Davis turns that question on its head. How many animals must die, he asks, in order for people to feed themselves?
To address the question, Davis applies a principle used by moral philosophers to measure the least amount of harm an action might cause, called the Least Harm Principle.
Davis's research focuses on the work of Tom Regan, a philosophy professor from North Carolina State University and founder of the contemporary animal rights movement. Regan argues that the least harm would be done to animals if people were to adopt a vegan diet - that is, a diet based only on plants, with no meat, eggs, or milk products.
What goes unaccounted for in Regan's vegan conclusion, according to Davis, is the number of animals who are inadvertently killed during crop production and harvest.
"Vegan diets are not bloodless diets," Davis said. "Millions of animals die every year to provide products used in vegan diets."
Davis presented his research last fall at a meeting of the European Society for Agriculture and Food Ethics, in Florence, Italy. There he questioned the conclusions of animal rights proponents and offered alternatives using the Least Harm Principle. Central to his argument is the unseen mortality that accompanies the production of row crops and grains, staples of a vegan diet, in agricultural systems large enough to sustain the human population.
"Over the years that I have been studying animal rights theories, I have never found anyone who has considered the deaths of - or, the 'harm' to - animals of the field," Davis said. "This, it seems to me, is a serious omission."
Contact: Steven Davis
Oregon State University