The ethical dilemma of Frans De Waal

The other day I was in a discussion panel after a talk by world renowned primatologist Frans De Waal in Brussels. I have great respect for De Waal and his work. He has a positive view on humanity, and refuses to be overly afraid of anthropomorphizing when analyzing animal behavior. Moreover, he actively promotes his views among the masses in very popular books, rather than confining himself to the walls of his university or primate research center.
In preparing my contribution to the panel, I quickly checked if I could find anything related to his views on eating meat and vegetarianism. This is the only thing I found, on the online magazine Wonderlancer (source):

Wonderlancer: What are your views on eating animal meat? Is that natural in us and thus necessary and unavoidable, like in many other carnivorous species? How do we reconcile our carnivorous ways with the notion of animal conscience and emotion?

“Eating meat is as natural for our close relatives, the chimpanzees, as it is for us. In fact, hunting large game and sharing the pay-offs has probably played a major role in human evolution, resulting in reciprocity and cooperation at a level few other animals achieve. The mammals that do achieve high levels of cooperation are mostly carnivores, such as killer whales and wolves, and also chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys cooperate during hunts. So, meat has been very important to our lineage. Whether we need to eat meat is a separate question for me, since I think we are smart enough to find ways of obtaining the nutrients we need without meat. It doesn’t seem a strict necessity. I myself do like and eat meat, but the practices of the agricultural meat industry bother me for ethical reasons, and I would be very happy if we either could change those practices or raise meat in the absence of a central nervous system. What I mean is meat-growing plants where muscles are grown without growing the entire animal, so that suffering can be excluded. This possibility seems to be getting closer, and would remove the ethical dilemma for me.”

I’m happy of course that De Waal finds meat eating at least problematic, but I have two issues with his answer. First of all, if he uses the evolutionary role of eating meat (which as far as I know is not a proven fact but rather a theory, and a contested one at that) as a justification to keep doing it, this smacks of the naturalistic phallacy (which implies that we cannot derive values from facts; we cannot say that things are good or bad, on the basis of what happens in nature). De Waal is familiar with the the naturalistic fallacy of course, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he means something else, or maybe his words were changed a bit. Or maybe I’m just interpreting it incorrectly.

The second issue I have is with the term “ethical dilemma”, which is used twice in the excerpt. I can very well empathize with the fact that De Waal, caring about what happens to animals while at the same time liking the taste of meat, experiences this as a dilemma. However, I think it’s not right to call it an ethical dilemma. This is how wikipedia defines ethical dilemma: a complex situation that often involves an apparent mental conflict between moral imperatives, in which to obey one would result in transgressing another. In the case of eating meat or not, there is no conflict between different moral (ethical) imperatives, there is only a conflict between taste (some people might erroneously also think health) on the one hand, and the suffering and death of animals on the other. The fact many people indeed would call this an ethical dilemma (or even merely a dilemma) at all, shows a lot about the value or weight we give to farm animals’ concerns.

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