Animal rights discourse was initially propelled, in large part, by ethicist Peter Singer’s famous 1975 book Animal Liberation in which he argued for a vegan diet.
Any being, Singer argues, with the capacity to feel pleasure and pain is relevant to our moral choices, and thus it is impermissible to, for example, blend up male baby chicks (as they still are today) because they are economically useless. It’s just as wrong to buy food whose production currently blends up baby chicks regularly.
Many philosophers, sitting at about 18% as of 2020, find the animal rights argument persuasive. I think they are correct, although I won’t argue for that here.
Instead, I’ll argue for a more controversial view. The American Dietetic Association has held since 2009, that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthy [and] nutritionally adequate…during all stages of the life cycle.”
But this isn’t too surprising, since many of the healthiest populations eat a plant-centered diet; nutritionist Dr. Michael Gregor, creator of NutritionFacts.Org, writes that the Okinawa Japanese “end up having the longest lives in the world,” in part because of their “96% plant-based” diets.
So it’s clear humans can be vegan, but can predators like cats and dogs?
Cats are carnivorous: their diets consist entirely of other animals. This, many people take it, is proof that cats require a carnivorous diet to thrive, which gives them the name “obligate carnivores.”
However, we shouldn’t be too quick to make our conclusions. Whereas Blue Cross claims that “no, cats can’t be vegetarian or vegan,” a 2021 study published in BMC Veterinary Research by Dodd and Dewey finds that “no differences in reported lifespan detected between [vegan and carnivorous] diets.”
More research is beginning to question how healthy plant-based diets are for alleged “obligate carnivores.” However, for the sake of argument, we can just assume they are obligate carnivores.
If it really is the case that we must kill other animals–many of them in fact–to allow just one of our pets to live, then I think we ought to stop feeding that animal. It’s sad, but no one said doing the right thing is easy.
We have obligations to all animals, whether we like it or not. If we didn’t, then we could go around gutting mice and stomping stray cats for fun. But clearly we can’t. So, we need to know what kinds of obligations we have to animals and how weighty these obligations are.
Many philosophers, as originally proposed by Robert Nozick in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia, hold the view of “utilitarianism for animals, Kantianism for people,” meaning we can hurt some animals if it benefits the majority.
On the other hand, philosophers such as Will Kymlicka and Tom Regan instead claim that animals have moral rights. On a utilitarian account, the straightforward answer is that, in order to maximize animal happiness, we must refuse to kill many of these animals many times over just to feed one.
On a rights-based account animals would presumably have a right not to be harmed unless there is a good reason to do so.
In any case, animals matter. And we need to respect them. This requires, I think, that we do not kill prey animals to keep our current one’s alive.
In the end, the question is this: can we kill 10’s of other animals just to keep one alive? If we are to be fair and equal, I think the answer is no.
Some animals just must starve. I’m sure their food will thank us for it though. For more information, see Josh Milburn’s 2022 book Just Fodder: The Ethics of Feeding Animals.
Ian Palacios is a senior English major. He can be reached at [email protected] or 217-581-2812.