When moral philosopher Gary Steiner first adopted his cat Pindar, the vet advised him to put the cat to sleep. A rescue animal, Pindar had tested positive for FIV (feline AIDS) and feline leukemia, and has since developed other chronic health issues, including kidney disease. Steiner decided to keep Pindar, triggering an ethical dilemma he still struggles with nearly a decade later.
I spoke with Steiner earlier this week, after he had just returned from an out-of-state vet appointment in Ithaca, NY, and was busy preparing for a 160-mile trip to Philadelphia, where Pindar was scheduled to undergo an MRI the following morning. “I’m hemorrhaging money over this little guy,” he told me over the phone. And he has been for years.
When Steiner decided to keep Pindar alive against the vet’s advice, “I knew then that it made no sense,” says Steiner, a strict ethical vegan who nevertheless feeds Pindar meat-based, kidney-diet cat food from a can. “I knew that other animals would be killed in slaughterhouses so that Pindar could live.”
Steiner is the John Howard Harris Professor of Philosophy at Bucknell University. An academic philosopher for more than three decades and the author of several books on animal rights, he has ruminated more than most people on the ethical arguments for avoiding meat, and the existential and social challenges of doing so in practice. Many of these are challenges he wrestles with personally, and chief among them are those associated with Pindar. I got in touch with him because, as someone who makes an effort to eat meat sparingly but also feeds his dog a predominantly meat-based diet, I wanted to know how Steiner resolves the tension between his personal ethics and the dietary needs of his pet.
Some bad news on that front: There may be no solution. Steiner has been a vegan for more than twenty years, and was a vegetarian for nearly fifteen before that. But for nearly a decade, Steiner says, Pindar has posed an ethical problem he cannot solve—“and it makes me feel, pardon my French, absolutely shitty.”
Steiner isn’t the only person who feels this way. In 2012, Bellarmine University psychologist Hank Rothgerber surveyed more than 500 vegan and vegetarian cat- and dog-owners, to better understand how they confront what he calls the “vegetarian’s dilemma,” i.e. the conflict that “pits feeding one’s pet an animal-based diet that may be perceived as best promoting their well-being” against “concerns over animal welfare and environmental degradation threatened by such diets.”
Rothgerber found that vegetarians and vegans who avoided meat for ethical reasons experienced significantly more guilt over their pets’ diets than did test subjects who abstained from meat in the interest of personal health. Similarly, vegans reported feeling significantly more guilt than did vegetarians.
The explanation for this observation seems obvious: There are moral, spiritual, philosophical, mystical, environmental and health-related cases for abstaining from meat, to name a few, and where a person falls on the broad spectrum of meat-abstention will depend on the arguments they adhere to. It’s reasonable to assume, however, that while Vegan A and Vegan B may subscribe to different ethical codes, those codes probably bear a closer resemblance to each other than either does to that of a vegetarian, and are probably stricter, too. It makes sense that someone like Steiner, whose personal and professional identities hinge on the denunciation of the ways human use animals to satisfy their desires, would feel worse about feeding his pet meat than would someone like myself: I may eat meat only on occasion, but I am neither a vegan nor a vegetarian, and my avoidance of meat has more to do with environmental concerns than with animal welfare.
Research supports the notion that loftier ethical goals correspond to a more acute sense of contrition. Compared to vegetarians, vegans tend to be more positive in their attitudes toward animals, believe animals to be more emotionally similar to humans, express greater concern over the impact of their diet on animal welfare, and give more animal-related justifications for their diets. It follows that a vegan would experience more guilt over the meat in his pet’s diet than would an ethical vegetarian. Similarly, a vegetarian who abstains from meat because she loves animals will probably experience more guilt than someone who avoids meat primarily for the sake of his health. Someone who avoids meat because he’s worried about heart disease doesn’t necessarily care about animal suffering.
There’s another layer to all of this that I haven’t mentioned yet: In Rothgerber’s study, ethically motivated vegans and vegetarians were more likely to own at least one cat or dog than respondents who abstained from meat for health reasons—74.8% of the former identified as pet owners, compared to 54% of the latter. (The American Pet Products Association estimates 37—47% of households in the United States have a dog, and 30—37% have a cat.) Respondents who avoided meat for ethical reasons also tended to own more dogs and cats than those motivated by health.
Again, these observations aren’t exactly surprising. As Rothgerber notes, “it seems reasonable… that pet ownership may be one vehicle among many for [vegans and vegetarians] to express their compassion and warmth toward animals.” But what a cruel paradox, that a person’s affinity for other creatures should compel them toward situations in which they must regularly choose between the wellbeing of their pet and the lives of the animals that their pet eats.
On the phone, Steiner tells me about his internal struggle over Pindar. Nine years ago, he says, if he’d wanted to be a strict utilitarian about Pindar, “it would have made more sense to kill him.” It would make more sense today, too. But he won’t. “The only way I can make sense of it is the immediate connection that he somehow exercises over me.”
Steiner is comparing a strictly utilitarian view on animal welfare (i.e. weighing the life of one’s pet against the lives of the animals killed to feed said pet) against an emotional and psychosocial one. “There’s something about the immediacy of a face-to-face connection with animals that awakens a sense of responsibility in us that isn’t reducible to some abstract principle,” he says.
Perhaps this is why most of the test subjects in Rothgerber’s investigation put their minds at ease by feeding their cats and dogs diets reduced in animal protein, rather than eliminating meat altogether. One quarter of the ethical vegans surveyed reported feeding their pet a diet less than 25% from animal products, but the majority still fed their animals a predominantly meat-based diet. Vegetarians, and those motivated by health concerns, were even less likely to abandon their pets’ traditional, animal-based meals.
In a followup study, Rothgerber compared the individual habits of dog and cat owners. He found that ethically minded dog owners usually assuaged their guilt by feeding diets reduced in animal protein. Cat owners, on the other hand, tended to alter not their feeding behaviors but their perceptions, in that they viewed vegetarian diets as inappropriate for their feline companions. These decisions reflect the consensus among veterinary scientists that vegetarian and vegan pet foods are unsafe for cats, which can develop serious health problems in the absence of meat-derived nutrients like preformed vitamin A and the amino acid taurine. Whether these and other nutrients can be added to a cat’s vegetarian diet to fill nutritional gaps remains a controversial topic, though attempting to do so is usually not recommended. Supplemented vegetarian diets are thought to be less dangerous for dogs; but the prevailing view is that an ideal diet for both species should contain at least some quantity of animal protein.
“I wish Pindar could be a vegan, and if he had a healthier constitution I would probably consider trying it.” Steiner says that after Pindar dies, if he adopts a healthy kitten, he “might give it a shot,” though this too, he says, would be a compromise because this could come at the sacrifice of the cat’s long-term health. “I don’t see a simple, straightforward, clear cut solution to any of this,” he says.
The deeper one digs, the more it seems Steiner is right. You could abstain, as some do, from adopting meat-eating animals altogether, though this gives rise to equally confounding conundrums that pit the ethics of animal domestication and pet ownership against humanity’s obligations toward millions of shelter animals (for whose existence we are responsible in the first place).
It’s tempting, also, to treat the vegetarian’s dilemma like a variation on the classic trolley problem: A trolley car full of animals destined to become pet food is heading for a cliff. You can divert the trolley onto another track, but there stands one hapless Domestic Shorthair that will be killed if you do. Do you save animals aboard the trolley at the expense of the the cat on the second track, or do you do nothing? But sacrificial dilemmas like the trolly problem, while useful for teaching college freshmen about moral philosophy, are no more easily resolved. (There are also some who argue that the trolly problem has been so frequently construed and misapplied that its utility in deciphering one’s moral reasoning has been lost. What’s more, there is evidence that the classic utilitarian response—i.e. “kill the one to save the many”—do not reflect impartial concern for the greater good, and may actually be driven by broad antisocial tendencies. Yeah.)
What winds up happening, says Steiner, is you start with a very discrete question—How do vegetarians reconcile their personal ethics with the meat-based diets of their pets?—“and it immediately opens up onto a whole world of questions and values and prejudices that it can’t ultimately be surgically removed from.”
“There is a style of thinking in contemporary ethics (not just among professional ethicists but among everyday people reasoning about ethical questions) that is the product of a desire for clear and definitive answers to ethical questions,” says Steiner. “But our perspective is limited, and there is absolutely no reason to suppose that every ethical dilemma has a straightforward solution. If a dilemma had a clear solution, it wouldn’t be a dilemma.”
Steiner’s personal solution: adopt rescue animals only, spay and neuter them when he does, and advocate, simultaneously, an end to all forms of animal domestication.
“Yes, we interfere with the freedom of domesticated animals by preventing them from reproducing; but in my judgment this is the least bad solution to a genuine dilemma,” he adds. “In the meantime, I am supporting the very regime of slaughterhouses that I decry, and I am confining Pindar in a luxury prison.”
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. Art by Sam Woolley.