animal rights

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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