Is Eating Meat Morally Wrong?

In recent podcast interview on Philosophy Bites, philosopher Jeff McMahan argues that humans shouldn’t eat meat, because killing animals deprives them of valuable future life experiences. He believes that the morally bad act of cruelly depriving another conscious being of its future life outweighs the good that humans derive from eating animals. What do you think?

Listen to the podcast here.

This is, I believe, a mis-application of moral philosophy, counter-physiological and just plain silly. McMahan’s initial premise, that the moral harm done to a sentient animal (by cutting short it’s life and depriving it of pleasurable life experiences) outweighs the benefits to humans of eating animal products, is flawed and exactly where this particular argument for vegetarianism falls down. McMahan seems to imply that the only benefit for humans when eating animal products is pleasure. This too is flawed.

If one wants to argue this on evolutionary grounds (a common worldview of secular philosophers), there is ample evidence that humans have evolved as obligate omnivores, in the same manner as chimps and gorillas. Some evidence of this is:

1. Dentition consistent with being an obligate omnivore. This includes both molars for grinding vegetable matter (like a herbivore) and canines for ripping and tearing flesh (like a carnivore).

2. A gastro-intestinal and digestive set up like an obligate omnivore. Not the short gut of a pure carnivore and not the long, multi-stomached GI system of an obligate herbivore.

3. The commonly seen nutritional deficiencies that result from a vegetarian diet that is not artificially supplemented – B12 deficiency, iron deficiency, protein deficiency.

This is strong evidence that humans are physiologically set up as obligate omnivores. Whether this is by evolution or by design is another debate. Couple this with the fact that, if evolution is true,  humans have obviously evolved as hunters and gatherers – that is HUNTERS and gatherers -  with the self-evident evolutionary advantages that this omnivorous diet has conferred.

Either way, by design and by physiology, there really is no argument – HUMANS ARE MEANT TO CONSUME ANIMAL PRODUCTS.

In a Darwinian worldview, is it even coherent to question the morality of eating animals? It seems to me to be a situation of trying to “have your lentils, and eat them too”. Either, as per Darwinian physicalism,  humans have evolved as omnivores and objective morality is illusory, or not. If the former is the case, then as obligate omnivores we should continue to consume animal products, without guilt, in exactly the same manner as we have evolved to – a characteristic that has obviously given us an evolutionary edge over other animals.

That said:

1. Do Westerners eat too much animal products?  It seems so. But the logical response is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater by rejecting the consumption of all animal products, but to consume animal products in physiological moderation, as part of a balanced diet.

2. Should animals intended for consumption be treated humanely and compassionately? Of course, as sentinent and feeling beings, they most certainly should be treated in this manner, at all times and in all ways. Every effort should be made to minimise fear, anxiety, stress and discomfort, both in everyday life and in transit situations.

3. Should animals intended for consumption be killed as cleanly, quickly and painlessly as possible? Of course – catch them by surprise and kill them quickly. Prods and bolts, rather than knives would seem more compassionate and humane, regardless of cultural or religious requirements.

4. Should we get all bound up with worry and self-loathing about how eating animal products deprives these animals of a happy and fulfilling life?  This seems to me to be a naive anthropomorphization – it is almost impossible to conceive sentient life as another species, what constitutes a ‘happy life’ for livestock, and whether the concept of having a ‘happy and fulfilling life’ even registers in their psyches as an everyday priority.

One wonders whether McMahan vexes so much over the concept of depriving a fellow human being of a potentially long, fruitful and fulfilling life, this particular human being having the misfortune of combining the disabilites of being as-yet-unborn, defenceless and (unfortunately) unwanted by it’s parents?