It struck me when we eat meat and some call this immoral, why? Is the value placed on meat based on necessity, choice, intelligence of the animal involved, means of death, life of the animal, suffering of the animal, human instinct, our biology?

A lion hunts for food. It is built this way. Does this then make it moral? A mosquito sucks blood, and passes on illness, does this make it immoral? We are part of the same natural system, built to operate within the confines of the system. If we do not cause suffering, and give a good life to the animal, is its end not the same as the lion feeding on its prey?

Morality seems to be in the area of suffering, not the act of consumption. I have been told it is unethical if I could be a vegetarian, to not be one. But I see situational ethics, if I could avoid the death of an animal, I should. I see this as a sensibility, or practical choice but not ethics.
It is not wrong to kill animals, but it is wrong to cause suffering.

Am I right or am I missing something?

We kill animals for many reasons. Where does killing become immoral?

Life in a human sense is being self aware. Some say life is sacred, except what is the difference between a biological system of chemicals and life in terms of self awareness. Stopping life, is not ethically wrong else our own bodies are killing themselves as old cells are replaced by new ones. Killing damaged cells is part of life. Killing someone else is the same as killing oneself, which is something we regard as wrong or "evil". We do not have that right, and we are then open to forfeit our own life in payment.

  • 1
    What happens when you apply your own questions to killing and eating humans, that have been reared & killed without suffering? You need to show some evidence you understand the questions if you expect people to engage, because the topic is fraught & polarised. Peter Singer's The Expanding Circle goodreads.com/book/show/3026168-the-expanding-circle does a great job of accounting for the direction human ethics have developed in, and why they need to continue that, including us not merely becoming vegetarian but vegan.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 12:09
  • I think, most people assume more complex forms of life as more valuable: you won't be really sad after stepping on worm or ant and all the more so after killing bacteria by the soap. Even among humans those who are more intellingent, capable of achievement, etc. are more valuable than those who aren't.
    – rus9384
    Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 19:04
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    I would say that morality cannot be separated from an agent's capacity to make informed deliberate decisions. A lion, therefore, is not capable of making decisions based on morality to the same extent as we are - and is therefore not subject to the same level of scrutiny.
    – Misha R
    Commented Jul 11, 2018 at 4:14

3 Answers 3


Unnecessary, wilful extinction of a life

Most people have the following ethic as a first principle:

"Life is precious. Therefore the unnecessary, wilful extinction of a life is wrong."

The qualifiers are important because without those we would have to also judge things like self-defence and accidents in a much harsher light.

As you have sussed, the qualifier "unnecessary" is the contentious one. What is "necessary" and what is "not necessary"? This becomes a subjective judgement call. Some will say:

"I do not need to kill and eat animals in order to survive, therefore it is unnecessary — for me — to do so"

Someone else will say:

"My life becomes unpleasant, cumbersome, dull and/or lacking a number of qualities I find very important in my life, if I do not kill and eat animals. Therefore it is necessary to do so, for me"

So depending on how you judge what is necessary and what is not, this may lead to a decision to become vegan or to remain omnivorous.

The "wilful" part is not in contention, we have a rather wide agreement on what constitutes a wilful act and what does not.

Not all agree on the first principle above, and may qualify it as...

"Human life is the most precious of all life"

...but even as they do that, the vast majority of people will still hold the following true:

"Humans shall not cause unnecessary suffering of any sentient creature."

The debate then becomes: what is unnecessary suffering? Is holding an animal captivity "causing suffering"? Is breeding an animal for the express purpose of killing and eating it "causing suffering"? Is shooting an animal out in the woods for meat "causing suffering?".

Again, people arrive at different subjective opinions there. So in the end the whole question is subjective (to a point).


Suffering as such isn't a moral principle. If it were, we would prevent people from taking PhDs. Or becoming ballerinas. Or watching certain movies.

That's not where morality comes from. Morality is the result of huge numbers of iterations of interactions between members of the same species. What is moral for humans has been produced by a huge amount of history, and what has resulted in ancestors leaving progeny or not. Similarly for other species.

Note that other species have some ideas about morality. Cats, for example. From house cats to tigers. If a male cat encounters a kitten under a certain age, it will kill the kitten. The result is somebody else's kitten is removed, since males are nomadic and so unlikely to encounter their own kittens so young. And the female is more receptive sooner, and so he is likely to have more kittens. The thing is, it works even if the mother cat sees him kill the kittens. This is because her genes have an interest in having her mate with a male who will have life strategies that produce more kittens. For cats, killing somebody else's kitten is moral. Or to put it in a more macabre format, to a mother cat, kitten breath is a turn-on.

The reason we have a moral sense is because we have evolved with other humans as a vital part of our environment. In tribal hunter-gather situations, humans who behaved so badly that they got shunned would be extremely likely to die shortly after. Human survival strategy is strongly team based. So such behavior is strongly selected against. Humans who behaved in a way that the rest of the tribe wanted to be around them had huge chance to procreate. And so such behavior was strongly selected for.

So we have neuronal structures that cause us to literally feel other's pain. And to think of things as fair or unfair. If an ancestor were the kind of person who could calmly ignore hurting somebody else then nobody wanted to be around him. So he would get pushed out of the tribe along with his indifference-producing genes. Or his unwilling-to-share genes.

These structures overlap onto other animals. Even onto things like plushy stuff toy animals. And most particularly onto things that seem like human babies to us. Things with big round heads, big round eyes, and that are soft everywhere. So we get upset more easily watching baby seals get clubbed than we do when we hear about somebody killing a colony of rats.

The desire to have people want you around can also leak over into behavior that is, at first, difficult to understand. Things like a potlatch.


However, we can certainly over ride our genes to at least some extent. The goal now should be to construct a society in which people can thrive.

Eating meat can either be cruel or humane. Cruel actions tend to leak over into more severe things. If you are prepared to torture bunnies, then you are too likely to escalate. It indicates those neuronal structures are insufficient. It creeps people out.

And creepy people get pushed out of the tribe.


How to evaluate the tragedy of death

the tragedy of a person's death for the person who has died ought to be evaluated in terms of the goods that the person had prudential reason to care about at the time of death. The weaker the degree of psychological unity between the person at the time of death and the person at the time the good in question would have been realized in her life, the less important that good is for evaluating the extent to which the person's death was a tragedy for her. (Rahul Kumar, 'Permissible Killing and the Irrelevance of Being Human', The Journal of Ethics, Vol. 12, No. 1 (2008), pp. 57-80 : 60 - summarising Jeff McMahan. The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.)

McMahon calls this the Time-Relative Interest account of the tragedy of death. So far as it goes, I see nothing objectionable in it. But let's see how it can be put to use in the context of the present question. It may look different then.

Degrees of moral wrong

His (McMahon's) initial suggestion is that what is fundamentally wrong with killing - here he has in mind the killing of all kinds of animals, including human beings - is that it frustrates the time-relative interests in continuing to live of the victim. To a certain extent, this fits with certain intuitions about killing. The suggestion that the killing of animals is not morally objectionable is morally perverse, but it is plausible to think that that the killing of a person is a much more serious wrong than the killing of an animal, just as the killing of a mouse is less seriously wrong than killing a dolphin or a chimp. This is so for two reasons, both having to do with the psychological capacities of most non-human animals. First, non- human animals do not have the same range of goods available to them; some goods require complex reasoning and planning abilities that non-human animals do not (to the best of our knowledge) possess. Second, the psychological capacities of non-human animals do not allow their lives to be as psychologically unified as the lives of humans can, in principle, be; certain goods, such as living a life that has a certain character, requires the possibility of that kind of unity. (Rahul Kumar, 'Permissible Killing and the Irrelevance of Being Human', The Journal of Ethics, Vol. 12, No. 1 (2008), pp. 57-80 : 61.)

I shall term this the Kumar-McMahon view. A claim here worries me : 'it is plausible to think that that the killing of a person is a much more serious wrong than the killing of an animal, just as the killing of a mouse is less seriously wrong than killing a dolphin or a chimp.'

I'm not at all sure that I would accept without qualification that the killing of a mouse is less seriously wrong than killing a dolphin or a chimp. It would be wrong, equally morally wrong, to kill any sentient being merely for fun or to pass the time - mouse or chimp.

That aside, the claim that 'the killing of a person is a much more serious wrong than the killing of an animal', even if we assume that neither killing is done maliciously and both are done to flourishing specimens, does nothing to show that it is not morally wrong to kill an animal but only (at most) that 'the killing of a person is a much more serious wrong than the killing of an animal'. It in fact concedes the point that the killing of an animal is morally wrong.

Re-evaluating the tragedy of death

Quoted above : 'the tragedy of a person's death for the person who has died ought to be evaluated in terms of the goods that the person had prudential reason to care about at the time of death.' There's an important phrase here : 'the tragedy of a person's death for the person who has died'. It would be a tragedy if the last healthy white rhino died, even though the rhino had no prudential reason to care about certain goods at the time of death - indeed had no capacity to care about them.

My overall impression is that the Kumar-McMahon argument does not deny but endorses the moral wrongness of killing healthy animals for whatever purpose. Nor can I see how the 'range of goods' and the 'psychological unity' considerations justify using (killing) animals for our own ends despite the moral wrong we do them.

Complexity all round

The morality of our treatment of animals, particularly our mass-killing of them for food (let alone sport), is immensely complex. I have only set out, and criticised, one argument, an argument that rests on (the assumption of) our being an intellectually superior species. I can see no valid moral inference from 'We are an intellectually superior species to (other) animals' to 'It is morally right or permissible to kill intellectually inferior species, (other) animals, for our own purposes'. There's a missing premise : 'It is morally right or permissible for an intellectually superior species to kill intellectually inferior species, (other) animals, for its our own purposes'. But is it ? This is the very point at issue.

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