A
moral case for vegetarianism has been made by some philosophers and has become
popular among a small group of people not noted for their reticence. The most influential of these philosophers is
Peter Singer. Singer’s argument is that
it’s immoral to cause suffering, that the suffering of non-human animals has
equal weight with the suffering of humans, that you can’t eat meat without
patronizing and encouraging the inflicting of suffering on animals, and that
therefore it must be immoral to eat meat, except in cases of dire necessity.

I think this argument is mistaken,
and I will now give you my chief counter-argument. My counter-argument contains a lemma—an
intermediate conclusion that I can then use as a premiss for my final
argument. To keep things short and
simple, I’m not going to argue here for the lemma (though I am going to briefly
explain the point of it), since I believe that most people, if they think about
it even briefly will agree with it. I’m
just going to state the lemma and then move on from there. (Although I say “my” counter-argument, I
don’t mean to imply that there’s anything original about this. I’ve heard something similar to this before,
though I have no idea who first came up with it. After all, it’s pretty obvious.)

Lemma:
We’re not under any moral obligation to act so as to reduce the total amount of
animal suffering below what it is in the wild, or below what it would be if
humans didn’t exist. In other words, if
the immorality of eating meat is dependent on humans causing animals to suffer,
then it can’t be immoral to eat meat if the production of meat for human
consumption does not increase the suffering of animals above what it would have
been in the absence of any human intervention.

Explanation
of the lemma:
In the absence of human intervention, animals like deer and
oxen would be eaten by non-human predators.
When humans eat meat, they’re competing with other meat-eating animals,
such as lions and wolves. If the
predators disappear, this may lead to overpopulation of the former prey animals
and consequent unwelcome environmental effects such as deforestation followed
by soil erosion. The situation is not
changed in principle if we move from hunting to the raising of livestock: the
morally relevant issue is whether the cows or sheep we’re raising would suffer
more, or less, or the same, if they were in the wild and being eaten by lions
or wolves.

The lemma allows the possibility
that some ways of treating animals may be immoral, but the lemma rules out the presumptive immorality of all cases of treating animals in such a way that their situation
is no worse than they would face in the wild.
In the case of hunting, this is clear enough. Anyone who knows cats knows that they love to
keep their prey alive and toy with it before finally killing it, and this
causes more suffering than would be caused by a quick kill with an arrow or a
bullet. So human hunting causes less
suffering than hunting by at least some other predators.

Could it be argued that by hunting
deer, humans are causing suffering to lions and wolves by taking away their
prey? This doesn’t look like a promising
line of argument. Humans are hunters by
nature, and it’s not clear why we would feel obliged to let other species of
hunters have prey that we could have. A
lion whose potential prey is killed by a human is no worse off than a lion
whose potential prey is killed by another lion, and in either case the total
lion population adjusts to the availability of prey for lions, with marginal
lions always dying or otherwise failing to reproduce because of competition.

As we move from hunting to raising livestock,
no important new issues of principle arise.
Do farm animals suffer more or less than animals in the wild? It’s not clear that they suffer any more, and
it seems likely that they suffer a lot less.
The day-to-day life of a cow munching the grass and chewing the cud has
less excitement than that of the wild ox, continually fearful of sudden attack
by a predator, but I doubt that the cow would get a thrill from dangerous
adventures the way some humans do. When
death comes to the cow, it does not seem to cause any more suffering than death
in the wild—and if we ever found out that it did, we could adjust our techniques
of slaughter, without abandoning the practice of killing animals for food. My argument is not that all and any ways of raising
and killing animals for food are morally acceptable, but merely that some
feasible ways are morally acceptable, and therefore morality does not require
vegetarianism.

Some people may feel that the life
of an animal in the wild is in some way better than that of a farm animal, even
though the farm animal experiences less actual pain and fear. Well, we observe, as real incomes rise, that
there is a growing interest in both recreational hunting and in the demand for
game animals, animals killed in the wild, in preference to farm-raised animals.
The meat of game animals is leaner and
tastes better. This trend is merely the
tip of a broader movement towards free-range raising of animals. Suppliers of meat can charge more for meat
that has been produced in a ‘more natural’ way, partly because of superior
taste and partly because consumers feel better knowing that what they were
eating was produced in a more natural way.
As our incomes rise, we spontaneously move away from factory farming
toward free-range farming, and then ultimately to preferring meat from animals
that have been hunted in the wild.

If we accept the lemma, then the
mere fact that some suffering occurs to animals when they’re raised for meat
production is not enough to show that this is immoral. Instead, we have to show that they
necessarily suffer more than they (or corresponding animals, which might be a
bit different in a hypothetical alternative world) would suffer, if the human
population were much smaller and the populations of lions and wolves much
bigger.

Although I’m not offering arguments
for the lemma, I do want to look at three possible ways of rejecting it. Someone could maintain that our obligation is
simply to stop suffering wherever we can.
One way to stop the suffering that comes from animals being harvested as
prey would be to wipe out those animals.
Thus, we could kill all oxen (including beef cows). At the same time, we would wipe out all the
predators, the animals that would have eaten the oxen. This would mean wiping out virtually all
animal species, including insects, birds, and fish, for all these animals are
either predators or likely prey. Some
folks would feel sad that all these species had disappeared, but they could
console themselves with the thought that being extinct means you never have to
suffer, whereas being extant means you do have to suffer.

Consistently,
we should extend this to humans: they should be killed off, and then no human would
ever suffer again. (Just to keep an eye
on things and make sure everyone follows the rules, I’ll be the last one to
go.) If allowing suffering is decisively
immoral then every sentient living thing, including humans, should be made
extinct, because this and only this guarantees no more suffering.

Another person might, however,
approach the issue a bit differently.
Instead of killing all animals, we could take over and manage the entire
animal kingdom, transforming it into something very different from the way it
has evolved, intervening with birth control drugs, factory-produced food,
analgesics, and anesthetics. The former
predators could be fed substitute foods made in factories from soybeans, or
even directly from industrial chemicals.
Since they would suffer somewhat from not being able to hunt, we would
have to provide them with robotic imitation-prey, so that they could continue
to experience the activity of hunting. Herbivores
could be left to graze the wilderness, but fed fertility-reducing drugs to keep
their populations stable. There would
still be some suffering: accidents do happen, and every animal has to die,
though we could try to limit this suffering by infiltrating the natural world
with robots using analgesic and anesthetic dart guns, watching all the while
for any impending pain or anxiety.

There are various aspects of this
scenario which may not be very appealing.
Be that as it may, it is not feasible right now, and won’t be feasible
without a huge investment over many decades, if not centuries (think about the
difficulty in ensuring that every fish in the oceans is guaranteed never to be
eaten). So, even assuming that this
ambitious intervention is morally required, we’re stuck for a while with the
choice between a certain amount of suffering in the wild and a certain amount
of suffering (probably the same or a bit less) down on the farm. And therefore, if we accept the lemma, we
must reject the case for vegetarianism on grounds of the suffering caused by
meat-eating.

Of course, most vegetarians will reject those two approaches and go for a third approach: simply have humans abstain from meat-eating. But what the lemma helps to bring out is that this option has an arbitrary quality. Turning humans into herbivores means excluding other herbivores from a large area of land, reducing the world’s populations of non-human herbivores. So the third approach is a kind of partial and inconsistent version of the first approach. Either we have an obligation to reduce animal suffering every chance we get, or we don’t have such an obligation. Eschewing the first two approaches means admitting that we have no such obligation.

We
can kill animals for food without adding to the total net suffering in the
animal kingdom, and this is morally okay.