Why Won’t Vegetarians Eat Fake Meat?

Julian Baggini considers the question:

In a poll run on the website of the Vegetarian Society, nearly four in five said they would not eat IVM [in vitro meat], while fewer than 7 per cent said they would. But why should there be such reluctance among vegetarians (who, for the purpose of this argument, I’ll take to include vegans) to welcome IVM when, from an animal-welfare point of view, it is nothing other than good news? Even if it doesn’t turn out to be commercially viable, the case for cultured meat rests very heavily on the unacceptability of intensive animal farming, and so shines a light on the ethical objections to the meat industry.

The only logical way to make sense of the reluctance of many vegetarians to back IVM is that their choices are not as driven by animal welfare and environmental considerations as we — and they — assume. Perhaps a distate for eating meat is a visceral feeling that is only loosely connected to a ethically motivated imperative not to cause undue suffering to animals.

Many people cannot distinguish between their ‘all-things-considered’ moral judgment and their unmediated gut feelings, mistaking reflex revulsion for ethical insight. Ingrid Newkirk, the president and co-founder of PETA, is refreshingly free of this confusion, which is perhaps why she can welcome IVM, even though she would not eat it. ‘Any flesh food is totally repulsive to me,’ she told NBC News. ‘But I am so glad that people who don’t have the same repulsion as I do will get meat from a more humane source.’

All of us, not just vegetarians, are at risk of confusing our base disgust and distaste with high principle. ‘Natural’ food feels right, ‘synthetic’ food feels wrong, so we are all-too-quick to dismiss the evidence that lab meat might be a good thing after all. And if you’re motivated to find the evidence that supports your gut feeling, there’s plenty from which you can pick and choose. But there is a huge difference between building your position on a firm evidence base and building an evidence base to support your position. We might believe our moral reasoning is evidence-led, but more often than not, we find ourselves led only to the evidence that conforms to our existing views.

Recent Dish on IVM here, here, here and here.