Can our eating animals be good for them?

In 2010 vegetarianism was something I just did not get. Vegetables are gross. How boring to just eat salad all the time! How stupid to forego such delights as steak and lamb and duck. Mmmmm duck. Over the course of 2016, however, I finally decided that being a vegetarian is the right thing to do.

My relationship with vegetarianism has been one of small steps. In 2011 I had a vegetarian housemate and discovered that it means soooo muuuuuch mooooore than salad. In 2012 my boyfriend became a vegetarian and, spurred on by my endless desire to feed, I sought out more veggie-friendly recipes and restaurants. In 2013 I moved back home and introduced meat-free meals to my family. By 2015 more of my friends had converted and I now describe myself as a committed part-time vegetarian*.

My most recent step, accepting that being a vegetarian is the right thing to do, (even though I personally have yet to do it) felt like a big one.

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Just a few of my many delicious vegetarian meals from 2016

So imagine my annoyance when I heard about a talk by Oxford philosopher, Jeff McMahan, entitled “Can our eating animals be good for them?”

McMahan theorises a practice of ‘humane omnivorism’ that is based on three key assumptions:

  1. The animals would live better lives with our contribution. They would have ample food, protection and medical care, and die with as little pain and stress as possible;
  1. We have no pre-existing duty to bring these animals into existence and look after them so well; and so
  1. We will only bring these animals into existence and provide them with these superior lives if we are then allowed to eat them.

McMahan concludes that, in these circumstances, our eating animals might be good for them. He argues that causing animals to exist and providing them with a better life experience may have an overall positive moral impact, even if it contains a negative element (we kill them prematurely for our own gain).

I was not so sure and – fear not budding herbivores – McMahan did not seem convinced either. He acknowledged that this philosophising was in no way intended as practical advice.

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Can your eating beef be good for me?

What particularly struck me was that this at times convoluted reasoning was all intended to justify pure enjoyment. Eating meat does not save lives. We generally kill pigs around the age of 1 and cows at the age of about 3 (their natural lifespans are 15 and 25 respectively) simply because we prefer mince to lentils. And that is before we consider the environmental impact of meat production, which is considerable. This does not seem right and perhaps McMahan, a committed vegetarian himself, agrees.

Even with my part-time status I am an infinitely better vegetarian than I am a philosopher, and so inevitably some of McMahan’s arguments flew over my head. But he was an engaging speaker who made a lot of his complex arguments accessible even to me. He has a bunch of stuff available online on this topic if you are interested.

I certainly was, and 2 hours later I emerged from my first philosophy talk having taken another small step on my journey towards doing the right thing and being meat-free.

*Some people hate the interim labels: you are either a vegetarian or you are not. But I have significantly reduced my meat intake, I choose vegetarian food at least as often as I choose meat, and I consciously elect to consume considerably fewer meat products than the average omnivore. These are life changes of which I am proud, and I also think it is helpful to appreciate that you do not have to make a binary choice regarding your meat consumption in order to make a difference.

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