Chewing Over In Vitro Meat: Animal Ethics, Cannibalism and Social Progress


Despite its potential for radically reducing the harm inflicted on nonhuman animals in the pursuit of food, there are a number of objections grounded in animal ethics to the development of in vitro meat. In this paper, I defend the possibility against three such concerns. I suggest that worries about reinforcing ideas of flesh as food and worries about the use of nonhuman animals in the production of in vitro meat can be overcome through appropriate safeguards and a fuller understanding of the interests that nonhuman animals actually possess. Worries about the technology reifying speciesist hierarchies of value are more troublesome, however. In response to this final challenge, I suggest that we should be open not just to the production of in vitro nonhuman flesh, but also in vitro human flesh. This leads to a consideration of the ethics of cannibalism. The paper ultimately defends the position that cannibalism simpliciter is not morally problematic, though a great many practices typically associated with it are. The consumption of in vitro human flesh, however, is able to avoid these problematic practices, and so should be considered permissible. I conclude that animal ethicists and vegans should be willing to cautiously embrace the production of in vitro flesh.

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  1. 1.

    There are exceptions to this, such that we can harmfully kill without wronging: Self-defence is an example.

  2. 2.

    This term should not be used uncritically. Here, I specifically mean those who share a goal of eliminating/grossly diminishing the use of NHAs for food. This might be called the ‘vegan project’ (Deckers 2013).

  3. 3.

    Also variously known as cultured flesh/meat, test-tube flesh/meat, carniculture, and frankenmeat.

  4. 4.

    Matthew Cole and Karen Morgan (2013, pp. 211–214) worry that LGF will reproduce ‘the fetishization of meat’, while John Miller (2012) criticises the technology for reinforcing ‘carnophallogocentric’ culture.

  5. 5.

    Gary Francione is one vegan academic who expresses these concerns. The following (taken from an August 2014 post) is typical of the statements on the subject posted to his widely followed ‘abolitionist approach’ Facebook account:

    I continue to get variants of the following questions:

    1. Do you think it is morally wrong to consume ‘fake’ meat (i.e., vegan foods that mimic meat)?

    Ans: No, I do not. If the choice is between eating an animal product or a ‘fake’ product, it's a no-brainer.

    2. If you do not think that it is morally wrong to consume ‘fake’ meat, then why are you critical of it?

    Ans: I am trying to get people away from the idea that animals are ‘food’ and that we need meat (or cheese) substitutes or else we are deprived of ‘real’ food. I want a diet of vegetables, fruits, grain, beans, and nuts/seeds to not be seen as insufficient in *any* way. I want to encourage the idea that animal foods are things that should repulse and not attract us.

    See, accessed 5 May 2016.

  6. 6.

    Or, minimally, it is materially indistinguishable from animal flesh. Maybe what is necessary for something to actually be ‘animal flesh’ or ‘meat’ is a particular causal story. This metaphysical question is one worth examining, but is orthogonal to the current enquiry.

  7. 7.

    Somewhere upwards of 50 billion vertebrate land animals are slaughtered for food every year, and many more marine animals are killed annually. These figures do not include animals killed in pursuit of food, such as male chicks killed at hatcheries.

  8. 8.

    I am here assuming that parallel scientific developments will allow lab-grown products other than flesh. For example, there have already been moves towards the production of milk without cows (Pandya 2014).

  9. 9.

    These traditional objections to utilitarianism have been redeployed by animal rights theorists (e.g., Regan 1984) as a challenge to consequentialist approaches to animal ethics—most notably, Singer’s (1975) utilitarianism.

  10. 10.

    This, I think, is an accurate interpretation of Francione’s position. See footnote 5. Hanhui Xu tells me that, historically, though the monks at Chinese Buddhist monasteries would eat neither flesh nor flesh analogues, they would serve analogues to non-monks visiting the monastery. This approach—nothing resembling flesh is the best, flesh analogues are acceptable, flesh is not acceptable—seems coherent.

  11. 11.

    Even those theorists who move beyond these rights, such as Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka, begin with them (Donaldson and Kymlicka 2013, Chap. 2).

  12. 12.

    Susan M. Turner proposes that a ‘basic right to autonomy’ entails a right ‘not to be represented as a mere resource’ (Turner 2005, pp. 4–5), and thus condemns producing flesh analogues as in so doing ‘we are participating in the nonartistic representation of nonhuman animals as mere resources’ (Turner 2005, p. 6). I have doubts about her claims. She has an unsophisticated account of animal rights, apparently suggesting that ‘nonhuman animals have the same basic rights human ones do’, providing we ‘avoid the absurd consequences of the more immoderate versions of the animal rights position’ (Turner 2005, pp. 4–5). Consequently, she simply assumes that NHAs will possess this particular kind of autonomy right. Even if NHAs do possess the kind of autonomy right she imagines, which is not clear, the remainder of her argument requires greater defence: It is far from clear that, first, this autonomy right grounds a right against representation as a mere resource, and, second, that the creation of analogue flesh violates this latter right.

  13. 13.

    Cor van der Weele and Clemens Driessen (2013) imagine the possibility of a ‘pig in the backyard’ model of material acquisition. NHAs kept as companions and recognised as a part of a mixed-species society would be the ‘donors’, and then flesh would be produced through a kitchen appliance or local factory. There seems to be nothing implausible about this model, and it seems to be consistent with many prominent animal ethics positions. This idea is very close to the vision of at least some active advocates of LGF (Stephens 2013, pp. 169, 174).

  14. 14.

    In one study (Stephens 2013), for example, interviewed scientists stressed that the use of fetal bovine serum as a growth culture for the cells was something which would be overcome in future developments. This was framed as a problem with the technology/research at this time insofar as it conflicted with the potential goals of animal liberation.

  15. 15.

    This view is most commonly associated with Francione and Garner (2010). It is worth noting that the position should not be confused, first, with the unrelated ‘Abolitionist Project’ (see, accessed 5 May 2016) of the vegan and transhumanist philosopher David Pearce, which is about the abolition of suffering, or, second, the looser sense of ‘abolitionism’ as a fundamental acceptance of certain animal rights, and so the endorsement of the abolition of animal industry. It is in this latter sense, for example, that Donaldson and Kymlicka are sometimes described as abolitionist (see Bailey 2013, p. 725; Garner 2013, p. 102), but they would not make the objection I am discussing.

  16. 16.

    Wayne is herself a vegan—though not in the ‘principled’ (abolitionist) sense—who endorses something close to Donaldson and Kymlicka’s picture of a respectful mixed society.

  17. 17.

    Again, the ‘pig in the backyard’ model (see footnote 13) might be a good example of how this would work.

  18. 18.

    The phrase is Nietzsche’s, and I use it quite deliberately: it carries with it all of the connotations of the sneering, uncaring beings of a ‘higher’ rank looking down upon the worthless (human in Nietzsche, NHA here) objects of the lower ranks, who exist only for their use (see Nietzsche 2000a [1886], § 257; Nietzsche 2000b [1887], § I:2).

  19. 19.

    There are exceptions to this general trend. Carolyn Mattick and Braden Allenby (2012), for instance, seem mostly untroubled by the prospect of cannibalism.

  20. 20.

    I thank an anonymous reviewer for this point.

  21. 21.

    This, in my view, is underdeveloped in much literature on non-ideal theory, but exploring this claim will take me off-topic. The idea is present in Rawls, for whom courses of action in non-ideal theory must be morally permissible, and for whom ‘the moral permissibility of a course of action … is a function of the degree to which it removes the most grievous or most urgent injustice, the one that departs the most from ideal theory’ (Garner 2013, p. 13).

  22. 22.

    Here, I am generalising. While many libertarian political philosophers have written disparagingly about animal ethics/animal rights positions and in support of flesh-consumption (e.g., Lomasky 2013; Machan 2004; Narveson 1987), Robert Nozick was at least somewhat open to strong ethical obligations towards NHAs (Milburn forthcoming-a), and some philosophers have deployed libertarian tools in defence of NHAs or as a solution to problems in animal ethics (e.g., Ebert and Machan 2012; Milburn 2014).

  23. 23.

    This need not be human consumption—perhaps it could be fed to NHAs. In the conclusion of this paper, I contrast a LGF-consuming society with a vegan society; in so doing, I create a false dichotomy. We may reasonably desire the creation of LGF in a society in which every human is a vegan; we may need to feed flesh to our companions (see Milburn 2015, Milburn forthcoming-b), or LGF may provide a useful practical tool when it comes to aiding free-living NHAs (see further Horta 2013).

  24. 24.

    For thoughtful analyses of incest and bestiality respectively, see Sebo (2006) and Milligan (2011).

  25. 25.

    Indeed, some may object to artificially growing NHA flesh on the grounds that a diet without meat—no matter its source—is healthier (with thanks to an anonymous reviewer for this point). This, too, strikes me as unduly paternalistic.

  26. 26.

    The importance of cultural identity to the treatment of corpses should be clear. ‘Appropriate’ modes of treatment for corpses vary culturally from burial to open-air cremation to being fed to scavenging birds. Cases of culturally-appropriate cannibalism are often asserted, but examples are lacking. One verifiable but complex case is the Aghori—a deeply atypical sect of Saivite Hindus—who engage in the ritualistic consumption of partially-cremated corpses.

  27. 27.

    Interestingly, it does not fit into Wisnewski’s (2014) taxonomy, either; it is not is not ‘emergency’ cannibalism, ‘ritualistic’ cannibalism or ‘fetish’ cannibalism.

  28. 28.

    According to Patrick D. Hopkins, some ‘purist vegans’ (Hopkins 2015, p. 268) who oppose LGF play on this disgust reaction by raising the question of cannibalism in the first place; he is correct that this move has effectiveness because of ‘primal evolved disgust responses’ (Hopkins 2015, p. 269).

  29. 29.

    The cannibal will likely be susceptible to diseases which afflicted the owner of the corpse, the corpse—as humans are apex predators—will have accumulated toxins, and cannibalism simpliciter is associated with particular afflictions.

  30. 30.

    I thank Jan Deckers for drawing my attention to this point.

  31. 31.

    This is a false dichotomy, and we may actually have reason to pursue a society in which all humans are vegan but we nonetheless produce LGF. See footnote 23.


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This paper was written while I was reading for a doctorate in the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy, Queen’s University Belfast, funded by the Department of Employment and Learning, Northern Ireland. Special thanks are owed to my supervisors, David Archard and Jeremy Watkins. I would also like to thank the participants at a Queen’s University Belfast ethics reading group session—Cillian McBride, Tom Walker, Peter Schaber, Jeremy Watkins, Fabian Schuppert, Paddy McQueen, Hanhui Xu, Jamie Day and Andrew R. Thompson—for a lively discussion and some very helpful comments, and the editors and reviewers at Res Publica for selecting this paper and offering valuable suggestions. My thanks also go to David Archard and Jan Deckers for their comments on earlier versions of this article.

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Milburn, J. Chewing Over In Vitro Meat: Animal Ethics, Cannibalism and Social Progress. Res Publica 22, 249–265 (2016).

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  • In vitro meat
  • Cannibalism
  • Animal ethics
  • Animal rights
  • Food ethics
  • Veganism