In my 15 or so years’ experience of teaching ethics courses, I have found that no topic brings out the rational and emotional best and worst in people than ethical questions about wearing and eating animals. This is not surprising since, unlike questions what other people should do, moral questions about animals are personal. As philosopher Peter Singer has observed, “For most human beings, especially in modern urban and suburban communities, the most direct form of contact with non-human animals is at mealtimes: we eat them”1 (and wear them). For most of us, then, our own behavior is challenged when we reflect on the reasons given to think that change is needed in our treatment of, and attitudes toward, animals. That the issue is personal presents unique challenges, and great opportunities, for intellectual and moral progress.
This Chapter we will examine the common assumption that there is nothing wrong with harming animals – causing them pain, suffering, and an early death – so they might be eaten and worn. Our method, useful for better understanding all ethical debates, is to identify unambiguous and precise moral conclusions and make all the reasons in favor of the conclusion explicit, leaving no assumption unstated. Especially important will be the third of the three rules (introduced in Chapter 1) for identifying and evaluating arguments:
1. Make the stated conclusion(s) and premise(s) precise in quantity: is something said to be true (or false) of all things (or people, or animals, etc.), or just some of them (and if so, which ones?)?
2. Clarify the intended meaning(s) of unclear or ambiguous words in conclusions or premises.
3. State (any) assumed premises so that the complete pattern of reasoning in an argument is displayed and it is clear how the stated premise(s) logically leads to the conclusion.
People often try to argue that killing animals to eat them is morally permissible by offering a quick premise like, “Meat tastes good,” or “I’ve always eaten meat.” They don’t seem to realize that they seem to be assuming the premises if something tastes good then its permissible to kill it to eat it (what if babies tasted good?!) and if you’ve always done some action then doing that action morally permissible, another arguably false premise.
Harms to Animals (and Humans): The Facts
Why is the treatment of animals a moral issue? The simple answer is that animals are harmed by the practices required to bring them to our plates and put them on our backs, and harms need moral defense. This unit reviews the case for these industries being extremely harmful to animals and looks at the industries’ response to these charges. Harms to humans from eating animals (or eating animals to excess) are also detailed. Consider the position statement on vegetarianism from the leading authority on nutrition in North America based on their sixteen-page review of the recent nutrition research:
It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes. . .. An evidence-based review pregnancy and result in positive maternal and infant health outcomes. The results of an evidence-based review showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians also appear to have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than nonvegetarians. Furthermore, vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates. Features of a vegetarian diet that may reduce risk of chronic disease include lower intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol and higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, soy products, fiber, and phytochemicals showed that vegetarian diets can be nutritionally adequate.2
Ethical behavior can require self-sacrifice; however, this scientific research suggests that ethical behavior – i.e., if killing animals to eat them is wrong – can lead to personal health benefits.
1 Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, 3rd Ed. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2002), p. 95.
2 “Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2009 Jul;109(7): 1266-82. www.eatrightpro.org/resource/...getarian-diets