During the holiday season, millions of people gathered together for family meals (in hopefully smaller groups than usual), and for many, meat was the star of the show. Turkey. Ham. Roast beef. Duck. Chicken. All of them holiday staples. All of them terribly passé.
For years, cultured meat (meat grown in a lab from the cells of living animal donors) has been lauded as the future of meat consumption. Cultured meat avoids many of the environmental harms of conventional livestock (although to what extent remains contested) and requires none of the harm to animals of traditionally-sourced meat. Recent news that the sale of cultured chicken meat has been approved in Singapore brings this future one step closer.
The prospect of lab-grown meat separates two activities that have been inextricably linked for virtually all of human history: Eating meat has always required animal killing. But with the development of lab-grown meat, these two activities can be separated, and the morality of each activity assessed on its own.
Now, we can think about eating animals without killing them, opening up a whole realm of previously taboo possibilities. Why stop with chickens? Why not develop cultured meat from all sorts of exotic animals? Thanksgiving tiger? Christmas chimpanzee? Fourth of July bald eagle? What about extinct animals like the woolly mammoth, passenger pigeon, or dodo bird? Using scientific techniques like cloning and gene editing, scientists may be able to bring these animals back from extinction within the next several years, meaning we might finally be able to go on an authentic Paleo diet.
But is it safe to assume that any moral problem with eating meat comes from animal killing? If you remove the killing, and the harm it causes the animal, the moral problem goes away, right? Not necessarily.
The most prominent ethical argument against eating animal meat comes from the philosopher Peter Singer. In his highly influential 1975 book Animal Liberation, Singer argues against eating meat because it requires animal suffering and, he says, we ought to care about the suffering of animals for the same reason we ought to care about the suffering of people. Both animals and humans have certain capacities—for pleasure and pain—that matter morally. Accordingly, animals deserve equal consideration of their interests. Failure to offer this is an example of “speciesism,” a term coined by animal rights advocate Richard Ryder. Just as sexism and racism are wrong because they unjustly discriminate on the basis of gender or race, speciesism is wrong because it unjustly discriminates on the basis of species. Causing pain to a chimpanzee, a chicken, a guinea pig, or a human being is morally wrong for the same reason: It is wrong to cause suffering.
It follows from Singer’s argument that we ought to be vegan, or at least vegetarian, in order to avoid contributing to animal suffering by killing animals for meat. However, insofar as cultured meat doesn’t cause animal suffering, it would seem to be perfectly fine for an “ethical vegan” to eat.
Yet while Singer’s argument is ostensibly about eating, the moral problem he cites is causing animal suffering (more specifically, “frustrating its preferences not to suffer”), not the actual eating of the animal. Thus, in Singer’s view, it would not be morally wrong to eat a cow (or a gorilla) that was struck by lightning and died, because we would not have caused it to suffer. Perhaps this isn’t so surprising on its own. But suppose we consider a different “exotic meat”: human. This isn’t merely a “modest proposal” nor would we need to wait for a lightning strike. We could simply produce it in the lab. In fact, a 2019 exhibit at the Design Museum in London featured a collection of “steaks” made from human cells as a satirical take on the increasing global demand for meat products. Singer’s view implies that there is nothing wrong with eating a person, provided it doesn’t cause any suffering.
Cannibalism has a long and complex history, as both a cultural practice and a last resort during times of famine. It is taboo in most cultures, which has been variously attributed to biology and religious influence, and was used to justify colonial expansion. However, distaste toward a practice is not itself a reason to think it immoral. Whether there is something morally wrong about cannibalism itself—over and above the harms of killing a person or desecrating a corpse—has received scant philosophical attention. One argument is that cannibalism is disrespectful to the inherent value of human beings, independent of the loss of life. In that view, the unique psychological capacities of humans create a demand for respect; cannibalism denies the significance of such capacities and treats the person as an object to be consumed.
A slightly different argument, from philosopher Cora Diamond, doesn’t rest on the possession of certain capacities. For Diamond, the reason we don’t eat people is because they are “not something to be eaten.” This isn’t a consequence of persons having certain morally relevant characteristics (e.g., the capacity for suffering). Rather, it is part of what it means to be a person, as we commonly understand and use this term. To act otherwise is to commit a sort of category error, along the lines of saying “the number two is sour.” Because numbers aren’t the kinds of things that have flavors, this statement represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what a number is (unless you have certain forms of synaesthesia). Treating a person as something to be eaten represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what a person is, and how we should relate to it. It is the ways that we respond to other people that shapes our understanding of what a person is.
Diamond also argues that “pets” are not to be eaten, for similar reasons. Pets are given names, let into the house, and treated in various ways that we wouldn’t treat other animals. We don’t do this out of a recognition of their interests; being treated in this way is part of what it means to be a “pet.”
Just as our relationships with our pets explains why we treat them as we do, Diamond maintains that we might relate to other animals as “fellow creatures,” which will in turn shape the way that we treat them. She argues that treating animals as fellow creatures is inconsistent with regarding them as mere stages in the production of meat. However, she acknowledges that treating animals with respect and compassion does not necessarily rule out eating them. For some people, eating an animal that has had a good life and was humanely slaughtered is consistent with treating them with respect and compassion; for others, respect and compassion might prohibit eating fellow creatures altogether.
How, then, can we apply Diamond’s ideas to the question of eating lab-grown meat? On the one hand, lab-grown animal meat itself is not the kind of thing that would fall under the concept of fellow creature, regardless of whether the cells come from a cow, chicken, or kangaroo. On the other hand, one might believe that extracting cells from an animal for the purposes of producing lab-grown meat fails to treat the donor animal with adequate respect and compassion, perhaps because it subverts the animal to our own ends, for example. Thus, it is possible that for some people, their relationship to their fellow creatures would rule out eating lab-grown meat.
Would lab-grown human meat still be something “not to be eaten”? I think the answer to this question depends on how far we are willing to extend the concept “person.” Clearly, lab-grown human meat is not itself a person; we need not treat it as we would a person. Is it a part of one? I don’t think so either. A limb, an organ, or another part of our body is more than a mere collection of cells, and is part of us in a way that a sampling of cells just isn’t. Thus, if we think lab-grown human meat falls outside the concept of “person,” then considering it “something to eat” would not be a category error. If someone consented to donating their cells for the purposes of meat production (as we permit them to do for medical research, for example) it isn’t clear what would be morally wrong with eating the resulting meat.
Of course, the morality of eating lab-grown meat is just one aspect of what we should do. Even if eating lab-grown meat—animal or otherwise—isn’t, strictly speaking, immoral, there are other important factors which should go into our decisions about what to eat, including environmental, economic, and cultural factors. While our food choices probably have a greater moral component than we typically acknowledge, this moral dimension is embedded in a broader social and cultural context. If nothing else, the possibility of lab-grown meat should encourage us to think carefully about what we choose to chew.