Do I have a moral obligation not to eat meat?
I believe that I have no such moral obligation. I am free to eat meat if eating meat is what I choose to do. Still, I don’t eat meat.
Why do I choose not to eat meat? Because I don’t want to do what’s bad for others.
It would almost always be the case that another animal must be killed so that I might eat the meat of its body. I believe that to be killed wouldn’t be good for any of us animals, and I don’t often wish for what isn’t good for anyone of us. I could, perhaps, choose not to care as much about what is good or bad for others, but I do care and I care such that I don’t want others to be killed just so I can eat meat.
To say that to be killed wouldn’t be good for us animals is not to to say that eating meat is all bad. Surely, being killed would be bad for the animal whose meat I would eat, but what would be good or bad for the animal are not the only things that count. There would be goods for me that I would get from eating meat and what would be good for me counts too.
Meat is tasty, filling, a good source of protein, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, and meat is easily available everywhere in convenient ready-to-eat meals. Meat is also part of the tradition of eating that goes with many celebrations, festivities, holidays and other rituals. Cooking steaks on a grill, a turkey in an oven, or a chicken in a pot of soup are all parts of what most of us share, in one way or another, with those we love and whose histories we cherish. If I ate meat, sometimes it would be good for me. Still, I don’t eat meat.
I don’t eat meat because, as good as eating meat may sometimes be for me, I know that eating meat would almost never be any good at all for the animal who had to be killed just so that I could eat it.
Harming and killing other animals is bad for them. It doesn’t matter whether the other animals are human or nonhuman, harming and killing them is bad for them. Would harming or killing a pig be as bad for that pig as harming or killing a human child would be for that child? No, it wouldn’t be as bad. But neither would harming a frog be as bad for that frog as harming a pig would be bad for that pig. Some of us animals, compared to others of us, can experience more of what is good for us and more of what is bad for us.
Frogs experience less of what’s good for living beings than pigs experience. Pigs experience less of what’s good for living beings than humans experience. Snails and slugs haven’t got much capacity to experience any of what’s good for living beings; they may not have the capacity to experience anything good or bad for them at all. But neither do trees and flowers have any capacity to experience what’s good and bad for them. Nevertheless, either things can be good for trees and flowers or things can be bad for them. Cutting down a healthy tree isn’t good for it; crushing the life out of flowers isn’t good for them. I don’t deliberately and needlessly harm or kill trees and flowers, nor do I deliberately and needlessly harm or kill snails and slugs; it wouldn’t be good for any of them if I did.
So, the reason that I choose to avoid harming and killing others has nothing to do with whether there is some moral obligation upon me such that I must so choose. There is no such obligation. I am free to choose as I will. I choose to avoid harming and killing others because harming and killing other living things isn’t good for them; harming and killing living things is bad for them. I don’t want to do what’s bad for others.
Even though you are free to choose to eat meat, and even though you’re under no moral obligation not to, if you care about what’s good for others, you won’t eat meat.
If you agree with me that harming and killing others is bad for them, and if you’re like most people who don’t want to do what’s bad for others, then you won’t eat meat.
Don’t worry about what you should do. Just do what you will do because you want what’s good for others.
Please read Richard Kraut’s book What is Good and Why: The ethics of well-being (2007) for a full treatment of the idea of what is “good for” others.