What Meat Should Not Be Eaten?
What is forbidden meat? Most moral vegetarians list fish and fowl as animals one should not eat. But what about microorganisms? Vegan vegetarians who eat only vegetables, fruit, and nuts do not completely remove all microorganisms from their food, even with repeated cleaning. Has the vegetarian who eats microorganisms along with his salad sinned against his own principles? Vegetarians may attempt to justify the eating of microorganisms in three different ways.
First, it may be argued that only animals who can feel pain are not to be eaten. Since it is unlikely that microorganisms can feel pain, the vegetarian can eat them without scruples. But this suggestion has a peculiar implication. If beef cattle who could not feel pain were developed, then it would be permissible to eat them. The ability to feel pain is not an obviously plausible way of morally distinguishing microorganisms from other organisms.
KBJ: Martin seems to think that people who abstain from meat on the ground that meat-eating causes pain would not eat “beef cattle” even if they could not feel pain. Why wouldn’t they? If someone’s sole reason for abstaining from meat were pain-avoidance, then there would be no reason not to eat these cows. Even Peter Singer would eat these cows, assuming he had a taste for beef, which he probably doesn’t.
Second, it might be argued that although it is wrong to kill microorganisms, it is not obvious that eating them kills them. Neither is it obvious, however, that eating microorganisms does not kill them. Scientific research and expertise are needed here.
KBJ: I agree that this is a factual question.
This brings us to the third attempt at justification. Let us suppose that some microorganisms that are eaten are killed, e.g., by the digestive workings of the body. The question can be raised: Why should these organisms be killed and others not be killed? What is the moral difference between killing a microorganism in the digesting of other food and killing a hog, e.g., in order to eat and digest it. [sic] Some vegetarians might argue that there is a difference. Killing a hog can be avoided. We do not need meat, let alone pork, in order to live. But we do need to digest food in order to live. If some microorganisms must be killed in the process, this is unfortunate but necessary for human life. But the question remains. Why should microorganisms be sacrificed rather than humans? Why is human life more valued than the life of microorganisms?
KBJ: Humans and pigs are not just sentient, which already distinguishes them from microorganisms; they are, in Tom Regan’s terminology, “subjects of a life.” Microorganisms are alive, like plants, but they have no interests. Hence, they have the same moral status as plants, which is no moral status at all. Martin seems to think that some vegetarians believe that it is categorically wrong to kill. I have never met anyone who holds that view. The very name “vegetarian” suggests that these individuals eat plants, which are living organisms.
One might be inclined to say that human beings are more valuable because of their intelligence. One might first ask, “Why does higher intelligence mean that one species is more valuable than other species?” Second, there are other species besides human beings that have high intelligence, e.g., chimpanzees and dolphins. What should our moral attitude be toward eating members of these species? This problem becomes crucial when the notion of consent is brought in.
KBJ: Nobody in the animal-rights or animal-liberation movement views intelligence as a morally significant property, at least intrinsically. If it is morally significant at all, it is because it is correlated with other things (such as sentience or self-awareness) that are intrinsically morally significant.
Suppose there is a man who wishes to end his life but regrets never having given his poor and hungry family any pleasure. He requests that after his death his wife prepare a lavish dinner with him as the main course. The members of his family have no objections; on the contrary, they rather relish the idea. Putting aside any moral objections to his suicide, what moral objections would there be to a family having Papa for Sunday dinner if it is okay with Papa? In a word, what is wrong with cannibalism among consenting adults?
KBJ: Nothing. Why Martin thinks this is a problem for vegetarians escapes me.
Whatever one thinks about voluntary cannibalism among humans, it may be argued that the situation is very different with animals. After all, we cannot communicate with them in any meaningful way, and besides, from their behavior it seems clear that they don’t want to die. (Animals in the wild try to escape from hunters.) But recent experiments with chimpanzees suggest that the day may be near when we can ask trained chimpanzees if they want to be eaten for food. Suppose some of them say yes (in American sign language). Suppose there is good reason to assume that they understand the question. Indeed, some of them might express enthusiasm for the idea. Would not eating these animals be morally permissible? If not, why not?
KBJ: Ten-year-old children can “say yes” when you ask them whether they want to have sex. This does not constitute consent, for consent presupposes a number of things that a ten-year-old child lacks. But let me answer Martin’s question. In a possible world in which chimpanzees consent—really consent, not just “say yes”—to being eaten, it would be morally permissible to eat them. This, however, is not our world, so I don’t understand the bearing of the question. Clearly, cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, and fish do not consent to being eaten.
Even if no chimpanzee would consent to being used for food, one can certainly imagine animals that would consent. In his comic strip, Little Abner, Al Capp created an animal called a shmoo whose greatest joy was to be eaten. We may smile at the absurdity of this idea. But shmoo-type creatures may not just be creations of cartoonists in the next century; they may be creations of genetic engineers.
Suppose a shmoolike animal were developed, a creature programmed to want to be eaten for food. Would there be anything wrong in eating it? One might object that the act of creating such animals was morally wrong and consequently that eating them would be morally wrong. It is not clear, however, that the creation of shmoos would be morally wrong. But even it [sic] it were, it does not follow that eating them after they were wrongly created would be morally wrong. After all, shmoos want to be eaten and are unhappy if they are not eaten. It may be wrong to create creatures with such a desire, but once such creatures exist it seems cruel not to fulfill their desire.
KBJ: As the case of 10-year-old children shows, desire is not enough; consent is necessary. If the shmoos are capable of consenting (really consenting), then they may consent to being eaten. What does this have to do with the real world, in which no animals (other than humans) can consent? This, with all due respect to Martin, is philosophy run amok.
Still, one might argue that eating such animals is wrong because it is necessary to kill them in order to eat them. And killing animals is wrong, since (1) killing involves inflicting pain and inflicting pain is wrong and (2) animals that have a self-concept have a right to life and killing animals with a right to life is wrong. But recall that shmoos want to be eaten. If they have a right to life because they have a self-concept, they surely also have a right to die and the right to suffer pain in the process if they desire.
Furthermore, genetic engineering may develop animals that lack all of the properties that vegetarians usually associate with the wrongness of killing animals for food: (1) the ability to feel pain, (2) consciousness, (3) having a self-concept. Suppose that by genetic engineering we could develop beef cattle that were born unconscious and remained unconscious all of their lives (they would be fed and bred artificially). Such animals would be incapable of feeling pain or having experiences of any kind. Would it be permissible to eat them? If not, why not?
KBJ: It would be permissible to eat them, just as it is permissible to eat plants. Martin has imagined not human vegetables, but cow vegetables!
Furthermore, genetic engineering might be able to produce meat-bearing animals that could be used for food without being killed. If so, no moral objection based on the killing of animals could be raised to the eating of meat. Suppose by genetic engineering it was possible to develop an animal that shed its legs periodically and grew new ones. Would it be morally permissible to eat such legs? If not, why not?
Now it might be argued that although such animals were not being killed they were being exploited. So it is still morally wrong to eat their meat. But it might also be possible to develop animals that periodically shed their legs and wanted to have their shed legs eaten, animals whose psychological health and well-being depended on such eating. Would these animals also be exploited? If so, would this be immoral? To be sure, we would be using the animals and in this sense would be exploiting them. But the animals would be happy to be used. Indeed, they would want their limbs eaten just as much as we would want to eat them. In this sense, they would not be being exploited.
KBJ: Once again, it depends on whether the animals in question can consent to being used as sources of food. If they can, then they may. If they can’t, then they may not.