Is It Ethical to Eat Animals?

Ethical Inquiry is a monthly series that examines ethical questions, highlighting a broad array of opinion from journalism, academia and advocacy organizations. Our intent is to illuminate and explore the complexity of some of the most vexing ethical questions of our time.

January 2010

three pigs resting heads on a fourth pigThere are many dimensions to this seemingly perennial question. In this installment of “Ethical Inquiry" we explore the ethics of eating animals by reviewing the current debate. The arguments on this issue generally focus on four broad areas:

  • Do animals have rights and feelings? From a philosophical perspective, is it moral to eat these beings?

  • What is the impact of animal agriculture on the environment?

  • What are the public health and nutrition implications of a diet that includes meat and other animal products?

  • What do the economics of raising animals for consumption tell us?

Do Animals Have Rights?

One of the more frequently debated issues related to eating animals is that of animal rights and animal consciousness. Do animals have rights or feelings comparable to those of humans?

In “All Animals Are Equal,” philosopher Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and the author of The Ethics of What We Eat, argues that the interests of all beings capable of suffering are worthy of equal consideration and that giving lesser pigsconsideration based on species is no more justified than discrimination based on skin color. He argues that animals should have rights based on their ability to suffer or feel pain more than their intelligence.

Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals," examines Singer’s arguments in “An Animal’s Place” (The New York Times Magazine, 2002). He doesn't argue outright for the permissibility of all meat eating; in fact he is opposed to factory farming. But he does think that the talk of 'rights' is misplaced with respect to animals.

In his book Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer argues that it is unethical to eat meat if you do not have to. For his family, and others with readily available and affordable nutritious alternatives to meat, he says, the only reason to eat it is the taste. That is not a good enough reason, he contends. (Excerpt in the New York Times Magazine, 10/11/09.)

The documentary "Earthlings" comes down strongly on the side of suggesting it is unethical for humans to use animals for food, entertainment, experimentation, and clothing.

In her 2008 Washington Post article “For Meat-Eating Authors, A More Tender Approach” Jane Black surveys a “a publishing industry trendlet” — books about “[t]he path to becoming a more conscious carnivore. …” including "Meat: A Love Story," by Susan Bourette; "The Compassionate Carnivore: Or How to Keep Animals Happy, Save Old MacDonald's Farm, Reduce Your Hoofprint and Still Eat Meat," by Catherine Friend; "The Shameless Carnivore: A Manifesto for Meat Lovers," by Scott Gold; and a quarterly magazine launched in 2007, Meatpaper, which describes itself as a “journal of meat culture.” Black writes:

"Each book has its own tack and tone, but the essential message is the same: Carnivores should not feel guilty. Nor should they cede the moral high ground to vegetarians and vegans, whose answer to the complex questions raised by eating animals is to abstain entirely. Instead, the authors argue, carnivores should celebrate their decision to eat meat by being conscientious about what they choose."

In an Oct. 12, 2009 episode, of CNN’s “Larry King Live” on the topic “Should You Eat Meat?” (transcript) chef, author, and host of "No Reservations" on the Travel Channel, Anthony Bourdain defends meat eating as natural for humans, contending:

"If you look at our basic design, we are designed — our design features are we have eyes in the front of our head. We have fingernails. We have eye, teeth and long legs. We were designed from the get-go, we have evolved, so that we could chase down smaller, stupider creatures, kill them and eat them."

In a Boston Globe Q&A, Novella Carpenter, author of the 2009 book "Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer," explains her philosophy of meat eating:

"It’s important to realize that something dies when we eat it, and to cop to it. If you’re not OK with it, you shouldn’t eat it. If you see an animal die, then you know the price of meat and you know it shouldn’t be cheap. You shouldn’t waste it. You shouldn’t just eat meat all the time. It’s not sustainable, it’s not healthy, it’s bad for animals. It’s good to have meat as more of a ceremonial meal."

Environmental Concerns

Another critique of eating animals is concerned with the impact of meat production on the environment.

Rancher Nicolette Hahn Niman contends that well managed beef production can minimize greenhouse gas emissions and even benefit the environment in the New York Times op-ed “The Carnivore’s Dilemma.”

In a letter responding to that piece, Peter Singer; Geoff Russell, author of “CSIRO Perfidy”; and Barry Brook, a professor of climate change at the University of Adelaide, Australia, counter that pastured cattle may produce even more greenhouse gasses than feed lot cattle, and contend that “the call to cut down or eliminate meat-eating, especially beef, should be supported by everyone concerned about the future of our planet.”

“Livestock’s Long Shadow” (pdf), a 2006 report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations that aimed to “assess the full impact of the livestock sector on environmental problems, along with potential technical and policy approaches to mitigation” does not advocate eliminating production or consumption of meat; rather, it declares that “[m]ajor reductions in [environmental] impact [of livestock] could be achieved at reasonable cost.”

A study described in “Ecosystems, Sustainability and Animal Agriculture” (Journal of Animal Science, Vol 74, Issue 6, 1996) revealed “... the high level of dependency of the U.S. beef cattle industry on fossil fuels. These findings in turn bring into question the ecological and economic risks associated with the current technology driving North American animal agriculture.”

Similarly, in “Sustainability of Meat-based and Plant-based Diets and the Environment,” in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (subscription may be required for access to full article), David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel conclude that “The meat-based food system requires more energy, land, and water resources than the lactoovovegetarian [plant-based, with eggs and dairy] diet,” and therefore “…the lactoovovegetarian diet is more sustainable than the average American meat-based diet.”

Public Health and Nutrition

The debate from a public health perspective emphasizes the health impact of typical methods of meat production and of diets that include meat, with some maintaining there are benefits globally and individually to eating meat, and others finding evidence to the contrary.

The large-scale Cornell China Study by a Cornell University nutrition professor compares rates of multiple diseases in rural villages in China, where subjects ate little animal protein to Western-style meat heavy diets, finding the Chinese diet to be healthier, and determining that “[t]here was no evidence of a threshold beyond which further benefits did not accrue with increasing proportions of plant-based foods in the diet.”

Arguing that red meat consumption has negative public health consequences on a par with cigarette smoking, as well as fruits and veggiesnegative environmental consequences from its production, Peter Singer proposes a tax on red meat similar to one on cigarettes in his New York Daily News op-ed “Make Meat Eaters Pay.”

“Pressure Rises to Stop Antibiotics in Agriculture” (Margie Mason and Martha Mendoza, Associated Press, 12/09) details the large-scale use of antibiotics in animal agriculture to treat illness and to promote growth, and the resultant rise in antibiotic-resistant microorganisms, and notes some attempts to legislate restrictions on antibiotic use for livestock.

Looking at the impact of antibiotic use in animal agriculture from a pediatrics perspective, Dr. Katherine M. Shea examines the impact on human health of the creation of drug-resistant microorganisms in “Nontherapeutic Use of Antimicrobial Agents in Animal Agriculture: Implications for Pediatrics” (Pediatrics, 2004).

“Contributions of Animal Agriculture to Meeting Global Human Food Demand” (Livestock Production Science Volume 59, Issues 2-3, 1999 — subscription may be required for access to full article) examines animal agriculture’s contributions to human well-being, including nutritional and non-food benefits of animal agriculture, and prospects for meeting increasing world demand of animal products.

Nina Planck, author of "Real Food: What to Eat and Why," is critical of vegan diets for health reasons, focusing specifically on the needs of infants in her New York Times op-ed “Death By Veganism.”

Economics and Farming Methods

Are certain methods of raising animals for food more beneficial to humans? To animals? Is ethical farming that which produces the lowest-cost food? Or the best conditions for animals? Should consumers of meat (or potential consumers) take these questions into consideration?

Joel Salatin, a farmer and author who raises pastured meats on his Virginia farm, is a figurehead of the local and sustainable food movement and a critic of industrial agriculture. He explains his critique of the industrial agricultural system in detail in “Industry vs. Biology” (Acres magazine, 1999). A 2005 New York Times profile of Salatin, “High Priest of the Farm,” also discusses his nonindustrial methods and their rationale.

The documentary "Food Inc." examines large scale agriculture and concludes that there are many hidden costs associated with the products of this system.

“Factory Farming in the Developing World” from World Watch magazine examines the growth of factory farming in the developing world and its implications. The article examines the historical background, current situation, and future prospects of factory farming in the Philippines, outlining some of the drawbacks of factory farming, and the prospects for a resurgence of traditional methods of livestock production.

Dr. Simon Shane makes the case that total egg production drops in countries that switch from battery cage egg production to cage free production in the brief article “How to Destroy an Industry?”

Dennis Avery, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues, and an agricultural analyst for the U.S. Department of State from 1980-88, contends that meat production actually benefits the environment, and consumption of meat has health benefits for humans. He extends his argument that meat consumption is better for human development than a vegetarian diet in “Tofu Turkey Won’t Fly.”

Final Thoughts

In the Journal of Animal Science article “The ‘New Perception’ of Animal Agriculture: Legless Cows, Featherless Chickens and a Need for Genuine Analysis,” Fraser examines the polarized positions of critics and defenders of animal agriculture and the themes that emerge from their arguments. He writes:

"[M]odern disagreement about the ethics of animal agriculture has often taken the form of highly simplistic and emotionally charged pronouncements, either condemning animal agriculture as thoroughly bad or defending it staunchly. These simplistic portrayals misrepresent the complex realities of animal agriculture, but they do raise genuinely important issues. The author argues that “research and analysis by scientists and ethicists are badly needed to move the discussion beyond simplistic and misleading portrayals and to arrive at a genuine understanding of the issues.”