What is new omnivorism?
One of the traditional assumptions of the debate over the ethical status of animals has long been that someone who is committed to reducing animal harm should not eat meat. Peter Singer, Tom Regan, and other philosophers associated with the animal rights movement – which is better referred to as the animal protection movement, as not all of its proponents endorse the idea of rights – have advocated not eating animals. On the other side of the debate, philosophers who have rejected animal protection have commonly argued that animals occupy a lower moral status than protectionists aver before going on to invoke this as a premise in arguments for meat-eating. Despite the disagreements between the two camps, both have traditionally taken it for granted that the philosophy of animal protection and the practice of avoiding meat rise and fall together.
Now however there is a new position in the debate. This view, which I term new omnivorism, endorses animal protection as philosophy but goes on to defend eating meat. Some versions of new omnivorism argue that eating animals is permissible even if protection theory is true. Others go further and argue that protectionist arguments actually oblige us to eat meat. What all versions of new omnivorism have in common is that they are impossible to capture within the debate’s traditional terms.
Steven Davis is a paradigmatic example of a new omnivorist. Davis’s argument is noteworthy for taking as its point of departure Regan’s argument for animal rights. Davis’s twist is to argue that a diet that contains free-range beef is more consistent with Regan’s theory than the plant-based diet Regan has long advocated. Davis arrives at this conclusion by pointing out that mice and other field animals are killed during crop cultivation. He posits that more animals are killed in the production of a plant-based diet than in the production of a diet containing free-range beef. In Davis’s hands, such empirical claims are combined with a canonical theory of animal protection to entail a dietary ethic that, contrary to what protection theorists have long argued, ranks a meatless diet second-best to one containing some meat. Davis’s view, which I term burger veganism, has now inspired other critics to offer variations on his argument that invoke protectionist premises to justify eating not only free-range beef, but free-range meats made from sheep, goats, kangaroos, and other species.
A separate challenge to the traditional dietary ethic of animal protection is technological. In vitro meat is created by taking a cell from an animal and causing it to grow in a laboratory into edible flesh. In vitro meat is thus identical to the real thing but for the fact that it is not carved out of the carcass of an animal. Current production methods involve the use of fetal bovine serum, a growth hormone taken from the fetuses of cows that are pregnant at slaughter. In this way, in vitro meat continues to involve harm to animals. Scientists involved in the creation of in vitro meat, however, are already working to develop plant-based alternatives. Given the realistic possibility of such a development, the long-term future of in vitro meat raises the possibility of a new form of meat that involves no harm to animals. As such, it is now put forward as a form of meat-eating that, while not obligatory on animal protection grounds, is not ruled out by arguments for animal protection either.
Burger veganism, in vitro meat consumption and other forms of new omnivorism mark a turning point in the ethical debate over the status of animals. In the early days of that debate, proponents of animal protection could rebut critics by re-affirming the case for protectionism’s first principles. Today however, something also needs to be said in reply to the critics who argue that traditional protectionist arguments permit or even oblige us to eat meat. These arguments are the philosophical equivalent of jiu-jitsu, which uses an opponent’s own energy against her, and so represent an approach that cannot be countered with sheer assertiveness.
A careful review of the arguments for the many different forms of new omnivorism that now flourish in the ethics literature shows that some of them are stronger than others. Burger veganism, for example, rests on mistaken empirical calculations and an implausible refusal to distinguish unintentional from intentional harms. The case for eating in vitro meat, on the other hand, is consistent with animal protection theory. The arrival of lab-grown meat should prompt us to reconceive meat as a substance that does not necessarily require killing or harming animals. In this way, eating (in vitro) meat ultimately can be shown to be safe for protectionism, marking an important development regarding our understanding of animal protection, the nature of meat and what types of diets are ethical.
Andy Lamey is the author of Duty and the Beast: Should We Eat Meat in the Name of Animal Rights?