The ethics of food-10: Minimizing suffering

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

The theory of evolution says that we are all connected in the tree of life. So humans are not only related to apes and other animals, we are also related to plants and even to the ‘lowly’ fungi. But no one is arguing that therefore we should stop eating vegetables too.

Clearly to survive we have to draw at least some lines as to what species we include within our moral community and what species we exclude. Such lines are necessarily arbitrary but need not be without some justification.

If we are going to use suffering as the measure of whether we are justified in killing and eating animals, then that implies that sentience is a key marker. But what level of sentience? Peter Singer and other animal rights philosophers argue that some level of sophistication of the nervous system is necessary to include the species within our moral compass. They draw the line at the nervous system of scallops, so that anything with an equal or more primitive nervous system than a scallop can be eaten.

Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) points out that a purely vegetarian diet does not solve the problem of killing animals.

Killing animals is probably unavoidable no matter what we choose to eat. If America were suddenly to adopt a strictly vegetarian diet, it isn’t at all clear that the total number of animals killed each year would necessarily decline, since to feed everyone animal pasture and rangeland would have to give way to more intensively cultivated row crops. (p. 326)

From this he draws a surprising conclusion:

If our goal is to kill as few animals as possible people should try to eat the largest possible animal that can live on the least cultivated land: grass-finished steaks for everyone.
. . .
Indeed, it is doubtful that you can build a genuinely sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients and support local food production. If our concern is for the health of nature – rather than, say, the internal consistency of our moral code or the condition of our souls – then eating animals may be the most ethical thing to do. (p. 326)

It is undoubtedly true that in the competition for land, food, water, and other resources to maintain life, humans are unavoidably, even if indirectly, causing the death of other animals, whether we eat them or not, and even causing damage to the planet as a whole. (There is a group called The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement that argues that to reduce suffering and for the health of the planet, humans should choose to not have any more children and thus eventually become extinct.)

While the above arguments can be used by meat eaters to justify their continued practice, we should be wary of being too easily persuaded by them. It is always the case that people can usually come up with reasons to justify whatever we want to do, and meat eaters are no exception, especially since the desire to eat meat is so strong. Benjamin Franklin pointed out that “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

Singer cautions that it is hard for meat eaters to really understand the case against eating animals. He warns that we meat eaters cannot really be objective about this question because of the strong rationalization tendencies that come into play. “We have a strong interest in convincing others that our concern for other animals does not require us to stop eating them. . . . No one in the habit of eating an animal can be completely without bias in judging whether the conditions in which that animal is reared cause suffering.” (Pollan, p. 313)

Singer’s argument about the danger of self-deception impressed writer Pollan so much that he became a vegetarian while studying this question so as to try and increase his objectivity. He reverted to eating meat afterwards, though. (As was pointed out by commenter Dave to an earlier post, those who decide to adopt a vegan, or even vegetarian, diet need to find ways to supplement their diet with the essential vitamin B12, which is normally obtained only from meat and dairy products.)

Wherever one finds oneself in the debate of whether it is ethical to eat meat or not, I think that we can probably all agree that animals should be treated well while they are alive and that if they are to be put to death for whatever reason, it should be done in as humane way as possible in order to minimize suffering.

But it is clear that even this very limited goal is not being met. Our present industrial-scale food production system (more on this later) not only treats animals extremely cruelly, it pollutes the environment, destroys the soil, and poisons everything.

When I was very young and passing through my phase of infatuation with all things cowboy, my parents gave me an air rifle for my birthday. Excited, I wandered through my aunt’s backyard in northern Sri Lanka, shooting and missing at all kinds of targets, while imagining myself as one of my cowboy heroes. Seeing a crow in a tree, I aimed and fired, never dreaming that I would hit it. To my surprise, the bird dropped like a stone, dead. Soon after, the sky was filled with other crows making a terrific racket, which I took to be them rebuking me for this wanton act of destruction. My horror at the experience of having personally killed an animal and causing what seemed like great grief to other birds resulted in my only shooting at inanimate targets in the future.

There is a person who works for the maintenance department at my university who once a year gets a license to hunt deer and spends a weekend in the woods to shoot an animal. He has described his experiences to me. There was a time when my childhood experience with killing an animal would have resulted in me considering this a blot on the character of an otherwise decent person, treating him as the equivalent of the killer of Bambi’s mother. But now I realize that by buying meat that is produced by the industrial farming production system, I am guilty of more inhumane behavior than he is, because the animal he kills and eats has likely lived a far better life than the ones that I buy from the supermarket freezers.

POST SCRIPT: Free screening of award-winning documentary Peaceable Kingdom

Peaceable Kingdom is an inspiring story of personal redemption, compassion, healing and hope. Propelled by the eloquent testimony of animal farmers questioning the fundamental assumptions behind their way of life, Peaceable Kingdom gives a riveting portrayal of human and animal lives caught in an out-of-control industrial machine.”

You can see a preview here.
“Peaceable Kingdom is a masterpiece.” ~ Dr. Jane Goodall
Where: Talkies Film & Coffee Bar, 2521 Market Avenue in the Ohio City neighborhood in Cleveland (across from Great Lakes Brewing Co.)

When: Friday, August 15, 2008, 6:00 p.m.
For more info about this screening, contact Sunny Simon at 216-291-8773.

For some reason, the film is not showing on the Talkies website but Sunny Simon assures me that the event will take place.

(Thanks to commenter Mary for this information)


  1. Cindy says

    I’ve done a lot of thinking about the issue of how much meat you get from one animal. I don’t know anything specifically about cows or chickens, but there are some differences between mammal brains and bird brains. What differentiates them is the cerebral cortex, which in primates, and particularly humans, is hugely disproportionate. Obviously we don’t know exactly what it computes, but it’s the part of us that maintains internal models, for the world and for ourselves. We’re more than just a logic circuit (more than just inputs turning into outputs) because we maintain a complicated internal state.

    Birds evolved from reptiles, and have something like a cerebral cortex that evolved in parallel. Some birds can have a lot of internal information for example about places and ways of obtaining food. But chickens aren’t nearly as smart as parrots. I’ve seen a couple of studies in which they can be fooled in simple ways, e.g. a turkey on a treadmill has a hard time figuring out it’s not getting anywhere.

    But if you’re talking about 100 chickens versus 1 cow, I don’t have any good measure. With logic circuit life, like say shrimp, I don’t really feel like it matters how many we eat. I don’t ask ethical questions when I turn off other electronic devices. So in the past I’ve tended to eat chicken rather than beef or pork on the same principle, that there’s a dramatic difference in brain architecture between mammals and birds. I do think that a pig’s much higher intelligence than a chicken should afford it better treatment on a one to one level. But maybe that just means that pigs in captivity should have more psychological stimulation, i.e. pig appropriate toys, like they have to have in labs.

    I did some thinking and talking to people about living until 60 as a twenty year old. I wouldn’t take that deal in a million years, but I’m a married PhD student, so I get most of my satisfaction from things that get better as I get older. But I know people who would take that deal, because they get more satisfaction from things that were better when they were young. It strikes me that those kinds of things (being more athletic or sexually attractive, having food needs taken care of by someone else, etc) are things animals really enjoy. One of the major differences between even humans and apes is the ability to delay gratification and pursue long term goals. I’m pretty sure most animals would go with near term happiness and a shorter life if it were possible to give them a choice.

  2. dave says

    I wonder if talk about the ‘ethics’ of eating meat is simply an intellectual exercise.

    By evolutionary design we (humans) must consume B12. B12 allows us to develop neurologically. While the amount of B12 needed is very small one must consume animal products in order to get the necessary amount.

    It is true that one could get B12 from eating plants but only if those plants were grown in manure and not washed completely. It is also true that one could take a vitamin supplement. But it seems that, at least evolutionary speaking, we were made to consume animal products.

    One final note. We could simply drink cow’s milk to get B12. But for me, drinking the milk from another species seems to be wrong. Even more wrong than eating the flesh of a dead animal.

  3. Bert says

    Why do you talk of aquiring vitamin B12 as if it were a tough task?

    One of the most popular sandwich spreads in Britain is ‘Marmite’. A single 2g serving provides 60% of your daily requirement of B12. It also provides 50% of your folic acid and has no fat and only 9 calories. Marmite is 40% protein too.

    Australians have their own version, Vegemite.

    Marmite also has a unique flavour, which for want of a better word, activates those tastebuds which red meat does. Meaning, it satisfies the desire for meat better than almost any other non-meat product.

  4. Paul Jarc says

    Marmite also has a unique flavour, which for want of a better word, activates those tastebuds which red meat does.

    The word you’re looking for is “savory”.

  5. Bert says

    Hi Paul Jarc. Not savory, i found the term. Marmite contains ‘ umami ‘

    “Umami is one of the five generally recognized basic tastes sensed by specialized receptor cells present on the human tongue. Umami is a loanword from Japanese meaning roughly “tasty”, although “brothy”, “meaty”, or “savory” have been proposed as alternative translations.”

  6. says


    Your mention of Marmite brought back fond memories from my childhood of eating bread spread with a thin layer of it. The flavor was remarkably strong and it was really tasty, but the taste is indescribable. You really have to eat it to sense it.

  7. says

    One of the most popular sandwich spreads in Britain is ‘Marmite’. A single 2g serving provides 60% of your daily requirement of B12. It also provides 50% of your folic acid and has no fat and only 9 calories. Marmite is 40% protein too.

  8. says

    It’s interesting to know that for the environment, eating a Salad in a Hummer is better than a Big Mac in a Prius. We need to educate people about what eating meat is doing not only to their bodies but to the environment as well.

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