Cora Diamond and the Ethics of No-Kill Meat

by Omar Baig

In 2019, Diamond delivered the American Philosophical Association’s John Dewey Lectures (Eastern Division): “Philosophers who teach at colleges and universities, and who don’t have a Ph.D., are a kind of dinosaur. We were widespread, but there are only a few of us left…. Soon we will all have died out. So here are a few reflections, in the light of our upcoming extinction.” (Photo Source)

In the Fall of 1959, Cora Diamond left a computer programming job at IBM to enroll at the University of Oxford’s philosophy department: despite earning a Bachelor’s in Mathematics from Swarthmore College and an incomplete Master’s in Economics from MIT. After finishing a B. Phil in 1961, Diamond spent the next decade teaching at flagship universities across the UK: at Swansea (Wales), Sussex (England), and Aberdeen (Scotland). Diamond returned to America as a visiting lecturer at the University of Virginia’s philosophy department, from 1969 to 1970. They hired her as a full-time Associate Professor in 1971, making Diamond one of the few women to teach at UVa’s main College of Arts and Sciences—coinciding with the first incoming class of 450 undergraduate women.

From 1973 to 1976, Diamond posthumously compiled, edited, and published Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics (1976), quickly becoming a pre-eminent scholar of New Wittgenstein, or ordinary language philosophy. In just a few years, Diamond branched out from this drier, more technical work—by building on two of Wittgenstein’s most prominent students, Elizabeth Anscombe and Iris Murdoch—towards her own non-moralistic and anti-essentialist approach to ethics. “Eating Meat and Eating People” (1978), for example, starts with a peculiar, yet indelible fact about the relatively few animals that humans deem edible vs. all the other species deemed non-edible. The near-universal taboo against human cannibalism means, “We do not eat our dead,” even in cases of accidental death or consensual cannibalism. Yet, why do these cases normalize the eating and salvaging of what may otherwise be first-class flesh?

To exploit or eat animals is not ethically wrong because it violates some set of animal rights that somehow follow from the legal rights of humans. Doing so betrays the virtues of “kind, sensitive, compassionate, mature, and thoughtful members of a moral community should display.” Thus, Diamond dismissed moral philosophers, like Tom Regan and Peter Singer, as “knee-jerk Liberals on racism and sexism,” who want us to go knee-jerk “about cows and guinea-pig” (279). Neither the expansion of human rights to other species nor a utilitarian calculus of preventable suffering are suited to fully understanding this greater moral source (271). Singer-style vegetarians, for example, may not understand why other vegetarians would refuse to eat a healthy lamb that was hit and killed by a car. 

In “Losing Your Concepts” (1988), Diamond rejects that ethical theories should come in either a deontological or teleological sort. The first relies on reason to justify right from wrong, while upholding moral principles and ethical imperatives, as somehow independent or a priori of the consequences of their actions. Whereas, the second view of good and bad human virtues reduces morality to achievable ends. The “ought” of ethics, to quote Elizabeth Anscombe, formed over a traditional “background of a divine conception,” as morally obligatory, but now remains without meaning: “with a sort of atmosphere clinging to them” (256-7). “We have suffered a general loss of concepts,” Iris Murdoch wrote, “of a moral and political vocabulary.” Man is no longer viewed “against a background of values, of realities, which transcend him,” but “as a brave naked will surrounded by an easily comprehended empirical world” (261).

“How can we judge,” Diamond asks, “whether we are worse off or better when concepts change” or “make judgments about conceptual” shifts or differences (275-6)? To use a word means “coming into life with that term, whose possibilities are to a great extent to be made” (266-8). A shared or exchanged look, for example, can express being human—or “can be equally denied in a look” that relegates others to the non-human world. (264) In “The Importance of Being Human” (1991), Diamond elevates the titmouse in Walter de la Mare’s poem, “The Mourner,” as more than a biological species, but a tiny son of life. Diamond also considers the intellectually disabled, with their souls in mute eclipse. In short, being human takes on roles that are “quite different” from properties “like sentience or rationality or the capacity for moral personality” or moral individualism (59).

Injustice and the Cry of Outraged Hurt

In “Injustice and Animals” (2001), Diamond addresses the modern conditions in which the vulnerable are subjected to evil: “in factories sped up to maximize productivity,” while degrading the dignity of physical labor. The language of rights, as “a middle or mediocre level of values,” neither expresses genuine injustice nor addresses the needs of victims. Responding to injustice as injustice depends on “the capacity to see, [and] really take in, what it is for a human being to be harmed,” rather than the capacity to work out what is fair. Tying justice and injustice as closely to rights, however, leads to misconceptions arise. Welfarists, for example, may even disagree with animal rights activists over the “necessary” abolition of factory farming; by arguing that its practice should continue, but without unnecessary suffering to animals (1-3). 

The animal rights movement stresses two ideas: first, “that animal welfarism not only leaves in place and unchallenged the unjust treatment of animals,” and second, “only an appeal to the rights of animals can serve as a proper alternative to welfarism” (2). Yet extending human rights to other animals, via an anthropocentric standard of intelligence, risks labeling or reducing the sentience of prospective non-human species, as having or not having such-and-such condition, relative to the resemblance they bear to human “rationality.” An ethics of justice vs. of care only reinforces “the bad effects of thinking about justice in terms of rights” (11-13). Classical liberalism’s “demanding of one’s rights” vs. the difficulty of hearing other’s pained cries of injustice and “begging for kindness.” The language of not interfering with rights further contrasts with the language of outrage. 

Simone Weil’s contrasting grammars of justice and injustice extricate moral consideration from the classic liberal framework of inalienable rights. Yet Weil neither denies the potential of legal rights to prevent “this or that form of unjust treatment not be done,” nor that the redress of injustice may depend on their existence. Justice relies on a profound and childlike expectation that humans are good at heart: with “an unreasoned expectation that good and not harm will be done to one,” and “an equally unreasoned,” yet possible response to that expectation. Injustice, however, entails the personal reception of the raw cries of outraged hurt (16-8). Instead, Diamond encourages us to expose ourselves to the ungrammaticalness of injustice, “to what has the face of nonsense,” by challenging our moral imagination.

Our Unrelenting Callousness to the Non-Human World

Cora Diamond addresses our unrelenting callousness to the non-human world, in “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy” (2003), by way of J.M. Coetzee’s meta-fictional novella, The Lives of Animals (1999). Coetzee based the latter on his experience delivering the 1997 Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton University. Coetzee’s fictional character, Elizabeth Costello, serves as a clever literary and rhetorical sleight-of-hand: conveying the horrors of factory farming, without having to attribute them to Coetzee. In The Lives of Animals, Appleton College, a small, fictional liberal arts college likewise invites Costello to deliver a prestigious ethical address to the faculty and students. “For an instant at a time,” Costello knows what it is like to be a corpse, as the unrelenting pace and scale of factory farming wound and haunt her: “impossibly looking back on our life as only a dead self can.” 

During her lecture, Costello equates and conflates the cattle carts and barbed wire used in the concentration and mass slaughter of humans from 1860 to 1945: with its continued use in modern factory farming. Holocaust imagery aims to reorient Costello’s (and Coetzee’s) audience towards the scale of horror, and the banality of evil, pervading our treatment of others: which “for nearly everyone, it is as nothing, as the mere accepted background of life.” This aped parallelism keeps one sort of difficulty in view, like the Holocaust, while obscuring others. Thus, two different views or readings of Costello emerge: one as a psychologically wounded woman, represented as a literary character. Whereas the other focuses on Costello’s public arguments, which advance a general moral position on how we should treat animals (47-9). Our difficult relation to the non-human world is incongruent with our ordinary modes of life or of thinking. These are thus shouldered out from how one thinks, or is supposed to think about the world, or try to “encompass” its residual non-being. 

Philosophy neither knows “how to inhabit” nor “treat a wounded body as anything but a fact.” Its overreliance on arguments over the inner-mental lives of animals, “of a dog fearing this or a chimpanzee,” renders us unavailable to ourselves and to what it is to be a living animal. Can philosophy, however, address the difficulties of reality, without deflecting from the suffering we inflict on the non-human world? Yet poetry may still return us “to such a sense of what animal life is” (59). Our concepts may be lost, at any moment, to the contingent play of uncontrollable circumstances: including “those things which are so intimately mine that I consider them as being myself” (69-70). We are thrown into finding something we can live with: there is “only what we make of our exposure, and it leaves us endless room for double-dealing and deceit” (72). To face non-being is to notice, Diamond concludes, “how much that coming apart of thought and reality belongs to flesh and blood” (74).

The Difficult Realities of Mass Euthanasia

The 2015 Avian flu outbreak led to 48 million bird deaths, across twelve US States: with Iowa being the hardest hit, with over 31 million euthanized. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (or APHIS) legally mandated all US bird producers to mass slaughter their entire egg farm, which holds 70,000 to 5 million chickens or turkeys, even if just one bird is suspected of being infected. Carbon dioxide gas is the only USDA method approved form of euthanasia for egg-producing hens: most of which are housed in cages. Whereas a propylene glycol and lauryl alcohol-based foam suffocate floor-reared, or “cage-free” turkeys and broiler chickens by pumping enough to smother their heads under six to ten inches of foam: with chickens suffering for up to three to seven minutes before losing consciousness. Dead birds are usually composted onsite, by placing them in rows, mixed with sawdust, and left to decompose for 30 days.

The less preferred, off-site method either transports them to landfills and incinerators or buries them, which risks contaminating the soil and groundwater.The disruption of the livestock-to-meat supply chain during the pandemic further illustrates USDA’s lack of preparation, or reform of, factory farming’s unhygienic and poorly ventilated concentration of livestock: which critically supports the evolution, adaptation, and transmission of viruses across species or between humans. Pork processing, for example, was down to 40% capacity at the start of Covid-19, causing overcrowding at feedlots, a critical backlog of orders unable to process or sell livestock, and their tragic mass slaughter and waste of meat. Iowa Select, in particular, turned off their vents, raised the temperature, and slaughtered thousands of pigs en masse: either immediately killed by a stun-gun or crushed alive, hours later, by a bulldozer sweeping up and moving their bodies.

Neither philosophy nor poetry seems aptly suited, however, to address reality’s most recent and pressing difficulties. Diamond’s notion of animals as company, discussed in “Eating Meat,” illustrates that “a fellow-creature does not involve just the extension of moral concepts like charity or justice.” Yet the difficult and ugly reality is that all protected classes of fellow-creatures, like test subjects, zoo animals, and pets, amount to a fraction of the hundreds of millions of livestock raised and slaughtered each year in America, with no Federal animal welfare protections. The 1966 US Animal Welfare Act (or AWA), for example, expanded protections to all warm-blooded lab animals; with its 1976 version further regulating animal handling, transportation, and research. A 1988 omnibus Farm Bill registered research facilities, requiring them to appoint an institutional animal committee to represent the welfare of the animals. By 1990, the USDA could seek injunctions against any licensed facility found dealing in stolen animals or placing the health of any animal in danger.

In 2002, the AWA removed protections for all birds, rats (Rattus), and mice (Mus), comprising 95% of all animals used in research. The 2008 Farm Bill raised spending to $288 billion: doubling the size of SNAP’s food stamp program by the time Congress signed the 2014 Farm Bill into law (two years after it was first introduced). Successfully amending the AWA to establish Federal welfare standards for the hundreds of millions of livestock slaughtered each year in the US, however, would take a historic legislative act. Congress would likely have to restructure the USDA’s two service areas, Marketing and Regulatory Programs (MRP) and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (or APHIS), to their own Program level office, in order for the Federal government to directly inspect and enforce animal welfare standards for factory farm animals, while expanding its mission areas to fund research on alternative plant-based proteins. 

Slaughter-Free Meat, Slaughter-Free People

 “A main cause of philosophical disease—a one-sided diet: one nourishes one’s thinking with only one kind of example.”

—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosopical Investigations (1953), §593

While animal liberationists and reform-based welfarists argue over the future of factory farming, Cora Diamond advances a more non-moralistic approach to the hastily overlooked realities of both the present and future of vegetarianism. Vegetarians have come a long way from frozen, processed, and hockey-puck-shaped soy burgers of the past: regarding their better taste, nutrition, and availability. The second generation of plant-based innovation, by publicly traded companies like Beyond Meat, demonstrates the rapidly growing market of vegan-friendly analogs to meat and dairy. The present tech world is in a frenzy over funding and launching the first cultured meat company to mass-produce, market, and brand a laboratory-grown, cell-based meat product. In August 2013, for example, Dr. Mark Post infamously tried a five-ounce, slaughter-free beef patty that cost $330,000 to produce at laboratory scale, for a then-$1.2 million per pound price point.

By 2020, the same pound of lab-grown beef costs just $50, which is also the present cost as one of Eat Just’s cultured chicken nuggets (or around $1,000 per pound). In fact, a 2021 study by Dutch research group CE Delft found that by 2030 “the cost of cultivated meat, when manufactured at scale, could drop” to $5.66 US dollars per kg. As both cell and plant-based meat becomes more competitive with traditional factory-farmed meat, in terms of price and taste, US consumers will increasingly turn away from, or consciously reduce, their consumption of conventional meat; and can finally phase out, or abolish, factory farm production. Cell-based and slaughter-free meat will further complicate the traditional view of species that humans deem edible vs. non-edible and will raise novel religious concerns. For example, will Muslim and Jewish leaders approve of cultured meat and certify it as Halal or Kosher, for example; or could cultured meat, perhaps, allow Brahmans and other upper-caste Hindus to eat slaughter-free beef in India?

“Morality, I now believe,” begins Ronny de Sousa in “Forget Mortality” (2021), “is a shadow of religion, to comfort those who no longer accept divine guidance but still hope for an ‘objective’ source of certainty about right and wrong.” Like Diamond, de Sousa is a retired professor, Ordinary Language Philosophy scholar, and an ardent anti-moralist. Moralists claim “the existence of commands as inescapable,” like “those of an omniscient and omnipotent God.” Philosophers teach these commands, as if they “deserve to prevail over all other reasons to act–always, everywhere, and for all time”; yet “that claim is bogus.” Most moral systems are inherently totalizing and are “forced into incoherence by setting arbitrary limits to its own scope.” Morality distorts our reasons to act and encourages emotions, like “self-righteousness and masochistic guilt.” This “results in some reasons being counted twice over” and commits “us to insoluble and therefore idle theoretical debates,” since moral authority can psychologically “promote deplorable systems of evaluation as easily as good ones.”

Diamond’s initial thought experiment questioned why humans do not eat consensually slaughtered, euthanized, or unexpectedly dead humans, despite their otherwise nutritious human flesh. Whereas, the promise of slaughter-free meat could shift the biological and ethical paradigms around the importance of being human. Cultivated human flesh may even undermine the near-universal human taboo against cannibalism: by offering a disembodied and subject-less mass of human flesh, cultivated without slaughtering human subjects. In “Anything But Argument” (1991), Diamond concludes, “the arguments I have given are in a sense quite useless” (306). Instead of formulating moralistic and rationally self-assured arguments, Diamond turns to poetry, literature, and anthropology to open our moral imagination to other humans and the non-human world. Like Wittgenstein and Murdoch, Diamond agrees that “an ethical proposition is a personal act,” which reflects “the texture of a man’s being or the nature of his personal vision.


Works Cited:

Diamond, Cora. “Eating Meat and Eating People,” in Philosophy Vol. 53, No. 206 (Oct., 1978).

Diamond, Cora. “Losing Your Concepts,” published in Ethics Vol. 98, No. 2 (Jan., 1988).

Diamond, Cora. “Experimenting on Animals: A Problem in Ethics.” In The Realistic Spirit:

                                 Wittgenstein, Philosophy, and the Mind. (MIT Press, 2001). 

Diamond, Cora. “Injustice and Animals,” as chapter 8 in Slow Cures and Bad Philosophers: Essays on Wittgenstein,                                     Medicine and Bioethics (Duke University Press, 2001), edited by Eliott, Carl. 

Diamond, Cora. “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy” (2003), in Philosophy and Animal Life                                       (Columbia University Press, Dec 2009).