Guest Post: No, We Don’t Owe It To The Animals to Eat Them

Nick Zangwill’s argument hinges on the anticipated pleasure of hypothetical animals – future animals – that will someday exist because of animal breeding for meat production. The idea is that ‘having a life’ is better than ‘not having a life’, and life, if only temporarily, is what we grant those animals when we breed them only to be eaten. Because there are animals that in some sense exist only because of the meat industry, and that existence is valuable in and of itself (under certain conditions to which I will respond below), we “owe it to the animals to eat them”, says Zangwill.
Here’s one idea for how Zangwill might try salvage the argument: it is one’s past intention to create a life that makes it morally right to terminate that life at one’s will. That’s hardly convincing. Consider this: are parents morally permitted to slaughter their children? Their existence is premised on an intentional act of creation on the side of the parents, after all. What if someone ‘breeds’ puppies to use them as firewood replacement? Imagine the puppies have a good life by the standards of what constitutes a good puppy-life, but their existence’s sole purpose is to be pushed into the furnace at some arbitrarily chosen time? The fact that Zangwill has to resort to all sorts of caveats for why, for instance, dogs, albeit in some sense bread solely for human purposes, should not be consumed highlights that what’s flawed with Zangwill’s argument: certain forms of human intentionality influencing the process of creating life doesn’t warrant the moral permissibility of ending this life at humans’ will.
That eating animals constitutes a harm has by now largely leaked into public opinion. Only rarely do meat eaters deny that. Those who deny it usually do so on the grounds of an assumed variance in consciousness or ability to suffer between human and non-human animals. Hardly anyone, however, has the audacity to argue that killing animals actually does them good, and that therefore we must continue eating meat and consuming animal products. Hardly anyone apart from UCL philosopher Nick Zangwill, that is, who in a recent article published in Aeon argues that “eating animals’ benefits animals for they exist only because human beings eat them”. One’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens, right? Let me unpack and debunk his argument.
Imagine there’s an animal that exists only for the purpose of meat consumption. Were there no meat industry, that animal would never have existed. What if by mere chance this animal dies a natural death at old age? What if by mere chance it ends up not being eaten. In what sense has this animal been harmed? Do we really owe the animal the ‘pleasure’ of untimely death? This is what Zangwill wants us to believe.
Maybe Zangwill thinks that a life which’s sole purpose is death at some human’s hand is a life is worth living, and it is precisely that life which ends in the slaughterhouse which, according to Zangwill utilitarian calculus, must be maximised. This life of the livestock then is not only worth living (even if unnecessarily limited in time), but also, according to Zangwill, worth bringing about. But is the life of a livestock, a life that is terminated at some others’ arbitrary will really worth living? Even if it were, wouldn’t the life of livestock be manifoldly better without the doom of ultimate death at the hands of a human? We can, after all, decide whether an animal which was (granting the validity of the first premise of Zangwill’s argument) in fact supposed to be slaughtered, whose existence is in some sense conditional on humans’ desire for meat, actually be slaughtered or not. There’s an is-ought gap here: even though some animals do in some sense exists solely for the sake of meat consumption it doesn’t follow that those animals should be slaughtered and their flesh consumed. There is nothing essentialist about life as a livestock. We can imagine livestock to live a life not premised on untimely death, and that doesn’t constitute a harm done to the animal, does it? We don’t owe animals their death. Why would the author think otherwise?
I will now dissect Zangwill’s argument into its components. First, let’s have a look at the idea that a possible life – i.e., the life of an animal existing in the future – has actual moral valence. Basing one’s arguments on hypothetical future existence – possible people, for example – is a common practice in moral philosophy. For instance, when we consider the effects of climate chance, moral philosophers urge us to anticipate the moral responsibility we have towards people living in the future. Because we have a certain responsibility to our great-grandchildren, the argument goes, we must act now to reduce carbon emissions and avoid climate catastrophe. That’s all fine as an argument. Zangwill’s point, however, is not whether we should consider preventing future disaster for the sake of the wellbeing of future animals. The author’s point is that we should breed and kill animals for the sake of gustatory satisfaction, for that maximises existence – as in, there will be animals that wouldn’t otherwise, without incentive form the meat industry, exist – and maximising existence – ‘net life’ – is good. The only caveat: existence has to pass certain thresholds of what constitutes the good life, such as not being tortured; a standard of ‘goodness’ the life of most farmed animals will not meet. But assuming some animal’s life passes the ‘goodness’ test, if ‘net life’ is to be maximised, then why kill animals at some arbitrary point in time? Since Zangwill concludes that we owe the animals their death, maximising ‘net life’ cannot be what motivates the argument. What else does?
Zangwill calls “human beings a rare light in the darkness of the animal kingdom (for they) nurture some animals in order to eat them”. I call this a cruel practice. Suggesting that “vegetarians and vegans are the natural enemies of domesticated animals that are bred to be eaten” is a slap in the face of animal welfare activists who have struggled to point out what should be uncontroversial: that animal life without the doom of premature slaughter is preferable to an existence with the sole purpose of supplying meat. Sometimes, a modus ponens just shouldn’t be turned into a modus tollens.
Written by Adrian Kreutz, New College, University of Oxford
The author also seems to have anticipated the rebuttal above, arguing that humans and non-human animals have different moral worth, grounded in different claims to rights perhaps, so that even unconscious humans have moral value different (and greater than, I suppose) to non-human animals. There’s too much going here for me to unpack it carefully enough. Suffice it to say, the animals-don’t-have-rights line is unconvincing. We can always, in form of an open-question argument, ask a follow-up normative question, ‘Should animals have rights?’. Imagine a world in which we no longer draw lines of rights (or the lack thereof) between races, genders, and yes, species…
Anticipating objections like ‘You wouldn’t do that to humans either’, Zangwill forestalls that “there are no human beings who owe their existence to a cannibalistic meat-eating practice. And even if there were, they could survive without it, if liberated, which is radically unlike domesticated animals”. But how does that imply that we are permitted – or even encouraged – to eat animals otherwise unable to survive ‘in the wild’? Why not care for those animals, for that’s what we should be expected to do when humans are, for whatever reason, old age or disability, unable to survive in the wild? One’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens.