Are Meat Eaters Committed to the Moral Permissibility of Cannibalism?

Posted on May 29, 2012 by

Since becoming a vegetarian two years ago I’ve come across various justifications for why I should see eating meat as morally permissible. I have yet to be convinced that any of these proposals are morally acceptable. Here, I focus on three main justifications for eating meat and offer some responses as to why I do not find them compelling. I will simplify the justifications and attempt to be as charitable as possible as to the different ways the meat-eater can respond to my concerns. These are only three of the many justifications I have heard and I will try to take on other justifications in the future. Most of the arguments given to justify the eating of meat can also be used to justify the eating of live human babies and humans with cognitive impairments. I’ll try to articulate why I find this to be the case in what follows. If I am correct it seems that the meat-eater is committed to the moral permissibility of cannibalism.

The first justification: (1) Animals taste good and they are dumb so I am justified in eating them.

Everyone that has talked about the ethics of eating animals has come across a variation of this sort of argument. An animals’ taste coupled with its diminished cognitive capacity justifies our consumption of it. I’m not buying it!

I offer the meat-eater this question; If I thought that humans were tasty is that justification to kill and eat them? One could appeal to the fact that humans are high functioning beings and say to me; of course not, Justin, you’re being ridiculous. Humans have higher order consciousness; they have goals, morals, and most importantly they have the ability to reason at a higher level than all of the animals we eat. This makes it the case that we ought not eat humans by virtue of them being a member of this higher order. My response – I’m still not buying it, here’s why.

Let’s assume it’s morally impermissible to eat humans because they are high functioning. Well, what do we say about the humans that are not as “high functioning”, how about really low functioning human beings suffering from any number of brain disorders? Can we eat them? How about babies—they barely function at all, at least not in the same way as we function and they aren’t reasoning the way other, older mammals are. Surely it’s not morally permissible to eat them, or is it? Further, does this suggest that any being that is higher functioning than another is justified in killing that being for food? If so, then it seems that higher functioning humans are justified in killing lower functioning humans. This seems much more radical than the vegetarians position.

So an attempt to appeal to higher functioning as justifying our meat-eating practices gives us some unwanted results. Mainly, that the people in our society with the highest brain function become more valuable than the rest–this seems flawed on many levels. Even an appeal to a threshold view, meaning that value is equal once a certain level of cognition is reached, still leaves us with weird results. New born babies and even children until the age of 3 do not function as high as a pig. “Pigs have the cognitive ability to be quite sophisticated. Even more so than dogs and certainly [more so than] three-year-olds,” says Dr. Donald Broom, a Cambridge University professor. An appeal to higher functioning or reasoning processes gets far too messy. We get unwanted results—this can’t be an appeal worth wanting. What follows is that we can eat lower functioning humans. But, one may want to bite that bullet—I am not one of those people, hopefully you’re not either. Now that we have seen that an appeal to higher functioning doesn’t work on its own to justify meat-eating it seems that we’re in need of a more robust form of justification, let us consider 2 more.

(2) A natural part of being human is to eat meat. Since it’s in our nature to eat them I am justified in eating them. Usually after hearing this justification you will hear things like “why do we have the type of teeth that we do if not to eat meat”? Ah, the naturalistic fallacy. This is directly connected to the ‘is-ought’ problem that David Hume made famous in the Treatise. Again, I’m not buying it!

Just because we’re equipped with the tools to eat an animal does not make it right. This seems obvious, but I’ll offer a counterexample to those that find it convincing; I’m equipped with the tools to harm a child or handicapped person, and if I decide to do it am I now justified?— Does me having the tools to perform the action justify the action? Surely one does not want to accept the baggage that comes along with this line of reasoning. Again, one may want to bite the bullet and say things like; men are stronger than woman, men have the ability to hold women down, therefore it’s natural for men to rape woman. The list of these outlandish conclusions is endless. So, unless you’re willing to adopt the baggage that comes with this line of reasoning it seems you’ll have to find different justification to eat animal flesh. Let us consider one more justification.

(3) Vegetarianism is unnecessary! As long as we don’t kill them the way they get killed in factory farms we’re justified in eating them. In other words, as long as their death is painless and they are not tortured before ending up on our plate then it’s justifiable to eat them.

While it does seem less objectionable to consume meat in this sort of way it seems wrong nonetheless. Again, let’s consider humans. If I grabbed a baby (or any cognitively impaired human being) while it was sleeping and injected a high dose of a drug that would simultaneously comatose, numb, and kill it, assuring that it would not feel any pain, would it then be permissible for me to do? Intuitively, I think most would say no (including meat eaters). And if so, isn’t the meat-eater being inconsistent? On what grounds is it wrong to kill another human being (especially those suffering from cognitive impairments do to bad luck or age)? Whatever answer one will give seems to be applicable to most animals as well. Is the meat-eater that appeals to one of the above mentioned justifications committed to the claim; it is morally permissible to kill and eat cognitively impaired and younger human beings because we like the taste of them, or because we are stronger than them, or because it’s natural for us to eat them – just look at our teeth (even though other options are available)? In other words, is the meat-eater committed to the moral permissibility of cannibalism?