Guest Post: No, We Don’t Owe It To The Animals to Eat Them

Written by Adrian Kreutz, New College, University of Oxford

That eating animals constitutes a harm has by now largely leaked into public opinion. Only rarely do meat eaters deny that. Those who deny it usually do so on the grounds of an assumed variance in consciousness or ability to suffer between human and non-human animals. Hardly anyone, however, has the audacity to argue that killing animals actually does them good, and that therefore we must continue eating meat and consuming animal products. Hardly anyone apart from UCL philosopher Nick Zangwill, that is, who in a recent article published in Aeon argues that “eating animals’ benefits animals for they exist only because human beings eat them”. One’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens, right? Let me unpack and debunk his argument.

Nick Zangwill’s argument hinges on the anticipated pleasure of hypothetical animals – future animals – that will someday exist because of animal breeding for meat production. The idea is that ‘having a life’ is better than ‘not having a life’, and life, if only temporarily, is what we grant those animals when we breed them only to be eaten. Because there are animals that in some sense exist only because of the meat industry, and that existence is valuable in and of itself (under certain conditions to which I will respond below), we “owe it to the animals to eat them”, says Zangwill.

I will now dissect Zangwill’s argument into its components. First, let’s have a look at the idea that a possible life – i.e., the life of an animal existing in the future – has actual moral valence. Basing one’s arguments on hypothetical future existence – possible people, for example – is a common practice in moral philosophy. For instance, when we consider the effects of climate chance, moral philosophers urge us to anticipate the moral responsibility we have towards people living in the future. Because we have a certain responsibility to our great-grandchildren, the argument goes, we must act now to reduce carbon emissions and avoid climate catastrophe. That’s all fine as an argument. Zangwill’s point, however, is not whether we should consider preventing future disaster for the sake of the wellbeing of future animals. The author’s point is that we should breed and kill animals for the sake of gustatory satisfaction, for that maximises existence – as in, there will be animals that wouldn’t otherwise, without incentive form the meat industry, exist – and maximising existence – ‘net life’ – is good. The only caveat: existence has to pass certain thresholds of what constitutes the good life, such as not being tortured; a standard of ‘goodness’ the life of most farmed animals will not meet. But assuming some animal’s life passes the ‘goodness’ test, if ‘net life’ is to be maximised, then why kill animals at some arbitrary point in time? Since Zangwill concludes that we owe the animals their death, maximising ‘net life’ cannot be what motivates the argument. What else does?

Maybe Zangwill thinks that a life which’s sole purpose is death at some human’s hand is a life is worth living, and it is precisely that life which ends in the slaughterhouse which, according to Zangwill utilitarian calculus, must be maximised. This life of the livestock then is not only worth living (even if unnecessarily limited in time), but also, according to Zangwill, worth bringing about. But is the life of a livestock, a life that is terminated at some others’ arbitrary will really worth living? Even if it were, wouldn’t the life of livestock be manifoldly better without the doom of ultimate death at the hands of a human? We can, after all, decide whether an animal which was (granting the validity of the first premise of Zangwill’s argument) in fact supposed to be slaughtered, whose existence is in some sense conditional on humans’ desire for meat, actually be slaughtered or not. There’s an is-ought gap here: even though some animals do in some sense exists solely for the sake of meat consumption it doesn’t follow that those animals should be slaughtered and their flesh consumed. There is nothing essentialist about life as a livestock. We can imagine livestock to live a life not premised on untimely death, and that doesn’t constitute a harm done to the animal, does it? We don’t owe animals their death. Why would the author think otherwise?

Here’s one idea for how Zangwill might try salvage the argument: it is one’s past intention to create a life that makes it morally right to terminate that life at one’s will. That’s hardly convincing. Consider this: are parents morally permitted to slaughter their children? Their existence is premised on an intentional act of creation on the side of the parents, after all. What if someone ‘breeds’ puppies to use them as firewood replacement? Imagine the puppies have a good life by the standards of what constitutes a good puppy-life, but their existence’s sole purpose is to be pushed into the furnace at some arbitrarily chosen time? The fact that Zangwill has to resort to all sorts of caveats for why, for instance, dogs, albeit in some sense bread solely for human purposes, should not be consumed highlights that what’s flawed with Zangwill’s argument: certain forms of human intentionality influencing the process of creating life doesn’t warrant the moral permissibility of ending this life at humans’ will.

Anticipating objections like ‘You wouldn’t do that to humans either’, Zangwill forestalls that “there are no human beings who owe their existence to a cannibalistic meat-eating practice. And even if there were, they could survive without it, if liberated, which is radically unlike domesticated animals”. But how does that imply that we are permitted – or even encouraged – to eat animals otherwise unable to survive ‘in the wild’? Why not care for those animals, for that’s what we should be expected to do when humans are, for whatever reason, old age or disability, unable to survive in the wild? One’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens.

The author also seems to have anticipated the rebuttal above, arguing that humans and non-human animals have different moral worth, grounded in different claims to rights perhaps, so that even unconscious humans have moral value different (and greater than, I suppose) to non-human animals. There’s too much going here for me to unpack it carefully enough. Suffice it to say, the animals-don’t-have-rights line is unconvincing. We can always, in form of an open-question argument, ask a follow-up normative question, ‘Should animals have rights?’. Imagine a world in which we no longer draw lines of rights (or the lack thereof) between races, genders, and yes, species…

Imagine there’s an animal that exists only for the purpose of meat consumption. Were there no meat industry, that animal would never have existed. What if by mere chance this animal dies a natural death at old age? What if by mere chance it ends up not being eaten. In what sense has this animal been harmed? Do we really owe the animal the ‘pleasure’ of untimely death? This is what Zangwill wants us to believe.

Zangwill calls “human beings a rare light in the darkness of the animal kingdom (for they) nurture some animals in order to eat them”. I call this a cruel practice. Suggesting that “vegetarians and vegans are the natural enemies of domesticated animals that are bred to be eaten” is a slap in the face of animal welfare activists who have struggled to point out what should be uncontroversial: that animal life without the doom of premature slaughter is preferable to an existence with the sole purpose of supplying meat. Sometimes, a modus ponens just shouldn’t be turned into a modus tollens.

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16 Responses to Guest Post: No, We Don’t Owe It To The Animals to Eat Them

  • Joe says:

    “But is the life of a livestock, a life that is terminated at some others’ arbitrary will really worth living? Even if it were, wouldn’t the life of livestock be manifoldly better without the doom of ultimate death at the hands of a human?”

    Well, should human murder victims have never been born? Would you choose life with murder at 35 over no life at all?

    • Adrian says:

      Being murdered (systematically) is usually not considered the purpose of human life, no?

      • Kane says:

        To steelman Joe, consider the case where Earth is ruled by aliens, and they have pre-programmed our deaths (to the extent they can) so that we die at the age we already die at. Once dead, a +1 goes on the alien scoreboard, and every 100,000 deaths the aliens have a celebration with cake and whiskey in an alien pub, while watching this game of “EarthTV”.

        This world would be indistinguishable from our own world, for we in fact do die at the ages we currently die at, however in this alternate world our (external) purpose was wholeheartedly to have been bred as entertainment for our alien overlords. Yet, we would still say that life is worth living, even in ignorant bliss. With a few minor changes, free-range livestock could be in a similar situation. Yes, there is a sense in which they are not aware of their own incoming mortality, and they are not aware of the fact that it is premature, and we do form our own internal purposes in the meantime, but I don’t feel that these are necessarily knockdown objections. Presumably a cow might have their own internal purpose of “Eat Grass”, to the extent they can form purposes.

        Now I’m not so sure myself…

        This was a good blog post to read, anyway.

        • Sarah says:

          But there is a third option: bring the animals into being (/allow them to be brought into being) and don’t eat them, or in the case of the aliens, don’t play the game- and that option is clearly better. There’s no reason for having killing as a necessary condition of life, it just pushes our desire to eat meat back from a reason at the killing stage to a reason the being born stage – it doesn’t make the reason any more compelling

  • Adrian (2) says:

    I read the entire Zangwell essay as tongue-in-cheek, and it works equally well that way. In fact, it’s superb as an absurdist counter-argument, and (not knowing the author) that was my assumption.

    “With cows, sheep and chickens, we do not have to wait to see what the research turns up; we may proceed directly to the dinner table.” As satire, that’s brilliant.

    • Adrian says:

      Hello Adrian (is that also a tongue-in-cheek from you side or are you an actual Adrian?),

      I agree, it’s prefect as satire, but here’s the thing: I guess there’s a certain intellectual responsibility not to propagate harm in one’s – assuming that’s Zangwill’s intention – satire-disguised philosophical argument (or rather philosophy-disguised satire). As part of a professional codex of the philosopher if you will (which doesn’t imply that I’m a l free speech curtailist, btw).

      That said, I don’t think Zangwill’s is a tongue-in-cheek nagging vegan hipsters like me. He has published an article on that argument in a peer-reviewed research journal. If that’s a PR stunt in absurdism, well-done, perfectly staged. But I doubt it…

  • Adrian says:

    Hello Adrian (is that also a tongue-in-cheek from you side or are you an actual Adrian?),

    I agree, it’s prefect as satire, but here’s the thing: I guess there’s a certain intellectual responsibility not to propagate harm in one’s – assuming that’s Zangwill’s intention – satire-disguised philosophical argument (or rather philosophy-disguised satire). As part of a professional codex of the philosopher if you will (which doesn’t imply that I’m a l free speech curtailist, btw).

    That said, I don’t think Zangwill’s is a tongue-in-cheek nagging vegan hipsters like me. He has published an article on that argument in a peer-reviewed research journal. If that’s a PR stunt in absurdism, well-done, perfectly staged. But I doubt it…

  • Lukas Werth says:

    On the whole, I like your argument(s). I’d just like to add some anthropological flavor to your purely philosophical considerations: global capitalism allows itself the industrial production of meat and industrial modes of hunting and fishing because of the perceived superiority over animals you addressed. This superiority has specific, albeit deep, cultural roots, like the creation myth in the book of Genesis. Other people – I am thinking of American native people – traditionally tend to see animals as relatives to interact with rather than as entities on the other side of the nature-culture divide. Killing an animal is an act that principally always implies some reciprocity and apology. Traditional Indic religions (even though meat consumption is a part of these also) envisage a continuous chain of existence instead of a break between humans and the rest. My point: such perspectives allow for a reevaluation of those perceived unique human qualities, like intelligence (what’s that, anyway?), soul (just adding here, not a scientific concept, I know), consciousness, decision-making, ethic, what not. Is life only worthwhile if we are able to say “cogito ergo sum”? If we perceive ourselves in a mirror? (What about creatures who primarily rely on senses other than the eye?) Are we not all just tunes in the great symphony of life and death?
    I have intentionally used here what is not quite a scientific of philosophical image, just to point to other ways of thinking/imagining that are found in the anthropological archive. And this archive also shows that we are creatures not confined to a particular nutrition, way of life, or ideology. We have the possibility of an unequaled cruelty, but also for a way of life that extends Emmanuel Levinas’s notion of the priority of the other to the other creature. Starting not to eat meat seems to me a very good beginning.

  • Randall Fallows says:

    Outside of the moral problems with this article, it’s based on several flawed assumptions. First, the belief that we only raise animals to kill and eat them. But the majority of animals are more useful to us alive than dead. Would you rather have thousands of eggs, gallons of milk, wool to make clothes or a week’s worth of chicken, lamb and beef? His argument also hinges on the assumption that all the animals would not be raised in factory farms but instead in places where they are pampered with spa like conditions. At the very least this would require everyone to cut way back on their meat consumption since the amount of extra land this would require would result in the elimination of the rest of the world’s forests and grasslands. Finally, he forgets to mention the health benefits to being vegetarian. If you don’t want to do it for the animals or the planet, then do it for yourself. I really do hope this piece was meant as satire because as a straightforward argument, the lack of reason in it would justify eating the author.

    • Marcus says:

      They are killed at the end of the exploitation cycle of their milk, fur, wool, eggs etc. As are the ones bred for flesh, unwanted males from the breeding cycles etc.

  • Nick Zangwill says:

    Adrian, in the comments section of my Aeon piece, you wrote: ‘The editorial decision to publish it should be reconsidered’. Others expressed regret that Aeon published it, just as many praised Aeon for publishing it. But you were the only one with the distinction of going so far as to call for it to be unpublished. But how can I seriously enter into debate with someone who says that I should not have been allowed to express my view? By doing so, you deny the very presupposition of such a debate.

  • Simon Stiel says:

    Suppose the world became vegetarian or vegan? Would the animals still exist either in reserves or be released into the wild?

    I completely understand the ethical impulses behind being a vegetarian or vegan.

    • Marcus says:

      They would merely stop being bred in their many billions. Their pipulation would taper off with demand.

  • Mike says:

    Ignoring the flaws in Nick Zangwell’s argument, justifying continued meat consumption will generate unprecedented human (and animal) suffering in the future, given the current appreciation of the devastating impacts of the meat industry and meat consumption on personal and planetary health. Surely the antithesis of maximizing pleasure?

  • Daniel V. says:

    Is there a reason for removing my comments?

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