Loving Meat Too Much to Give It Up

» February 14th, 2014

I think anyone who eats animals—and thinks about eating animals—is at least somewhat cognizant that the choice to do so is, on some level, an ethical one. Of course thoughtful meat-eaters are not walking around with their noses buried in Bentham, but they do, by virtue of being thinking meat-eaters, at least entertain the idea that there’s a basic difference between eating a pork chop and a piece of toast. A moral difference, no less. Put simply, for anyone who is honest with himself about the decision to raise and kill animals for food we don’t need, there’s a vague idea that eating animals under certain circumstances might very well be morally wrong.

It all comes down to the realization that an animal, like us, has interests—the most basic of which is avoiding pain. Because we cannot, as decent people, go through life thinking that our interests matter more than other interests simply because they are ours, we thus tacitly grant to other humans and many non-humans—basically anyone with an interest in avoiding pain and seeking pleasure—what philosophers call equal moral consideration. We may not even be aware that we live our daily lives according to this standard but, in most cases, we do. We often just call it the Golden Rule or some such and get on with the business of being decent folk.

Adherence to this fundamental notion of fairness actually requires a lot of us—and it structures the workings of everyday life. Notably, it means that if we are going to inflict intentional pain on another sentient being, we need to justify that painful act with a competing moral consideration. For example, when I affix a leash to my dog before walking her down a busy street, I surely cause a nominal amount of suffering. She hates her leash and is much happier left untethered. But of course I justify my decision to leash my dog with the competing moral consideration that, without that little torture device, she would dart into traffic and suffer far more serious harm, if not death.

That’s a relatively easy case. Where this scenario causes many meat eaters problems is when it forces them to highlight the rather unfortunate fact that the only competing consideration against killing an animal for food we don’t need is lame: our taste for the texture and flavor of that flesh. And, by any moral standard, that won’t cut it.  After all, is it a standard you’d ever want applied to your own life? Or the society of humans you cohabit?

It’s for this reason that whenever I read contorted defenses for raising and killing animals I find myself thinking, “stop with the half-baked rationalizations and just admit you love meat too much to give it up.” I find this answer—I just can’t stop eating meat—to be far more refreshing than the pseudo-philosophical junk often brought in to justify the causation of terrible but unnecessary suffering.  ”I know I shouldn’t eat meat but . . . .” strikes a more honest chord than “we evolved to eat meat.” Not that I agree with the “I can’t help it” assessment, but at least it doesn’t cheapen the importance of equal consideration of interests, which is at the foundation of leading an ethical life.

The looming nature of this conundrum—how can something as arbitrary as taste ethically justify killing animals?—may also help explain why so many consumers react to eating meat with such visceral enthusiasm. I know people who, at the mere mention of eating bacon, will veritably growl and twitch and say “mmmm. . . bacon,” as if there was something primal stirring in their gut. Nobody acts that way about broccoli. But it could it be that what’s primal is the subconscious effort to excuse ourselves from the moral standard we know deep down, as thinking meat eaters, we fail every time we eat animals? Could that expressed inability to stop eating meat be a way to avoid the conclusion that, to live an ethical life, we must do just that?


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28 Responses to Loving Meat Too Much to Give It Up

  1. As always, right on the money and brilliant. Thank you!

  2. John T. Maher says:

    ‘Loving serial killing just too much to give it up’ and bother about the victims is what carnivores are doing and failing to acknowledge.

  3. Pauline says:

    Yep. It’s really not rocket science. A sentient being dies because people want to stick parts of his or her body in their mouths. From which they gain a superficial and transient pleasure. The flesh is in their mouths for a very short time. Chew, swallow, chew, swallow. And then, as I heard someone eloquently say the other day, a few hours later they shit it out.

  4. Jennifer Mora says:

    The irony here is that the meat-eater who utters “mmm . . . bacon” does not think about how that and many other meats are made palatable by non-animal sources. And they most certainly have not had tempeh bacon. It is a conditioned response that advertisers count on.

    One reason that people provide for not giving up meat is after an unsuccessful run as vegan they conclude that everyone’s body is different. This is presuming that we humans are all different species of humans. No food diary is presented but a brief discussion about health ailments, whether they be mental and/or physical. One food blogger announced that they were no longer vegan and the responses were along the lines of, “You do you!” There is an overwhelming push to be non-vegan in our world and someone appears to be making a conscious choice to be vegan when they tried to be and failed versus never trying at all.

    • Jennifer Mora says:

      I only bring up this side item because when people know how awful it is to eat animals and their secretions, they typically have a medical explanation.

  5. Rhys says:

    The only reasons for humans to eat meat are selfish. But I don’t think that says very much about whether eating meat is acceptable or not, unless you want to prohibit all selfishness, which only the pro-immediate-human-extinction vegans want to do.

    Vegans who don’t advocate human extinction think that the suffering we cause wild animals through agriculture and human civilization is worth the selfish benefit we get from perpetuating our genes and manipulating the environment for our own ends, even though this comes at the expense of animal lives and suffering. Meat eaters tend to agree with that, but also believe the suffering we cause animals by eating meat is worth the selfish benefit we get through that as well.

    None of this suffering is “necessary,” so the argument vegans have to make is that the civilization and agriculture suffering is much more acceptable than the raising animals for food suffering. With factory farming, that’s an easy argument to make, since anyone would rather be a wild animal than a factory farmed animal. With more conscientious animal farming, though, it’s easier to blur the line between the harms involved in needlessly eating animals and needlessly competing with them over land and resources. That leaves vegans having to make arguments like “it’s worse to be intentionally killed than to be accidentally killed,” which aren’t necessarily compelling enough to persuade all “thinking meat eaters.”

    • mynamefluffy says:


      I agree with you that rampant development is neither necessary nor ethical. Wildlife habitat is destroyed, individual animals and sometimes species, die. Roads that do not need to be built are and increase road kill and habitat destruction. Some communities are trying to incorporate these concerns in their development plans; many are not. But the fact that some death and suffering continues at the hands of humankind does not justify the other – “well, development harms wildlife so I’ll have a burger.” I feel that we are obligated ethically to prevent suffering wherever we can. For many of us who do not have a huge influence over our town planners, the decision to be vegan can still prevent a lot of suffering and death. ~Linda

      • Rhys says:

        Hi Linda,

        I agree with your statement, “But the fact that some death and suffering continues at the hands of humankind does not justify the other – ‘well, development harms wildlife so I’ll have a burger.’” Harming animals through agriculture and civilization doesn’t justify meat eating. But what justifies the harming of animals through civilization and agriculture?

        My point is that neither are “justified,” and yet the fact that most vegans are nevertheless okay with the agriculture and civilization part suggests that they share a premise with meat eaters — that it’s okay for humans to be selfish in their interactions with non-human animals, even though this causes non-justified harms cause to other animals. The difference between vegans and meat eaters is not that one selfishly harms nonhuman animals while the other does not, but rather the kinds and degrees of selfishness that both are okay with.

        So I think James’ post here is too broad and sets up a false dichotomy between vegans and meat eaters. He’s calling out meat eaters for causing unnecessary suffering, and by not calling out vegans for the same thing, he seems to be implying that vegans don’t cause unnecessary suffering. But in order to justify that, he needs to explain why the suffering meat eaters cause is unnecessary and the suffering that vegans cause is necessary, which he hasn’t done. (And which I’m not convinced is possible to do.)

        I’m not saying that there is no ethical difference between a vegan humanity and a status quo meat eating humanity, but by ignoring human-caused wild animal suffering, as vegans are often prone to do out of ethical convenience (except when it comes to hunting, since that’s not vegan), James has tripped into making a claim that vegans can only satisfy by advocating immediate human extinction. If you say that meat eating cannot be justified because it constitutes humans selfishly causing suffering to animals needlessly, then you open yourself up to the same critique of a vegan humanity, which also causes animals to suffer needlessly, albeit in different forms and to a different degree.

        “For many of us who do not have a huge influence over our town planners, the decision to be vegan can still prevent a lot of suffering and death.”

        I’m more interested in the overall consequences of ideologies than in the effects of personal choices, since I don’t agree that an individual vegan actually does prevent a lot of suffering and death. Grace Boey has an interesting post about that at 3 Quarks Daily: http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2014/02/eating-animals-and-personal-guilt-against-the-individualization-of-responsibility-for-factory-farmin.html

        • James says:

          Great discussion. I’m going follow up later with a post, but for now: I didn’t intend to imply that vegans don’t cause unnecessary suffering. We all do that, irrespective of what we happen to eat. I think what needs to be established is a) why individual actions cannot be discounted as integral to larger, ideological change/enlightenment; and b) how there’s a hierarchy of potential reforms that individuals have the power to achieve, with some being readily achievable and others near impossible to accomplish, at this point in time.

        • mynamefluffy says:

          Hi Rhys,

          As far as ag is concerned, unless/until veganic gardening becomes wide scale and normative, the death of wildlife though the growing of plant food for humans is a sad reality. I would love to see veganic gardening really take off. As to civilization, I do think that vegans and “thinking carnivores” are more tuned in to all types of suffering than the average person. But that issue does provide us an opportunity to advocate more for wildlife preservation and a slowdown of obscene and unnecessary development. I agree with you that there is often a bright and divisive line between vegans and non-vegans, but many on either side of that line may have more in common than we realize, and some on the same side may not be as philosophically similar as they may think. The good thing is that tuned in vegans and non vegans are talking, and thankfully, still talking to each other. ~Linda

    • Jennifer Mora says:

      Rhys – Here is one of the videos that I shared a while back when the video had been removed. This link and video is good. This is Karma’s reunion with her calf. http://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=share&v=wV92bw6Np24&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DwV92bw6Np24%26feature%3Dshare
      This applies to all animals separated from their calves whether for beef or dairy.

      • Rhys says:

        Interesting, thanks for sharing that. I guess the video got taken down for that song, which is unfortunate since that song almost makes the whole thing come across as a parody. It’s obvious that the mother cow and calf want to be reunited, but what do you make of the mother continuing to moo in the same way even after being reunited with her child?

        “This applies to all animals separated from their calves whether for beef or dairy.” Even if beef production often does separate mothers and calfs in practice, it’s not necessary for it to do so in the calf’s childhood — when the mother and child are most attached to each other — since beef producers don’t need to worry about weaning the children early.

        • Jennifer Mora says:

          Her continuing to moo may indicate that she is distressed still. What do you make of it. The song being a parody, yes, I see that in the words but usually it is the melody that conveys the emotions of the song. That is why most people find it hard to remember the lyrics but remember the melody.

          I don’t know of this farming that you speak of where animals are separated from their parents at whatever age, killed humanely and the parents are killed humanely. That is the problem with arguing for humane meat production, whether small-scale or large.

          • Rhys says:

            “What do you make of it”

            I’m not sure. I guess I don’t have enough experience with cows to have an honest opinion. It’s not what I expected, but I think you could be right that she’s still stressed.

            “I don’t know of this farming that you speak of where animals are separated from their parents at whatever age, killed humanely and the parents are killed humanely. That is the problem with arguing for humane meat production, whether small-scale or large.”

            Even if you’re not familiar with particular instances of this, do you think it’s theoretically impossible? And if it were in fact possible, would that make arguing for humane meat production less problematic? I know someone whose parent farms cows for meat and not dairy, and she tells me that they don’t separate the cows and calfs for early weaning, since they aren’t taking the milk for humans.

          • Jennifer Mora says:

            Rhys, I would have to ask questions of this farmer myself to understand it better, just as I contacted the local humane egg and dairy purveyors. I went through this before going vegan, looking for a humane option, and did not find one. As I said before in a comment to a previous post, seeing the chickens slaughtered at Polyface Farm in the documentary Food, Inc. was brutal for me. I saw terror and grief in those last moments. Joel Salatin has said himself that they don’t slaughter every day because it does take a toll on the ones who slaughter.

  6. Jennifer Greene says:

    James, since you bring up what philosophers call “equal moral consideration” here, I want to point out the contribution of philosophy professor Mylan Engel, Jr. to this topic.

    In “Mere Considerability of Animals,” Engel argues that belief in the *equal* considerability of animals is not necessary to establish the wrongfulness of eating them, in most contexts.

    Here is Engel’s paper: http://www.niu.edu/phil/people/_pdf/Mere.pdf

    I have applied this in my own animal advocacy. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve had someone tell me, “Fine for you, you believe in animal rights. But I don’t. I don’t put the interests of animals on par with those of people.” Or something like that.

    Then I get to surprise them by saying, “I understand why you’d assume that I do, but actually, I’m like you more than you might realize. One doesn’t have to believe that animals deserve equal moral consideration as people, to conclude that we shouldn’t eat them, if we have the choice.” And then I give them the link to Engel’s paper.

    (I was happy to see—because I think this is such an effective approach—that Gary Francione and Anna Charlton have done the same thing in the introduction to Eat Like You Care: An Examination of the Morality of Eating Animals. They acknowledge the conventional wisdom that animals have some moral value, though not as much as humans. Here’s an excerpt: “We maintain that our conventional wisdom about animals is… [a]nimals have some moral value but humans matter more than nonhumans…. We will not challenge these widely-shared moral intuitions. We’ll leave them in place and we’ll show you that if you agree with them, they compel you to stop consuming animal products without even thinking about animal rights, much less embracing that notion.”)

    • mynamefluffy says:


      The same argument is often used to justify vivisection “well it is either a dog or your child.” In actuality, as is becoming more and more evident, vivisection does not yield very useful information anyway to apply to humans. But I think the same reply is appropriate – one can believe that humans have a higher moral value and still believe that experimenting on animals is wrong.

      • Jennifer Greene says:

        Linda, you’ll be glad to know that Engel’s paper argues that as well—that the Mere Considerability premise entails that most if not all medical experiments involving animals are wrong (see his footnote on pg. 105).

  7. Ashley Capps says:

    Excellent post, James. I think morality springs from a truth we all experience not only philosophically but biologically (that is, our bodies tell us this): that to suffer is objectionable. Therefore right living, moral behavior, entails acting in such a way as to maximize wellbeing and to minimize suffering, not only in our own lives but in the lives of all others who flourish or suffer. I can think of no other activity where this principle of what it means to live ethically is so inconsistently applied and so casually dismissed, except when it comes to eating. This is especially frustrating because so many injustices and epidemics of suffering feel beyond our control and sphere of influence, yet the suffering of living beings trapped in our food system, which is without parallel for scale or intensity, is entirely within our power to change as individuals, simply by making different choices at the market or store.

  8. mynamefluffy says:

    I do believe that the hostility (hatred, contempt, etc.) towards vegans from many meat eaters is because they know on some level meat eating is selfish at its base. Without even saying a word, a vegan’s presence at the table causes most not-out-to-lunch people to think about where their food comes from and what had to happen to get it there. Our presence challenges them and makes them realize that there is a choice being made -and for some of them, it pisses them off. The “pseudo-philosophical junk often brought in to justify the causation of terrible but unnecessary suffering,” as you put it, is the mental acrobatics employed by carnivores to somehow justify to vegans and more likely to themselves that they “have” to eat flesh. If they need it then it’s ok. It’s a way to assuage the guilt. ~Linda

  9. Sharon says:

    I “have” to eat meat is the retort I usually hear. That we are all different, and some people really do need to eat meat because their bodies won’t operate properly on plant food alone. I’ve had the Blood Type Diet thrown in my face as if that’s legit science and the O type person used this as proof positive she needs meat.

    What I hate is how these types of arguments are used to paint vegans as intolerant and close minded. We refuse to acknowledge a diversity that dictates some people need meat. We are holier than thou. We are vegan Nazi’s trying to inflict our new world order on everyone.

    Personally, I don’t like conflict. Being a vegan has made me somewhat unwilling to go to social events where what I’m eating, or more pointedly not eating, is noticeable and usually invokes comments. And when asked, the only honest answer is an ethical explanation which of course implies the person eating animal products is less ethical… Yes I could lie and say I’m under doctor’s orders to cut back on fats or something—but I’m unwilling to do that. It’s a thorny problem.

  10. Kip Sieger says:

    A critical point is in the question of needing to eat meat. Or not. Many people truly believe that we need to eat meat to be healthy, vibrant and strong. Our culture drums it into us from our early years, and at every turn, from the food loving parents put in front of their toddlers, to the meat-based meals served in school cafeterias, to the commercials seen on TV. It’s everywhere, and it’s deeply ingrained. And the meat-eater has a vested interest in maintaining this deep-seated belief in the necessity of meat eating, because it is when on acknowledges the respect that eating animal products is unnecessary that the food question acquires a moral dimension. And because, for the most part, we like to think of ourselves as moral and caring beings, clinging to the belief that meat-eating is necessary and even desirable is understandable; hence the popularity of the Atkins and Paleo type diets. As John McDougall puts it, people like to hear goodness about their bad habits. Likewise, Melanie Joy does an exceptional job of exploring the psychology of our society’s deep-rooted meat eating, highlighting what she calls the three N’s of meat-eating – that it is necessary, normal and natural. She gave an exceptional presentation on this subject at a McDougall weekend, which is available at the link below. The talk is a full hour, but well worth it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7vWbV9FPo_Q

  11. Mountain says:

    I think anyone who eats… [should be]… at least somewhat cognizant that the choice to do so is, on some level, an ethical one.

    Fixed that for you. As omnivores, everything we eat is a choice. And because we can consider how each eating decision helps or harms those around us, each eating choice can be an ethical choice.

  12. The Conundrum Ends in Heaven

    If animals do have their rights
    Are they worth defending?
    At their death do we take fright
    At the violence there unending?
    If we are seeking paradise
    As when the world began
    We need to heed this brief advise
    Please chose yourself vegan

    Adam and Eve never touch the meat
    That flourished there in Eden
    They named them all so they could meet
    In some equality of freedom
    Animals are a very part of divine creation
    That we eat them with no need
    Seems an unjustified invention
    And surrender to our sensual greed

    If heaven reach the Edenic state
    In the Kingdom there of God
    The animals that once we ate
    We will see with awe
    The lion and the lamb we can adore
    They’ll live at last in peace
    And from the curse of the carnivore
    We will finally feel release

    To solve the great conundrum
    From this burden to escape
    Say hello to salvation’s kingdom
    And say goodbye to bloody steak

    Laurence Robert Cohen
    Silvia Maria Rayces

  13. Benny Malone says:

    If we take the imposition of civilisation on the world as a ‘baseline’ harm done to the natural world then our actions on top of this dictated by food and other choices have a range of ethical implications. Everyone seems to agree that factory farming is an egregious harm done to animals. But if disruption of the natural world is bad too there must be a moral distinction being made where people recognise it is worse. Now factory farming is on top of this baseline harm I spoke of but this is no reason not to boycott it. It is an action on its own merit to be judged accordingly. I think if people are asked if they are against elephant poaching or dog fighting and their reason for this it is because they recognise it is causing unnecessary suffering to an animal. This is regardless of the wider impact of humanity. It is a wrong done to an individual sentient being. Now using a principle similar to Occam’s razor we could extend this principle as far as possible and arrive at a position like veganism. I recognise the harm done to cows and calves in the dairy industry just as much as in the other things like ivory and dog fighting that I boycott. We can carry on extending this principle in the ‘right’ direction towards the area where obtaining food from nature does become necessary. So by one’s own standard of not causing unnecessary harm if ‘least harm’ is adhered to and taken seriously then anything tested on an animal for cosmetics should be boycotted and an alternative that does not involve that animal cruelty should be sought. We can continue this line of reasoning for products we need seeking the best option in each case. A baseline harm from our imposition on nature does not abrogate our responsibility to not cause unnecessary cruelty to animals in situations where it is avoidable and possible. We can do what is in our control. For example there must still be a criteria not to cause harm despite the baseline harm caused in the world. The argument against veganism seems to try to make a moral equivalence in this area where we do have choice but to be fair it should compare impact on animals in terms of exploitation as well as number of deaths and in a like-for -like manner ‘best case scenario vegan versus best case scenario non-vegan (hunter gatherer versus gatherer). It also needs to take into account carbon footprint ecological efficiency which favours veganism in a fair comparison.

  14. A says:

    Shouldn’t it be “the only competing consideration FOR killing an animal for food we don’t need is lame: our taste for the texture and flavor of that flesh”?

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