Is there such a thing as a "conscientious carnivore"?

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      On the Atlantic this week, Texas State University history professor James McWilliams debunks the "conscientious carnivore". It's a term seeing increasing use these days with the trend toward ethical eating.

      McWilliams wrote a 2009 book called Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

      In his opinion piece, McWilliams notes that so-called conscientious carnivores avoid the products of factory farming by purchasing, for instance, free-range pork, grass-fed beef, and cage-free eggs from small "humane" farmers.

      The professor argues that these consumers don't challenge the foundation of factory farming, but maybe even strengthen it.

      McWilliams writes:

      Broaden your perspective on the concept of "conscientious carnivorism" and it becomes clear than it's little more than a catchy justification that helps consumers avoid investigating the deeper implications of nurturing an animal to kill it for food we don't need. It's so much easier, after all, just to focus exclusively on the relative happiness farm animals experience while alive rather than to contemplate the entirety of the animal's life cycle. Narrowing our moral vision this way, something every "conscientious consumer" inevitably does, obscures several aspects of "conscientious" meat eating that deserve due consideration.

      He goes on to contest the rationale, economics, and desensitization of "conscientious carnivorism", before concluding:

      All these problems with conscientious carnivorism—the killing of an animal despite acknowledging its moral worth, the economics of efficient production, and the desensitization required to deal with the slaughter—end up collectively supporting the very foundation of factory farming. As long as we're willing to commodify a living creature that has intrinsic worth, directly link its lifespan to consumer demand, and numb ourselves to the painful essence of the slaughter, we're doing nothing more than reaffirming the core values of factory farming. It might feel good to call ourselves "conscientious carnivores," but at some point we'll have to recognize that the only conscientious carnivore is, alas, an herbivore.

      If you are interested in the link between the killing of nonhuman animals and the food on your plate, Earthlings is one documentary that tackles this subject.

      You can follow Stephen Hui on Twitter at



      Standing Water

      Jul 16, 2011 at 10:40am

      Divinities kill whatever they like, eat it, burn it, whatever.

      This is all about removing the divinity from humanity, remaking us in a beastly image.

      Taxpayers R Us

      Jul 16, 2011 at 3:08pm

      hmmm...does it count if you prefer clubbed baby seal rather than the one riddled with bullet holes? I hate supporting the munitions factories, so I go with clubbed seal pups whenever possible.

      Does that count? :)


      Jul 20, 2011 at 4:36pm

      I almost never eat meat----And no, I'm not vegetarian or vegan----it's primarily a financial decision on my part.

      Ethics aside, I have to disagree with McWilliams still. I don't believe that "conscientious" carnivorism strengthens the foundations of factory farming in any way. The majority of individuals cannot afford to double their grocery bill to buy these "humane" products. Thus anyone choosing to buy them in the first place must likely reduce their meat consumption. It is therefore encouraging a diet shift away from the typical meat and potatoes, at least a few meals a week.
      [Aside: there is an interesting article somewhere about the benefits of eating meat one less meal per week vs. eating 100% local]

      The reference to commodification of living creatures is too brashly used here. It is an economic result that animals (ie, a source of food) suffer from supply and demand, but these principles applied even before factory farming ever existed. I've fished (for food) on lakes that are entirely untouched by industry and there is always a concern over supply and demand. Food has intrinsic value--it IS a commodity. As soon as someone starts hunting, fishing, or even growing their own crops, they have goods they can trade in a market if they so choose. But not many people ever go out, over-fish a lake, then trade off the surplus, because they know that it is not a sustainable practice. And that's the key issue in all this production practices, animal or agricultural, are largely unsustainable right now ( and THAT is the problem. If we based our diets on what we can make sustainably, none of this would be an issue because the costs of producing meat would be too high for more than occasional consumption, and these ethical concerns would be nil.