Can Eating Animal Products Ever Be Morally Justified?
Let’s be real for a moment: the way we live our lives is driving the planet towards extinction. Most of us know that humans are the main driver of climate change; scientists worldwide agree. Yet, what specific actions are responsible for rising greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and how can we change our behaviors? Fossil fuels are the main cause, but it is often economically difficult for many people to divest from their usage. Plus, this places the guilt and financial burden on the individual rather than on the corporations that are working to keep the current broken system alive. This often leads to a feeling of paralysis or a sense that nothing we ever do will matter or have an impact on anything other than our own lives.
Yet, that idea is blatantly false. Changing one’s diet can have a large impact on our own personal emissions and is more accessible than asking the layperson to instantly give up nonrenewable energy forever. Animal agriculture produces 14.5% of all anthropogenic emissions, making it the second-largest contributor of GHGs. By eliminating animal products from our diets, it is possible to reduce personal emissions by up to 70%. Still, many understand the environmental impacts of consuming animal products but do so anyway. Does that mean their consumption of animal products is morally wrong because they know the harm caused by their choice to do so?
Under philosopher Peter Singer's Principle of Equal Consideration of Interests (which is based in utilitarianism), this would be morally wrong. In his essay, “All Animals are Equal,” he argues that “the extension of the basic principle of equality from one group to another does not imply that we must treat both groups in exactly the same way, or grant exactly the same rights to both groups.” After acknowledging the existence of inherent differences (e.g. between anatomical sexes, between species, etc.), he clearly states that this does not warn against an equal consideration of interests. Rather, “each [is] to count for one and none for more than one.” It is wrong to prioritize one over another because Singer sees equality as a framework for how to treat others morally.
Accordingly, consuming animal products despite knowing the environmental impacts violates the principle of Equal Consideration of Interests because it ranks your own interests over others. The impacts of climate change on plants and animals are obvious: over one million species are at risk of extinction and 75% of Earth’s land has been “severely altered” by human activity. Letting our environment and the creatures that live in it fall subject to degradation, extinction, and irreversible harm is in no way, shape, or form considering them as equals. While the land and animals are different from humans, they still have intrinsic value.
Drawing on Jeremy Bentham's ideas of modern utilitarianism, Singer argues that, to determine whether someone's interests should be considered in decision making, “the question is not Can they reason?, nor Can they talk?, but Can they suffer?” Animals can suffer. As such, their interests and that of their home—the land—must be considered. The loss of approximately 13% of Earth’s species and the majority of the terrestrial land is surely suffering. Indeed, the entire biotic community suffers. Deciding to consume animal products despite knowing the repercussions does not weigh the interests of the environment and the decision maker equally. It is our choice whether we eat meat, dairy, and eggs.
Still, some argue that vegan diets are more expensive. For those struggling with food insecurity, highly processed food is often the only affordable option. Produce, nuts, and meat or dairy alternatives can be the most expensive items in a grocery store. This can make plant-based diets cost-prohibitive for many and would force others to make tradeoffs in other areas (such as housing or clothing) in order to eat plant-based. It’s said that those personal harms outweigh the benefits of a plant-based diet. Unfortunately, the negative environmental impact must be the second priority. Based on those points alone, I am inclined to agree.
However, comments like that don’t tell the whole story. They set up a false dichotomy where the listener is made to believe that they must choose between expensive vegan products or fast food. This is simply not true. Objections based on the aforementioned comments are unfounded because eating plant-based need not be more expensive—typically, it is cheaper than omnivorous diets. Pulses like lentils and beans are a key component of any plant-based diet. They are nutritious, high in protein, iron, and fiber, and readily available for much cheaper than meat. One serving of lentils or chickpeas costs, on average between $0.07-$0.11. In comparison, one serving of chicken or beef costs $0.67 or $1.07 respectively. And, tofu is over a dollar cheaper per pound than chicken breasts or ground beef. The money saved by reducing meat consumption can offset the higher cost of produce/other vegan swaps or be used for other expenses. It can be cheaper overall to follow a plant-based diet.
Even so, I will acknowledge that many vegan options are more expensive than their animal-based counterparts. In part, this is because the U.S. government heavily subsidizes animal products, with up to $38 billion each year going to the meat and dairy industries. Even more shockingly, less than 1% of that total is allocated towards fresh fruits and vegetables. This artificially lowers the price and obscures the true costs of animal agriculture. And, the impact of this price increase is seen most clearly in one specific domain: products that mimic meat. The average meat alternative—e.g. Beyond Meat—retails for $9.87/pound, over twice beef’s $4.82/pound. If a buyer wants the experience of eating meat, it is more economical to consume animal products. Even in our capitalistic world that equates money with morality, we must remember that economic value isn’t everything. This is especially the case when it doesn’t incorporate the true cost (in this example, the environmental and animal impact).
Opponents of veganism argue that food is not just about sustenance—often, what we eat is part of our culture and traditions. We may also have emotional bonds to foods containing animal products. Logically, we understand the harms of consuming animal products and might prefer to switch to plant-based alternatives. It is the cultural and psychological attachments that make abandoning those products difficult. A higher cost becomes yet another barrier to switching. Particularly for those without practice preparing them, plant-based foods lack the emotional satisfaction and umami-esque satiation of animal products. Trying to replicate that sensation with a plant-based product can cost double than with an animal product.
Yet, what if we shift the mindset? Veganism is often painted as something restrictive that takes away food options. What if we instead saw it as an opportunity to broaden one’s diet while helping the environment? By changing the rhetoric to focus on the benefits, it becomes clear we do not need meat replacements. There are plenty of other options to choose from—both those that mimic meat and those that are delicious in their own right. We can form new memories and emotional attachments in a way that saves money, our health, and the planet.
For example, assume a plant-based burger and a beef burger were the same price. You enjoy the beef one more, but understand that the plant option is more sustainable. In that scenario, choosing the beef burger simply because you prefer it would be morally wrong under Singer’s Principle because you prioritize your own wants over the good of the environment and others. Now assume you have little money to spare and the plant-based burger is prohibitively expensive to the point where the beef one is the only thing you can afford. In that case, where meat is your only real option, choosing it would not necessarily be wrong because you have no other way to survive.
One last point that is worth mentioning—it is crucial to remember that animal husbandry and agriculture aren’t inherently unsustainable. Rather, it is when these practices become industrialized and depersonalized that they become unethical and unsustainable. Indigenous people the world over have lived in harmony with animals for thousands of years—even though they may have been raised, in part, for consumption. For instance, many Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest identify themselves as Salmon peoples; food and culture webs depend on the relationships between the people and the salmon. A special report to the Pacific Salmon Commission explains that “respectful relationships with salmon and salmon ecosystems are passed to future generations through traditions, practices, and Indigenous science, to ensure that community health and wealth are sustained in perpetuity. These belief systems and practices reinforce an appreciation for salmon as more than a resource; Indigenous Peoples see salmon as family and relations gifted by the Creator.”
By viewing humans and animals as parts of a bigger interconnected system, there was not as clear-cut of a human-animal binary system as the West sees today. Widespread, large-scale consumption of animal products is a direct result of colonialism. The negative environmental impacts caused by factory farming and our broken food system are not the fault of Indigenous practices that have existed for centuries. While the addition of this point of view may make the morality of consuming animal products murkier on the basis of Singer’s argument, it is an extremely important one to include. Both viewpoints can—and do—coexist.
To the extent that consuming animal products is a preference or a choice, then it is wrong. However, when it is a necessity or done ethically and sustainably, it may not be. Without further examination of the individual situation, it is impossible to say for certain. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Under Singer’s Principle of Equal Consideration of Interests, eating animal products is wrong in most scenarios, not all. Why not save yourself the trouble of worrying about the ethics and just munch on something with plants instead?