This Week’s Special: Cora Diamond’s, “Eating Meat and Eating People.”

by Daniel A. Kaufman

Cora Diamond is one of the finest of the contemporary Wittgensteinians and more generally, one of the finest contemporary analytic philosophers.  On tap this week, is her outstanding – and influential – essay on the subject of animal rights, “Eating Meat and Eating People,” in which she presents a powerful critique of contemporary ethical arguments for vegetarianism and other animal-rights-regarding views.

Diamond’s is not an anti-vegetarian position.  Indeed, as she informs us early in the article, she is a vegetarian herself.  Rather, her critique is directed towards a very common sort of argument for vegetarianism and more generally, for animal “rights” – the sort that we find, perhaps most recognizably, in the work of Peter Singer, but also in essays by Tom Regan and others.  For the sake of this brief discussion of Diamond’s critique, I will take Singer as my example, but the general structure of the critique can be applied to any criteria-based argument for ethical vegetarianism.

Those who seek to make a moral case against eating meat and otherwise “using” animals, typically do so on the basis of the application of criteria and arguments from analogy.  The classic Singerite version of this moral case looks something like this:

  1. We do not eat/enslave/otherwise exploit people, because they have certain characteristics that we take to be morally relevant. (They are capable of experiencing pain and pleasure and are thus, bearers of “interests.”)
  2. Animals also have these morally relevant characteristics.
  3. Given (1) and (2), we ought not eat/enslave/otherwise exploit animals.

Singer has invoked the term “speciesist” to describe those attitudes that lie behind the eating, keeping, and using of animals, in a manner intended to be directly analogous to our invocations of “racism.”  Just as the murder, enslavement, and exploitation of black people ignored the fact that they share the same morally relevant characteristics as whites do and was justified on the basis of what are morally irrelevant characteristics – they don’t look like us; their culture is different than ours; etc. – so when we eat animals, use their skins for clothing, and perform medical experiments on them, we ignore the fact that they share the same morally relevant characteristics as people do and justify our behavior by appeal to morally irrelevant characteristics.

Diamond’s critique begins with the observation that (1) is false.  Our reason for not eating, enslaving, or exploiting our neighbor is not because the neighbor satisfies some set of criteria – specifically, with respect to the Singerite version of the argument, because he is capable of pleasure and pain and is therefore, a “bearer of interests.”

As Diamond observes, we do not eat our dead, even if no injustice was involved in the cause of death.  We do not eat amputated limbs, even if the meat is perfectly good to eat.  And yet, in none of these cases, could it be said that we were ignoring anyone’s morally relevant interests.  Whatever our reason for refusing to eat human beings, then, it is not because we are capable of pleasure and pain and are bearers of interests.

It is also worth noting that even the most enthusiastically carnivorous of us will not eat our pets.  I may have just eaten an absolutely lovely lamb chop, but I will not even consider eating my Bichon Frise.  One might be tempted to think that this is because my dog has some morally relevant characteristic that lambs lack, but one will see that this is obviously wrong, if we change the example slightly and imagine that I have taken a lamb as a pet.  I wouldn’t eat it any more than I would eat my pet dog, despite the fact that I just ate a lamb chop yesterday and would do so again.  And if I was fortunate enough to take a trip to South Korea, where dog is commonly served in restaurants, I’d be more than happy to try it.

Diamond maintains that concepts like “person,” “friend,” “neighbor,” and “pet” are morally “thick,” in that they include, within them, a whole number of associated sentiments, imperatives, and duties.  The reason that we don’t eat or enslave our neighbors is because neighbors are not something to eat, and the reason why I don’t eat my dog, is because pets are not something to eat.  By becoming a pet, the animal takes on characteristics that are shared with the people – it is given a name, lives with us in our homes, shares our lives, and is mourned and given a burial, when it dies.  And thus, like a child or a neighbor or a friend, a pet is not something to be eaten, despite the fact that another animal, of the very same type, but which is not my pet, might very well be something out of which to make a meal.

These prohibitions are not things that follow from something being a neighbor or being a pet, by virtue of neighbors and pets having certain morally relevant characteristics.  Rather, they are constitutive of what it is to be a neighbor or a pet, as we commonly understand  and use these terms.  As Diamond points out, a person who eats his pet dog did not have a pet, in the sense that we commonly mean.  The wrongness involved, furthermore, is not the ordinary sort of moral wrongness that one encounters all the time in greater and lesser amounts, but something along the lines of a category error.  Diamond gives the example of the different sort of wrong involved in cheating your daughter out of her due inheritance and giving her a number, rather than a name, at birth.  The former is clearly and plainly a moral wrong, in the most straightforward sense, while the latter, while representing a wrong, also represents a fundamental misunderstanding of just what kind of a thing a child is.

Those who put a great deal of stock in philosophical accounts and systems will undoubtedly wonder how things acquire these sorts of morally thick conceptualizations and may want to look for some theory – and criteria – that will tell us.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, if one doesn’t care about being philosophically systematic), no such theory is forthcoming, and the ways in which these concepts get assigned is as haphazard as one might imagine.  This should not surprise us – given that the very same animal may be a mere animal on Tuesday and thus, suitable for the table, but may become a pet on Wednesday and suddenly be completely unsuitable for it, it’s hard to see what sort of criteria one could possibly invoke.  At best, what we can do is tell a story about how this animal came to be a pet and was thus, rendered inviolable, but such stories will be many and varied and will resist the sort of generalization necessary  to produce criteria that can then be applied across cases.

The vegetarian motivated by ethics, then, is the very rare person who has come to see all animals in the manner that we see some animals – pets – and in which we see all people.  The ways in which this can happen are, as already mentioned, haphazard and many, but one way in which Diamond has shown us it does not happen, is by virtue of the ethical vegetarian having noticed that the animal in question has certain morally relevant characteristics and having concluded from that fact, that it must be inviolable.  And having come into being in this sort of way, it also is hardly something that can be prescribed to others, which is why, among all the things that Diamond dislikes about the ethical vegetarian movement, its often “nagging, moralistic tone” is one of the things she dislikes about it the most, a feeling that I certainly share.

Categories: This Week's Special


  1. mpboyle56, this is tiresome. Read Smith’s article anyway you like. It seems bothersome to you in a way that it doesn’t to me. As dbholmes expressed it, “Thomas provided an interesting link which I think fails to undercut Diamond’s argument against Singer but raises potential avenues for a better understanding of how we view animals/food.” Let’s leave it at that if you don’t mind. I don’t know what imaginary axe you are grinding here and frankly I don’t really care.


  2. With Dan K’s and Dan T’s forgiveness, I will end my commentary on this topic with the following link to another of Smith’s articles that both fascinated and amused me. Again, I’m unable to find fault in sharing such things. Take it in the spirit of good will as we approach our respective Thanksgiving celebrations. BTW, I hope you all enjoy your Thanksgiving meals!

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  3. @ Thomas Jones:

    I’m perfectly content to let readers decide the merits of the case, namely Smith’s discussion of cannibalism and whether he interprets Diamond correctly as basing her argument on universal standards. Happy Thanksgiving to you as well!

    Liked by 1 person