Meat Philosophy

[We] surveyed several hundred philosophers and non-philosophers on their opinions about various moral issues; we also asked survey respondents to describe their own behavior on those same issues. … The biggest divergences in moral opinion concerned our question about “regularly eating the meat of mammals such as beef and pork”. 60% of ethics professor respondents rated mammal-meat consumption as morally bad, compared to 45% of non-ethicist philosophers and just 19% of non-philosophers. Opinion also divided by gender and age. … Fully 81% of female philosophers born in 1960 or later said it was morally bad to regularly eat the meat of mammals. To put this degree of consensus in perspective, … only 82% of philosophers endorsed non-skeptical realism about the existence of an external world. …

38% of [young female philosophers] reported having eaten the meat of a mammal at their previous evening meal — a rate not statistically different from the 39% reported rate among respondents overall. … Similarly, despite the difference in normative view, there was no statistically detectable difference in the mean age of respondents who said they had eaten the meat of a mammal at their previous evening’s meal. … 78% of those who reported that they never eat mammal meat said eating mammal meat is bad, compared to 32% of those who reported sometimes eating meat. However, it seems that among non-vegetarians there is little if any relationship between normative ethical view and actual meat consumption. (more; HT Stefano Bertolo)

So why, among all the moral issues on which one could be hypocritical, and people which could be hypocritical, is the observed worst case young female philosophers on eating meat?

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  • Mark

    Socially-motivated habit to give lip service to beliefs that people get angry about amongst causes to which one is sympathetic. That would be my guess.

  • Panu Horsmalahti

    It’s better to be intellectually honest and admit that meat eating is immoral even if they cannot act morally in this respect, than to rationalize (false) arguments for meat eating.

    Probably the same thing happens with donations to charities; people rationalize reasons not to do it, even though it would be more rational to just accept that their behaviour is not morally optimal.

    But it takes a lot of honesty to accept being “bad”.

    • Wait

      But, what if you think charities are on average, a net negative?

  • It is not hypocritical to say “X is evil. I do X.”

    It is only honesty. Almost all humans are rather evil, some admit it, some don’t. I’m more worried about the ones who don’t like to admit that they do evil things, but instead come up with excuses why e.g. meating eat is just fine.

    • lemmy caution

      Wikipedia has a good quote:

      Hypocrisy is not simply failing to practice those virtues that one preaches. Samuel Johnson made this point when he wrote about the misuse of the charge of “hypocrisy” in Rambler No. 14:

      Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.

    • I disagree with that position, and that Wikipedia quote.

  • david

    Some sympathetic non-hypocritical interpretations:

    – maybe the poison is in the dosage. Maybe eating a little meat (of mammals, etc.) – below your “fair share” of the world’s supply of meat, or something – is okay. But eating meat in general, in the quantities generally consumed, is not. Meat cubes in the salad rather than a steak, perhaps.

    – some moral theory that allows for compensation? Economists subscribe to such a theory a lot – it’s a-okay to dump waste into the river if I pay the tax I would pay if I had to get agreement. But polluting in general is not okay. Maybe one can make up for eating meat by volunteering especially much at the nearest shelter, or something.

    – maybe there are different types of meat. Eating meat in general is bad, but organically-farmed/whatever minority type is morally acceptable.

    – buck-passing: it’s bad to eat mammal meat, but the broader system makes me, so it’s not my fault, there should be a salad option, why isn’t synmeat here yet, etc.

    No idea why young female professors would be particularly susceptible, though.

  • There is a particularly high social expectation for women to appear kind and caring, while men can sometimes earn points for hard-headedness.

    • Exactly the answer I had in mind. To “hard-headedness,” I would also add “ruthlessness.”

  • I think the question is flawed. It presumes that the eating of meat to be a moral issue. Would the eating of meat on this planet cease if humans did not exists? Of course not.

    • John Maxwell IV

      I don’t see how that’s relevant. Does the fact that animals sometimes kill humans make the issue of humans killing other humans a non-moral issue?

    • Animals will rape and assault other animals even if humans didn’t exist. So you must think that raping and assaulting animals is morally acceptable, no? That’s a very bold position, Mr. Williams.

  • Slugger

    Because there are no adverse consequences to being a meat eater even if some people think that it is “wrong.”
    If I admit to reading other people’s private mail or driving while drunk, etc, I run the risk of being stigmatized by some. Admitting to a hamburger now and then won’t close any doors.

  • That’s a demographic which is under the most pressure to signal how much they care to others.

  • Ethicists in general seem inclined to have a disconnect between “morally bad” and “things I wouldn’t do” – possibly from treating ‘ethics’ as an academic field of study which exists in a separate magisterium.

    Personally, I think eating factory meat is instrumentally good because if anyone develops vat-grown synthetic meat, it will be the factory farming industry, and so supporting them economically now is part of the fast-track to no more animal suffering.

    • Metacognition

      Do you have any evidence to show that the factory farming industry is interested in developing synthetic meat or is this a rationalization?

      If you actually want to fast-track synthetic meat then support the research not some vague notion that factory farms MIGHT support it. With a quick google search “factory farms synthetic meat” I’ve found reports that corporate factory farms are actually against it. So your reasoning seems odd on many levels.

      The fact that meat will be industrially grown by some doesn’t mean it will be supported by the old industry. The old industry will likely actively campaign against to secure their market. Factory farms have sunk costs in the old method, they won’t be the drivers for change.

  • Tom Adams

    At least 1 in 4 of those who think it’s morally wrong are not practicing what they preach.

    Perhaps it’s a practical problem. These women have spouses who eat meat and it harder to prepare meals for multiple diets. As a married man, my diet would be different if my wife had the same preference as I do.

    They are just not commited enough to overcome the inertia.

  • Mike

    Signalling doesn’t explain the conduct, since bringing up the topic of meat eating is a great way to anger everyone at the dinner table. Few of us mention it. Thus, I do not go around signalling moral superiority because of my views on vegetarianism.

    Rationally, I know eating meat is immoral. I still eat meat.

    To anyone who has read David Hume, my conduct isn’t mysterious.

    Reason doesn’t move us. Emotion does. My emotional need to eat overwhelms my emotional need to spare animals (who are far away from me) from suffering.

  • Dave

    If people would confine themselves to roadkill the problem would not come up.

    • John Maxwell IV

      Maybe not–doing experiments with the cells of already-discarded human embryos was a big issue, if I recall correctly.

      • Yes that’s the ticket! Eat human corpses from people who died anyway!

  • ed

    Without any pretense that this explains the entire disparity, here are some other factors:

    Almost no one is certain that animals are morally considerable, and most people (philosphers included or so I ahve heard) lean towards the position that they are probably not. So (leaving aside the efficiency of plant farming versus animal farming) the main reason to be a vegetarian is if you are comfortable with maximizing your expected value of goodness, saying “there’s a chance that animals are morally considerable, so I should act, at least in some ways, like they are.” Most people do not like that sort of probabalistic reasoning, where ethical positions themselves are assigned probabilities. And many people with an old fashioned, more frequentist approach to probability, will think that assigning probabilities to ethical positions is meaningless. So the people most swayed by this sort of argument will have been exposed to enough contrasting ethical positions that they’re only hope is to maximize the expected goodness of their actions over a range of differently weighted positions (which applies to philosphers), and will be young enough to be comfortable assigning probabilities that cannot be given a frequentist interpretation.

    I am not a nutritionist, but I have heard that women actually need more iron than men, and that our main source of iron is meat, so that female vegetarians are expecially likely to become anemic. Not sure how significant this effect could be, since I have only heard one woman use this argument to justify omnivorousness.

  • ed

    Actually, in the previous post I am almost certainly overstating the importance of frequentism versus bayesianism. More relevant as to why this hipocrisy would be affecting young philosphers rather than old ones is the different style of philosphy these days: it is much more common now to see philosphers laying out a number of flawed theories, weighing them by how well they seem to fit reality, and then drawing a conclusion on a specific question for a sort of weighted average of the conclusions that one would draw from each theory (One sees this for example in Hawthorne’s “Knowledge and Lotteries”), rather than just continuing to look for a perfect theory. And it is exactly this sort of weighing process which I think you need to use in order to arrive at vegetarianism by way of animals being possibly morally considerable.

  • Constant

    Young, therefore fertile, females are presumably maximally harmed by malnutrition compared to other humans. It’s fine for an old person to die of malnutrition – he or she is past his childbearing years anyway. And men need to provide very little to the offspring, just some sperm, so a man suffering from malnutrition probably does minimal harm to his child as a result. But a young woman, inside whose body the fetus develops, is probably highly sensitive to bad diet. Don’t we keep hearing, after all, about how pregnant women have to be very careful about alcohol, caffeine, any number of drugs, and so on and so forth? This ought to extend to any young woman, who might become pregnant at any time.

    Consequently we should expect that the self-destructive conclusions of the unhinged moral philosophy that is currently ascendant would be strongly resisted by instinct.

    As to why young women are especially prone to taking seriously the clever idiocy of the academy, it’s not a question that there can be an honest discussion about.

    • Wait

      Oh god, like psychology.

      One of the most annoying moments of my life, is when I printed out the meta-analysis of antidepressants, and of those showing psychology PHDs do no better than a nice undergrad in therapy….and she “still” kept on going to a psychologist to talk about her feelings.

      Its such a freaking scam.

  • argghhh

    You people are insane. Killing animals for food is always moral.

  • Aron

    My dog loves meat. FUCKING LOVES IT. She won’t touch a vegetable, except carrots. That is the way of the world. There is no bootstrap for any form of ethics that precludes this fact. Sorry.

    • Wait

      I believe, as a rational ethicist, that it is immoral to not give people tasty meat.

    • David Jinkins

      Your dog also sniffs rear ends and eats doodoo, but I don’t expect you to.

      • hmm

        Your dog also breathes and is alive, and I don’t want you to do that.

    • Might there be different rules for dogs and humans? Or even humans with health conditions that require they eat meat and humans who can live with vegetarian alternatives?

  • Cyrus

    Hypothesis we somehow failed to reject at the 95% confidence level?

  • KrisC

    Rather than what is “right” and “wrong,” why not speak of what is better and worse. Meat requires a greater investment of resources to produce. Those resources could be spent elsewhere. Artificial price controls, in the US at least, hold down the price of meat.

    Government intervention puts meat on your table and pays for it from your taxes.

    • James K

      But the same is true of corn based foods, and a good many other agricultural products as well. Avoiding inefficient government interventions in food would be nearly impossible in the US.

      Or you could just buy meat from New Zealand, we don’t have any subsidies down here.

  • MichaelG

    Think of all the cows, pigs and chickens that would never have lived at all if we didn’t like meat! Doesn’t that count for anything?

    • Would it be okay to justify breeding human slaves with that argument: “they wouldn’t have existed if we didn’t breed them to be slaves!”


      Although humans and livestock share fundamentally important traits like the ability to love, suffer, enjoy, and fear, I do concede there are some differences. As far as I know, most animals don’t wrestle with the concept of their own mortality. So maybe killing animals is okay. But even if I concede that, our farming system today is a far far far cry from acceptable. Look up battery cages, sow gestation, or cattle corn feed on Google. The animals have short, miserable lives in our modern farming system. I would rather not exist at all then go through what they do.

      If we moved back to the traditional model of agriculture (respecting the animals’ needs for daily sunshine, roaming, foraging, socialization, comfort) then you might have a justification.

  • Dave

    I have tried to use that argument with vegans. I doesn’t work. They are not pro- life for pigs and chickens but anti- suffering for animals. Chicken genocide is OK. I don’t know what the transitional period would be like if society bought their plea. There would be a lot of petting zoos for a while. If not, what would you do with all that chickens.
    The same attitude is held for humans. Abortion is OK since there is little suffering. Once born, humanity owes all humans a decent life as specified by the United Nations. I sympathize ,but somehow it all seems incoherent. For example, what if eating a chicken makes a persons life more decent. If that is conceded,what is the vegan’s fallback position?

    • This is what the transition period would look like:

      Americans are responsible for consuming billions of animals a year. There is no way in any of our life times that meat-eating will be prohibited. So the animal rights movement (which includes meat eaters and vegetarians and vegans) focuses on reduction of animal consumption. An increase in welfare standards, difficulty in meeting the demand for meat as human population continues to increase and the cost of land, water, etc. increases, and growing ethical considerations are right this moment moving our society to eat less meat. Assume this trend continues. There are more vegetarians and vegans, and the meat eaters eat less meat. Eventually there will come a point a where a large minority of our culture is vegetarian and the people who eat meat also eat a lot of soy and legumes such that meat-eating prohibition becomes viable. At that point, we can have a phase-out period “no meat in five years” to give farmers a chance to shift to meet the new demand for vegetarian food. The “final cull” of livestock is something animal rights supporters will accept. We already make compromises. The Humane Society of the US, for example, praises Burger King (BURGER KING!) for committing to use more cage-free eggs. If we can endorse Burger King for that, I’m sure we can endorse a final cull of livestock. A small fraction will end up on sanctuaries and live on in perpetuity as exotic relics of a livestock past. There will be no magic moment where animal-slaughter is prohibited with billions of animals waiting in the queue to be slaughtered with no idea what to do with them. That’s an absurd scenario.

      I’d also like to address your second argument: “what if eating a chicken makes a persons life more decent.” You need to take a broader perspective here. Permitting a child molester to victimize children might make the molester’s life more decent but we don’t permit that. Why? Because we value the child’s interest of “not being molested” more than the molester’s interest. The same logic should apply to animals. The question is not “will eating the chicken make a human’s life more satisfying?” The question is “does the human’s satisfaction in eating the chicken outweigh the chicken’s interest in not being raised as it was for food?” I can’t think of many situations short of self-defense where torture and death are justified. Certainly they can’t be justified to satisfy a craving for food! Maybe they could be justified if the person needed the meat for health reasons (although this would limit meat intake to a fraction of the population and for only a few times a week, if at all). Furthermore, I implore you to at least consider that “a human’s satisfaction in eating the chicken may outweigh the chicken’s interest in it’s life but certainly not the chicken’s interest in avoiding a battery cage in a factory farming system!” Can we at least compromise and admit that if a human’s interest in eating a chicken outweighs the chicken’s interest that we should at least give the chicken a good life and painless death?

      • Luke

        I envision a similar phase-out from conventional funerals to cryonic preservations. Just because I feel it’s immoral to let someone’s brain decay does not mean I’m unrealistic about how soon it will happen. There can be gradual steps in the right direction. But of course the sooner the better. I imagine animal rights activists feel the same about getting humans weaned off of meat.

      • Dave

        Natural law favors meat consumption. The human mouth and digestive tract is built for omnivorous eating. Humans are natural hunters and naturally like meat. When economies grow,the cost of food rises partly due to increased meat consumption. No one supports animal cruelty,so let’s address this. Non- factory farming does not preclude cruelty. Lack of modern agricultural practice can be cruel. I once visited an Amish Farm,where the animals looked like they were starving.
        There was obvious over grazing and I am sure many other instances of cruelty and neglect have occurred in the non factory setting. In many poor countries animals provide the only source of good protein. This does not put meat eaters in the same category as child molesters.

        Vegans are the product of over affluence, sentimentality and a lack of contact with the land or the world. Farmers and ranchers go out at all hours of the night to care for animals in a flood or storm and buy food for them when needed,These animals essentially lives lives of ease compared to wild animals.

        Proper animal breeding can reduce suffering. For instance in a chicken yard the hens compete murderously. The best egg producer pecks the other hens mercilessly in order to get more food. Look on any chicken breeders site and you will see how docile happy chickens are selectively bred so this doesn’t happen. You could also breed for chickens that looked forward to being fried. The Japanese and Islamists can already find people ready to commit suicide. Why not chickens and cows?

    • They are likely antinatalists.

  • As a vegetarian of five years recently turned vegan I might have some insight on this issue. You’d be surprised how many people agree in principle that eating meat (especially factory farmed meat from “intelligent” animals like pigs) is wrong. I’ve long speculated that there are two reasons why people might believe it is wrong in principle but still engage in the practice.

    The first reason (I speculate) is that people are not confronted with the horrors of the meat industry when they choose to buy or consume meat. A pack of pepperoni looks the same whether it’s meat or soy based. You don’t have to look into the eyes of the animal, confront its life of suffering, or witness its terrible slaughter.

    The second reason (again, speculation) is that people are biologically and socially trained to both eat and crave meat. If one night you decided that eating meat was wrong, yet all of your friends and family (and indeed your own self up until that point) eats meat on a regular basis, then it seems easy just to go with the flow. Biologically speaking, when you get hungry, your brain will automatically start craving food you are used to such as meat. Not soy.

    A good anecdotal example of the disparity in this research is Al Gore. It’s fairly well established that a vegetarian in a hummer has less of a carbon impact than a meat eater on a bicycle. (Think of all the resources that go into raising an animal for several months before slaughter). Yet Al Gore — a middle-aged man immersed in meat-culture who grew up on a Tennessee ranch — cannot give up animal products even though it makes him a glaring hypocrite. Why? Surely he must know eating meat is bad for global warming. Ergo, the circumstantial evidence indicates that there are irrational forces at work such as the cognitive, social, and biological ones I set forth above.

  • larry

    Here is a video on meat:

  • writelhd

    I had a thought, with only anecdotal support, which is that eating meat can be tied to masculinity. You know, the attitude that “salad is for rabbits and meat is man food!” which I have observed occasionally but couldn’t say if it really was a prevalent idea in the general population. What is the likelihood that young or old male philosophers are somewhat influenced by that, so that they are less likely than young females to even make the statement that eating meat is unethical?

  • brian

    On a side note, what is ‘non-skeptical realism ‘, alternatively what is skeptical realism?