Some Thoughts on Ethical Vegetarianism

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.

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  1. #1 by bloggingisaresponsibility on July 22, 2014 - 8:00 am

    I’ve thought about this topic often, and questions that arise are:

    1. Is this a deontological or consequentialist issue?

    2. How does a mostly vegan diet compare with a purely vegetarian one [this also addresses the health question]?

    3. Is the moral status of consuming any animal equal [this question may also be a function of #1]?

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on July 22, 2014 - 11:51 pm

      Interesting questions, to be sure. I’m intrigued by your last question in particular. Do you have in mind a question about whether an animal life is of equal moral importance with a human life? It certainly seems to follow from an equality thesis that anything short of veganism is wrong.

      I think there are more ways to wrong a human than an animal, given that humans do seem to be more psychologically complex than animals. If we can understand this phenomenon in terms of duties and rights we could ask: do those with more moral rights have more moral importance than those with fewer moral rights? This seems backwards, however, as surely moral status grants the possibility of moral rights, not the other way around. Though one man may, due to his relationship with you, have more rights to your concern than another man due to you not knowing this man, it seems incorrect to say that the former man is of higher moral status than the latter. So we are back where we started in terms of considering whether an animal life is of equal moral importance to a human life. My suspicion is that this general approach of detailing psychological differences between man and animal to argue for a difference in moral significance must fail, as moral status seems separate from psychological facts that ground duties and rights.

      Anyways, this is an off the cuff response to this interesting question, and I am far from certain of this general argument. I know, however, that I am grateful to you for posing these interesting questions. I’m curious as to some of your thoughts on these questions. If you’ve written on this topic before I’d be grateful for a link, for the benefit of myself and others who might read this entry. I’d be equally delighted by comments.

      • #3 by bloggingisaresponsibility on July 23, 2014 - 8:30 am


        I blogged on this long ago on another site (account now defunct), but you convinced me to post an article about this, I’ll cover the below in more detail there 🙂

        Regarding the last question, the key points are the animal’s capacity to suffer (ability to feel & psychological complexity [as you mentioned]), and how many must die to feed people

        I agree with what you wrote and think people treat familial commitment as a moral responsibility. Also, the moral agent argument becomes a problem with people who are unable to act as moral agents. It raises an interesting perspective from which to define morality: why must it be a fixed contract?

        My answers to my questions are…

        1. It’s a consequentialist issue for me.

        2. If the mostly vegan diet causes less suffering, then follow it.

        3. All else remaining equal, the larger the animal, the more ethical it is to consume it since fewer of it must die to provide food.

      • #4 by ausomeawestin on July 23, 2014 - 5:13 pm

        Very interesting, glad we are in agreement. Of course, it seems I misunderstood what you meant in your third question, but as you’ve answered it above I’ll note that I agree with that reasoning, as it seems consistent with the notion of the morality of consuming meat running alongside the necessity of it to human nutrition. On a different note, I tend to favor deonotological views, but consequentialism seems to better fit my moral emotions about the plight of factory farming, as what makes it most wrong to me is the suffering caused, which does seem better explained by some sort of pleasure/pain based consequentialism. So, again, I agree with you there.

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Perhaps I can look forward to an entry on your blog about this fascinating topic.

      • #5 by bloggingisaresponsibility on July 24, 2014 - 8:46 am

        My pleasure! I try to think of ethics in terms of consequentialism, but at times I do take a deontological stance. Honestly, my ethical system is confused, and I don’t know how much of it is plain old sentiment 🙂

        I’m picking at a draft of that article, and hope to have it posted soon!

  2. #6 by jmeqvist on July 28, 2014 - 5:41 pm

    Interesting post as always, and I have thought about this topic often.

    One issue that I think needs to be considered in this discussion is the difference between factory farming and more small scale forms of raising animals, particularly for dairy products or eggs. Factory farming is clearly horrible and cruel as there is no sense in which an animal can be said to have a decent life within a factory farm even if the animal is not slaughtered, but what about buying eggs from a small scale producer who does not treat his chickens, or quail if you are so inclined, as mere egg machines, but instead lets them lead normal chicken lives? There does not seem to be anything cruel about this, so it is another option available for those who want to eat eggs, yet find the practises of factory farming deeply troubling. But it should be noted that given the expense required to purchase eggs of this sort accepting a vegan diet may be simpler and more feasible for most. Dairy products are a trickier issue because of the regulations surrounding dairy and the cartelization of the industry, but I think the same logic applies in principle, in that if the animals lead decent lives and are not made to suffer in order to maximize productions there is nothing wrong with consuming dairy products

    Also one additional argument in favour of moving to vegetarianism that I think needs to have more public visibility because it rests on an entirely anthropocentric grounds is that the raising of animals for meat is a far less efficient use of land than using that land to produce plant products. In a world dealing with overpopulation and mass poverty it seems that we would want to make the most efficient use of land so that we are able to feed everyone on the planet as easily as possible. Part of what makes the current predicament troubling is that land that could be used to feed the poor is being used to raise meat that only the wealthiest can afford, but which the wealthy do not need. Of course this hinges on the premise you elucidated above regarding the health of a vegetarian diet, but it is another argument that can be made, and may be useful in convincing those who are unconvinced by the idea that the suffering of non-human animals matters, but are concerned for human suffering and poverty. I do understand that this argument is also weaker in that simply cutting back on meat consumption would help to increase the food supply, so it does not exclusively command vegetarianism. But I still think the argument is powerful and I think it could help us to see that we do not need to eat meat or animal products as much as we think we do.

    • #7 by ausomeawestin on July 28, 2014 - 8:22 pm

      I completely agree on both points. I think it is possible to have humane conditions for egg and dairy farming, and in which case it would not be wrong to purchase such products.

      Admittedly, the egalitarian style (in the presentation I saw of it) anthropological argument you explicate is what convinced me to be a vegetarian. The central notion of the argument that I saw was that it takes about 16 pounds of grains, not including water, to raise one pound of meat, and so it would be much more efficient, in a way that could allow for a better distribution of food to hungry persons around the world, to use grains for persons and not use them to grow what is a luxury of the first-class world. That argument stopped me dead in my tracks, so I agree with you that it is an excellent and very moving argument.

      The reason why I did not mention it in my entry was that it involves many premises that are debatable. I looked into the data backing the argument and there is research suggesting many of the places where animals are factory raised are in places where those crops could not be grown. Others have challenged the figure that it is 16 pounds of grains to 1 pound of meat. Still others have argued that the problem of world hunger and food shortages are not due to a lack of food but rather due to macroeconomic supply issues, and more fundamental issues of poverty.

      Do I think that these objections to this egalitarian argument miss the point? Yes, in the first case it misses the point that even if factory farm locations are not on arable land (likely due to animal waste pollution) we are still using grains grown in other locations on animals, in such a way that is not efficient. In the second case, even if the 16:1 figure is not exact it is still indicative of the inefficient use of grains. Finally, even if world hunger is caused by more fundamental issues of poverty, it could not hurt to get things started by gaining larger grain surpluses to be allocated so as to treat the symptoms, even without treating the disease — better that people not suffer now even if we cannot fix the deeper issues at present.

      My point is is that I think the argument you refer to is very convincing if we know the premises to be true, but many people, due to a hedonistic self-interest will look for reasons to doubt the premises and hold onto their beliefs allowing them to eat bacon. From seeing a PETA video of the cruelty to animals common in factory farming it is near impossible to withhold from judging the participation in such a institution as immoral. Given how mundane eating meat is I think the most effective way of convincing others to adopt vegetarian diets is by showing them evidence of undeniable cruelty. We must appeal directly to their moral intuitions, to moral facts, rather than pointing to non-moral facts that imply a moral conclusion. For those persons who are unmoved by animal suffering, this egalitarian/anthropological argument will have to do the trick, but I, and this is my point, doubt that those persons will grant the truth of the premises due to bias in favor of keeping to their ways.

      Thanks for bringing up this really important point and for introducing this, what I think to be convincing, argument.

  3. #8 by SelfAwarePatterns on August 1, 2014 - 2:35 pm

    I have immense respect for anyone who takes up vegetarianism or veganism on moral grounds. It seems to me that there are very solid ethical grounds for it, and much of the counter arguments strike me as rationalizations. I suspect if I had to actually kill and butcher my own meat,I’d probably be driven to it much more than I am.

    Unfortunately, I have enough trouble keeping my caffeine and caloric intakes under control. Adding another requirement to avoid meat and/or dairy products, when our culture makes it far more difficult to do than it should, is beyond me, at least for now. (And I’ll fully admit that this is probably poor prioritization on my part.)

    • #9 by ausomeawestin on August 7, 2014 - 12:12 pm

      You raise an interesting point about the need for having confidence in one’s ability to choose. I had tried to adopt a vegetarian diet before, but it didn’t stick, perhaps because of a lack of certainty in what I was doing. Since then I’ve imposed a few dietary restrictions (alcohol and soda), so perhaps the success I’ve had with those restrictions raised my confidence in following other such restrictions. To be sure, the fact that I had successfully altered my diet in the past did not consciously play a role in my decision to adopt a vegetarian diet, but perhaps it did subconsciously.

  4. #10 by gaurarader on August 20, 2014 - 6:20 pm

    I’ve thought for a while now the moral difference between vegetarian diet, vegan diet, and omnivorous diet could be thought of in terms of the doctrine of double effect. As a vegetarian harm to cows is foreseen but not intended but with an omnivorous diet it is much less plausible to assume the harm is merely foreseen. The harm is an essential part of the act of eating the animal. If that is correct you get an argument for vegetarianism that doesn’t imply veganism is also morally required.

    • #11 by ausomeawestin on August 21, 2014 - 9:37 pm

      Very interesting, glad you brought up this interesting normative theory, I think you are right that it justifies a vegetarian diet without implying veganism. I wonder, though, whether an omnivore would accept the relevance of DDT, as they might claim that because they do not directly kill the animal they do not intend the death/suffering of the animal. They might claim that intentional effects are those effects for which an action is performed, and as they do not purchase and eat meat in order to cause death/suffering to animals, they do not intend that effect, though workers at slaughterhouses do. For them, the essential harm in eating meat just might be unavoidable in a way that suggests the harm is foreseen but not intended in getting their protein. Moreover, they might note that the vegetarian must hold that the essential harm in eating eggs and milk (by keeping cows and chickens constantly child-bearing for the products only to kill the offspring) just might be unavoidable in a way that suggests the harm is foreseen but not intended. If the vegetarian can claim the permissibility of eating eggs and milk on these grounds, the omnivore might claim, why is it not permissible to eat meat on these same grounds?

      It’s this type of issue that causes me to be skeptical of DDT — the concepts of intended and incidental effects can be mapped tightly or loosely depending on our intuitions of the situation. Of course in this scenario we see clearly that harm to animals is intended in eating meat, but in expanding the domain of intended effects we run the risk of over expanding in ways that conflict with our intuitions of other cases, such as in the craniotomy thought experiment. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts; intriguing ideas!

      • #12 by gaurarader on August 23, 2014 - 9:27 am

        I think it would be very strange to suggest that someone who kills an animal to eat it only intends to get something to eat but not the actual killing. Of course the very possibility of such a claim is why many don’t like DDE.

        Regarding meat eating I think you could get away with the claim that eating factory farmed animals is morally permissible, assuming you think it would be okay to eat meat produced in a way that caused little to no suffering. But if all eating meat is wrong DDE isn’t going to help, which I guess is obvious. Point is that DDE can be used to justify certain things that are morally permissible but have unintended consequences and only in cases whether the goal is something of moral value. Norcross has a bit about this topic in his paper “puppies pigs and people”

        Assume meat eating is not prima facia morally permissible. If you are starving to death then you could probably invoke DDE to justify killing an animal and eating it. But not just because you like the taste of it. The crucial thing is that meat is not necessary for human health so the only reason one would eat it is for pleasure. You can’t invoke DDE just to justify pleasure. It has to be something of moral value. DDE is a way of justifying some harm.

        The question for milk and eggs is whether they can be produced in a way that doesn’t harm the animals. It is not completely obvious that they can and it may be true that milk can but eggs can’t, or vice versa. If they could be produced in a way that doesn’t harm the animals then you can get an argument using DDE off the ground.

        Rather than DDE I actually prefer thinking about it in terms of Kantian style maxims, but I guess that’s because I’m a Kantian 🙂

      • #13 by ausomeawestin on August 23, 2014 - 11:54 am

        Very good, I consider myself something of a Kantian as well, so I’m right there with you, and agree with your comments.

  1. Morality, Vegetarianism and Veganism | bloggingisaresponsibility

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