The Ethics of Vegetarianism

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Is killing animals for food morally indefensible? Many people think so, and not just vegetarians. Even many omnivores acknowledge their moral deficiency on this point. I recently listened to Sam Harris and a guest (on Harris’ Waking Up podcast) concede that anything other than vegetarianism is morally indefensible, while at the same time admitting they can’t, or won’t, stop eating meat. But is this the final word on this discussion?

Moral Truth

Before we can ask whether eating meat is moral, we obviously need to clarify what exactly we mean when we talk about morality. Specifically, I want to ask whether there are such things as moral truths, independent of humans and out there waiting to be discovered by us. In other words, are moral truths the same as mathematical truths?

Two plus two equals four. This is a fact that is as independent of human subjectivity as you can get. No matter how one slices things, it is true that two plus two equals four. Is the common moral injunction to tell the truth the same type of proposition? That is to say, are moral principles independent of human subjectivity in the same way as moral ones?

The answer is… of course, they aren’t. How can I be so sure about this? Because telling the truth in any particular situation is clearly inextricably bound up with human concerns. No matter your ethical inclinations (utilitarian, deontological, Christian, etc.), the precept ‘don’t lie’ withers away in the absence of any human subject to actually will it.

This is perhaps most obvious in the case of utilitarians who are concerned with maximising happiness or minimising suffering… happiness and suffering for whom? Why, human beings (or maybe sentient beings) of course. Before a utilitarian can determine whether one ought to tell the truth in a certain circumstance she must explicitly consider the happiness/suffering of those capable of both feeling happiness and of suffering. Imagine if our mathematical truths were of the same nature as the utilitarian’s ethical ‘truths’. Before we could know whether two plus two equalled four we would have to check the circumstances. And even more shocking, sometimes two plus two wouldn’t equal four!

Consider the Kantian, for whom truth-telling is a categorical imperative and lying is absolutely prohibited. Why does our duty-bound Kantian elevate this principle to a categorical imperative? Whatever reason you discern in the end, there will always be a human-related, contingent, concern behind it. Perhaps they will say it is because one ought to “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”.[1] That’s all well and good but why should that matter to me? Because to act in any other way would mean that society would collapse. What kind of society? A society of human beings. So lying is wrong in consideration of our goal to preserve human society.

But maybe I want society to collapse. Maybe I take my cue from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his notion of the ‘noble savage’ as a point of harmony between wild animal existence and decadent civilised life. In this case, since I can will that lying be a universal law, lying becomes the categorical imperative. This happens only as a result of the consideration of human interests and goals.

We could go on like this forever, dissecting moral pronouncements until we were blue in the face, but the point is that whether lying is right or wrong does not stand independent of human interests, goals, beliefs, etc. It, like all moral pronouncements, is not an independent ‘truth’ awaiting discovery by a thoughtful moral philosopher.

Hold on. Why be so quick to jump to that conclusion? Perhaps one of those moral theories is actually ‘right’ and we just haven’t found out which one it is yet. The fact that people disagree about moral principles doesn’t mean that one of them isn’t true.

Of course it’s true that disagreements don’t rule out an absolute, human-independent truth, but this is to totally miss the point. The problem isn’t that there are many different competing theories out there. It’s that none of those theories stand independent of human concerns, like mathematical truths do. Two plus two equalling four doesn’t depend on my goals or beliefs. It isn’t true only if four results in less suffering than any other number. Addition truly stands independent of human existence in a way morals will never be able to do.

So you’re a moral relativist then. Any moral prescription is as good (or bad) as any other.

No. This doesn’t commit me to moral relativism. All I’m saying is that none of the ethical rules we formulate are transcendent. They are all inextricably bound up with our goals, desires, beliefs, etc. If my goal is to minimise suffering, there will be a set of principles that will enable this. But if I, like Nietzsche, believe that suffering is important and builds character (“ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms”[2]), my ethical prescriptions will be quite different. If I believe that a God dictated our morality to us, my ethics will be different again.

Now, clearly the moral principles generated by each of these approaches aren’t equally desirable and my position doesn’t demand that I respect all of them, but, and this is the important point, none of them are superior to the others independent of human interests. In other words, ethics can never acquire the status of a transcendent, absolute truth, like mathematics does.

So what’s your point?

Well, if there are no moral truths independent of humans (that is, sentient, conscious creatures) then this means that we are making up our morality as we go along. Let me be clear what I mean by this. It doesn’t mean we can’t have morals or that morality is an illusion. Morality is real. It’s just not Absolute or Transcendent. We don’t discover morals, we create them.

Sure, maybe it would be better if the universe had a code of conduct built into it, a set of rules somehow built into the quantum manifold we could discover. It would certainly be a hell of a lot easier to just read (a physics textbook or a holy book) about how we ought to behave rather than having to think about it, but that’s just not the universe we live in. If you want certainties, absolutes, and ready-made morals, stop reading (and thinking for yourself) and go pick up a Bible (although I dare you to get your morality from the Bible without cherry-picking the thing to Kingdom come).

We create our morals and this makes them contingent. If we want others to accept our morality, we have to argue for them. We have to offer reasons why our morality is better than theirs. There is no other way.

On the topic of morality in general, here’s one last kick in the crotch for any physicalists out there who think the physical suffices to account for everything in the universe, including consciousness, and truly believe there is nothing special about human existence. If you are correct, then ethics is wholly impossible in the first place. If we are just fully determined clumps of matter in a universe full of similarly determined clumps of matter, then there is just no room for morality.

The causally determined effects of the clump of atoms we call ‘Nathan’ carry no more moral weight than those of any other clump of atoms, say, for example, those of a tornado. Now a tornado is truly and completely determined. It has no ability to reflect on the consequences of its actions and it never weighs its options. This is what true determinism, pure physicalism, looks like. If you really believe human beings are no different from anything else in the universe, i.e. just clumps of matter, bound in a causal chain extending all the way back to the Big Bang, then we have just as much moral responsibility for our actions as a tornado.

But we can still lock criminals up. After all we would lock tornadoes up if we could. We can also punish them because this will be a cause which will have the effect of deterring future criminals.

Granted. We can and should still incarcerate those who fail to abide by the morals we have encoded in our laws. But this says nothing either about moral truth or whether humans are moral agents. As you said, we would lock up tornadoes if we could even though they are perfectly determined and therefore non-moral instances of nature. The problem for the physicalist is to explain how humans differ from tornadoes in a universe in which there is nothing more than the physical and human beings are therefore nothing more than just another clump of fully determined atoms.

Humans are different from tornadoes because we have the use of reason and can therefore think about actions, consequences, etc.

Reason? What can this possibly mean in a physical universe? This argument is a blatant attempt to smuggle in possibilities that physicalists explicitly deny exist in our universe. ‘Reason’ in a physical universe can mean nothing more than mechanical causes producing certain effects. Why? Because that is all there is according to the physicalist! Sound waves impact our eardrums, which cause them to vibrate in a certain way, which causes certain patterns of neurons to fire, which causes certain electrical signals to propagate out to the body, which results in certain actions. This is a purely mechanical process (or at least that is the physicalist’s position). There is absolutely no room in any of this for anything as non-scientific as ‘meaning’ or ‘morals’.

The phrase “think about” is another attempt to slip something more than physical into the physicalist’s universe. ‘Thinking about’ something carries no more meaning than any other physical process. To suggest this makes us different from tornadoes is just unclear thinking. What is ‘thinking about’? Just the physical movement/activity of atoms. It is absolutely no different from the movement/activity of atoms in the air which generate tornadoes. No room for morality here.

Ultimately, if the physicalist is committed to the idea that humans are moral agents, he or she must also allow that tornadoes (not to mention every other physical process in the universe) are moral agents. A difficult pill to swallow.


Let me start this section by relating my own experience of vegetarianism. After reading Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics, I found myself unable to resist his arguments against eating meat and went ‘green’. I ultimately stopped because I got sick of being ‘that guy’, you know the one whom people had to make special accommodations for whenever I ate with others. I was also starting to wonder whether I was really morally obligated to avoid eating meat. One year later, I returned to my previous omnivorous lifestyle and finally, some eleven years later, I decided to write an article about why we aren’t morally obligated to be vegetarians.

So, why vegetarianism?

Well, humans are actually evolved to be vegetarians. Our bodies can’t process meat like those of other genuine carnivores and we lack the correlative external features that all carnivores possess; sharp teeth for tearing flesh, claws for bringing animals down, etc.

There are a couple of responses to this. First, I don’t think we are “natural vegetarians”. We lack the digestive capacities of true herbivores (e.g. four stomachs) and instead have evolved such that we are able to digest both vegetables and meat. In addition, while we certainly lack pronounced external features characteristic of predators, there are some things about us, our teeth for instance, which seem to combine features of both carnivores and herbivores. All of this suggests that we are “natural omnivores”, if anything.

Secondly, even if I grant that we evolved to be “natural vegetarians”, this means nothing. Very few things we do in our normal, everyday lives are things we have evolved to do. Putting on a suit and tie and sitting in a tiny cubicle in front of a box which bathes our faces with radiation for hours at a time; using artificial lighting to keep ourselves up well past sunset; imbibing cigarette smoke, alcoholic beverages, artificially sweetened snacks, canned food; refrigerating food to keep it fresh well beyond its natural life; making appointments with our friends by furiously punching away on little black ‘smart’ boxes… etc. Virtually none of the things we do are ‘natural’ or what we ‘evolved to do’ and many of them are harmful for us, far more harmful than eating meat. Even (generously) assuming it may be healthier to be a vegetarian, it would be healthier to do many things different to the way we currently do. Inasmuch as this isn’t a compelling argument for altering our lifestyles in any of those other ways, it isn’t a compelling one for vegetarianism either.


It’s morally wrong to kill animals for food.

Before we investigate this in more detail, we should first note that formulating the argument for vegetarianism as a moral imperative in this way makes it sound more grandiose than it really is. It sounds like killing animals for food is somehow violating one of those objective, absolute, moral truths that stands apart from human interests; universal truths that are true at all times and all places throughout the universe.

Apart from my earlier argument against such universal moral truths, there is another reason why we ought to be sceptical that killing animals for food is some kind of grand, cosmic, capital “T” truth. Surely, if this were true, if it were somehow built into the fabric of the universe, completely independent of humans, that one ought not to kill animals for food, it wouldn’t happen naturally. Indeed, everywhere we look in nature we see this moral truth violated. We can’t watch National Geographic for five minutes without seeing predators slaughtering prey to survive. There are even carnivorous plants which devour insects by essentially digesting them alive!

It is ridiculous to try to hold non-reasoning animals (let alone plants!) to moral standards. Since they lack the cognitive faculties to be moral agents, normative imperatives don’t apply to them.

Agreed. The irony is that while I can hold this position, our moralist who thinks that there are such things as absolute moral truths can’t. Indeed, there is something decidedly odd about a moral truth which is supposedly universal and independent of the rational beings who “discover” it and yet which also specifically falls outside the purview of every single creature on planet Earth except human beings.

The problem is that if we claim that moral truths are somehow transcendent and independent of reasoning creatures (like mathematical truths), it is then impossible to make sense of a universe which seems to flout its own principles. Consider the mathematical truth that one lion cub plus one lion cub equals two lion cubs. This is about as independent of human (rational creatures’) interests as possible. Two lion cubs is two lion cubs whether from the perspective of the lioness mother or an observing human being. Obviously, the lioness can’t reason about this the way we can but that’s precisely the point. Two is two, whether a rational creature is thinking about a math problem or a lioness is looking for her second cub. That’s what makes mathematics independent of human (rational) beings.

So now our moralist seems to be claiming two opposite things. First, moral truths are universal and independent of human beings. Second, lions are exempt from these universal moral truths. Something has certainly gone astray here.

If you’re still unconvinced consider this thought experiment. What if sharks became fully conscious, and therefore morally responsible, tomorrow? Now, they physically can’t just stop killing fish and switch to seaweed instead. What are they to do? Must they starve themselves to death in order to be moral? Through no fault of their own and no change in their behaviour, they went from morally neutral to immoral. Surely, there is something wrong with this picture?

They don’t have to starve themselves to death but they are morally obligated to develop an alternative as quickly as possible. Since they are conscious (which presumably involves intelligence) this should be possible.

This is self-defeating. It amounts to saying that it is moral for the sharks to act immorally (i.e. kill fish) for the time being. If morality is to mean anything at all, it surely can’t recommend immoral acts, even in the short-term.

Even worse would be to bite the bullet and say that it actually is immoral for the sharks to kill fish but since there is no other option, that is what they must do for the time being. Again, if morality is to mean anything, surely it must be practically possible. There is a reason Peter Singer called his book Practical Ethics, not Impractical Ethics.

This is all moot. Whether or not it is moral for conscious sharks to eat fish because their physiology demands it doesn’t tell us anything about the human case. Humans clearly have no such excuse. We don’t need meat.

I agree that humans don’t need meat. This, of course, doesn’t say anything about the morality of eating meat though. The morally relevant question is whether it can be moral for conscious sharks to kill and eat fish (because they have to in order to live) but at the same time be immoral for humans to do the same thing. I think it is fairly uncontroversial to suggest that this would be an unacceptable ethical position to take. If morality is to be worth the name, it just can’t prescribe different things for different groups. Eating meat is either right or wrong. To suggest anything else would be to advocate moral relativism – a position every moralist abhors.


Let’s get back on track. Thus far, I have argued that saying it’s morally wrong to kill animals for food is not the grand proclamation (i.e. a universal, absolute truth independent of humans) it appears to be. So stripped of its grandiosity, what is the individual making this statement really saying? Ultimately, they must be saying that killing animals conflicts with some moral rule or code of conduct they have elected to live by. This might mean a variety of things depending on the moral system they have adopted.

Let’s briefly look at a few of these systems. A utilitarian will argue that the moral act is the one that maximises happiness or minimises suffering. A Kantian will argue that one should always treat human beings as ends, not means. A Christian will hold to the Ten Commandments and a Buddhist to the Eightfold Path.

Inasmuch as none of these moral systems (like all moral systems) are perfect, we accordingly find that none of them offers a terribly impressive justification for not eating meat. Indeed, utilitarianism would seem to recommend killing animals for food if the happiness derived from the people who will enjoy the meat outweighs the suffering of the animal, or even if the happiness of the animals themselves before they are eventually killed outweighs their suffering. Kant seems exclusively concerned with the welfare of human beings, or at best, rational creatures, thereby excluding most of the animal kingdom. Christianity has never placed much value on non-human animal life and there is nothing in the Ten Commandments which requires vegetarianism. But even if it did (Pope Francis is a vegan), it would be based on the faulty reasoning that it is right because God says so. If God isn’t real, then neither are His moral imperatives. Buddhists have always strictly advocated vegetarianism on the doctrine of ‘right action’ which holds, among other things, that one ought never to kill… anything. The reason given is because it creates bad karma which impedes ones progress to enlightenment. However, if you don’t believe in karma or enlightenment (more of those tough pills to swallow), this moral imperative loses all its force as well.

In short, when we actually look at why the moral codes that do endorse vegetarianism do so, we find something of a lacuna. The lacuna is that every moral system, precisely because it is a moral system, lacks the flexibility required to consider each case individually and give different weightings to different virtues depending on the circumstances. If it did this, it wouldn’t be a moral system. Part of what makes a system a system is the attempt to eliminate human subjectivity. Morality is whatever increases net happiness. Don’t think about it, just do the calculation. Morality is whatever God says. Again, no thinking required. Apply the rule or maxim or plug in the figures and you’re good to go. Morality for dummies. Unfortunately, if one follows these approaches that is exactly what you end up with… morality for dummies.

Okay. So, there are some problems with the big moral theories but I’m not an ethics professor. I just don’t think we should kill animals, not because it violates some grand ethical principle, but because killing is cruel and I don’t want to do that to another sentient creature.

This finally gets us to the crux of the matter and is really the only genuine motivation for vegetarianism. How can I justify ending the life of another animal just because I want to eat it?

It’s worth noting at the outset that there is something strangely backwards about asking this question. In a world where predators kill prey all the time, where the (not just ‘a’) rule of survival is kill and eat, that one of these animals should suddenly feel guilty about this is most definitely a curious turn of events. Indeed, this intuition is one of the strongest reasons why I find vegetarianism so hard to swallow, if you’ll forgive the pun. As I shy away from a steak or chicken breast, Nature herself makes a mockery of my precious beliefs and I find myself wondering why I am so squeamish about something as natural as the sun shining and the wind blowing.

Oh, you aren’t seriously making this, the worst argument in the world against vegetarianism, are you? Just because a thing ‘is’ a certain way in nature doesn’t make it ‘right’. Male lions will kill cubs if they were sired by other males. This prevents the genes of other males from propagating throughout the species and also brings the females into heat again; an evolutionary double-whammy. If you want to argue that killing other animals for meat is right because lions do it, you must also accept that killing children fathered by other men is also right.

Now there are a couple of problems with this counter-argument. First, I am not saying that since other animals eat meat, we should also be able to. Clearly this would open the door to nonsense like, ‘since male lions kill some cubs, men should be able to kill some children’. Rather, I am saying that the fact that some animals kill and eat other animals is part of the natural cycle of life on planet Earth in a way that male lions killing cubs isn’t. Killing animals for food is just on a completely different level from other ‘natural’ behaviours (killing the offspring of other males, rape, territorial squabbles, etc.) one might seek to equate it with.

Let me hit you with another thought experiment that will hopefully highlight this point. What if some apocalyptic future comes to pass and we bomb ourselves back to the Stone Age? We find ourselves reduced to small bands of individuals trying to eke out any meagre existence we can, something like those ‘survivor’ shows that seem to be in vogue at the moment; “The Wheel”, “Naked and Afraid”, etc. Reduced to foraging for whatever we can find to nourish ourselves, would anyone sensibly claim that we ought not to kill, say, a rabbit, because it would be immoral? Would anyone blame us for doing so, even if our survival depended on such actions? My intuition screams that there would be nothing ‘wrong’ – that is to say, ‘immoral’ – with this. On the contrary, this is the human animal fully harmonising with its place in Nature; a ‘Nature’ which cares nothing for that human animal’s opinions about the rightness or wrongness of what it does.

Indeed, rejecting this natural cycle of life on Earth as ‘immoral’ would be as inane as declaiming that childbirth is immoral because it causes suffering for the mother and inflicts trauma on an innocent baby. In fact, we can carry this thought experiment a little further. Imagine if eggs and sperm could be extracted from the parents sans any invasive procedures and the egg then fertilised and brought to term in an artificial womb. Nine months later the baby would “birth” effortlessly with no pain for the mother or trauma for the baby. Suppose a group of people began advocating for this to become universal practice on the basis that the ‘natural’ method of childbirth was immoral. Would you agree with this? If you wouldn’t, how would you argue against such a person? If they held to a simplistic moral system, such as utilitarianism, where immorality cashes out as suffering, you would be very hard pushed to defend your ‘naturalistic’ stance. Of course, you might opt for an artificial birth because it reduces suffering all around but this isn’t the same as relegating natural childbirth to an immoral act.

This leads into the second problem. The counter-argument claims that you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’; what ‘is’ says nothing about what is ‘right’. Fair enough. But this whole discussion is something of a wild goose chase. Just like the natural ‘child-birther’, we have been immediately forced onto the defensive and asked to morally justify eating meat as if it needed a moral justification. Childbirth needs no moral justification and neither does eating meat. We eat meat because, like every other animal on the planet, we are part of the food chain. If we decide we don’t like our place in this natural process and are able to, we can change it, by all means, but this isn’t a question of morality. Occupying the place in the food chain that we have evolved to thrive in and have occupied for millions of years is not something we need to suddenly justify.

Again, this is not to make the argument that ‘since we have eaten meat throughout our history, eating meat is right’. This would then force me to accept nonsense such as ‘since humans have fought wars for religion throughout our entire history, holy wars are right’. Rather, what I am doing is noting that carnivorous predation is something so fundamental to life on Earth that it doesn’t admit of moral categorisation. It’s just a natural fact about existence on the same level as childbirth; a level quite different from that in which tribal conflict or patriarchal societies with harems of females are ‘natural’.

But just because a behaviour is ‘natural’, as you say, doesn’t mean we cannot reflect on it, decide it is immoral, and decide to change it.

Almost. We definitely can and should reflect on all of our behaviours and change those we deem no longer suitable, practical, efficient or worthwhile. Indeed, we have done just that for many of our primitive, instinctual, ‘natural’ behaviours, and we’ve labelled them ‘bad’, ‘wrong’, or even ‘evil’.

The reason I say this is only ‘almost’ right though is because I don’t think all of our natural behaviours admit of this kind of reclassification; i.e. from ‘just what we do’ to ‘wrong’. Some behaviours are ‘ultra-natural’, if you’ll forgive the expression, in the sense that they are just so fundamental to life that they are prior to morality. Eating meat (and childbirth) is one of these.

Now I admit it isn’t clear where the line is between ‘natural’ and what I am calling ‘ultra-natural’ but it seems to me that there are at least three distinguishing features. First, ‘ultra-natural’ behaviours have a long pedigree. They are fundamental to life in a way that mere ‘natural’ behaviours aren’t. Predators have been eating prey animals ever since animals have existed.

Second, ‘ultra-natural’ behaviours are necessary, not optional. Obviously, this is no longer the case (if it ever was) for human beings, but this misses the point. Eating meat is more than just a preference for many animals on Earth; it’s the only option.

Third, ‘ultra-natural’ behaviours are pervasive across a wide range of different life forms. Obviously, meat-eating is a way of life for many, many different animal species but it is also the rule for a whole range of plants which survive by ‘eating’ insects.

Now, there is, of course, nothing to stop you rejecting my distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘ultra-natural’ behaviours. If you do this, you can continue to make the case for vegetarianism. However, you will also have to make the case that (ultra)-natural childbirth, and any other ‘ultra-natural’ behaviours, are immoral.

How can you equate killing with bringing a life into the world? It is wrong to kill and this is totally different from childbirth.

It is true that these two behaviours are quite different. However, they are on the same, what I have been calling, ‘level’, unlike eating meat and rape, and this has an important consequence. Naturally, I’m not suggesting the vegetarian must condemn both killing animals for their meat and giving birth as equally morally deficient (in the same way that lying is not as bad as murder) but the fact that they are both ‘ultra-natural’ means they are morally equivalent to the extent that they belong on the same side of the moral equation.


Let’s recap. Thus far, I’ve argued that there are no absolute, universal moral Truths so eating meat definitely doesn’t violate one of these. I’ve also claimed that no moral system can adequately make the case for vegetarianism. Finally, I’ve argued that there is something about eating meat (its being ‘ultra-natural’) which places it beyond morality. The examples of fully conscious sharks (who have no choice but to kill their prey), humans living in a post-apocalyptic world, and childbirth all support this.

Okay, I’ve listened to all of your apologetics for eating meat, but I still feel that killing animals is wrong. I mean, it’s killing! How can you justify this?

I think that our intuitions get us in trouble here. We have such a strong aversion to killing (because it represents for each of us the end of our own lives, outside of which there is nothing more precious) that the killing of any animal (or any living thing in the case of Buddhists) becomes automatically associated with this very personal and traumatic notion of death.

It is no wonder that murder features at the very top of most lists of immoral behaviours. Very little can compare to the termination of our very existence. The suffering one endures under most other immoral actions can be overcome but death is permanent… and scary. And rightly so. But is all death equal? That is the question we find ourselves looking at here.

Is killing a cow the same as killing a human? Few people, I think, would actually endorse this position, but, as my imagined interlocutor comments above; killing is killing, and killing is wrong. Maybe killing a human being is worse than killing a cow but that doesn’t make the latter right or even permissible.

It’s here that we find our innate aversion to killing (whose origins ultimately lie in the contemplation of our own deaths) leads us astray. Killing is not killing and all killing is not wrong. I see nothing wrong with a moral code that forbids murder, i.e. the killing of other human beings, but which, at the same time, condones the humane (more on this in a minute) killing of animals for their meat. How? Animals (the ones we typically kill for food anyway) aren’t conscious or self-aware in ways which are morally relevant when considering whether the same moral imperatives which we extend to other human beings ought to be extended to them, too. In short, animals don’t have the same right to life that human beings do.

Let me give two arguments to support this. First, they lack the basic mental and cognitive powers to actually be aware that they will ‘lose’ anything with the termination of their existence. I don’t believe any animal actually ‘fears’ the loss of their life in anything like the same way we fear the loss of ours. By the same token, no animal ‘hopes’ for a happy future. Removing that future then is not taking anything away from the animal.

Secondly, animals, as everyone agrees, are not moral agents. They are not morally accountable for their actions. The flipside of this is that they are not entitled to all of the rights that moral agents are. How do the rights of moral agents and non-moral agent differ? Well, I’ve already specified one way; the latter do not partake in the right to life.

Well, if animals don’t have rights, we ought to be able to torture them, right?

Nonsense. I haven’t said non-moral agents aren’t entitled to any rights; only that the rights of moral agents and non-moral agents aren’t the same and there is at least one way in which these rights differ; regarding the right to life. Because non-moral agents don’t ‘hope’ for a happy future or ‘fear’ their own death, they don’t have a right to life in the same way that moral agents do.

It should be obvious that this doesn’t endorse cruelty to animals, including the manner by which we kill them. I haven’t said that animals are mere machines, incapable of feeling, nor am I committed to this position. Animals are very much capable of suffering and this is more than enough to morally condemn maltreating animals in any way that would cause them suffering. But there is nothing contradictory about refusing to cause animals suffering and killing them for their meat. Killing an animal (in a humane fashion, of course) that can’t look forward to, or fear, the future is not the same as causing suffering by, say, torturing the beast.

It may sound cruel to say that animals don’t have a right to life but it isn’t. This is because it isn’t the same as saying the lives of animals are ours to do with as we please. As I’ve already said we certainly can’t treat animals any way we wish. What it is saying is that when it comes to animals’ lives per se, the animals under consideration don’t have a right to preserve those lives in the same way that we do. But isn’t this obvious? How can they have a right (like humans do) to a life they have never lived (like humans do)?

How do you know that animals lack the same mental or cognitive processing powers as human beings? Some animals certainly do demonstrate higher mental faculties.

How do I know? As we all do with everything, I make the best inferences from the available information and it seems as certain as a thing can be without actually being known for certain, that cows, chickens, fish, and the other usual dinner plate suspects, lack the important cognitive features which would grant them a right to life. By the way, the vegetarian also assumes lesser cognitive capacities in animals when she notes that we can’t hold a lion responsible for killing a gazelle because it’s “just an animal”.

It’s true that some animals do demonstrate greater capacities for self-awareness and conscious reasoning than others. This is, of course, fine. If we deem that an animal crosses the ‘consciousness boundary’, I am perfectly happy to cross it off the list of animals we ought to kill for food. (It should be completely obvious by now that I am using the word ‘animal’ to mean ‘non-moral agent’, not ‘non-human’) Again, however, note that if any vegetarian wishes to claim this special privilege for an animal, i.e. hold that a particular species has a right to life by virtue of being conscious and self-aware to the appropriate degree, we are also obligated to hold them morally accountable for their actions. We can then no longer merely turn a blind eye to a chimpanzee clan fight, for example, but must condemn it as morally despicable, the same way we do with human ‘clan fights’.

If you really believe that we can kill animals for their meat because they lack the ability to ‘hope’ or ‘fear’ for their future lives, then you must see nothing wrong with killing and eating humans, e.g. babies or the severely mentally handicapped, who also lack this ability.

This is a cute but completely misguided argument. The ability to contemplate a future life is obviously not the only factor that distinguishes human babies from animals. To see this, let me turn the question around. Presumably you (my vegetarian interlocutor) also believe that babies don’t ‘hope’ or ‘fear’ for the future. This should be a fairly non-problematic assertion. But do you therefore believe babies are the same as animals who don’t ‘hope’ or ‘fear’ for the future? On this basis, can we keep our babies in kennels and teach them to roll over, play dead, and fetch the paper? Of course not. But how do you justify us treating dogs and babies differently? Whatever your answer, I can quite happily partake of that same argument to avoid having to accept that we ought to be able to eat babies and the severely mentally handicapped.


Thus far in this article I have been on the defensive. I would like to end up by going on the offensive a little. I will point out contradictions or inconsistencies in the positions of each of the following:

  • The moralistic vegetarian who doesn’t eat meat because she thinks it morally wrong to kill animals or cause them suffering
  • The Darwin reductionist vegetarian who thinks we are just animals
  • The physicalist vegetarian who thinks there is nothing special about consciousness
  • The utilitarian vegetarian who believes right and wrong turns on nothing more than calculations of utility.

To the moralistic vegetarian first. How can she justify her moral half-heartedness which stops at eating meat? If it is morally wrong to kill animals for food then it must also be morally wrong to kill animals for leather. Does our vegetarian refuse to wear leather as well? To be morally consistent she must. Not only this, she must also refuse to use things as diverse as cosmetics, paint, tires, and pet food, all of which are made using by-products of the meat consumption industry (e.g. fat, organs, and blood).

Okay, maybe I’m not morally perfect, but I never claimed to be. At least I’m making an effort in the right direction.

First, anyone who defends their vegetarianism like this is clearly not really that interested in what they claim to be interested in; i.e. the suffering/killing of animals. If they really opposed the plight of animals, there would be absolutely no half measures here. In light of this, we would be more than justified in looking for ulterior motives for their vegetarianism. Perhaps their friends are vegetarian and they are doing it to fit in, perhaps taking a stand on eating meat makes them feel good. Whatever the reason is, we know what it isn’t.

Second, it’s also clear that this moralistic vegetarian isn’t really that interested in morality either. What would she think of the morals of a thief who defended his actions by saying that at least he wasn’t a murderer? Our vegetarian is basically saying that even though they know the right thing to do, they can’t or won’t do it. Morally, this position is surely indefensible.

Third, I can use exactly the same defence for my meat-eating. “Well, I’m not morally perfect, but I am strongly opposed to cruelty to animals. At least I’m making an effort in the right direction.” Discussion over.

Next, to the Darwin reductionist vegetarian who thinks we are just animals. This odd character argues that morals are real, we are moral agents, and we are morally obligated not to eat meat… and then turns around and says we are nothing but animals ourselves. Note, the problem isn’t the claim that we are animals, this is obviously true; it’s the absurd argument that we are just animals. If we are really no different from our primate cousins, then, inasmuch as we don’t hold chimpanzees morally responsible for their actions, we surely can’t be morally responsible for ours either. After all, on the Darwin reductionist’s position, we are nothing more than primates. We can’t both just be animals and also be moral agents.

Now, to the physicalist vegetarian who denies that there is anything special about consciousness, because everything, including consciousness, is reducible to the non-conscious interactions of fundamental particles or forces. If the physicalist is right, eating meat can’t be wrong, because in a purely physical, non-conscious world, how can there be anything ‘wrong’ about one group of fundamental particles/forces losing coherence and joining with another group of fundamental particles/forces? Why should one such grouping of particles/forces care about any other such grouping? How could one group of particles/forces care about any other? Ultimately, this is the same problem as the one the Darwinist faced; we can’t both just be a clump of particles/forces and moral agents.

Finally, to the utilitarian vegetarian who believes morality is merely maximising utility, or happiness over suffering. We can easily test the utilitarian vegetarian’s moral convictions by asking her whether she would stand by her vegetarianism even if meat consumption yielded a net increase in utility. This isn’t such an outlandish thought experiment either. Cruel factory farming practices are becoming less and less tolerated and this means that animals’ lives are becoming better and better. Indeed, it makes sense for farmers to provide better conditions for animals raised for human consumption than they would otherwise be able to obtain in the wild where suffering is never far away; e.g. finding food, (non-human) predators, the elements, sickness/injury, etc. Combine this with the facts that; many of the animals would never have lived at all if they weren’t being raised for human consumption (fewer happy animals reduces overall utility), the humans who get pleasure from eating meat add favourably to the utility calculation, and there is no negative utility associated with the end of an animal’s life (no life means no pleasure or suffering), and we have a compelling case that eating meat actually maximises utility. In this case the utilitarian vegetarian must endorse meat eating as moral or contradict her own moral principles.

[1] Kant, Immanuel. (1993) [1785]. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. (J.W. Ellington, Trans.).

[2] Nietzsche, F. (1974) [1887]. The Gay Science (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books.

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