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The Ethical Concern over Meat Consumption Term Paper

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Updated: Oct 15th, 2021

People are divorced from meat. They no longer consider it as food in its original form. This is because we pay others to kill for us so that we can retain the comfort of detachment. Pigs, cows, and sheep are seen as pork, beef, and mutton, words that no longer signify the living animal, but familiar, neatly portioned slabs of food in clean plastic-wrapped packages. We often forget that these foods were ever attached to living animals, and we do not think of death at all when we consider steak. This reinforces the perception that many of us do not recognize that our choice of food constitutes moral decision-making. In fact, our civilization has always had a firm belief that the choice of food, being mainly a matter of individual taste and health considerations, is not a choice that is morally relevant. This standpoint works well as long as we look at the whole issue from the eyes of an individual. But when looked at from a broader perspective, various ethical concerns that inform our attitudes and moral obligations towards animals come into play. The most unavoidable ethical consequence of eating meat is that an animal must die to provide the meat. For some people, that consideration is sufficient to dissuade them from eating meat at all. Others believe that the treatment which animals undergo in the production of meat and animal products obliges them never to eat meat or use animal products. Furthermore, some people eat only meat of animals that have been treated in a way meeting their religious approval before slaughter and abstain from the meat of animals reared in factory farms. In essence, the reasons for objecting to the practice of killing animals for consumption include moral issues such as animal rights, environmental ethics, religious beliefs, and an aversion to inflicting pain or suffering on animals. If we are to accept the vegetarian lifestyle, then we should reconsider our moralities about animals so that we reduce the amount of their suffering and give them more rights.

Historically, many Roman and Greek philosophers had for about a thousand years internalized the idea that it was morally wrong to eat animals. Arguing against ethical vegetarianism was Aristotle, who said, “plants exist for the sake of animals and brute beasts for the sake of man… Since nature makes nothing purposeless or in vain, it is undeniably true that she has made all animals for the sake of man” (Singer, p. 12). Aristotle was anthropocentrism from the fact that he believed human beings were central, and that animals had values that were only instrumental to the flourishing of human beings. Carl Cohen, in his book The Animal Rights Debate, argued that if animals are no different from human beings, “…then like all animals, it is our nature to kill any other animal which serves the purposes of our survival and wellbeing, for that is the way of all nature”. Though the two arguments do not perceive anything wrong in the consumption of meat, they have significant ethical defects in that no evidence exists to show that the original purpose of animals was to provide nourishment to people through their sumptuous meat as Aristotle and Cohen want to propose. Their arguments depend on the superior nature of human beings and fail to take into consideration the ethical concerns involved in making decisions of whether or not to consume animal meat. At best, such arguments can be termed unbalanced in that they only look from the human perspective and do not in any one single moment stop to ponder if animals have their own feelings and rights. By themselves, these arguments are not enough moral grounds to condemn animals as potential meals that do not beg for any ethical consideration. On the other hand, Rene Descartes held the view that animals are physical beings with values and feelings. He wrote to Marquis, “They emit their own peculiar cries, and employ them just as we do our vocal sounds” (Sapontzis, p. 13). In ancient times philosophers religiously believed that animals possessed a soul that was transferred to another being upon death. Hence, animals were clearly seen as sentient beings; that is they could feel pleasure and especially pain. As Plutarch, a Roman historian, points out, “…in what state of mind the first man touched his mouth to gore and brought his lips to the flesh of a dead creature, set forth tables of dead, stale bodies, and ventured to call food and nourishment the parts that had a little before bellowed and cried, moved and lived” (Sapontzis, p. 14). Like Descartes and Plutarch, the vegetarians of the early era had several reasons for their eating practices, including, on the one hand, a mythic belief in transmigration of souls, such that animals were past or future human beings, hence to eat them was tantamount to murder, and, on the other hand, the more plausible, and modern-sounding view that animals have feeling and can suffer, hence to inflict suffering and death on them unnecessarily is an example of cruelty.

Adding to the arguments of ancient philosophers like Descartes, ethical vegetarians further the argument that the suffering that seems unnecessary to accomplish some good is a basis for moral concern. James Rachels, in Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism, argued that it is vehemently wrong to cause pain to an animal unless there is a very good reason for doing so. According to Rachels, “The business of modern meat-production causes animals’ terrible suffering”. This can be reinforced by visiting some of the factory farms where animals are hacked to their deaths. The pain that animals go through in the slaughterhouses is worse than the pain a seasoned criminal can face through a firing squad. Rachels’ argument that has persuaded many to become vegetarian is so simple that it needs a little elaboration. It begins with the principle that it is wrong to cause pain unless there is a good enough reason. Quantification is important because causing pain is not always wrong. As James Rachels explains, “My dentist causes me pain, but there’s a good reason for it, and besides, I consent. However, causing pain is acceptable only when there is a good enough reason for it. Justification is required” (10). Opposing Rachel’s argument, Roger Scruton, in Animal Rights and Wrongs, replies, “There is a reason for the suffering of animals in the meat-production business… They suffer because we eat meat and it helps to nourish us”. Scruton provides a valid argument, however, we could easily nourish ourselves in other ways such as by adapting vegetarian meals which are a perfect alternative to prevent the suffering that animals endure in the meat-production business. Also, it can be argued that the benefits that humans receive from consuming meat are often negligible compared to the amount of suffering that animals are made to tolerate. The benefits of a meat diet, such as taste and nutrition, can also be satisfied by a vegetarian diet. For example, tofu is cooked to imitate meat in some vegetarian cuisines. Nonetheless, some people are reluctant to change to a vegetarian diet because they like the way meat tastes. The question, then, is whether our enjoyment of the way meat tastes is a good enough reason to justify the amount of suffering that the animals are made to undergo. The cruel methods employed in factory farms for the mass production of meat clearly indicate that the tremendous pain caused to animals is not enough to justify the good reason for taste. Steve Sapontizis expresses the cruelty that animals endure in factory farms, “They are confined to small cages with metal bars, ammonia-filled air, and artificial lighting or no lighting at all. They are subjected to horrible mutilations: beak searing, tail docking, ear cutting and castration”. To encourage high productivity and better meat products, animals raised in factory farms are abused to an extent that is unimaginable. In the food industry, animals are not considered animals at all; they are food-producing machines. Thus, one sees that the unnecessary suffering of animals in the meat business overrides any advantages of a meat diet. It seems that the majority of people have acknowledged the suffering of animals, thereby not embracing the idea of utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism has been used widely by individuals supporting the view that ethical concerns must be employed in our consideration of animals and their meat. Utilitarianism is the ethical view that a person should live in such a way that he or she contributes as little as possible to the total amount of suffering in the world. In his book Why It’s Wrong to Eat Animals Raised and Slaughtered for Food, Bart Gruzalski argues for vegetarianism using this principle, “Form a utilitarian viewpoint it is wrong to eat animals raised and slaughtered for food because the process of raising and slaughtering animals causes tremendous suffering that would not occur were people vegetarians”. Gruzalski implies that eating animals is wrong on utilitarian grounds unless there are better alternatives that outweigh this animal suffering. As already argued earlier, it is certain that the sufferings of animals outweigh the enjoyment of those who eat meat. Michael Pollan, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, opposes Gruzalski by arguing that eating animals is justified when they are raised on “family farms,” where they are humanly raised before slaughter. He claims, “The pleasures of these animals we raise would not occur if we did not raise them” (Pollan, p. 66). Although right, he further argues that “No alternative practice would increase the foreseeable amount of positive consequences in the world” (Pollan, p. 66). This statement is problematic for one crucial reason. The relevant alternative is vegetarianism. If we accept the vegetarian alternative and stop killing marketable animals, we would, according to the utilitarian principle, successfully reduce their suffering and even increase the “positive consequences” in the world by allowing the animals to live freely. Animals overall would be better off if humans did not raise and slaughter them for food, even on family farms. This utilitarian approach provides a strong argument for vegetarianism by convincing a person to strive to do things that would only bring positive changes in the world.

This is not what is reflected in the ground as many people ignore the suffering that animals are subjected to unwillingly in factory farms. This can stop if we are to accept a vegetarian lifestyle. Thus we give animals the rights that they respectfully deserve. There is no justifiable way to morally distinguish humans and deny animals moral consideration. Animal rights advocates do not differentiate between human beings and animals. The foremost reason why animal rights activists choose a vegetarian diet is because of their concern for animal rights. Despite strong ethical arguments for vegetarianism by animal rights advocates, it is not yet a mainstream position. More common is the view that we are justified in eating meat because animals do not have any rights which protect them from our eating desires. However, animal rights advocates think that we should change the relationship between humans and animals. They do not accept the notion that it is appropriate for humans to interfere with the lives of animals. They reject all human use of animals, whether for food or clothing. In his book Animal Liberation, Peter Singer, an advocate of animal rights, argues,If we wish to avoid being numbered amongst the oppressors, we must re-think our fundamental attitudes towards animals. We need to consider them from the point of view of animals who are most disadvantaged by our attitudes, and the practices that follow from these attitudes” (Singer, p. 213). As Singer proposes, if we can think from the viewpoint of animals then we may discover that our attitudes and practices consistently operate to benefit us at the expense of animals. In this way, we come to see that there is a need for animal liberation in order to abolish a kind of discrimination against this group. Another animal rights view was put forth by Tom Regan, in his book The Case for Animal Rights, Regan claims, and “People, as well as many animals, are entitled to certain rights simply because they have a basic understanding of the world and some sense of what they want from life”. Animal behavior studies have shown that animals are most happy when they are roaming freely or associating with their families (Weintraub, p. 12). Regan argues that it is wrong to deprive animals of these rights or for humans to use animals to serve their own needs or desires. Singer and Regan have used explanations of animal rights to win agreement with their belief that human beings should not use animals. Hence the suggestion that animals should pay for their freedom with their lives is morally illogical. However, this is a radical notion, given all the ways that human beings are dependent upon animals for life and livelihood. A human being has a notion that he/she has a compelling reason to use animals for medical research and other purposes. This is not fair and it shows the selfishness of the human being and their disregard for the animal kingdom that deserves equal treatment as a human being. Thus this notion needs to change and man starts treating animals with compassion, thereby taking into consideration their welfare.

Contrary to the idea of animal rights, animal welfare does not presume that animals have intrinsic rights, but rather that the interests of animals should be considered. Although there are similarities between humans and other animals, there are also many differences. It is not expected that humans and nonhumans should be treated in exactly the same way. The nature of the species must be taken into account. R.G. Frey, in the article Utilitarianism and Moral Vegetarianism Again, argues, “Even among humans, the concept of equality is not that of an actual equality of attributes. In fact, intellect, physical strength, moral capacity, and a host of other attributes vary enormously within our species”. Equality must refer to equal consideration of interests rather than to some absolute equality, which may not exist. The interests of two given beings might be quite similar or very different, but in fairness, their interests should be given equal consideration. This is not to say that one interest may not be reasonably evaluated as more important than another, but rather that no interests should be discounted unfairly. Singer examines the views of Ruth Harrison, a well-known animal welfare activist, “We must take into account the interests not only of human beings but also of animals that can experience pain and pleasure. If we fail to consider these animals’ interests, or if we give human beings special consideration, we are guilty of ‘speciesism’” (Singer, p. 213). Despite obvious differences between humans and animals, we share a capacity to suffer, and this means that they, like us have interests in not suffering. Hence, the idea of animal welfare conveys that animals’ interest in not suffering, and thus animals must be given fair consideration through abolishing eating meat to stop their pain.

Better still, there are those who use the moral status of animals in our society to argue for their wellbeing. It is generally thought only human beings make moral claims, however, when we ask why it is thought that all and only humans are the types of beings that can be wronged, answers are not particularly easy to come by. Humans are members of the species Homo sapiens. This is certainly a distinguishing feature of humans – we are hierarchically better evolved to make moral decisions. Roger Scruton suggests that there is a big difference between us and animals, a difference worthy of respect and cultivation. He argues that human beings have a special “ingredient” that puts them in a different category than animals (Scrouton, p. 14). Respect for this ingredient provides a reason for people to respect animals. One can argue that because we consider animals to be a-moral beings and because they cannot question their actions like humans can, we are considered to be superior beings in relation to animals. It is exactly this superiority that makes us unique and is what makes us have a greater, and not a lesser, responsibility to these a-moral beings. Scruton argues “even if animals do not possess mental capacity as humans do, it is morally unacceptable to exploit them, just as it is morally unacceptable to subject the mentally handicapped humans to medical experimentation or product testing”. Moral philosophers have noted that one’s views about the moral status of animals often depend on how one responds to the question: “What capacities must a being have if we are to have duties to it?” (Regan, p. 8). In other words, before one can decide if animals deserve moral concern, one must first decide why anything deserves moral concern. In this case, if we decide that only fellow humans deserve moral concern then our stance is unjustified. There would be nothing fundamentally immoral, according to this moral rationalism, about torturing a non-rational person. If only rational beings were proper objects of moral concern, then torturing a person in late-stage Alzheimer’s disease would be wrong only if it made one also want to torture a rational person. If we wish to maintain the view that no conscious human beings, including those with intellectual disabilities, can be used in ways harmful to them solely as a means to another’s end, then we have to extend the boundaries of this principle beyond our own species to other animals that are conscious.

Most ethical vegetarians compare the killing of animals of a meal with killing humans for the same reasons. The singer came up with a list of qualities that should be considered under utilitarian ethics when it comes to meat consumption. In his arguments, he came up with the widely held belief that no animal wants to die if it is given a chance of decision making. Just like humans suffer and are saddened by the departure of their loved ones, “the family and friends of that animal will suffer as a result of the animal being slaughtered” (Singer, p. 26). By killing animals prematurely, their future enjoyment as free animals that enjoy living is deeply curtailed. According to Singer, “animals experience varying levels of fear and pain in the process of being killed”. As such, killing an animal must only be justified in very extreme circumstances according to ethical vegetarians. To them, killing an animal for the purposes of enjoying the sumptuous taste or its nutritional value is an insufficient cause, and therefore morally undesirable. Individuals must establish higher standards when it comes to the treatment of animals (Sandy 2004). This is very true when it comes to some animals that solely depend on people for their survival. It would appear unjustified and brute for an animal to keep its whole trust in an individual only for that individual to turn his back against the animal and devour it in the most inhumane manner possible. This argument can further be reinforced by the view that human infants are mentally challenged and on the same equal footing with many non-human animals in terms of affective and cognitive capacities yet individuals do not nurture and kill their own children for the sole purposes of satisfying their appetite for meat (Sapontzis 39). This view is used effectively to add weight to the fact that animals should not be slaughtered due to the very fact that they are semi-irrational entities. They need to be handled with care just like we take care of our semi-irrational newborns. Hence our attitudes towards animals are unjustified in that we do not give them the same treatments that we give to our infants.

If one recognizes that we also have moral responsibilities towards the animals, then there are plenty of moral reasons to pursue vegetarianism. While most people do not have ethical issues with eating meat, many people consider the production, subsequent slaughtering, and consumption of meat or animal products as unethical. The issue of animals and ethics is a philosophical issue mainly due to the fact that common sense thinking is deeply divided on it. Animals exist on the borderline of our moral concepts and the result is that we sometimes find ourselves giving them a strong moral status, while at others denying them any kind of moral status at all. However, on the basis of animal suffering, the utilitarian principle, animal rights, and welfare one see that vegetarianism is the only moral viewpoint that is justified.

Works Cited

  1. Clark, Stephen R. Animals and Their Moral Standing. New York: Routledge, 1997.
  2. Cohen, Carl. The Animal Rights Debate. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, Incorporated, 1955.
  3. Frey, R. G. “Utilitarianism and Moral Vegetarianism Again: Protest or Effectiveness?” Journal of Contemporary Religion 27 (2005): 145-195.
  4. Gruzalski, Bart. Why It’s Wrong to Eat Animals Raised and Slaughtered for Food. Trans. Carmen Garcia Trevijano. Madrid: Tecnos, Editorial S.A., 2002.
  5. Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma : A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin P HC, The, 2006.
  6. Rachels, James. Created from Animals : The Moral Implications of Darwinism. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
  7. Rifkin, Jeremy. Beyond Beef : The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture. New York: Plume, 1993.
  8. Sapontzis, Steve F., Food for Thought : The Debate over Eating Meat. New York: Pyr Books, 2004.
  9. Scruton, Roger. Animal Rights and Wrongs. New York: Claridge P, 2000.
  10. Singer, Peter Albert. Animal Liberation. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
  11. Weintraub, Eileen. “The Souls of Animals.” Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians.
  12. Meat Ethics
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