Copyright © 2003 by Ian Lance Taylor
This document is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
"I am not a vegetarian because I love animals; I am a vegetarian because I hate plants."
|A. Whitney Brown|
Last changed on $Date: 2016/05/30 18:03:54 $.
I am a vegetarian. This essay discusses why. I wrote this more for myself than for anybody else. If you don't care, I don't blame you.
I have two related reasons for being a vegetarian. The first is the horrifying practices of the meat industry in the United States. The second is the ethical principle that no sentient being should be treated merely as a means rather than as an end in itself.
In this essay I'll use the word "animal" to refer to non-human animals, for simplicity and in agreement with common usage. However, always remember that humans are animals too.
Capitalism produces a natural pressure toward efficiency. In the meat industry this has led to the factory farm. Every effort is bent toward maximizing the output of meat and minimizing the cost. Animals are packed together tightly, with very limited space to move. They are fed a diet of hormones and antibiotics. They are often mutilated while alive, and are slaughtered while still young.
I honestly believe that few people would eat meat from factory farms if they were required to observe the process personally. I believe that even the most avid meat eaters and hunters have some degree of empathy for animals. As the noted philosophers Paul and Linda McCartney observed, "If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian."
I'm not going to go into extensive details about the horrors of factory farms. You can find plenty of information on the web by searching for, e.g., "factory farm." Farm Sanctuary, a farm animal shelter organization, has an informative site at factoryfarming.com.
Some people think that happy animals produce better meat, and so meat animals would naturally be treated well. I really don't know whether that premise is true. In any case, meat producers must weigh quality versus price. The factory farms have clearly opted to minimize price while maintaining acceptable quality, in the probably correct belief that people will tend to purchase the cheaper meat. By that choice, the animals suffer.
Fortunately, there are an increasing number of boutique operations which treat their animals well, while still slaughtering them in the end. If you must eat meat, I think you should seek out that type of meat, although it will be more expensive. I personally don't eat that meat either, as I discuss in the next section.
I believe that sentient animals have certain rights. Specifically, they have the right to be treated as ends in themselves, rather than merely as means.
When I say "sentient animal" I mean an animal with some degree of consciousness and some degree of feeling: that is, intelligence and emotion. For example, if you have lived with a dog, you know that a dog is sentient. You know this the same way that you know that another human is sentient.
While it's possible to argue that this is anthropomorphization, I frankly think that the same arguments can be deployed to argue in favor of solipsism, by arguing that no other human has intelligence or emotion. Like solipsism, the argument that dogs are not sentient is logically sound but emotionally empty.
Of course, we don't currently have a clear understanding of human sentience. It is conceivable that we will develop some sort of neurological understanding of intelligence and emotions, and be able to demonstrate that dogs do not have those qualities in any degree. I find this possibility to be extremely unlikely, but I concede that if it comes to pass I will have to reevaluate this argument.
Incidentally, while animal intelligence is fairly easy to observe, emotion does require closer observation. A good book on animal emotions is When Elephants Weep by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy.
It's not clear to me that all animals are sentient. After all, present day computers and robots are clearly not sentient, but they can perform very complex actions. My current suspicion is that insects and simpler lifeforms are not sentient, but are, in essence, robots. That is, while they obviously react to stimuli, and have complex behaviour within a very limited range, they may not have any inner mental life. In the absence of a theory underlying sentience, guessing is all we can do.
I feel certain that plants are not sentient. Since they have no nervous system, there is no physiological basis for believing that they could be. They don't act as though they are. Thus, while people who hear that I am a vegetarian sometimes declare that eating plants is also murder, I don't find that argument to be convincing.
It would make little sense to claim that animals have the rights that humans have. Animals do not have the right to vote. However, I believe that sentient animals do have the most basic right, which is the right to not be treated merely as a means.
We may not use a sentient animal as a means to an end without considering the wishes of the animal.
That doesn't mean that we must always do what the animal wants; it's possible that our actions will lead to a greater good while harming an animal. Also, an animal can not, in general, tell us its wishes, so we must guess, and we may guess wrongly.
So this principle does not serve as a precise guide telling us how to behave. But it does tell us that certain things are unethical.
For example, it tells us that if I don't need to eat meat, I don't have the right to kill an animal in order to eat it. Killing a healthy animal is fairly clearly against its wishes. Eating meat is not, for me, a matter of life or death. Therefore, while there may be specific situations when it is OK to eat meat, it is not generally ethically acceptable.
Similarly, other than a life or death situation, it is not ethically acceptable to kill an animal for its skin or fur. Wearing fur coats is wrong. Leather at present is more ambiguous, since the cows from which leather is made are being killed anyhow, for meat. In general, though, taking advantage of the unethical action of others is clearly on the ethical borderline. I personally think wearing leather is wrong.
It's harder to judge the ethical status of actions which affect an animal without killing it. For example, is it OK to put an animal in a zoo, assuming it has enough space and is well-treated? I suspect that it is, even though it would not be OK to put a human in a cage. But I'm not really sure.
I think it is OK to eat eggs from free running hens. Hens lay eggs in the ordinary course of their lives. Collecting them and eating them does not appear to bother the hens. Fortunately, free range eggs are now available at most upscale grocery stores. Similarly, I think it's OK to eat dairy products from well-treated cows and goats, although these are harder to come by.
I think that it is better to have ideals, and fail to live up to them, than it is to have no ideals at all. Though some people consider a mismatch between word and deed to be hypocrisy, I think it's important to recognize that there is both good and bad hypocrisy. Good hypocrisy is trying to be good, but failing due to human weakness. Bad hypocrisy is claiming to be good, but failing without even trying.
In that spirit, I admit that I do eat dairy products which may have come from factory farm cows. Frankly, it's hard for me to give up ice cream and cheese. Similarly, at restaurants, I eat eggs which may have come from factory farm hens. I also own some leather shoes, which I wear on special occasions.
Similarly, if you agree with the arguments I've presented here, but can't bring yourself to become a vegetarian, don't reject the arguments for that reason. Instead, set vegetarianism as a goal, and do what you can. Even a small action is better than nothing.
There are a number of other reasons to be a vegetarian. As far as I am concerned, they are incidental advantages. By themselves, they would not convince me. However, I wanted to mention them briefly. Again, more information is available elsewhere.
For a person in ordinary good health, a well balanced vegetarian diet is healthier than a diet with meat.
In particular, animals tend to concentrate pesticide residue and other toxic chemicals, and by eating them you eat that too.
Since animals themselves eat vegetables, a vegetarian diet uses fewer resources by cutting out the middleman (or middleanimal). This is a consideration due to the steadily increasing human population.
Factory farms, along with their bad effects on animals, produce a great deal of pollution, mostly in the form of manure. They also use a great deal of water, which in some areas is an increasingly scarce resource.
A vegetarian diet is normally less expensive than a meat diet.
I was introduced to the concepts of animals rights by Eve Vogel, when we were in high school.