Rutgers professor Jeff McMahan wrote an intriguing essay for the New York Times about the ethics of how we treat animals.
At the start of the essay, he determines that we have a moral obligation not to eat meat: “Our factory farms, which supply most of the meat and eggs consumed in developed societies, inflict a lifetime of misery and torment on our prey[.]” I would make a small amendment here: although he is technically correct that most of our meat and eggs come from factory farms, he understates the true proportion, which in fact exceeds 99% (according to data collected by the United States Department of Agriculture).
Having established this fact, McMahan moves on to discuss the subject of wild-animal suffering. He explains why it is a problem and why we should do something about it, and addresses a number of objections to his argument. His main thesis is that we should work toward the extinction of all carnivorous species once we gain the capacity to do so without serious environmental disruption.
McMahan also wrote a response to critics. It is well worth a read if you find yourself skeptical of his ideas after reading “The Meat Eaters.” McMahan makes a number of excellent points in this essay, but one thing he says is especially worth quoting:
The commentators’ gesture toward the alleged suffering of plants seemed no more than a rhetorical move in their attack on my argument. But if one became convinced, as some of the commentators appear to be, that plants are conscious, feel pain, and experience suffering, that ought to prompt serious reconsideration of the permissibility of countless practices that we have always assumed to be benign. If you really believed that plants suffer, would you continue to think that it’s perfectly acceptable to mow your grass? . . . Shouldn’t that elicit serious moral reflection rather than being deployed as a mere debating point?
This sort of thing happens all the time in arguments over ethics: someone makes an ostensibly-outlandish claim merely for the purpose of refuting an argument, and does not carry it to its logical conclusion. If plants really do suffer, for example, then we ought to consider the moral implications of that fact.