Why eating animals is our moral duty

From Sunday Morning, 11:05 am on 27 February 2022

If we truly care about animals then the right thing to do is breed them, kill them, and eat them, says British philosopher Nick Zangwill.

Zangwill, a professor of philosophy and honorary research fellow at University College London, argues that eating meat is morally good and it is our duty when part of a practice that has benefited animals.

12638243 - cows on pasture near rotorua, new zealand

Photo: 123RF

While Zangill abhors cruel factory farming practices and some forms of hunting, he says domesticated animals ultimately get more out of the deal than humans, because the existence of those domesticated animals depends on humans eating them.

 Zangill tells Jim Mora New Zealand is "heroic" for having so many millions of sheep and argues the world is a better place that being so.

He eats a modest amount of meat himself and says that is part of a long, mutually-beneficial relationship between domestic animals and humans. 

“This just applies to domesticated animals," he says.

 "It concerns the animals we’ve really brought into existence by breeding them and we’ve changed what they are. They weren’t like that 10,000, 30,000 years ago. They didn’t exist back then and therefore in a sense we’re in a symbiotic relationship with them and they benefit us, and we benefit them."

If it wasn't for humans cattle and sheep would exist in a nasty and brutish state of nature, he says.

“If you look it that bargain, it’s a pretty good bargain all ways round. They get to exist and they wouldn’t have done otherwise, for those animals have decent lives."

He makes the distinction between factory farming and smaller-scale operations where conditions for the animals are favourable to their wellbeing.

“Of course, the argument is restricted to those and I don’t approve of the worst of factory farming." he says.

"But many animals, and New Zealand sheep for example, their lives are pretty good, and they would have been right, if you like, to contract into this, many thousands of years ago as a way of giving them a relatively decent life, although shorter of what it might ideally have been But a short life is better than no life at all.”

The end of domesticated animals' lives in the slaughter house is over-played and somewhat sentimental, he argues.

What ultimately matters is how the animals had lived in their environment, he says.

“The end of life is a sad thing for virtually all creatures that live. It matters how animals die like it matters how they live. But it is just a small part of life and it shouldn’t dominate with the drama in the way it does.”

The philosopher acknowledges however that our desire for meat fuels an industrial farming machine where animals live the opposite reality of a blissful experience in human-controlled nature, but this isn’t an argument for not eating meat. We should be eating less meat and meat that has been farmed better instead, he says.

The fact that 96 percent of cattle farms in the US are family owned suggests industrial practices are to some extent over emphasised too, he argues.

“Chickens get a very bad deal in a lot of this, but there is a lot of grazing. As long as they’re grazing outdoors and they get to things and live their own lives and they’re not in a kind of prison, that’s not a bad life.”

One of the more controversial arguments he makes is that we didn’t eat meat there would be a lot fewer animals around and this would be bad in the balance of things.

However, he still wants to see a reduction of meat eating and the proliferation of small-scale farms that do little damage to the environment. Under this system meat would be more expensive, but he denies it would then simply be a food for the rich. It would remain a matter of choice, he argues.

The aesthetic of the countryside would not be the same if meat-eating disappeared, with well-maintained hedgerows in France, for example, disappearing too, Zangwill says. Within those hedgerows are an array of wildlife, with the hedges as an important eco-system existing alongside domestic animals.

Zangill disapproves of hunting animals for sport, but with exceptions.

“Maybe if you’re hunting for a pheasant, which was bred for hunting, it’s defensible. Someone commented on my piece that there were game parks in Africa, where animals actually are wild animals that benefit from being protected and hunted, and those are complicated arguments. Yes, if the animal is a pest of some kind, like a fox, then it’s fair game. Or if we’re hungry and we need to eat them then it’s fair game.

“A lot of poetry from the ancient world valourises the hunter and it’s also respecting the animal hunted. I’m not sure if you’re a dentist from America and you go shot Cecil the lion just to stick on your wall to say 'bravo to you', I think that’s small-minded in a way.”

He is also in favour of educating children early about nature and its predatory realities, dispelling the many anthropomorphising myths that present a state of nature as a harmonious, gentle environment.

“A lot of animals are going to spend most of their lives looking over their shoulders and that’s no great way to live. So, I think a lot of the domesticated animals lives are a lot better than your average animal lives. They’re waited on by human beings, they don’t have to do much. We get rid of their predators. We provide them food, we provide them even romance.”

Zangill wants to preserve animal numbers living quality lives, even though environmentalists argue these are unsustainable and are adding to climate breakdown. “It’s good if you have a goodly number of those animals. I think New Zealand is heroic for having 40 million sheep, but it wouldn’t be good if they had 400 million,” he says.

“There are negatives as well as positives that you can add up about the environment. Maybe we need to tackle of the negatives effects on the environment, of course we do. There are ways to mitigate that in ways that would be good, but if there is damage to the environment we should also factor in those lives that are good.”