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National Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: When Eating Meat is OK: A Defence of Benign Carnivorism

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A sow and her piglets in a bed of straw

This article received an Honourable Mention in the undergraduate category of the 10th National Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics. Written by David Logan.

Benign Carnivorism (BC) is a practice where a farmer (i) creates animals with pleasurable lives worth living, (ii) painlessly kills them after a significant proportion of their natural lifespan, and (iii) would not create the animals without also killing them for meat.[1] In this essay, I argue BC is permissible and respond to its most influential objection: Jeff McMahan’s Argument from Interests.

Section 1 — The Benefit Argument and McMahan’s Response

I defend the following argument supporting BC.

The Benefit Argument

(P1) The animals in BC benefit (in a noncomparative sense) from being created with pleasurable lives by (i)[2].

(P2) The animals in BC are harmed (in a way that can be outweighed) by being painlessly killed by (ii).

(P3) Killing the animals is the ‘harmful action’ in BC, meaning the action that causes BC’s sole harm and is ordinarily impermissible.

(P4) The Moral Offsetting Claim (MOC): If the benefit in a practice would not occur without the harm and the benefit outweighs the harm, then the harmful action is morally offset by the benefit, making both it and the practice permissible.[3]

(P5) The benefit in P1 would not occur without the harm in P2 by (iii).

(P6) The benefit in P1 outweighs the harm in P2.

(C) The harmful action in P3 is morally offset by the benefit in P1, making killing the animals and BC permissible.

This argument is valid with highly plausible premises. While I won’t argue for them all here, I offer some clarifications to demonstrate their intuitive plausibility before defending P4 in more depth:

P1 is a weak claim. I am not saying we have a duty to benefit animals in this way. I assume no such duty exists and merely claim that it’s good for the animals to be created with pleasurable lives.

P2 is compatible with numerous accounts of the badness of death. I do not commit to a particular one and only assume that the badness of death is (a) a harm and (b) a harm that can be outweighed by benefits.

P3 is true for my purposes.[4] I simply provide a definition and note that killing animals is normally impermissible.

P4 seems plausible as we often excuse ‘necessary evils’ when they are part of something good overall. This is more controversial, however, and I defend P4 more in Section 2 and 3.

P5 is true by my definition of BC.

P6 is true under the accounts of the badness of death in P2, provided P1 is a sufficiently large benefit.

McMahan’s Objection: The Argument From Interests

McMahan rejects P4 based on the following counterexample to it:

Nuclear Deterrence (ND): Nuclear war is likely between Country A and Country B. Assume the practice of Country A threatening to retaliate if Country B strikes and fully intending to follow through (so retaliation is guaranteed in response to a strike) is net-beneficial. The expected benefit from deterring any strikes outweighs the expected harm of two nuclear strikes (rather than one) if war begins.

McMahan believes it’s permissible to threaten Country B. However, if the threat fails, it’s clearly impermissible for Country A to retaliate. From this case, McMahan derives the following principle:

McMahan’s Principle: “…The permissibility of individual acts is determined by the considerations that favour them at the time of action and cannot be derived from the desirability of the larger practices in which they are embedded”.[i]

This principle contradicts P4 because it says we must judge actions only by the considerations that favour them at the time. This means we could never morally offset harmful actions by appealing to benefits that are caused by other actions in a practice.

Thus, this principle implies BC is impermissible because, when examining the action of killing on its own considerations, the animal’s interest in living is stronger than our interest in tastier food. Therefore, based on this ‘Argument From Interests’, it’s impermissible to kill the animal, making BC impermissible overall.[ii]

Section 2 — Why McMahan’s Objection Misses the Point

I argue McMahan’s objection misses the point of the Benefit Argument in two steps. First, I show that ND isn’t analogous to BC since the benefit in BC would not happen without the harm, but the benefit in ND would. Second, I argue that it’s only after one appreciates this connection between the benefit and harm in BC that the Benefit Argument kicks in and, as a result, McMahan’s objection doesn’t truly engage with the central claim of the Benefit Argument. 

Step 1: Why Nuclear Deterrence and Benign Carnivorism are Not Analogous

The key point in McMahan’s objection is that when practices have two (or more) distinct actions, the actor doing the practice could (i.e. is able to) do one action without the other and, therefore, we must consider the merits of each action independently. McMahan claims that this applies equally to ND and BC because Country A could threaten without following through and the farmer could give the animals pleasurable lives without killing them.

McMahan is correct that in both ND and BC the relevant actor could do the first action in their respective practice without the second. However, crucially, there is a disanalogy in whether the relevant actor in each case would (i.e. is willing to)dothe first action without also doing the second. In BC, (iii) states that the farmer would not create the animals without also killing them. But, in ND, McMahan never claims that Country A would not threaten without also retaliating. This condition would make no sense in this example because the benefit of the practice for Country A all comes from the act of threatening, not retaliating. Threatening alone is what reduces the chance of Country B’s strike and improves Country A’s safety.[5] Thus, there’s no reason they would not threaten without also following through.

Therefore, although there’s no disanalogy in whether the relevant actor could do the first action without the second, there is a disanalogy in whether they would do so.

Step 2: Where the Benefit Argument Comes In 

This disanalogy is important because it means ND is not a counterexample to the MOC.

The MOC has two conditions in its antecedent: (1) the benefit would not occur without the harm, and (2) the benefit outweighs the harm. To disprove this claim, McMahan must provide a case where both antecedent conditions are met, and the consequent is false.

However, as shown in Step 1, McMahan’s proposed counterexample only meets condition (2). In ND, the benefit (reduced chances of a nuclear strike) would happen without the harm (more deaths if the threat fails) because Country A would threaten without following through. By failing to meet condition (1), McMahan’s objection misses the point of the MOC. To see why, consider the possible worlds each actor has available when they are considering what to do:

In the ND case:

W1 – Country A won’t threaten a retaliatory strike and won’t do one. 

W2 – Country A threatens a retaliatory strike and will do one.

W3 – Country A threatens a retaliatory strike but won’t do one.

In the BC case:

W1* – The farmer won’t create the animals and won’t follow through on painlessly killing them. 

W2* – The farmer creates the animals with pleasurable lives and will follow through on painlessly killing them.

W3* – The farmer creates the animals with pleasurable lives but won’t follow through on painlessly killing them.

In his objection, McMahan correctly points out that in the ND case, W3 is preferable to W2 because it contains the benefit of ND without its harm. Similarly, he correctly points out that in the BC case, W3* (if it were an option) is preferable to W2* since it contains the benefit of BC (animals living pleasurable lives) without its harm (their early deaths). In both cases, this is what McMahan’s objection amounts to: W3/W3* is preferable to W2/W2* and, thus, when choosing between W3/W3* and W2/W2*, it’s impermissible to choose W2/W2*.

But this objection misses the point becausewhile W3 is an option, W3* is not. It’s not an option because we will never be in W3* given the farmer would not give the animals pleasurable lives without also killing them. Therefore, the only options are W1* and W2*. A nice heuristic for this is to imagine the farmer is morally motivated. He comes to ask McMahan if he can permissibly do BC. If he cannot, he’ll stay in W1*. If he can, he’ll move to W2*. So, the question is, which world should the morally motivated farmer pick, W1* or W2*?

This is where the Benefit Argument comes in. Its MOC says that W2* is at least as good as W1* because the ordinarily impermissible action of killing can be morally offset by the benefit of having pleasurable lives. Thus, it’s permissible to go from W1* to W2*. But this ranking is something McMahan doesn’t address as he only compares W3* to W2*.

For that reason, McMahan’s objection misses the point of the Benefit Argument.

Section 3 – An Objection: Fixing the Disanalogy and Why it Actually Supports the Moral Offsetting Claim

The most obvious move for McMahan would be to alter ND to correct this disanalogy. Consider the following:

Strongman President: Suppose we are back in ND, except Country A now has a strongman president. He refuses to look weak and will only either (a) threaten Country B and follow through or (b) do nothing (not even threaten).

Both conditions in the antecedent of the MOC are now met. However, after correcting the disanalogy, the practice of threatening and striking back is no longer obviously impermissible. To motivate this, consider the practice’s expected number of deaths. Suppose both countries have one million people, there’s a 20% chance of nuclear war, and Country A could reduce this risk to 1% by threatening Country B. With these figures, Country A, by threatening and following through, could reduce the expected number of deaths from 200,000 to 20,000. This benefit is enormous and it’s now plausible that threatening and following through is permissible. If correct, this suggests the harmful action is morally offset, meaning this case actually supports the MOC.

But if you still think this practice is impermissible, this could be due to another potential disanalogy between BC and ND/Strongman President. Namely, striking back involves a rights violation. When rights are violated, it seems plausible that this fact will trump the consideration of the practice being net-beneficial and, therefore, doing nothing would still be preferable in Strongman President.[6] However, many people care deeply about animal suffering without thinking they possess rights. Thus, such people’s intuitions may be misled by the disanalogous presence of rights violations in Strongman President.

Therefore, to fairly assess the plausibility of the MOC we should consider it in a non-BC context without rights violations. Consider the following case:

Altruistic Adoption: Ella wants to adopt Oliver, a thirteen-year-old orphan. Oliver’s orphanage is quite poor, and Ella could provide him with a much better life. He could go out with friends, afford university, and pursue extracurricular interests. However, Ella is very career-driven and will sometimes emotionally neglect Oliver, by actively dismissing him when he wants to talk, to focus on work. She could work less but is unwilling to and will only either (a) adopt Oliver and work long hours or (b) leave Oliver in the orphanage[7]. Although Oliver will be harmed by the emotional neglect, the benefit from being adopted vastly outweighs this harm.

Just like BC, this case involves a net-beneficial practice with a harmful action (Ella emotionally neglecting Oliver) but where the benefit (Oliver having a better life) would not occur without the harm. Furthermore, it seems obviously permissible (and perhaps even desirable) for Ella to adopt Oliver. Thus, when we correct the remaining disanalogy in Strongman President, the intuition that we cannot morally offset harmful actions disappears. This further supports the MOC and suggests the same should apply to BC.

Thus, the Benefit Argument is still sound, and BC is a permissible and feasible way to eat meat.[iii]


McMahan, J. (2008) ‘Eating Animals the Nice Way’, Daedalus, 137(1), pp. 66-76. Available at:

McMahan, J. (2017). “Might We Benefit Animals By Eating Them?” Popper Seminar. [RECORDED LECTURE]. Accessed at:–bCOUro

[1] This definition, as well as the Benefit Argument that follows, are similar to McMahan’s presentation (McMahan, 2008; McMahan, 2017). For the definition, I have simply picked out the features of BC I take to be essential. For the Benefit Argument, I have filled out some details of McMahan’s version and put it into numbered premise form.

[2] In this essay, I exclusively use benefit in a noncomparative sense to mean ‘good for X’ rather than ‘making X better off’. For a discussion of the importance of this distinction, see McMahan (2008, p.68).

[3] There may also be other conditions required for harmful actions to be morally offset when we consider cases beyond BC. The most obvious example would be that the action does not violate any rights. I discuss this more in Section 3.

[4] I am (incorrectly) assuming that BC’s only harm is to the animals involved in the practice. BC may have environmental harms that make it impermissible, but I am only concerned with the former kind of ethical consideration in this essay.

[5] Threatening is also the moral thing to do since it reduces the expected number of deaths worldwide. So even if Country A was morally (rather than self-interestedly) motivated, they should still threaten.

[6] If this is correct, it means we should revise the MOC to include the third condition that the harmful action being offset does not violate any rights. There may also be other conditions we wish to add, e.g., you may only be able to morally offset harmful actions with benefits you do not have a duty to cause. This is because, e.g., if you had a duty to create animals with pleasurable lives and not kill them, then it is obligatory to move to W3*. When obligations are present, what an actor would do is no longer relevant. However, I do not have the space for a general analysis of all the necessary conditions here.

[7] We can assume for simplicity that if Ella doesn’t adopt Oliver, due to his age, no one else will.

[i] McMahan, 2008, p. 73

[ii] (McMahan, 2017)

[iii] With thanks to Professor Jeff McMahan (Corpus Christi College), Professor Roger Crisp (St Anne’s College) and Dr Umut Baysan (St Anne’s College) for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. pig against slaughter

    Reductio: if BC then same logic allows beneficial cannibalism (breeding human babies only to kill, kentucky fry and eat), but that’s wrong so BC is flawed.

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