Meat is Murder?

Katherine Viner of the Guardian has just chosen The Smiths’  Meat is Murder as her favourite album.

The album came out in 1985, in the middle of a decade in which I myself was an enthusiastic advocate of vegetarianism. I began by being swayed by the arguments of Stephen Clark, but it was the horrible images in The Animals Film (the first film shown by Channel 4, though sadly it was censored – I saw it complete at the Phoenix in Oxford) that motivated me to change and try to change others.

I became a keen vegetarian cook, and did manage to persuade a few friends, for a while, to become vegetarian themselves. But then, having read more philosophy, I began to think further about whether killing non-human animals is in itself wrong, in such a way that benefiting from such acts might itself be thought to be wrong. I decided that things were not as clear as I’d thought. First, not only is killing sometimes right, not killing is sometimes wrong, as sometimes in war or in justified voluntary euthanasia. Second, what is wrong with killing, if we consider only the individual killed, is its depriving them of future goods. This raises the question whether, even if killing is bad for an individual, a practice involving killing may be justified if it is the case that the individuals killed would never have existed in the first place without that practice. It seemed to me that it could be, if the individuals concerned had had a life worth living – that is, a life better than nothing.

Many of the animals now produced for human consumption, under intensive conditions, can plausibly be said to have lives which are worse than a life which is neither good nor bad. So there is no argument here for intensive farming. But non-intensive farming, especially those varieties which give special attention to animal welfare, does seem justified. So here there is an argument in favour of eating non-intensively-reared meat, one that I continue to find plausible.

There is one rather obvious objection to this argument: it could be applied to human beings. Imagine some group of cannibals who set up a practice in which they produced children, who had happy but short lives, and were then painlessly killed to be eaten. If everything else were equal – as that slippery phrase has it – then the argument carries across. But of course in the real world they are not. There are huge benefits to us arising from the general acceptance of a moral principle forbidding the killing of innocent human beings other than in unusual circumstances.

This is not to deny that there are other powerful arguments against eating meat, especially at the levels at which we now do so in the developed world. The production of meat uses resources highly inefficiently, resources which could be put to far better use now or in the future.  There are issues here about whether what I do will make a difference either way. But meat is expensive, and there is little doubt that the money spent on it could itself be used to make large positive changes for the better in the world (a point that applies to any luxury good, of course). These arguments, however, do not rely on the assumption that meat is murder. The Smiths’ album may have been a good one, but its central message was a mistake.

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14 Responses to Meat is Murder?

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    "not killing is sometimes wrong, as sometimes in war or in justified voluntary euthanasia"

    Hi Roger,
    I'm just wondering what would constitute unjustified voluntary euthanasia or justified involuntary euthanasia, or unjustified involuntary euthanasia ?
    (But I agree with you on vegetarianism.)

    • Roger Crisp says:

      Thx Anthony

      Unjustified voluntary euthanasia: Someone diagnosed with a painful terminal illness is temporarily depressed and requests euthanasia.

      Justified involuntary euthanasia: (I didn't mention this, but here's an example from, I think, Jonathan Glover) Someone I know is being taken off to have the most appallingly painful experiments performed on them by the Nazis before being killed. I have the chance to shoot them now.

      Unjustified involuntary euthanasia: (I didn't mention this one either.) Someone diagnosed with a painful terminal illness is given a lethal injection against their wishes.

  • J.R. says:

    Anthony,

    Well, if you believe that someone assenting to euthanasia (thus making it voluntary) is itself adequate justification for facilitation of the act, then clearly voluntary euthanasia would always be justified (thus making 'unjustified voluntary' a contradiction in terms). If we reject this premise (as I think we should) , we are left with situations where someone assents, but we still lack justification for facilitating the act. These are the scenarios where the one wanting to die wants to die for irrational reasons, maybe they're drunk or on some new medication. We need to consider the conditions under which consent was given, not just the fact that consent was indeed given. Justified involuntary euthanasia could be when one lacks the cognitive ability to volunteer or assent to such an act, the effects of their condition on family and themselves could provide justification for euthanasia without them volunteering. Unjustified involuntary is what we might see when good intentioned people have the facts wrong. Thinking someone would be better off dead, because of pain or something, but in reality they want to live and will be better for it.

    That's my view of it at least, Professor Crisp might differ.

    Roger,

    Interesting post, I'm wondering if one would need to adopt a replaceability position, or some theory of non-person identity (moment to moment existence, not diachronic for example) that facilitated one at least, in order for this argument to hold (though we might not need this because of the practical nature of the post). If we assume that any given farm animal's value can be replaced by another within the species (meaning if I kill a chicken at t1 its value can be replaced by a chicken born at t1.1) that means no special value is lost in killing any one individual member of such a species (as long as we replace it nothing of value is lost). But wouldn't we have to establish that the value accrued while chickens (cows, pigs etc.) were killed and replaced would be at least equivalent to the value accrued when such animals persist without being killed and replaced? If we accept replacement then killing an animal is fine; as long as the animal is replaced no value is lost (and the existence of an ethical meat industry would produce a lot of good). If we accept that something is lost, even when we replace a slaughtered animal, then killing isn't acceptable at the theoretical level at least, because we would be better off rearing animals to full life expectancy (then we could eat them). If we accept that short and pleasant lives ended painlessly are good, and that we should do what we can to make as many of them obtain as possible (not sure about that), meat consumption could be the perfect means to this end.

    • Roger Crisp says:

      Thx JR. We agree about euthanasia, I think. I take your point about replaceability. Note that even if there is a loss through replacement, it could still be the case that the practice of meat-production was justified overall (since it's plausible to think that the practice isn't going to continue if meat-producers decide to allow animals to live out their natural lifespan). But I anyway find it hard to see what that loss might be, since on most standard views of well-being the well-being of the replacement animals is just as high as that of those replaced. (Peter Singer uses the long-term desires human beings have to suggest that there are special reasons for not replacing human beings that don't apply to non-humans. That's a separate issue, of course, but I should say I've never found that argument persuasive either.)

    • Matt Sharp says:

      If we can use replaceability to justify farming animals, then we must also consider that wild animals would have existed in the area of land that is being used as farmland.

      Farming would no doubt allow for many more individuals of certain species to exist, but does it actually lead to more animals overall existing? I'm not so sure. That's something ecologists could answer.

  • Matthew Bate says:

    While I agree that meat is not murder, mainly because most people have divorced the death of the animal from the act of eating it, I cannot agree that just because it <i>can</i> be argued that eating meat is ethically justified it is OK to do so.

    It would be just as easy to argue that if the matter is not clear it would be more ethical not to kill. I would also point to arguments made on the basis of utility where you always end-up with the fact that you don't have to kill so you shouldn't.

    I'm happy with the extended argument that takes the lack of utility in animal agriculture (without requiring the ample evidence as to the harm it causes) and extends that to question whether humans should cause lives to begin only to end them at our whim and for our dietary preference. In this light the 'one bad day' justification falls prey to doubts as to the efficacy of our role as small gods over the farmed animal population.

    This piece tells me more about the author than the subject. If you wish to eat animal products then that is fine, but using logic or structured thought to justify that decision tends to fall over in the absence of utility and in the now certain knowledge that animals are intelligent and are able to suffer.

  • Wayne Yuen says:

    @ Matthew: I don't think that its terribly plausible to argue that it is wrong to kill. We kill things all the time, and if we're not killing animals, then we're killing plants. You need to qualify the argument with something closer to: It's wrong to kill sentient life unnecessarily. Or maybe, "It's better not to kill sentient life unnecessarily."

    I agree that non-intensively farmed meat may not be morally problematic… But I think there are a couple of other problems that we must take into consideration:
    1. Slaughtering of animals, no matter how well raised, if done improperly, could cause them profound suffering as well. Much ado has been made about animal living conditions, but not much has been made about animal slaughtering conditions. In the US, at least, most animals are required to be slaughtered in FDA approved slaughterhouses that to varying degrees inflict profound suffering.
    2. Even if we were to ignore the slaughterhouse problem, a deeper problem with humanely raised meat is the lack of transparency (at least in the US) of where our meat comes from. Most people are far removed from their animals being raised, and as such, really have only faith in the word of the producers/farmers that they are ethically raised. Today cows are often raised by two sets of farmers, those who raise the cow from infancy, to maturity, then another farmer who "finishes" the cow by specializing its diet, to make the meat more palatable. Often we might know of the latter, who may or may not be raising the cow well, but what do we know of the former? So even though there may not be a solid conceptual argument against humanely raised meat, I think there is a deep practical problem on being assured that our meat is actually humanely raised.

  • livex says:

    "This raises the question whether, even if killing is bad for an individual, a practice involving killing may be justified if it is the case that the individuals killed would never have existed in the first place without that practice. It seemed to me that it could be, if the individuals concerned had had a life worth living – that is, a life better than nothing."

    Better than nothing for whom? If individual X never exists, then X cannot deprived of anything or harmed in any way. The thinking here seems to be that the sheer existence of a further individual (as long as that existence has more goods than evils overall) adds more goods to the overall pile of existing goods in the world, and therefore the world including that individual is better than the world not including that individual. I can only say that this picture of "a bigger pile of goods is better" does not accord with my own intuitions. If particular individual X never exists, even if X would have had a life that would have been on balance worthwhile, the world is not made worse by X not existing. (The world isn't worse because I didn't have that fourth child than it is with my existing three children.)

  • livex says:

    following up: the relevance for animal farming is that the world is not better due to the sheer existence of farmed animals (even if they are not mistreated) than it would be if said animals had never existed. The entire quantitative approach to determining better vs. worse here simply seems misguided to me, and to that extent I guess I am not a utilitarian by nature — even though I do consider myself a consequentialist generally.

  • Wayne Yuen says:

    @livex I think deprivation harms can be real… I think death is an example of a deprivation harm. Deprivation doesn't harm like normal harm in the sense that the subject needs to be aware of what they are being deprived of. I take a baby tiger cub and put it in a zoo. They're deprived of wilderness, and have never experienced wilderness at all. So they're deprived, but the cub never knew otherwise, so (lets stipulate) that the cub isn't sad. But I think the cub still has been harmed in some way, specifically the cub has been deprived of a wild life. Similarly, if death can deprive us, than couldn't non-existence deprive us too?

    I don't have ANY children, and it doesn't look like its in the cards that I will have children. So my world is worse since I am deprived of any children. Similarly, I'm sure if you had a 4th child, your life would be made that much richer…. So you're being deprived of that richness (of course with more children, I would imagine it would suffer some kind of diminishing marginal utility, so maybe adding another child won't actually make your life any richer).

    • livex says:

      Sure, deprivation harms are real, and death can certainly be seen as one. But those are harms to existing individuals. A non-existent individual can't be harmed or benefitted because there is no one to whom the harm or benefit could accrue. Non-existence cannot be said to harm the individual who never existed.

      About the children, do you really want to say that the aggregate state of goodness of the world is less if I don't have an extra child than it would be if that child existed? That the world is somehow a worse place than it would be? That seems obviously absurd to me, but maybe I need an argument here.

      • Wayne Yuen says:

        Well not really…. If I'm dead, then I don't exist anymore…. so it shouldn't be harming anyone, since I don't exist anymore… but since death is bad…. the only reasonable explanation is the deprivation argument… that my non-existence is depriving me of existence.

        Why is it absurd? We aren't talking about HUGE numbers of utility generated, but it would be some (again supposing we haven't reached some level where an addition of another human would start decreasing utility overall because of overcrowding or something ). And if we're utilitarians, then whatever maximizes utility, no matter how small the amount, is morally required of us.

  • livex says:

    So according to you it's *morally required* that I have another child, or as many more children as I can, as long as they maximize overall utility in some sense? Again, I can only say that that is obviously absurd. If that's a consequence of your version of utilitarianism, I'd say it's a reductio of it.

    On your first paragraph, one more time: if you die, you've been deprived of something. But the point at issue has to do with individuals who never came into existence at all. It doesn't make any sense to regard 'them' (they don't exist!) as being deprived of anything. There's no one there to be deprived.

  • "There is one rather obvious objection to this argument: it could be applied to human beings. Imagine some group of cannibals who set up a practice in which they produced children, who had happy but short lives, and were then painlessly killed to be eaten. If everything else were equal – as that slippery phrase has it – then the argument carries across. But of course in the real world they are not. There are huge benefits to us arising from the general acceptance of a moral principle forbidding the killing of innocent human beings other than in unusual circumstances."

    Even worse, this argument would make it morally permissible for parents to kill their children at any given time. After all, they would have never been born in the first place without their parents' involvement.

    You are quite vague about why most of us would reject such an argument when applied to human beings. Yes, there are huge benefits resulting from our general objection to the killing of innocent human beings but that's besides the point. I think that most of us are opposed to murder not because it doesn't advance us individually or as a society, but rather because we believe that human beings possess intrinsic value. We are valuable regardless of our past, present or future. We must ask ourselves if the concept of intrinsic values applies to non-human animals as well. I recently posted on this very subject on my own blog. If animals do have intrinsic value then meat could very well be murder, regardless of how well the animals are treated, and The Smiths' message would be true.

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