I recently found myself holding the following views, which seem to be in contradiction:

  1. It is morally wrong to kill a human being which wishes to live; in particular it is wrong to kill a baby or an elderly person or a person who wishes to live. This rule is independent (or very weakly dependent) of the intelligence/capacity for abstract thought of the human being in question.

  2. It is morally acceptable to kill a healthy animal which wishes to live, for the purpose of consuming it as food (in particular, in a situation when not much is gained from the kill); arguably many animals killed this way experience overall more suffering than pleasure in their lifetimes.

  3. Some animals (including some commonly consumed, say cows) exhibit conceivable signs of conscience to a larger degree than some human beings (notably, the impaired ones, in extreme conditions, suffering from serious illness, etc.): they are able to interact with their environment, have some sort of memory, experience pain, can learn and respond to the environment in a reasonable way. (I'm not including abstract thought here, and possibly some other items, because an infant does not seem to have it, nor will it ever have if we additionally assume it has some sort of heavy mental illness).

The only conclusion which I was able to reach was that 2. has to be wrong. (It also seems possible to argue that killing human beings is acceptable under certain circumstances when their thinking is impaired, but somehow I'm inclined not to go in that direction). I initially tried to think that killing animals is not immoral because of the lack of their sentience, but then it was pointed out to me that people in many cases exhibit hardly any signs of being sentient (as in the conditions explained above, or even any extreme condition where panic/instincts take over), and that some animals exhibit more such signs than men.

One could state that 3. is irrelevant (and not contradictory to 1. and 2.) if one claimed that the value of human life stems not from the fact that a person is conscious, but for example because people have souls. However, I can only imagine such an argument on religious grounds, which I would like to avoid. So far, this is the only way I see to hold 1. 2. and 3. I am quite convinced about 1. and 3., so this leads me to a believe not 2., and hence it is immoral not to be a vegetarian, among other things. This is quite a strong shift for me.

However, there is surely a lot of possible arguments I am missing here. Hence, I would be very grateful for letting me know if there is any consistent way (not relying on religion, or anything irrational) to hold all 1. 2. and 3. true. What would be a good place (book/article/webpage) to investigate the issue?

  • Someday I fully intend to be fish food. Till then I eat fish. It's the cycle of life.
    – user4894
    Commented Jan 27, 2014 at 22:02
  • 3
    Have you read anything by Peter Singer?
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 19:34
  • @RexKerr: Not yet; but it seems I should! Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 21:23

6 Answers 6


A couple of years ago the New York Times solicited mini-essays on this very topic, and this was my submission (unfortunately, it was not selected for print):

Is it ethical for human beings to eat meat? In order to consider this question, we need an moral framework capable of including both humans and animals; and that additionally matches our ethical intuitions on at least the following three test questions: Is human cannibalism acceptable? No. Is carnivorism among animals (such as a cat eating a mouse) acceptable? Yes. Are human actions vital to survival (such as eating plants, or killing viruses) acceptable? Yes.

We can make a start by declaring it generally ethical for a creature of any species to take an action that is a commonly characteristic of its natural mode of survival, or that it itself is incapable of distinguishing from the above. In general, this rule is meant to cover cats eating mice, and similar situations.

A cat devouring its deceased owner because of being trapped with her in a snowstorm would not count as commonly characteristic, because the owner is not commonly a food source; but it would count as indistinguishable from being commonly characteristic if it could only be shown the that cat was not intelligent enough to distinguish between its owner's body and an alternate food source.

We can condemn cannibalism, not only by humans, but by any species intelligent enough to know the difference (and not bound to it by common necessity) by noting that eating a creature overly similar to one's self represents a significant disease vector potentially dangerous to the species as a whole (as proven both by Mad Cow disease, and by the human variant spread among certain tribes via cannibalism, "kuru"). This would allow us to not only condemn human cannibalism, but also the human practice of promoting cannibalism among feed animals (which is what led to the propagation of Mad Cow disease).

In general, this gives us a continuum correlated with the probability of inducing a cannibalistic disease vector that condemns the promotion of cannibalistic consumption within a species as absolutely forbidden, but that offers a diminishing condemnation of eating other creatures in proportion to how distantly related they are. Under this rubric, eating other primates would almost certainly be ruled out, whereas eating plants and fungi would not be condemned.

To refine our system, we can further broadly condemn practices that are known to be harmful to the ecosystem shared by humans and animals, such as factory farming and overfishing. In addition, we can place a positive benefit on respect for the sanctity of all life, as proportional to the intelligence of the creature being killed. This would guide us away from both the killing for food of highly intelligent animals such as dolphins, and also away from the disrespect for life exhibited in the industrialized world's widespread waste of meat from animals putatively killed for food (a subset of our general waste of food).

Space does not allow for the full elaboration of this system, but it does declare ethical the limited, mindful consumption of meat by human beings, in a manner similar to that practiced by our ancestors, as being "commonly characteristic of our natural mode of being, as humans." At the same time, it also allows us to place ethical restrictions on meat-eating that would rule out many of the worst excesses of the modern meat-production industry.

  • 1
    I symphatize with this view. However, I wish there was a convincing reason why "intelligence" (perceived by us) makes a difference. For example, for me it is a pain to think that dogs are getting eaten in some parts of the world, and yet I must admit that in principle it doesn't make a difference except for the intense emotional relations possible between dogs and humans. But when I eat a lamb, I don't care if someone loved it.
    – Ingo
    Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 10:50
  • 2
    Your reasoning seems to imply that cannibalism is unethical because it is unhealthy. That most certainly is the reason the taboo around cannibalism has evolved (similar to the taboo around incest) but I am not sure whether it qualifies under the usual definition of "ethical" as "morally acceptable".
    – ThomasH
    Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 15:21
  • @ThomasH A good point. As you've noticed, in my system "unhealthy" and "immoral" are treated as different perspectives on the same base concept. Neither time nor space to elaborate here, but feel free to contact me if you'd like to know more. Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 15:58

IMO your "One could state that 3. is irrelevant", including the "value of human life stems not from the fact that a person is conscious", leads in the right direction.

However, said value doesn't have to depend on existence of souls or any other religious justification. IMO respecting the value of human life is, eh, let's say "categorical imperative". The human life has value not "because of something", but in itself. Take it as a Kantian postulate.

The above, of course, begs the question: why would one assume that human life has a value and require no further justification? Well, because for the purpose of doing any teleology one needs to assume something, to assign some initial ground values to something. Otherwise the whole subject of ethics becomes utterly meaningless. You cannot possibly derive any "should" and need no "excuse" for any ethical decisions unless you start with some base values or base imperatives.

Therefore one is perfectly capable to assign non-zero value to human life without any further explanations or excuses or life form comparisons.

  • 1
    This is a helpful answer, thank you. I have no problem with assigning moral value as a postulate. A point where I do have a problem is the assignment of this value to "human" rather than "conscious" or "living". Of course, it is a bit unfair to question a postulate... However, I feel that it might be possible that a very basic set of axioms might imply we should protect the conscious, or the living, or the intelligent, or the beautiful just for the sake of it. It strikes me as weird (and self-servient) that we should protect the human just because it's human. Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 9:35

I would claim that (3) is indeed irrelevant. Specifically, it is no foundation for postulating "animal rights", like the right to live.

For, if this were so, we would be in a dilemma: Should we, for example, prevent wolves from feeding on caribou? Or change the diet of polar bears somehow?

It turns out that we could do nothing to prevent animals from being eaten by other animals, without violating the rights of those other animals. But how can we postulate "animal rights" and at the same time do nothing to enforce them?

In the end, we had the situation that wolves may eat caribou, but humans may not eat pork. Somehow, we would be forced to accept that wolves or polar bears are unable to act in an ethical way, that they are unethical by nature. But this, IMHO, is a direct contradiction to stating that they have rights.

That being said, anyone is free to adopt for himself the rule not to contribute to animal use, by not eating meat, milk, eggs and not using other animal products.

It is just not suitable as a categorical imperative.

  • I'm sorry, but I can't follow your line of thought, could you explain? First, you seem to assume that moral obligations apply to animal as well (as in, 'It's immoral for a bear to eat caribou'); is this correct? I tend to think that animals have no moral obligations because they don't know better, and thus cannot be held accountable. So, if a wolf eats a caribou then (assuming animal rights) something tragic happens; if we prevent this, wolf dies of hunger and again something tragic happens. (There is no rule that says there is always a happy ending possible). Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 10:39
  • 'But how can we postulate "animal rights" and at the same time do nothing to enforce them?' - Do you mean in principle (because this would violate wolves' rights) or in practice (because there are too many wolves to stop, etc.). In principle, there is no contradiction - wolves have the 'right' to survive, not necessarily to eat caribou. It reduces to the practical difficulty that getting meat usually involves killing. As for practical difficulties, they exist, of course, but that's no contradiction at all. In times of war people kill one another and I can't stop them; but still I don't kill. Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 10:47
  • @Feanor What I was trying to say is that a caribou either has the right to live (specifically, not being eaten by something) or it does not. If it has, there is no place for wolves, and wolves must starve, and we are called upon to prevent wolves from hunting. Which violates wolves rights. So, if we accept animal rights, then we are in the situation that we have ethical rules that are, unfortunately, logically impossible to apply. This is not just an "unhappy ending".
    – Ingo
    Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 10:49
  • @Feanor I mean in principle, of course. And yes, there is a contradiction. If you assert the right to survive, you must consequentially assert the right to obtain the means to survive. You cannot say without being cynical, for instance, that a human has the right to survive, but not the right to work, to hunt, to fish, to farm, to exchange things with others.
    – Ingo
    Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 10:54
  • Thanks for the clarifications. I think I understand your argument now, but I'm not sure if I agree with it. As I see things, there it is perfectly possible for two creatures to have a 'right' to survive, and who can only survive by killing the other (say, two good people stranded at an island, with enough supply just for one). At least one has to die; it's sad, it's tragic, but it's not contradictory. I would see wolf-caribou situation as the same, only on a much larger scale. Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 12:30

I like how you broke it down in that fashion. And it's a great question. I have struggled with this myself.

There are lot of different contexts from which one can approach this question. I don't know the answer, but I know several ways of looking at the question that might be valuable.

  • Words are powerful and can be used to divide and distinguish infinitely. If you ask "Is This Wrong? Is This Right?", you have applied words in a very confining and restrictive way. When something is right, I want it to always be right; I want it to be solid; I want it to be beyond debate; in other words - I want to be able to stop questioning whether it is right or wrong and no longer wish to deal with the cognitive dissonance that arises during the internal struggle. When something is asked from that context, the mind tends to close itself to knew possibilities and attempt to bring rigorous logic to something that may not expose itself clearly to the rules of rigorous logic.
  • If you intend to bring that level of logic to this debate, you need to distinguish further. What is your real intention here? Do you wish to avoid ending life? Impossible. You would pretty much have to stand still all the time, and even then, inadvertent bacterial murders would abound. Do you wish to not artificially interrupt nature's food chain? Why? What lines are you not drawing in your thinking that could be drawn that would establish the rules that matter to you?

That's what becomes most important. The human animal craves resolution to conflict. We also create conflict by arbitrarily inventing dogmatic thought patterns that end up trapping us into points of view. My point is that you will never receive a dogmatic lightning bolt answer here. Maybe in some future generation killing some animals will rise to the status of killing humans, but even then it will be arbitrary and a human invention not a divine or absolute truth. So the only question worth asking on this particular issue is, "What is true for you? From where you stand; and what you value, what for you has integrity? What will you live by; own; and honor?"

If you can resolve that powerfully, then the rest doesn't much matter.

  • Thank you! That's a very helpful way of thinking. As for your second bullet point, I tend to believe that one should protect the thinking beings/conscious beings and the beings which suffer "in a meaningful way", and that there is a very "basic" reason for that (although I don't necessarily know what it is). One possible resolution I had in mind was that perhaps a contradiction does not occur because animals which are killed for meat would not exist in a vegetarian world, but this does not seem to fully work. I was hoping there might be a more conclusive argument of like that. Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 10:06
  • It seems like your intention is in line with the Buddhist school of vegetarianism - i.e. eliminating suffering where possible. That can be powerful if you hold it that way. It's just that the responsibility for holding that way has to arise with you. There aren't forthcoming any real external resolutions to our lack of compassion for other creatures. For example - imagine a bacteria that got into our intestines and somehow made our species incapable of eating meat. Global vegetarianism could be achieved instantly, but this would do nothing to generate the compassion ...
    – dgo
    Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 15:28
  • ... that was missing in the first place; and the lack of which gave rise to slaughtering animals in the cruel and unconscious way that we do. So you can stop eating meat, but without the compassion, it is just another position you take. Think pro-lifers vs pro-choice advocates; they both think that they are on the side of the good - and both willing to fight vehemently against the opposition (to one degree or another) to prove it. What's at the heart of your question isn't whether or not one should eat one thing or another, ...
    – dgo
    Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 15:34
  • but rather the violence and insensitivity that arise with wholesale animal slaughter. So in this case - what's missing isn't more vegetarians - it's compassion and empathy. One who is being compassionate can choose to do what they will, and as long as their actions are mindful and given by compassion, the world will receive nourishment from whatever they bring. Without being the change you wish to see in the world and clearly knowing what that change is, what arises is another point of view or position. Something to kill one another about.
    – dgo
    Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 15:38

Human being are different from animals in only that their intelligence is far more developed than those of all other beings including animals and are capable of taking actions that can be beneficial or harmful to not only their own self but the entire ecological systems. Here the action being debated is whether slaughtering animals is morally acceptable, which implies that acceptable or not, it is certainly beneficial, which is absurd. But I will comment on this later. About morality, it is clearly evident that animals display the same emotions of love , anger, fear, hunger, need for sex, desire to live, etc as all humans and so morally we have no right to do unto others what we dont wish be done to us. Just as we have families, so do they. While you would definitely hate being killed, do think about your situation if you were to witness your parents or children being killed in front you. If you would like to understand on a scale as to who suffers more when getting killed, you can refer and study the jain philosophy (popular particularly in india) which explains how level of suffering varies from one being to another based on the number of senses they have. For instance, plants which have only one sense ie sense of touch suffer much lesser than animals who have 5 senses - touch, sight, smell, taste, hearing. Senses are defined as means through which an organism experiences the world. In between these there are organisms with 2,3, and 4 senses. It is then a choice filled with compassion that enables one to be a vegetarian. Another excuse of being a vegetarian comes from fear of consequences of slaughtering for consumption which demands another question. The question of why carnivores killing herbivores is not "wrong" is that such is their nature and more so because of their inability to make another choice. But it does not mean that we kill other animals to feed these carnivores like our pet dogs. While carnivores attack herbivores, the latter sometimes attack the former to defend themselves and their families, which is all a part of nature. The question of morality arises only when there is choice to choose an alternative path, not otherwise.


1 is wrong, IMHO. Consider a serial killer that wishes to live to continue killing and who cannot be stopped by any means but killing him. Consider this is completely clear and beyond any doubt. I'd say killing him is the right thing to do.

2 may be right, I cannot really quantify how much do those animals suffer/enjoy in their lives. But maybe you should consider that if nobody was eating them then they might not exist at all. We could also consider how much do these animals suffer, if they experience pain, discomfort, existential angst...

3 is irrelevant. If I am asleep I don't show much conscience or sentience, but that doesn't mean I'm impaired, or that if you try to kill me I'll wake up and suffer. The point is, we cannot really ascertain the level of sentience of animals or people just by how they look, it takes a deeper analysis. Therefore, the sentience that animals and people show, on a shallow analysis, is irrelevant, as it is far from reality.

The main argument in favor for vegetarianism is sustainability, IMHO.

Also, if we are to worry about animal lives so much (as to prevent them from being born in the first place, as in genocide) then I'd suggest to worry a little bit more about human lives before. More precisely I'd consider giving a higher priority to transhumanism, and research on life extension and immortality technologies, such like reversing the ageing process or enabling mind-uploading to the cloud.

  • Just to clarify: I am not saying that in 1. your murdered should not be killed. I'm just saying that the fact that he has to be killed is, well, unfortunate. It would be of course be much worse to keep him alive. It's not a choice between a 'good' and a 'bad' outcome; rather, it's 'bad' against 'even worse'. Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 12:52
  • And yes, I fully agree that we should worry 'a little bit more' about human lives. Some (many?) transhumanists seem to be vegetarian. Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 12:53

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