William Skidelsky on the philosophy of meat-eating

Animals deserve to have a good life - before they reach our plates

In cookery book terms, the publishing event of the year is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Meat Book. It took its author more than four years to complete this impressively unconventional tome. Reading it, you understand why. Only half of the book's 542 pages are devoted to actual recipes. The rest are given over to a comprehensive survey of the philosophy of meat-eating.

Fearnley-Whittingstall begins by considering the ethics of livestock farming, and moves on to an exhaustive discussion of animal husbandry. Only then does he arrive at the (generally excellent) recipes. The book's structure neatly reinforces its theme: our approach to eating meat should be more holistic than it is.

Instead of focusing only on those stages of the process in which we are directly involved (that is to say, purchasing, cooking and eating meat), we should be equally aware of what goes on before this. Meat-eating is justifiable only if done with a due sense of respect for, and gratitude towards, the animals slaughtered for our benefit. Yet the present system does as much as possible to prevent us from dwelling on their fate. Supermarkets (from where 70 per cent of meat in the UK is bought) provide a bare minimum of information about the provenance of the meat they sell. According to Fearnley-Whittingstall, this is no accident, given that most of it comes from animals raised in extraordinarily cruel conditions.

In his chapter on the ethics of meat-eating, he puts forward a convincing case for why our treatment of animals is so outrageous. Drawing on the work of Stephen Budiansky, he argues that the process by which livestock farming developed was in some sense consensual. It began when certain species of wild animals became "camp followers" of human settlements, dependent on them for handouts of waste food and leftovers. From this developed the cultivation of fodder crops specifically for keeping animals close at hand, and finally a fully fledged system of livestock farming. The point is that animals were not, as vegetarians often claim, coerced into sacrificing themselves for our enjoyment. In evolutionary terms, they did so willingly, because submitting to human protection resulted in a better quality of life than they were able to achieve in the wild.

But the flipside of this is that we have a duty of care for the animals we raise and slaughter - a duty that intensive farming, with its purely economic approach to the management of livestock, blatantly neglects. If, as Fearnley-Whittingstall suggests, eating meat is morally justifiable only under certain circumstances, then it follows that the great majority of us should become vegetarians.