I have been reading a little bit about the problem of consuming meat ethically.

As much as I find the ethical argument compelling I have some reservations regarding the inconsistency with which it is often applied. Imagine we decide all to go vegan, and soon enough a new scientific consensus is reached that plants can also experience pain. What do we do then?

In this scenario, consuming plants would be incompatible with the principle of trying to avoid unnecessary suffering given our current agricultural practices.

So the ethical argument for stopping meat consumption seems to me an example of sentiocentrism. Do we need to reframe the debate to include non-sentient beings?

Perhaps focus on the stability of the ecosystem?

  • 6
    Most of this reads like a fairly-opinionated answer to the question -- consider reframing the question a bit more neutrally and then providing some of this content as an answer?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 18:56
  • Thanks, it's so hard to be neutral, I will try to improve it so please bear with me. Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 19:01
  • 1
    @pgpb.padilla Interesting question: I would remove the "should" from the title, that makes it an opinion based question by definition. I would also look for some previous questions on the ethics of vegetarianism and on the definition of sentience and then reframe the question with those results in mind. Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 19:59
  • @AlexanderSKing What do you think about : What is the focus of the debate about the ethics of meat consumption? Then I could mention that currently it seems that there are at least two camps, camp 1) those who focus on suffering and; camp 2) those who focus on stability of the ecosystem. Would that make the question better? Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 22:03
  • 1
    Pain is to be avoided. Peter Singer does argue that if an animal is able to feel pain, there is nothing to say against killing it as long as it does without pain. And sentient beings should not be killed because they have a prospective towards their future that would be denied. I do not see any not highly subjective aspect in this question.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 22:21

6 Answers 6


In this scenario, consuming plants would be incompatible with the principle of trying to avoid unnecessary suffering given our current agricultural practices.

If consuming plants caused suffering, such suffering wouldn't be unnecessary, at least not to staying alive and healthy for the consumer. We know that we can live long, healthy, happy lives as vegans. We likely cannot do the same if a significant portion of edible plants are also forbidden. Thus your thought experiment provides a false analogy.

In any case, the aim is to reduce suffering, not necessarily to reduce it to zero. Veganism clearly achieves that goal, even if plants suffer, for two reasons:

  1. A non-vegan diet causes the death and suffering of many more plants than a vegan diet, since growing animals requires feeding them many plants.
  2. It is extremely unlikely that the ability of a plant to suffer would be the same as that of an animal, so it makes sense to focus on animals more.

This is my first contribution to philosophy stackexchange - I hope I comply with community rules, please do let me know if I should edit my answer.

You suggest at the end of your post that ecosystem stability could be an alternative focus. I would suggest that the debate has already partly shifted in this direction with a growing focus on the associated carbon emissions of a meat based diet. (One example - a 2012 UN report on this issue)

So certainly some of the debate on the ethics of eating meat will be strongly related to the ethics of climate action. [not an area I am familiar with, perhaps someone else can provide a reference?]

However, from the wording of your question I think you might be more interested in sentiocentrism and ecosystem stability as a framework for ethically deciding what plants should and shouldn't be eaten by humans.

This is not a direct answer to that but there has been research on different methods of farming and the associated benefits to biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. I am thinking specifically of organic farming and the permaculture movement. This might be a good place for you to start thinking about this further.


See here re: Animal Minds and a counter-example to Hume's Guillotine then formulate desire-independent reason(s) for action based on an argument you can advance. Lastly, you'll want to use Rawl's Veil of Ignorance and apply it to those animal minds. I've heard that even plants have feelings...

Perhaps focus on the stability of the ecosystem?

The environmental consequences from industrial meat production is a great subject to investigate as it pertains to your position. You might even figure out a better way, just like Temple Grandin.

So the ethical argument for stopping meat consumption seems to me an example of sentiocentrism.

In short order, as it seems that way to you how will you analyze this idea? Will you examine and articulate sentiocentrism then argue against or in favor of it? Will you argue for or against your own position as informed by your investigation which explicitly states the case of sentiocentrism? Will you argue your case by simply articulating your feelings or expressing your feelings in a poem? Will you limit your examination to examining the merits of sentiocentrism only as you understand the term, or will you reference others that have written regarding related concepts? Will you counter the positions you are unsure of by supposing the impossible and hyperbolic for counter-examples? Will you examine policy? Will you express the conclusions of your investigation by using the language of should and ought instead of simply stating the case of what is, or by simply stating the case you are arguing in support of?

Note the form of question you've asked "should the dialogue about what we should do be..." Get out of the "should" business.

Do we need to reframe the debate to include non-sentient beings?

"Need"?? What, to include the rights of grass not to be mowed? The rights of mosquitos to be put before a jury of their peers whence they've transgressed the bodily fluids of another sentient being? The rights of remora to get a free ride? The rights of voles to tear up my garden? Knock yourself out but consider that the only things life needs to survive are air, water, food, shelter from inclemental weather and a modicum of community. Lastly, who would draw the line between sentience and non-sentience? The Dalai Lama? Ted Nugent? You??

the problem of consuming meat ethically.

Ever been hunting or fishing? Just remember: if you kill it, you eat it. Ever seen the environmental impacts from overpopulation? Abatement happens. Did you know that lolcats are destroying our planet? Ufortunately lolcat tastes terrible.


A person may sometimes enjoy feeling pain. For example, a person might eat spicy food despite knowing he will feel a burning sensation in his mouth. So the idea that we should minimise pain is false. There is something badly wrong with your whole approach to this issue if it gives the wrong answer in such a simple case.

Your idea that the ecosystem should be granted rights is even worse. I can see why people often think animals should have rights. They superficially bear a strong resemblance to people. But the ecosystem is an abstraction: a word written down a piece of paper. The ecosystem not an agent, nor does it resemble an agent in any important respect. So you're sacrificing the interests of people to an abstraction with no preferences.

Neither of the positions you offered is any good. A better position is explained here.

  • You brought in an important point, it seems like wee collapsing the difference between pain and suffering, at this time I don't know for sure what that difference is so I have to go and do some more research. Nevertheless, I disagree completely with your statement that humans and other living beings are only similar at a superficial level. I believe the evidence is conclusive that it is exactly the opposite, other living beings are only superficially different since they are made of the same stuff and obey the same laws. Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 17:02
  • Btw, the article you linked seems to make the assumption that humans are at the center of moral concern, this is presupposing the conclusion which of course is faulty logic since that is exactly what I am questioning, that is, I am questioning wether sentient beings (humans included) should be at the center of moral concern. Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 17:23
  • The article doesn't suppose that humans are the centre of moral concern. It explains that humans and other animals are qualitatively different in such a way that humans are moral agents and animals are not.
    – alanf
    Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 19:21

So far I have to say that the argument to reduce suffering is the one that resonates the most with me. I personally have no problem eating meat per-se, it is the mistreatment of animals that bothers me.

I have not heard a convincing argument for making sentient beings the center of moral concern but maybe it's just my lack of understanding. What I see is that nature is full of examples in which different species feed from each other in a way that's mostly stable and conserves the ecosystem.

In the case of meat consumption -- and more generally agriculture -- it's pretty clear that the ecosystem is actually being destroyed which is another very good reason to find a solution where we can preserve the ecosystem. I don't think this implies the absolute need to stop consuming meat.

I believe that the idea of plants being able to have experiences is not a far fetched idea since I have seen the progression of the sciences telling us very unintuitive things like: plants have parts that exhibit synaptic-like behavior, plants communicate, plants have a notion similar to that of the self. All of this is expected and predicted by the theory of evolution, namely that we would find many of the features from one species in other species at different stages of development depending on how relevant such feature is to its fitness.

I think seeing all organisms as information processing systems reveals the idea that what we call "response to negative stimuli" when talking about plants is nothing more than what we call "the ability to experience pain" in other species. Of course this is not yet a scientific consensus but it looks like it's going in that direction.

The fact that all living organisms we know about share a common ancestor makes them equally deserving for the right to exist, thrive and evolve. This is of course independent from us recognizing them as sentient beings.

Related links:

  • I used to be vegetarian, for 13 years. At some point I had to relocate and live with my father. He asked me, "What use is a Cow other than to be eaten?" I admit I have no answer to that question. Boy, beef sure does taste good. I think I am healthier now that I am not vegetarian anymore. If nature designed a system where animals eat other animals, and people eat other animals, then I guess we have a right to be what we were designed to be. Not sure how to bring a law suit or judgment against Nature, or God, for that matter.
    – user16869
    Commented May 10, 2016 at 20:38
  • The scientific term for "response to negative stimuli" is nociception, and it is clearly distinguished from pain, which involves consciousness and emotion. See parl.gc.ca/content/sen/committee/372/lega/witn/shelly-e.htm
    – Alex Hall
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 9:02
  • "the argument to reduce suffering is the one that resonates the most with me" ... "I have not heard a convincing argument for making sentient beings the center of moral concern" this sounds like a contradiction, at least if a being is sentient if and only if it is capable of experiencing suffering, which is at least approximately the viewpoint of vegans arguing for animal welfare.
    – Alex Hall
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 9:11

Suffering involves having preferences and not getting them – basically not getting what you want (which requires wanting something). A rock has no preferences about what happens, so it can't suffer. (A rock doesn't want anything, so there's no opportunity to be disappointed.)

The debate about animals should focus on whether or not they have minds involving preferences, rather than on mixing up physical pain nerves with mental suffering.

Pain nerves could easily be included in a robot that (that is, we could make a robot with sensors to detect damage and send information about the damage to the software running the robot). Despite the word "pain" in the name, it has nothing more to do with suffering that sensors to detect pressure or light or sound.

What people usually do is take attributes of animals that we see in today's video game enemies and then say "see! animals learn! animals are just like people!"

An indication that animals do not have preferences is their inability to create new knowledge such as philosophies. This shows they are not universal knowledge creators like people. (Universal knowledge creator = able to create any knowledge that any knowledge creator can create. Think generic knowledge creator rather than specialized within some limits.)

So an animal would have to either be a special case knowledge creator that somehow creates preferences but not philosophies, or else it can't suffer. There are no reasonable proposals for how this would work. The underlying problem is the people debating this topic largely aren't familiar with the key concepts like preferences, universality, and knowledge creation.

If you want to understand universality better, and how knowledge is created, the best place to start is http://beginningofinfinity.com

  • Your paragraph about the robot is just the distinction between nociception and pain. And I see no reason why creating new knowledge is required to have preferences. If I kick a dog, the dog would prefer if I don't do it again.
    – Alex Hall
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 9:13
  • I think preferences come from considering multiple options and creating an opinion (a type of knowledge) about which is best (your preference among the candidates). You think preferences are...?
    – curi
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 4:55
  • That sounds right. Animals can absolutely consider options, have opinions/knowledge/preferences, learn, and suffer mentally. They're not the same as humans but they have rich mental lives. For example cows have best friends and pigs can be optimistic or pessimistic based on their mood and situation.
    – Alex Hall
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 8:15
  • you're just making up fantasy stories, like Watership Down, with no basis in fact.
    – curi
    Commented Nov 19, 2016 at 23:26
  • What makes you think that? I'm not saying the Watership Down is an accurate representation of animals, but saying they like some things more than other things is not reaching by any means. There is plenty of academic literature about animals being able to do far more than that, and it's all very easy to google. Here is an example article: psychologytoday.com/blog/animal-emotions/201506/…
    – Alex Hall
    Commented Nov 19, 2016 at 23:37

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .