The ethical basis by which we consume domesticated animals is a deal: people plan & supervise the birth of each animal & provide food, protection, land & shelter. In return, the unwitting animal is killed and eaten at a time we determine. How many people would, if still waiting to be born, turn down such a deal if the alternative was to never be born at all?
Because this is a deal that we, ourselves, might have had to acquiesce to if it wasn’t for differing circumstances, we have an ethical obligation to treat these animals in a manner that we would find unobjectionable ourselves, i.e. to rear and slaughter them humanely. In corporate America, only McDonalds audits this part of the bargain, for its suppliers. Others, we may learn about from horrific videos shot by undercover activists. For this reason, the consumption of many American meat products may be unethical.
Wild food animals comprise 3 ethical categories, based on the observation that in nature, their lives usually end by predation. When predation is removed, they suffer population explosion, outstrip their food supply, and die of starvation.
First, the killing of wildlife is unethical when it is endangered, unless it is attacking you, or you are starving. This is because driving them to extinction will deprive, including all future generations, of the benefits of this interaction between them & their environment. Commercially, wildlife means seafood. Some fisheries seem sustainable, but increasingly many aren’t, or create other problems, like dolphin, turtles or other by-catch. Many fish are farmed, often with attendant environmental issues. In Africa, the “bushmeat” trade is blamed for outbreaks of devastating Ebola fever. Second, to hunt or kill intelligent animals such as monkeys, dogs, cats, (elephants) & cetaceans is unethical on the grounds that they share a level of sentience with ourselves. It is this level of sentience which, humanists claim, provides the basis of our own expectation of a right not to be murdered.
The third category comprises animals whose natural predators we have exterminated. It becomes our duty to control their numbers. But remember, deer hunter, the doe, not the buck, the population multiplier.
Iv’e summarized humanist ethical concerns about meat eating. The “great religions” have offered differing justifications. For instance, the Bible says God gave Adam dominion over the animals. Some religions proscribe eating pork, or beef, and some issue rules to follow during slaughter. (These rules proscribe “stunning”, increase the time the animals suffer after cutting their throats). Religious justifications are inadequate because:
(1) they aren’t universal. Not everyone believes in God, and believers believe differently.
(2) their “deal” is between man and God, with animals denied even an imaginary voice at the table. Religion denies animals rights, and is open-ended about responsibility towards their welfare. It is often cited to excuse animal negelct, degradation and abuse.
Our concerns have evolved since mankind emerged as a population of moral agents. By now, our population has grown so disproportionately that one ethical consideration supersedes all others: how can farming feed our planet sustainably? Animals consume too much feed too inefficiently, belch too much methane into the atmosphere, and produce too much manure. They degrade riparian pasturelands and require massive deforestation for ranching and for feed crop plantations with their oil-based fertilizers. There are also the ethical side-issues of promoting meat consumption beyond levels that are healthy for the consumer. Hopefully, technologies will ameliorate some of these concerns. One technology will be quality “guilt-free” fake meat. Ethical meat consumption is still possible, but we should aim to reduce, to replace, to research its source and choose responsibly.