Another approach to the ethics of eating

Had I seen that it was in the “Ethicist” column, I would have skipped over the announcement in The New York Times Magazine; the ethical issues raised in that column are typically less interesting than the ones raised in “Dear Abby,” or, for that matter, in “Savage Love.” But the headline had already caught my eye: “Defending your dinner.” The columnist claimed that while it was easy to find ethical arguments against eating meat, it was difficult to find ethical arguments in favor of eating meat. And so the columnist was soliciting such arguments from the readers.

From my perspective, there is an obvious argument stating why it is ethical to eat meat — or at least, why it is just as ethical to eat meat as it is to eat any organism. So I quickly wrote up a brief outline of that argument and sent it off, where it will no doubt be lost among the deluge of such arguments submitted by other overzealous readers of The New York Times Magazine. Rather than waste my efforts, I figured I’d share my argument with you here on this blog:


If we say we’re not going to kill animals to eat, we have to look at where we draw the line in our killing. If there’s an aphid on your broccoli and you eat it by mistake, is that OK? Most Americans would say that’s OK, but some Jains would say no. And if it’s not OK to raise animals to eat, is it OK to kill an animal that’s eating your garden? Henry Thoreau, a committed vegetarian, killed the woodchuck who ate his beans, then felt bad about it afterwards. Modern agriculture kills animals through habitat destruction, monoculture, release of pesticides and fertilizer into the ecosystem, etc., all of which kills animals — is it OK to kill those animals in order that we have vegetables to eat? In other words, should today’s vegetarians, like Henry Thoreau, feel bad that the agriculture they depend upon kills animals?

This can lead us to consider the ethics of eating animals, not in terms of individual rights of animals, but in terms of the total health of the ecosystem. When we start using an ecosystems approach, we find that significant damage is done to animals and other organisms through the use of fossil fuels in growing and transporting agricultural products, through the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and further that agricultural monocultures change the landscape in such a way that many animals can no longer live. From an ethical perspective that considers total ecosystems, growing vegetables using typical agricultural methods can conceivably kill larger number of animals, or a greater biomass of animals, than a CAFO (Confined Animal Feedlot Operation); that is, if one considers all animals, vertebrates and invertebrates, that could be maintained if that land were not in a monoculture crop.

Using an ethics that considers whole ecosystems can help us understand that it’s possible for humans to manipulate ecosystems to allow maximal health for other organisms while raising food for our species. In ecosystems with a long winter (Alaska, say), this might mean that humans would do less damage by eating some locally-raised animals than transporting the majority of foodstuffs from far away. In areas where plants can be grown all year round, eating some animal flesh still could be ethical, using an ecosystems perspective: rather than monocultures, humans could raise food in a mixed-species ecosystem where, e.g., chickens control insects on vegetable crops, their feces fertilizes the soil, and extra roosters are eaten in order to maintain the overall health of the flock.

An ecosystems approach to the ethics of eating leads us to ask different questions than an individual rights approach to the ethics of eating animals. Instead of asking whether the rights of individual organisms are being violated, we tend to ask questions about the overall health of the ecosystem. Rather than questioning whether human rights should be extended to which other organisms, thus separating out those chosen organisms from the rest of the ecosystem, the ecosystems approach tends to consider humans as an integral part of the ecosystem. In Western culture, humans have been considered separate from animals and therefore privileged; the individual rights approach extends human rights to certain other species; while the ecosystems approach would imply that no species is truly separate.

This brief description can’t go into all the interesting philosophical and theological implications of a systems approach to the ethics of eating. But it should be said that the individual rights approach to the ethics of eating is much more compatible with American individualism, albeit more destructive of the ecosystem, than the systems approach.


I added the following postscript to the email message I sent off to The New York Times Magazine:

I can’t resist adding that any discussion of eating animals should probably take into account contemporary taxonomy. Are “animals” the same as the Kingdom Animalia? If so, should we not also consider the ethics of eating the three other kingdoms humans usually eat from, viz., Plantae, Fungi, and Bacteria (in, e.g., yogurt)? Shouldn’t we pay attention to the fact that a simple binary distinction between “plants” and “animals” doesn’t correspond with how contemporary taxonomy understands living organisms? We might well ask: Why is it OK to eat from one taxon, but not from another? (Good old Heraclitus had it right in fragment DK B35.)


As always, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. But do remember that this is a very emotional issue for some folks, so let’s all try to be polite to one another. (Now please excuse me as I duck down behind this stone wall, just in case people start throwing things at me….)

15 thoughts on “Another approach to the ethics of eating”

  1. I appreciate the argument that you make here. A weakness of many arguments put out by the vegan community is their lack of nuance in their arguments. I say this being vegan myself. A systems argument would require an understanding of nuance, whereas individual ones are hardlined.

    If you would indulge me, I would like some clarification: where do people fit into this systems argument? What are your underlying assumptions about them? It seems as though the system is still viewed from the perspective of an individual person. More resources go into a feeding an animal as a final product than a plant, because the plant is required to feed an animal. In our current context, presuming that there were no agricultural subsidies, is there a way to keep the distribution of meats/vegetables equitable? Is an assumption of the argument that we live in a society where food distribution is equitable, and this is how we do it?

    Does this system have a hierarchy? It seems as though all of the system is to satisfy the need for food. Is there an ethical reason to presume one part of the system has a stronger right to exist than the other part of the system (animals, plants)? I ask these because it is clear that you’ve put a lot of careful consideration into this argument and I would like to hear what you have to say.

  2. Christine — Great questions. I deliberately avoided including those questions, because I was trying to make the most basic case for a systems approach. Once you get into those questions, you get into another divide, between those who privilege humans, and those who don’t.

    Those who privilege humans would argue that of course we should privilege humans, since we are humans. Any human ethics is going to see things from a human point of view, and we might as well acknowledge that. That being the case, then yes, there is a hierarchy — we think humans are at the top of the hierarchy because we are humans, and because we want our species to survive and thrive as much as possible. But taking a systems perspective means that our species cannot simply exploit all natural resources indiscriminately, because we know that will (in the long term) ruin the ecosystem. So what we’re trying to do is maintain the overall health of the ecosystem, not the health of certain chosen species.

    Those who privilege humans would probably also want to argue that no one human group should be privileged over any other human group. That does not mean that every human group gets exactly the same resources — if you live in rice-growing country, you’re going to get rice, but if you live in Alaska it may be better if you don’t get rice. Similarly, if you live in Alaska, eating Alaskan salmon is a given, whereas if you live in the Sahara, it’s probably best for the ecosystem if we don’t ship Alaskan salmon to you.

    But there are those who would not privilege humans, and would base their ethics on the notion that even though we’re humans, we should not privilege our own species. This latter group is sometimes known as the Deep Ecologists. The Deep Ecologists would argue that humans have the ethical duty to minimize their impact on the ecosystem, even if that means that the average human lifestyle is far less affluent (though they might argue that there should be less of a gap between the upper and lower extremes of human lifestyles).

    I tend to find myself allied more with the Deep Ecologists. I would consider it most ethical to have one or fewer children per couple, to live in urban areas, and to eat locally harvested foods as much as possible, etc., all in order to minimize our human impact on the ecosystem. (Not that I do enough, mind you, but those would be my ethical ideals.)

    There is a substantial literature on these topics — I’m most familiar with the literature on ecological theology, but there is plenty of ecological philosophy out there as well. The literature on ecological theology has helped me think through the various possible ethical positions around eating. When I get back into my office (I’m on vacation right now), I’ll try to remember to post a brief bibliography.

  3. Channeling Jonathan Swift here:

    Let’s eat entitled people, mean people, and anyone who appears in a reality TV show. Make a dent in overpopulation. And tweak the gene pool while we’re at it.

  4. Dan,

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I had not heard of the Deep Ecologists before, and I would appreciate the bibliography when you get back. Enjoy your vacation! I hope it is restful.

  5. All life exists at the expense of other life. To my mind, that has to be an axiom of any ethics of our relationship with the rest of creation, including Deep Ecology. Even fruitarians haven’t resolved the problem of the ecosystem of vying organisms within each of our bodies. (Would Jainism have evolved that way in a culture that knew about microbes? I wonder what changes it has embraced, if any, since their discovery?) To conclude from this axiom that eating an animal because it tastes good is no different than killing some animals in order to guarantee one’s access to vegetables is to walk the path of reductio ad absurdum, the end point of which would be that there is no ethical objection to snacking on babies. Although I would still contend that Jean has a superior position than Jonathan Swift (but are mean people as tasty as babies? don’t you imagine they’d be kind of tough and sour?).

    In the matter of individual rights, which I do think extend to many non-humans, one important dividing line is not between taxa but between creatures that suffer and those that don’t. Try drawing that line in ink . . . obviously, it can’t be done. We probably can’t even agree on what But the fact that our lines will need to be redrawn as our understanding changes doesn’t mean the lines shouldn’t be drawn (back to your Heraclitus quote).

  6. Amy’s reference to snacking on babies is a real ethical question because it deals with how people act toward other people. That’s what ethics is – a system of values designed for human communities. All the other questions are examples of trying to impose human values on the rest of nature. It’s what we humans do, but it isn’t justified by reality. Look at the words and concepts we’re using:
    • equitable
    • hierarchy (as a moral value rather than a factual observation)
    • right to exist
    • privilege
    • ethical duty
    • exploit … indiscriminately
    • ruin the ecosystem

    None of these concepts can function as a moral or ethical value outside of human cultures – not even the belief that we can ruin the ecosystem. One organism’s ruined ecosystem is another organism’s ideal environment. What we’re really talking about is ruining the ecosystem that humans need. (If we don’t put humans at the center, then we put some other organism or group of organisms at the center, and how is that better?) The mode of thinking that we call ethics doesn’t exist in the rest of nature. Everything that humans feel is ethically wrong can be found as normal behaviour somewhere in the natural world.

    Creating a viable form of human community for the future that we’re shaping is going to require much more than traditional moral and ethical ideas. I suggest we begin by trying to understand how natural and human communities really function, rather than by endlessly focusing on how we think/feel/believe they ought to function. That’s always based on our moral feelings, which locks us into a type of circular reasoning.

  7. Amy – Apparently well exercised muscle is very very tasty. (If prepared correctly, that is.) So, imagine: a power-walking, cell-phone-yammering, coffee-drinking, push-to-the-head-of-the-line kind of mean person. Wearing, hm, stilettos.


  8. Thinking in terms of the flourishing of ecosystems does indeed complicate matters. Even so, the typical/standard meat diet appears to have considerably greater ecological costs than a meatless diet. We also have to balance a concern with promoting flourishing ecosystems with the value we put on individual lives. After all, the goal of maximal ecological health might well require the extinction of that most highly destructive species, Homo sapiens. On the other hand, if we are willing to pay some ecological cost (the damage done by even the greenest forms of modern agriculture and industry) to facilitate the well-being of human individuals, perhaps we should be willing to pay some ecological cost to minimize the suffering and death we inflict on animals.

    Here’s an interesting piece worth everyone’s consideration: Number of Animals Killed to Produce One Million Calories in Eight Food Categories:

  9. Bryan–

    You left out one of the words I used: “suffer.” Animals have a part in ethical questions because they can suffer. Therefore, what we humans do to them matters. How one treats a cat is an ethical question, not only because we are humans and occupy a moral realm, but because cats are capable of suffering. (The splitting of a rock is not, as far as we know, an ethical matter.) Nothing in my experience leads me to think that I am talking about what cats “ought to function”; it’s how they do function.

    An ethical system that does not take that into account doesn’t interest me much.


    The stilettos double as kabobs for spearing the well exercised muscle.

  10. Amy-
    I agree that other animals can suffer. For this reason, people who care about suffering often include domestic animals and wild animals in their personal ethical systems. You’re clearly one of these people.

    I’m not challenging people’s personal ethical choices. I’m challenging the belief that ethical values are part of non-human nature. What I’m saying is that most non-human animals don’t care about suffering (the ones that do are usually highly social animals like us). Most carnivores and many omnivores have no objection, ethical or otherwise, to snacking on babies. I live a rural life and see this all the time. My question is: Does our ethical objection to baby-snacking make us superior to the rest of nature or just different?

    We’re going to use ethics to decide how we behave toward people and other animals because that’s what humans do. I’m saying that this is a one-sided transaction. Other animals don’t use what we call ethics and our ethical values don’t apply to their behaviour.

    Why I think this matters is that many liberal religious people (e.g. Unitarian Universalists) have replaced the old idea of human dominion over nature with the idea of universal ethics in nature. I believe that this is factually inaccurate and will prevent us from truly understanding our place in global ecosystems.

  11. Bryan–

    I agree with you up to the last paragraph. I guess I just haven’t met any adult, UU or otherwise, who seriously argues that ethical values ought to apply to animal behavior. Could you give an example of the kind of thing you’ve observed?

    preaching on deep ecology 4/22

  12. I just recently finished participating in a reading discussion group using material from the NorthWest Earth Institute (NWEI). The title for this course was “Hungry for Change: Food, Ethics, and Sustainabilty”. It was a seven week course, and of necessity stayed at a fairly high level. However, it definitely hit all the issues around food and invited us to confront or challenge our assumptions ( or lack of awareness) of the impact of every bite we eat.

    Specific to this topic, I learned of the work of Zoe Weil. Her approach to addressing the impact of food choices is summarized as MOGO- most good, least harm. There is of course, still a whole framework of moral logic that must be premised as alluded above, but she makes sure we have ticked off all the extended ripple effects that come with eating, and at least gives a reasonable starting point for helping one be more conscious and intentional about our food choices.

    BTW, I recommend NWEI discussion circles as a good format with well done reading selections. They have several courses of relevance to the issues confronting us all.

  13. Amy-
    Here are some examples of human values being projected onto non-human nature.

    Rev. David Bumbaugh: “We believe that the moral impulse that weaves its way through our lives, luring us to practices of justice and mercy and compassion, is threaded through the universe itself and it is this universal longing that finds outlet in our best moments.” [Bryan – this quote speaks for itself.]

    Rev. Meg Roberts: “How do we approach the idea of justice so that it includes not only social or human-based but also includes equity for other beings that make up the eco-system?” [Bryan-justice and equity are human concepts.]

    William R. Murray (UU World Spring 2009: “We are not as special as we once thought. We are simply the most highly evolved animal that natural selection has produced (so far as we know).” [Bryan-this is a very self-serving value judgment.]
    “Despite the great variety of life forms that have evolved over the millennia, the awareness, rooted in evolutionary biology, of the kinship of all living organisms leads us to regard all human beings as members of one extended family. The spiritual implication of this realization is that we should live together in love and caring, be tolerant of our differences, and take responsibility for one another.” [Bryan–In nature, kinship doesn’t lead to love, caring, and tolerance, except in some species and circumstances.]
    “It also suggests that we are one with all of nature and that we have a moral responsibility to care for the natural world.”

    David Cohen (UU World Spring 2010): “I believe in the forest: Everyone has a job in the forest. Everyone knows its job. The trees and plants grow together in harmony; everyone shares the sun, soil, and water. Everyone follows the rules and respects each other. Seasons come and go, and everyone knows what to do. Leaves fall, and the tiniest creatures recycle them. The animals who live in the forest know their parts in the drama and cooperate. Some eat of the forest while others are eaten. In the end, everyone dies and is recycled anew.” [Bryan–you can clearly see the projection of human values here. Except for the last two sentences, this doesn’t describe any natural ecosystem that I’ve ever experienced.]

    Bryan again: When I was young and a counter-culture hippie, I started to understand human culture when I hitchhiked and biked around parts of Europe and North America, learning to meet people where they lived. At the same time, I began to experience nature as a participant rather than a tourist. When I combined this experience with growing scientific knowledge, my understanding of our place in nature changed radically. I’m presenting a small part of that understanding here in an attempt to show how much we project human values onto non-human nature. I don’t expect most people to agree with my world view; however, I think it’s a valid perspective.

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