While synthetic meat (to use the term broadly) has long been a staple chow in science fiction, researchers are working hard to make it a commercially viable product. While there are many controversial aspects to lab grown meat, one matter of dispute is whether it is, in fact, meat.
As would be suspected, a legal battle is already underway over the legal definition of “meat” in the context of commercial food sales. Since this is a legal matter, the definition of “meat” in this context will most likely be settled in favor of whichever side can best lobby the relevant lawmakers. Interestingly, the legal definitions need have nothing to do with the way chemists or nutritionists would define a food. For example, since high fructose corn syrup has a bad reputation among consumers, the industry tried to get the name changed to “corn sugar.” To the chemist and nutritionist, high fructose corn syrup is a sugar; but the sugar industry rejects this definition—they presumably see a financial advantage in fighting this legal label. While the legal wrangling over how foods should be categorized can be interesting, it does not have much philosophical relevance when it comes to trying to determine what it is to be meat. After all, the legal answer is easy and obvious: it is whatever the law says, and this need have no rational foundation at all. As such, it is wisest to move on from the legal matter.
While philosophers are often accused of lacking common sense, there are some who think this is where philosophy should begin. That is, when trying to define what something is, a good starting point is where we already are in terms of common sense. J.S. Mill took this approach in his discussion of poetry, electing to start with the generally accepted view of poetry and working from there. This seems to be a sensible approach and will be applied to the matter of meat.
The common-sense definition of “meat” is that it is the edible flesh of an animal, most commonly the muscle tissue. While people do refer to the kernel of a nut as “nut meat”, common sense divides this sort of meat from animal meats. To illustrate, a vegan will not smugly say, “I do not eat coconut because that is meat.” But a vegan would refuse to eat a turkey leg—because that is the meat they do not eat. As such, I will stick with animal-based meats and ignore the other uses of the term “meat.” This does entail that I am rejecting all plant-based meats—they are not real meat.
On the face of it, synthetic meat would not seem to meet the common-sense definition. It is not cut from an animal; it is grown in a vat (or whatever). Thus, it would fail to be meat. On this view, it is the origin of the meat that defines it as meat. At this point, one could raise a weird sci-fi scenario: what if scientists created an animal whose body also included vegetable matter, such as potatoes growing within a cow? The carrots would be part of the animal, but they would not seem to be meat. As such, the composition of the material also matters—to be meat, it must have the right sort of makeup (typically muscle tissue). On this view, composition would be a necessary condition for being meat (so cow-potatoes would not be meat). But composition would not be a sufficient condition. On this view, synthetic meat that was not cut from an animal would not be meat. While this quick and easy solution is appealing, it does not seem to be the final word.
Suppose that a cut of muscles cells is taken from a cow. This would obviously be a steak. No suppose that the cells were cultivated in a lab and grown into a massive slab. These cells originated from the steak and are the same. As such, it would seem to be hard to deny that the slab is not meat. To us an analogy, if someone took a plant cutting and grew a slab of the plant cells in the lab, it would seem undeniable that the slab would be plant matter (unfortunately, “plant” does not work like “meat”, so I can’t say “would be plant”). The same should also apply to meat.
There are two replies to this analogy. One is to argue that plants lack the individuality of animals and hence plant material works differently from meat. If potato was grown as a slab in the lab, it would still be potato. But meat must come from an individual animal or it is not meat. The second reply is that the “plant” slab is not plant (to use “plant” like “meat”) since it is not coming from a plant—a slab grown from potato cells is not a potato plant and hence is not plant.
The counter to these replies is to focus on the question of what the discernible difference would be between the slabs and the plants and animals. Obviously enough, looking at them in the lab would be a dead giveaway, but that would be an unfair comparison. After all, a living cow does not look like a steak. A fair comparison would be to put a steak cut from a cow against a synthetic steak in a series of tests. Some would relate to food—taste testing. Some would be chemical and genetic—to see what the material is. Naturally, the tests would have to avoid being rigged—a test that was aimed only at telling if the meat was grown in an animal would be an example of a rigged test. If the synthetic meat passed these test (it tastes like meat, has the texture of meat, looks like meat, has the amino acids of meat and so on), then it would be hard to deny that it would be meat.
So far, I have only been discussing synthetic meat that can trace its origin back to non-controversial meat. But there is also the problem of completely synthetic meat—meat that is truly synthetic and has no causal chain that links it back to an actual animal. In the ideal, it would be chemically engineered protein that duplicates the qualities of meat. To use an extreme science fiction example, think of the replicator from Star Trek. This fictional machine could create a perfect steak by assembling it from raw materials, no cow involved. Unless someone insists that an animal must die (or at least be cut) for meat to be meat, it would be difficult to argue that replicator meat or properly engineered protein would not be meat. After all, unless one knew that it did not come from an animal, one would think it was meat.
This does point to the obvious counter—someone could draw a line and insist that meat must, by definition, come directly from an animal to be meat. Anything else could be meat-like, but would need to be distinguished from meat. This, of course, nicely mirrors what Locke said in the context of personal identity regarding the use of words, “And indeed every one will always have a liberty to speak as he pleases, and to apply what articulate sounds to what ideas he thinks fit, and change them as often as he pleases.” As such, the problem of meat could be solved by having multiple terms for various meat and meat-like things. Or we could follow the lead of Hume and conclude that “…all the nice and subtle questions concerning personal identity can never possibly be decided, and are to be regarded rather as grammatical than as philosophical difficulties.” In this case, “meat” is merely a matter of language, which is to say that the problem remains unsolved.
In the next essay I will consider another approach to the metaphysics of meat, namely the morality of meat.
This reminds me of the never-ending argument as to whether golf is a sport and golfers are athletes.
Argued by people who never seriously played golf, perhaps. Takes tremendous power and coordination to drive a ball 300 yards.
Ok, I’ll bite. For years John Daly smoked 2 packs of cigarettes per day. Can a chain smoker really be an athlete?
You’ve never seriously taken up the game, have you? And I say this as a reluctant golfer. Baseball players, football players, even the great swimmer Buster Crabbe smoked IIRC. The smoking and drinking finally caught up with Daly, as it did with Roger Marris, Bobby Layne, etc. etc. etc. Lou Gerig smoked. Now I’m not endorsing the idea but a lot of great athletes smoked, ate, and drank to excess. It finally caught up with them. Daly is mostly remembered in his later years for his excesses. And he pissed away a good bit of his talent. But he was an athlete.
Of course, this is a semantic argument – you are really talking about “what is a sport” or “what is an athlete”, in the same way Mike is talking about trying to pin down a definition of “meat”.
Some might argue the points WTP makes, insisting that the definition of “Athlete” must include,
“Characterized by dedication, focus, intelligence and work ethic.”
which appears in some definitions, and would be questionable at best if used to describe some of the people he mentions. I’d put the 1986 New York Mets in that same category, based on their rampant drug use, alcohol abuse, smoking, and off-field behavior.
The context that comes up for me is some nuance that circles back to the meat discussion. While that discussion centers on a definition of meat based on whether or not it actually comes from an animal, there are other arguments by “connoisseurs” who would insist that a MacDonald’s Big Mac is not real “meat”. They, of course, are comparing fast food to a Delmonico’s rib-eye, in the same way TJB is comparing guys like John Daly to elite athletes like Katie Ledecky or Usain Bolt.
A like argument might center around terms like “Invasion” versus “Caravan”. One definition of “Invasion” is
“an instance of invading a country or region with an armed force.”,
while another is
“an incursion by a large number of people or things into a place or sphere of activity.”
A third is
“an unwelcome intrusion into another’s domain.”
And so Donald Trump and Jim Acosta go at it not based on the issue, which is real, but because they each define the term differently, and each digs in and holds to their definition of the word.
It would be nice if we could spend more time and energy trying to understand another’s point of view rather than insisting that we are in the right – that each of us has our own moral compass by which we view the world.
Conservatives, and conservative-leaning folks like me are often the object of anger and hatred – but it’s not so much for our actual beliefs as it is their own definition of our beliefs. Consider the following:
Premise: I think that many of the provisions of the new NAFTA agreement are good – for example, the provision that trade goods purchased from Mexico be manufactured by people who are paid a living wage.
Premise: Donald Trump thinks that too.
Conclusion: I am a “Trump Supporter”.
Premise: “Donald Trump is a Racist Pig”
Premise: “If you support Trump, you must be a racist pig also”
Premise: “By the above agreement with Trump about NAFTA, I am a “Trump Supporter”
Conclusion: “I am a racist pig”.
I think it’s better to accept nuance and understand how others view things, rather than apply some central definition by which we judge others.
Agree very much with what you say. But degrees of meaning must have meaning without having to deconstruct even the most casual topic. A golfer, if one has ever put forth the effort it should be apparent, is for all rational intents and purposes an athlete. If not, we must deconstruct sumo wrestlers, weight lifters, on and on and on. Personally, I see a big distinction at the cheer leading level. But of course now we have competitions for such. So maybe not. I would argue that dancing, like diving and gymnastics, is an athletic event, if there is some moderately objective standards by which to judge a very subjective matter. There’s a whole can of worms that at its base is how to make objective observations regarding subjective matters. Which itself can get dragged into an argument about officiating, which every objective-ish sport has arguably subjective rules. See Title IX and on and on and on. Tear anything apart and you will find reasons to argue. The thing is, most decent people are willing to stop somewhere before coming to blows. And thus surrender the argument to the party more willing to go to the mat, so to speak.
Words must have meaning if we are going to use them to communicate by means other than the physical. Unless of course one believes in telepathic communications. Which raises another issue. One that I see as the ultimate fall back position. One step beyond even what went on in the recent Supreme Court nomination review and one that I see inklings of occurring now in the “dog whistle” and “what THEY really mean” arguments. Extremists will simply argue that they were insulted, offended, “attacked” telepathically. What is to stop such an argument?
But even more generally, where are we headed when people who ostensibly claim to be rational thinkers, who are even feted by the greater society as doctors of thinkology, show no concern regarding such things, even go so far at to claim that just because something never happened, lying about it is OK because Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a lie as well? Can they really, honestly make a claim to be preserving humanity? Thoughts?
“A golfer, if one has ever put forth the effort it should be apparent, is for all rational intents and purposes an athlete. “
Well, I agree with you – and there’s a lot of support for that concept and beyond. In my cursory web search on this topic I saw a couple of articles that claimed that “If you have a body, you are an athlete”.
You’re right – words have meanings, and meanings are important, but meanings change over time and with usage, and we adapt. Take the word “bad”, for example. In many contexts, “bad” means “good” nowadays.
“I would argue that dancing, like diving and gymnastics, is an athletic event”
Me too. But if you took the opposite point of view and argued that it was not, I don’t think I’d challenge you on it – I’d simply gain an understanding of the difference between what you call an athlete and what I call an athlete. This might even lead to a conversation between us – and if you talked about athletes, I’d know you were referring to those who fit into your definition. And I might even learn something about you.
“Extremists will simply argue that they were insulted, offended, “attacked” telepathically. What is to stop such an argument?”
Well, as I’ve argued before, that’s not about words or meanings, it’s not about understanding or education or nuance – it’s about power. If you can bring someone down by insisting that you know more about what they said than they do, and that their intent is meaningless in the face of your having been offended, then that’s that, I guess.
It has come up before – when politicians refer to things like “The Big Dig” in Boston as a “Tar Baby”, with all the flavor of the Uncle Remus story that is part of our heritage, and are called “Racists” and brought down before they can even say, “Wha….?”
I know I’ve mentioned the David Howard incident, wherein he referred to a budget being “niggardly” and was forced to resign because of it. Even Julian Bond, the president of the NAACP weighed in on the matter, and implored Mayor Williams to hire him back and order dictionaries to all staff who need them. But, even if Williams had complied, the dictionaries would have gone unopened – because it’s not about learning words, it’s about power.
I like to do crossword puzzles. I read and participate in a blog about them, where expert solvers and constructors comment on the daily puzzles in the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, and other papers. There was one issue where a clue for a 4-letter word was something like, “Transpire without incident”.
The answer was “Go OK”, but in the grid it looked like “GOOK”. This caused a firestorm on the blog – never mind the fact that it only looked like an epithet (and an archaic one at that), but the constructor was excoriated for the inclusion.
My contribution to the blog was to suggest that we avoid all words like that – no more can we use the word “slant” for a tilt, because some people use it as a slur against Asians. Same with the expression “A chink in one’s armor”. We’ll have to come up with another word for a particular amphibian, because “FROG” is sometimes used as an insult to the French – and on and on and on.
Despite my attempt at a “reductio” argument, I was incredulous when I myself was slammed for my insensitivity – and I was told, “Well, we now know who you are!”
And these are people whose lives, in a fairly big way, revolve around words and their usage.
Michael LaBossiere says
Some people have too much time on their hands. Fortunately Canadian taxpayers have too much money on their hands. See, this is how markets can work even in the context of government intervention.
Now this is an essay I can sink my teeth into!
We had a similar conversation at Passover last year, when there was an Israeli rabbi in the news who offered the opinion that artificial pork that came from a cloned pig was kosher, because it had never been a pig and thus had never been unclean. He went on to declare that it was not meat, and thus could be consumed with milk.
The conversation reminds me of an argument we had in a college philosophy class, when my professor sat on his desk and declared it to be a chair.
As I write this, my wife and cousin are preparing a turkey to take over to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving. My wife just said, “Well, we don’t have to make the stuffing – Amy’s making it over at her house …
What? How can it be stuffing if it was never stuffed inside a bird? Isn’t it by virtue of its very name required to have been stuffed? Or has the name somehow taken on new meaning – is it “stuffing” because we stuff it into our pie-holes? But if we do that (as my son just pointed out), wouldn’t all food then be “stuffing” – at least to the extent that we eat it … ?
I think that some families actually call it “dressing”. I wonder if they prepare it in a walk-in closet.
I love these family gatherings.
However it transpires, we’ll have to make sure we stay focused on the meat of the matter.
Michael LaBossiere says
Perhaps stuffing is like a patch; just as a patch is a patch even if you don’t ever patch something with it, stuffing is stuffing even if it is never stuffed.
Perhaps…but some might argue that a patch is just a piece of cloth, and stuffing just a bunch of croutons until they reach some level of self-actualization.
I guess some stores sell iron on patches…but maybe the package should just call it a “heat activated sticky back cloth”, with a picture of it affixed to a pair of jeans, labeled, “Suggested Use”
Michael LaBossiere says
True; Aristotle would probably lay it all out in terms of potentiality and actuality.