Eating animals may be natural but so what?
- Published: 14 August 2010
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We 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