I had a class on ethics and morality in which we were discussing about free will and ethical subjectivism etc. One of my fellow classmates argued about how humans speak about being ethical but kill animals mercilessly. He spoke against non-vegetarians and how non-ethical their behaviour was.

I thought about this in my head and came to the conclusion that most farm animals are a product made by man himself through domestication. Suppose we stopped eating chicken and other animals. Then, who would look after these animals?(We rear them because we profit from selling them and also satisfy our hunger) Also, domestic chickens and cows cannot be expected to live in the wild.

I want to know how to reply to an argument like this in a philosophical and convincing manner (when someone calls non-vegetarians and their practices as unethical).

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    If only it were that simple. Slave owners could make a similar argument for exploiting slaves, who would "look after them" otherwise. And babies are a "product made by man" (or rather woman) in a far more direct sense than breeding farm animals. Yet we do not find eating them ethical. Not that the situations are comparable, but your line of thought entirely misses what makes them distinct. See SEP, Moral Status of Animals for more philosophically nuanced arguments.
    – Conifold
    Sep 29, 2021 at 20:24
  • @Conifold But the topic that I have said about is related to humans who eat meat to satisfy their hunger. Eating domesticated animals is not the same as eating babies. I am not referring to all animals. But only those ones which were domesticated by humans long time ago. Modern chicken is the result of domestication of wild fowl. They are not expected to survive in this era without humans. The same cannot be compared with slavery. Imagine people living on islands and coasts. People in such situations naturally evolve to depend more on meat rather than agriculture. Sep 30, 2021 at 4:33
  • @Conifold Note that certain people were made slaves by the "intelligent" man. But animals like chicken were domesticated by the "primitive" man. Sep 30, 2021 at 4:41
  • @Jonathan_the_seagull. Your question, "Who would look after these animals?" reflects a short-term view.We can phase out the meat industry in developed nations, preventing the suffering of billions of creatures that would otherwise be slaughtered (and in many cases tortured/neglected/abused) for the sake of our taste pleasure alone. We would no longer need to breed them, so there wouldn't be "these animals" to worry about. If you find a convincing argument for ongoing meat consumption in nations where meat alternatives are affordable and accessible, I'd be very interested to hear it. Sep 30, 2021 at 5:08
  • All that is well and good. But it has to enter the structure of your argument from the beginning, not as added explanations after the fact. When you need such extra explanations to answer specific objections, it means that your general argument does not work. There can be many more objections not even raised. There have to be premises and inferences in the general argument from which "is not the same as", "cannot be compared", "intelligent" vs "primitive", follow and matter. Currently, there are none.
    – Conifold
    Sep 30, 2021 at 5:43

4 Answers 4


Hmph. Interesting question. Let's try this:

  1. Everything that is (biologically) alive, dies.
  2. Everything that lives causes death in other things:
    • many entities are predators that kill for sustenance
    • many entities defend themselves against predators, parasites, and diseases, which causes death in those entities
    • many entities compete for scarce resources, strangling or starving other entities to death
  3. The decision to kill (within humans) is a moral choice, which ought to be evaluated and wrestled with. Humans (unenlightened as they may be) generally draw a line at some measure of sentience:
    • Vegans eat only (presumably) non-sentient plants
    • Pescans assert that fish and other seafood are not sentient enough to worry about
    • Lactans do not eat the meat of land animals, but are willing to consume animal byproducts like milk
    • Carnivans (to keep with the nomenclature) eat the flesh of land animals on the belief that lower animals (wild or domestic) are not sentient enough to worry about.
  4. Humans (unenlightened as they may be) are generally willing to kill as a function of moral necessity. Self-defense, war, social control, religious imperatives, political dominance, cannibalism in certain tribal cultures, etc are all rationalized as grounds for killing, because the alternatives are perceived as death, deep misery, or deep loss.
  5. No entity can exist for long without causing death.
    • A tree must kill off (by starving them of light) grasses and undergrowth that would sap the nutrients and water from its soil
    • A sea sponge must kill algae and floating larvae for food
    • A cow must kill grass in large quantities
    • A human must kill something on a daily basis or starve to death

The point is that the absolutist argument — in which humans should choose to avoid killing anything — is suicidal. One must (arbitrarily) draw a line delineating what one is willing to kill for survival, and arbitrary lines are always negotiable. In this case, the negotiation centers on respect for the thing that is killed and consumed. An animal that is consciously and conscientiously raised to be consumed, and both cared for and respected in that regard, lives a better life (in many ways) than many humans, and suffers no worse death. Should we worry about the fate of this coddled animal before we address the plight of the starving, uneducated, unsettled masses?

This is not a complete argument: there are lots of good and interesting points to be made about the inefficiency and environmental impacts of raising meat animals. But it will get one past knee-jerk "kill animal bad!" positions.

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    Another line generally drawn: no cannibalism. Of course your 'killing grass' doesn't take account of nervous systems. And the same way we drive cars knowing some people will be killed, can be compared to killing earthworms through farming ie, it happening isn't a reason to accept or maximise it, quite the opposite. But good post, addressed the challenge.
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 30, 2021 at 10:49

In Islam, it's recognised that humans are omnivores and so also meat-eaters. The meat that they eat are halal which means a certain prayer is said over them whilst they are killed. And this prayer recognises the sancity of life and that the killing is done for food. Thus, the killing is not 'merciless'. I'd also add that this implicitly recognises that anthropic climate change is not sanctioned by Islam because of its effect on the biosphere.

If the entire globe went vegetarian then I expect the populations of domestic animal would become drastically reduced via natural attrition. After all, the life-span of a chicken is not long and nor that of sheep or cattle compared to humans.

  • The problem happens when some people think that all animals are self-aware while the reality is their lives depend on how human beings think and act. Tigers would have become extinct by now if humans didn't setup natural parks and sanctuaries. One can say that the Tiger population dwindled because of humans. But they do not think that they (the person speaking) are here now only because humans spread over the world and started giving importance to their survival. Please correct me if I have said anything wrong. Sep 30, 2021 at 12:32
  • @Jonathan_the_seagull: You have said a great deal that is wrong and misleading: the difference is between sentience and sapience and between consciousness and self-consciousness. Animals have the former, in both cases, but not the latter. The lives of animals and the biosphere depends on how humans act now because of the enormous impact human beings have on the biosphere. This is why this age is called the Anthropocene. However, there us no ontological link since the biosphere existed well before ... Sep 30, 2021 at 14:51
  • @Jonathan_the_seagull: ... humans came upon the scene: life existed for billons of years before homo sapiens appeared on the surface of the earth several hundred thousand years ago. Sep 30, 2021 at 14:51
  • But, I have learnt that ethics applies to a person with free will (which is why we do not punish animals if it kills someone). What is the meaning of life on Earth if humans were not present. Without humans, animals would fight over territory, some will perish and others will succeed and this cycle would repeat. It seems that humans are the only ones who can create universal rules that is ethical. Sep 30, 2021 at 15:11
  • @Jonathan_the_seagull: Look up the difference between sapience and sentience. What do yiu think I mean by it and what are the differences? How does free will intersect with both? Sep 30, 2021 at 15:19

Our modern understanding of biology means the sharp line we have drawn between humans and animals, historically justified in religious terms, just can't be maintained any more - as covered by Peter Singer's analysis of moral progress as widening the 'circle of moral concern'. We have to consider future capacities of other species, and their potential to develop into full moral agents and subjects. I don't think there's an answer to that, that wouldn't also justify human slavery eg of specially bred humans like in Cloud Atlas.

The meat industry has already wiped out many breeds of animals, with for instance wild boar wiped out in the UK (until recently reintroduced), and tougher more self-reliant but less meat producing breeds allowed to go extinct (like Lincolnshire curly coat). So it's hard to argue the problem is breeds going extinct, when modern farming does this more. Nearly all US dairy cows come from 2 bulls, with inbreeding risks, and such strong selection for milk that they have much lower intelligence than most cattle, and can't be left on grass overwinter because of large size - it's happened in recent times, and could be reversed. It's not that the current system looks to their wellbeing, it doesn't, it actively decreases it.

The current situation is part of a high productivity but high resource use system that contributes massively to climate change eg with methane (food emissions are 30% of total and alone unaddressed could prevent reaching targets).

Many places like grasslands and mountainous Tibet, are very difficult to grow enough crops for a balanced diet, but can raise animals. Plus getting through winter in Northern climates was difficult without animals, and preservative fats. In the developed globalised world we don't face these issues now, but that's pretty recent, and there's certainly an equity issue for already poor people living in areas that can't produce non-animals foods.

Vegans argue for animal autonomy, ie not that there should be no carnivorous animals. We don't need to eat meat anymore is the issue. Vegans seriously consider issues of transition to a non-meat-eating world, and generally look toward rewilding and allowing the mixing of domestic and wild animals in conditions with initial extra support until evolution does it's work.

Wider discussion of the ethics here: Is 'veganism' a settled issue in Philosophy and Ethics?

A more interesting subjective ethics case you might be interested in, which reveals more about how ethical systems are part of culture:

Is artificially generating images of minors in sexual positions unethical?

  • You are very much right in explaining about the difficulties in realizing a world fully dependant on agriculture. But, I don't think vegans are providing a true solution to this problem. Mixing domesticated breeds with wild ones "until evolution happens" is not a good idea taking into account the time period and also the unpredictability of the end result (generally domesticated chickens are weak). You might like this: bbc.com/news/science-environment-31661920 Sep 30, 2021 at 12:25
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    @Jonathan_the_seagull: It's not an unproblematic tactic certainly, but it's a matter of timeframe - now the Arctic melts in summer pizzly bears are the only way polar bear genes will survive in the wild, for instance (probably). Ability to migrate is a bigger issue eg en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oostvaardersplassen#Management. If suffering is the only issue the process would be unjustifiable. But it's also about autonomy eg. Haiti's current politics nor transition process, could ever justify slavery, nor traditional knowledge having been lost.
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 30, 2021 at 14:36

I have never seen a philosophical argument for the permissibility of animal torture. This goes against the traditional conception of virtues, and even Kant would say that those mean to animals are bound to be mean to men.

I think what you want to defend is the permissibility of killing and eating some animals. As a Kantian, it is clear that most animals (but not all) are mere objects, they are not subjects so do hold respect like most humans do. What i mean is that they have no legislative wills for us to respect so they can be used. Animals have no direct obligations on us, just indirect duties like not to torture (those that hurt animals are more likely in character to do so to humans). So we can enslave them as pet but not work them too hard, eat them but not too much it becomes harmful to health, etc.


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