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Don Thompson, Professor of Food Science, contributed this question to the Paterno Fellows Town Hall Forum on Food Ethics:
Under what conditions, if any, should we eat “animals”?
Here is how he elaborated on the significance of the question:
This question is framed as it is to call attention to the ethical question without suggesting a particular answer. The intent of the exercise is to increase awareness of the breadth of various ethical dimensions of the question. How one goes about distinguishing differences and seeing similarities across animal species, including the human, is a step toward developing an answer to the question. One might see a vast gulf between human and non-human animals, differentiating the two as distinct categories according to ability to reason. As an alternative view, one might see a wide range of attributes among species, with some differing profoundly from the human and others being quite similar. The value of pleasure from taste and the value of health from nutritional components can contribute to an answer, as can one’s religious beliefs. Environmental impact might be a consideration, as that of plant foods is less than for animal foods, and it is variable according to the animal. Distributive justice concerns include unfair distribution of pleasure from food when some eat diets high in meat and others may struggle to get a sufficient quantity of plant-based diet, suffering hunger. Finally, animal rights can be framed on a utilitarian basis, with a goal of maximizing satisfaction of all sentient species, and also on a deontological basis, emphasizing our duty to animals that are understood to have much in common psychologically with humans. The utilitarian reasoning can underlie a concern to ensure appropriate treatment of animals being raised for food.