Put roughly, vegetarians are defined by their refusal to eat meat. Vegans take it further and refuse to eat any animal products. There are, as vegetarians and vegans will tell you, many varieties of each with some involving very subtle nuances about what is and is not acceptable to eat. While this oversimplifies things, people tend to embrace these views for two broad reasons. Moral vegans/vegetarians are motivated by ethical concerns—they believe that it is morally wrong to harm animals. Some take a broader view and include the sum of harms done by consuming animals, such as the environmental damage and wastefulness of animal farming. Health vegans/vegetarians are motivated by concerns about their physical well-being; they regard animal products as being unhealthy. It is obviously possible to have both (and other) motivations, but I will consider ethics in context of defining meat.
From a moral standpoint, the concern about meat (and other products) is the harm done to the animals. For example, the creation of veal and foie gras are both moral nightmares of animal suffering. The production of eggs and milk are also often terrible for the chickens and cows involved. In the case of animals harvested for their meat, even if they are treated well, they are still killed and consumed. Since vegans and vegetarians need to eat to avoid death, they turn to eating plants and plant products.
The moral justification for eating plants, which are living things, is typically based on the claim that plants do not suffer. They lack, it is argued, the sort of nervous system needed to even feel pain. As such they either lack moral status or have a status that allows them to be consumed. This is despite the fact that plants are obviously alive. Interesting, and to the annoyance of some vegans I know, there has been some scientific research into the idea that plants have some degree of awareness or even intelligence. However, this line of discussion would go beyond the intended focus of this work—which is synthetic meat.
On the face of it, synthetic meat that is gown would seem to be analogous to a plant. While the synthetic meat would be alive, it would not be part of an animal that possessed the capacity to suffer. As such, it would be morally equivalent to a plant (as most people see them)—a source of food that cannot suffer. This would seem to make such meat non-meat, at least from the standpoint of a moral vegan or vegetarian. Then again, a vegan could counter that the cells needed to grow the synthetic meat were original taken from an animal, which would make it unacceptable. An obvious reply is that taking a few cells from an animal would not hurt it. This problem could also be addressed by using source animals that would be well cared for and allowed to die natural deaths. In this case, the moral objection would have to be very abstract—that there is just something wrong with consuming any animal product, regardless of any other factors.
One way to address this concern would be to create completely synthetic meat that has no direct link to an animal. This synthetic product would be identical to meat but would be completely artificial. As such, no animal would be harmed directly or indirectly in the creation of the synthetic meat, thus making it morally not-meat. The odd logic would be that if meat is murder and synthetic meat is not murder, then it is not meat. While this is a bit silly, it does have a certain appeal.
It could be objected that it is not the ethics of the meat that makes meat what it is. To use an analogy, a stolen potato would be morally different from an honestly acquired potato, but both would still be potatoes. As such, it could be argued that even “moral” meat would still be meat, and thus unacceptable to a certain sort of vegan or vegetarian. The challenge would be, of course, to show what it is about such “moral” meat that would still make it immoral. One obvious approach would be the costs of producing it—synthetic meat is and probably will remain inefficient relative to using resources to grow plant-based foods. However, this would apply to anything wasteful of resources and would not be meat specific. It would, for example, apply to the wasteful process of growing almonds in California.
Given the above, synthetic meat would be morally distinct from classic meat. On the one hand, it could be contended that this would make it not-meat. As such, vegans and vegetarians could eat it and still claim to not be eating meat. On the other hand, it could simply be claimed that it would simply be moral meat that moral vegans and vegetarians could eat, thus making them non-vegans and non-vegetarians.