Aristotle’s Case Against Vegetarianism: Predator and Prey

If it is a given that man is an animal, as is so famously articulated in Aristotle’s famous dictum that man is a social animal, then there should be no good reason to exclude ideas which, in general, are meant to apply to man as an animal, from animals.  So in the case of vegetarianism: if there is an argument suitably argued against vegetarianism for animals qua animals then it will apply to man insofar as he is an animal as well.

This is the case in an interesting passage from the first book of Aristotle’s Politics.

For some animals, when they are created, at the outset bring forth with them in the process of creation (τοῖς γεννωμένοις) so much nourishment as is adequate until the time when the animal itself is able to provide for itself; for example those animals which have larvae or eggs. As many animals as give birth to live young, they have nourishment in themselves for a given time, the substance called milk.  So that clearly one must think that [there is nourishment] for the things which have been created (γενομένοις), plants on account of animals and the other animals for the sake of humans.  The tame animals are for the use and nourishment of mankind, while the wild ones, if not all, most of them, are on account of nourishment and help, in order that clothes and other tools come to be from these.  And therefore, if nature does nothing in vain or without a purpose, it is necessary that nature made all of these on account of humans (Translation mine, Aristotle, Politics, 1256b10-22) [1]

Aristotle, not uncharacteristically, is running together lines of thought, arguments and assumptions.  He begins from the idea that in nature when an animal is in the process of being former, it is supplied by nature with some form of physical sustenance, such as an egg providing not only a type of shelter but also some nutrition for the growing embryo.  To Aristotle, this is a universal feature for animal life; even in the case of animals which give birth to live young, their mothers are capable of lactation to provide this same sustenance in a different manner.  Thus, the thinking goes, when an animal is past the initial stage of life, nature would likewise still provide it with nourishment as when it has reached the point of maturity.

Latent within this passage is the idea that once nature has delivered an animal into its full physical maturity, it will have come to possess capabilities to procure food by its own means.[2]  Thus, there is still a need for food, but the initial form of food, such as a lactating mother, is not longer present for the animal.  The animal feels the urge to continue feeding, and in Aristotle’s mind, it has a natural instinct to seek those things which will best suit its appetite.  Among those things are both plants and animals.  Thus vegetarianism is ruled out, albeit Aristotle does need some detail work in explaining the nuances of this idea in full.

Lastly, there is the point made about nature doing nothing in vain.  What does he mean in applying that thought in this case?  (1) Either that nature does not bring an animal into maturity to just let it die since it has no way to get food (e.g. a human baby dies because it cannot find food); but this would be absurd.  (2) Or nature does not bring an animal into existence for it not be used in the proper way (i.e. cows are made for hamburgers, for leather, and for milk) (3) Or both, to put it somewhat directly, the predator and prey are made for a purpose, and both fulfill their roles.


[1]  καὶ γὰρ κατὰ τὴν ἐξ ἀρχῆς γένεσιν τὰ μὲν συνεκ- (10)
τίκτει τῶν ζῴων τοσαύτην τροφὴν ὥσθ’ ἱκανὴν εἶναι μέχρις
οὗ ἂν δύνηται αὐτὸ αὑτῷ πορίζειν τὸ γεννηθέν, οἷον ὅσα
σκωληκοτοκεῖ ἢ ᾠοτοκεῖ· ὅσα δὲ ζῳοτοκεῖ, τοῖς γεννωμένοις
ἔχει τροφὴν ἐν αὑτοῖς μέχρι τινός, τὴν τοῦ καλουμένου γά-
λακτος φύσιν. ὥστε ὁμοίως δῆλον ὅτι καὶ γενομένοις οἰη- (15)
τέον τά τε φυτὰ τῶν ζῴων ἕνεκεν εἶναι καὶ τὰ ἄλλα ζῷα
τῶν ἀνθρώπων χάριν, τὰ μὲν ἥμερα καὶ διὰ τὴν χρῆσιν
καὶ διὰ τὴν τροφήν, τῶν δ’ ἀγρίων, εἰ μὴ πάντα, ἀλλὰ
τά γε πλεῖστα τῆς τροφῆς καὶ ἄλλης βοηθείας ἕνεκεν, ἵνα
καὶ ἐσθὴς καὶ ἄλλα ὄργανα γίνηται ἐξ αὐτῶν. εἰ οὖν ἡ (20)
φύσις μηθὲν μήτε ἀτελὲς ποιεῖ μήτε μάτην, ἀναγκαῖον
τῶν ἀνθρώπων ἕνεκεν αὐτὰ πάντα πεποιηκέναι τὴν φύσιν.

[2]  Unsurprisingly, Aristotle will include hunting among the means.

4 thoughts on “Aristotle’s Case Against Vegetarianism: Predator and Prey

  1. Hi, and thanks for creating this blog. It’s been too long since anybody maintained a good, regular blog for ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, and it’s good to see somebody doing it.

    Your post on Aristotle and vegetarianism touches on a number of points that I find especially interesting. Two issues in particular come to mind, one interpretive and one more broadly philosophical. The interpretive issue concerns how we should understand the teleological ideas in the passage you quote; the philosophical issue is whether, on any plausible interpretation of the passage, Aristotle has given us a good argument against vegetarianism.

    On the interpretive level, the Politics passage you quote seems, at first sight, to appeal to a straightforwardly anthropocentric conception of teleology, not unlike what we find attributed to Socrates by Xenophon (in Memorabilia IV.3): plants and animals are the way they are at least in part so that we can eat them; they’re designed for our benefit, and so it’s natural and (presumably) therefore appropriate for us to kill and eat them. The trouble with this interpretation is that Aristotle elsewhere seems resolutely committed to a non-anthropocentric conception of teleology; not only are most things in the world not the way they are in order that they will benefit us, but the teleological order of plants and animals is strictly species-relative: each kind of living thing is the way it is for its own sake, not for the sake of some other living things. This conception of teleology as fundamentally internal to the lives of specific sorts of living thing even seems to be, for Aristotle, a weak criterion of something’s being a distinct living thing with its own nature; whatever exists primarily for the sake of something else is either essentially a part of that thing or is an artifact rather than a natural being. Of course, there are some other prominent passages in the Aristotelian corpus that also seem to contradict that idea by appealing to anthropocentric teleology; Physics II.8, for example, seems to regard rainfall as occurring in order to make crops grow so that we can eat them. Some scholars have therefore thought that Aristotle’s teleology is anthropocentric after all. But in my view, at least, the scholars who argue against that interpretation are correct.

    There is a whole massive literature on this topic that I can’t even begin to do justice to, but the gist of the story is that while Aristotle recognizes that many things in nature occur for the sake of something external to them, these external or cross-species teleological relations are never fundamental; in particular, they do not play a causal role in explaining why living things are the way they are or why certain natural processes regularly occur. Rather, they are instead explained by appeal to more fundamental features of living things and their modes of life, features that are in turn susceptible to explanation in terms of strictly internal teleological relations (in the case of rainfall and the like, there would be no intrinsic or internal teleological explanation to be had, but the regularity of the processes involved allows them to be incorporated and used by living things into their own processes and activities, which admit of just such intrinsic or internal teleological explanation). To quote Mariska Leunissen on our Politics passage above:

    “It is important to recognize that Aristotle’s focus here is on the existence of natural beings qua food; plants and animals are for the sake of human beings qua being the foodstuffs without which humans would not be able to live. The teleology that accounts for the use human beings make of other living beings is therefore secondary: it reveals the perspective of the user, who makes use of what is provided by nature for his or her own good…it is the predator that it adapted to use and digest the food that is available, not the food to the predator…the thorny bushes are not the way they are (that is, bristly, woody, and fibrous), and do not grow where and when they do, because there are camels in their neighborhood that can only eat such food. Aristotle mentions no examples of plants or animals that are the way they are for the sake of becoming the right kind of food for some other being and the fact that formal natures of animals — if possible — develop means for protection or defense indicates that natural teleology is restricted to the life and well-being of the individual animal…the individual formal natures make sure that each individual kind of living being is able to benefit from the foods in its environment, which amounts — generally speaking — to ‘nature providing food for all.’.” (Explanation and Teleology in Aristotle’s Science of Nature, 41-43).

    I prefer Leunissen’s sort of interpretation on three grounds: it is a plausible interpretation of the various passages in which Aristotle seems to embrace external or anthropocentric teleological explanations; it is more consistent with the great majority of passages in the corpus, which seem clearly to rule out such external teleology as a fundamental explanatory factor; and it gives Aristotle a much more philosophically and empirically plausible view of the world.

    That said, we might doubt whether Aristotle’s argument gives us good arguments against vegetarianism even on the interpretation I prefer. The argument, so construed, seems to be something like this: human beings are by nature structured in such a way that eating meat benefits us by sustaining our life and health; life and health are goods that we should at least usually pursue; therefore we should (or at least can) eat meat.

    Some might want to challenge the second premise or the movement from the premises to the conclusion on the basis of some sort of impersonal or absolutist conception of the good; utilitarians, for instance, might think that what we should really aim at most of all is the greatest achievable welfare of the greatest number of sentient beings, and so we should refuse at least to kill animals to eat them even if it means that we human beings are less well off than we might otherwise be, since vegetarianism would yield a greater gain in non-human animal welfare than loss in human welfare. With Aristotle, I would reject this sort of impersonal or absolutist conception of the good in favor of one grounded on individual human flourishing; what we should and should not do is, ultimately, determined by what does and does not contribute to our flourishing as the kinds of animals we are. If that’s right, objections like the utilitarian’s and others are off the table.

    But even a thoroughgoing Aristotelian has ample reason to doubt whether there are good reasons not to be a vegetarian. Simply put, the first premise seems either false or too weak. It is false if it is taken to mean that we must eat meat in order to survive and be healthy; it is too weak if it is taken to mean only that eating meat is one good way of surviving and maintaining health. For some human beings in some conditions, eating meat has been and remains the best or even the only way to survive and remain healthy. For most of us who have the privilege of sitting down to consider whether we should be vegetarians, however, that is simply not true; while it might be more difficult to do so, it is perfectly possible for most of us to get along perfectly well on a vegetarian diet, and it would be much easier if vegetarianism were more widely practiced. Since eating meat isn’t the only way of achieving and sustaining the bodily aspect of our well-being, if there are other good reasons to refrain from it, then our natural adaptation to it would be insufficient to defeat those reasons.

    Are there such reasons? I doubt Aristotle thought so himself, and as I remarked above an Aristotelian will not recognize impersonal or absolute notions of goodness as fundamental reasons for refraining from meat. But if it is an aspect of human well-being to cultivate a benevolent appreciation for the natural world — as I think, but will not argue here, that it is — then that would seem to be a powerful reason to avoid eating meat, or at least to avoid killing animals or contributing to the practice of killing them, since there are few things more contrary to a benevolent appreciation for something than destroying it in order to consume it. People who are not in a position to avoid eating meat can, I think, do so with a more or less benevolent appreciation for what it is they are doing, and many traditional cultures (though not, I think, the ancient Greeks on the whole) developed ways of recognizing and acknowledging that killing and eating animals was, to put it in Aristotelian terms, necessary but not noble. But just about anybody reading this post (or reading Aristotle at all) does not have the excuse of necessity.

    So I don’t think Aristotle has a very good argument against vegetarianism, at least not in the Politics passage you quote. Despite this, I had a turkey sandwich about an hour ago, because that is how far I am from setting nobility above (faux-) necessity.

    To end on a more scholarly note, it is curious that Aristotle does not more directly address the ethics of eating meat, since it was a topic of debate among Pythagoreans and others whose views Aristotle certainly knew (e.g., Empedocles). He mentions Empedocles’ view somewhere in the Rhetoric, I think, and the fragments of Theophrastus suggest that he was an out-and-out vegetarian. But the question seems not to have exercised him very much.

    Thanks again for writing this blog. I hope to keep up with it as it develops!

    • David,

      Thank you for your considered response and overall encouragement regarding the blog.

      I am only casually acquainted enough with the kind of literature you cite to know that the standard interpretation is dubious about cross-species teleology. A few points. One is, well, we have got this passage here, which I find is difficult to explain on a non-anthropocentric interpretation. If as you suggest, however, we are meant to take animals as “for humans” in the sense that they are food, I find this unsatisfying and I will say why in a moment. To begin however, Aristotle presumes animals are fundamental, non-replacable, constituents for human life. If this were not so, I would find it hard to imagine what he means by nature doing nothing in vain in the case of animals which humans, and humans in a unique manner, utilize in some sense. viz. If humans were to adopt vegetarianism or abstain from animal-killing in general, these animals would come into existence in vain, but ex hypthesi nature does nothing in vain. Now as far as this touches on the idea that animals are for humans “qua food,” I think this is mistaken. On my take, cows, say, are for humans not qua food but qua animals. Among these uses qua animal are: beef, leather, fats, gelatin, various biochemical ingredients. Furthermore, I think it implausible to imagine that Aristotle believed animals had to be eaten, because they provided nutrients unavailable elsewhere; in fact, as you note, he was aware of a whole community, Pythagoreans, who seemed to sustain themselves without meat. Therefore I would say it is as animals, at the genus, not the species (e.g. cow, chicken, horse) and not qua food, that Aristotle says animals are for humans. On a side note, I am uncomfortable with attempts (unless they are unashamedly bald attempts at forming a neo-aristotelianism) to incorporate Darwinian anti-teleological explanations in Aristotelian biology, which I take Leunissen to be doing.

      I think we might want to strengthen or clarify your premise 1, “human beings are by nature structured in such a way that eating meat benefits us by sustaining our life and health.” Now the benefit might be a kind of straightforward, on-the-side-of-a-cereal-box nutritional concern, wherein animals and animals alone provide essential vitamins and minerals x,y, and z or an equivalent scenario. So if you undermine the idea that animals are necessary for nutrition, this premise falls. But Aristotle does not tell us whether the benefits are exclusively nutritional, and in fact, unless you assume that eating food is exclusively a nutritional concern, there are other reasons to eat animals. Animal eating might serve as a necessary psychological anodyne to the monotony of eating (ever tried sticking to a diet which only allowed certain foods!?), or a way for the farmer to make sufficient money off his herd (so a political concern), or as way to regulate wild/domestic animal populations (another political concern), or in general, as a practice of frugality.

  2. Thanks for the reply. The trouble with your interpretation of the teleology in the passage is that it is inconsistent with the vast majority of texts in which Aristotle appeals to teleological notions to explain living things. So if you read it that way, you’ll be compelled to say either that he changed his mind, that he is here simply appealing to some sort of common view that he doesn’t really endorse, or that he’s just hopelessly confused. Similar problems plague the anthropocentric interpretation of the rainfall example in Physics II.8; Aristotle explicitly tells us elsewhere that rainfall occurs as the result of material necessity and does not offer a teleological explanation of its occurrence, so if we think that Phys II.8 is committed to the claim that rainfall occurs primarily in order that humans can grow crops, we have to attribute to him a view that is idiosyncratic by his own lights. The distinction between what Leunissen calls primary and secondary teleology isn’t ad hoc, either; Aristotle tells us in several places that “for the sake of” expressions may pick out the internal goal of an activity or process or simply point to the beneficiary of a goal or process, and expressions of the form “X for the sake of Y” may either identify intrinsic causal relations (in which case they contribute to explaining why X happens) or incidental relations (in which case they don’t). In other words, the material for an interpretation like Leunissen’s (which in this respect is much like Monte Johnson’s and resembles those of Allan Gotthelf and Jim Lennox — in other words, the most outstanding scholars of Aristotelian biology and teleology in the past generation) is ready to hand in Aristotle’s general treatment of causation and explanation.

    So too, I think it is at best misleading to describe Leunissen’s sort of interpretation as Darwinian and anti-teleological. Setting aside whether Darwin’s view requires a kind of teleological explanation (on which check out Lennox’s ‘Darwin Was a Teleologist’, Biology and Philosophy 8.4 (1993), 409-421), it’s clear that Leunissen’s does. As she reads Aristotle, camels have the sorts of stomach they do in order to eat the kind of food that is available to them in the environment they inhabit; the function of eating rough, bristly thorn bushes explains why the camel has a stomach structured in the way that it does. This is not a Darwinian explanation because Aristotle does not think that the camel’s structure evolved over time to meet this need; he thinks there have always been camels that have always had stomachs structured so as to eat bristly thorn bushes. In terms sometimes used by contemporary philosophers of biology, Aristotle’s teleological explanations are “systemic” rather than “historical”; intrinsic final causes identify the role that some features of a living thing play in its overall functioning as an organic system, and the status of a function does not depend on its having been ‘selected for’ at some point in the past. Part of the view may or may not be that the achievement of the telos plays a crucial role in sustaining the structure that regularly acts so as to produce it (though there is debate about whether this so-called “etiological” interpretation of final causes is either true for Aristotle or applies to every case of what he regards as a final cause). But in any case it’s clear that what we have here is a form of teleological realism, not the sort of view popularly associated with Darwinism on which things only seem to act for ends.

    One of Leunissen’s arguments against the anthropocentric interpretation strikes me as a pretty decisive philosophical objection to the view, as well, whether or not Aristotle held it in the Politics passage or elsewhere. If we take teleology seriously as a mode of explanation, then what we are saying is that the telos in some sense explains why a living thing has the features it does. On your anthropocentric view, animals as such exist in order to be food for human beings. But that purported telos does a very poor job of explaining the features that many animals have; for one of the things that virtually all of them have is a set of structures and behavioral dispositions to protect and defend themselves against attempts to kill and eat them, whether those attempts are ours or those of other animals. To hold that feeding human beings is the function of animals as such wouldn’t just commit us to saying that nature systematically does something in vain, but that it systematically thwarts the achievement of the fundamental telos of most animals; the anthropocentric teleology is just empirically and explanatorily inadequate. Since I take Aristotle to have been no slouch when it came to offering explanations of empirical phenomena in biology, I take the inadequacy of the anthropocentric theory as a reason to think that he didn’t believe it. But whether or not he believed it, it’s a very strong reason to reject it anyway.

    Nonetheless, the claim that nature does nothing in vain is not inexplicable on a Leunissen-style interpretation. On any reading, that phrase cannot mean that everything that happens has a purpose; rather it means something to the effect that the fundamental structural features of substances with a nature — i.e., with an internal source of motion and rest — occur for the sake of an end. On Leunissen’s reading, what nature hasn’t done in vain is to make human beings such as to require food but to be unable to acquire or eat it; as natural beings, we are by nature structured in such a way as to be able to eat animals and to devise the means of getting them to eat. This is a true and non-trivial claim in several respects: we would not be successful as organic beings if we could not eat or get food, and we are in fact structured in ways that make us carnivorous, unlike many other animals; indeed, for most of human history a diet without meat would have led to malnutrition or even death. Nature does nothing in vain in that natural beings that are not ill-formed or somehow disabled in their development are structured in ways that enable them to survive and flourish; Aristotle may have underestimated the frequency with which things turn out ill-formed or are developmentally stunted, but he was basically right about this. So on this view, unlike the anthropocentric one, Aristotle turns out to have been an insightful biological thinker (as many biologists have attested) rather than a curiously inept armchair teleologist. I go for that reading.

    I do think that Aristotle thinks it’s good for us to eat meat because it’s in accordance with our nature. I have misgivings about that claim, as I sketched out last time, but I don’t think it’s crazy or something that he wouldn’t have held given that he knew that Pythagoreans and Empedocleans could survive and not become utterly sickly without eating meat (though perhaps they did seem sickly; they must have suffered from numerous nutritional deficiencies, especially if they were serious about avoiding beans). Particularly when we add fish into the mix, it’s not difficult to suppose that Aristotle had tolerably sensible empirical reasons to think that anyone who abstained from eating animals altogether was acting to the detriment of his health. This is one of those things where subsequent historical experience and different social conditions can legitimately lead us to different ethical conclusions. So maybe it was reasonable for Aristotle to reject vegetarianism. I’m just not sure it’s reasonable for us.

    That said, I think it may be time for lunch.

    • Dave,

      I will post a more advanced answer later, on two fronts:

      One trying to address the rain issue you mentioned from the Physics, a post in which I will deal with this issue (and perhaps change my mind!) and another on the broader methodological interpretative issue, which although I am more confident on, I am not sure if will satisfactorily address this issue in particular.

      When I have made those posts, I will make reference to them in this comment, and this comment will itself be deleted. Until then, you will certainly have the upper hand.

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