The Scavenger-Carnivore Ethic

» May 16th, 2014


*Please note: I’m thinking out loud more than usual here, and I really look forward to all your thoughts. Also, please check out this related piece of mine in Pacific Standard. 

I want to delve further into the benefits of eating animals who have died natural or accidental deaths—and the larger ecological implications that might ensue.

The most notable benefit that would emerge from a scavenger-carnivore ethic is the sense that sentient animals truly value their sentience. The ethic builds on this recognition. Eschewing the purposeful death of sentient creatures would, from the human perspective, honor their consciousness on an individual level without denying ourselves the ethical option of eating animal bodies.

As such, it would draw a much clearer line between acceptable/unacceptable meat options than the industrial/humane distinction that we now rely upon with utterly disastrous consequences. And it would do so based on the explicit recognition that animals have as much a fundamental right to their bodies—specifically, for them not to suffer—as we do to ours. Widespread acceptance of this premise, in conjunction with an ethic of eating that does not categorically reject animal flesh, would exonerate reformers from charges of extremism, open the door to those who stubbornly believe that humans need to eat animals, and ensure that our consumption of animals was dramatically minimized.

It would also shift the way we think about human bodies. To be consistent, and avoid dietary speciesism, this ethic would have to entertain the moral option of humans eating human corpses as well. Did you just cringe? Yeah, me too. The source of this disgust may or may not be relevant. It may or may not reflect a visceral moral reaction that’s easy to experience but hard to articulate. That said, while it’s easy to make a cultural case against cannibalism, it’s hard to make a solid ethical case against it. Cannibalism may strike us as disgusting, and there may be solid cultural reasons for that view, but that does not mean that, morally speaking, it’s necessarily wrong.

Note where this premise leads. Not a sane person on the face of God’s green earth would argue that, because cannibalism is possibly excusable, it’s okay to raise and slaughter humans for consumption. Hence—in this scavenger-carnivore ethic I’m playing around with—there’s a rough consistency between how we treat animal bodies and how we treat human bodies—even if we have no plans to start devouring human corpses (which is fine with me). That consistency, I think, only enhances the worth of this ethic.

A scavenger-carnivore ethic, in its primary attention to and evaluation of bodies, also creates room for humans to understand their body parts and functions as integral to ecological cycles, much as we do the bodies of non-human animals. One immediate benefit to come from a scavenger-carnivore ethic would be the mass production of humanure— human waste as compost to grow food. What prevents us from currently doing this is a failure to imagine our bodies as essentially animalian, a failure that constitutes a largely unrecognized and wasted (yeah, yeah) environmental opportunity.

In a similar vein (please excuse all bodily metaphors here), we could start sharing more of our bodies with non-humans when it comes to medical research and technologies. Would you give your kidney to your dog if such a transfer was possible? There are humans today walking around with pig tissue in their heart valves. A Scavenger-carnivore ethic would encourage and even reward such a cross-species transfer of flesh. I’ll deal with bestiality in another post, but it’s relevant here.

Backing up a bit, consider the how the human-plant relationship would be altered if we embraced a scavenger-carnivore ethic. Eating animals that have died natural or non-human predatory deaths would motivate humans to preserve more wilderness, and to respect our place in it. Rather than follow the bogus ideals of holistic managing domesticated animals, humans would seek to create space for animals to be animals on their own terms, feeding and breeding as the see fit. Rather than dive into the woods and hunt, we would tour the woods for the deceased. We might even learn the difference between a birch and an oak tree along the way. Plant life would flourish and humans would be more active. And we could stop reading boring but important op-eds in the Times about why humans are fat.

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21 Responses to The Scavenger-Carnivore Ethic

  1. All well and good, but I think you fail to account for population. There are 7 billion+ people on this planet who need to be fed. Your approach may provide a rhetorical “safe zone,” but think about what would happen if that rhetoric were successful and became widely accepted.

    The death of factory farming? Almost certainly. But replaced with…?

    Your line of thought is a concession to the majority who still want to eat animals. I can see why you’d want to pursue it as a persuasive tactic. But, if we concede that the majority will never give up eating animals, and we encourage them to adopt the scavenger-carnivore ethic, what happens if the majority start following it?

    Hundreds of millions of people “scavenging” the countryside? Or… an entire industry developing to “scavenge” for them by proxy? Leading to game management that ensures there’s always enough scavenged meat to meet demand? Which means… billions of tons of “scavengable” meat? Ultimately, how is this better than what we do now?

    I get the philosophical point. But our species has demonstrated that it’s pretty terrible at sustainably using the techniques and technologies of the past.

    We used to think the majority would never do X number of other things, too… until, one day, they did. Despite our terrible track record, I still have faith in our ability to do it again.

  2. John Maher says:

    A few brief thoughts while I procrastinate . . .

    I’ll take a crack at this one “Not a sane person on the face of God’s green earth would argue that, because cannibalism is possibly excusable, it’s okay to raise and slaughter humans for consumption.” This statement is indefensible because one is assuming that denying humans agency is always wrong. And yet if we remove the frisson of the word ‘cannibalism’, I ask how is this different than raising humans to die by other means? As soldiers — we know a certain amount will be killed? As casualties of the health system — same? Or even traffic accidents? States know this encourage replacement rates of population because they know a certain number will die although not be eaten. Does raising surplus humans who one knows will be killed (although not eaten) always ethically wrong? Maybe you think so, but it is public policy of your government. If one removes humanism from the analysis, why not raise humans to eat? I am not saying I would do this, but I do argue this is no different in qualitative terms from raising animals for slaughter, which I would not do. Some cultures over history have valued ritual cannibalism (with nods to kuru and other prion diseases) because eating humans provides protein, a sense of shared continuity of spirit or purpose. In such cultures cannibalized individuals are thought of as both wishing to avoid death and, in other thought modes embracing the work of Marilyn Strathairn, voluntarily embracing the possibility of cultural fulfillment by allowing themselves to be consumed. In this scenario it is not a perceived right or the humanity of the individual which maters but the survival of the culture and its rituals.

    So to insulate myself from the obvious rejoinder of “But John, James did say no ‘sane’ person”, I say I am not advocating cannibalism — but against ethical inconsistency. In fact if species survival matters more than the individual, then the ethics of who is sacrificiable (sic) align in favor of eating humans.Like it or not, fewer humans means less consumption of resources and less environmental destruction. Further, ethics are more malleable than culture — it just depends upon one’s binary assumptions as to what right and wrong might be and these are almost always products of one’s culture. So if another runner should fall of a myocardial infarction on a 10K roadrace, feel free. (kidding).

    Aren’t the restructured ecosystems under enough stress without an artificially disproportionate amount of humans (alive due to technology) running around in the woods competing for carrion and destroying what is left? The animals that remain need better so I say it is both ethically and practically more desirable for humans who feel they must eat flesh to eat each other rather than dead scavenged dead animals. Change your culture to allow for this but do not be a manichean and claim absolute moral authority against eating humans.

    • Mountain says:

      “So if another runner should fall of a myocardial infarction on a 10K roadrace, feel free. (kidding).”

      Obviously, you’re kidding, since James could never get away with it during a road race. On a trail race, on the other hand…

    • Ellen K says:

      And it’s been the overt policy of some religion as well: European Catholic bishops in first decades of 20th c explicitly condemned contraception and called for increasing birthrate to provide soldiers (Uta Ranke-Heinemann, “Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven”).

      Bonus feature of fallen runners: that perfect amino acid profile that meat-eaters are always harping about.

  3. Bob says:

    Thanks for this exploration, JM. I love this stuff. I don’t have much to say about the proposal itself, but I want to offer a quick note about the standards we should use when evaluating proposals like this one.

    Peter Singer distinguishes between three things: the ethical position we endorse; the ethical position that we think should be publicly promoted; and our standards of praise and blame. So you might think, in your heart of hearts, that only the strictest veganism is morally justifiable; still, you might think that such an ethic is too demanding for the masses, so you argue in public for a more moderate view: e.g., vegetarianism or meat-minimalism. And then, even though you publicly advocate for that more moderate view, you might still think that we shouldn’t blame people for failing to meet it – perhaps because of the gap between even that moderate position and the view of the dominant culture. The upshot: while you might think that our private ethic should align with both our public ethic and our standards of praise and blame, you needn’t.

    In JM’s recent string of posts, he hasn’t been making this distinction. (I’m not faulting him for that; I’m just making an observation.) It does matter, however. The consequences he imagines of the scavenger-carnivore ethic (probably) depend on it being a public ethic, reinforced by praise and blame. Moreover, these consequences seem to be part of his case for that ethic. However, the project gets going because he’s thinking about the implications of his private ethic – namely, a commitment to treating sentient beings as ends in themselves. He’s been arguing that, if sentience is *really* what matters, then if we can acquire meat without failing to respect sentient beings, we’ve done no wrong (and might even have done some good).

    This leads to the point I want to make about evaluating JM’s recent series of proposals. When we discuss, e.g., the scavenger-carnivore ethic, we can evaluate it along three dimensions, and we should expect different reasons in each case. First, is there a decent moral argument on its behalf? Second, regardless of how we answer the first question, is it a position that we have moral reasons to promote in public? (That is, would it be morally permissible or obligatory to try to convince the broader culture to adopt this ethic?) Finally, we can ask how we ought to react to deviations from that ethic. In the first case, what’s wanted is a moral principle (“Do no harm,” “Maximize utility,” etc.) and some considerations about how to apply it. In the second case, we’d like some reasons to think both (a) that we *could* get people to buy into this ethic and (b) that widespread adoption of this ethic would, on balance, be morally preferable to whatever alternatives there might be. In the third case, we’re after evidence that we should (or shouldn’t) *demand* compliance with the ethic in question. And, of course, when we criticize one of JM’s proposals, it’s worth being clear about where we’re getting off the boat. Perhaps he’s right in principle but wrong about public adoption. Or perhaps he’s wrong in principle, wrong about the viability of public adoption, but right about the consequences of not blaming people for scavenging. Or perhaps something else entirely.

    Anyway, thanks for thinking out loud and letting others do the same.

    • James says:

      This is terrific, Bob. I may swipe some of it and put in a post. Thanks for taking the time to lay out such a useful guide.

  4. Sarah says:

    This for me is where the health argument comes into play in terms of choosing the least harmful and lowest impact dietary choice. If eating the roadkill or other animals that die a natural death ultimately winds up causing more medical problems than only eating plants instead, that turns into greater medical costs and most likely more animals will have been harmed for treatments and the production of medications and generates further harm of various sorts in the future. So while immediately it may not be as harmful or problematic, the future consequences may very well override it’s potential benefits.

  5. Jane says:

    I truly believe that the poor animals killed by our automotive negligence should be left for non-human animals to consume. We have access to an entirely plant-based diet. Non-human scavengers are not designed to utilize plants — ergo, they scavenge. EVERY animal killed on the road is food for another non-human creature.

    I will go further to encourage drivers who hit or see a dead animal on the road, to move it to a safe place for non-human scavengers to consume, so that the scavengers will not be hit by more cars.

  6. Pauline says:

    A bit of a divergence from the main theme… but you make a good point here: “… we could start sharing more of our bodies with non-humans when it comes to medical research and technologies”. People could certainly make a start by sharing their bodies with other humans as well. How many do this? My mother left her body to medical research (she had MS) and the remainder (what wasn’t needed) sits as ashes in an urn at my father’s place, where it has sat for the last seven years. She had no intention of contributing to the needless cluttering up of the planet with corpses in boxes. Whatever use could be made of her body she was all for. In fact, she probably wouldn’t have objected if part of it could have helped our nonhuman cousins had someone put it to her. What use was her body to her after she was dead?

    I doubt if the idea of eating other humans will ever catch on though. There’s probably too much of a profound, visceral revulsion to it, due to potential health risks. Mind you… if we didn’t know… Soylent Green, anyone?

  7. I must say that I enjoy this scavenger ethic! However, it makes me think about Chloë Taylor’s piece on « Respect for the (animal) dead » in the edited collection Animal Death (ed. by J. Johnston and F. Probyn-Rapsey, Sydney University Press, 2013).

    She argues that animal ethics should not only care about how we treat living and breathing animals, but also dead ones insofar as respecting dead bodies means recognizing the lives of these animals as grievable. To make the animal dead ungrievable is to render their lives less real and significant: « being ungrievable in death means that one’s life will not be recognized as a life ». Here is a link to the book :

    However, much of her argument rely on a comparative evaluation, so that if we were to accept to “use” human bodies, accepting to use the dead bodies of other animals would not necessarily be unrespectful and speciesist. Everything depends on what we means by “use” here and if using dead bodies of humans and other animals can be compatible with respect of their lives as grievable lives (I think it is, if this is not done for profit).

    Also, to help you develop your thoughts on bestiality, I strongly suggest “Sexual Ethics and Other Animals:An Ecofeminist Critique of Zoosex”, a talk also given by Chloë Taylor at the SCAS Conference (

    She draws on ecofeminist arguments to insist that sexual and romantic relations between humans and nonhuman animals should not be a site for deconstructing the human/animal binary or for expanding our sexual imaginary, but should rather be seen as an effect of a pervasive logic of naturist, racist and patriarchal domination. Her talk starts at 3:14:22:

    • James says:

      Great references, Christiane. Thank you.

    • John Maher says:

      I am familiar with Chloe Taylor’s work and it is great and highly recommended for questioning how most humans are conditioned to create a mental construct the human animal relationship. Where I would disagree with her is in her reading of Judith Butler’s grievable life posit which seemed a strained metaphor based upon sentiment that nevertheless held a great truth: until animals are granted moral status to assert animal rights and thus membership in the polis via any of the following theories which I view as saying essentially the same thing: Will Kymlicka’s and Sue Donaldson’s “citizenship”; the NhRp’s “legal personhood; Foucauldian “subjectivity”; Agamben’s homo sacer; or Butler’s “grievable lives” animals are in the ontology of things which do not matter to humans who are free to use them as they will. So to get back to Taylor, the extension of Butler to carrion is closest to where Butler discusses Achilles grieving Patroclas. Taylor may be correct about how humans think and conceptualize but I guess my real argument is with Butler and the human concept of grief as the basis for organizing society. They may be right but it still seems absurd to me.

      In response to Bob, Singer never really thought the complexities of carrion through in what I have read and Hare and Singer were/are Utilitarians whose analysis is always based upon very artificial and narrow assumptions rooted in humanism. All of the 3 points you mention are always rooted in an anthropocentric worldview in Singer and that is a huge problem for me. Even Mill gt it wrong with his “can they suffer?” rhetorical posit for sentience and his understanding of sentience itself. For me that is a huge problem because it is self-blinding to most of what matters to non humans. In the end this is not so different from the assumptions of what the overriding ethical imperative might be for most commentors who are not deconstructionists.

      As to trail runners I will have to take the word of the experts above. Perhaps Nike can design a serrated spork/heart rate monitor held in a nylon forearm sheath for those off trail moments where protein suddenly presents itself?

      To me the entire thread of the last few columns seems to really be about a welfarist approach invested in eliminating the aspects of factory farming by considering alternative case such as carrion. I understand the need to do good and eliminate the most horrific example of factory farming but there is no bright moral line here absent a complete rejection of all living flesh — only the assumptions one makes and where one draws the line.

  8. Scu says:

    Hi James,

    This is an interesting argument. I hope to write more about this later, but I wanted to add some possibly contradictory ideas from other sources.

    “We do not eat our dead, even when they have died in automobile accidents or been struck by lightning, and their flesh might be first class. We do not eat them; or if we do, it is a matter of extreme need, or of some special ritual–and even in cases of obvious extreme need, there is very great reluctance. […] Anyone who, in discussing this issue, focuses on our reasons for not killing people or our reasons for not causing them suffering quite evidently runs a risk of leaving altogether out of his discussion those fundamental features of our relationship to other human beings which are involved in our not eating them. It is in fact part of the way this point is usually missed that arguments are given for not eating animals, for respecting their rights to life and not making them suffer, which imply that there is absolutely nothing queer, nothing at all odd, in the vegetarian eating the cow that has obligingly been struck by lightning. That is to say, there is nothing in the discussion which suggests that a cow is not something to eat; it is only that one must not help the process along” (Cora Diamond, The Realistic Spirit, pp. 321-322).
    As Lori Gruen notes on this passage, “Humans are not food. Imagine how our interactions with one another might be different if we saw humans, or at least some humans, as consumable. If we saw each other as edible and, in fact, ate humans on occasion and really enjoyed it, this could lead to a breakdown in respect for one another and for humanity as a whole.” (Ethics and Animals p. 102).

    • John Maher says:

      Welcome aboard to the Scu 2 (not to be confused with Vasile)! Your presence raises the stakes and level of discussion in the comment section immensely.

      I disagree with the assumptions/conclusion that Diamond and Gruen make and instead fast-forward to the Derridean concept (updating Kant) of the”The End of Man” which is only possible when humanity confronts and rejects its own assumptions.

      I am riffing here but let us suppose that we are approaching an ecosophical present where the teleological and eschatological intersect and we see like the snake oriborus that a repurposed humanity is one which reduces or eliminates itself. Thus, anything which reduces the ecological destruction caused by humans becomes ethically desirable. Rituals may be reconfigured to include humans as culturally acceptable food for other humans and collective species survival dependent upon this form of self-regulation where there is no other technologically capable trophic predator. The “breakdown” that Gruen speaks of is both desirable and an imperative.

    • Mountain says:

      “there is nothing in the discussion which suggests that a cow is not something to eat” –Cora Diamond

      Once you remove the human-centric blinders, it’s obvious that a cow will be eaten– if not by a human, then by another animal, or even a plant. A cow IS something to eat. A human is something eat. Every living and once-living thing is something to eat. Thus, the old saying: “the way of all flesh.”

    • Mountain says:

      “Humans are not food.” –Lori Gruen

      Again with the human-centric blinders. Even if cannibalism didn’t exist, humans would still be food to all the meat-consuming carnivores and omnivores of the world. We are food to dogs, cats, pigs, and chickens– as well as an endless number of animals we aren’t as close to.

      It isn’t speciesist to eat other animals, but not humans. It’s speciesist to keep other animals from consuming human carcasses. They have just as much right to consume our flesh as we do theirs. So, when in search of a speciesist, look not to the roadkill scavenger but to the funeral home director.

  9. Laura says:

    I don’t know what people would grumble in disgust at more; scavenging for dead carcasses out there, or lab-grown meat. Either way, it’s all immensely better than having slaughterhouses, but only to those who think for themselves and feel for the experiences of others. Does that include a majority of people? I wish. Health-improving vegan diet is still the optimal solution in my view.

  10. Elaine Livesey-Fassel says:

    If I thought about this topic ( eating animal flesh) at all while as a youngster growing up, which I did not, I suppose in some part of my consciousness I thought that that was indeed the case -the bacon, tripe, tongue and so on were derived from a barnyard animal that had lived, keeled over when his/her time came and died and then became that which was on my plate! A butcher merely cut up the deceased animal. ( I somehow understood the concept of fishing for actual FISH!) I was STUNNED to learn that indeed animals were RAISED to be slaughtered for food!!! Yes, protected/naïve – very! Amazing but true! As soon as it penetrated that these beautiful creatures were merely exploited for food product, I became an instant vegetarian, now vegan! And cant believe that everyone else doesn’t make the same choice!

  11. Bea Elliott says:

    Decades ago I read the book Alive a factual account of the Andes survivors. Of course these were totally “sane” people under the worst possible life/death conditions.

    I never really came to grips with the notion of the possibility or probability (?) of humans consuming humans till I recently read ANIMALS by Don Lepan. It’s a riveting page turner and a spooky look into what lengths a carnist culture will go to in order to satisfy the meat-need. The thought is brutally ugly… As it is to eat any flesh. It’s all dead. It’s certainly is not nutrition for the body or spirit.

  12. Ellen K says:

    I’m really late to this party, but even so, here are a few notes from your friendly neighbourhood pragmatist.

    Totally agreed with HH, JTM, Jane re the non-benefit, indeed damage, of this ethic in practice: the last thing already ravaged fragile ecosystems need is even more humans tramping around on them, and removing necessary food not just for other animals but soil, microorganisms, plants, etc. Rather than increasing our respect for wilderness, it would further legitimize our invasion and wrecking of it.

    If you’re proposing found animal corpses as the primary or sole meat source, that’ll mean meager pickings at best. Wild animal populations are generally declining to say the least, and in any event, what will NYC do, just to pick one urban example? I have visions of fighting over the city’s squirrels, rats, pigeons and the occasional expired carriage horse.

    Agreed that this ethic requires that we think of human remains the same way, as morally permissible food. But if we don’t consume them (and we shouldn’t, unless in dire circumstances), then the reasons for not doing so necessarily apply equally to animals’ bodies.

    I don’t understand how this ethic per se creates the benefit of humanure. We already have plenty of human waste and the theoretical option to compost.

    Herewith an alternative immodest proposal: turning euthanized companion animals into food.
    1. Abundant supply
    2. Already in hand, and without damaging wilderness, or depriving scavengers or soil of needed nutrients
    3. Guaranteed fresh (though one might need to worry about the lethal drugs)
    4. Animals died almost naturally, or at least as peacefully as society generally thinks possible – most of these are “mercy deaths” for terminally ill or mortally wounded creatures.
    5. Avoids factory farming and slaughter, though there is the issue of supporting breeders and puppy mills
    6. Pet cremation and funeral businesses needn’t lose business, but could re-purpose to provide butchering services for the squeamish, and even fully prepared meals for those who don’t cook or have kitchen access.
    7. True, rendering plants would lose out, but that’s not a bad thing
    8. Could create more of the reverence for animals you seek in your ethic: consuming a beloved animal friend might be a sort of ritual communion, ingestion and incorporation of the flesh and therefore the spirit, without need for the controversial concept of transubstantiation.
    8. Pedagogically useful: when people balk at this idea, as most Americans at least surely will, the door is then open to ask, What’s the difference? Isn’t this the goal: To get people to see that there is none, to de-legitimize eating bodies of all species, to stop viewing animals as other and ours for the taking?

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