Ethics is in origin the art of recommending to others the sacrifices required for cooperation with oneself. -Bertrand Russell
Main Reasons for Going Vegan
On a basic level, there are generally three main reasons people cite for going vegan:
- Health Reasons for Veganism – A vegan diet, rich in fruit and veg, seeds, nuts and pulses, is seen by many as healthier than most omnivorous diets. This view is supported by plenty of scientific research.
- Environmental Reasons for Veganism – There have been numerous scientific studies that suggest a vegan diet has far less of a negative impact on the environment than one which includes meat (including fish), eggs and/or dairy.
- Ethical Reasons for Veganism – There is little doubt breeding, caging and slaughtering animals for food and other products causes those animals suffering. For many people this is not acceptable from a moral perspective.
In reality, the motivational factors that cause a person to follow a vegan lifestyle are nuanced and based on various personal convictions; but the three main reasons mentioned above, in whatever combination, play a significant role. Here we shall tackle the third of these and delve into the sometimes esoteric world of ethics.
We’ll start with a brief summary of the ethical case for veganism, and follow that with a basic explanation about what the term “ethics” refers to; but don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a long-winded philosophical treatise assessing the work of every great moral philosopher from Socrates, Plato and Artistotle to Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill (though you could do worse than read their pearls of wisdom on the subject)!
Instead, we will focus here on applied ethics in relation to veganism and the use of animals. We’ll also take a glance at the ethics of suffering, personhood, and environmental ethics with the aim of expanding on the summary of the moral case for veganism.
The Ethical Case for Veganism
The whole point of veganism is to minimise the exploitation of and cruelty to animals. Everyone gets that. But why? What is it about animals in particular, as opposed to trees or even lampposts, for example, that makes vegans so keen to protect them?
On a basic level, it is the ability of animals to suffer, to have the capacity to experience physical and – many would argue – psychological pain, which makes them worthy of our protection in the eyes of vegans, and many non-vegans for that matter.
There are a number of reasons within the ethical realm that motivate people to go vegan, including:
|Ethical Reasons to Go Vegan||Description|
|Pain & Suffering||Causing suffering to animals through essentially imprisoning them in non-ideal conditions before slaughtering them undoubtedly causes suffering to the animals. The moral argument against us causing such suffering seems an obvious one to vegans.|
|Consciousness & Personhood||Many scientists and philosophers (notably Australian philosopher, Peter Singer) believe that many animals, including great apes, elephants and even livestock, experience sufficient levels of consciousness to be classified as “people” in that they appear to possess notions of self. Hence many vegans (and others) believe such animals should be afforded some and possibly all of the same rights and protections enjoyed by humans.|
|Environment||There is little doubt that farming animals casts a long environmental shadow, which is ethically unacceptable to many vegans. Clearly, failure to protect our planet has plenty of implications for humans and animals alike.|
|Human Welfare||Is it ethical to sell food to people that is likely to cause adverse health effects (such as some processed meat). Is it ethical to feed our kids such foods? Is it ethical to continue to farm livestock when a growing population is unlikely to be sustained on such practices? Vegans would suggest that human welfare can be harmed by the farming and consumption of animal products.|
|Religion||Some people follow vegan or vegetarian diets for religious reasons, with Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism advocating vegetarian diets, with many leaders in these religions – and other – religions suggesting that a vegan diet should be encouraged.|
The abovementioned negatives of eating/farming meat must be weighed against the positives (as perceived by meat eaters); namely, meat can taste nice, it can be convenient, it can provide protein and other nutrients, it can be traditional (e.g. turkey at Christmas). So, the moral equation people should ask is: do the positives of eating meat outweigh the negatives? For vegans, the answer is no.
Here we’ll expand on some of the points introduced above, looking at suffering in more detail and glancing at other ethical issues relating to veganism. We will also take a look at some common arguments against veganism.
Veganism & the Ethics of Suffering
As English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, stated in relation to animals in his 1789 book The Principles of Morals and Legislation, “the question is not, Can they reason? nor, can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” The implication being that if animals can indeed suffer, then it is wrong to cause them to suffer when there is an alternative (like eating a cauliflower steak, instead of a cow steak).
There have been several scientific studies over the years that have shown that animals do indeed possess the capacity to feel pain. And, there have been studies that also indicate some animals are capable of feeling empathy – a subject covered in some depth in the 1997 book by Lesley J Rogers, Minds of Their Own: Thinking and Awareness in Animals.
Given that many governments, including the UK, have laws to protect the welfare to some degree, it is safe to say that it has become accepted as fact that animals can suffer pain. Otherwise, why bother protecting them in law at all (albeit to a level which falls well short of what most vegans would hope for)? It is also telling that animals are used to assess the effectiveness of pain killers and other such medications, something else that would seemingly be pointless if they were unable to experience (and exhibit signs of experiencing) pain.
Are Animals Aware of Pain?
All animals are equal, but should some animals be more equal than others? There is disagreement amongst scientists about how many species of animals are capable of being consciously aware of pain when they experience it – indeed, whether or not they “experience” it at all. Clearly if a human stubs a toe, assuming they possess a fully working nervous system, they are going to know about it. But according to various research sources, there is a distinction between conscious pain and “pain” that is merely an unconscious detection of potentially damaging stimuli, known as nociception.
In a review of studies that claim to show that fish feel pain entitled Can fish really feel pain? (Rose et al, 2012), it is noted that cartilaginous fish (such as sharks and rays) do not possess the type of nociceptors (C fiber nociceptors or C type trauma receptors) found in humans and other mammals that are related to experiencing pain on a conscious level, and they also do not possess the cortical regions in the brain that are known to be related to feeling pain in humans.
While it is widely accepted that mammals are able to experience pain in a similar way to humans, there is a widely held belief that some animals, such as insects, nematodes, molluscs and other invertebrates, are incapable of feeling pain. With some exceptions, such as the fruit fly, most insects do not possess nociceptors at all, suggesting that they may well not possess the capacity to feel any pain, let alone be conscious of it.
It seems highly likely that different animals suffer pain to a greater or lesser degree; it would therefore follow that people might want to adjust their assessment of the necessary rights and protections of certain animals based on whether or not, and to what degree, they are able to experience pain. Which explains why “ostrovegans” exist – no, they don’t eat ostriches, they follow a mainly vegan diet but also consume bivalves, such as oysters and mussels on the basis that they believe they do not feel pain.
However, if humans accept that even most other animals are capable of suffering pain to some degree, many people would then conclude that wilfully causing such suffering is morally indefensible. When that suffering is instigated on a massive, industrialised scale, it is understandable when some vegans use terms such as “genocide” in relation to our treatment of animals.
Is An Animal a Person?
This might seem like a ludicrous question if you read the word “person” as “human”. But a person is not necessarily a human; and to many philosophers, a human is not necessarily a person. Confused yet? Australian moral philosopher, Peter Singer, has argued that in order to be classified as a person, an animal (and that includes human animals) must possess “rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness”. Many dog owners would certainly argue their prized pooch possesses those characteristics, and many scientists who have studied primates, dolphins and even livestock, contend that is the case in these animals too.
If an animal can feel physical pain and experience it in a similar way to humans (that is, pain really flipping hurts!), that is one thing. But if an animal is also capable of anticipating pain, of comprehending their own existence and of wanting to prolong their existence, then the moral case against hauling animals to a slaughterhouse is surely strengthened.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting animals (both farmed and pets) appear to “know” they are about to die. But without an effective means to communicate with animals, our grasp of their phenomenological experiences are limited at best. Still, given that this is even a possibility, vegans would argue it is better to play things safe rather than to expose animals to such psychological trauma.
Pleasure Versus Pain
It is extremely difficult to measure subjective experiences, such as pleasure and pain, especially in non-human animals who are unable to simply tell researches how much pain they are in. But, ethically speaking, the justification for eating an animal can be made if the pleasure gained by the eater outweighs the suffering caused to the eaten.
But there is another dimension to consider: the pleasure that would have been experienced by the animal in the remainder of its life had it not been slaughtered. Of course, if it was kept in cramped conditions that actually caused suffering, the animal might not have experienced much pleasure in the rest of its days.
But, what if a cow that was on the way to slaughter was instead taken to a sanctuary to live out its days in relative comfort and freedom? (As was the case when farmers in Derbyshire gave their herd of beef cows to an animal sanctuary instead of to slaughter, as detailed in the documentary, 73 Cows). In this case, the animal would have a lot to lose by being slaughtered in its prime, thus tipping the balance further towards the side of the scale that points towards not eating the cow.
Also, when assessing the pleasure someone gains from eating meat, it should be compared to the pleasure gained from eating an available, non-meat alternative. So, does the extra pleasure gained from eating a burger made from beef compared to one made from beans, soya, mushrooms or any other non-meat product justify inflicting suffering on the cow? Vegans – and many others – would argue not, especially those people who have tried some of our top vegan burger recipes!
Ethical Arguments Against Veganism
Here we look as some of examples of ethical arguments that have been put forward against veganism.
Animals Are Slaughtered Quickly & Humanely
Humane slaughter is surely a contradiction in terms if by “humane” people mean “showing compassion” or similar, and by “slaughter” they mean “kills for food or other products”. Call us old-fashioned, but we like our compassion to come without the need to have our lives cut short, however quick the process is!
With the possibility that animals are able to understand they are going to be killed when rounded up, transported in cramped conditions in trucks and them potentially seeing and hearing their fellow animals being killed before them, the word “humane” is certainly not a great choice.
Animals Die When Crops Are Harvested
Another argument against veganism is that it would increase the amount of arable farming that would be required and that this would cause the death of animals (such as field mice) who might be nesting in the fields when they are harvested. The suggestion is that vegans can’t really care for animals if they are willing to let all these poor defenceless mice die or that it is unethical to cause these deaths!
This is a logical fallacy, of course. Taking account simply of the extra number of animals that would be likely to die as a result of an increase in arable farming; then comparing this to the number of animals lives that would be saved by reducing meat farming and it becomes clear that more lives would be saved than lost. Also the mice, or other animals, in question would have at least lived out their lives in the wild, free to roam where they chose, rather than being in captivity, which would, ethically speaking, appear likely to give them more pleasure.
What Would Happen to Farm Animals?
The question here, really, is what would we do with the farm animals if we didn’t kill them for food? If the whole world stopped eating meat on a given day, however unlikely that would be, there would be obvious implications for farmers and the animals that would therefore not need to be slaughtered. If this were ever the case, there is a strong moral case for subsidising farmers (or others) to care for the remaining animals for them rest of their natural days, and not encouraging any further breeding, thus eventually reducing the environmental effects.
It could be argued that restricting the breeding of former farm animals might be unethical on one level, but there could be a “greater good” argument (relating to the salvation of the planet!) that could counter this.
What Is Ethics?
Here, for those interested, we will give a brief explanation of the term ethics itself. Ethics is defined by Merriam-Webster as:
- “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation”
- “a set of moral principles : a theory or system of moral values”
- “the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group”
These interrelated definitions all revolve around the concept of morality, essentially the distinction between things that can be classified as “right” or “wrong”. Without wanting to fall into a semantic or linguistic rabbit hole, on a general level, most people are familiar with this concept in everyday life, and while one person’s moral code or ethics can differ greatly from that of another person, the idea that people will often make a conscious decision about their personal ethics is well understood.
Three Branches of Ethics
In academic terms, the study of ethics can be split into three main branches:
- Meta-Ethics – Looking at the nature of ethical stances or propositions, for example, addressing such questions as, “What does it mean to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’?”
- Normative Ethics – Examines how to discern a course of action based on morals, for examples asking, “What should one do?” in a given situation based on ethical principles.
- Applied Ethics – Revolves around the practical application of ethics in the “real world”, for example, whether euthanasia or abortion should be permitted in a given society.
When examining the ethics of veganism, as we haven’t the time to work towards a doctorate in the subject any time this decade, we have avoided venturing into the head-spinning realm of meta-ethics. But both normative and applied ethics have a place at the table when it comes to forming an ethical argument for veganism.
Normative Ethics & Veganism
One branch of normative ethics is particularly pertinent, in our eyes: consequentialism; that is the consequences – or probable consequences – of one’s actions (or inactions). This contrasts with deontological ethics, which is related more with the intentions of the actor rather than the actual consequences.
The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, as good intentions can often result in “good” consequences, but this is not always the case. Sometimes, often even, the consequences could be both good and bad, depending on a person’s standpoint. For example, if a parent has the good intention of ensuring their child is well-nourished by feeding them beef for dinner, the good consequences for the child might be a satiated appetite, a boost in protein, iron and energy; the bad consequences for the cow in question are obvious.
Under the umbrella of consequentialism, reside a number of complementary or conflicting philosophies. For example, ethical egoism relates to the promotion of net pleasure (pleasure minus pain) for the individual; this is similar to but contrasts with utilitarianism, which Jeremy Bentham claimed should aim for the “greatest happiness for the greatest number”. To put it another way, to paraphrase Bentham, the aim of utilitarianism is to maximise the “utility” (worth or value) and minimise pain and suffering for the greatest number of people.
Utilitarianism & Veganism
Taking utilitarianism as our framework within which we can assess the arguments for veganism from an ethical point of view, whether the promotion of happiness relates to humans only or is expanded to non-human animals, there are ethical arguments to support veganism, as detailed above.
Even if people are not concerned with animal welfare per se, the environmental benefits to the planet and hence humanity as a whole are well documented. Even the ethical egoist has reasons to go vegan, depending on his/her calculation of the health benefits of a vegan diet when weighed against the pleasure gained from eating meat above that gained from eating non-meat alternatives.
In summary, despite there being plenty of sound ethical arguments in favour of veganism, people’s moral compasses vary enormously, and while some people are unaware of many of the facts about how meat is produced, and how animals are treated, others are well aware but choose to turn a blind eye.
This is something people do with many potentially troubling issues in the world, from the destruction of the environment to homeless people living on the streets in some of the richest cities in the world. For some people, it is just easier to live that way.
But as veganism grows in popularity around the world, there is the distinct possibility that the compassion vegan ethics promotes in relation to animals might produce benefits for humanity and the planet as a whole. We live in hope.