Ethical vegetarians maintain that vegetarianism is morally required. The principal reasons offered in support of ethical vegetarianism are (I) concern for the welfare and well-being of the animals being eaten, (II) concern for the environment, (III) concern over global food scarcity and the just distribution of resources, and (IV) concern for future generations. Each of these reasons is explored in turn, starting with a historical look at ethical vegetarianism and the moral status of animals.
Vegetarians refrain from eating animals. Ethical vegetarians refrain from eating animals for moral reasons. This entry explores both the non-anthropocentric and anthropocentric moral reasons for vegetarianism. The principal non-anthropocentric reason for ethical vegetarianism is direct moral concern for the welfare and well-being of the animals being eaten. The principal anthropocentric reasons for vegetarianism are (i) concern for the environment, (ii) concern over global food scarcity and the just distribution of resources, and (iii) concern for future generations. The entry begins with a brief historical look at ethical vegetarianism and the moral status of animals.
Ethical Vegetarianism: A Historical Overview
Ethical vegetarianism has a rich history dating back more than 2,500 years. Pythagoras (ca. 570–490 BCE) is one of the earliest known and most prominent proponents of vegetarianism. From what we know of his teachings as spelled out by Ovid, Pythagoras offered at least four moral reasons for refraining from eating meat. First, he maintained that eating meat requires the unnecessary killing of animals, since nature provides bountiful plant-based alternatives that “require no bloodshed and no slaughter” (Walters and Portmess 1999, p. 16). Second, he insisted that killing animals dehumanizes humans: “Oh, what a wicked thing it is for ﬂesh to be the tomb of ﬂesh, … Must you destroy another to satiate your greedy-gutted cravings?” (Walters and Portmess 1999, p. 17). Third, he thought it wrong to kill animals for food, because they have done nothing to deserve it (Walters and Portmess 1999, pp. 17–18). Finally, because he believed that human souls transmigrate into nonhuman animals, Pythagoras condemned eating meat on the grounds that doing so might involve the murder of kindred souls: “So I warn you, lest appetite murder brotherhood, I warn you by all the priesthood in me, do not exile what may be kindred souls by evil slaughter. Blood should not nourish blood” (Walters and Portmess 1999, p. 19).
Plutarch of Chaeronea (ca. 56–120 CE) argued that humans are not naturally carnivorous (Walters and Portmess 1999, p. 29). He also argued that animals are intrinsically valuable and deserve moral consideration in their own right because they are sentient, intelligent creatures and, thus, should not be killed and eaten (Walters and Portmess 1999, p. 32). Porphyry (ca. 232–304 CE) held that justice requires that we do no harm to any being capable of being harmed, and since animals can be harmed, the do no harm principle must be extended to every animated being (Walters and Portmess 1999, pp. 44–45).
Aristotle (384–322 BCE) had quite a different view of our moral relationship with animals. He maintained that every being that exists has a telos, i.e., an ultimate purpose for existing. Aristotle held that the purpose of the superior is to rule over the inferior and the purpose of the inferior is to serve the superior. He also held that the rational is superior to the irrational. Because he regarded animals as inferior irrational beings, Aristotle concluded that the purpose of animals is to serve the needs of rational man: tame animals serve as food and as beasts of burden, and wild animals serve as food and provide clothing and instruments (Regan and Singer 1989, pp. 6–7).
Aquinas (1225–1274) echoed Aristotle in insisting that rationality is what makes a being worthy of moral consideration and respect. He maintained that only rational creatures are free and autonomous, and only free and autonomous creatures have intrinsic value, i.e., value in and of themselves. Animals, being irrational creatures, have only instrumental value, i.e., they have value only to the extent that they are of use for rational creatures. Kant (1724–1804), too, followed Aristotle in embracing the rationality criterion of moral consider ability. For Kant, animals are not rational members of the kingdom of ends, and so, the categorical imperative does not apply to them. Like Aquinas, Kant concluded that animals only have instrumental value; they are not ends in themselves but rather, mere means to an end – that end being man.
Descartes (1596–1650) took linguistic ability to be the mark of mentality. Because he held that all nonhuman animals are incapable of using language, Descartes concluded that all nonhuman animals are mindless machines – mere automata devoid of thought and reason. When coupled with the rationality criterion of moral consider ability, the Cartesian view of animals implies that animals are bereft of morally signiﬁcant interests. Historically, Aristotelianism and Cartesianism helped shape Western attitudes regarding the treatment of animals, including killing them for food, for if animals are devoid of morally signiﬁcant interests, then killing them and eating them does not violate their interests.
But not all modern philosophers were persuaded by the Aristotelian/Cartesian view of animals. Voltaire (1694–1778) appealed to neurophysiological evidence to challenge Descartes’s claim that linguistic ability provides the only compelling evidence of mentality: “has nature arranged all the means of feeling in this animal, so that it may not feel? Has it nerves in order to be impassible? Do not suppose this impertinent contradiction in nature” (Regan and Singer 1989, p. 21). Voltaire also argued that animal behavior – such as nervous pacing or jumping for joy – often provides us with excellent evidence of an animal’s current mental states. David Hume (1711–1776) also rejected Cartesianism with respect to animals. He insisted that no truth is more evident than that animals are endowed with thought and reason. Hume also thought it obvious that animals are not only capable of experiencing pain and pleasure but also capable of experiencing fear, anger, courage, and other emotions.
Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) argued that animals deserve direct moral consideration. He rejected the rationality criterion of moral consider ability, insisting that when it comes to the moral status of animals, the relevant question “is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” (Regan and Singer 1989, p. 26). Like Bentham, Henry Salt (1851–1939) also thought that the capacity to suffer is what makes a being worthy of moral consideration. Because animals are capable of suffering, Salt thought it morally unjustiﬁable to cause them unnecessary pain. He also thought it wrong to kill animals unnecessarily. Since we can meet all of our nutritional needs with a vegetarian diet, Salt argued that it is wrong “to breed and kill animals for merely culinary purposes” (1886, p. 10).
Many of these historical themes repeat themselves in the contemporary debate over ethical vegetarianism: What property or feature makes a being worthy of moral consideration? Which beings deserve moral consideration, and how much consideration are they owed? Are we justiﬁed in killing animals for food, when equally nutritious plant-based foods are readily available? Contemporary answers to these questions are addressed in what follows.
Setting The Stage For The Contemporary Debate
Three factors play a critical role in the contemporary case for ethical vegetarianism. The ﬁrst concerns sentience, i.e., the capacity to suffer and/or experience pleasure or happiness. There is growing scientiﬁc and philosophical consensus that many animals – certainly all vertebrates – are conscious, sentient creatures that can feel pain and can suffer. The evidence for animal sentience parallels the evidence we have for thinking our fellow humans are capable of feeling pain:
- Animals manifest pain behavior, not just reﬂex actions to noxious stimuli (protective pain) but subsequent pain-induced behavioral modiﬁcation caused by bodily damage (restorative pain).
- We observe signiﬁcant anatomical and neurophysiological similarity between humans and many animals (including all mammals and most vertebrates).
- Efferent and afferent nerves run throughout their bodies, including myelinated A-delta ﬁbers (the kind of ﬁbers responsible for acute “protective pain” in humans) and unmyelinated C ﬁbers (the kind of ﬁbers responsible for “restorative pain” in humans).
- Endogenous serotonergic and opioid pain control mechanisms are present in mammals, birds, and ﬁsh. [Why would organisms incapable of feeling pain have endogenous paincontrol systems?]
- Analgesics and anesthetics cause animals to stop exhibiting pain behavior, presumably because these substances prevent the pain itself in much the way they prevent pain in humans.
- There is compelling experimental evidence that the capacity to feel pain enhances survival value in animals, based on the self-destructive tendencies displayed by animals that have been surgically differenced.
In short, there is overwhelming evidence that mammals, birds, and ﬁsh can feel morally signiﬁcant pain.
Second, despite the scientiﬁc, philosophical, and commonsense awareness that animals are conscious, sentient beings in their own right, farmed animals are regarded as commodities and are treated as if they were mere “production units” devoid of morally signiﬁcant interests. The process of converting conscious, sentient animals into meat begins by forcibly impregnating female cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, emus, and sheep. The resulting offspring are then typically housed intensively in inhospitable, massively overcrowded warehouses or sheds for the duration of their lives. For example, chickens are warehoused in sheds containing up to 100,000 birds, where each bird is only allotted seventenths of a square foot of ﬂoor space. Since the animals cannot move about freely in these overcrowded conditions, they are forced to stand
in their waste. The noxious ammonia fumes from the urine cause chronic lung and eye irritation. In these unnatural conditions, the animals are prevented from satisfying even their most basic instinctual urges (e.g., to nurse, stretch, move around, root, groom, build nests, rut, establish social orders, select mates, etc.), which causes severe stress in the animals. The stress, in turn, increases aggression. To prevent losses from aggression, the animals receive preemptive mutilations. For example, to prevent chickens and turkeys from pecking each other to death, the birds are “debeaked” using a scalding hot blade that slices through the highly sensitive horn of the beak. Other routine mutilations include toe removal, tail docking, branding, dehorning, ear tagging, ear clipping, teeth pulling, and castration – all performed without anesthesia. Unanesthetized branding, dehorning, ear tagging, ear clipping, and castration are standard procedures on small-scale family farms, as well. The ﬁnal stage in the “meat production” process is slaughter. Some animals meet with on-site slaughter, but most are shipped to slaughterhouses without food or water and without adequate protection from the elements. At the slaughterhouse, the animals are hung upside down and are brought via conveyor to the slaughterer who slits their throats. In many cases (and all “ritual kill” cases), the animals are fully conscious throughout the entire ordeal (Engel 2000, pp. 861–865). Worldwide, over 60 billion land animals are slaughtered for food each year. No other human activity results in more pain, suffering, frustration, and premature death than animal agriculture.
Third, there is no nutritional need to eat meat. This fact should be obvious from the number of vegetarians worldwide. According to some estimates, there are 375 million vegetarians worldwide. According to other estimates, there are 400–500 million vegetarians in India alone. Even with the lowest estimates, there are hundreds of millions of perfectly healthy vegetarians worldwide. There is also scientiﬁc consensus on the healthfulness of meat-free vegetarian diets. In their joint position paper on vegetarian diets, the American Dietetic Association and the Dietitians of Canada maintain that appropriately planned vegetarian diets are “healthful, nutritionally adequate, and provide health beneﬁts in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases” and are “appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence” (Mangels et al. 2003, p. 748). The health beneﬁts of vegetarian diets are also highlighted in USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010: “In prospective studies of adults, compared to non-vegetarian eating patterns, vegetarian-style eating patterns have been associated with improved health outcomes – lower levels of obesity, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and lower total mortality.” It is easy to eat a well-balanced, nutritionally complete vegetarian diet. No special food combining is necessary. All one needs to do is eat sufﬁcient calories centered around the following four food groups: whole grains (5+ servings/day), vegetables (3+ servings/day), fruits (3+ servings/ day), and legumes (2+ servings/day). Anyone who eats the recommended daily servings of these four food groups will be eating a nutritionally sound plant-based diet (though vegans, who consume 100 % plant-based diets, should include a reliable source of B12 in their diets). Far from being risky, such a diet reduces one’s risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, hypertension, obesity, and diabetes (Mangels et al. 2003, p. 748).
Ethical Vegetarianism And Consideration For Animals
The question at the heart of the ethical debate over vegetarianism is this: Are we justiﬁed in raising and killing animals for food, when equally nutritious plant-based food is readily available? Ethical vegetarians argue that the answer to this question is “no.” This section will explore three such arguments: (i) the utilitarian argument, (ii) the deontological rights-based argument, and (iii) the argument from moral consistency. The next section “Ethical Vegetarianism, Environmental Sustainability, and Global Justice” will explore three interrelated anthropocentric reasons for ethical vegetarianism.
The Utilitarian Argument For Ethical Vegetarianism
Peter Singer (1975, 2011) defends ethical vegetarianism on preference utilitarian grounds. Properly understood, preference utilitarianism combines a principle of equality with a principle of utility maximization. The principle of equality requires us to give equal consideration to the interests of every being having interests, regardless of race, gender, or species. The utility maximization principle requires us to act in ways that maximize the satisfaction of interests of all those affected by our behavior.
Singer argues that sentience is both necessary and sufﬁcient for possessing interests. It would be nonsense to say that a rock has an interest in not being kicked down the street. Rocks lack interests because they cannot suffer or experience pleasure. However, a cat does have an interest in not being kicked down the street, because she would suffer if kicked down the street. Since any sentient being has an interest in avoiding suffering, sentience is sufﬁcient for possessing interests. Consequently, the principle of equality must be understood as applying to all sentient beings: we must give equal weight to the like interests of all sentient beings when carrying out our utilitarian calculations. Giving animals equal consideration does not imply that we must treat all animals alike, but it does require that we give their pleasures and pains equal weight with human pleasures and pains when carrying out our utilitarian calculations. Failure to deliberate in this way is speciesism, a baseless form of discrimination akin to racism and sexism.
Since the principle of equality requires us to factor animals’ interests into our utilitarian calculations in an impartial way, a compelling utilitarian case can be made for ethical vegetarianism. According to preference utilitarianism, an action is right for a person just in case, out of all the actions available to that person, that action maximizes the satisfaction of interests of all those affected by the action (i.e., just in case no other action produces more net interest satisfaction). We know that meat production, by its very nature, involves harming animals, causing them to suffer, and killing them prematurely. Since animals’ interests are affected by our dietary choices, we must factor their suffering into our utilitarian calculations. Is all of the pain that farmed animals suffer outweighed by some greater gain that could not be achieved in any other way? Eating meat is not necessary for survival or good health. What about pleasure? People do enjoy the taste of meat and get pleasure from eating it. Does human gustatory pleasure justify raising and killing animals for food? Singer offers three compelling reasons to think not. First, on any candid appraisal, it is extremely doubtful that the ﬂeeting pleasure humans get from eating meat outweighs all of the pain, suffering, and misery farmed animals experience in the process of becoming that meat. Second, in rearing and killing animals for food, we are sacriﬁcing their most signiﬁcant interests (i.e., their interests in avoiding pain, in moving about freely, in living lives appropriate to their kind, etc.) in order to satisfy trivial interests of our own (i.e., our desire for particular taste sensations), and the principle of equality requires that we give signiﬁcant interests greater weight than trivial ones. Third, were we to grant, for the sake of argument, that the gustatory pleasure people get from eating meat does outweigh the pain, suffering, and misery farmed animals endure in becoming that meat, it still wouldn’t follow on utilitarian grounds that eating meat is permissible; for utilitarianism requires us to consider all available actions, and one action available to us at mealtimes is to eat a cruelty-free meatless meal that we enjoy just as much. Since eating delicious plant-based foods can satisfy our interest in “tasty” nutritious meals without requiring farmed animals to suffer, utilitarianism entails that vegetarianism is morally required.
The Rights-Based Argument For Ethical Vegetarianism
Tom Regan (1983) argues that animals have moral rights and that raising and killing them for food violates their rights. He begins his defense of animal rights by arguing that the rights view provides a better account of our moral duties to our fellow humans than other prominent approaches to ethics. Regan rejects utilitarianism on the grounds that it sanctions sacriﬁcing individuals for trivial gains in utility. He rejects contractarianism since it entails that we have no direct duties to those cognitively impaired humans who are incapable of understanding the social contract. Unlike these other views, the rights view maintains that all human beings are equally valuable in and of themselves. Because all humans are equally inherently valuable, Regan argues, they have an equal moral right to be treated in ways that respect their value.
Why are all humans equally inherently valuable? Regan’s answer is that they are all experiencing subjects of a life – i.e., conscious beings with experiential welfares that matter to them. Since human infants, senile humans, and mentally deﬁcient humans are equally experiencing subjects of a life, they have equal inherent value and the same right to respectful treatment as all other human beings.
Regan next observes that humans aren’t the only animals who are subjects of a life. Since many nonhuman animals are also subjects of a life, Regan concludes that they too have equal inherent value and the same right to respectful treatment as humans – they cannot be used as a mere means to our ends. When we raise and kill animals for food, we treat inherently valuable beings in ways that reduce them to the status of “things.” In doing so, we fail to respect their inherent value, we violate their rights, and we act immorally, as a result. Because animal agriculture systematically violates the rights of animals, the rights view calls for the total dissolution of animal agriculture.
Regan argues that vegetarianism is morally obligatory. But how, exactly, does one move from the wrongness of animal agriculture to the wrongness of eating meat? After all, a dead piece of meat in the grocery store is not a subject of a life and thus does not have rights. So, why is purchasing and eating that meat wrong on the rights view? According to the rights view, it is categorically wrong to purchase the products of an unjust industry. Any practice or institution that systematically violates rights by treating inherently valuable beings as mere things to be consumed is inherently unjust. Because the meat industry systematically violates the rights of farmed animals by treating them as mere things to be killed for food and proﬁt, the meat industry is an inherently unjust institution. Since it is categorically wrong to purchase the products of an unjust industry, it is categorically wrong to purchase and consume meat. Consequently, vegetarianism is morally required.
Objections To Singer’s And Regan’s Defenses Of Vegetarianism
Both Singer and Regan predicate their arguments for ethical vegeta
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