything to do with the eating of its meat?

You know, the only reason we kill stuff to eat it in the first place is because it would be impossibly squirmy otherwise to get it into our yaps. We might otherwise not go through the bother, expense and effort to do so. We could be like the mosquitos, pulling blood from living creatures, getting our fill and then moving along, leaving the host alive and well after having sustained us a bit. They actually do this in some African tribes with cows. Or be like sharks, who will chomp a bite out of some fish or seal and yet sometimes the poor victim manages to live on but without the appendage or portion of its body it had before the bite.

I will concede that killing may arguably be a moral issue (but even then so variable) but eating what is killed is not.

Yes, there may possibly be some ‘morally virtuous’ questions as to ‘how’ we attain what we eat, etc. but they would all be very weak as ‘moral obligation’ questions. Understand again, not being morally virtuous is not equal to being immoral. How we ‘cultivate’ some chickens in tight, restrictive pens until their scheduled butchering, for example, seems to be a strong incentive to stop eating meat but actually it is an entirely different issue. When the position is “You have a moral obligation not to eat meat because of how these chickens are treated!” there’s a strong burden of proof that needs to be demonstrated first, so appealing to emotion or construed morality linking one action to another totally unrelated action is a flawed method and thus merits being disregarded.

You'll probably hear, “But if the people didn’t eat meat, the chickens wouldn’t go through hell like that.”

Really? That somebody conducts their food business in a barbaric, sadistic way is not the fault of someone who eats meat to sustain their body. That unsavoury businessman simply needs to be dealt with, by society, that’s all. Don’t let these people torture animals for profit! Make them stop doing that! Understand what the real problem is. Why let it continue? Set standards.

Whether we like it or not, have accepted it or not, or have even considered it or not, we have not descended very far from our primal beginnings, from our ancestral savannah in the middle of warm Africa, and aren’t as evolved from the instincts, proclivities or inclinations of our roots as we’d like to believe. We are very much a part of the biology of the planet we exist upon and that includes all the shockingly basic aspects of our makeup, like conducting tribal war, eating other creatures, or greedily exploiting the Earth without thought of consequence. Whether we wish to mold these things into “good and bad” notions (usually only to make us feel better about it all or somewhat justified either way) does not change our basic nature and the fundamental way of how we are. Reality is a bitch.

Morality is founded on human well-being and flourishing. Ask me a question on morality that doesn’t address human well-being and flourishing and I’ll be surprised. As yet, I haven’t come across one. Objective morality is the ability to make objective assessments with respect to values. Understand, I’m not saying that deciding on a particular value is objective and this is all that I mean when I’m talking about morality and its foundations. I believe I’m right. If you don’t agree I only ask you to please explain to me how I am wrong about human well-being and flourishing because that’s the only part of this that is truly objective.

If morality to you is something else, like handed down proclamations from a religious point of view or an agenda’d political disposition, then we are simply talking about different things and the discussion will be incongruent. I don’t think I’d care to continue at that point because it would demonstrate to me that you haven’t thought it all through enough to understand.

My take on morality is derived from the physical facts of reality that dictate what is good or not good for us. It is not very difficult to see if something causes harm to another being or not or might be bad for their well-being and flourishing. Nothing about what I purport makes it empirically or fundamentally moral unless you agree that what I’m talking about makes it moral for you as well. Outside of human well-being and flourishing, morality quickly starts to be more and more subjective, especially when it starts crossing over to other species.

If everything I believed was rejected by everyone, I would simply stand in isolation with a moral stance that seems to serve me well and whose consequences seems to affect my circle of influence fairly and properly. All the while the greater society is free to believe whatever it wants, whether it is congruent with my own beliefs or not, or is actually flawed or not flawed. The final arbiter is truth. It always comes back to ‘what is true and what is not’ regardless of popular or not-popular opinion and does truth matter to you?

Why should we care about human well-being and flourishing for a moral basis? What makes that the objective standard? I’m not saying it is. I’m saying if, in fact, you are concerned with well-being and flourishing you can reach objective conclusions about the consequences of actions with respect to that standard. It appears to work very well as a basis of evaluation. And if your only concern is “Why should that be the standard?” then I can say “Well, it seems to be what humanity cares about, so what else fills that space?” Show me the proof of the alternatives.

What else could morality be about other than human well-being and flourishing?

I refuse to give up the word “morality” to those who think they have an esoteric definition or other claim to it, when I think the facts of morality also show that through the entire course of human history, when we talk about what is or isn’t moral, we are talking about what is in our best interests with regard to interaction with others and how we all conduct our lives within a harmonious group.

You don’t need an “absolute” to establish a benchmark for morality. You only need a comparison to an example that is more or less what you expect to find. From that you can tweak your own conclusion to be closer to the concrete objective. For example, I don’t need a tape measure to build a small table. Maybe I want it to be just above knee height, for example. I only need to know that the four legs need to be of the same length I desire to create the table height I seek. The table top needn’t be measured to the inch with a ruler either but only be constructed not to protrude into the walking space around it, let’s say, and be a sufficient area to hold the items intended to be placed on it. This is kind of how morality works. There are no absolutes, only decisions weighed against the objective of achieving human well-being and flourishing.

Frustrated? If you don't know why, I think I do...

I think the big issue here causing the confusion for people and creating the controversy that they can't clearly see through is in how we include and, more poignantly, do not include other species in our circle of morality. Morality from the human perspective is still very personal, primitive, primal and 'homo-sapienized'. Throughout the whole world, it is usually and almost exclusively about us. It all boils down to this single issue: some people want to hug bugs but mostly all others want to squish them. Extend this thinking, follow the trail of logic, and you'll come smack-dab up to 'eating meat' issues. So we'll have to come to grips with, eventually, just how far do we want our morality to extend beyond our species and then see what the cost of that is to our comfort and lifestyle. What compromises we'd have to make.

For now, just go have a nice blood drippy steak, or a nice crispy bean sprout and enjoy! Morality, our treatment of other species, -heck!- just our treatment of fellow human beings is a much bigger issue than most of us realize at this point! I think we are yet a long, long way from being capable of tackling issues that complex, especially as a collective. Maybe in the future...




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