Sundered Peak

through the mind of kyle tolle

On the Morality of Carnivorous Animals

Note: This is largely a reply to John Colvin’s My Formerly Vegan Cat.


Now, I am not very sure of Vegan beliefs. I am under the impression there are two main schools of thought:

  1. Any use of animals for human consumption is immoral. This includes animal flesh, byproducts, etc.
  2. Animal products are not necessarily immoral, rather the way animals are raised today for said use is.

From what I’ve heard, Freegans are more generally proponents of #2, because some will eat meat if it will otherwise go to waste.

Where did these thoughts come from? Who knows. What’s important are the assumptions that go into these statements and the implications that arise from their use.

Vegan Assumptions for Humans:

Now, if we generalize a bit and instead of “humans” said “animals”:

Vegan Assumptions for Animals:

Vegan assumptions for animals break down though. Specifically, the first statement. “Animals … can live without eating meat.” I would have to disagree with this statement. There are three classes of animal diets: carnivores, omnivores, herbivores. Animals fall in to one of these three distinctions.

On Carnivores

Carnivores are animals that eat meat. A quick look at Wikipedia shows that cats are indeed carnivorous. Maybe more surprisingly, they are obligate carnivores, meaning they have to eat meat to survive. Their bodies have evolved to specialize in processing meat. Cats cannot properly digest plant matter or even get all the nutrients they need to survive from plants, no matter how many plants they eat. Some vegan cat foods claim to add these nutrients so that cats need not eat meat. John’s recent experience shows that this is not the case for all cats.

This brings up a very important question. If an animal must eat meat to survive, is killing an animal for that reason immoral? I argue certainly not. Animals have evolved to this obligate carnivorous state.  Evolution precludes personal preference. This evolution was species wide, because it helped them survive some way. Cats did not evolve to be meat-eaters only because they liked it.

It is silly to say that obligate carnivores are immoral . Morality implies a choice. Cats do not have a choice whether they eat meat or not. They either eat meat or die. If anything, it would be immoral for a cat to not eat meat, or their owner not feed them meat, because it would lead to the ultimate suffering and death of the cat.

This is similar to a mentally ill person killing another person. Is this mentally ill person a moral agent? Can we hold them accountable for their actions, when they do not understand their actions (ie. their actions are not a conscious choice)? No. Again, morality implies a choice.

Are Animals Moral Agents?

Going further - can we even consider animals moral agents? Can we hold animals responsible for their actions? Do they understand their actions? This may depend on the animal, really. In general, I would say that animals are not moral agents. If a bull gores a human, I would not consider that bull to be legally liable. Now, legality is a far cry from morality, but still. I don’t think any human would say that bull was morally responsible for his actions and should be punished. If anything, animal rights activists would cry out that punishing the bull would be wrong.

Pain and Suffering

Do animals feel pain? Yes. Can animals suffer? That’s tougher.

What is pain? It is the awareness of some stimulus which causes physical harm. Suffering, on the other hand, is similar to pain, but has a mental aspect to it. The two seem identical, no? Pain is a physical sensation, which would cause some thing to try to avoid it, because it would hurt them physically. But suffering is something only a sentient being can feel, because the mental component adversely affects the being. It is hard for me to really comprehend the difference, because when I feel pain, I suffer. A good analogy would be a robot. A robot could use pressure sensors to feel pain, meaning the robot could sense pressures and when it became “painful” or physically dangerous, the robot could try to avoid this source of pressure. So even though this robot tries to avoid physical injury, we would say it neither suffers from the pain nor would suffer if it were physically injured.

So now we have to decide whether animals are more like humans or robots. That sounds sort of weird, and some may want to lean toward the human-side, simply because they are living. But again, plants are living. Plants are not sentient. The fact that they do not have a brain makes that pretty easy (or maybe not… Remember the Pequeninos?). Are animals sentient? This question is very important when it comes to looking into whether it is moral for humans (an omnivore) to use/eat animals. This is now a bit out of scope and fortunately will be for another time. I have to make you want to come back somehow, right?

Coming to an End

Now, for something I should have thought of earlier. Is it even necessary to consider the morality of carnivores or their food if neither are moral agents? What if only one is a moral agent? Does it matter which end the moral agent is on? What about when the owner of a cat is a moral agent, specifically one who is vegan? Is it immoral for a vegan to feed another animal to his pet? Are pets even morally justifiable?

If I refused to feed a cat meat, which causes the cat’s death, is it only a problem if that cat is a moral agent? This actually seems to be decide the validity of this entire argument, does it not? Let me know if I have fallen into some quandary by assumptions I didn’t even realize I was making.

Whew, I just came up with enough ideas to last me several posts. I want to hear your feedback though, so I can incorporate them into my posts in the future. Also, this Wordpress blog supports pingbacks and trackbacks, so take advantage of that, if your blog supports it!

Interesting note: This post is longer than the requirement for the final essay for my Greek Myth class. Can I just turn this in?!