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Are we morally obliged to eat some meat? (Part 1 and 2)

John Danaher

Philosophical Disquisitions

August 23, 2014

I’ve recently been looking into the ethics of vegetarianism, partly because I’m not one myself and I’m interesting in questioning my position, and partly because it is an interesting philosophical issue in its own right. Earlier this summer I looked at Jeff McMahan’s critique of benign carnivorism. Since that piece was critical of the view I myself hold, I thought it might be worthwhile balancing things out by looking at an opposing view.

(Part 1)

That’s why Donald Bruckner’s article “Strict Vegetarianism is Immoral” caught my eye. The title and the opening paragraph suggested that it might offer a robust defence of meat-eating. Admittedly, that was what I gleaned at a first glance. After reading the full thing, I realised I was wrong. The paper doesn’t offer a counterpoint to McMahan’s argument. In fact, it may actually complement and support it.

This made the experience slightly disappointing from my perspective, but my disappointment shouldn’t be taken to impugn Bruckner’s piece. It needs to be judged on its own merits, and it does present an interesting argument. I want to go through that argument over the next two posts. In brief outline, Bruckner claims that the typical vegetarian arguments against factory farming do not support a strict vegetarian position (where that means eating vegetables to the permanent exclusion of meat, and probably fish — terminology is a bit tricky here). In fact, properly understood, those arguments imply an obligation to eat at least some kinds of meat.

Bruckner defends this view by outlining what he takes to be the two most popular arguments against factory farming — the factory harm argument and the environmental harm argument — and pointing out a gap between their conclusions and the strict vegetarian thesis. This means his analysis divides neatly into two halves. This is fortuitous since it means I can divide up my discussion over two posts. I start today by looking at the factory harm argument.

1. The Factory Harm Argument
The factory harm argument defends the view that eating and consuming factory-farmed meat is wrong because of the harm it does to the animals in the factory farms. The argument works like this:

  • (1) Factory farming causes extensive harm to animals (“extensive” in both scope and severity: lots of animals are harmed and they are harmed in severe ways).
  • (2) The harm in question is unnecessary (in the sense that humans do not need the protein/food resources provided by the animals who are harmed).
  • (3) Therefore, factory farming causes extensive and unnecessary harm to animals.
  • (4) It is wrong to knowingly cause, or support practices that cause, extensive and unnecessary harm to animals.
  • (5) Purchasing and consuming factory-farmed meat supports a practice that causes extensive and unnecessary harm to animals.
  • (6) Therefore, it is wrong to purchase and consume factory-farmed meat.

Now, as it happens, Bruckner doesn’t dispute any of the premises of this argument. Still, it is worth briefly going through them, if only for those who are unfamiliar with the debate. Premise (1) can be supported by simple arguments about animals’ capacity to suffer and by examples of practices that cause them to suffer. Bruckner gives a couple: cutting off the beaks of young hens; raising them in conditions where ammonia levels are so high that they suffer from chronic respiratory illnesses; castrating pigs and cattle without anaesthetic; and keeping pregnant pigs in crates so small they can barely move. Maybe people would dispute some of these — I’m not sure — but let’s assume there are enough similar practices taking place to justify premise (1).

What about premise (2)? This would seem to be true from observation and scientific study: there are plenty of perfectly healthy vegetarians and vegans out there, and no evidence suggests that a healthy vegetarian life is impossible. There may be some individuals who, thanks to food allergies or other restrictions, find it impossible to live without meat, but they would seem to be relatively few in number. Furthermore, their existence would not threat the general claim that factory farming is unnecessary.

The first conclusion (3) then follows as a matter of course. This brings us to premise (4). It doesn’t seem necessary to dwell on this since it is a basic principle of morality, and it doesn’t really matter which conception of harm you have in mind, or whether you are a consequentialist or deontologist. All these positions would all support something like this principle. That leaves us with premise (5), which is probably the most contentious one. Some people would be inclined to argue that an individual’s decision to purchase and consume meat will have a negligible impact on the general practice of factory farming. This might suggest that the individual decision neither causes nor supports the practice of factory farming. This is something that has been discussed in the literature, and there are various responses to it. Nevertheless, we will set them aside, since that is what Bruckner does, and assume it to be true.

This means we embrace the overall conclusion. But does it mean that we also embrace strict vegetarianism? No. As Bruckner points out, there is gap between the conclusion and the fullscale embrace of the vegetarian diet. To plug that gap, you would need to insert something like the following premise:

  • (7) The only, non-harmful, alternative to eating factory-farmed meat is strict vegetarianism.

But any such premise would be false. There are in fact alternatives to eating factory-farmed meat.

2. Roadkill and the Obligation to Eat Meat
Three such alternatives are mentioned in Bruckner’s article: (i) eating humanely-reared animals; (ii) hunting, killing and eating wild animals; and (iii) eating roadkill animals (i.e. animals accidentally killed in vehicular collisions). Bruckner has another article dealing with (i) and (ii), and he acknowledges that both could involve some harm and wrongdoing to animals, even if it is not on the same scale the harm and wrongdoing involved in factory farming. For this reason, he focuses his argument on the third option.

He starts by clarifying and adumbrating some facts about roadkill. I found this part of the paper pretty interesting because I was unaware of the statistics on roadkill. For starters, he is not talking about eating squirrels or foxes or other small animals that might be killed in accidental vehicular collisions. He is talking about eating freshly-killed, large animals like deer, elk and moose. He notes that there are over one million insurance claims based on collisions with such animals each year in the US, and many more such collisions go unreported (anything from 50% to 600% more, according to some estimates). Consequently, he conservatively puts the figure at about 2.1 million roadkill deaths per year. Now, assuming all such deaths are deer (the smallest of the three) he reckons this would yield about 41.3 million pounds of meat per year. This would be equivalent to the meat currently-consumed by about 300,000 American meat-eaters. That might not seem like a lot, but it is not negligible and, in any event, Bruckner isn’t arguing for continuing current meat-eating practices. He is just arguing that some meat-eating is acceptable.

As I say, I find these statistics interesting, but I would like to raise two sceptical notes. First, it isn’t clear to me that the figure for insurance claims is based on actual animals deaths, or just damage from collisions. Bruckner doesn’t say enough about it in the piece. Second, it isn’t clear to me that all these deaths are strictly accidental. That might seem like a reasonable assumption — who would want to collide with such an animal? — but we may need to be cautious here. I’ll return to this point in part two.

Anyway, moving on. Bruckner thinks it is pretty obvious that eating such roadkill (in addition to vegetables, of course) provides an alternative to strict vegetarianism. But this isn’t a big deal since most vegetarian philosophers accept the permissibility of eating roadkill (Singer certainly does, and Bruckner cites others who do as well). What is less obvious is whether we have an obligation to do so. This is what Bruckner wishes to argue.

At this point, he appeals to an argument originally made by Steven Davis in 2003. Davis believed that vegetarians were too readily assuming that strict vegetarianism was the least harmful option to animals. In doing so, they ignored the number of animal lives lost in vegetable farming. Thus, in cultivating land, planting and fertilising seeds, and harvesting crops, it is acknowledge that animals are routinely killed (e.g. field mice, rabbits, amphibians, ground-nesting birds etc.). Davis argued that more harm would be done by this than by raising herbivores on pasture, and so strict vegetarianism wasn’t necessarily the preferred option.

Davis’s argument for this was highly contentious, based on disputable evidence and estimates. But his particular argument is not what interests Bruckner. It is the general style of the argument that is interesting. It suggests that if there is some practice which is less harmful than strict vegetarianism , we should prefer that. In fact, because we are obligated to avoid unnecessary harm to animals, we should definitely do that. Bruckner thinks this is true of eating roadkill. The harm done by this practice is less than the harm that would be done by getting the same amount of additional nutrition from vegetable farming.

In other words, Bruckner endorses something like the following argument:

  • (8) We are obligated to avoid anything that causes, or supports the cause of, unnecessary harm to animals (this is simply a modification of premise (4) from the factory harm argument).
  • (9) Strict vegetarianism would cause harm to animals (through land cultivation practices).
  • (10) At least some of this harm is unnecessary: we could get some of that nutrition from roadkill.
  • (11) Therefore, we are obligated to eat roadkill (and not to endorse strict vegetarianism).

I say he endorses “something like” that argument because at no point in the article does he actually set out a formal argument for his position. Still, I think this captures the basic elements of it. His point is that if we endorse the premises of the factory harm argument — in particular the central moral premise of that argument, premise (4) — we are obligated to eat at least some meat.

This is certainly an interesting claim. I’ll be covering the main objections to it in part two (after outlining the environmental harm argument). But there is one objection I thought might be worth flagging here. It’s a pretty obvious one. In making this argument, Bruckner may be presuming an overly narrow conception of strict vegetarianism. He seems to suppose (in premise (9)) that the only way for a strict vegetarian to get enough vegetables to live is through farming practices that will be harmful to animals. But maybe this isn’t the case? Maybe there are less harmful farming practices? Or maybe they could be foragers or somesuch?

I suspect Bruckner would respond by saying that either (a) those practices wouldn’t supply enough nutrition or (b) it still wouldn’t defeat his point about eating roadkill. For if there are all these animals being killed accidentally, and if they could provide us with perfectly good nutrition, it would still seem pretty silly to waste them. This becomes more persuasive when we consider the environmental damage argument, which is exactly what we’ll do in part two.

(PART 2)

This is the second part of my series on Donald Bruckner’s article “Strict Vegetarianism is Immoral”. The article claims that if we accept the premises of the leading arguments against factory farming, we may be obliged to eat certain forms of meat (specifically: meat from animals killed in accidental vehicular collisions, aka “roadkill”).

Bruckner defends this view by looking at the two major arguments against factory farming — the factory harm argument and the environmental harm argument — and suggesting that there is a gap between the conclusions of those arguments and the endorsement of strict vegetarianism. I covered his treatment of the factory harm argument in part one. Today, I’ll cover his treatment of the environmental harm argument.

I highly recommend that you read part one before reading this. The basic pattern of argumentation there is very similar to what will be presented here. This is because there are only minor differences between the factory harm argument and the environmental harm argument. Since I’ve already covered the former, I think it’s acceptable to go over the latter in less detail in this post. This may leave you somewhat unsatisfied if you haven’t already read part one. The real novelty in this post will be the range of objections and replies covered toward the end.

1. The Environmental Harm Argument
The environmental harm argument says that purchasing and consuming factory farmed meat is wrong because it harms the environment. The full argument looks like this (numbering follows on from part one):

  • (12) Factory farming causes extensive harm to the environment.
  • (13) This harm is unnecessary (we do not need factory-farmed meat to survive).
  • (14) Therefore, factory farming causes extensive and unnecessary harm to the environment.
  • (15) It is wrong to knowingly cause, or support practices that cause, extensive and unnecessary harm to the environment.
  • (16) Purchasing and consuming factory-farmed meat supports a practice that causes extensive and unnecessary harm to the environment.
  • (17) Therefore, it is wrong to purchase and consume factory-farmed meat.

This argument is almost identical in structure and content to the factory harm argument. Consequently, I won’t discuss its premises in any great detail. Suffice to say, Bruckner is just as willing to accept the premises of this argument as he was the premises of the previous argument. The only thing worth discussing is premise (12) and the precise nature of the “extensive” environmental harm caused by factory farming. Bruckner has two main examples in mind. One is the pollution caused by farming. He gives four examples of this: CO2 from farm equipment; methane from the animals; manure run-off; and nitrogen run-off from fertiliser. Second is the problem with the overconsumption of natural resources: raising crops to feed animals is less efficient and more wasteful than eating those crops directly.

Given that this argument is practically identical to the factory harm argument, it is no surprise to find that Bruckner’s response is practically identical. Once again, he points out that there is a gap between the conclusion and the endorsement of strict vegetarianism. That gap would have to be plugged by something akin to the following premise:

  • (18) The only less-harmful (to the environment) alternative to eating factory-farmed meat would be strict vegetarianism.

But any such premise would presuppose a false dichotomy. There are meat-eating alternatives to factory farming that involve less harm to the environment. The roadkill example is to the fore once more. Of course, that isn’t a hugely interesting conclusion since it only suggests that eating roadkill is permissible. The more robust conclusion is that eating roadkill might be obligatory. That conclusion can be reached if we stick with the moral principle that we ought to avoid causing unnecessary harm to the environment and add the factual claim that the harm done to the environment by eating the available roadkill is less than the harm done to the environment by producing the same amount of nutrition through vegetable farming. Bruckner thinks that this factual claim may be supported on the grounds that the environmental harm done by the fuel expended in transporting and butchering roadkill is likely to be less than the environmental harm done by growing an equivalent volume of vegetables.

So once again, we have an argument for thinking that we might be obliged to eat (at least some) meat. Are there any major objections to this argument?

2. Objections and Replies
Bruckner looks at six different objections in the article. I’ve already raised an objection in part one that he did not address (as well as a possible reply). I’ll add another objection that Bruckner seems to have overlooked today as well. That makes for eight objections in total, seven of which will be dealt with below.

The first objection is:

Slippery Slope Objection: Bruckner’s argument simply encourages us to eat meat which, given our weak-willed nature, will lead us to eat more and more meat. Best to cut out the practice entirely in order to avoid the slide down this slippery slope.

Of course, when it comes to meat-eating, we are already at the bottom of the slippery slope. A gradual ascent out of the mire might be more successful than an abrupt transition. Even still, there are problems with the slippery slope argument if you accept it on its own terms. First, it seems to commit all the sins of fallacious slippery slope arguments. Bruckner likens it to an argument for celibacy based on the (absurd?) notion that having sex with one partner will lead you to have sex with many. Second, it relies on some pretty outlandish armchair psychologising which illegitimately foists the burden of proof onto the defender of Bruckner’s position. They are forced to argue that people won’t be tempted in this way, even though there is no evidence to suggest that they would be in the first place. Finally, the objection implies a false dilemma: it implies that the only way to get more meat would be through factory farming, but as we saw in part one there are other means of doing this that may be more acceptable.

I’ll add in my own objection here:

Perverse Incentive Objection: By providing people with an “excuse” to eat animals that are accidentally killed in vehicular collisions, Bruckner’s argument will provide an incentive to people to take less care while driving (to be more “accidental”).

I’m actually surprised Bruckner doesn’t deal with this in his paper as it seems like the strongest objection to his position. To support it, I have in mind analogies with past alterations in people’s incentives. For example, the claim (common among economists) that compulsory seatbelt wearing actually increased the total number of car accidents when it was first introduced (though, to be fair, it also reduced the number of fatal car accidents). It seems to me like Bruckner’s policy could easily have a similar incentive effect: it could encourage people to take less care while driving. And surely that would be a bad thing: it would lead to more unnecessary (albeit “accidental”) harm being done to animals (and possibly humans). I’m not sure what the response would be to this. I guess you could argue that the incentive effect is unlikely because people wouldn’t run the risk of a collision with a deer, elk or moose. But I’m not so sure about that.

The third objection is:

Fences Objection: The argument doesn’t imply that we should eat roadkill; rather, it implies that we should do more to protect animals and ensure that they are not killed in accidental vehicular collisions. One way of doing this would be to put up more fences along roads.

Bruckner responds by saying that this would be pretty costly (and probably politically unfeasible). Furthermore, it would only be something to be considered in addition to his argument, not instead of it. In other words, we would still be obliged to eat any roadkilled animals prior to the construction of these fences (and after, if they are still being killed despite our best efforts).

This leads to another, more general, objection:

Absurdity Objection: The argument has absurd implications. It means we shouldn’t do anything that risks unnecessary harm to animals. So, for example, we shouldn’t drive our cars to the cinema because cinema trips are unnecessary and increase the risk of harm to animals. Likewise, we should engage in all manner of other “crazy” freegan practices like foraging in dumpsters and eating other dead, wild animals.

Bruckner tries to sidestep this objection. He does so by pointing out that he is not directly arguing for the thesis that eating roadkill is obligatory. Instead, he is arguing that if the standard arguments against factory farming are correct, then eating roadkill is obligatory. The conditional nature of the argument is important. If it has absurd implications, that could be because the arguments against factory farming are flawed. Bruckner says no more about this in the article.

A less absurdist objection would be the following:

Health Risk Objection: The meat from animals killed in vehicular collisions is not perfectly healthy; it poses a greater health risk than eating vegetables.

This is pretty contentious and gets us beyond the scope of the original objections to factory farming (which weren’t about human health at all). The empirical data on vegetarian versus meat-eating diets is pretty messy (from what I’ve seen), with no clear evidence favouring one over the other. Still, Bruckner argues that venison is pretty lean and low in saturated fat. He notes that some deer carry the cervid version of BSE, but there is no evidence of transmission to humans (that could be because of low consumption though). Also, he is not arguing that we eat old or badly decayed animals. He is only arguing that we eat freshly killed animals.

That brings us to the penultimate objection:

Scavenger Objection: Eating roadkill is not harm free. Doing so deprives scavengers of food.

Bruckner argues that this isn’t quite true. In the US, roadkill is typically removed by local authorities and dumped in a landfill. So the meat is being wasted anyway (though perhaps there are scavengers, such as rats, at these landfills?). Furthermore, he suggests that certain parts of the animal carcasses could be left for scavengers (e.g. viscera and internal organs).

And the final objection then is:

Disgust Objection: Eating roadkill is disgusting

Of course, this isn’t really an objection; it is an emotional response. Even if people did find it disgusting, this wouldn’t mean that it was not obligatory. We are often obligated to do disgusting things.

3. Conclusion
So that’s it. To briefly recap, the two main arguments against factory farming may be persuasive, but they fail to support the strict vegetarian lifestyle. This is because there is a gap between their conclusions and the endorsement of strict vegetarianism. This gap can only be plugged by appealing to a false dichotomy: it’s either strict vegetarianism or factory farmed meat-eating.

In reality, there are other forms of meat-eating that may not fall foul of the factory farming arguments. Quite the contrary in fact. Some forms of meat-eating might be obligatory if we endorse the premises of the arguments against factory farming. Bruckner argues that this is particularly true of eating roadkill.

I think the perverse incentive objection is the major challenge to this position: if Bruckner is right, motorists will be given an incentive to take less care when driving. Although this mightn’t seem like a significant problem in any one case, the statistical impact could be great. Of course, we don’t know for sure at this point in time. 

John Danaher holds a PhD from University College Cork (Ireland) and is currently a lecturer in law at NUI Galway (Ireland). His research interests are eclectic, ranging broadly from philosophy of religion to legal theory, with particular interests in human enhancement and neuroethics. John blogs at You can follow him on twitter @JohnDanaher.


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