The Meat Eaters—An Exploration in Ethics


Read the following article by Philosopher Jeff McMahan on New York Times, in which the author defends on moral grounds the extinction or genetic manipulation of carnivorous species to avoid the pain suffered by those herbivorous animals who are their prey: McMahan, Jeff, “The Meat Eaters,” The New York Times, September 19, 2010 (, visited September 22, 2010). Focus on analyzing arguments using concepts from Evolutionary Psychology.  You may explore aspects such as:

1.  What is the origin of our moral sense, which causes most people to feel bad when they see an animal suffering?

2.  What is consciousness? Do animals have it? Plants? Human beings? Read or watch some videos by V.S. Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at UCSD discussing consciousness and self (e.g., who seems to suggest that human consciousness might be close to be an illusion. An efficient (or at least functional) illusion but an illusion. (By the way, would the argument in the article suffer if plants were shown to be conscious?)

3.  Why do animals, including humans, experience pain and suffering? I.e., why were they “designed” with such a pain and suffering trait? (By the way, does who or what was the designer matter?).

4.  Why do humans like meat? More than vegetables? Some experts claim that meat production is inefficient and would be better to consume less meat. Is this a case of maladaptation? Explain why yes o not. (Think that we might have become “too” smart in successively hunting and domesticating the type of meat that we like the most. (By the way, is not domestication a way of redesigning nature by artificial selection?)

5.  How would the path of evolution change if McMahan’s recommendations were applied? Would animals be bigger? Would you agree with the author’s assertion that “it seems that it would have been better if the earliest species had never become extinct, with the consequence that the later ones would never have existed”.  Is not this definitely wrong? Species are only momentary designs in a larger design, that of evolution.

6.  Should we consider evolution as a process directed towards perpetual improvement or mere adaptation? Does the difference matter?

7.  If morality is also a consequence of our evolution (on this, you may read works by J. Haidt []), could it also be poorly adapted and therefore incline us to poor decisions? Could you provide an example? Are there examples in the article? What about Dworkin’s analysis of existing species as superior to future ones? (“Few people … believe the world would be worse if there had always been fewer species of birds, an few would think it important to engineer new bird species if that possible. What we believe important is not that here be any particular number of species but that a species that now exists not be extinguished by us.”

8.  Some of the comments received by the article are worth skimming:

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