My intent, as advertised, is to reflect on the ethics of animals, including our own variety, eating other animals. My further intent is to ruminate on the practical ramifications of the pertinent choices we make as the planet’s supreme apex omnivore, which I will argue reside substantially beyond the dominion of ethics altogether.
Before wading into this perilously fraught topic, a few provisos. First, the immediate impetus for this undertaking is a recent piece in the New York Times about the “eat what you kill” movement that was provocative and illuminating until the penultimate paragraph, when the light in question proved to be an oncoming train in the process of running off its rails. The author described the nature and implications of the trend, along with the general dispersion of nutrition into competing factions and passions, quite insightfully up to that point. Just before concluding, however, she declared that for want of proof, we cannot know that animals have emotions, nor that any given diet is healthier than another.
As a member of one species of animal with animals of other species fully integrated into my family- as is commonly the case in our culture- I robustly protest the first proposition as nothing short of absurd. Of course animals have emotions. If we cannot “prove” that dogs, for instance, feel delight, fear, anxiety, shame, or relief, then I rather doubt we can prove that Homo sapiens do either, since these, among other sentiments, are on equally flagrant display in both species.
I protest the second contention as a qualified content expert: of course we can say that a given diet is healthier than another. Whether or not we can say what diet is best for health is merely a matter of what we mean by “diet,” and a topic for other days, and different columns.
Second, I hasten to note that I am not a professional ethicist. But the questions attendant upon this topic do not all reside in that, or any given purview. They pertain to ethics, surely, but also to physiology; zoology; comparative anatomy; anthropology; history; ecology; biochemistry; conservation; evolutionary biology; and, perhaps, theology- to name a few. Since no one expert owns this entire expanse, I suppose I am as entitled to opine as anyone, for owning expertise in some of it.
Third, and finally, I recognize that while the dialogue in question purports to address ethics, it is inevitably as much about competing ideologies. Very few of the people I know with very strong opinions about the ethics of eating animals have any formal training in ethics (although some do). Few feel compelled to wrestle with the ramifications of their assertions across the spectrum of biodiversity, or the sweep of history either forward, or back. I have an ideology of my own, but will try to unbundle that from any generalizable conception of ethics.
Of course it is ethical for animals to eat animals. Or, more correctly, it cannot be intrinsically unethical. Animals have done exactly that for hundreds of millions of years, since long before a brain evolved that could ponder on ethics. If meat-eating came first, and ethics after, it is rather a stretch to subordinate the venerable ancestor to its distant progeny.
Further, some animals- both now, and in prior epochs- are obligate carnivores, meaning they are adapted to eat only the flesh of other animals, or nearly so. Such animals face a choice far less nuanced than the constructs of ethics; simply, they eat the flesh of other animals, or die without descendants, and consign their kind to the oblivion of extinction. If ethics pertain in any way to this scenario, it is only in the realm- for those who believe such things- of any sentient hand guiding the evolution of an obligate carnivore in the first place. The obligate carnivore cannot be unethical for eating the only food it recognizes as such.
As for that sentient hand, that is the purview of theology. Some might ascribe the consumption of animals by other animals to the fall from grace. Leaving aside the difficulties of situating this scenario before the Cretaceous era, during which there were already notorious carnivores, we may perhaps dispense with this entire tangent with our tongues in our cheeks. Imagine all the trouble we might have avoided had Adam and Eve skipped the apple, and just eaten the snake. Maybe eating apples is the ethical dilemma. Moving on.
The evidence is clear that our own species is constitutionally omnivorous. Various arguments are made in the literature on evolutionary biology and paleoanthropology on the exact significance of hunting, and meat eating, to human ascendancy; but there is no disagreement that it figured saliently in the mix. Whether our large brains evolved partly in response to our hunting prowess, or our hunting prowess was among the bequests of our beefed-up brains, we can be confident that Homo sapiens hunted since before the appendage of “sapiens.” Homo erectus hunted, as did Neanderthal.
Inevitably, then, the nature of our diet influenced the favored features of our physiology. The human gastrointestinal tract is characteristically that of an omnivore with an overlay, according to some, of specific adaptations to the consumption of cooked meat. We have owned fire long enough for the dance of it to scatter shadows in our very DNA.
These, to me, are considerations germane to the sifting of ethical imperatives across species and backward through time. What, though, of the history that lies yet ahead, and what as well of ideology akin to, but distinct from, ethics?
We know with abundant and largely unchallenged conviction that the ethics of the past cannot exonerate the future. Throughout much of history, warfare was willfully, transparently conducted with the most potent available weapons, for to do otherwise would be the foolish surrender of advantage. This can no longer pertain when our most potent weapons would devastate whole populations and ravage the planet. The ethics of war have evolved.
So, too, must the ethics of eating. I was rather amazed that nowhere in an essay on “eat what you kill” did the number 7 billion appear, as in 7 billion Homo sapiens and counting on the planet. For whom could this philosophy pertain? Picture its practice, if you will, by the citizens of Mumbai, or Beijing, or Los Angeles for that matter.
Arguments for eating what we kill, or the Paleo diet, or the resurrection of meat, butter, and cheese devolve into silly impertinence if they do not explicitly acknowledge the limits of their applicability in the world as it is. The environmental, habitat, biodiversity, and water consumption costs of prevailing human diets are alarmingly, glaringly unsustainable by the current human population, and that population continues to grow.
The argument for “eat what you kill” is ostensibly an alternative relationship with meat at its origins for those committed to meat consumption. In this, I only see benefit. Certainly fewer people would eat meat, and less of it, if only meat one hunted were considered proper. Certainly there would be, as described in the Times, a greater appreciation- and even reverence- for the sacrifice of a life to the sustenance of another. And while nature has always allowed for the consumption of animals by animals, it never before allowed for birth into incarceration and various forms of abuse in support of mass consumption and maximal profit. We invented these, and their ethics invite dedicated and dubious scrutiny. Eat what you kill sidesteps these liabilities.
Summary judgment about the ethics of animals eating animals may foreclose on the far more productive dialogue about how animals become food, now and in the past, and how dietary patterns impact the planet. Consider, for instance, the inutility of asking whether Hurricane Katrina was “ethical.” As products of nature, not responsive to preference or decision, storms are neither ethical, nor unethical; they simply happen. So, too, the advent of animals serving as sustenance to other animals. In both cases, however, our responses may be constructively scrutinized for their efficiency, equity, sustainability, and for want of a better term- humanity. There are reverberations in the realm of ethics, even if the original question lies beyond.
Dialogue is further hindered by assertions that fail the tests of common experience, and common sense. Of course other animals have emotions; as noted, they are on patent display in most households. I am by no means alone in making this assertion. In The Red Queen, Matt Ridley is nearly as adamant as I: “Almost all discussions of consciousness assume a priori that it is a uniquely human feature when it is patently obvious to anybody who has ever kept a dog that the average dog can dream, feel sad or glad, and recognize individual people; to call it an unconscious automaton is perverse.”
Further, it would be absurd to think that emotion evolved de novo in the human breast, having bypassed all our cousins. Only the most outrageous brand of Homo-centric hubris conjures such a view of ourselves in the mix of living things. Richard Dawkins, a singular expert on the interconnections of life, routinely decries such “speciesism.”
And, of course we know rather a lot about dietary pattern and health; claims of ignorance in this area are merely wishful thinking in disguise, or the projection of one’s own ignorance on us all. What we know argues for more plants, less meat in general. We may readily go further, however. As noted in a recent, thoughtful commentary, whatever complexities may reside in questions about meat for human health, there are none with regard to planetary health. We are indeed all well advised to eat food, not too much, mostly plants- if we are inclined to leave much of anything edible or drinkable to our offspring.
For those committed to meat consumption, eating what they kill may offer various advantages over eating what they find sealed in cellophane. But it is a niche admonition at best, impertinent to the masses of us.
The masses of us may nonetheless get in on the game. The weapon of choice, however, for most of the people most of the time- ought to be garden shears.
David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, FACLM, is the Founding Director (1998) of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, and former President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. He has published roughly 200 scientific articles and textbook chapters, and 15 books to date, including multiple editions of leading textbooks in both preventive medicine, and nutrition. He has made important contributions in the areas of lifestyle interventions for health promotion; nutrient profiling; behavior modification; holistic care; and evidence-based medicine. David earned his BA degree from Dartmouth College (1984); his MD from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (1988); and his MPH from the Yale University School of Public Health (1993). He completed sequential residency training in Internal Medicine, and Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He is a two-time diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, and a board-certified specialist in Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He has received two Honorary Doctorates.