Is it ethical to kill animals for food?

Suppose, for the sake of argument, we’re dealing with ideal conditions; a local farm where the animals are lovingly raised and painlessly slaughtered. Unfortunately, such animals are usually only living a tenth of their natural lifespans before they’re killed, but even so, is it a bad thing to give a lamb 6-8 months of frolicking through pastures and chasing after butterflies, versus not having been born all?

The problem, it seems to me, is that this reasoning could just as easily be applied to human children. Hey, they had two really good years, and would never have been born were it not for the demand for tender human flesh, so it’s win-win, right?

Since it’s definitely wrong to breed human children for food, perhaps it’s less wrong to breed livestock animals for food, but it would seem that it’s not not wrong because those animals still have a lot of consciousness—just think of any dog or cat you’ve owned. The issue, perhaps, has less to do with whether or not a being suffers during its life than whether you have a right to claim that life, even apart from the circumstances and conditions under which you caused that life to come into being. What is it about sheep that entitles us to use their lives in this way, when most of would cringe at the thought of raising cats and dogs for food, not to mention other primates?

Anyway, I’ve been agonizing over this, and I could use your smarts to help me sort it out. I’d also be interested in any suggestions about how to make the process of giving up meat seem more like an enticing food adventure and less like sitting around craving a hamburger…should I decide to go that route.


I’m not sure you need to compare eating animals to eating babies to argue that eating meat may be ethically compromised in the modern world. I think it’s much easier to advocate for a vegetarian or vegan diet now, because you have far more choices aside from meat and the process of making meat for a mass market is so very unethical. We have plenty of non-meat options now to avoid eating factory farmed meats.

I personally eat meat, far less than I used to do, though and I can understand and appreciate the moral arguments that vegans make about eating meat. At the end of the day, it’s up to each of us to make that choice, though.

I’m sure people who are already vegetarian or vegan probably have better strategies - I’d suggest that if you’re interested in stopping eating meat, your best bet is to ween yourself off meat slowly. Start by dropping out beef or pork first (probably the most ethically compromised systems of meat production), then give up fowl, and then maybe fish, too. If you give them up slowly, and replace them with a balanced diet of grains, beans, and veggies/fruits, that are not just meat substitutes, but stand on their own merits as foods, I’d guess you’ll soon lose the craving (at least that’s what vegetarians/vegans I’ve known have told me).

The $.02 of a meat eater who is sympathetic to vegetarians. Take that as you will.


As with most things, it depends on your underlying values. If your value of human life is based solely on the things we have in common with animals, then it would hypocritical to eat animals on the utilitarian grounds you mentioned (that livestock would not live at all if we didn’t breed it for food) unless you were also willing to eat humans on the same grounds. [I’ll point out here that very few people are strict utilitarians because that quickly leads to absurd consequences.] If your value of human life is based on something else or something more, then it follows to apply that value system consistently.

But I would argue that most people don’t think it through that explicitly. Rather they don’t eat humans for the same reasons they don’t eat certain animals such as dogs and cats: social stigma and empathy. If we began eating other humans, or breeding humans to be eaten (setting aside the dietary reasons cannibalism is extraordinarily unhealthy), there would be a revolution, probably a violent one. So in that sense it’s extremely rare across numerous cultures with different prevailing value systems because it’s an unstable and impractical social state.

Similarly, humans in Western cultures rarely eat cats, dogs, horses or gerbils because we’re conditioned to empathize with their domesticated breeds. But it’s also why I consider people who criticize eating those animals specifically (as opposed to meat in general) to be generally well-meaning but thundering hypocrites trying to colonize others with their emotional ties. To be clear, I would never eat a cat or dog. (While I wouldn’t prepare or ask for it, I’d probably try horse meat if it was served to me, and I may have eaten it unwittingly due to certain lax enforcement of livestock regulations). But I recognize that’s an emotional position, not an ethical one, since I do in fact eat meat from other animals such as pigs, lambs, fish and cattle.

I will say from observing friends who’ve gone veggie, and you may already be aware of this, that if you’re going to cut meat out of your diet, it pays to research what you’re going to substitute for it to obtain the nutrients to which your body is accustomed. Good luck, and kudos for thinking seriously about the ethics of your lifestyle. The world could use a lot more of that.

There’s also a strong case to be made on dietary and ecological grounds. I personally believe Westerners, and especially Americans, tend to eat an unhealthy and unprecedented amount of meat, often choosing quantity over quality. That’s not very controversial, but even less so is the simple fact that it takes more natural resources to extract the same calories from meat than agriculture. Speaking only for myself, this is why I don’t eat very much meat.


The Philosophy literature on this is quite extensive (going back to Porphyry at least), and fairly accessible, if you want to compile an exhaustive list of arguments and counterarguments. Speaking as a carnivore, I think it is quite difficult to justify eating meat.


It is? Uh oh.


I would strongly suggest Southern Indian food for this part. Vegetarian for its own sake and full of flavor.


I appreciate your struggle, and your sharing our here. The solution for me has been to mostly avoid meat; after awhile, i didn’t miss it at all. And the savings in the food budget makes buying lots of other awesome but sometimes expensive ingredients easier.

There’s TONS of great food out there that has no meat in it. This book was a good starter of sorts for me. Consistently scrumptious recipes. I recommend especially the chickpea gravy with mashed potatoes, the Ethiopian seitan, and the carrot cake. I’m nearly drooling as I type!


I will never let go of my copy of the Veganomicon. So many good ideas in there.

Going vegan is, in some ways, easier if you just forget meat analogues and dive into experimenting with the wide array of nuts, seeds, legumes, pseudograins, and of course fruits and veggies. My culinary world exploded when I went vegan.

I’m not anymore. Like @Mindysan33, I eat meat occasionally–usually some shellfish or fish about twice a week–but most of my meals could be happily shared with a vegan.

ETA– More directly on topic: I, too, have never felt completely at peace eating a slaughtered animal.* Winter (a meditative season for those far enough north) in particular seems to sensitize me to this, and I’ll end up eating lacto-vegetarian for weeks, even months.

I don’t have any answers for you, @Seurat. And being as tired as I am right now, I cannot sustain the thought required to point towards one. But I’ll give it my best effort when I have some reserve.

*For those of you wondering ‘what other kind is there?’, I present the admittedly very uncommon case of (brace yourself) roadkill. Yes, I’ve had it, courtesy of my uncle decades ago when a deer ran in front of his truck. He called the warden, took it to a processing center, and shared the jerky with us.


Thanks for all the advice so far.

It’s occurred to me that I’ve been wrong to conceive of this as a yes-or-no question (“is it ethical?”). As long as nature compels us to compete for resources, we’re going to harm other beings. Huge numbers of animals die just as a result of agriculture. The best we can hope for is to be less cruel in the way we compete, and there are some really obvious places where I could get started with that.

But I still can’t decide where farmer’s market lamb roast figures on the cruelty scale.


There are hard decisions involved in deciding what to eat, when looking at it as an ethics problem. A very common conclusion is that it is more acceptable to drive animals from their natural habitat or kill them as pests, in order to provide land for plant-based agriculture. Since one does not see the displaced creatures, it is easier to not think about them.
If you want to give up meat for health reasons, or to lose weight, that is about taking care of yourself the best you can, and nobody else’s business.
If you are giving up meat to achieve moral purity, you are deluding yourself.

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I wrote a long rant and deleted it, from that I’ll only keep this shorter rant.

Is it ethical to kill animals for food?

It is certainly more ethical than killing it for sport. so it can’t be totally unethical.

This is the wrong question to ask. If we ask if it is ethical for a lion to eat an antelope then we may as well ask if it’s ethical for a lion to breathe at all. A person who stops to ponder the ethics killing a deer to feed his family will find that by the time he has thought it through the deer has left and his family will starve.
There is no ignoring that we humans are who we are because we eat plants and other animals. AS far as I know we are not doomed to be that way forever though, which is why a better question to ask is: When is it unethical to kill an animal for food? Because it works the same as asking when is it unnecessary to kill an animal for food?
This is an easy answer to give. When your nutritional requirements have been met.

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Asking this question is a categorical error.
We know that today we produce enough food to feed everybody in the world, but the world is set up in such a way that we cannot feed everybody in the world.

Farmer’s market lamb roast exists because of economic pressures in a world that values things they way it does.

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Homo Sapiens keep a lot of predators, parasites, and diseases at bay, and just about none of those animals are natural, having been bred since prehistory. There’s a lot of givens here that I can’t give you.

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Is it ethical to eat as much as most Americans do of something that does as much harm to our environment as the industrial production of meat? I don’t think it is. It’s funny though how much more a lot of people mind hearing that we should eat a lot less meat than they do that, say, we should cut back on consumption of fossil fuels, or use less water during water shortages. (Both of which problems, actually, are highly exacerbated by meat consumption.)

Btw, there’s lots more bbs discussion of the ethics and effects of meat consumption here:



Try visiting your local vegetarian restaurants and when find some you like, invite your friends to join you next time you go back. You might even learn some new ideas for preparing vegetarian meals at home.

I can assure you that will go over much better as a food adventure than making “eating babies” analogies.


I think if you have an abundance of other food you can eat as well as the ability to create good food with it, meat eating is probably unethical. I grew up vegetarian. I don’t eat fully vegetarian now, but probably 90% of what I eat is. You can prize meat and dairy out of my cold dead hands though. And I know they have ethical problems.

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Here’s my thought: in nature, virtually all animals are eaten sooner or later. Some are hunted down by predators, others die slower deaths from illness or injury and are eaten by scavengers. So animals being eaten isn’t the biggest ethical issue around meat consumption, animal suffering is.

I also don’t know that it’s helpful to start with the premise “if you wouldn’t do this to a human child then you shouldn’t do it to an animal.” We aren’t encouraged to spay or neuter our children, but most people don’t consider that a form of animal cruelty when we do it to our pets.

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