Here is an ethical argument I have been pondering recently:
- Most people, if forced to witness the entire process through which a piece of meat is produced, would choose not to eat the meat.
- Some people are never put off by this because it never occurs to them to think about, or they have a notion of where meat comes from that is quite at odds with reality.
- Some people are aware of where most of our meat really comes from, but choose to ignore this because they want to eat meat anyhow.
- Therefore, meat eating in our society is usually the product of true ignorance or wilful ignorance.
I can only see two responses to this argument: questioning the first point or saying that the conclusion is true but unimportant. You could argue that we find the way in which animals are raised and slaughtered unappealing simply because we aren’t used to it. We don’t generally visit factory farms or abattoirs. We rarely even go to butchers with recognizable animals on display. Arguably, we are simply queasy at an unfamiliar sight, rather than genuinely morally repulsed.
That counter-argument has strength, to a degree. I think it can be applied pretty effectively in the case of a meat production chain that doesn’t require large amount of animal suffering and isn’t worrisomely unhygenic. As I have argued before, however, the industrial meat system is both. I maintain that most people forced to sit in a jury on the question – presented with evidence and arguments on both sides – would conclude that considerable animal suffering occurs in the production of the meat people eat, and that factory farming is profoundly unhygienic from the perspective of the animals, those who eat their meat, and the environment as a whole.
So what about the argument that meat eating is ignorant, but that this doesn’t matter? Perhaps it isn’t wrong to act on the basis of ignorance. While true ignorance seems more defensible than the wilful sort, we cannot automatically assume that it is wrong to act on the basis of misinformation, or even intentionally suppress information we feel will inhibit our actions. Alternatively, a utilitarian might say that the net utility of meat eating is greater than that of vegetarianism or veganism – though that becomes a lot harder to argue if the utility of the animals is considered as well. People dead-set upon arguing the appropriateness of eating meat will be able to find a detour around this argument that suits them well enough for them to dismiss it. For those a bit more open-minded from the outset, I think it creates relatively profound problems.