Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras made the case against eating animals on grounds of their having souls like humans. Plato, in Book 2 of the “The Republic,” thought of meat as a luxury that would lead to an unsustainable society, filled with strife and inequality, requiring more land and wars to acquire it.
In 1789, Jeremy Bentham, father of the theory of utilitarianism, pointed to animal suffering as morally concerning and therefore implicated meat consumption:
“The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being? … The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes … ”
Modern-day utilitarian Peter Singer thus asks whether we are justified in considering our pleasure and pain as more important than that of animals. In being willing to subject animals to the suffering of industrial farming for meat production, he questions whether we are just being “speciesists.” Much like racists, he argues, speciesists favor the interest of their own species.
Animal rights philosopher Tom Regan argued that animals are “the subject of a life,” just as humans are. Animals are beings who have rights, with their own preferences, wants and expectations.
Making factory farming more humane does little to shade the immorality and injustice of using animals as resources.
Moderns, such as Descartes and Kant argued that animals are not conscious, do not have minds and, do not experience pain. They were, according to Descartes, “automata,” just complex machines (Descartes). For Kant, humans set their own moral rules based on reason and act upon them. This is something that animals cannot do.
More astute observations and scientific studies, however, have shown that animals do experience pain analogous to humans and have feelings. For example, elephants have complex emotional lives, including grieving for loved ones, and complex social and family relationships.
Thus, excluding animals from moral consideration and eating animals cannot be justified because they lack these characteristics.
Even Kant’s idea that it is the rational autonomy of humans that makes them superior does not work. Infants, Alzheimer’s patients, the developmentally disabled and some others might also be considered lacking in rational autonomy. And personhood, in any case, is not the defining criterion for being treated as an object of moral consideration.
Virtue theorist Rosalind Hursthouse argues that eating meat shows one to be “greedy,” “selfish,” “childish.” Other virtue theorists argue that the virtuous person would refrain from eating meat or too much meat out of compassion and caring for animals’ welfare.
If you accept that animals have rights, raising and killing animals for food is morally wrong.
Note: When people talk about animal rights, they are usually talking about animal interests.
An animal raised for food is being used by others rather than being respected for itself. In philosopher’s terms it is being treated as a means to human ends and not as an end in itself.
This is a clear violation of the animal’s basic interests.
Even the most humane forms of rearing and killing animals for food always violates the animal’s most basic interest – to continue living.
Modern agriculture often violates other key animal interests as well:
- to live in natural (or at least, decent) conditions
- to make free choices
- to be free from fear and pain
- to live healthy lives without needing medical intervention
- to eat a natural diet
- to enjoy the normal social/family/community life of its species
No matter how humanely an animal is treated in the process, raising and killing it for food remains morally wrong.