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The Ethics of Meatballs

In the light of the unfolding horsemeat scandal, it was only a matter of time before some equine entrails were uncovered in an Ikea meatball. This is a shame on many levels, not least for the poor pigs, cows, and horses whose flesh will now end up as landfill. I personally am quite partial to an Ikea meatball, would not object on the mere grounds that it contained horsemeat (I think I would have been hard pressed to identify the ingredients anyway prior to the scandal), and recently enjoyed an Ikea meatball dinner in Budapest with a colleague from the Uehiro Centre, not a million miles from where the offending meatball was uncloaked. But for those who consider eating Ikea meatballs intrinsically good, but eating horsemeat intrinsically bad, how could they be advised?

Prescriptive ethics seeks to provide overarching guidance as to how one should behave. It aims to be comprehensive, providing guidance as to how one should behave in all cases. Though moral philosophers generally address more weighty questions, such as the ethics of abortion, instead I am going to consider the more humdrum goal of eating an unadulterated meatball.

A fundamental problem, though not the only one, is the problem of uncertainty. To highlight this, it helps to distinguish two types of uncertainty. For all his many faults, Donald Rumsfeld famously did this in a press conference in 2002, pointing out the distinction between known knowns, known unknowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns. It is the ‘unknown unknowns’ (also referred to as ‘Knightian uncertainty’ in economics) that cause the problem. For every known unknown (or unknown known) that one identifies beforehand as a risk (meat suppliers supplying an alternative meat, a disgruntled employee deliberately tainting the meatballs) that one might be able to take steps to address, due to the complexity of the world there will be a multitude of other possibilities that one cannot predict.

The problem is in principle much more fundamental than one might assume, due to the uncertainty caused by the problem of induction. The problem of induction is that many, if not all, of the inferences we draw depend on premises that we cannot verify. For example, we do trust our senses (this tastes of pork/beef/chevaline), and the information that others around us provide (‘contains pork and beef – guaranteed chevaline free’), but there is no infallible means of verifying the assumptions upon which this trust depends. This is not to say that these assumptions, whatever their source, do not serve us well for the most part, just that uncertainty cannot be eliminated.

If uncertainty cannot be eliminated, then it becomes impossible to provide prescriptive guidance that will enable us infallibly to attain our ends, whether they be meatball based, or other.

In case I might be misinterpreted as suggesting that no guidance at all can be provided to attain normative goals, whether relating to processed meat, or of moral questions, let me immediately correct such a misapprehension: guidance is possible, but it may simply not be of the comprehensive type we might expect. Ie, another’s advice may serve to expand the domain of known unknowns / unknown knowns. The butcher who used to deliver our meat once advised my mother – rather earnestly – never to touch a sausage roll. Though the domain of uncertainty was not eliminated entirely, I suggest that such advice was helpful, and I have tended to follow it ever since.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. How do you think you can justify the raising and killing of sentient animals for the pleasure you get from eating their flesh?

    The pigs, cows, chickens, and fish that humans eat are seriously harmed in a variety of ways during the course of their lives (there bodies are mutilated, they are confined in ways that frustrate their most basic instincts, they are deprived of the goods needed to live a good life for a pig, chicken, cow, etc.). With this, their lives are cut short (often in a painful death) in their infancy (well before they’ve had a chance to live anywhere close to a natural life span).

    Why do you ignore these ethical issues?

  2. Dear Dan, thanks for the comment. You are right, whether or not to eat meat is an ethical issue, but not the one I chose to address here.

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