Critique of Arguments for Vegetarianism
Surely there’s nothing actually wrong with eating meat is there? Yes some people prefer not to because of sensibilities concerning animal suffering, but they just can’t separate the idea of animals being cute and fluffy with the idea of meat just being what humans eat. But are there any reasonable arguments against being omnivorous?
Well let’s first get the really obvious things out of the way:
- Just because most people think something is right doesn’t mean it is- think of the slave trade era.
- Just because something has traditionally always been done doesn’t mean it’s right- think of womens’ oppression.
- Just because we find it very difficult to do something doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do- think of keeping your temper with a irritating friend or with a misbehaving child, owning up to a misdeed, or of staying loyal to a long term partner.
- Just because animals are of a different species to us that doesn’t mean that their suffering doesn’t matter- we wouldn’t accept aliens being cruel to us, even if they were significantly cleverer.
Secondly, we have the classical argument for vegetarianism. This says that: 1) the suffering of conscious beings including animals is bad; 2) slaughtering animals deprives them of pleasure and causes them suffering; and renders the conclusion that we cannot slaughter animals for food because it prevents us from promoting pleasure as much as possible.
The flaw with this argument is that just because an animal’s pain is bad for them it does not follow that we should promote their pleasure as much as possible. Nor does it that we should promote any pleasure as much as possible. The only way we get to this conclusion is if we are assuming the truth of a utilitarian ethic. But I do not know any plausible argument for why taking on that kind of methodology is the appropriate response to the phenomena of pleasure.[i] So the classical argument isn’t going to decisively convert us to vegetarianism, and especially not people with more traditionalistic views as they tend to reject utilitarian ethics.
Many people are aware of the above argument, it has been popular since the 19th century. But what not so many people know is that there are other arguments, ones that do not depend on utilitarianism. Most of these arguments appeal instead to the notion of ‘animal rights’, which has become popular in recent decades. The reason we don’t hurt or kill other humans, the proponent of this argument says, is that they have a right to fair treatment, and a right to life (and that may well be one reason why we don’t do so). But, they continue, humans are just animals and are not really all that different from much less intelligent animals such as pigs, cows and sheep. So if humans have rights these other animals must have the same, or similar rights and therefore we have a duty not to kill them.
The first problem I have with this argument is that I have some doubt that there are such things in reality as ‘rights’ in the sense in which I am very confident that there are values or goods.[ii] It seems to me that rights are social constructs, artifacts of particular legal systems which may come and go. Even if I could be convinced that it was more likely than not that there are objective rights I don’t think they are a useful concept to deploy in this debate. This is because they are a very vague notion, especially if based on a loose analogy between humans and animals. And if we do not even agree what it is in virtue of that both animals and humans possess rights it seems unlikely that we mean the same thing by ‘animal rights’ as we do by ‘human rights’.
Furthermore, there are clear and significant differences between humans and other animals, which only a narrow reductionism based solely on biology would obscure. These differences are all around us in society, language, culture and the arts. While of course I accept evolution by natural selection, in my view to lower humans to the level of animals doesn’t extend our rights to animals, but removes them from us. I thereby conclude that this second argument is insufficient also.
Yet there is a third kind of argument which is even less well known. This is based neither on utilitarianism nor on rights, and runs as follows (please pay close attention). We all agree that suffering we have the means to prevent is a bad thing, even if it is unintended. And even if that suffering is caused in the course of bringing about a good. For example, we’d all condemn the behaviour of a sloppy surgeon who causes unnecessary levels of pain to his patients- even if this treatment was potentially life saving. So if we apply these simple intuitions to the case at hand we see that we have a duty not to slaughter animals, *if* we have an alternative which is not particularly impractical. And if that is so, slaughtering animals is cruel not only if we do it with sadistic intentions but even if we do it ‘sympathetically’ with merely with food in mind.[iii]
The benefit of meat eating (nutritionally and aesthetically) is not only unnecessary, but trivial in comparison to the large amount of suffering it causes in conscious creatures, be it in rearing them or slaughtering them. Note for example that all bulls used in farming are castrated without anaesthetic, cows are kept constantly pregnant (but their calves slaughtered upon birth) to produce milk, and many animals are forced to look on at other members of their species are slaughtered before it comes to their turn.
Statistics on the USA show that vegetarians have on average 40% lower cancer rates, much lower still heart disease rates and live six years longer. So it is extremely unlikely that it is less healthy than meat eating. Moreover, all nutritionists -even those backed by conservative groups likely to be influenced by the farming industry- agree that humans can get sufficient nutrition without meat.[iv]
In addition, plant-based food production can yield up to ten times as much protein per acre than meat production.[v] Because protein is the most important source of nutrition, this means that the food supply would be dramatically improved by society moving towards vegetarianism. While we already have more than enough food to solve world hunger if we would but distribute it more equitably, having more food can only help the potential for those starving to get more of what they need. So this is also a social justice issue. Moreover, the arable land in poor countries is often bought up by large business who use it to grow plants for feeding animals for export to rich countries, while the people who actually live in that country have an inadequate food supply.
So I bring the first half of this piece to a close by concluding that in the light our new information that we do in fact have an alternative which is not particularly impractical, my argument does indeed prove that we have a duty not to eat meat. By extension we as consumers should avoid supporting meat-production, boycotting businesses that are heavily based upon it if we can.
Feel free to skip my brief theological detour. Perhaps you are a Jew, a Muslim or a Christian. If so you might well protest that there must be something wrong with my reasoning because if I am correct vegetarianism is obligatory, and in consequence the Mosaic Law, the Qur’an and the person of Jesus Christ would each be flawed in not having said this- and that you could not accept. Well to begin with there are a lot of ethical problems that aren’t adequately dealt with in those sources, and it would only be if they had positively encouraged meat-eating as absolutely right, that is, as right in all circumstances, that the correctness of my argument would show them to be flawed. But this is not the case with any of them. We already know they are incomplete guides, but that doesn’t mean that they are flawed in a substantial way. Also, note that my argument in no way depends upon animals having souls.
‘But hang on’, you might say if you are a Christian, ‘any immoral act is a sin, because although it need not be immoral becauseit is directly offensive to God, God still asks perfection of us (Mt 5:48) and to fall short of this is to sin. And this means that either meat-eating is morally permissible after all, or Christianity is false because as Jesus ate meat [vi] and therefore was not sinless.’
This, however, is a confusion of the implications of my argument- the context has greatly changed since the times of these Semitic sources of morality. While morality itself never changes, the precise situations that we are feeding into it for answers do tend to change along with society. So I am not defending cultural relativism but pointing out that context is key. If you were in front of a court, charged for storming into a Synagogue and throwing over tables, ‘Jesus did it’ wouldn’t be much of a defence would it?
This is pertinent because my argument for the immorality of meat-eating wasn’t absolute, but was conditional upon there being an alternative that was easily available. Vegetarianism wasn’t obligatory in the ancient Middle East because with their social arrangements and technology it would have been simply impractical to feed everyone sufficiently with plant-based foods. Moreover, this was not a world that was on the brink of environmental catastrophe.
I suppose you think that this all sounds quite reasonable but you are not going to dramatically change your behaviour for the sake of some animals. Fine. Do it for the sake of your fellow homo sapiens then. Another thing many people are completely unaware of is that greenhouse gasses produced by farming (particularly the methane from the animals’ flatulence) are actually doing more to bring on catastrophic climate change than pollution from air travel is. Governments who only ever talk about targets for lower emissions from other industries are to blame for this ignorance.
Furthermore, Bruce Friedrich of PETA points out: “It requires exponentially more resources to eat animal products, because most of what we feed to farmed animals is required [just] to keep them alive, and much of the rest is turned into bones and other bits we don’t eat; only a fraction of those crops is turned into meat, milk or eggs… which is vastly wasteful compared with eating the crops directly.”[vii] It is also enormously wasteful in ways relating to climate change. Eating animal-based foods “requires many extra stages of polluting and energy-intensive production” not needed for plant-based foods, particularly involving transportation.[viii]
Moreover, if we grew plants in the place of livestock, even if they are plants that animals would have eaten but humans cannot, that land would act as a carbon sink, therefore alleviating climate change.[ix] According to a 2006 UN environmental report “eating meat contributes to ‘problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity’.”[x] And “the farmed animal industry is ‘one of the… most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global’.”[xi] As John Vidal says, this same UN report “calculated that the combined climate change emissions of animals bred for their meat were about 18% of the global total- more than cars, planes and all other forms of transport put together.”[xii]
As with animals, I have serious doubts that the environment actually has rights, but that does not mean it isn’t a very serious issue. Whatever the variable by which human activity increases global temperature, we are at a point where it is crucial that we do whatever we can do to lower the output of that equation to save as many human lives as we can. The global energy crisis has already prompted corporate-government sponsored genocides of native Canadians (if that sounds absurdly sensationalist, consider the legal definition of genocide which does not require mass-murder). And the environmental refugees we are already seeing in several parts of the developing world (their homelands and ways of life having been destroyed by unstable climate change) are only the very first of billions. Legislating for lower CO2 emissions is a vital component of our response but switching to plant-based foods is both more practical and more effective.
So at this juncture I point out to Christians that although the book of Genesis says that God gave mankind dominion over all animal life, which has always been interpreted so as to include permission to eat animals, God there also institutes a moral principle of stewardship for His creation. The corollary of this is that where our purported license to eat meat conflicts with our duty to protect the environment, the moral requirement must trump mere permission.
You may have realised by now that this article was in fact an argument for veganism, rather than vegetarianism. And just as I should call that spade a spade, we should all follow the argument where it leads. Yes there is a reasonable argument against being omnivorous, but what really makes it a decisive argument in favour of vegetarianism (and perhaps veganism) is the environmental aspect. Whatever you think of animals we always have a duty to protect human life, especially if it easily within our power to do so, and this requires we change our diet.
I respect that you may not yet be ready to go cold turkey on turkey, let alone to jump in the deep end that is veganism- of course I am very far from completing such a transition myself. But my point is you should do as I say, not as I do. Or to put it much better: do as reason says, not as those who reason do. At the very least you should seriously think about giving up beef right away as that is the most environmentally degradating of all meats. Remember that even if relatively few people become vegetarian for this reason it would still make a tangible difference to those who will suffer from climate change in the future. That impact, however negligible, is still doing good and we have a duty to choose doing good over bad. We should also avoid hypocrisy, we should keep our consciences clear by at least doing what we would have done had everyone else done their part too, and hopefully showing them that it’s not that difficult that will persuade others to follow. Ultimately, eating meat every day isn’t normal. Eating meat at all isn’t a necessary part of human life. It is a lifestyle choice, and as I have shown it is a life threatening one- it will cost human lives.
Yet this environmental question is only secondary. Even if animal farming caused no environmental damage at all I would think my central argument sound enough to require vegetarianism. I just put it in there to educate about the environmental science and to show that even if you are sceptical about my argument, it is still more reasonable than not to be vegetarian.
“If anyone wants to save the planet, all they have to do is just stop eating meat. That’s the single most important thing you could do. It’s staggering when you think about it. Vegetarianism takes care of so many things in one shot: ecology, famine, cruelty.” – Sir Paul McCartney
ii Of course none of these are meant to be physical things but abstract objects which certain phenomena cause to be instantiated in the minds of subjects who are conscious of them.
iii An example of this type of argument can be found in Prof. David Detmer’s ‘A Vegetarian’s Beef with Atkins’ (2005)
iv Detmer, David, (2005), ‘A Vegetarian’s Beef with Atkins’
v Detmer, David, (2005), ‘A Vegetarian’s Beef with Atkins’
vi Of course we do not know whether or not Jesus ate meat (other than fish which wasn’t within the scope of my argument anyway). The founder of everyone’s favourite cult, the Hare Krishnas, had a famous conversation with a Catholic priest whom he criticised for not being a vegetarian like Jesus was. The priest responded that the Swami was not entitled to assume that Jesus was a vegetarian, because there was no evidence for that. To which the obvious reply is that in the absence of evidence, neither was the priest entitled to assume that Jesus wasn’t a vegetarian.
vii Friedrich, Bruce, in: ‘Is Being Vegan the Only Green Option?’, New Internationalist, January/February 2011, p. 34
viii Friedrich, Bruce, in: ‘Is Being Vegan the Only Green Option?’, New Internationalist, January/February 2011, p. 34
ix Friedrich, Bruce, in: ‘Is Being Vegan the Only Green Option?’, New Internationalist, January/February 2011, p. 35
x Friedrich, Bruce, in: ‘Is Being Vegan the Only Green Option?’, New Internationalist, January/February 2011, p. 34; Quoting from: ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’, available here: http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM
xi Friedrich, Bruce, in: ‘Is Being Vegan the Only Green Option?’, New Internationalist, January/February 2011, p. 34; Quoting from: ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’, available here: http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM
xii Vidal, John, (2010), ’10 Ways Vegetarianism Can Help Save the Planet’, The Observer, http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/jul/18/vegetarianism-save-planet-environment , citing ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’, available here: http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM