The legality of consuming animals is often used as a moral defence; the argument usually states that since eating animals is legal, it is also morally acceptable. The implication of this is that if an action were truly unethical, it would be ruled illegal, and so it is reasonable to use the law to define our ethics.
Though it is important to acknowledge that which animals are legal to eat and which aren’t varies between countries, it is largely the case that it is legal to consume animal flesh and secretions. There are some legal restrictions on how animals can be raised and slaughtered, but the inspection systems in most countries are far from robust. Even if we assume that these systems to ensure all animals mare raised and slaughtered according to the legal guidelines and requirements, this is still a very poor excuse to eat animals.
Firstly, the law is not immutable or objective. Laws and regulations typically reflect the views, priorities and prejudices of those who pass them, as well as the society they intend to serve. What is legal is often no more than an extension of what a particular society finds morally acceptable, and just because a society finds something morally acceptable it does not follow that it definitely is, as demonstrated by the evolution of laws over time. As societal attitudes change, laws change to reinforce them, as has been the case with women’s liberation and equal marriage legislation. If we were to accept the notion that legality is synonymous with ethics, then in order to retain a consistent position, we would also have to accept that whenever the law changes, what is ethical also changes. This is a difficult concept to defend, even more so is the fact that according to this same principle, any act, no matter how vile or harmful, could be made moral simply by a change in law.
In addition, laws are not always made with the best interests of morality or society in mind. In some cases, laws can be drafted solely in the interest of lawmakers and those who can afford to influence them, as is the case with the infamous “ag-gag” laws being passed in more than half of state legislature in the U.S. It would be difficult to argue that silencing whistle-blowers who report animal abuse and poor hygeine standards on industrial farms is in the public interest. Equally, the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to give legal personhood to corporations was achieved through a great deal of corporate lobbying, and gives corporations some of the same rights that people have. Corporations can, for example, spend money in candidate elections and some for-profit corporations may, on religious grounds, refuse to comply with a federal mandate to cover birth control in their employee health plans. These laws were made in the interests of particular groups, not the collective good of all society. Few would be willing to argue that because these things have become law, that erases all ethical concerns about their existence.
It follows then, that not only is law not immutable, it is not inherently moral. We do not need to go far back into our history to see instances of extremely harmful actions which were not only legally permissible, but legally required. Most of what was perpetrated by the Nazi party was perfectly legal, and during the same time period, so were the purges Stalin performed, the internment camps set up by the United States, and the British built concentration camps in Africa. That is not to say that animal agriculture is comparable to any of these events, but these examples do demonstrate the fact that there is a well established precedent for some of the world’s worst atrocities to be defensible under this very same argument. If the person putting forward this argument wanted to insist that what is legal is also moral by definition, then they would be in the difficult position of having to argue that these atrocities were ethically justified, too, since they were also legal in the country that perpetrated them.
If we are to accept that what is legal is ethical, that would give governments and officials absolute control over not only law, but morality; we would be defining our values and our personal ethics solely by what an external body decide on our behalf. This would be a terrifying conception of ethics, where people do not think for themselves and have no need to consider the morality of their actions; most of us would be deeply unhappy to accept this conclusion. Since laws are made by people, they are not infallible, and therefore they not always ethical either. If laws are not always ethical, then arguing that consuming animal products is justified because it is legal is clearly flawed.