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Back You are here: Home Social Justice Animals Eating animals may be natural but so what?

Eating animals may be natural but so what?

MeatWe may argue that humans are biologically omnivores therefore it’s natural to eat meat. But just because something is ‘natural’, it doesn’t make it ethical, writes Alex Melonas.

How do you defend eating what and whom you eat? Something like this: While we may wrestle with the ethics of eating animals, doing so – that is, eating them – is instinctual, biologically motivated behavior. Therefore, you might conclude, vegans are denying the hard fact that humans are part of the “circle of life”. Omnivorism is, in a word, “natural”.

Now, according to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), veganism is healthy at all stages of the life cycle. Indeed, its latest report suggests that a vegan diet has health benefits. “Natural”, then, does not mean need. It may be “natural” to eat animals, but doing so is a choice nonetheless.

So, re-read that first paragraph, and ask yourself, assuming the premise is factually true and predation is in our genetic code, as it were, does that mean that using animals for food (or anything else) is ethical?

Nothing ethically relevant follows from what is “natural”, whatever actions you ascribe to that concept. Before I defend that claim, though, what is “natural” anyway? In accordance with nature might be a definition. But what is “natural”?

“Natural” is merely a result of an ongoing process of evolution by natural selection. There isn’t a moral arbiter guiding this chain of events. There aren’t herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores because he/she/it said it ought to be that way. There just are.

It is amoral evolution that determines these results: in other words “selfish genes” using plant and animal bodies as disposable vehicles. Eating animals could have been one of the behaviors that happened to be selected for, but that fact is arbitrary from an ethical point of view.

The conceptual difference, then, between “natural” and “ethical” could not be any greater. It is a logical fallacy to try and bridge this is/ought gap.

So, eating animals is natural, we might assume, but so what, ethically speaking?

“Natural” is an antiquated concept, but oftentimes people are not persuaded by reason and continue to insist that there is a natural order to things, and predator-prey relationships are inherent in that order (a “natural law”). Human animals are predators. So be it.

Well if you insist, but what else is “natural”? What else just is?

Sexual aggression is certainly “natural” for males of our species. It is a minority occurrence, to be sure, but rape happens, and it does serve an evolutionary function. When alternative sexual gestures fail, aggression for the end of procreation satisfies the needs of our “selfish genes”. The same is obviously true with violence, of course, and “out-grouping” (i.e bigotry). These are yet more “natural laws”, always-already present in nature.

I would hope, however, that those who use this “argument from nature” don’t also believe that rape, aggression, and racism are morally acceptable. If they are reasoning consistently, they must.

But we don’t reason consistently do we? We use arguments that get us what we want. And what those who throw “natural” around want is to exclude eating animals from the sphere of ethics altogether. So racism and war, while “natural”, are issues that we should ethically struggle with, but eating animals is really “natural”, beyond our ethical concern.

But it should be obvious that we can’t arbitrarily exclude some “natural” behaviors from ethics while still including others without begging the question: On what grounds are you deciding which “natural” behaviors are okay, and which are not? You are just assuming the answer to that question, but it needs to be defended.

In the final analysis, the inconsistent use of “natural” happens for one reason: because we want to keep eating animals.

In other words, the proponent of this argument is reasoning backwards: from a conclusion – “Milk is so tasty” – to the premise(s) that support that conclusion – “This ‘natural’ behavior is okay, but…that one’s not. No follow-up questions, please”.

That is intellectually and ethically dishonest.

Alex Melonas is a second-year Ph.D. student in political theory at Temple University in the US. He occasionally writes about animal rights at That Vegan Girl.

SEE ALSO: Humans did not evolve to eat meat


0 #48 Hal 2012-10-21 10:59
I do have one remark about your article.
I reject the notion that sexual agression in the form of rape is a normal natural behavior for humans. To make such an assertion to the contrary demands documentation to demonstrate that it is not abnormal psychology.
0 #47 sam 2010-08-24 10:41
0 #46 Alex Melonas 2010-08-24 09:01
@Sam: You're funny. Has your whole argument here been one big joke?


You wrote,

"In the end, you have to simply ASSERT the the premise that causing harm and death is always bad."

That is the straw man you continue to use, but you are half-right. I simply asserted (although I provided a metaphysical defense of that premise on past threads) that causing harm and death is bad, generally, as a principle. There isn't an impartial reason to qualify that prescription, in other words; that is how principles work. When you combine this principle with my absolute refutation of YOUR argument about the intrinsic value of "nature", what you call "absurd conclusions" are perfectly logical.

So given that the mentally handicapped, senile, and human babies can't enter into a "social contract" with you because they lack the requisite intellectual faculties, wouldn't it follow that you think that causing them harm and death isn't morally wrong? You must at least concede that you don't have direct obligations to babies and the mentally handicapped; that these humans are not members of the moral community, they are, rather, like nonhuman animals.

In the end, you haven’t responded to my original essay. It is clear that “nature” cannot be used as a premise to justify eating animals as both a matter of logic or morality. The is/ought fallacy cripples any such arguments, while the issue of morality makes the advocate of such a position seem monstrous.
0 #45 Russell Edwards 2010-08-23 16:58
"In the end you simply have to reject the premise that causing harm and death are bad, generally."

... and I do reject that, in the absense of a social contract.

How about you? In the end, you have to simply ASSERT the the premise that causing harm and death is always bad.

You have not provided any reason for this assertion. I have demonstrated this assertion leads to manifestly absurd positions. You choose to reject this argument (apparently reality has no bearing upon moral considerations, far out, no wonder I stayed away from the humanities faculty...) but again provide no backup for your own.

You are running around in circles and have now come within a millimetre of taking on my position of moral relativism--- but still refuse to admit that your premise is also artbitrary, unprovable, and therefore useless for passing absolute moral judgement upon those who do not share your premise.
0 #44 sam 2010-08-23 12:54
@alex Ah, a condescending vegan. Now I remember why I don't comment on places like this. I'm out, so take that as a win if you'd like.

Best of luck with trying to convince people they are ethically wrong. I'll do my best to show people one can be a both a vegan and not a dick, and that they can enjoy vegan food so tasty one's ethics don't even come into it.
0 #43 Alex Melonas 2010-08-23 09:22
@Russell: Your argument amounts to this: harm and death caused by predation is "vital" because you cannot conceive of an alternative, whereas human-human harm and death is not "vital" because you can conceive of an alternative history whereby the evolution of civilization proceeded amicably. My argument is simply this: because there isn't an intrinsic value to "nature" ("nature" is merely an "is", a claim I have defended ad nauseam to refute your assertion of “nature’s” self-evident value), if we could, if it were possible, to tinker, as it were, with "nature" so as to reduce the amount of harm and death caused, that would be a good thing, all things considered. So again, I am assigning negative value to harm and death, generally, as an impartial matter, and then reasoning to a conclusion.

To challenge my reasoning you cannot re-assert that harm and death in "nature" is really important, or that through harm and death evolution HAS proceeded as it does, because that is a non-issue; it is logically analogous to simply assert that the same is true for human-human relationships and therefore we can't talk about ethics. Both claims are factually true. This is a distinction, then, between prescription and description.

The problem with your argument could not be clearer then. To challenge my reasoning you are presuming, again, that "nature" is intrinsically good, but that is grounded on an is/ought fallacy, a fallacy I have exposed again and again throughout many threads. So unless you can defend that claim without the fallacy, which would mean that NOT tinkering with "nature" is the right thing to do because as it is it is good, you don't have a counter-argumen t. In the end you simply have to reject the premise that causing harm and death are bad, generally.
0 #42 Russell Edwards 2010-08-23 04:25
Alex, if something is vital for the existence for all known life on Earth and you don't think it's plausible to assign positive value to it, sorry, you've lost all credibility. Besides which, my argument does not lie in conferring positive value to heterotrophy. My argument rests on the fact that it is NOT sensible to assign negative value to heterotrophy.

War and so forth have shaped civilisation and technology, no doubt, but there is no reason why some form of civilisation or society could not have formed. War and conflict serve a modifying role, not a creative role.

In contrast, a lack of predation would make for virtually no selection pressure and so no evolution. And a lack of heterotrophy would mean no energy flow in ecosystems and so no ecosystem. You probably would have ended up with a stalled process shortly after the development of the first autoreophs, with all carbon locked up in the form of static (dead or immortal) unicellular organisms, if you were lucky.
0 #41 Alex Melonas 2010-08-22 18:30
@Russell: The assignment of ANY value to ANY "natural" forces, if that assignment is arrived at because it is a "natural" (or as you put it, a "driving force", so really, really importantly "natural"), is an is/ought fallacy. You need to arrive at a positive evaluation of that "driving force" independently; that is, it being a "powerful driving force" is ethically irrelevant, a mere "is", conceptually distinct from an "ought" or positive evaluation. And this is precisely how I’ve shown that arguments such as “nature is intrinsically good” is philosophically unsound because as a matter of logic, the fact that X is a “driving force” does nothing to ground a positive/negati ve evaluation of X. And since you’ve never provided an independent argument for that positive evaluation, your argument fails logically.

History doesn't show that human-human violence, etc. happens "a lot", but that it is a fundamental element in the evolution of our species. To assert that this isn't true, or rather, that you can think of ways that it doesn't NEED to be true, is a non-starter. Without inter-species and human-human violence, human society would not be human society as we understand it today.
0 #40 Russell Edwards 2010-08-22 17:03
Alex, just quickly.

1) '"Second, simply because harm and death are fundamentally creative forces” it does not follow that the assignment of a positive value to that force is logically valid; that is the is/ought fallacy.' This is not an is/ought fallacy. It is assigning positive value to a driving force resposible for the creation of all life as we know it. That is a metaphysical argument at least as powerful as the one you mount in order to cast all of creation as immoral.

2) "Third, you merely assert that harm and death are not necessary for social dynamics, while the historical record clearly belies that premise. Indeed, harm and death seem quite necessary for the “evolution” of human society. "

Why are they necessary? History shows they have happened a lot. However as far as I know, there is no reason to believe that humans harming each-other has enabled social development of a fundamentally different form than would otherwise have been possible. Contrast this to evolution of species and ecosystem dynamics. Neither could have arisen, AT ALL, without heterotrophy, according to our present understanding of evolution, natural selection and ecology.
0 #39 Alex Melonas 2010-08-22 09:18
@Sam: Indeed, Richard Dawkins is an omnivore. However, he explicitly A) rejects speciesism in "The God Delusion" and B) has argued that because Darwinian evolutionary destroys the foundation of "human special-ness", and because, as a consequentalist , reducing the suffering caused is an ethical end, veganism is a perfectly reasonable, and ethical, decision. If Dawkins was a more consistently ethical person, I have no doubt he would be a vegan; and I think he would concede that.

You seem to have had some trouble following my original argument. No, sexual aggression and inter-species violence is not unethical when practiced by nonhuman animals. (Nonhuman animals, like human babies and the mentally handicapped, are not "moral agents" like you and I.) "Out-grouping", or perhaps, a distrust of the Other (species groups, e.g.), is not unethical when practiced by chimpanzees or bonobos. However, it is empirically true that our nonhuman ancestors did and continue to do these things. And, because of Darwinian evolution, these impulses, or genetic inclinations, because of their evolutionary use, were selected for and are present in OUR physiological and psychological make-up. I merely state those as empirically verifiable facts, without any evaluative (or moral) overtones.

Now, moving beyond those facts, this is where yours and Russell's counter-argumen ts have problems. Whether or not those are facts, as an ethical matter, because of the is/ought fallacy, those "natural" behaviors are total non-issues. As a matter of logic, you cannot use facts like these to derive any ethical conclusions, such as eating animals is okay. Furthermore, as a matter of morality, if you will, because, assuming eating animals is "natural", without begging the question, you need to defend the claim that while eating animals is okay because it is "natural", our "natural" inclination to sexual aggression and "out-grouping" are not okay.

Finally, your computer analogy is a red herring for two reasons. First, you don't know where my computer was manufactured, nor do you know what energy sources I use. But more importantly, second, it is impossible to avoid using energy or computers today because alternatives simply do not exist. This is not true in the case of eating animals. In Western nations, alternative nutritional resources abound. And therefore, unlike using energy and computers, non-veganism is a choice, a choice that cannot be defended.

All your anger is amusing, but quite misplaced.

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