Animal Ethics:
the Ethics of Eating Meat

Animal ethics: Is meat murder? A sociologist looks at the ethics of producing and eating meat, in context of animal cruelty and predation as a natural part of a global ecosystem balance.

The Ethics of Meat


There are many groups out there arguing on behalf of animal rights. Many animal rights groups argue that animals are no different from humans and that using animals for meat, fur, lab testing and entertainment is wrong. If they are consistent they also argue against keeping animals as pets. This article deals specifically with the issue of animals used for meat.

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The first thing to mention is that proponents of animal rights make some valid points. There are some ways in which animals and humans are no different. Animals have the ability to experience pain, and cruelty is always wrong. However, there is a difference between the production and consumption of meat, and animal cruelty, and this animal ethics article will argue that using meat is not wrong in all cases, simply those that involve cruelty.

Animal Ethics: "Is Meat Animal Cruelty?"

Cruelty is indifference to pain and suffering or the deliberate infliction of pain or suffering without justification. It is important to note the qualification: "without justification."

If a doctor prods some point on your body asking, "does this hurt," or, "how much does this hurt," in order to diagnose a problem and treat it, the act of causing pain does not count as cruelty. What counts as "without justification" might vary from person to person but the bottom line can still be drawn. If a person (or group) is indifferent to the suffering of another living being or causes suffering that does not need to be caused, they are cruel.

Let us start with the uncontroversial premise that suffering is bad. Pain is intrinsically negative even if (ideally) it performs a positive function (warning us that something is wrong with the body). Cruelty produces or allows suffering and thus is also bad. This should all be obvious and uncontroversial.

One thing opponents of animal rights groups seem to object to is the idea that animals are no different than humans. However, when it comes to pain and cruelty I do not see the difference. Both humans and animals have the ability to experience pain. Pain is never intrinsically good and it is always wrong to inflict it needlessly. The ethics which accompany the concept of suffering do not differentiate between human and animal.

In many instances, meat industry practices involve animal cruelty. For the most part this cruelty is not the subjective second definition but rather the objective first definition of cruelty: indifference to pain and suffering. Meat farms are often indifferent to suffering in order to be efficient and competitive. Thus, in the case of some meat farms, meat does equate to animal cruelty.

However, in the cases which do not involve animal cruelty, meat cannot be equated to animal cruelty. This is a tautology but the point is that the statement, "meat is animal cruelty," is not a universal truth but only true in specific cases. Though it may be possible to generalize the statement to some segment of the meat industry, it is still not absolute. Meat from an animal which was raised and slaughtered humanely cannot be called an instance of cruelty. 

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Animal Ethics: "Is Meat Murder?"

Some might argue that meat is wrong even if it is not cruel because meat involves killing animals. Killing animals deprives them of life and depriving a living creature of life is wrong. Presumably, this argument differentiates between plants and animals based on the idea that animals experience life while vegetation does not seem to have a nervous system. Again presumably, the lives of humans are far more important than those of animals because humans seem able to enjoy life more than animals do.

The major flaw in this argument seems to be the existence of predation as a natural and necessary part of the ecosystem. Predators in equilibrium with their prey keep the numbers of grazing animals at a manageable level which benefits the ecosystem.

Furthermore, to argue that predation is wrong would be to argue that prey animals like tigers and dolphins and snakes are immoral. This seems difficult. Killing and eating is one of the most natural things in the world and humans are simply another predator, though admittedly overqualified.

Opponents of killing for meat might argue that we, as humans, should be able to rise above the natural. It is true that some people have become vegetarians. Humans are omnivores so predation is not necessarily required to fulfill our dietary needs. However, what’s the point? Why is depriving an animal of life wrong if predation is so natural?

The arguments against killing humans generally involve either the idea, derived from religion, that humans have an immortal soul or utilitarian arguments based on the impact of killing on society.

Applying these arguments to killing animals, the immortal soul does not apply (unless you count reincarnation, in which case they may accept a premise which precludes predation.) In any case, religion is only an acceptable moral argument within a religion. Those outside it do not have to accept the premises of a religion as having any merit.

As for the impact on society, animals are not a part of society. One might argue that their dog is very much a part of their society, but again, that is a subjective premise which is invalid when speaking with someone who does not accept it.

Those against meat might argue that the act of killing a meat animal produces suffering which is by itself an indication of cruelty. I would say that pain in predation is natural. Death, by whatever means, is often painful and killing an animal for meat would presumably be less painful than death by predation in the wild.

However, if the act of slaughtering an animal is carried out with a consciousness of the possibility of pain and an effort to minimize that pain, the act of butchering is not cruel.

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Animal Ethics: Conclusion

Killing and eating animals is a natural part of biology and there seem to be no solid ethical arguments against it.

Additionally, though a company or a person may be cruel in their raising and slaughtering of meat animals, meat is not a result of cruelty as a general rule because there are counterexamples of people raising their animals in relative comfort and slaughtering them swiftly in order to minimize or eliminate pain. There seems to be nothing immoral about eating meat.

Each person must follow his or her own conscience. But, if one’s conscience leads him to cause human suffering in order to help animals, I would hope that their urge would be countered by their conscience leading them to not cause human suffering.

"Animal Ethics: The Ethics of Raising and Eating Meat by T. Patry" is reprinted with permission.

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