Plato at the Slaughterhouse

A philosopher asks: Do we have a moral responsibility to avoid meat in the age of climate change?

  • September 27, 2017
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  • 5 Questions
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  • By Jefferson Robbins

Brian Henning has wrestled for years with the ethical quandaries of food. Meat consumption in particular raises issues for the Gonzaga University philosophy and environmental studies professor: When we eat animals, he wonders, what are we doing to the world?

The answers are complex, involving human health, ecological sustainability, climate change, economic waste, and whether we view animals as deserving of “quality of life.” Henning touches on all these points in Humanities Washington’s Speakers Bureau talk, “The Ethics of Eating Meat on a Small Planet.”

Even beyond personal choice, the numbers aren’t good.

As the world changes and attitudes toward meat consumption adjust, Henning says, “Increasingly, I suspect, we’ll get to a point where we’ll see this as a luxury.”

Henning’s study of environmental affairs has powered his latest book, Riders in the Storm: Ethics in an Age of Climate Change. He’s found that concerns for the future and for the animals we eat is now leading to some radical proposals. For instance, tech entrepreneurs, including Google’s Sergey Brin, now believe laboratory-grown “animal-free” meat may be possible.

“If you can fix the economics,” Henning adds, “and if people can get over their ick factor.”


Humanities Washington: Are questions of food ethics different now that we’re an industrial food-producing society, rather than agrarians or hunter-gatherers?

Brian Henning: Ethics really requires the opportunity to choose freely. A wolf doesn’t have ethics, because it doesn’t think through the choices about whether it’s going to eat a deer or not. The ethics are there for humans, because we have a choice, and ethics is all about whether our choices can be justified. Eating animals, in particular, is distinctive in that it’s only become a topic of conversation in the last 40 years or so. I think of it as two different phases or waves. The first wave of this issue came up in the ’70s, with [“Animal Liberation” author and philosopher] Peter Singer’s work, which focused on the treatment of animals themselves. Industrial livestock production involves a lot of suffering for the animals, and the so-called animal rights movement came out of that period. More recently, work by Michael Pollan inspired sort of a second wave, having less to do with the animals themselves and more with the impact on humans and the environment.

What are the problems posed by eating animals as human population expands?

It’s disproportionate. We in the United States in particular consume a lot more animals than the rest of the world — the typical American consumes about 140 kilograms of meat a year, whereas the average worldwide consumption is only 31 kilograms a year. Our diet is not normal, but our diet is being exported to other parts of the world. The developed world’s consumption of meat is increasing, but at a pretty slow rate. However, the consumption in the developing world is increasing at a very dramatic rate. Meat production is expected to increase by three-fourths by the middle of this century, from 2009 levels. If you talked to your grandparents, they would’ve eaten meat, but they wouldn’t have eaten it every single meal. It would’ve been part of the diet for sure, but it would’ve been holidays, Thanksgiving, Easter, Christmas — it was a luxury. The ability to eat meat any time is new. The other issue that’s really come up is the scale of production. It’s gotten to be so large that new problems are arising. A conservative estimate would be that about 25 billion animals are raised and killed annually worldwide — for 7 billion humans. A lot more animals are raised and killed by us than there are of us.

What’s the best reason to go vegetarian: Planetary ecology or personal ethics?

Brian Henning: The way I approach it is I think of it as three different types of reasons, which are good or bad reasons depending on what the individual cares about. I think of it in terms of animals themselves, people, and the planet. Some people are very concerned by how the animals are treated, and are motivated by their own values to say I don’t want to eat any animal that is treated so terribly, so I’m only going to eat cage-free, grass-fed, et cetera. Some people don’t care about animals suffering, but they care about other people. There are many other arguments, but if you’re concerned about humans, you should also reduce your consumption of animals, because consumption is now a major contributor to heart disease and obesity, all while decreasing the total amount of food in the world. It’s wasted nutrition, so to speak, because we take edible nutrition and feed it to animals. And then there are environmental arguments, because the livestock sector is the biggest single source of freshwater use and pollution and rainforest deforestation. It’s the largest sectorial source of greenhouse gases, even higher than transportation or energy. Most people care about one of those three categories, if not more than one. It just sort of depends what the person’s own value system is.

A meat-centered diet is a deep part of American culture, so what are the challenges of getting people to change their ways?

I think the main impediments are habit and culture. I grew up in Idaho, and I really enjoyed the taste of animals. Cheeseburgers are quite tasty, and I liked them a lot, so that’s deeply ingrained in my habits. And we also have multibillion-dollar advertising campaigns that are always trying to maintain and increase this use. There’s a constant generation of demand as well, so that makes it challenging. But there seems to be a little bit of a change where people are increasingly concerned about the quality of what they eat, whether because of their own health or their children or the environment. People are starting to look not just for the cheapest forms of food, if they can afford it, and that’s coinciding with improvements in the quality and quantity of meat alternatives. Compared to thirty years ago, it’s pretty easy to find meat alternatives that are pretty good. It depends on the person as to whether it meets that need or not.

Can we as a society taper off, or must we renounce eating animals altogether?

It’s a question that I put to myself a lot as I teach a class on climate change and ethics. If you put it in the context of climate change, we don’t have very much time. So the longer we wait, the worse the problems get, and the more people and the environment will suffer. We can go gradually for a while, but the longer we take, the worse things are for everybody. This is kind of true with the 20 percent of the equation that is contributed by livestock. But to put it more positively, people choosing to eat even slightly less meat makes a difference. The Meatless Monday phenomenon is an example, because it gets people to realize there are other good things to eat, and it’s not as hard as they thought, so they can increase, gradually their consumption of fruits and grains, and decrease their consumption of meat. Each decrease is good, but if we really want to solve the problems we’re creating, in terms of species extinction, climate change, water loss, those are getting more and more urgent and more pronounced. Within my material means, I can choose what I put into my body, whereas I can’t really control what kind of electrons come out of my socket. Are they clean or dirty? I can only control so much about energy production or transportation. But food, I can control that. I can effect a lot of change just by changing how I eat.

Brian Henning is presenting his free Humanities Washington talk “The Ethics of Eating Meat on a Small Planet” around the state. Find out where he’s appearing next.

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