Is it OK to Eat Meat, Eggs, Dairy?–A Lecture Delivered at Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapith (a university in Pune)

This is my second lecture at Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapith under the auspices of professors Karyekar and Karve. Today I’ll be discussing moral arguments against eating meat, eggs and dairy which I’ll abbreviate as MED. In this I’ll be drawing on and evaluating arguments presented in Peter Singer’s book Practical Ethics.

But before doing that, we should note down some questions which though they bear on the question of whether it’s OK to eat MED, are not ethical propositions. These are:

  1. Do animals feel pain?
  2. Is large scale animal husbandry (the current practice of raising livestock for products like MED) distressful for the animals?
  3. Is it unhealthy to eat meat? All the time? Sometime?
  4. Is large scale animal husbandry bad for the environment?

Perhaps you can think of others.

I think it’s widely accepted that the answer to the first two is yes. Animals do feel pain and cooping them up in small enclosures, keeping them lactating, etc. is distressful for the animals. The third question is also answered in the affirmative. Livestock emit methane which contributes to global warming, the whole practice contributes to deforestation, the lowering of the watertable, etc. The fourth question is more open for debate though not an ethical debate. Meat eaters typically maintain that animal products are necessary for our protein needs. Vegetarians typically adduce alternative sources of protein like nuts, etc. My own belief is that the importance of protein is vastly exaggerated. Generations of my ancestors have been lacto-vegetarians and they got along just fine.

Peter Singer’s book approaches the issue of whether it’s permissible to eat MED from a utilitarian perspective. This means that acts or principles for action have to be justified on the basis of the greatest good for the greatest number which Singer formulates as assigning equal weight to every creature’s interest. Singer seems to take for granted that our answers to the preceding four factual questions are correct. He defends his utilitarian perspective, which he claims to derive from the fact that ethical principles should be universalizable, against several alternatives.

For example he argues that the ethical relativist or the ethical subjectivist can’t account for moral disagreements. If I think it’s alright to eat MED because that’s the practice of my society or simply myself and someone else thinks it’s wrong to eat MED because that’s the practice of her society, the relativist would say there is no disagreement. Both are right. This Singer takes as a reductio. I for one don’t think this is an absurd position. But Singer has another argument. The ethical relativist can’t account for the nonconformist or reformer. If his view differs from that of his society he is necessarily wrong. To the extent that we recognize many reformers as heroes, Singer’s argument works.

Another view Singer considers can be described as the utilitarian version of relativism. It says that everyone’s interests should be taken into account in making an ethical decision but restricts the scope of everyone to everyone sufficiently ‘like’ the decider. Singer argues that just as racism and sexism have been disapproved of in society, so should speciesism be. We shouldn’t just take human interests in deciding whether to eat MED; we should take all creatures capable of feeling pain and pleasure. I don’t think Singer is quite right here. Suppose for example mosquitoes were even more sentient than humans. Singer’s view would make my swatting one morally reprehensible. Speciesism seems to carry some weight, especially if we trace the basis of ethical judgments to theories like natural selection, evolution etc.

Singer also considers a sort of elitism, usually an elitism based on intelligence. According to this view we’re allowed to eat MED, because we’re smarter than cows, pigs and chickens. The latter don’t have to be considered in the scope of everyone when we say everyone’s interests should be taken into account in deciding whether to eat MED. Singer argues that even those who hold this view don’t assign a higher weight to someone in their class who’s more intelligent than them or a lower value to someone in their class who’s less intelligent than them.

The last point Singer makes relevant to this issue is taken up in his last chapter titled, ‘Why Act Morally?’. Singer ultimately concedes that a sociopath who feels no compunction to act morally can’t be reasoned with. But he says that such a person would not experience what may be called the good life.  I should note I haven’t really addressed how Singer takes into account our third and fourth questions, namely is eating MED unhealthy and is it bad for the environment. The latter may be addressed in his chapter 10 titled ‘The Environment’ but I have not read it. On eating MED however some such point may carry weight even for the sociopath.

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