The Final Re’Veal’ – Ethical Considerations

So far Kevin and Blair have covered health and sustainability, but like most things (star wars being an exception) they have saved the best for last. This week, they put on their moral hats and address whether there are any ethical considerations associated with diet. So prepare yourself to read the ultimate ethical showdown between vegetables and veal.

Question 3: Are there ethical considerations around choosing a meat based diet? If so what are they?

Kevin’s Repsonse (the Vegan/Vegetarian)

Whilst there are many ethical considerations surrounding diet (we have touched on some in the previous post), out of sake of interest and limited word space I have decided to take the tofu-bull by the horns and simply address considerations around eating animals. This section will skim over the applied ethical arguments that accompany animal liberation pieces, it will also contend with common intuitive counter arguments that seemingly hold weight.

Singer and Regan both make the accusation of speciesism toward our treatment of animals. Singer (1999) invokes the principle of “equal considerations of interests” by acknowledging suffering without preference to what abilities or features a being possesses, but we would have to measure suffering in a meaningful way. Singer highlights the case of the man and the mouse both with cancer, stating that the man suffers more as he is more aware of what is going on than the mouse. This will be discussed further in the post.

Regan (1999) states that there is a fundamental wrong in the way we treat animals, the system that allows us to think of and use animals as OUR resources is this wrong. Regan argues against using the capacity to suffer and asks us to recognise the inherent value of beings regardless of species. This inherent value requires us to recognise and fulfil rights.

Basically, the element doing the work here is expanding our sphere of concern toward other beings that we know experience pain and anxiety. Beings which as stated in the documentary Earthlings are strong, intelligent, industrious, capable of growth and adaptation, seeking comfort and freedom from pain and suffering. The rest of the work (appealing to pain and suffering and fulfilling rights) is something which we do within our spheres already.

Hursthouse (1999) uses a virtue ethics approach; she asks whether we can be honest and deny animal suffering? Can it be anything but callousness to just shrug it off? Can we deny the cruelty in modern farming practices? The answer to these questions is no and Hurthouse urges us to employ temperance over greed and self indulgence.

Authors such as Ost (1986) have argued against Regan’s rights model by stating that it can be problematic to recognise animal rights given that they would be moral patients (worth moral consideration but with no moral responsibility) rather than moral agents (who have moral worth and responsibility). This becomes a problem when the agent’s life is threatened by a patient. But to recognise animals as moral patients would not be a new feature of our moral landscape as we currently hold children and otherwise incapacitated people to be moral patients without the same concerns.

In a previous post someone commented by stating that anyone serious about being a vegetarian must also not eat vegetables since they are alive and will feel direct injury and stress. This at first seems like a silly argument but reveals an important part of eating ethically. Of course a carrot won’t feel the pain and anxiety that a human or a pig feels (I can address multiple realisability next week if anyone is interested). But neither will a mouse feel the immense spectrum of complex emotions that a human feels. For many it becomes a safeguard to think of animals as ‘like us’ and prescribe our thoughts and feelings onto them, but this anthropomorphism is dangerous and can even be considered offensive.

Last week Thomas Pogge visited the University of Auckland to talk on the harmful effects of the global order. He made a point that future decision making should not be made based on reducing harms, but rather based on justice. Sure, no one from a hundred years ago could have imagined or predicted the gross exploitation of animals today, but it is no longer sufficient to praise innovations in rearing that are less harmful, or we might just find that we fall into the same justifications that Pogge cited for nineteenth century slavery (“that slaves are enjoying great lives now that we don’t whip them”). Instead we should take Pogge’s advice and ask what is just and how we can create a just system of food production.

As a last point, I urge any readers to remember that there may be ethical forms of animal agriculture; in fact many third party organisations endorse the more animal friendly products. But the animal products you buy in the supermarket or restaurants may not meet those standards. Don’t ask ‘if’ animals can be reared without suffering; ask ‘are’ they reared without suffering and in a way that fits with your conceptions of justice. If the answer is no then vote with your food basket and avoid supporting animal cruelty and injustice.


Singer, P. (1999). Equality for Animals? In R. Hursthouse (Ed.) Humans and Other Animals (pp. 211-221).Oxford: The Open University.

Regan, T. (1999). The Case for Animal Rights. In R. Hursthouse (Ed.) Humans and Other Animals (pp. 211-221).Oxford: The Open University.

Hursthouse, R. (2006). Applying Virtue Ethics to our Treatment of the Other Animals. In J. Welchman (Ed.) The Practice of Virtue: Classic and Contemporary Readings of Virtue Ethics (pp.136-154). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.

Ost, D. E. (1986). The Case Against Animal Rights. The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 24(3).

Blair’s Response (Pro meat/Paleo/Primal)

The way in which I try to live my life is based on evolutionary thinking. When I consider the best way to live my life I look back at how my ancestors would have lived, not just my Neolithic ancestors but the paleolithic ancestors as well (hence the paleo diet).  When we think in this way we must accept that we are animals ourselves, living within the environment, not outside it, and not exerting some warped sense of mastery over it. I accept that I am an animal; I look at my current physiology and how evolution that has formed this. Given this outlook I can explain the ethics of why I eat meat.

When considering whether to eat meat or not we often encounter the utilitarian argument that animals can suffer so we should seek to minimise this; or that animals are experiencing subjects of life (Tom Regan). This argument seems reasonable, but what about the millions of animals that die every day not at the hands of humans, but at the hands (claws, teeth etc.) of other animals? The death of these animals often involves far more suffering than the methods most humans use. Should we not also seek to minimise this killing? We cannot do this, and it would be arrogant to suggest that we should. We do not sit outside of nature, we are a part of it, and we are animals.

Another common argument is that of virtue ethics, that we should have a proper “attitude of respect towards nature”. The idea is that we flourish if we live in awe of nature, and so we should seek to minimise our effect on the world. I see the vegetarian/vegan response to this as being backwards. For the most part their diet consists contains large quantities of grains. These are grown as mono culture crops, on fields where all other plants and animals have been removed. This to me is not respect of nature; it is an attempt at mastery or control over it. My diet on the other hand contains pastured meat. While a pastured field has much lower biodiversity than the bush that once stood in its place, the pasture still has more (biodiversity) than the field of grain.

So if we are to think of ourselves as animals and as part of nature does that mean that we can kill without regard for the suffering of other animals? The answer to this is emphatically no. We can feel empathy for our fellow animals and we should seek to minimise their suffering, and give them the most natural life possible. The animals we farm should have room to roam, a natural diet to eat, and the suffering in their life and their death should be minimised. (Note – meat prepared in this way is also tastier and more nutritious).  We should be connected to what we eat, feel bad for killing it, and show respect to those that we eat. To do this is to accept out place with in nature and to cultivate the proper attitude of awe and respect towards nature.

So what about a moral obligation to eat meat, is there ever a time when we must eat meat? I can think of a few situations where someone with a respect for life and nature should feel obligated to eat meat. One would be hunting or fishing for sport (I personally do not like the notion of killing simply for the sport of it), where animals are hunted for sport, their meat should be utilised (all parts of animals should be utilised such as organ meats). In this way the death of the animal takes on meaning, it has been used as sustenance for someone (or something). Another related situation would be in pest control. I have shot, cleaned and eaten rabbits in an effort to keep numbers down on a farm. I felt obligated to make use of the meat so that it did not go to waste.

The third situation is a much more controversial one which I do not have the space to give full credit. Veal has been considered taboo for many years now since people realised than many veal calves were kept in cruel and confined conditions. There are now several different veal options available, with varying ethical considerations.

Veal is most often produced from male dairy calves which have no use in the dairy industry, and are less productive to the meat industry. So there exists a problem – 50% of all calves born in the dairy industry are considered without use. The options I consider the best and most ethical when dealing with these calves is either too kill them within the first 2-3 days to allow the mothers to be milked for industry, or to allow the calf to life for longer on mother’s milk an pasture before being killed for meat (sometimes labelled as calf, not veal). There are other options such as grain and substitute milk feeding, but I consider these and inferior options. If the calves are not used for meat they would be shot, or otherwise disposed of by the farmer and their meat would go to waste. I would suggest that we are morally obligated to make use of this meat so that the death of the calf is not meaningless.


No references sorry, my thoughts and feelings are sufficient for me and I hope they can fuel your own thoughts.


A big thank you goes to Mathew Goode, who despite being a vegan was gracious enough to help me in preparing my response. Without his help my response might have been little better than “man like meat”.

This is the last of the structured questions which Kevin and Blair will be answering. During the next two weeks (13th/20th June) they will be providing answers or more detailed discussion on points that came from the first three posts. So be sure to leave comments/complaints/questions in the comments section or on the Reason and Science Society’s Facebook wall.

Good luck with exam study.


Posted on June 6, 2011, in Dialogues between members, Environment, Ethics, opinion, Vegetarianism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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