Can we justify killing animals for food?

“Given cattle are major producers of greenhouse gases, on balance, it would be better if they didn’t exist”

Is it right to kill animals for food? And if it’s wrong, how wrong is it? Could and should Western society ever change its views?

Four philosophers share their views with BBC Radio 4’s Analysis programme.

Peter Singer: Our future selves will consider meat eating to be barbaric

Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University and the author of Animal Liberation.

“You could say that if you kill a cow you’re depriving it of the rest of its existence, which could also have been a happy, good existence, so why deprive it of that just because you want to eat some meat when you’ve got other healthy, nutritious, delicious things that you could also eat?

“The counter-argument is this cow would not have existed if we had not already planned in advance that at some point we would kill it and we would sell the meat, because obviously it costs something to rear a cow, and we can only meet that cost if we are going to kill it.

“So in a sense the cow could thank us for her existence – at least she has some existence rather than none.

“If a cow is killed that will make it possible for another cow to come into existence who will have a good life, and if the first cow were not killed it would not be possible for the other cow to come into existence.

“So yes, this cow standing in front of us will lose the rest of her life, but that loss is replaced by bringing the other cow into existence and the other cow will also have that happy life.

“In theory – other things being equal – I do buy that argument. I say in theory because I think it’s very hard to produce circumstances where that actually occurs and there aren’t other undesirable side effects. Given the animals in our food supply are mostly cattle and sheep, and they are major producers of greenhouse gases, I think on balance, it would be better if they didn’t exist.

“I think we’ll come to view [eating meat] in the way we now look back on the Roman games; having crowds of enthusiastic people cheering on the lions as they slaughtered the Christians or gladiators fighting each other to the death.

“The last time I intentionally ate meat was 1971. I grew up eating a lot of meat in Australia and I liked it, but I really haven’t missed it for a long time.”

Elizabeth Harman: A moral mistake but not morally wrong

Elizabeth Harman is associate professor of philosophy in human values at Princeton.

“The kind of moral picture that I would urge is one in which we think about whether we can justify our treatment of individuals. If you’re going to do something terrible to a particular morally significant individual, how can that be justified?

“Animals have moral status, and animal suffering matters because it’s a harm to something that counts morally. Killing an animal harms the animal. We’re actively doing something that deprives it of future life.

“One way of thinking about how to justify an action is what could you say to the one that you’re harming? That works very well with people. It works less well with cows who can’t understand justifications.


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