About a week ago I decided to adopt a vegetarian diet. It wasn’t spurred by a sudden moral epiphany, rather I had wondered for some time whether a vegetarian diet was morally better than an omnivorous diet. I had convinced myself that eating meat was not immoral because it was perfectly natural, in an evolutionary sense, for me to do so. Yet the notion that that argument was wanting gnawed at me, as all it was was an appeal to convention, an appeal to empirical facts about social customs, even if those social customs instilled certain dietary dispositions — just because everyone is doing it, and has done it, doesn’t make it right. So I became open to the idea that eating meat in most circumstances might be wrong, and so explored some of the arguments for vegetarianism.
In surveying arguments in favor of vegetarianism, I found some compelling, and others unconvincing. It’s crucial to build from premises that are not dubitable but still have powerful implications. I think the most important basic premise in an argument for vegetarianism must be the point that eating meat is not necessary for a healthy diet. If eating meat were found to be necessary for healthy living then the argument for vegetarianism would be much more difficult to establish. Morality does not seem so demanding as to require us to sacrifice our health to do the right thing. It could require this of us, but in that case we would have reason to act immorally. By contrast, if eating meat is not necessary for a healthy diet, then any harm caused by eating meat is also unnecessary, and while the fact that a harm was necessary mitigates some of the badness of the harm, the badness of a harmful act is in full force if that harm was unnecessary.
This premise is interesting because it seems likely to be one of the few premises that motivates vegetarianism without logically implying veganism. Many arguments offered for vegetarianism are rooted in the suffering of animals or damage to the environment, regardless of whether empirical facts would show those factors to ultimately be necessary byproducts of the attainment of the ends of human nutrition. By making the badness of these outcomes conditional on their necessity to human well-being we can justify otherwise objectionable practices in, say, dairy farming. Indeed, the case has been made that vegan diets have serious deficiencies in vitamins and minerals that are contained only in animal products, such as vitamin B12. If it turns out that animal products are the only way to get certain necessary vitamins then the empirical facts would suggest that it is morally acceptable to drink milk and eat products containing eggs. If, of course, it turns out to be possible to get these nutrients from non-animal sources then it would seem that the cruel practices in dairy and egg farming would be unnecessary and thus not morally acceptable. So, for all that has been said, this premise concerning the justifiability of necessary animal products might turn out to entail veganism as well.
I suspect that any effective argument for a vegetarian diet will actually motivate a vegan diet, as the essential difference between the two diets is that vegetarians do not eat animal products that require the animal to be killed whereas vegans do not eat any animal products, on the grounds that it necessarily causes suffering. Insofar as we are concerned for animal welfare we are concerned about their general well-being; it’s not much more objectionable that an animal should live an abominable life and then be killed than that it should live an abominable life and not be killed. So I think any concern for animal rights leads to veganism, not just vegetarianism.
But at the beginning of all of this I said that arguments moved me to a vegetarian diet, which seems quite irrational if I truly believe that those arguments motivate veganism rather than vegetarianism. Well perhaps there is hope for me yet. Still, I did say there was a relevant difference between an animal living a horrid life to be slaughtered and an animal living a horrid life but not slaughtered. At the end of the day a vegetarian diet may be morally worse than a vegan diet, but it seems morally better than an omnivorous diet, which gives one reason to change their omnivorous diet to a vegetarian diet, even if not to a vegan diet.