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.


#1 L.Long (Guest) on Wednesday January 26, 2011 at 11:09am

So since you cannot sense the veggies pain or detect it you can delude yourself that Veggies dont feel pain so you have no problems ripping their sex organs off and eating them.
So by that logic I am not anthropomorphizing the animals and do not ‘feel’ their pain so eating them is no moral problem.
As to treatment of animals, have you watched how farmers treat veggies and fruit?!!?
Horrible!!! No kindness or consideration for their feelings at all!
In fact the best ‘anti-predator’ behavior for a plant would be to be fuzzy and in the shape of a cute little face.

#2 diogenes99 on Wednesday January 26, 2011 at 11:56am

In a previous post (“Is there a place for Environmentalism in Humanism?”) John Shook outlines three types of environmental humanism: (A) nonhuman life is a human resource, (B) nonhuman life is a morally limited human-community resource, and (C) nonhuman life has human-independent-value and is part of the moral community.

De Dora writes: “And I think the key is to focus on improving how we ‘use’ sentient animals.” 

I think De Dora is describing a personal transition from type-A to type-B.  But I find type-B to be an uncomfortable transitional position, somewhat like moderate Christianity.  Type-B contains the insight that perhaps there is something wrong with viewing everything in terms of a resource.  It is a first step away from the Biblical perspective of dominion and from the idea that non-human animals are given to us be ‘used’ as resources. But it is not a very big step.

I think a type-C position is our ultimate destination.  It is not actually clear in Shook’s post how value arises in type-C.  I think the type-C argument for vegetarianism is the same as that against cannibalism.  Once we see all sentient beings as part of the community writ large, then predation is an option only of last resort.  We just don’t need pain-free meat factories.

I think that the goal is to avoid (1) the Biblical perspective that non-human animals are to be ‘used’ as resources (which infects type-A and type-B humanism), but also to avoid (2) the religious habit of ascribing inherent (infinite, God-image) value that seems to be lurking in some versions of type-C humanism.  I think keeping in mind the continuity and connectedness from the perspective of biological evolution is a start.

#3 guest (Guest) on Friday January 28, 2011 at 10:21am

Thank you for this blog post - I am a veg myself, for moral reasons, and health reasons. I occassionally will eat a piece of fish, as I reason that a fish’s perception of pain is not the same as a cow or pig. While I admittedly find my moral reasons for being veg flimsy even to myself, there is no denying that since I stopped consuming most meats, I simply feel better physically. That’s something else to consider when deciding about one’s diet in general.

#4 Rob (Guest) on Friday January 28, 2011 at 7:11pm

It is always interesting to watch intelligent, caring people squirm when their morality is tested in regards to eating animals. There is not even an inkling of doubt that veganism (vegetarianism does not go far enough) is a moral issue. Animals raised for meat, and dairy animals (cows and chickens) live disgusting, short lives…where they are either injected with hormones, force-fed corn, raised in cages, have their beaks cut off or constantly kept pregnant(in order to produce milk). Anyone who has offered a reasonable amount of research and a subsequent moment of reflection will reach this conclusion. And, as the author hints, you can’t be a meat eating environmentalist without walking the road of a religious hypocrite. Add in health issues, government subsidies, poverty and hunger, and veganism is the moral, ethical, social and economic answer. Unfortunately, the uncomfortable reflection(and the unwillingness to make a personal sacrifice) leads to ridiculous justifications such as that which we see in the first response to this article.

#5 Hugues on Monday January 31, 2011 at 5:14am

Due to evolution, we have this huge food chain, at least in the wild, where one species is the lunch of another and this other in turn is the lunch of the next one. This has been going on for eons. And today we sit at the top of it.

So if we expand a little on your own feeling about not hurting animals for food, shouldn’t the human race also engaged in protecting animals in the wild ? Protecting their babies from being eaten by the tiger on the corner (how awful can this be for a parent ?) Protecting some birds from having other birds eating their eggs ? Protecting smaller animals from the snake who injects a slowly lethal and painful poison into its prey ? If we do, this could turn up as a major environmental issue because we would certainly affect biodiversity and also starve to death the younger ones waiting for their mom to come back with the lunch in her mouth.

Where do we stop ?

Certainly lobying for a “fair” treatment for cattle is needed but what purpose does it serve to make people feel ashame/embarassed of eating meat ?

#6 a. oliver (Guest) on Monday January 31, 2011 at 10:43am

Vegetarianism is to me a commendable practice for those who choose it. As Michael De Dora says, the food production industry is rife with grotesque treatment of animals. The surest way to get the attention of the industry’s decision makers is to refuse them your money. Vegans refuse them even more money through the strictness of their commitment.

While it is true that evolution brought us to the point at which we find ourselves, it is also true that evolution gave us the ability to have compassion for others (including non-human animals)  and the ability to alter our behavior as we become (hopefully) more civilized.

Animals cannot live without ending the life of other living things (be it plant or animal). To my knowledge only human animals have the luxury to choose what, when, how, and where they will eat. Peter Singer (the Ire W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne) spells out quite reasonably why the meat industry and the consumption of meat in today’s developed world is ethically unsound. I will leave it to the reader to explore further.

#7 diogenes99 on Monday January 31, 2011 at 10:59am

I think it should be noted that a couple decades ago that the philosophical discussion of animal rights was framed by three theorists: (1) Singer’s utilitariansm, (2) Regan’s Kantianism, and (3) Rollins virtue ethics.  As I understand, his argument is that Kantian considerations do not apply to animals, so some sort of utilitarian-use calculation applies.  John Shook introduces something he calls type-C environmentalism which involves virtue ethics, and perhaps we will see how he fleshes this out at a later date.  My point is that there has been some philosophical progress since the 1980s on animal rights.  If we are to leave it to the reader to explore, then the reader needs to go beyond Singer, Regan, and Rollins.

#8 Sam (Guest) on Thursday February 10, 2011 at 10:09am

“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.”

I disagree - many non-human animals form groups, work together, are aware of their surroundings, and indeed have goals, be it food, survival, shelter, or even playing with each other. These are worthy of respect.

In addition, eating meat is highly unncessary for many cultures, particularly most classes in the United States that have access to a supermarket.

Your argument extends further as dairy production is often crueler than meat production, making abstinence from dairy a necessity as well. In general, a vegan lifestyle, based on compassion and not exploiting animals, is a worthy goal, based on not only moral reasoning, but sound health and environmental concerns as well.

#9 John D on Monday February 14, 2011 at 11:47am

Michael - just to clarify… I doubt you were ever a carnivore.  A carnivore eats exclusively (or almost exclusively) meat.  I assume that before you went meat-less you still ate lots of other foods including grains and vegis.  I know this sound kind of trivial, but I do think that it is common for vegetarians to use “carnivore” in a pejorative way (and besides… we might as well be accurate).

An individual that chooses to refrain from eating meat has a large sphere of compassion in my estimation.  This is the driving force behind vegetarianism as a moral choice.  Everyone makes moral choices where they trade of personal selfish desires to pursue the good feelings we get from our empathetic emotions.

I have very strong empathetic emotions for many things.  Most strong are my feelings for my nuclear family and their needs.  Next, I have feelings about my friends and distant family etc.  Somewhere on the empathy scale are animals.  Animals that share human characteristics (like intelligence, or social behaviors) are further up the empathy scale.  This is just “how I feel.”

All we humans are really doing is finding a balance between our non-empathic feelings (like security, and hunger, and power) and the empathetic feelings (like pity, caring etc.)

There is no right answer to this dilemma.  We all must balance this conflict within ourselves.

Now… some of you will say “I don’t find a balance.. I am a good and empathetic person and I do not compromise.”  Well… to this my response is: “How much value do you give a pin-worm living in your gut?”  You probably give this creature no breaks whatsoever.  This is a good decision and it is an obvious one.  A pin-worm is damaging your health so it must be destroyed.  But, where do we draw the line?  Some people are compassionate to mosquitoes… while I am not.  Some people are compassionate to fish… while I am not.  We all draw the line somewhere and this depends exclusively on how we balance our empathetic emotional feelings against our other feelings.

We will never find an intellectual answer to this balancing act.  Just like all other moral decisions, it is situational and very textured.

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