A new way of thinking about animal welfare

Unthinkable: Eating the odd beef steak may be more ethical than living off eggs and fish

Some animals raised for food  have better lives and deaths than others.  Photograph: Reuters/Ilya Naymushin

Some animals raised for food have better lives and deaths than others. Photograph: Reuters/Ilya Naymushin


Habits are hard to break. Even the most nuanced arguments for veganism are unlikely to turn the head of a diner whose stomach is grumbling for steak.

But why should vegetarians have to do all the intellectual hard work? Surely, meat-eaters should be open-minded enough to turn the question around, and provide reasons to justify their dietary manner. Have a go! It’s not as easy as you’d think to stand over unnecessary animal suffering.

One of the more novel arguments for being vegan – or abstaining from the use of animal products – is provided by the historian and bestselling author Yuval Noah Harari who foresees humans occupying a more vulnerable status in the future. “Would it be okay,” he asks, “for an artificial intelligence to exploit humans and even kill them to further its own needs and desires? If it should never be allowed to do that, despite its superior intelligence and power, why is it ethical for humans to exploit and kill pigs?”

Dr Diana Fleischman, who is visiting Dublin to speak at an event for World Vegetarian Day on October 1st, is also trying to introduce new ways of thinking about animal welfare. An evolutionary psychologist who blogs at sentientist.org, she advocates a more pragmatic approach to the issue: If you’ve a choice between two types of animal product eat the one that entailed less suffering in its creation.

Animals don’t care whether we label ourselves vegetarian

“Because chicken, eggs and fish involve killing many small animals, you can kill 90 per cent fewer animals by giving up these foods,” she says. “This leads to a counterintuitive idea, a vegetarian who eats eggs every day could be causing a lot more suffering than a meat eater who only eats beef.”

It is an argument that other vegans find hard to accept but Dr Fleischman, who is this week’s “Unthinkable” guest, replies that we shouldn’t get hung up on visions of ethical purity when there are short-term gains to be made. Which is why she sees lab-grown meat – otherwise known as in vitro meat – as the great hope for animal welfare.

Your approach is unapologetically utilitarian. How do you reply to those who say you can’t legitimise a little bit of animal suffering?

Diana Fleischman: “Everyone would agree that murder is wrong but would also say one murder is better than 20 murders. We should think about the scope of suffering in the same way; we should aim to reduce suffering with our individual choices.

“Animals don’t care whether we label ourselves vegetarian. I can help reduce suffering much more by convincing five people to give up chicken and fish than I can by convincing one person to become vegetarian.”

Is it more ethical to eat a beef steak rather than a fish?

“The type of animal products we eat can have a huge influence on the amount of suffering they cause. People tend to identify more with mammals like cows and pigs than they do with chickens and fish and therefore often decide to give up beef and pork out of concern for animals.

“It’s not really possible to fully know whether a cow suffers more than a chicken when raised and killed for food but we do know that it takes about 200 chickens to make as much meat as one cow. Research has been done on how many animals are killed per million calories for foods like grain, fish, beef, chicken, pork, eggs and dairy. Some animals raised for food also have better lives and deaths than others.

“Is it more ethical to eat a beef steak than a fish? The cow that makes a beef steak lived outside with other cows, may have been castrated or branded and was probably killed with a captive bolt gun at around 18 months of age, some would argue that most of its days were good.

“Fish have all the neurons necessary to experience pain and experiments have shown they are probably subjectively aware of their pain. A farmed fish may have been crowded with many others in dirty water full of antibiotics and killed by suffocation.

“In one meal you can eat a fish but it would take you dozens of meals to eat an entire cow. So, I would argue, it’s more ethical to eat beef than fish.”

What about eating an egg rather than a slice of bacon?

“This is potentially more complicated. In the process of egg production male chicks are killed shortly after birth because they cannot lay eggs. Hens lay about one egg a day, which is probably painful for them to say nothing of the conditions in which they are usually kept.

“Pigs suffer from intense boredom in conditions that deprive them of stimulation from the outside world as well as experiencing painful castration without anaesthetic as piglets. However, you need 12 times as many chicken deaths to produce a million egg calories as you need pig deaths to produce one million pork calories. I would probably say it’s more ethical to eat the slice of bacon.”

Rational arguments need to be used alongside emotional appeals

You have done a lot of research on disgust. Do you think people would be less likely to eat eggs, fish and meat if they saw up close the processes involved in their production?

“Disgust is probably the most powerful emotion when it comes to our food choices. Disgust can reduce meat consumption when people see the processes that lead to animal products and it’s used a lot in animal advocacy. However, people who are easily disgusted might also be less likely to try new foods that would replace familiar meat foods.

“Rational arguments need to be used alongside emotional appeals to persuade people to reduce their consumption of animal products.”

Should a vegan or vegetarian have any ethical qualms eating “in vitro” meat?

“Unlike many vegans and vegetarians, I think the world will never be vegetarian. In my view in vitro meat, meat that is grown from cells rather than cut off an entire animal, is our best hope of preventing animal suffering in the future . . .

“Right now in vitro meat still has many ethical problems, for instance the cells are grown in a medium that is animal derived. This means that in vitro meat still kills more animals than plant foods.

“I believe that in vitro meat is going to technologically advance to the point that it causes no more suffering to eat an in vitro steak than eating a slice of toast. At that point I think it would be unethical for vegans and vegetarians not to strongly endorse that others eat in vitro meat, even if they won’t eat it themselves.”

How could one help people get over any disgust or negative feelings they might have about in vitro meat?

“People often feel disgust unfamiliar foods and technological changes to organic life, these are both issues that in vitro meat will have to contend with when it becomes widely available. In vitro meat has already been rebranded ‘clean meat’ and it really is clean compared to meat that came from animals with organs, bones, blood and pathogens.

“Once clean meat has a similar price and availability as conventional meat it’s going to be very difficult for people to morally justify why they continue to eat meat that came from animals who suffered and died.

“I predict that disgust and negative feelings about in vitro meat will largely fade away both because people will see how much better clean meat is than conventional meat - for example, an in vitro burger perfectly engineered to have exactly the right fat content and flavour would be much more delicious than its conventional counterpart - and because they will want to avoid moral judgment from others.”

* Dr Diana Fleischman will speak at the World Vegetarian Day festival, taking place on Sunday, October 1st (11am-5pm) at St Andrew’s Resource Centre, Pearse Street, Dublin 2. www.vegetarian.ie

* The latest public lecture series run by Trinity College Dublin’s philosophy department starts on Tuesday, September 26th at 7.30 pm in the Uí Chadhain Theatre, Arts Building, TCD. The cost of the 11-lecture series on “Great Philosophers” is €100 (concession rate €50). www.tcd.ie/Philosophy/events/public-lecture-series/

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