The most popular and convincing arguments for the claim that vegetarianism is morally obligatory focus on the extensive, unnecessary harm done to animals and to the environment by raising animals industrially in confinement conditions (factory farming). I outline the strongest versions of these arguments. I grant that it follows from their central premises that purchasing and consuming factory-farmed meat is immoral. The arguments fail, however, to establish that strict vegetarianism is obligatory because they falsely assume that eating vegetables is the only alternative to eating factory-farmed meat that avoids the harms of factory farming. I show that these arguments not only fail to establish that strict vegetarianism is morally obligatory, but that the very premises of the arguments imply that eating some (non-factory-farmed) meat rather than only vegetables is morally obligatory. Therefore, if the central premises of these usual arguments are true, then strict vegetarianism is immoral.
The factory harm argument
The first argument for vegetarianism to consider focuses on the harm done to animals raised on factory farms. I take as my point of departure an agreement between me and the strict vegetarian on premise (P1): Factory farming causes extensive harm to animals. I use “extensive” in the double sense of large in both scope and severity. I take this point about extensive harm as so well established by the scientific and the philosophical literatures, as well as by popular media accounts, that we can simply treat it as common knowledge and a shared assumption. To review just a few of the harmful practices and conditions: To reduce the natural impulse of laying hens to peck at each other that is exacerbated by their stocking density in cramped battery cages, the first quarter or third of their beaks is painfully cut off when they are young. Meat chickens are raised in enclosures housing tens of thousands of birds, where ammonia levels are so high that many suffer from chronic respiratory disease. Pregnant pigs are kept in gestation crates so small that they can barely move. Male pigs and beef cattle are castrated without anesthesia. Pigs and cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse are packed on trucks without protection from the elements and without food or water. Many suffer, and some die on the way. At the slaughterhouse, cattle and pigs are sometimes shackled and hoisted fully conscious and kicking, before their throats are cut. These would all seem to be harms, whether, as David DeGrazia points out, one’s account of harm is based on pain, an inability to engage in species-specific functioning, or something else.
Consider now the next premise (P2): This harm is unnecessary. It is unnecessary in the sense that we humans do not need to cause it in order to gain adequate nutrition for healthy bodies and to preserve our lives. Simply put, there are other, readily available, perfectly nutritious, non-animal sources of food. I will not dwell on this point at all, except to say that it is commonly accepted in the field of nutrition on the basis of careful scientific study.
Combining these first two premises, we get the intermediate conclusion (C1): The practice of factory farming causes extensive, unnecessary harm to animals.
The next premise (P3) of the argument is: It is wrong (knowingly) to cause, or support practices that cause, extensive, unnecessary harm to animals. DeGrazia argues that this premise—indeed, the whole argument I am in the process of sketching—is consistent with a variety of normative ethical theories.
One need not be a consequentialist, for example, to accept it. I grant this crucial assumption for the sake of the argument. The next premise is (P4): Purchasing and consuming meat originating on factory farms supports the practice of factory farming. Therefore, we get the conclusion (C2): Purchasing and consuming meat from factory farms is wrong.
Philosophers have raised questions about some of these assumptions. I do not know whether the questions can be met, but I do think that this general line of argument, or something like it, lies behind the most common and strongest case that can be made against purchasing and consuming factory-farmed meat. So I shall just assume for the sake of my purposes here that this argument does, indeed, establish that purchasing and consuming meat from factory-farmed animals is wrong. What I wish to question is the next step that is often taken. This is the step from the conclusion that purchasing and consuming meat from factory farms is wrong to the obligatoriness of a vegetarian diet. It is apparently just supposed to be obvious that we are morally obligated to eat vegetables rather than factory-farmed animal products because eating vegetables does not harm factory-farmed animals.
Let us call the argument just rehearsed that starts from the extensive harm done to factory-farmed animals and that ends with the conclusion that we are morally required to be vegetarians—let us call this argument the Factory Harm Argument. I now show that this last step of the Factory Harm Argument is a misstep.
Factory farming and roadkill
I am going to argue, in effect, that the Factory Harm Argument presents a false dilemma. The argument assumes that the only alternative to eating meat from factory-farmed animals is to eat vegetables. That is just not the case, though, for there are alternatives to eating factory animals that avoid some or all of the harm to animals associated with factory farming. These are: Meat from humanely raised and slaughtered animals; (2) Meat from hunted wild animals; (3) Meat from animals killed by vehicular collisions, that is, I will not address humane meat or hunted meat I have partially addressed them elsewhere and (b) I think their cases are less clear than the case of roadkill, because only eating roadkill completely avoids supporting practices that cause harm to animals, whereas eating humane meat or hunted meat still supports practices that cause at least some harm to some of the animals from which the meat is taken.
The premises of the Factory Harm Argument, I claim, support eating roadkill at least as much as they support eating vegetarian. The Factory Harm Argument appeals to the extensive, unnecessary harm done to factory-farmed animals. We are obligated not to purchase and consume such meat because doing that supports practices that cause extensive, unnecessary harm to animals. So we are obligated to eat something else. Vegetables are something else. But so is roadkill. So the Factory Harm Argument supports eating vegetables and it supports eating roadkill, since eating both avoids supporting factory farms.
I need to head off some immediate objections by clarifying the sort of roadkill under discussion and explaining some of the freegan practices involved in its collection and consumption. Under discussion is the collection and consumption of large, intact, fresh, and unspoiled animals such as deer, moose, and elk. Most US states allow individuals to collect and consume such animals, usually after adhering to some reporting requirements to protect against poachers claiming that illegally taken game was road-killed. In some states, charitable organizations and government agencies have pioneered systems for collecting, butchering, and distributing road-killed meat to needy individuals. Not under discussion is the rotting squirrel or rabbit carcass that is being picked apart by vultures, or the mangled deer spread over several lanes of highway that is conjured in many minds when mentioning roadkill.
In this connection, here are some very quick statistics. State Farm Insurance estimates that in fiscal year 2010–2011 in the United States, there were 1,063,732 claims that involved deer, elk, or moose to all automobile insurance companies. Now “[e]stimates of the proportion of deer that are hit on roadways and go undocumented, and hence unreported, range from 50% . . . to more than six times the reported number." To err on the conservative side, let us just double the State Farm estimate, and take 2.1 million as a reasonable estimate of the number of deer, elk, and moose killed by vehicular traffic in the United States each year. Although elk and moose are considerably larger (and yield more meat) than deer, let us suppose that all of those animals were deer, that 75% of those deer were suitable for consumption, and that 75% of the meat on each deer was undamaged. Still estimating conservatively, a deer yields 35 pounds of meat. So that means that those 2.1 million deer would yield approximately 41,343,750 pounds of perfectly nutritious meat. One beef animal yields about 516 pounds of meat. So if those deer, elk, and moose (collectively “venison”) were collected for consumption, that would be equivalent to approximately 80,124 beef animals or 8,268,750 five-pound chickens per year.
Roadkill and Vegetables
So much for that. I claim to have shown that collecting and consuming roadkill is at least as well supported by the Factory Harm Argument as purchasing and consuming vegetables, since both refrain from supporting factory farming. I now argue that if the premises of the Factory Harm Argument are true, then we are positively morally obligated not to have diets consisting of all vegetables. Instead, we are obligated to get some of our protein from roadkill.
There is a questionable argument against strict vegetarianism and in favor of the consumption of large pasture-raised herbivores that was put forward in the philosophical literature by animal science researcher Steven Davis. Davis claims that the harm done to wild animals through raising vegetables is greater than the combined harm to wild and domestic animals through raising large herbivores on pasture. His basic idea is that in the farming of common vegetable crops such as wheat, corn, soybeans, and rice, many field animals are injured or killed when the fields are plowed and when the crops are harvested. These include rabbits, field mice, ground-nesting birds, even wild turkeys and numerous amphibians. For example, cutting a wheat field allegedly results in chopping up about half of the rabbits in the field and almost all of the other small mammals, ground birds, and reptiles. On the other hand, using the same amount of land to graze beef cattle certainly results in the deaths of those cattle as well as some field animals. In the cattle-grazing operation, however, it is unnecessary to perform operations on the pasture with as much frequency and vigor as is needed to plow, disc, plant, cultivate, and harvest vegetable fields. So, raising large ruminants on pasture will result in fewer animal deaths per acre than growing vegetables. Therefore, this argument concludes, we may be morally obligated not to have diets consisting only of vegetables, but to include some meat from large pastured ruminants in our diets as well.
The nice thing about this argument is that it uses the same harm principle as the Factory Harm Argument, namely, (P3) It is wrong (knowingly) to cause, or support practices that cause, extensive, unnecessary harm to animals. Maintaining an exclusively vegetarian diet supports a practice that causes extensive harm. The harm is unnecessary because pastured beef is an alternative food source, the production of which causes less harm. Therefore, it is wrong to maintain an exclusively vegetarian diet.
One less nice thing about this argument, as argued by Andy Lamey, is that it relies on some questionable empirical claims to support the calculations Davis uses to argue that the total number of deaths caused by a vegetarian diet is greater than the total number of deaths caused by a diet of mostly vegetables and some pasture-raised beef. Lamey does not dispute that a large number of animals are killed in vegetable production, but only that it is not clear that enough are killed to support the calculations that Davis uses to show that vegetable farming causes more animal harm than cattle grazing.
So, it is not clear that Davis’s argument for the obligatoriness of eating some beef is successful, but I have a variation on his argument to propose. Everyone seems to agree that extensive harm is done to animals in the production of vegetables. If only we could find a source of food that did not harm any animals at all, then we would have a knock-down argument for the obligatoriness of eating that kind of food rather than vegetables, because otherwise one supports a practice that causes animals extensive, unnecessary harm, which is wrong, according to (P3). I have it: Picking up road-killed animals does not harm any animals. Road-killed animals are already dead, so they are not harmed by picking them up as livestock are harmed by common husbandry practices. And no animals are killed in the process of picking up roadkill, as field animals are killed in the process of crop farming. So on the very standards of the Factory Harm Argument, we are obligated to collect and consume roadkill.
To recapitulate: Factory farming causes extensive, unnecessary harm to animals. By (P3), supporting a practice that causes extensive, unnecessary harm to animals is wrong. So, instead of factory-farmed meat, the argument alleges, we should purchase and consume only vegetables, because that avoids supporting a practice that harms factory-farmed animals.
I objected to this argument on the grounds that eating vegetables is not the only way to avoid supporting a practice that harms factory-farmed animals. Eating roadkill also avoids supporting factory farming. So the conclusion that we are morally obligated to have an exclusively vegetarian diet does not follow. I just argued that, if the harm principle is true that was used to support the claim that eating factory-farmed meat is wrong, then replacing some vegetables with meat from roadkill is morally obligatory. Once we see that roadkill is a harm-free source of food and that vegetables are not harm free, we see that the reasons usually given for strict vegetarianism support an obligation not to be strict vegetarians but to eat some roadkill.
Objection: straw person
Is it not, one might object, really only a straw person who would claim that we are prohibited from eating all meat under all circumstances? What if the philosophers whose view I am addressing responded that they only intend their views to apply to the purchase and consumption of factory-farmed meat and that they do not mean to prohibit the consumption of meat altogether? Indeed, there is decisive evidence for interpreting them as not claiming that the total abstinence from meat is a moral requirement. David DeGrazia, for example, is explicit that his argument does not focus “on the consumption of animal products per se.” Stuart Rachels, in his argument that most resembles the Factory Harm Argument, is clear that his “is not an argument for vegetarianism." We might see our way to excusing them for describing their views as “vegetarian.” For they are assuming, perhaps, that for the vast majority of people (in many industrialized countries, at least), the vast majority of meat available to them for consumption is factory-farmed meat, so for most people (same qualification) abstaining from factory-farmed meat practically amounts to vegetarianism.
In further fairness to the philosophers under discussion, some indeed do recognize that it is perfectly permissible by their lights to eat roadkill and other meat as long as one does not support practices that cause extensive, unnecessary harm to animals. Peter Singer has been asked repeatedly in interviews about eating roadkill. In 2009 he said he does not “think there’s any problem with [eating] roadkill.” David DeGrazia writes in a footnote to the paper from which I have been drawing that his “position does not oppose, say, the consumption of a dead animal one finds in the woods." Stuart Rachels similarly writes: “Perhaps you shouldn’t support the meat industry by buying its products, but if someone else is about to throw food away, you might as well eat it."
So on their view, there is not “any problem” with eating roadkill; their view “allows” and “does not oppose” eating an already-dead wild animal; and on their view you “might as well eat it.” So eating it is permissible. The concern I have with these ways of putting it is that they make it sound like eating these things is merely permissible: It is not forbidden by morality to do it, but it is not obligatory either. You can do it or not. From the standpoint of morality, it is a don’t-care decision, similar to the decision whether to tie your left shoe first or your right shoe. But clearly the strength of the premises of the Factory Harm Argument—and these are four philosophers who endorse arguments very much like the Factory Harm Argument—clearly the strength of their own premises makes it obligatory, and not merely permissible. For as I have taken pains to argue, if you fail to eat the already-dead animal and you purchase vegetables instead, then you are supporting a practice that causes extensive harm to animals that is unnecessary, in violation of (P3).
So if the position I was addressing were the position that no meat-eating is permissible under any circumstances, I could justly be accused of attacking a straw person, because these philosophers explicitly disavow that position. But I am not addressing that view. I am addressing their failure to make what I have argued is an obvious inference to which they are committed by their own premises. This is the inference that it is not only permissible in some circumstances to eat meat, but it is obligatory.
Reprinted from "The Moral Complexities of Eating Meat," edited by Ben Bramble and Bob Fischer with permission from Oxford University Press USA, © 2016 by Oxford University Press