Does Animals’ Meat-Eating Justify Our Own?



Pieter Aertsen, “A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms,” (1508-1575)


I do not think that humanity can justify its mass consumption of sentient non-human animals. However, some humans try to justify it by pointing to the carnivorous behavior of other species. “If alligators and pigs consume animals,” these meat-eaters figure, “then why shouldn’t we?”

There are several answers. First of all, it appears that most carnivorous creatures cannot yet survive without eating animals. Perhaps that does not justify their aggressive behavior, and maybe humans should intercede for animal-carnivores’ unfortunate victims by restraining belligerent creatures and working harder to create plant-based diets that are suitable for carnivores’ consumption.

That said, we must draw a moral distinction between those organisms that need to consume sentient animals and the human meat-eaters who do not. Killing for survival is surely not so egregious as killing for pleasure, and humans who slaughter animals usually do it for pleasure (or what we call “taste”).

Of course, not all animals do need to consume other animals. Omnivorous pigs, for example, can survive on plant-based diets. It is therefore legitimate for humans, much like guardians who prevent toddlers from pummeling each other, to prevent pigs from eating other sentient beings.

But even if humans never manage to protect all prey from wild omnivores, humans’ own assaults on sentient animals will remain illegitimate. As we should know instinctively, other agents’ aggressive behavior cannot justify ours. If American parents tried mutilating their daughters’ genitals on the grounds that “parents in other countries do it with impunity,” we would laugh them out of the room. We would recognize there—as we should recognize here—that other actors’ failure to fulfill their moral obligations does not vindicate a similar failure on our part.

However, it is still possible that humans, despite their moral obligation to herbivores, have no moral obligation to those omnivores that eat sentient herbivores. For unlike herbivores (which eat insentient plants) and carnivores (which must eat animals), these omnivores needlessly inflict suffering on peaceful animals. Maybe it is moral, then, for humans to “punish” these predatory omnivores by killing and consuming them.

This line of reasoning, which essentially counsels the death penalty for non-human omnivores, should give us pause. Readers categorically opposed to the death penalty ought to reject the idea out of hand. For if it is wrong to execute humans who kill needlessly, then it is also wrong to “execute” bears, foxes, and whales that kill needlessly.

But even death penalty proponents should not support executing predatory omnivores. Capital punishment supporters moved by arguments from deterrence should realize that flesh-eating animals, because of their inability to understand the law, would not be deterred by the legal threat of death.

Death penalty proponents interested in retribution should be skeptical as well. Ruling it unconstitutional to execute cognitively impaired murderers, Justice John Paul Stevens noted in Atkins v. Virginia that executing somebody with a “diminished ability to understand and process information, to learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, or to control impulses” does not serve the death penalty’s retributive purpose. New York State similarly recognizes diminished guilt for offenders who “lacked substantial capacity to know or appreciate either that [their] conduct was against the law or that it was against commonly held moral principles, or both.” If only “the worst of the worst” deserve the death penalty—as eminent pro-death penalty scholar Robert Blecker argues—then predatory omnivores incapable of grasping the gravity and nature of their offenses should not be killed.

Granted, some literature suggests that certain animals do have the capacity to differentiate right from wrong. If people want to use that literature to try proving in a court of law that the predatory omnivores they kill deserve death, then they should be allowed to try. But if we permit the execution (and consumption) of predatory omnivores on the grounds that these moral agents violate other creatures’ rights, then—for equality’s sake—we must also be willing to execute (and feast upon?) humans who kill herbivorous deer, sheep, and rabbits. Maybe it is wisest, then, just to drop the retributivist justification for meat-eating altogether.

This set of excuses, based on the idea that animals’ predation justifies humans’ predation, may be tempting. Those searching for a reason to keep consuming animals might even think they have found the perfect alibi: they are doing nothing worse than their own victims do. Ultimately, though, other actors’ moral shortcomings cannot excuse our own, and subjecting predatory omnivores to a massive regime of capital punishment has scary implications that hardly anyone would accept.