Vegetarianism: moral stance or mere preference?
January 26, 2011
I became a vegetarian in early 2008 because, after a good deal of thought, I decided that eating non-human animals was immoral. I judged that using animals for the sake of pleasure was wrong, and I adopted the moral stance of vegetarianism. Nearly three years later, I am still a vegetarian. Yet the moral basis for my position has changed. Allow me to explain.
I made the switch from omnivore to vegetarian on or around Feb. 18, 2008. That day marked the largest ground beef recall in United States history, after the government learned that cattle unfit for consumption were entering the food supply. Undercover videos shot by the Humane Society showed factory workers kicking and prodding cows with forklifts to get them into the slaughterhouse. I did more research into how animals are treated at factory farms, and my conscience was shaken. How could we treat sentient animals in such ways? I quickly concluded that the factory farming system is inherently bad, as it treats animals as commodities not worthy of moral concern, and I became a vegetarian. I haven’t eaten meat since that day.
However, I now see a flaw in my reasoning. I equated the treatment of animals to the killing of animals. My concern was not the act of killing, but the suffering these animals would endure (and even that is a complex debate, of course, for not all non-human animals have the same capacity to feel pain). I never had a reason to oppose the consumption of animals per se, I only objected to treating them poorly.
Many vegetarians (and vegan, but let’s stick with one position) argue that we should not use animals as a means to some end, but as inherently important, worthy of certain rights and protections. This is a morsel from Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy. Kant argued that every human being is deserving of respect (i.e., moral concern) because of its cognitive faculties – its autonomy, ability to reason, make free choices, and plan for the future. Vegetarians would have us expand this to non-human animals. But there is no reason to suppose that animals have such capacities, and I see little reason – judging from scientific evidence and philosophical thinking – to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Here, then, is where we reach an interesting juncture: if there are no compelling ethical reasons to not kill animals for food, then vegetarianism risks degenerating from a moral stance to the level of preference.
Then again, there may be other compelling reasons in favor of the vegetarian stance. An immediate and undeniable one is the manner in which meat is typically produced, as it relates to the animals themselves.* In the U.S., factory-farmed animals are treated horribly. This matters because of the fact that animals are sentient – that is, they can feel or perceive pain. Thus, one could argue that eating meat is immoral given how the meat is produced. This would once again make vegetarianism a moral stance. This is now the basis of my vegetarianism. In fact, I have realized that it was all along.
Of course, vegetarians like myself can’t just sit out the meat-eating game and claim the highest moral ground. We also need to go out and make our moral case. The means by which humans produce meat for mass consumption are largely immoral, but they need not be so. And I think the key is to focus on improving how we “use” sentient animals. Simply put, we ought to treat the animals that we do eat well before they are killed. Not only do I think this is the correct moral argument to make, but it also seems that it would be more acceptable to society because it’s not really asking very much.
Yet, even if these changes were made, I think I still wouldn’t eat meat. That would no longer be because I think it is morally wrong – it would be because I simply don’t prefer it any longer.
* I specify that this consideration centers on animals because this could also lead to a discussion of the damage that mass meat production does to the environment. This is an important issue, but I didn’t have the time to expand on it in this essay. More here . But notice that we need not completely cut off meat production to make significant improvements in this area.
Note: this essay was originally published on the blog Rationally Speaking.