Oxford professor and Sewanee alumnus Jeff McMahan asks “Might We Benefit Animals By Eating Them?”


Photo courtesy of The Daily Texan

by Kurt DeLay

Contributing Writer

On April 11, Sewanee alumnus and Rhodes Scholar Dr. Jeff McMahan (C’76) presented a public lecture on the ethics of humane omnivorism. McMahan is the current White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford. His lecture, entitled  explored a dialogical examination of the complexities of raising and killing animals for food.

Following an introduction by Dr. Mark Hopwood, a member of the philosophy department, McMahan clarified that this discussion would “have no conclusion.” Having been vegetarian himself since his freshman year at Sewanee, McMahan has a personal interest in this topic of debate. He insisted, however, that this discussion would be him following an argument to “see where it goes,” whether he likes it or not.

Ultimately, McMahan made good on his earlier promise. Like Forrest Gump playing himself in ping pong, McMahan went back and forth. Between point and counter-point, he raised questions of rights and population ethics.

McMahan explored several arguments, immediately presenting a counter argument for each point. Much of the discussion centered on the concept of animals’ suffering and how humans prioritize animals in regards to their own interests. A number of arguments hinged on the premise that causing animals to exist begets an obligation to treat them well. The complication arose when the reason for said animals’ existence is their premature death.

Before the talk, Grey Pawloski (C’19) had always supported “the belief that farm animals should not be abused and should be kept out of tight confinement and allowed to roam freely before being put down humanely. McMahan undoubtedly changed the way I think about omnivorism and agricultural practices,” he insists. Following the lecture, Pawloski had chicken for supper.

Making good on his earlier promise, there was no real conclusion. Rather, the audience was left with a number of partially constructed arguments from several angles and challenged to sort them out for themselves. Meanwhile, back on the ranch, it looks like status quo for the animals.