The history of human thinking about animal ethics is littered with a great many examples of smart people engaging in reasoning that is anything but smart in order to justify continuing to exploit animals. Indeed, animal ethics provides what might be the greatest example of how self-interest — in particular gustatory self-interest — can deaden even the keenest intellectual faculties. A recent example of this tragic phenomenon is found in an Aeon essay, “Why You Should Eat Meat,” by Nick Zangwill. (The Aeon essay is a shorter version of the argument that Zangwill made in “Our Moral Duty to Eat Animals,” published in the Journal of the American Philosophical Association.) Zangwill is a respected philosopher who claims that if we care about animals, we have a moral obligation to eat them. But just as Zangwill thinks we have a duty to eat animals, I think I have a duty to point out that Zangwill’s arguments in support of animal use are just plain bad. In this essay, I will focus primarily on Zangwill’s Aeon essay.
Zangwill maintains not just that it is permissible to eat animals; he says that, if we care about animals, we are obligated to breed, raise, kill, and eat animals. His argument for this involves an appeal to history: “Breeding and eating animals is a very long-standing cultural institution that is a mutually beneficial relationship between human beings and animals.” According to Zangwill, this cultural institution has involved providing a good life to animals and food for humans, and he believes that we have an obligation to perpetuate this as a way of honoring that mutually beneficial tradition. He says that those of us who do not eat animals are acting wrongly and are letting the animals down. He says that “[v]egetarians and vegans are the natural enemies of domesticated animals that are bred to be eaten.” The idea that domesticated animals owe their existence to those who consume them is not new. Sir Leslie Stephen, English author and father of Virginia Wolff, wrote in 1896: “The pig has a stronger interest than anyone in the demand for bacon. If all the world were Jewish, there would be no pigs at all.” Stephen did not, as far as I am aware, take the additional step that Zangwill does and claim that at least non-Jews have a moral obligation to eat pigs.