Back to Prindle Institute

Why It’s OK To Buy that Steak

photograph of grocery shopper debating purchase at meat aisle

We’ve all been there. Walking through the supermarket, you’re suddenly confronted by a refrigerator cabinet full of plastic-wrapped chicken and prepackaged sausage, or the butcher’s display case larded with cuts of marbled beef, richly red. Gazing at these morsels of animal flesh, you recall all of the ethical reasons why you shouldn’t eat meat — meat production violates animals’ rights and ruins the environment. The right thing to do in this situation seems clear: skip the steak and buy lentils instead.

But while the arguments against meat eating present a compelling case for societal-level change to the composition of our diets, it does not quite follow from this that your individual decision to buy a steak is unethical.

Indeed, there is a plausible argument that, notwithstanding the wrongness of meat consumption in the aggregate, there is nothing wrong with individual carnivorous choices. In short, it might not be OK for all of us to eat meat, but it is still OK for any one of us to eat meat. This column will attempt to articulate that argument, with due acknowledgement of its limitations.

The argument’s major premise is a very general claim: faced with the choice to do either A or B, we are morally obligated to do B only if A is, or at least is objectively likely to be, morally worse than B. What makes one choice morally worse than another? It’s beyond the scope of this column to provide an exhaustive answer to that question, but clearly two things that make a choice morally bad are that it causes harm to a person and that it violates a person’s rights. By “person” I mean here an entity worthy of strong moral consideration, which could include animals. So, one choice can be worse than another if the former causes more harm or violates more rights. In addition, it may violate more fundamental rights — think of the difference between the right to life and the right to vote.

It follows from this premise that buying the steak is worse than not buying the steak only if the former is morally worse than the latter. This is the case if buying the steak causes more harm or violates more rights, or more fundamental rights.

The question, then, is whether buying the steak does any of these things.

Let’s consider harm first. Clearly, buying the steak does not cause harm to the cow from which the steak was harvested — that cow no longer exists as a subject capable of feeling pain. Perhaps, however, buying the steak causes harm to presently existing or future cows or the environment, since it sends a signal to meat producers — a signal that would otherwise not have been sent — to produce more meat, and meat producers may respond to that signal by increasing the number of cows they raise and slaughter.

The trouble with this argument is that it is almost surely false. Your sixteen-dollar purchase will have no effect on the meat producers’ decisions,  which are influenced only by the aggregate demand of hundreds of thousands or millions of consumers. Furthermore, if you don’t buy the steak, someone else almost certainly will. Thus, even if you choose not to buy the steak, the aggregate demand for steaks almost certainly won’t be reduced even by as little as sixteen dollars — a reduction that, to reiterate, wouldn’t make a difference to meat producers’ market decisions anyway. So, if buying the steak is morally worse than not buying the steak, it isn’t because the former causes more harm than the latter.

The same points apply to the issue of whether buying the steak violates more rights, or more fundamental rights, than not buying the steak.

If killing the cow from which the steak was harvested violated its rights, buying its meat does not cure the violation — but it also adds no new violation. Eating a steak does not constitute a violation of an animal’s right, although it may depend upon it.

And if buying the steak will not cause more harm to present or future cows or the environment because of the insignificance of my individual consumer choices to meat producers’ decisions, neither will it lead to more rights violations.

It appears, then, that buying the steak is not morally worse than not buying the steak. If the major premise is true, it follows from this that you are not morally obligated not to buy the steak. Now for the fun part: answering objections.

First, it may be objected that precisely the same argument can be made with respect to any moral problem that arises due to the aggregate effects of many individual choices. Pollution and unfortunate election outcomes are two obvious examples. Some philosophers are happy to “bite the bullet” here and accept that individuals do not have obligations to behave in ways that would make a difference only if many others followed suit, like voting or refraining from polluting.

Actually, bad election outcomes are quite different from meat consumption in at least one key respect.

In elections, there is no reason to believe that when one person omits to vote, another person, who would not have voted unless the first person made her omission, will vote in that person’s stead. This is unlike when one person chooses not to buy a steak.

In that case another person will very likely buy that very same steak, which she could not have done had the first person bought it.

This distinction is important because it means that any individual’s vote might make a difference to who gets elected — it just has a very, very low likelihood of doing so. However, given the profound consequences of many elections, even that low probability of making a difference arguably makes it likely enough that not voting is morally worse than voting to ground an obligation to vote.

It might be objected here that if the exceedingly small probability of casting the decisive vote is enough to ground an obligation to vote, then the exceedingly small probability of influencing others in some way by not buying the steak is also a sufficient basis for an obligation not to buy the steak. But this objection fails for two reasons. First, voting is only morally required if the election’s outcome is likely to have significant downstream effects. While this is plausible with respect to elections, it is not plausible with respect to the act of not buying the steak. Because someone else will almost surely buy the very steak you omitted to buy, we can safely say that your omission’s influence will be nil. Instead, what can be influential is some further act, such as talking to someone about your choice not to buy a steak.

Nothing I’ve said in this column means that you aren’t morally obligated to perform some other acts that help promote a large-scale shift to vegetarianism if you can. My claim is merely that you aren’t morally obligated not to buy the steak.

Pollution is a more serious problem for my argument, since unlike a single person’s vote, a single person’s quantum of pollution is certainly not going to have a decisive effect on the overall health of the environment. Suppose you are considering whether to dump one day’s worth of garbage in a nearby lake. That amount of garbage may have no perceivable impact on the ecological health of the lake — perhaps not a single organism will or is likely to be affected. That can be the case even if, had the entire city in which you live followed suit, it would have destroyed the lake’s ecology. This seems to imply that dumping your garbage into the lake is not morally worse than refraining from doing so, and so there is no moral obligation for you not to pollute in this way.

However, this conclusion would be overhasty. It might be true that your garbage dumping does not cause ecological harm. But there are other ways in which even a small amount of pollution can have a small, but tangible negative impact. For example, pollution can be an aesthetic affront to people who have a strong interest in enjoying “unspoiled” nature. More importantly, there is another way in which our choices can be morally bad: they can violate rights.

One can violate rights without making the rights-holder worse off in a particular instance. It may plausibly be argued that animals, plants, and even ecosystems have rights not to be polluted at all. This is one way of explaining the intuition many people have that natural ecosystems are in some sense “sacred.”

If that’s so, then even an ecologically insignificant act of pollution may violate those rights, and so may be morally impermissible, despite not making a tangible difference in terms of the well-being or functioning of the affected animals, plants, and ecosystems.

A second objection comes in the form of a question: what if everyone subscribed to the foregoing reasoning? Then the morally bad aggregate effects of meat consumption would be realized. The implication is that the test for whether an individual morally ought to do something is whether the result of everyone doing the very same thing is acceptable. Admittedly, as a sort of quasi-utilitarian sister of Kant’s Formula of Universal Law, as well as a distant cousin of the Golden Rule, this claim belongs to a very illustrious family of moral theories. Apparently, these theories simply deny the major premise of my argument: even if your choice of A over B does not cause more harm or violate more rights, if everyone’s choice of A over B would do so, then your choice is nevertheless wrong.

Philosophers have collectively devoted literally thousands of pages to some version of this disagreement, so I don’t expect to settle it here. Suffice to say that there is something odd about focusing on some hypothetical scenario when considering whether one’s act is morally wrong, rather than on the act’s intrinsic nature and effects.

It is worth emphasizing the limitations of the argument I’ve just defended. As I mentioned, nothing in this argument means that you are not obligated to promote vegetarianism in ways likely to have significant aggregate effects. This means that public officials, public figures, and prominent or influential members of communities likely have stronger obligations to promote vegetarianism than ordinary people. Indeed, since even their omissions may be influential, such people may have obligations to be vegetarians themselves.

In short, the argument I’ve outlined here does not get you off the hook for doing something to help reduce aggregate meat production if you can. And it does not dispute that there are compelling moral reasons for societies to reduce aggregate meat consumption. It simply suggests that you shouldn’t feel too guilt-stricken about your particular consumption choices.

Meat Replacements and the Logic of the Larder

photograph of vegetable larder

Every year, tens of billions of animals are killed for food. This is morally objectionable for all sorts of reasons directly related to the experiences of the individual animals involved: the process of food production causes them pain and suffering; they are prevented from flourishing in the ways that are appropriate for members of their species; they live shorter lives full of more suffering and less pleasure than they would have if those lives were not cut short; and so on. In response, entrepreneurs have worked hard to bring alternatives to the market in the form of plant-based and cell-cultured products, neither of which involve killing animals. Humans do not need to eat animals or animal products in order to enjoy nutritious diets and live long, healthy lives. If a person can give up animal products, many argue that they should.

In response, some have raised an objection that has come to be known as “the Logic of the Larder.” A larder is a storage space for food, traditionally a place for preparing and containing meat. This line of reasoning is also sometimes referred to as the “Replaceability Argument.” In his 1914 book The Humanities of Diet, famous vegetarian thinker Henry S. Salt presents and responds to the objection at length, introducing it with a common idiom at the time: “Blessed is the Pig, for the Philosopher is fond of bacon.” The idea is that farm animals are made better off by the fact that humans breed them for food. The contention is that farm animals, on average, have lives that are worth living.

Generally speaking, it is better to exist than not to exist. If human beings did not raise farm animals for food, those animals would not exist at all. Therefore, human beings do something good for farm animals by bringing them into existence to be used for food.

If this argument is sound — if humans do a good thing when they bring billions of animals into existence for use as food — then human beings would be doing a very bad thing by replacing that source of food; the animals involved would never have had the chance to live.

In responding to this argument, Salt and others point out that the Logic of the Larder seems more like a bit of sophistry — an ad hoc rationalization or, as Socrates puts it, an attempt to “make the weaker argument the stronger” — than an actual argument that is ever used as part of a decision to raise animals for food. When someone decides to get involved in raising animals for slaughter, they rarely say, “boy, what I’d really like to do is bring a bunch of new animals into existence and give them a shot at life.” Instead, animals are treated as objects to be mass produced in the most efficient and profitable way possible. If the lives of animals were valued, they would be allowed to age and grow at the appropriate speed and rate; instead, they are given growth hormones to shorten the period from birth to slaughter. Salt powerfully provides this argument from the pig’s perspective,

What shall be the reply of the Pig to the Philosopher? “Revered moralist” he might plead, “if it were unseemly for me, who am today a pig, and tomorrow but ham and sausages, to dispute with a master of ethics, yet to my porcine intellect it appeareth that having first determined to kill and devour me, thou hast afterwards bestirred thee to find a moral reason. For mark, I pray thee, that in my entry into the world my own predilection was in no wise considered, nor did I purchase life on the condition of my own butchery. If, then, thou art firm set on pork, so be it, for pork I am: but though thou hast not spared my life, at least spare me thy sophistry. It is not for his sake, but for thine, that in his life the Pig is filthily housed and fed, and at the end barbarously butchered.

This colorful response also draws out the idea that the “better to exist than not to exist” justification condones breeding sentient creatures for any purposes whatsoever. If we follow this line of argument, it is better to bring a being into existence, horribly mistreat it, and show no mercy or respect for its dignity, than it is to simply not bring a being into existence at all. And this seems to justify bringing humans into existence for the purposes of selling them into slavery — after all, it’s better to exist than not!

The proponent of the Logic of the Larder, however, might respond by emphasizing that humans are cognitively very different from non-human animals, and this is why raising animals for slaughter is defensible, while breeding humans for slavery is not. Human beings develop identities, have a sense of their past and their future, understand concepts like death and dignity, and are capable of applying those concepts to themselves and of integrating them into their own desires concerning the future. Many, including Peter Singer in his book Practical Ethics, have argued that this makes a difference when it comes to whether it is a bad thing to kill an animal.

But some humility is likely warranted when it comes to drawing conclusions regarding which mental capacities farm animals have and which they don’t.

Animals can’t express themselves in human language and their beliefs likely do not have propositional content in the ways that the beliefs of human beings sometimes do. Nevertheless, animals are clearly capable of making plans that have temporal components.

They understand that things take place in sequence, and they rely on this understanding to get what they want. They exhibit personality and those traits are enduring. They avoid death and members of many species grieve in response to the death of loved ones. Instead of judging whether raising animals only to kill them by the standards of anthropocentric metaphysics and moral psychology, we might want to at least entertain the possibility that we’ve been thinking about identity, autonomy, and future-related cognition in idealized ways that are unlikely to correctly characterize human moral psychology, let alone set humans apart as uniquely entitled to continued existence.

Moreover, to suggest that it is better for a farm animal to exist than not to exist presupposes that these animals have a welfare that can be measured relative to their welfare in other possible worlds (for example, worlds in which they do not exist). This is to concede the most important point when it comes to discussion of the ethics of using animals for food — animals are the kinds of beings that can experience pain and pleasure. If we think it can be good for them to come into existence, then it can also be quite bad for them to exist under conditions of deprivation, slavery, and slaughter. We can’t defensibly bring them into existence and then force them to live lives full of more suffering than joy.

In Defense of Eating Dogs

photograph of strays dog on street

In Western societies, dogs are regarded as our companions. As such, the idea that one might ever eat a dog would strike us as abhorrent. This view stands in stark contrast to that of many Asian countries, in which the consumption of dog meat is a regular part of their culture. However, attitudes appear to be shifting. As younger generations increasingly regard the practice as taboo, the president of South Korea has recently suggested that the time has come for the practice to be prohibited.

But should it be? I suspect that many people would regard the consumption of dogs as not only taboo, but morally wrong. However, this attitude seems to be inconsistent with our attitudes towards other animals.

I want to suggest that if there is nothing wrong with eating cows, chickens, and pigs, then there is nothing wrong with eating dogs. Conversely, if it is wrong to eat dogs, then it is also wrong to eat cows, chickens, and pigs. Regardless of what direction one goes with the reasoning, my point is that there is an inconsistency in how most people view dogs, cows, chickens, and pigs.

Can We Draw a Line?

Why might it be wrong to eat a dog? One answer is that dogs are companion animals. They are honorary members of our family, so to speak. Indeed, some dog owners refer to themselves as “dog moms” or “dog dads.” As such, it would be wrong to eat a dog because of the special status that we have given them.

The problem is that this association is contingent. Perhaps you might view your dog as part of your family, but that doesn’t mean everyone else views dogs in that way. Indeed, that is not how they are viewed by people who consume them as food and in societies where this practice is prevalent. If dogs only have significant value because we give it to them, then they don’t have it inherently. If that’s the case, then while eating dogs might be revolting or disgusting, it isn’t wrong. And just because something is offensive to one’s own tastes doesn’t mean it should be legally banned for everyone.

Another answer might be that dogs are what animal rights philosopher Tom Regan called “subjects of a life.” Dogs are conscious: they can experience pain, pleasure, and other aspects of consciousness. These qualities generate moral value which makes it wrong to kill them purely for the sake of consumption. While this argument shows that dogs have inherent value, it also applies equally to cows, chickens, and pigs — animals that we commonly consume. After all, all of these animals can feel pain and other aspects of consciousness. So why wouldn’t it be wrong to eat them? It seems that any property we think of is going to be a property that these other animals have.

As such, someone who accepts this line of reasoning must also be committed to stopping the consumption of these other animals. But that’s a tough bullet to bite, as many people who are opposed to dog consumption engage in other forms of meat consumption.

The point is that it’s arbitrary to draw a moral line at dogs but not for, say, cows. Consistency demands that we either embrace the permissibility of eating cows, chickens, and pigs — and therefore the permissibility of eating dogs, or we embrace the wrongness of eating dogs — and therefore the wrongness of eating other animals.

Which Direction Should Consistency Take Us?

There are arguments to be made for either.  I have argued that since it is not wrong to eat cows, chickens, and the like, that it is not wrong to eat dogs. On the other side, Alastair Norcross has argued that since it’s wrong to eat dogs, most other kinds of meat consumption are therefore also wrong.

It’s worth taking a deep dive into the literature to build an informed view, but let’s table these arguments for a second. Most people lack the expertise, time, or willpower to confidently explore the academic literature. Indeed, unless you’re a professional philosopher you likely haven’t taken deep dives on many of the beliefs you have. In the absence of that, the next best thing is to work from our background knowledge and engage in critical and reflective deliberation on our beliefs. How might we do that in this case?

Suppose that you’re opposed to eating dogs. Ask yourself this: which is stronger – your intuition that it’s morally permissible to eat chicken, cows, and pigs, or your intuition that there is something wrong with eating dogs? I suspect that most people would answer the former — after all, even those who are opposed to eating dogs are generally OK with eating other kinds of meat. So if that intuition is stronger, perhaps consistency should weigh in favor of that intuition.

That is to say, if we are faced with a dilemma where both horns are counterintuitive (in this case, either we say that eating dogs is morally permissible, or we say that most meat consumption is morally impermissible), then we should go with the horn that preserves our strongest intuition. Our moral common sense is generally reliable, so if we are going to deviate from it, the smaller the deviation the better. In other words, if we are going to bite a bullet, we should bite the smaller bullet. Based on that rule of thumb, we should go with the view that it is morally permissible to eat dogs.

Of course, this isn’t the final say. We are just weighing intuitions, and intuitions and heuristics are defeasible. There are other factors we might need to consider. One might give an independent argument against meat consumption that is strong enough to override intuitions in favor of meat-eating that were not formed reflectively. On the other hand, one might enhance these intuitions by giving independent arguments to shore them up.

Note that I am not saying that someone who thinks it is OK to eat cows, chickens, and pigs must also be OK with personally eating a dog. There is no inconsistency in being willing to eat a cow but refusing to eat a dog, so long as the different attitude is not justified by an appeal to different moral status. The point is one about intellectual consistency.

On Meat Eating: Cats, Dogs, and Carnism

Photograph of a person's hands holding a knife and fork with a piece of raw meat on a plate beneath the utensils

This September, the US House of Representatives passed the Dog and Cat Meat Trade Prohibition Act of 2018, a bipartisan piece of legislation targeted to “prohibit the slaughter of dogs and cats for human consumption, and for other purposes” by specifically making it a felony to slaughter, buy, or sell a cat or dog with the intent to eat it. Although Jeff Denham, a Republican from California who sponsored the bill, admitted that rates of dog and cat meat consumption in the US are not high, “Adopting this policy…demonstrates our unity with other nations that have banned dog and cat meat, and it bolsters existing international efforts to crack down on the practice worldwide.”

On one hand, it’s unsurprising that a country where nearly 184 million cats and dogs make their homes as companion animals to humans would place a priority on preserving the lives of these creatures. But, on the other, the behemoth of American agribusiness and the record-setting diet of the average American consumer predicted to eat over 220 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2018 might also lead one to ask: what is so special about these two particular animals? Why are we happy to eat pigs, cows, and chickens, but – if this new Act is eventually signed into law – may face federal penalties for eating comparably similar nonhuman creatures?

This is the question Melanie Joy takes up in her 2010 book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism. Joy argues that it is is simply a matter of cultural perspective which leads people in the US to view some animals as food and others as friends; empowered by a violent ideology labeled carnism, Joy explains how a variety of social and historical facts have developed over time into a system that conditions the majority of US citizens to simply take for granted that different species of animals are categorized in various arbitrary ways. It’s not the case that most meat-eaters have consciously chosen to eat some animals and not others; it is instead the case that, because carnism operates invisibly, most carnists have simply never actually considered the question of what they are actually eating.

Roughly twenty years ago, my family sat down to dinner in the home of a Saudi-Arabian national; as a normal part of the meal, a goat had been killed, prepared, and served on a large platter as a main course. Two decades later, my mother still tells the story of how uncomfortable she felt when the platter was placed directly in front of her, forcing her to face the empty eye sockets of her dinner’s skull for the duration of her meal.

The presence of the goat’s head on that dinner table remains memorable because it violated a key principle of carnism: invisibility. Normally in the West, animal slaughtering practices are removed from the public eye, allowing carnism to promote what Joy calls ‘psychic numbing’ as eaters mentally disconnect the animality of meat from its role as food. Trying to have a polite meal with a reminder of one’s dinner’s pre-mortem life as a centerpiece unavoidably grates against that invisibility.

So, because cats and dogs are less invisible to most Westerners, the thought of betraying our species-level relationship with them by treating them like food sounds reprehensible; doing so to other animals is contingently easier because they are socially removed from our general experience. Joy argues that such a disparity is ultimately inconsistent; pigs and dogs, for example, are far too similar in emotional, intellectual, and physical capacities to justify being treated so differently. However, raising the awareness of the current carnist state’s arbitrary conclusions will take time.

For now, the potential ban on cat and dog consumption still has several legislative steps ahead of it before it becomes a law, but with support from the Humane Society of America, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and cosponsorship from congresspersons representing eight different US states, animal rights advocates are celebrating this incremental step towards protecting vulnerable creatures. Whether or not similar legislation protecting other defenseless animals will eventually make its way to the floor of Congress seems unlikely given the strong ideology of carnism, but, as Shakespeare’s Richmond says in Richard III, “True hope is swift and flies with swallow’s wings.”