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When It Comes To The Morality Of Meat, Nature Is No Guide


In her book Defending Beef, Nicolette Hahn Niman absolves the act of eating meat from moral inquiry on the grounds that humans have always eaten animals. She explains that a “food web” in which animals and plants routinely consume each other (yes, plants eat animals) places all life in “an endless cycle of regeneration.” As a result, she concludes: “something so fundamental to the functioning of nature cannot be regarded as morally problematic.” Please re-read that quote to make sure it sinks in.

This logic is sloppy, commonplace, and dangerous. Critics of vegetarianism or veganism routinely chant the mantra that humans “were meant to eat animals.” This comment has a “no further questions asked” tone to it.  It seems intuitively true and, unfortunately, for consumers otherwise inclined to question the moral implications of eating animals, it serves as a convenient escape hatch from a question many meat eaters are eager to avoid: is it wrong to slaughter a sentient animal for food when it’s unnecessary to do so?

By relying on the “humans were meant to eat meat” logic, Niman fails to examine the assumption upon which it rests. At its foundation, the claim implies that any adaptive quality that humans might have evolved to survive is, to quote Niman, “so fundamental to the functioning of nature” that it “cannot be regarded as morally problematic.”

The problem here is that evolutionary adaptation—the essence of the “functioning of nature”—includes untold morally disgusting behaviors that, while perfectly natural in the same way that eating animals is considered natural, are rightly deemed abhorrent by decent people living in a civil society.

Take infanticide. The adaptive advantage of infanticide for many vertebrates is well-supported. This is true for humans as well as primates. Among the !Kung hunter gatherers of Kalahari, about one in a hundred births end in infanticide. In regions of New Guinea, according to anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, infanticide is “off the charts,” as mothers who wanted sons (or whose partners wanted sons) will often kill their daughters.

Rather than accept this behavior as beyond moral scrutiny due to its proven “natural” or adaptive quality, civil society rightly rejects infanticide as a totally barbaric practice. The human corrective, according to many evolutionary biologists, has been monogamy—a civilized arrangement often deemed “unnatural,” but certainly morally superior to the alternative.

Another (admittedly more controversial) example to consider is rape. In 2000, Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer argued in A Natural History of Rape that the urge to rape is the legacy of an evolutionary adaptive trait (or the by-product of an adaptive trait, such as aggression in men).  Their theory (not surprisingly) encountered a firestorm of objection, much of it concerned that evolutionary psychology was being used as “excuse” for inexcusably horrific behavior.

Whether or not Thornhill and Palmer are right (their hypothesis is still debated), the regrettable fact remains that rape has existed throughout recorded human history, across human cultures, as well as throughout the non-human animal world. Evolutionary psychology, moreover, remains a powerful heuristic tool with which to understand the once (potentially) adaptive, if repulsive, mechanism underscoring rape.

As recently as 2013, a major peer-reviewed study has argued that, “forced sex is the outcome of an innate conditional strategy which enables men to circumvent parental and female choice when they experience a competitive disadvantage, or when the costs of doing so are low.” Other scholars are seeking to reconcile a feminist and an evolutionary psychological understanding of rape, negating the “men can’t help it” suggestion while preserving the evolutionary perspective that Thornhill and Palmer promote.

To clarify any misunderstanding on this point, the takeaway is not to equate the immorality of rape with the immorality of eating animals. Instead, it is to note that both behvaiors (one, of course, being far more common than the other) may have served adaptive functions that qualify them as “natural” and, according to Niman’s logic, beyond moral assessment.

Finally, take something much more common and less controversial: lying. From the perspective of natural adaptation, lying has likely been even more essential to human evolution than eating animals (for, as we know, some societies subsisted on plants, but lying has no plant-based counterpart!).

In Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, David Livingstone Smith situates lying in our evolutionary past, one in which strategic deception had clear adaptive benefits. Lying is thus perfectly natural in the same way eating animals is perfectly natural–it’s an act humans have always done to foster evolutionary adaption. But that hardly makes it morally inert in contemporary life. We don’t like it when people lie.

Which brings me back to Niman. Today, of course, we consider all of these behaviors, in varying degrees, to be morally significant. Nobody in her right mind would contemplate infanticide, lying, or rape and declare, as Niman does of killing animals, that, “something so fundamental to the functioning of nature cannot be regarded as morally problematic.” To the contrary, she would condemn these acts as wrong. It is on the basis of such condemnation that human civil society exists and, on good days, thrives.

Why killing animals for food we do not need gets an “it’s natural” pass is a question that Niman has yet to answer. Until she does, I see no reason to accept the naturalistic fallacy at the core of her justification for eating animals.





28 Comments on When It Comes To The Morality Of Meat, Nature Is No Guide

  1. John T. Maher // March 15, 2015 at 11:19 pm // Reply

    Missing from this very complicated discussion is the theme that in a variety of contexts, exemplified by but not limited to Niman’s comments, humans seek ways to explain away responsibility for their actions. The publicity surrounding the “short statistical repeat” (<18) of CAG (cytosine, adenosine and guanine) in many humans who commit crimes such as rape is an apt analog– it defers human responsibility. This argument is a form of misplaced teleology which in any context goes: if it is genetic then I have no choice and it must be permissible. This sort of non-logic makes me apoplectic. Someone should also mention Richard Dawkins and the selfish gene nonsense here but I grow weary.

    • Richard Hollis // April 8, 2015 at 3:44 am // Reply

      Good comment right up until the final sentence.

      It’s a common fallacy that the thesis of The Selfish Gene is that humans (or animals in general) possess a gene that makes them selfish, or that selfishness is genetic, or even evolutionarily desirable.

      In actual fact, all Dawkins meant was that genes behave ‘selfishly’ (ie, they seek to replicate at any cost) – sometimes even at cost to their own host organism.

      Dawkins has said that with hindsight he would have seriously considered giving his book a different title.

  2. Lisa LeBlanc // March 15, 2015 at 11:39 pm // Reply

    A personal theory: We evolved to eat meat because it was difficult to ‘gather’ when the trees and bushes were bare and the ground frozen in Winter. Meat might have become a ‘supplement’ to feed and clothe us when we lived at the mercy of the elements, but we’ve chosen to remain a largely meat eating modern society for the basest and most practical of reasons:
    We’re essentially lazy.
    For a good portion of the world, we’re no longer at the mercy of the elements. We live in temperature-regulated, free-standing ‘caves’, everything a simple matter of convenience.
    No one wants to go through the process of raising a cow, a pig and a chicken or catching a fish then engage in the necessary unpleasantness to slaughter and dress that animal, except people who do it as an inherent part of their lifestyle, or those who do so for pleasure (hunters and fishermen).
    So it’s just the path of least resistance to buy a pack of pre-slaughtered, pre-dressed dead animal parts. And THAT is a part of our culture; there really isn’t anything natural about it.
    Growing your own vegetables is time-consuming and can be frustrating, but it’s infinitely easier than raising an animal for meat. With seed packs still less than a buck, and either a patch of backyard or even a suitable pot less expensive and invasive, this, too, is indicative of the overall sad reality of a good deal of humanity. We eat meat because it’s easy. There is no natural or moral imperative to do so.

  3. janet schultz // March 16, 2015 at 12:05 am // Reply

    We are lazy. All the immoral acts are bottom line rationalized to hide those three words. We are lazy.

  4. Barbara Warner // March 16, 2015 at 7:02 am // Reply

    Leonardo da Vinci quotes … and the time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men.”

  5. Rhonda Lanier // March 16, 2015 at 3:49 pm // Reply

    Nicolette Hahn Niman is like every other livestock producer; she is in it for the money. Okay, I’ll give it to her and “the Ranch” that at least their animals are not raised in feed lots. But still, the bottom line is livestock production as we know it cannot be sustained on this planet we call home. Thank you for yet another very thought provoking article

  6. Charlie Talbert // March 17, 2015 at 9:36 am // Reply

    “I refuse to accept the idea that the “is-ness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the “ought-ness” that forever confronts him.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

  7. Are your examples equivalent? For instance, when I eat meat, I am nor eating another human being; whereas, if I rape or if I kill my child or tell a lie I am doing so to another human being.

    • James McWilliams // March 18, 2015 at 8:27 am // Reply

      Okay, but on what basis are you distinguishing the suffering of a human from the suffering of a non-human? Philosophers dating back to Bentham have drawn the line of moral consideration at suffering, not species membership. Doing the latter, in fact, has been called “speciesism” by Richard Ryder and Peter Singer–a bias on par with racism, sexism, etc. So, if the baseline is suffering, then, yes, my examples are morally equivalent.

  8. Your post didn’t speak to suffering. I was trying to understand and reconcile with my own experiences your reference to the naturalistic fallacy. But to answer your question: I don’t believe animals suffer if slaughtered ‘properly’. By ‘properly’ I mean personally. By personally I mean “I am about to take your life so that I can feed my closest and myself. Please allow me to do so” – and then when the moment comes, doing it consciously and with presence. Further to your question. I don’t believe that suffering is in itself inherently ‘bad’ or should be avoided. Instead I believe that you and I should open ourselves to suffering – for therein lies life or the experience thereof. Finally, I appreciate your reference to speciesism – although it cuts both ways in that I sense that humans need to be aware of what my son, Josh, refers to as anthropomorphism. As Hamlet cautions: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ Hamlet (I.v.167-8).

    • James McWilliams // March 19, 2015 at 6:37 am // Reply

      While the moments leading to a domesticated animal’s death at the hands of a slaughterer working “consciously and with presence” might be better than those experienced in a slaughterhouse, the emotional disposition of the killer–“consciously and with presence”– has no bearing on the suffering experienced at the moment of death or the fact that the animal’s life was taken for arbitrary purposes (assuming the slaughterer has other options for food). Even if the death blow itself was painless, the act still has moral implications because its utilitarian justification allows for all manner of troubling acts such as harvesting healthy organs from old people to save the lives of younger ones, etc. (ethics 101 stuff). Regarding your claim that suffering may not be bad, or ‘bad,’ I think you’d reconsider if you were grabbed by the neck, tossed upside down into a cone, and . . . well, you get my point. What you are saying, I’m afraid, is that another species’ suffering is not bad. Finally, Hamlet was a king, but he was no judge of philosophy. I appreciate your thoughts.

  9. Charlie Talbert // March 19, 2015 at 7:16 am // Reply

    Food is necessary for survival, but intentionally killing animals is not required for our food. Procreation is necessary for the survival of our species, but we don’t use that necessity to justify rape. Both killing animals for food and rape are done for one’s own sensory gratification, not survival. Would Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes have been less heinous if he had revered and respected his victims, if he had killed them “consciously and with presence”? No, but they would have been more creepy.

    • Hi Charlie, the way you put it, it could be deemed ‘creepy’ – except the actual process I attempted to describe wasn’t/isn’t. If what you mean by ‘food’ is nourishment then in my experience a diet that fully nourishes needs to be balanced and therefore should include animal products (eggs, meat and dairy). For me it’s not about what you term ‘gratification’, nor am I trying to ‘justify’. In this regard, I refer you to my earlier response to James.

  10. I have the utmost respect for vegans (assuming you are one). But in my heart of hearts I fear they do themselves harm. And I’m trying to understand this fear or this concern – not to justify slaughtering but in order to understand this process we call life/death, and my part in it.

    • James McWilliams // March 19, 2015 at 9:03 am // Reply

      HJM–I support vegans (and,sure, some do themselves harm but others don’t at all, just like non-vegans) but I do not consider myself one, at least not in a doctrinaire way. I think roadkill is a morally viable source of food, as well as insects and possibly oysters. Call me veganish. My real issue is with animal domestication, which I totally oppose as an artificial and harmful context in which to contemplate the life/death cycle that you mention.

      • Intriguing. Then what, in your view, would be a more appropriate ‘context in which to contemplate the life/death cycle’?

        • James McWilliams // March 19, 2015 at 1:38 pm // Reply

          I see the point of your question. Life and death are ubiquitous, so it appears artificial on my part to draw boundaries about where it can and cannot be explored. I think what I’m instead trying to suggest is that there are life/death contexts which operate amorally and others that come with moral obligations. The difference between the two, of course, centers on the involvement of the only species that has a verifiable moral capacity: humans. It would be silly to expect a wilderness sans humans to contemplate the morality of life/death. But it would be perfectly reasonable to expect humans in a micro-environment to apply moral standards regarding resources and capacity to suffer, etc. I sometimes feel this distinction is lost in discussions of our obligations to animals. People say, “animals have no obligations to us, or to each other, so why should we have obligations to them?” A little thought quickly reveals the danger of this logic. Thanks for the good questions.

          • James, you seem to be positing (and I’m also referencing your replies to Janet) 2 discrete contexts/realities/worlds but equal – to avoid speciesism: wilderness and human. According to you, the human is (or should be) parcelled and governed by what is going on in his or her head as in ‘morals must be articulated, evaluated and, recorded and taught over time and space’, and the other not. If so, you’ve lost me, as your model or way of understanding the world doesn’t corresponded with the way in which I experience the world as ‘red in tooth and claw’ (Alfred Tennyson), and where in my experience multiple states of being, actions and reactions are often the outcome of deeper processes, hence my earlier reference to there being ‘more things in heaven and earth … Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

          • James McWilliams // March 20, 2015 at 7:01 pm //

            I’m always careful to avoid creating a false dichotomy between humans and the natural world. As an environmental historian by training, I ensure that this concern is ever present in the way I write about human interaction with the natural world. So, if I posited two discrete worlds, it was the fault of poor expression rather than intent. To claim, as I do, that humans interact with nature (or in nature) in a unique way—with articulated values that enable us to create civil society that, ideally, minimizes violence—is not to behave in a speciesist manner. The discrimination inherent in the claim that humans are uniquely conscious moral agents is the same kind of discrimination in the claim that birds are uniquely flying agents (is that even true? anyway, stay with me). These qualities—the ability to fly and the ability to morally reason—come with respective responsibilities. Birds need to fly to evade danger, acquire food, and reproduce. Humans need to use moral agency to create healthy civil societies of (preferably, in my opinion) free citizens. The “red in tooth and claw” trope is pretty tired, in my opinion, and I suspect it’s used as a permission for moral laziness.

  11. janet schultz // March 19, 2015 at 1:51 pm // Reply

    What makes you think an animal does not give consideration at the death of another or that an animal has no moral obligation to another (even another outside its own species)? I’ve experienced times to counter those thoughts. While it is nice to look at each thread of a compassionate gesture your discussion fell flat at suggesting we are, as a species, superior and the only ones capable of moral decisions. Mortality is a universal weakness. Every being or life force comes to realize just how weak at one time or another. I am sure one of those realizations for every being is at the time the vulnerability to another outweighs the power to resist. At that time, suffering becomes a weapon in the hands of the discompassionate. Suffering is the loss of equality, well being and can happen in a short burst or be lengthened to torture. It is real.

    • James McWilliams // March 19, 2015 at 3:05 pm // Reply

      Moral consideration is different than consideration—animals routinely show consideration, but to impute morality to it is a stretch. While there is limited evidence of moral reasoning among upper primates, we need to keep in mind that morals must be articulated, evaluated and, recorded and taught over time and space. Humans are the only species to exhibit this capacity with any consistency. You suggest that such a quality would make us “superior.” Why do you assume that? Moral reasoning makes us no more “superior” to other species than a bird’s ability to fly makes her superior to humans. There’s a lot of confusing unique behaviors and speciesism in this comment thread.

  12. janet schultz // March 19, 2015 at 6:14 pm // Reply

    I wasn’t aware I had suggested we are superior in any regard. I believe we are at the very least equal. It is perhaps safer to say that humans tend to examine every conscious thought and action down to the extent that we devolve into chaos. Thoughtful consideration, in my mind, has to have a base in a spiritual world for which there is acknowledgement of its existence. Animals have a much better time with that coexistent presence. I broke my leg, my dog advanced step by step as I crawled out of the wilderness. Was that hour long activity responsive to her own need to be with me or was it a decision she made to resolve the ethical dilemna f tending to her needs or to mine (which at the time rose above sniffing and gamboling about as we had just been doing prior to the accident). I know was it was. I saw it in her eyes as the peace rose.

    I do not suffer from specism anylonger. I see the other than humans as beings – I just do not know their language completely yet.

  13. James McWilliams // March 19, 2015 at 6:52 pm // Reply

    Of course, as with any animal hobbled by domestication, your needs were ipso facto hers. Thanks for your sharing your thoughts.

  14. janet schultz // March 19, 2015 at 8:04 pm // Reply

    As I said, analyzed into chaos. I did say she subjugated herself to my needs; she made a decision to guard me – as any ethical creature would. Got to go now.

  15. Adam Barber // March 20, 2015 at 3:12 pm // Reply

    Fascinating discussion here. A lot of what has been said draws attention to our consideration of sentient non-humans. I now believe strongly that it is morally objectionable to “harvest” sentient beings for our pleasure, no matter how “humane” their treatment. I was not raised that way nor was a vast majority of the population. There is a lot of programming that needs to be undone in order to see things otherwise. Nicolette’s argument relies heavily on that programming.
    James, I’m with you on the oysters, but you lost me at road kill and insects. Just sayin’.

  16. James, as there is no ‘reply to’ button associated with your response <> I’ll use this window to thank you for your interesting and useful reply, to which I’ll give thought. What might help me is for you to explain what you mean by ‘moral laziness’.

  17. Hi James (and Janet & Charlie), long time no hear. I note my 2 questions to you (‘Why necessarily hobbled’ & ‘ … explain what you mean by “moral laziness”’) remained unanswered. Be that as it may. This is just to let you know that your post, a parallel discussion I had on Twitter and your article in Harper’s Magazine (‘Nature’s perfect package | Labeling our way to a clear conscience’) caused me to articulate my position in a related post where, inter alia, I look at some points you deal with in your post, namely, morals, speciesism, and the naturalistic fallacy. I also try to understand why I like Janet Schultz’s term and/or sense of ‘coexistent presence’. Hopefully you’ll find time to give it a read and maybe even comment. The post ‘Why I shall continue eating meat’ is here – http://www.hendrikmentz.com/consciousness/why-i-shall-continue-eating-meat/

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