Eating Animals and the Virtues of Honesty
Lab-grown meat as a way out of our greatest ethical dilemma
I don’t think too much about factory farming. It’s depressing. But I sometimes feel compelled to give the topic some attention. This isn’t an issue on which I’ve changed my mind over time. Ever since I first heard the arguments against what we do to animals as a teenager, I’ve thought there is no way that the way we produce meat could be morally justified. I just think about the subject more or less at different times of my life. At one point I managed to be a vegetarian for a few months when I was much younger, but that’s pretty much been the extent of my sacrifice. I’ve at times slightly adjusted my eating habits towards beef over chicken and shrimp, but the universe is cruel, which is why the most ethically fraught foods are the best sources of lean protein.
Last year, Matthew Adelstein brought animal suffering to my attention again when he made the case that factory farming is the worst crime in world history. I can’t find much to argue against in his essay. I’ve thought about this passage more than once.
Imagine someone was paying for pigs to be put in gas chambers because they liked the way their squeals sounded. We would be outraged—animal abuse isn’t worth enjoying particular sounds. What if they were gassed because we liked the way they smelled? A cry of outrage would erupt throughout the public—surely a pleasant smell wouldn’t be worth horrific torture. What about one who enjoyed the way that tortured corpses of animals looked? We’d be outraged—looks don’t justify horrific torture. How about taste? We’d be similarly outraged. Oh wait, that’s literally what we do. We pay for animals to be brutally tortured and killed because we like the taste of their tortured corpse. Surely there’s no morally relevant difference between a pleasant smell and a pleasant taste.
That being said, I’m not a vegan. Why? Well, I like the way animals taste, and I want to be in good physical condition. If it was just about taste I would probably find a way to get everything I needed from plants, but a diet filled with meat is the only one that can provide what I find to be an acceptable calorie-to-protein ratio while allowing me to avoid overeating.
One of Adam Smith’s many insights is that the world’s most enlightened philosopher would care more about losing his little finger than an earthquake that swallowed all of China, and those of us who accept the ethical arguments for veganism while continuing to eat meat, like much of the rest of the world, prove him correct every day.
If I was like most other people, I’d try to justify my behavior by pretending that there was in fact a good ethical argument for factory farming. I’d say God made other beings for us to eat, or allow myself to fall for the naturalistic fallacy, or say that the animal welfare movement is a front for Bill Gates and his efforts to microchip us all. I’d definitely say that veganism is for liberals, who are unmanly, and connect it to them being LGBT and taking kids to drag shows or something. This is what humans generally do when facing unpleasant facts that reflect poorly on themselves. But I can’t do that, and I don’t want to be the kind of person who does. So I just grant to the vegan that he has won the argument, and he is morally superior from a utilitarian perspective, but I want to be thin and have broad shoulders.
The passage from Adelstein above forces me to confront the question of why I would never torture an animal for the smell, while I do make consumer choices that end up torturing animals for their taste, even though the two are ethically equivalent. Here, one must invoke our role as social creatures as justification, even though I would hate to do that under any other circumstance. Eating meat doesn’t feel as bad because most other people in the world also do it. But nobody would want to be part of a select few that inflicts a rarer kind of suffering. This implies that if nobody else ate meat, I wouldn’t either, and I think that’s right. As social beings, we care not only about right and wrong, but also how moral we are relative to other people.
Does doing something you admit is immoral make you a bad person? Maybe by some definitions. But does that make someone who constructs ideological justifications to present their conduct as defensible somehow morally better? I suspect a lot of people might say so, or at least have an intuitive sympathy for that position, but I highly value honesty, and admire the same trait in others.
Maybe that is just an aesthetic preference. But even from a utilitarian perspective, it does have at least one benefit. The person who eats animal flesh and admits that doing so is wrong will at least be an enthusiastic supporter of lab-grown meat, and hope the industry succeeds. Meanwhile, it is those who feel the need to subscribe to the naturalistic fallacy in order to justify their selfishness that end up ideologically opposed to new technological developments that might reduce suffering. California has been passing laws to improve the living conditions of farm animals, and one can always expect vested interests to rely on whatever arguments they can in order to prevent such policies from being adopted.
Our species has an ethical obligation to move beyond factory farming. It would be a shame if our unwillingness to honestly confront what we do to animals causes us to compound our crimes by delaying the day that we do.
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