The Ethics of Eating Animal Products

What ethical obligations do we have to the animals that provide our meat, eggs, milk and other foods?

When a pride of lions track down and eat an antelope we don’t believe that they’ve done something wrong. This is just what carnivores do. When Homo erectus began hunting in groups cooperatively with the aid of more sophisticated tools it was one of the bigger steps in our evolution. Cooperation communication, according to one theory I’ve read, gradually molded our distant ancestors into more intelligent and social beings.

Should we be held to a different standard? If it’s ok for an animal, even a primate, to eat meat why wouldn’t it be ok for us as well?

Once again I hold a series of conflicting views on the topic. Here is what has been rolling around in my mind:

Objections to Eating Animal Products

Pigs, cows, chickens and other factory-farmed animals are kept in absolutely brutal conditions.  I’m ethically uncomfortable every time I support this industry (even as I acknowledge that in certain situations it’s difficult to  find alternatives.)

Raising animals for our consumption is resource-intensive. It takes less water, land, fuel and time to raise and distribute grain or produce that we eat than it does to water and fertilize corn or wheat, feed it to cows or pigs, and then slaughter and transport those animals and feed them to us.

The average person living in the west consumes far more protein that he or she actually needs. Even if we agree that a good diet can or should include animal products protein is also found in beans, grains and certain vegetables and as a whole westerners are not deficient in this nutrient.

But What About…

Land that is only fit for grazing. Some geographic areas are more conducive to farming than others. In certain climates the land can sustain grazing herds but is too cold, dry, or otherwise unsuited for vegetables or grains.

Ethically raised meat and eggs are often far more expensive than their factory-farmed competition. Sometimes the extra money can be squeezed out of a food budget but at other times it cannot. What should people with fixed or low incomes do? Do the ethics of this change based on what a family can afford? If the same ethics apply to everyone, should someone who cannot afford free-range meat or other products never eat them? If it doesn’t apply, why are there different rules for different groups? Does having more choices in life lead to the ethical obligation to choose the less harmful option?

Veg*n failures. Some people thrive on a vegan diet and I genuinely wish I was one of them. Every time I try it, though, I become sick much more easily and start to feel lethargic. What works best for me: animal products a few times a week when healthy and a little more often when I’m sick or injured. Often all I need is a few scrambled eggs or a handful of shrimp tossed into a stir-fry. If I weren’t allergic to milk products I could easily be vegetarian or pescatarian. The B-vitamins, iron and protein in foods like  eggs, cheese, and the occasional bit of seafood would suffice. Until we find a cure for allergies, though, I’ll continue to eat meat occasionally.

Tradition. Every fall a few family members buy hunting licenses. If they are successful everyone feasts on venison for months. In unsuccessful years some family members will buy a quarter or half of a locally-raised cow (which, in some cases, they’ve actually met!) or they may decide to pick up their meat at a grocery store for a while instead. I never ask where the meat they serve comes from, though, as it feels odd and a tinge ungrateful to do so in a culture so reliant on meat and dairy products in their diet.

Respond

What would the world look like if everyone were more conscious about the origins of his or her food? Have you thought about the ethics of eating animals products? If so, what does your diet look like?

 

10 Responses to The Ethics of Eating Animal Products

  1. I have been a vegetarian — though not a vegan — for over 25 years. While some creatures must kill other critters to survive, humankind does not fall into this category. We can get by just fine by partaking of the various plant matter abundant on this earth. Not only is such a diet healthier, but, as you mention above, meat production wastes a lot of real estate and produces far more waste and pollutants.

    I am also cognizant of another thing. Plants are beings too. So, deciding to be a vegetarian doesn’t mean I don’t support murder of other species; it simply is my preference as to which beings are murdered in my name. 😉

    If I one day decide that I want no other beings killed on my behalf for nourishment, guess what happens? I will die and rather quickly at that. The way this life works is that all beings must kill or sicken other beings to survive.

    • You make an excellent point about plants also being alive.

      I’ve heard of people who believe that plants suffer when they’re cut down or harmed. I’m not sure how that is suppose to work for life forms without brains or nervous systems, though. It doesn’t seem scientifically possible.

      I’ve also heard of some people who subsist only on the parts of plants that can be harvested without killing the organism – mainly fruits, nuts and seeds. It’s an interesting idea from the “do no harm” perspective but I really wouldn’t be able to subsist on that diet! :O

  2. I have been vegan for 15 years, and for me it is the only way I can live, but I would not say that it would work for everyone. And certainly we would not have people starving if the world went vegetarian/vegan as it is a much more efficient use of land as you noted. It also turns out that our digestive track is that of a herbivore not a carnivore which means it can be a healthier life style. It is one that does require more nutritional consciousness and depending on allergies etc. can be quite a challenge. Personally I am not only vegan but gluten-free and that is tricky, but I’m learning now to cook for myself with this and again, I can only speak for myself, but it is the only way I can live.

    • I’m curious, Daphne – did you become vegan before or after you discovered the need to be gluten-free?

      I’ve read that we actually have enough food to feed everyone now…it’s just a matter of corrupt governments and logistical problems (e.g. some countries have way too much food but are far away from those that desperately need it) preventing food from being shared equitably.

      I have _no_ idea if this is true. Do you know?

  3. I think the world is slowly becoming more conscious about food origins, and slowly is probably a good pace. We’ve gone so far without asking these questions that abrupt changes aren’t realistic. With the gradual shift pushing for free-range, organic, etc., the industry is able to react.

    Mass chicken houses and cattle feed lots are disgusting places, but I don’t know how much the animals know they are suffering. Just like humans can develop a certain level of comfort with living homeless or in slums, I think animals are perhaps even more inclined to just accept the conditions for what they are. That’s not to say I like or find those conditions acceptable, but rather that it may not matter too much other than for food safety concerns (fecal contamination, disease, etc., and that is a growing concern for sure!). However, I think that now that we have come to the stage where we know well how to kill an animal with minimal trauma, we should at least grant our food animals as quick and painless a death as possible. That’s why I now abstain from Halal and Kosher meats, which essentially guarantee suffering in death for the animal.

    My diet is mostly chicken for meat. I am trending towards smaller meat portions, while upping the grain and animal products (dairy, eggs) in place of more meat. I’m not ready for an abrupt change either. 😉

      • I wouldn’t stake my life on this belief or anything, but I see it like this: Take a sci-fi trip 😉 and imagine that you, and many others, were born in a large building with no windows and no doors. All of your life you lived in this big building. Food came in. Water came in. But that was it. You, and all the others with you, were permitted to do whatever you wanted to do inside the building, but nobody saw the outside, or even suspected that there was an outside. All of your experience would be referenced based on what happened in that building, and nothing else. Good and bad, happiness and suffering would be referenced off of those experiences relative to each other, and the baseline condition, a condition we in our world would label as suffering, would be “normal.”

        Now, swap out humans for chickens and a building for a chicken house, and accordingly subtract some level of abstract thought. Those chickens might just think “OK, this is how life is” as opposed to thinking “This sucks. I wish I was out on one of those free ranges.” If, that is, chickens can think on that level. 😉

  4. “Pigs, cows, chickens and other factory-farmed animals are kept in absolutely brutal conditions.”

    Probably true in some places, but I object to this blanket statement for the following reason: Lots of family farms are labeled “factory farms,” and therefore wrongly tar all animal farmers with the same brush. A family farm of 750 or even 1,500 cattle can’t afford to keep its animals in absolutely brutal conditions. The goal is to produce milk (or meat) at a high rate per animal. Sick animals, like sick people, can’t perform at the same high quality as healthy ones.

    Are there family farms that totally blow it? Of course. Local guy last year starved 700 pigs to death over a divorce. Is he still in business? No. People in general, being economic creatures, will sell their animals at auction before they neglect them, because (a) disposing of carcasses is expensive and (b) like a going-out-of-business sale, you want to squeeze every dime you can out of the endeavor.

    PETA and those kinds of groups point out the worst of the worst, neglecting the economic reality that quality products require a level of care far better than what anti-farming interests want the public to recognize.

    Last thought: People object to “factory farms,” lament the demise of the bucolic ideal of the family farm, and complain bitterly about the realities of living in a farming community: More flies, more smells and less urban characteristics such as box stores and malls.

  5. I was a vegetarian for years precisely because I was ethically uncomfortable with eating animals – and this was before the era of ethically-raised, free-range everything. I now eat pretty much everything, although I am still very uncomfortable with eating meat, eggs and cheese that come from animals that I know were mistreated; but for the sake of my food budget I often compromise my ethics. I would really like to make more money so that I wouldn’t have to do so, and have made a couple of attempts to go veg again in recent years with little success, which has more to do with the person I share a kitchen and fridge with than anything else. ANYway, I guess what I’m saying is no, people are not held to different ethical standards by any means – however, a person with few means certainly has to make many ethical compromises, not least of which is eating meat from unethically raised animals. Another example of an ethical compromise could be something like shoplifting much-needed baby formula or food; the circumstances don’t make the act of stealing RIGHT, but they do make it JUSTIFIABLE.