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Ethics of Eating Animals

In any discussion concerning the ethics of eating animals, it’s important to begin by considering a frequently overlooked distinction: that harming and killing animals from necessity is not morally equivalent to harming and killing animals for pleasure. Just as shooting someone in self-defense is not commensurate with shooting someone to satisfy a sadistic urge— killing animals for food when we have no other choice for survival is not morally equivalent to killing animals when we have plentiful alternatives. Violence committed to save a life is never analogous to violence committed for pleasure or profit.

This distinction is crucial for several reasons, the first of which is that it clarifies a serious category error in the thinking of people who insist that meat-eating is “natural”—and therefore morally neutral— because other animals eat animals. It’s important to realize that, with a few exceptions, when humans kill other animals for food, we’re not doing what animals do in nature. Humans have no biological or nutritional need to consume meat or any animal products. When animals kill other animals for food, they do as they must, in order to survive; they have no choice in the matter. Many humans, on the other hand, do have a choice, and when people with access to non-animal food options choose to consume animals anyway– because they can, or because they like the taste– they are not killing from necessity, as animals (and some humans in crisis or subsistence situations) do. Whether we’re talking about a lion taking down a water buffalo, or a human in some remote or impoverished location forced to hunt in order to feed her family: these are acts of necessity, and do not equate to, nor justify, wholly unnecessary harm to animals. There is no analogy to be found in nature for the massive harm we inflict on animals merely for pleasure.

Another reason it’s important to recognize the necessity/pleasure distinction is that harming animals for pleasure goes against core values most of us hold in common—which is why, for example, millions of us were outraged over Michael Vick’s involvement in dog fighting, and why we oppose dog fighting on principle. The notion of deriving pleasure from violence toward animals is repulsive to us; so how can we justify harming animals for the taste of their flesh? How can it be wrong to harm for pleasure in one instance, and not the other? The same reasons that compel us to oppose dog fighting compel us to abstain from killing animals we don’t need to eat: namely, that it is wrong to harm animals for pleasure, and it is wrong to kill animals for pleasure.

Finally, to harm animals for pleasure is also, ultimately, to harm ourselves. Constantly acting in opposition to our own core values deforms our hearts—and it diminishes our integrity, and hinders our emotional and moral growth. Day after day, and year after year, our lives can be seen as the culmination of thousands of instances in which, equally assured of nourishment and pleasure, we had the opportunity to choose kindness and mercy, or to choose violence and selfishness. What can it mean for caring people to regularly reject compassionate choices that cost them next to nothing, and to instead embrace unnecessary violence that costs its victims, literally, everything? To do so is to destroy kindness in our hearts.  It’s a simple equation.  Every time we put food in our mouths, we reinforce a value.  When we choose, over and over, to activate apathy and selfishness in ourselves, we become different people than the people we would have become had we chosen instead to cultivate compassion and mercy.                                                 -by Ashley Capps, WFS writer


The following links provide a few essays and articles that we feel make especially powerful arguments for why it is wrong to eat animals when doing so isn’t necessary to our survival.

Seven Reasons Why We Have NOT Evolved to Eat Meat, by Robert Grillo

How ‘Conscientious Carnivores’ Ignore Meat’s True Origins, by James McWilliams

Carnism: Why Eating Animals Is A Social Justice Issue, by Melanie Joy

Only When Meat Is Stigmatized Will Factory Farms Stop Thriving, by James McWilliams

I Couldn’t Give Up Cheese, So I Gave Up Animal Cruelty Instead, by Jo Tyler

Morality, Biology, Complicity: Humans Not Predators, by James McWilliams

The Importance of Being Vegan, by Angel Flinn and Dan Cudahy