Raising Meat

I’m a vegetarian for moral reasons. Animals raised for meat in this country are in general treated horribly (I think every meat eater should have some familiarity with factory farming of animals, since I think one should understand the consequences of a lifestyle one chooses). One question I’m occasionally asked is: is it OK to eat animals that you raise yourself in humane conditions, or that you hunt?

Clearly humans evolved hunting and eating meat, so it is in some sense natural. Obviously many other animals hunt and eat meat, but that is not particularly relevant since those animals are incapable of making moral choices. So one part of the question is whether something which is natural from our evolutionary history is therefore moral. I’ve argued in the past that the basis of our morality is our evolutionary history. However, it doesn’t follow that everything from our evolutionary history is moral. We are able to pick and choose. Observation of hunter gatherer tribes in New Guinea and the Amazon suggests that our evolutionary history included living in small bands and regarding people from other bands as subhuman others. We no longer accept that as a moral view–morally speaking, we now believe that all people are created equal.

Another side of the question is whether it is OK to use animals for anything. Some people have argued that keeping pets is immoral because it is unnatural for the animals. My view on that is that domestication is a choice. Humans have domesticated themselves–that is the choice we made in choosing agricultural and city living. I think it is morally OK for other animals to make the same choice, for all that they do it unconsciously. Some animals can not be domesticated–zebras are a well-known example. Some animals thrive on it, such as dogs. I think that keeping pets is OK, and, extending that slightly, I think it is OK to keep animals and use their byproducts such as wool, eggs, milk, and honey. That said, the details do matter: there are factory farms for dairy cows that are nearly as bad as the ones for meat cows, and that is not OK.

Would it be OK to raise a domesticated animal and then eat it after it dies of old age? Yes, I think it would. The only objection I see would be a sort of fastidiousness, the reason that we do not eat dog meat in this country. There is nothing wrong with that fastidiousness, but I don’t think it is a moral requirement.

Would it be OK to kill and eat an animal if you would otherwise starve to death? Yes, I think it would. I do think that humans have a right to life which somewhat exceeds that of other animals. This is a very hypothetical situation, though, and not only would it never happen today, it would be rather unlikely even in the distant past. For example, it’s not OK to head out into the desert with a cow and then conclude that you must eat the cow because there is nothing else around: you acted wrongly in heading out to the desert with that plan in mind.

This brings us to the real question, which is whether it is OK to raise a domesticated animal under humane conditions, and then kill it and eat it. This is close to the line between the morally acceptable and the morally unacceptable. Which side of the line does it fall on? It’s possible to imagine an animal making an informed choice to accept a domesticated lifestyle in exchange for an early death. Douglas Adams, himself a vegetarian, put a humorous spin on this in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. In the real world, in some species of mites the mother never lays her eggs; instead, the mother dies, the eggs hatch inside her body, and the babies eat their way out.

Since animals can’t make that informed choice, we must make it for them. What I see is that animals struggle for life even in extreme conditions. I don’t think humans would make such a choice, except perhaps when in the depths of despair, and at base we are animals too. I don’t think animals would make that choice either.

So my conclusion is that it is not OK to raise animals for the purpose of killing and eating them, even if you do so humanely. It is close to the line of what is OK, but it falls on the far side.


  1. dan said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 8:13 am

    I hadn’t really thought about the idea of animals choosing domesticity before. It’s an interesting point. I wonder, though, despite your conclusion that it isn’t morally acceptable to eat them anyway, if it is really fair to assign that much agency to their decision.

    As far as I undertand, dogs are ammenable to being domestic pets because they were bred to be that way. Admittedly without doing any research on it specifically, I believe that the modern day dog’s biological ancestors would be far more wild than what is running around Dolores park on any given day. The difficulty of keeping wolves and coyotes as pets certainly suggests this.

    The idea of breeding animals so they are both more suitable and profitable to be used as a food source (and this could include making them more genetically predisposed to accepting their domestication) is quite morally abhorrent to me and was my primary motivation for becoming a vegetarian in the first place.

  2. etbe said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 3:49 pm


    One thing that offends me is people who eat meat but who aren’t prepared to kill animals themselves. If killing an animal is so bad that you are not prepared to do it then you shouldn’t pay others to do so by buying meat!

    I prefer eating “game meat”. The animals used for the game meat I buy would have been killed anyway (much of it is from vermin), so it’s just a matter of what is done with the corpse afterwards.

  3. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 11:39 pm

    Is it OK to eat the meat of an animal which you were going to kill anyhow for morally valid reasons? I guess I’d have to go with “yes” on that one.

    I think it’s moderately reasonable for people to not want to kill an animal because of the messiness factor. Most of us don’t want to clean the sewers, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use them. But I do think that anybody who wants to eat meat should be prepared to point out the particular cow or pig or chicken or whatever they want killed, and to push a button to make it happen, and, at least once, to watch it happen. Otherwise there does seem to be a certain level of hypocrisy.

    I think it was Paul McCartney who said something like “if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everybody would be a vegetarian.”

  4. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 11:51 pm

    dan: I certainly don’t think that your feelings about domestication are wrong. It’s true that there is no agency involved, and when I discuss it in that way I may be stretching an analogy too far.

    My take on it is that, as I touched on in the post, we have domesticated ourselves in similar ways: to live in large groups, to settle disputes without violence. This was done, and is being done, without forethought. The same is true of the way in which we domesticated animals. Animals have indeed been bred consciously since then, but the original domestication was done without planning.

    I met a pet wolf once. She had been raised with humans since she was a cub. She was apparently pretty aggressive with some people, but fortunately not with me. (I’m really a cat person, but a friend of mine once commented that dogs always seem to like me. I think I just expect them to like me, and so they do. My daughter is unfortunately a little scared of dogs. I don’t think I ever was.)

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