Why Do We Eat Animals?

I used to eat animals but I no longer do. I gave up the practice about six years ago. When confronted by my meat-eating friends about why I’ve given up eating animals, it’s tacitly assumed that I’m expected to provide an argument or present reasons for why eating animals is wrong. But why, I ask myself, do I have to present reasons for why eating animals is eating wrong? Surely the burden of proof is with my meat-eating friends to show that eating animals is somehow OK. After all, they’re the ones that are choosing to eat a once-sentient being. So, let’s ask: Are there any good reasons for eating animals? 

Before we try to answer that question, it’s worth briefly describing where our meat comes from. 

Standard factory farming practices

The vast majority of meat, dairy, and eggs produced in the United States and Canada come from animals raised on factory farms. A “factory farm” is a large-scale, high-intensity, industrial complex that breeds and raises large numbers of animals so that we can harvest their meat, milk, and eggs for consumption. Here’s a sample of some standard practices that occur in these operations. 

Animals in factory farms are typically packed into confinement facilities. Broiler chickens, for instance, are crammed into massive windowless warehouses and are denied fresh air, sunshine, and pasture. These sheds contain anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 birds. Egg-laying hens are confined to battery cages—small shoebox-sized wire cages—in which they are unable to walk on solid ground or spread their wings. Veal calves spend their most of their lives chained at the neck and confined to stalls or “veal crates” too narrow for them to turn around in. Sows are confined to small metal crates on concrete slatted floors with no straw or bedding to lie on and without fresh air or sunlight. They are kept in these conditions for three to four years, where they are treated essentially as reproduction or “breeding” machines, forced to endure multiple pregnancies. Beef cattle are housed in feedlots. Filthy and stinking with open cesspools of toxic manure and air choked with high concentrations of ammonia, these facilities contain up to 100,000 animals. Since they’re so tightly packed, the animals in these facilities can’t properly move about and must lie in their own feces and urine. The noxious ammonia fumes from the accumulated urine cause burning of the respiratory system, eyes, noses, and throats.

These conditions don’t merely physically harm the animals; they psychologically harm them as well. Since they’re so densely packed, these animals are unable to exercise their naturally ingrained instincts—to nurse, stretch, move around, perch, root, play, socialize, build nests, groom themselves, and so on. As a result, these animals develop a range of behavioral“vices.” They literally go insane. Chickens, for instance, unable to establish a proper pecking order in the overcrowded conditions, often become violent and peck each other relentlessly causing injury and sometimes even death. Pigs, stressed by boredom and limited mobility, resort to biting the tails of other pigs. To block these behaviors, the animals undergo a range of painful bodily mutilations. To prevent pecking, chickens are “debeaked.” This is a procedure in which one- to two-thirds of each bird’s sensitive beak is sliced off using a hot blade. The birds suffer severe pain for weeks. Some, unable to eat, starve to death. To prevent tail-biting, the tails of pigs are snipped off with a pair of pliers. Other standard mutilations include: hot-iron branding, tattooing, dehorning, ear-tagging, ear-notching, nose-ringing, teeth-pulling and teeth grinding, forced insemination, and castration. All of these procedures, I stress, are routinely administered without the aid of anesthesia or any sort of numbing agent.

When the animals are ready to be harvested they are then crammed onto eighteen-wheelers and shipped on multiday journeys to the slaughterhouse without food or water. Once they arrive, they are in a weakened physical and psychological state. The animals are hungry and exhausted, confused and frightened. Once inside the slaughterhouse, the animals are jammed into metal shackles, strung upside down (which often causes the breaking of limbs), and brought to the slaughterer. Prior to slaughter, the animals must be rendered unconscious by stunning. Different types of stunning-mechanisms are used to achieve this. For pigs, a high-voltage electrical current is typically passed through the animal’s brain via a large pair of tongs with sharp steel electrodes on the tong ends. Cows have their skulls drilled with a special gun, which introduces a retractable steel bolt into their brains. Chickens are forced to pass through a tub of electrified water. However, due to dangerously fast kill line speeds, stunning is frequently ineffective at inducing unconsciousness. The result of ineffective stunning along with lax enforcement is that countless animals annually have their legs hacked off, skin peeled off, throats slit, jugular veins severed, and hearts punctured while still fully conscious. 

Such, then, are just some of the basic facts associated with today’s high-intensity industrial farming, facts that are readily accessible to anyone willing to do a quick internet search on industrial farming. 

Industrial farming is clearly one of the most appallingly inhumane inventions ever devised. No other human activity in history has caused more collective suffering than industrial farming. Industrialized farming hasn’t merely caused intense suffering to hundreds of thousands of animals. Rather, it has caused intense suffering to tens of billions of animals. Around nine billion land animals are killed each year in the U.S. alone to produce meat, dairy, and eggs. Globally, the annual death toll from industrialized farming exceeds eighty billion. 

Some common arguments for eating factory-farmed animals 

OK, enough of the gruesome details. Let’s return to the question I posed at the outset: are there any good reasons for eating animals? More exactly, the question I want to ask is this: is it OK to inflict intense suffering on factory-farmed animals so that we might eat them? Note: there had better be good reasons for this intense suffering, for if there aren’t, then the suffering endured by these animals is pointless. But if this suffering is pointless, then the practice of eating factory-farmed animals is without a rational justification and therefore wrong.

I’ve encountered quite a few arguments that try to show that it’s OK to inflict suffering on factory-farmed animals; but instead of examining all of them, I’ll just focus on the four or five arguments that most people find persuasive. Here they are:

Argument #1: Eating factory-farmed animals brings me intense pleasure. These animals taste amazing. Hence, it’s OK to inflict intense suffering on these animals.

I’ve heard this argument countless times. It receives particular emphatic expression from those individuals that elevate the act of eating animals to the level of a religious experience. A moment’s reflection, however, shows that this is hardly a compelling argument. Just because an action brings about pleasure or “feels good” doesn’t mean that that action is OK. There are lots of actions that might produce pleasure but are obviously wrong. For example, shoplifters derive pleasure from shoplifting. But the fact that shoplifters derive pleasure from shoplifting doesn’t show that it’s OK to shoplift. Or, to take a somewhat more gruesome example, suppose Smith derives pleasure from smashing puppies on the head with a hammer (maybe he likes the sound this makes). Obviously, the fact that Smith derives pleasure in this way doesn’t show that it’s OK for Smith to smash puppies on the head with a hammer. In just the same way, the mere fact that someone derives pleasure from eating animals that have been brutalized on factory farms doesn’t show that it’s OK to eat animals that have been treated in this way. Since we’re all prepared to condemn Smith for torturing puppies merely to produce his pleasurable experience, we should be similarly prepared to condemn someone who inflicts intense suffering on factory-farmed animals merely to produce their pleasurable experience. Hence, the “animals-taste-amazing” argument isn’t a good reason to inflict suffering on factory-farmed animals. In fact, it’s a terrible reason. 

Argument #2: Eating factory-farmed animals is nutritionally necessary. I need my animal protein! So, it’s OK to inflict suffering on these animals.

One glaring problem with this argument is this: if eating animals is nutritionally necessary, then vegetarians and vegans couldn’t exist, as they’d all be dead! But since, as is obvious, vegetarians and vegans do exist (by the millions, in fact), eating animals isn’t nutritionally necessary. But what’s worse, this argument contradicts the evidence, which strongly indicates that there is no nutritional need whatsoever to eat animals. The scientific evidence accumulated over the past three decades indicates that a well-planned vegetarian diet is, in the words of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (which is the foremost scientific authority on diet and nutrition) “healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” The Academy states also that vegetarians meet or exceed protein requirements, and that a vegetarian diet is suitable for all stages of life, including pregnancy, infancy, childhood, adolescence, and athletes. The bottom line is this: eating animals, factory-farmed or otherwise, is not necessary in order to achieve optimal nutrition. 

But not only is eating animals not nutritionally necessary; eating animals and animal by-products is bad for you, even when ingested in small quantities. Consider the diseases associated with consuming animals and animal by-products: heart disease, type-2 diabetes, hypertension, cancer, stroke, osteoporosis, arthritis, high cholesterol, obesity, and Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. By contrast, studies consistently show that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from heart disease, lower cholesterol levels, lower rates of hypertension, lower rates of type-2 diabetes, lower rates of obesity, lower rates of cancer, and a reduced risk for coronary artery disease. An additional bonus of not eating animals and animal by-products is this: you’ll prolong your life by nearly an extra decade. According to a recent report on the largest study of vegetarians to date, vegetarians live on average eight years longer than the general population. That’s similar to the gap between smokers and non-smokers. 

Eating animals is harmful in another way: The facilities in which these animals are raised breed infectious diseases, which harm all of us. When you slam billions of animals into massive confinement facilities, and you add the ammonia that’s burning their lungs, the lack of fresh air and sunlight, and a steady diet of non-therapeutic antibiotics (for disease prevention), you create the perfect breeding ground for the creation of dangerous “zoonotic” diseases which then spill over to humans who eat their flesh. Here are some of the diseases caused by factory farms: E-coli, staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), shigella, campylobacter, salmonella, listeria monocytogenes, Clostridium difficile, bovine spongiform encephalopathies (BSE), bird flu (H5N1), the Nipah virus, and swine flu virus (H1N1). When you add to this the fact that factory farming is a major driver of climate change, overconsumes precious resources such as water, destroys forests and natural grassland, and is the single largest source of antibiotic resistance, the “meat-is-nutritious” argument is almost impossible to defend. 

Argument #3: What’s the big deal? They’re just animals! We, humans, are smarter and have a higher degree of rationality. We also use complex language and have a finely- tuned moral sense. Animals don’t possess any of these qualities. So, it’s OK to inflict intense suffering on factory-farmed animals.

Let’s suppose that it’s true that humans are smarter than animals, have a higher degree of rationality than animals, and so on. Even if we grant all of this, this argument fails. This is because the fundamental moral issue is not whether animals can reason or use complex language, or do high-level mathematics or compose a symphony. Rather, the fundamental moral issue is, as Jeremy Bentham noted long ago, whether animals can suffer. And it’s obvious that animals can suffer. Common sense and a growing body of scientific research on the inner lives of animals tell us this. Animals, like us, are conscious, sentient beings. They, like us, experience pleasure and pain. They, like us, see and hear, believe and desire, remember and anticipate. They like us, experience fear, anger, loneliness, and boredom. They, like us, can form deep and fulfilling connections with one another. There are no good reasons whatsoever to doubt any of this about the animals we raise and kill for food on factory farms. Hence, the “they’re-just-animals” argument isn’t a good reason to inflict intense suffering on factory-farmed animals.  

Argument #4: Animals eat other animals. We see this in nature all the time. This is part of the natural order. But we too are animals! So, it’s OK to inflict intense suffering on factory-farmed animals.

This argument is often trotted out as the “killer” or irrefutable argument that justifies inflicting intense suffering on factory-farmed animals. This argument, however, is easily dispatched. Firstly, not only is it notoriously difficult to define the term “natural,” but it’s hard to see how the high-intensity industrial methods of modern factory-farming, transport, and slaughter are in any sense “natural” or “part of the natural order.” Secondly, when animals kill other animals for food, they do so out of necessity; they do this in order to survive. We, however, are not in that situation. We have a choice about whether to eat animals. Lastly, and most importantly, this argument suffers from a brazen fallacy: just because a certain behavior is found in nature doesn’t mean that that behavior is morally permissible. There are lots of behaviors that are found in nature that are wrong. For example, forced sexual intercourse, infanticide, eating members of one’s own kind, killing the weakest members of one’s group, are found in nature but are obviously morally wrong. Therefore, the “it-happens-in-nature” argument isn’t a good reason to inflict intense suffering on factory-farmed animals.

Argument #5: OK, fine; there are no good arguments for inflicting intense suffering on factory-farmed animals. But what about animals that are humanely-farmed? Surely it’s OK to consume animals that are cage-free, free-range, certified-humane, animal welfare-approved, wild, pasture-raised, natural, and so on.

I find this argument unconvincing for three reasons.

Firstly, by admitting that there are no good reasons for eating factory-farmed animals, the person who chooses to eat animals has in effect conceded that it’s wrong to consume 99 percent of all animals and animal by-products in the U.S. If my arguments thus far show that it’s wrong to eat 99 percent of all animals and animal by-products, I’d consider that a significant result indeed!

Secondly, although labels such as “free-range,” “certified-humane,” “pasture-raised,” “natural” and so on, conjure Babe-like images of animals peacefully roaming their natural habitats, there are good reasons for being skeptical about whether proper animal-welfare practices occur even on these sorts of farms. Since terms such as “humanely raised” and “pasture-raised” and so on, have no legal definition (in Canada or the U.S.), it’s left to the producer, incredibly, to self-define these terms, leaving the consumer totally in the dark as to how these terms are to be understood. Since this is so, not only do animals on many humanely-raised farms spend much of their time slammed into crowded sheds mired in their own feces, but almost all of the most brutal practices that occur on factory farms are still regularly practiced on free-range farms or certified humane farms. These practices include debeaking, tail-clipping, forced insemination, dehorning, castration, ear tagging, and so on—all of which are done without any sort of anesthetic. Hence, slapping “free-range” on a carton of eggs or “humanely-raised” on a slab of pork tenderloin merely hides the catalog of horrors that actually occur on pasture-raised farms. 

Thirdly, the vast majority of animals on pasture-raised or free-range farms are still sent to the same slaughterhouse facilities as factory-farmed animals and undergo the same brutal slaughter methods. In the end, and as ethicist Mylan Engel says, “The only way to be sure that the animal you are eating was raised humanely and killed painlessly is to raise and kill it yourself.” Thus, the humanely-farmed-meatargument fails.

A final set of responses go like this: People are going to believe whatever they want to believe; people are going to do whatever they want to do; eating animals is a part of our culture; eating animals is part of the circle of life; eating animals is part of my tradition; eating animals is normal and pretty much everyone does it; Heck, even the Dalai Lama eats meat twice a week! and so on. But the problem with these responses is that they don’t tell us why, morally speaking, it’s OK to inflict intense suffering on animals. These responses only tell us why people continue to eat animals. 

There are no good reasons to eat animals

It seems, then, that there are no good reasons for inflicting intense suffering on the animals that we eat. There are, in short, no good reasons for brutalizing animals. The most common arguments that people trot out to justify the intense suffering and extreme misery of these animals are either fallacious, rest upon highly questionable moral principles, or appeal to scientific or empirical claims that are false. 

What does this show? 

This: since there are no good reasons for inflicting intense suffering on the animals we eat, the intense suffering endured by these animals is ultimately pointless. But since, as every morally decent person already affirms, it’s wrong to cause or inflict intense pointless suffering, the practice of eating these animals is therefore not only without a rational justification but also deeply morally wrong. 

I miss the taste of meat. I really do. Sometimes the desire for a juicy hamburger or a perfectly-seared steak is overwhelming. And while I applaud the recent plant-based attempts to recreate the taste of meat, I have to admit that they fall somewhat short when compared to the traditional meat experience. But even though I’ve given up eating meat, my life hasn’t been made unacceptably worse off by choosing to not eat animals. Missing the taste of animals isn’t a good reason to brutalize them. 

A final personal note: I’m not a crackpot or a quack sentimentalist. I’m also not a moral crusader or dangerous radical who wants to force my beliefs on anyone who disagrees with me or thinks differently. I’m not going to freak out or lay a guilt trip on you if you order a steak. Rather, I write as someone who thinks of rational argument as a powerful force, a force that can shape people’s beliefs, attitudes, and behavior. Since I affirm (as do you, no doubt) that it’s wrong to cause intense pointless suffering, and since, as we’ve seen, eating animals causes intense pointless suffering, I’m rationally committed to the claim that eating animals is wrong. Indeed, aside from a medical condition that requires one to eat animals or situations in which one’s survival is at stake, I can scarcely think of a good reason for eating animals, factory-farmed or otherwise. And unless and until the person who eats animals is able to muster a good argument which shows that eating animals is morally permissible, an argument which shows that brutalizing animals is somehow OK, then that person should also seriously entertain the possibility that the practice of eating animals is morally wrong. In fact, given that there are no good reasons for eating animals and lots of good reasons against eating animals, maybe the person who eats animals should consider giving up the practice of eating animals altogether

My sincerest thanks to Doran Smolkin, Dan Hooley, Gabrielle Ruloff, and especially Patrick Findler for helpful criticisms and feedback on the ideas in this article.