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The Ethics of Eating Animals
Common Defenses of Meat Eaters
• Divine intent: God or some higher power created animals for human use.
• Human intent: Humans raise livestock to eat or use them. Without humans, these
animals wouldn’t have been born or survive.
• Natural law or biological imperative: Humans evolved to eat and digest animals. Humans
are omnivores. Some animals eat other animals, and humans are animals, too.
• Tradition: “We’ve always eaten like this. It’s part of my culture, religion, family
customs, etc.”
• Boundary vagueness: Since both plants and animals are “alive,” there is no difference in
eating one or the other.
• Speciesism: Humans come first. Animals don’t warrant the same protection or
consideration as humans.
Adapted from
Warren Belasco, Food: The Key Concepts (2008), pg. 99.
Much of Pollan’s chapter engages with and draws upon the
work of Australian philosopher Peter Singer and his
foundational text Animal Liberation: The New Ethics for Our
Treatment of Animals (1975), which laid out the central
arguments of the modern animal rights movement.
This movement is relatively new in human history, for as
Pollan notes, an ideology of animal rights “could thrive only
in a world where people have lost contact with the natural
world, where animals no longer pose any threat to us (a fairly
recent development), and our mastery of nature seems
unchallenged” (pg. 326). In other words, humans can consider
whether andd to what extent non-human animals should have
“rights” because non-human animals no longer pose a threat to
the very survival or existence of humans.
Speciesism
Singer argues that ethical humans must give equal consideration to the
interests of all living things.
Pollan summarizes Singer’s argument: “Equal consideration of interests is
not the same as equal treatment….But where their interests are the same [e.g.
the interest to eat, to stretch, to engage their animal instincts, etc.], the
principle of equality demands that they receive the same consideration. And
the one all-important interest humans share with pigs, as with all sentient
[feeling] creatures, is an interest in avoiding pain…The question is not
Can they reason? Or Can they talk? But Can they suffer?” (Pollan, pg. 308).
Singer argues that human disregard of these interests in non-human animals
simply because they are not human is speciesist. Speciesism refers to a belief
that humans deserve special consideration just because they are humans.
Animal Welfare:
Cultural and Moral Relativism?
Q: What determines whether a culture deems it
acceptable to eat a specific type of animal?
A: Typically the proximity or closeness of
members of that culture to that type of animal.
There are often taboos or even laws against
consumption of animals that are commonly
viewed as pets or companions.
Predation and Domestication
Pollan discusses the two ways that humans secure animals for food—
predation (hunting) and domestication (farming). He concludes that
both processes can be done ethically in ways that benefit both species
involved: the hunter/farmer human and the hunted/farmed animal.
Predation: important for both the hunter and the hunted in ensuring that a food chain and ecosystem are
in balance and that animal populations do not grow beyond the capacity of their habitat to sustain them.
(Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, pp. 321-323)
Individual turkey vs. “Turkey” as a species
“From the point of view of the individual prey animal predation is a horror, but from the point of
view of the group—and of its gene pool—it is indispensable” (Pollan, pg. 323). Overpopulation of a
species like wild turkeys, sometimes due to elimination of their natural predators, can lead to
devastation of the ecosystem on which it depends, leading to ruin for the entire species.
ecosystem disruption:
Natural or human interventions into an ecosystem
that can lead to changes in species population
caused by such factors as shifts in predation
patterns and overgrazing, which can lead to
starvation brought on by lack of predators to cull
the prey population.
The introduction by farmers in the early 1900s of pigs onto Santa Cruz Island led to the rise of a wild pig population that,
by the 1980s, caused a series of ecosystems disruptions that threatened the extinction of the Santa Cruz Island fox. The
presence of the pigs led to an invasion by golden eagles which are not native to the island and which feed on terrestrial
animals like piglets—and fox cubs, which are easier than piglets to catch. As the golden eagle population exploded due to
an abundance of land animals to eat, the Santa Cruz Island fox was almost decimated. To save the fox, “the plan is to kill
every last pig trap and remove the golden eagles, and then reintroduce the bald eagles” [killed off by chemical dumps in the
1950s and 1960s]—essentially, rebuild the island’s food chain from the bottom up” (Pollan, pg. 324).
The Case of the Santa Cruz Island Fox
Domestication: a relationship between two species that promotes the survival of both species involved in a
system of “mutualism or symbiosis” (Pollan, pg. 321); an evolutionary development that “took place when a
handful of especially opportunistic species discovered, through Darwinian trial and error, that they were more
likely to survive and prosper in an alliance with humans than on their own. Humans provided the animals will
food and protection in exchange for which the animals provided the humans their milk, eggs, and-–yes—their
flesh” (pg. 320).
Individual chickens vs. “Chicken” as a species
“From the animals’ point of view the bargain with humanity [to be domesticated to serve human
needs] turned out to be a tremendous success, at least until our own time. Cows, pigs, dogs, cats, and
chickens have thrived, while their wild ancestors have languished…Liberation [into the wild] is the
last thing such a creature wants” (pg. Pollan, pg. 320). Pollan concludes that domestication itself is
not a problem, but insists that the current form of domestication (i.e. factory farming) often violates
the “preferences” and “interests” of the animals.
The Vegan’s “Utopia”?
• Vegans often suggest that eating a plant-based diet is the surest way to do the least harm
to non-human animals and the natural environment. Pollan takes some issue with this
claim, noting, “Killing animals is probably unavoidable no matter what we eat.” For
example, combines shred field mice, tractors crush woodchuck burrows, and pesticides
kill birds. To make his point, Pollan (perhaps sarcastically) suggests, “If our goal is to kill
as few animals as possible people should probably try to eat the largest possible animal
that can live on the least cultivated landed: grass-finished steaks for everyone” (326). In
this case, one large animal can feed many people.
• Practical Issues with Veganism: Not all world geographies can support row crops; some
that are rocky, hilly, or infertile can only support grazing and hunting. In such cases, a
vegan diet would require one to import foods from around the world, wedding them to the
industrial food chain.
• “If our concern is for the health of nature—rather than, say, the internal consistency of our
moral code or the condition of our souls—then eating animals may sometimes be the most
ethical thing to do” (Pollan, pg. 327).
Pollan contends that, based on Singer’s argument about the ethical
responsibility of humans to minimize pain and suffering (what the
industry terms “stress”) among livestock, factory farming must be
reformed.
“Animals are treated as machines—‘production units’—incapable of
feeling pain. Since no thinking person can possibly believe this
anymore, industrial animal agriculture depends on the suspension of
belief on the part of the people who operate it and a willingness to avert
one’s eyes on the part of everyone else.” (Pollan, pg. 317).
• The industrialization—and brutalization—of animals in America is a
relatively new, evitable, and local phenomenon: No other country
raises and slaughters it food animals quite as intensively or as brutally
as we do. No other people in history has lived at quite so great a
remove from the animals they eat” (pg. 333).
Pollan’s Conclusion: The Industry Needs Transparency
“Sometimes I think that all it would take to clarify our feelings about eating
meat, and in the process to begin to redeem animal agriculture, would be to
simply pass a law requiring all the sheet-metal walls of all the CAFOs, and
even the concrete walls of the slaughterhouses, to be replaced with glass. If
there’s any new right we need to establish, maybe this is the one:
the right, I mean, to look...” (pg. 332).
“What’s wrong with eating animals is the practice,
not the principle” (pg. 328).
Industrial Animal Agriculture: Issues of Concern
• Animal welfare
• Inhumane living conditions (overcrowding, dangerous hazards, confinement, etc.)
• Poor or unnatural diet leads to discomfort or suffering (feeding corn to ruminants, adding
antibiotics or hormones to promote growth, etc.)
• Painful practices and procedures (castration, beak shearing, branding, etc.)
• Antisocial arrangements (separation of mothers from young, isolation of social species, etc.)
• Environmental impact
• Pollution of groundwater from animal manure and chemicals (“manure lagoons”)
• Erosion of grasslands and deforestation to grow livestock feed
• Carbon emissions due to methane gas production (animal flatulence and waste)
• Waste of resources (production of animal protein is highly inefficient in terms of both feed and
water)
• Human health
• Obesity
• Heart disease
• Bad cholesterol
• Antibiotic resistance
Steps to improve the welfare of animals raised for human use.
Consuming less meat and animal byproducts will certainly benefit the environment in the long-run, and lead to
improved public health and a reduction in animal suffering. To improve the practice of livestock production
for the animals, the industrial system must begin by implementing measures to eliminate the most egregious of
its animal welfare abuses (e.g. battery cages for egg-laying hens, gestation crates for sows, etc.). Meat-eaters
concerned about the industrial food system—including Michael Pollan and farmer Joel Salatin from the film
Food, Inc.—argue that eating animals is not inherently unethical so long as the animal, while alive, is permitted
to live a life in line with its animal interests and instincts.

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The Ethics of Eating Animals

  • 1. The Ethics of Eating Animals
  • 2. Common Defenses of Meat Eaters • Divine intent: God or some higher power created animals for human use. • Human intent: Humans raise livestock to eat or use them. Without humans, these animals wouldn’t have been born or survive. • Natural law or biological imperative: Humans evolved to eat and digest animals. Humans are omnivores. Some animals eat other animals, and humans are animals, too. • Tradition: “We’ve always eaten like this. It’s part of my culture, religion, family customs, etc.” • Boundary vagueness: Since both plants and animals are “alive,” there is no difference in eating one or the other. • Speciesism: Humans come first. Animals don’t warrant the same protection or consideration as humans. Adapted from Warren Belasco, Food: The Key Concepts (2008), pg. 99.
  • 3. Much of Pollan’s chapter engages with and draws upon the work of Australian philosopher Peter Singer and his foundational text Animal Liberation: The New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals (1975), which laid out the central arguments of the modern animal rights movement. This movement is relatively new in human history, for as Pollan notes, an ideology of animal rights “could thrive only in a world where people have lost contact with the natural world, where animals no longer pose any threat to us (a fairly recent development), and our mastery of nature seems unchallenged” (pg. 326). In other words, humans can consider whether andd to what extent non-human animals should have “rights” because non-human animals no longer pose a threat to the very survival or existence of humans.
  • 4. Speciesism Singer argues that ethical humans must give equal consideration to the interests of all living things. Pollan summarizes Singer’s argument: “Equal consideration of interests is not the same as equal treatment….But where their interests are the same [e.g. the interest to eat, to stretch, to engage their animal instincts, etc.], the principle of equality demands that they receive the same consideration. And the one all-important interest humans share with pigs, as with all sentient [feeling] creatures, is an interest in avoiding pain…The question is not Can they reason? Or Can they talk? But Can they suffer?” (Pollan, pg. 308). Singer argues that human disregard of these interests in non-human animals simply because they are not human is speciesist. Speciesism refers to a belief that humans deserve special consideration just because they are humans.
  • 5. Animal Welfare: Cultural and Moral Relativism? Q: What determines whether a culture deems it acceptable to eat a specific type of animal? A: Typically the proximity or closeness of members of that culture to that type of animal. There are often taboos or even laws against consumption of animals that are commonly viewed as pets or companions.
  • 6.
  • 7. Predation and Domestication Pollan discusses the two ways that humans secure animals for food— predation (hunting) and domestication (farming). He concludes that both processes can be done ethically in ways that benefit both species involved: the hunter/farmer human and the hunted/farmed animal.
  • 8. Predation: important for both the hunter and the hunted in ensuring that a food chain and ecosystem are in balance and that animal populations do not grow beyond the capacity of their habitat to sustain them. (Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, pp. 321-323)
  • 9. Individual turkey vs. “Turkey” as a species “From the point of view of the individual prey animal predation is a horror, but from the point of view of the group—and of its gene pool—it is indispensable” (Pollan, pg. 323). Overpopulation of a species like wild turkeys, sometimes due to elimination of their natural predators, can lead to devastation of the ecosystem on which it depends, leading to ruin for the entire species.
  • 10. ecosystem disruption: Natural or human interventions into an ecosystem that can lead to changes in species population caused by such factors as shifts in predation patterns and overgrazing, which can lead to starvation brought on by lack of predators to cull the prey population. The introduction by farmers in the early 1900s of pigs onto Santa Cruz Island led to the rise of a wild pig population that, by the 1980s, caused a series of ecosystems disruptions that threatened the extinction of the Santa Cruz Island fox. The presence of the pigs led to an invasion by golden eagles which are not native to the island and which feed on terrestrial animals like piglets—and fox cubs, which are easier than piglets to catch. As the golden eagle population exploded due to an abundance of land animals to eat, the Santa Cruz Island fox was almost decimated. To save the fox, “the plan is to kill every last pig trap and remove the golden eagles, and then reintroduce the bald eagles” [killed off by chemical dumps in the 1950s and 1960s]—essentially, rebuild the island’s food chain from the bottom up” (Pollan, pg. 324). The Case of the Santa Cruz Island Fox
  • 11. Domestication: a relationship between two species that promotes the survival of both species involved in a system of “mutualism or symbiosis” (Pollan, pg. 321); an evolutionary development that “took place when a handful of especially opportunistic species discovered, through Darwinian trial and error, that they were more likely to survive and prosper in an alliance with humans than on their own. Humans provided the animals will food and protection in exchange for which the animals provided the humans their milk, eggs, and-–yes—their flesh” (pg. 320).
  • 12. Individual chickens vs. “Chicken” as a species “From the animals’ point of view the bargain with humanity [to be domesticated to serve human needs] turned out to be a tremendous success, at least until our own time. Cows, pigs, dogs, cats, and chickens have thrived, while their wild ancestors have languished…Liberation [into the wild] is the last thing such a creature wants” (pg. Pollan, pg. 320). Pollan concludes that domestication itself is not a problem, but insists that the current form of domestication (i.e. factory farming) often violates the “preferences” and “interests” of the animals.
  • 13. The Vegan’s “Utopia”? • Vegans often suggest that eating a plant-based diet is the surest way to do the least harm to non-human animals and the natural environment. Pollan takes some issue with this claim, noting, “Killing animals is probably unavoidable no matter what we eat.” For example, combines shred field mice, tractors crush woodchuck burrows, and pesticides kill birds. To make his point, Pollan (perhaps sarcastically) suggests, “If our goal is to kill as few animals as possible people should probably try to eat the largest possible animal that can live on the least cultivated landed: grass-finished steaks for everyone” (326). In this case, one large animal can feed many people. • Practical Issues with Veganism: Not all world geographies can support row crops; some that are rocky, hilly, or infertile can only support grazing and hunting. In such cases, a vegan diet would require one to import foods from around the world, wedding them to the industrial food chain. • “If our concern is for the health of nature—rather than, say, the internal consistency of our moral code or the condition of our souls—then eating animals may sometimes be the most ethical thing to do” (Pollan, pg. 327).
  • 14. Pollan contends that, based on Singer’s argument about the ethical responsibility of humans to minimize pain and suffering (what the industry terms “stress”) among livestock, factory farming must be reformed. “Animals are treated as machines—‘production units’—incapable of feeling pain. Since no thinking person can possibly believe this anymore, industrial animal agriculture depends on the suspension of belief on the part of the people who operate it and a willingness to avert one’s eyes on the part of everyone else.” (Pollan, pg. 317). • The industrialization—and brutalization—of animals in America is a relatively new, evitable, and local phenomenon: No other country raises and slaughters it food animals quite as intensively or as brutally as we do. No other people in history has lived at quite so great a remove from the animals they eat” (pg. 333).
  • 15. Pollan’s Conclusion: The Industry Needs Transparency “Sometimes I think that all it would take to clarify our feelings about eating meat, and in the process to begin to redeem animal agriculture, would be to simply pass a law requiring all the sheet-metal walls of all the CAFOs, and even the concrete walls of the slaughterhouses, to be replaced with glass. If there’s any new right we need to establish, maybe this is the one: the right, I mean, to look...” (pg. 332). “What’s wrong with eating animals is the practice, not the principle” (pg. 328).
  • 16. Industrial Animal Agriculture: Issues of Concern • Animal welfare • Inhumane living conditions (overcrowding, dangerous hazards, confinement, etc.) • Poor or unnatural diet leads to discomfort or suffering (feeding corn to ruminants, adding antibiotics or hormones to promote growth, etc.) • Painful practices and procedures (castration, beak shearing, branding, etc.) • Antisocial arrangements (separation of mothers from young, isolation of social species, etc.) • Environmental impact • Pollution of groundwater from animal manure and chemicals (“manure lagoons”) • Erosion of grasslands and deforestation to grow livestock feed • Carbon emissions due to methane gas production (animal flatulence and waste) • Waste of resources (production of animal protein is highly inefficient in terms of both feed and water) • Human health • Obesity • Heart disease • Bad cholesterol • Antibiotic resistance
  • 17. Steps to improve the welfare of animals raised for human use. Consuming less meat and animal byproducts will certainly benefit the environment in the long-run, and lead to improved public health and a reduction in animal suffering. To improve the practice of livestock production for the animals, the industrial system must begin by implementing measures to eliminate the most egregious of its animal welfare abuses (e.g. battery cages for egg-laying hens, gestation crates for sows, etc.). Meat-eaters concerned about the industrial food system—including Michael Pollan and farmer Joel Salatin from the film Food, Inc.—argue that eating animals is not inherently unethical so long as the animal, while alive, is permitted to live a life in line with its animal interests and instincts.