Eating meat is good, says the philosopher
New diet just dropped!
Imagine a dystopian future in which aliens with a taste for human flesh kidnapped a bunch of people from Earth and raised them as livestock on their alien planet. Humans on the alien planet are kept alive “free-range,” able to interact and live their life, but only for their first 20 years. Then they are harvested for food.
If you were an alien politician concerned about the ethical mistreatment of humans, would you advocate for (a) the continuation of the system but with better treatment for humans (quicker death, better living conditions, longer life), or (b) to stop the system entirely, although this would mean that humans would soon die out in one generation as they’d be unable to survive on the alien planet. Quick, which would you advocate: (a) or (b)?
Like all philosophical thought experiments this is merely a fable, but it throws the issue into stark contrast. I’ve written before about longtermism, the idea that future lives carry moral weight—in this case, there will be millions of humans on this alien world that never exist if you choose (b) and abandon them to their fate on the hostile planet. So it seems rather natural that one should push for (a) instead and promote better treatment. Even if, on net, the humans in the alien world suffer, is oblivion really the preferable alternative to net suffering? Especially if you could alleviate that suffering through action? I’m reminded of the story of the axe-murdering utilitarian, who goes around targeting only those with chronic back pain, since their net suffering will, over their lifetime, outweigh their net pleasure. Presumably, most people the axe-murdering utilitarian thinks should be replaced with the null set of oblivion would protest their deaths, screaming “No! Please! I choose life despite my constant mild pain!” while running, clutching their backs.
This may all seem ridiculous, and such thoughts experiments definitely are—indeed, as you’ll find, this entire essay is ridiculous—but it is also the sort of things that philosophers of the ethics of animal consumption debate. I myself am deeply sympathetic to vegetarianism, and admire those who commit to it, but how could domesticated animals like pigs or lambs continue to exist in the numbers they do if we stopped eating meat? For many of the animals we eat, we’d be consigning their species to oblivion if we stopped eating them. Presumably, if they could somehow signal to us their preference, would they pick (a) or (b)? Hoof up or hoof down? My intuition is they’d probably choose to be born, and eventually eaten, rather than not be born at all. Hoof up.
When I went to college and met for the first time a good number of vegetarians and vegans, I used to blow their minds with this argument—“Oh, so you say you love cows, but you also want to consign their species to oblivion?” Despite its overblown and somewhat jokey nature no one ever gave me a good counterargument. So I never stopped eating meat.
It’s a pretty obvious argument. I never thought it was original. So imagine my surprise on finding that philosopher Nick Zangwill at University College London published the 2021 book Our Moral Duty to Eat Meat in which he makes exactly this argument, I guess because no one else ever bothered to write it down?
The basic claim, to put it crudely at first, is that eating meat is morally good primarily because it benefits animals. Of course, the practice does not benefit a particular animal that we eat at the time that we eat it. Nevertheless, the existence of that animal and animals of that kind depends on human beings eating animals of its kind and, hence, that meat-eating practice benefits them. Domesticated animals exist in the numbers that they do only if there is a practice of eating them. For example, the many millions of sheep in New Zealand would not begin to survive in the wild. They exist only because we have a practice of eating them. The meat-eating practice benefits them greatly. Therefore, we should eat them.
As someone who had been saying this for decades now, I’d also like to say that essentially my whole life I’ve been unsatisfied with this argument. Something is off about it to me, even though I could never pinpoint what (despite being, as I want to emphasize, very sympathetic to the morality of vegetarianism and even veganism). It seems a horror to exist solely at the largess of our appetites.
While also in college, I was fond of another argument on the same topic. It was an alternative to vegetarianism in the form of a darkly humorous proposal, and I’d like to get that proposal out now, just in case there’s an entire dense book being worked over as we speak somewhere across the Atlantic in the bowels of academia. This argument is even more ridiculous than the first one, so seems even more important to establish academic priority on, for we all know that the best philosophy books are those with the most utterly ridiculous premises. So here it is: we should stop eating the “good” animals and start eating the “bad” ones instead. Radical, I know. E.g., some organisms do things like parasitically implant their young into paralyzed victims so they can burst through their chests alien-style, and others do things like eat grass and look cute. It seems like an easy choice which should die for our gustatory pleasure.
Is this proposal conflating is with ought? Probably yes. Is the evilness of such creatures beyond their control? Also yes. Do I care? No. I think that they are bad, and I don’t like them, and I’m going to eat them instead of creatures that do things I like, like sheep who frolic in meadows with their babies. With purposefully little thought this seems coherent to me, in the same way that one might deny free will but think that rightfully-convicted prisoners should still be put in prison. It’s a certain brand of compatibilism, assuming only that animals are somewhat responsible for their actions even if they don’t have free will, and that in the extremes of behavior there is a morality associated with that.
So what can you eat, if you only eat evil creatures?
Honestly, fuck crabs. They may be the form that nature evolves into most, but that just reflects poorly on nature. When a crab gives birth it will tower over its just-born infants like a colossus, spooning them into its mouth in a grisly feast.
And I’ll just assume that all the arthropods are equivalently horrific. Let’s put lobsters in there too, e.g., shrimp are also cannibals that will eat their own children. In his essay “Consider the Lobster” David Foster Wallace writes:
Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? . . . Standing at the stove, it is hard to deny in any meaningful way that this is a living creature experiencing pain and wishing to avoid/escape the painful experience. . .
But shouldn’t we also consider whether or not we humans like this particular animal? What if it kind of deserves to suffer? You know, for its crimes. Even if we do grant lobsters a stream of consciousness (which I agree we probably should) it is likely a cold and solitary and alien consciousness, totally incapable of any emotions we would recognize, other than some pain, a ravenous hunger, and a dull slovenly form of pleasure when that hunger briefly abates. No love, no real pleasure, no social relationships, no enemies or friends, no higher thoughts, no caring, no empathy. Just an ocean of internal hunger and occasional bouts of satiation as they eat their cousins alive.
And the arthropods, like crabs, lobsters, shrimp, and so on, make up the biggest chunk of all biomass on earth. There’s a whole gigaton of evil carbon we could be snacking on.
There are a lot of puff pieces about octopuses (thanks mostly to the shadowy “Big Octopus” lobby) but really octopuses are pretty horrible too. Oh, they’re smart, but, similar to crabs, they’re cannibals. They spend most of their time cavorting in a midden pile of prey bones. In order to not eat their own children, the females enter a biological death spiral before their brood hatches. They likely have the same solitary streams of consciousness, perhaps with bouts of satiation as they arrange the bones of their prey in concentric circles. Of course, they’re much more intelligent, but doesn’t that just make them more evil?!
A parasite that enters a fish’s mouth, eats its tongue, and then grows to replace it. An unspeakable eldritch horror. I was going to include an image for it but just seeing it is so traumatic I can’t in good conscience share it. Here’s the link, if you’ve the stomach (actually, DO NOT CLICK. REALLY. REALLY REALLY DON’T).
I don’t care if these sort of parasites feel pain, they are obviously just a mistake and never should have evolved. Now that I can’t unsee it, I hate it with every fiber of my being. I wish I’d never known about them, and if they were being cooked alive in batches that’s what they’d deserve.
Okay, I know you’re thinking: “But Erik, this is insane and distasteful.” And you’d be right about that. But it is a logical outcome of the proposal. For cats are way more evil than a cow. They play with their food in a way most other predators don’t. Ever find an alive but fully-skinned bunny in your yard and have to put it out of its misery with a shovel when you were fifteen? No? Must not have had outdoor cats (reader: it did not die on the first hit). If your cats were big enough, they’d eat you. Feline fillets are simply turnabout as fair play.
Brutal and vicious creatures. I won’t go into the details, but if you’ve had chickens you know what I’m talking about. Also extremely dumb. Don’t believe me about their evilness? How can you say no to evidence like this:
The laughter, the crunching of bones, their demonic vigor. It’s cool that they are one of the few hermaphroditic animals, but we should obviously be eating hyenas. According to a Quora answer I didn’t bother to fact check because it supports my hypothesis:
. . . hyenas, on a hunt, regularly disembowel and eat their victim while it’s still alive, rendering it too paralyzed to protect itself, before it eventually dies from a combination of blood loss and fear—trust me: this is far scarier than the throttling bite used by lions and other felines, given that the latter only eat their prey after having killed it.
I’m aware that a diet of hyenas and crabs is not going to catch on. Is there no way to get most of these things at scale? Yes. Does the proposal to eat only evil animals solve the original problem? You know, the one where stopping eating domesticated animals causes them to cease to exist as a species, thus solving their anguish but only via the oblivion of nonexistence, the very problem with which I motivated this entire post? No. Doesn’t solve it at all. Do I regret typing “feline fillet?” Absolutely. Would I eat a cat? Absolutely not. Is this is the dumbest article I’ve ever written? Also yes.
So let me end with the small dignity of an original, if still somewhat tongue-in-cheek, proposal: while “evil animals” may not be a solution to what we should morally eat, it is actually not totally crazy (just mostly crazy) when it comes to scientific research. For, no matter what anyone tells you, animal research in science is a difficult moral choice. Some people are curing cancer, and it’s worth cutting the heads off mice. Some people are. . . spinning their wheels playing the Science Game and merely cutting the heads off mice for their next resume-packing paper. So why not conduct scientific research only on animals that are so different from us we consider them well, kind of evil? It’s hard to imagine protestors getting worked up over the lab conditions of Cymothoa exigua. And most species being studied in science are wild-type—their species doesn’t face oblivion if we don’t use them for research.
Going back to meat eating: in all seriousness, my current stance is rather boring and similar to many other’s. Eat animals that live pretty good lives, so that their life was preferable to not living. This means caring about where your meat comes from and how it’s raised.
In fact, in my ideal world, I’d only eat old animals. I would honestly pay extra money (like three times the price) for a tough old steak from a cow that had an extremely happy and long life. In our aliens-eating-humans scenario this would be the equivalent of the age of harvest being 60, not 20. And imagine that humans were given significant autonomy during their 60 years on the alien planet. That’s a totally different scenario to me, like orders of magnitude more ethical. If quality of life on the alien planet were high enough (perhaps due to advanced medical technology or how awesome society is under the alien’s rule) it might even have advantages over our world—that’s only a twelve year difference in the average lifespan for men. It wouldn’t be a better world, because freedom and self-determination have moral value above and beyond utilitarian calculations concerning amounts of suffering or happiness (shocking, I know), but certainly I think most of us would prefer a predestined death at 60 to never being born.
However, while I’m waiting for Old Steaks, Inc, I may still lean toward consuming evil animals over good ones (cats not included in the calculus, of course) just to see if it helps my unconquerable guilt.
Time for some crab rangoon.
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