I think anyone who eats animals-and thinks about eating animals-is at least somewhat cognizant that the choice to do so is, on some level, an ethical one. Of course thoughtful meat-eaters are not walking around with their noses buried in Bentham, but they do, by virtue of being thinking meat-eaters, at least entertain the idea that there's a basic difference between eating a pork chop and a piece of toast. A moral difference, no less. Put simply, for anyone who is honest with himself about the decision to raise and kill animals for food we don't need, there's a vague idea that eating animals under certain circumstances might very well be morally wrong.
It all comes down to the realization that an animal, like us, has interests-the most basic of which is avoiding pain. Because we cannot, as decent people, go through life thinking that our interests matter more than other interests simply because they are ours, we thus tacitly grant to other humans and many non-humans-basically anyone with an interest in avoiding pain and seeking pleasure-what philosophers call equal moral consideration. We may not even be aware that we live our daily lives according to this standard but, in most cases, we do. We often just call it the Golden Rule or some such and get on with the business of being decent folk.
Adherence to this fundamental notion of fairness actually requires a lot of us-and it structures the workings of everyday life. Notably, it means that if we are going to inflict intentional pain on another sentient being, we need to justify that painful act with a competing moral consideration. For example, when I affix a leash to my dog before walking her down a busy street, I surely cause a nominal amount of suffering. She hates her leash and is much happier left untethered. But of course I justify my decision to leash my dog with the competing moral consideration that, without that little torture device, she would dart into traffic and suffer far more serious harm, if not death.
That's a relatively easy case. Where this scenario causes many meat eaters problems is when it forces them to highlight the rather unfortunate fact that the only competing consideration against killing an animal for food we don't need is lame: our taste for the texture and flavor of that flesh. And, by any moral standard, that won't cut it. After all, is it a standard you'd ever want applied to your own life? Or the society of humans you cohabit?
It's for this reason that whenever I read contorted defenses for raising and killing animals I find myself thinking, "stop with the half-baked rationalizations and just admit you love meat too much to give it up." I find this answer-I just can't stop eating meat-to be far more refreshing than the pseudo-philosophical junk often brought in to justify the causation of terrible but unnecessary suffering. "I know I shouldn't eat meat but . . . ." strikes a more honest chord than "we evolved to eat meat." Not that I agree with the "I can't help it" assessment, but at least it doesn't cheapen the importance of equal consideration of interests, which happens to be at the foundation of leading an ethical life.
The looming nature of this conundrum-how can something as arbitrary as taste ethically justify killing animals?-may also help explain why so many consumers react to eating meat with such visceral enthusiasm. I know people who, at the mere mention of eating bacon, will veritably growl and twitch and say "mmmm. . . bacon," as if there was something primal stirring in their soul. Nobody acts that way about broccoli. But it could it be that what's primal is the subconscious effort to excuse ourselves from the moral standard we know deep down, as thinking meat eaters, we fail every time we eat animals? Could that expressed inability to stop eating meat be a way to avoid the conclusion that, to live an ethical life, we must do just that--not eat animals?