09 Sep

Vegetarianism

Vegetarianism

Living ethically has become increasingly important to me over the last few years and I realised some time during early Summer 2011 that eating meat didn’t sit quite rightly with me, once I’d begun to attempt to determine a coherent model for ethical behaviour.  I wrote the following excerpt in my diary on January 10th 2012 briefly summarising my reasons, quoted here (with minor amendments) to save covering the same ground twice:

The most significant change to my life recently is that I’ve become a vegetarian as of January 1st 2012.  Over the last year I’ve become increasingly uncertain of the ethics of eating meat and now I’ve taken the plunge.  I’m currently an ovo-lacto vegetarian, meaning that I still eat milk and eggs, but in an ideal world I’d cut these things too unless I could be certain the milk or eggs in question were ethically sourced, which is unlikely in packaged products.

My ethical issue with eating meat comes primarily from the welfare of the animals the meat comes from.  Unfortunately and obviously, farming practices are driven by profit rather than compassion, and this often leads to unnecessary levels of animal suffering.  Knowing this, I can’t find myself able to justify choices that represent a complicity in that suffering, which means for me an abstinence from eating meat.  I love meat – the taste, the dishes, etc. – but ethics is the more important of the two, so the meat has to go.

As far as creating a coherent model for ethical behaviour went, the problems with continued consumption of meat seemed irreconcilable.  I’ll list here those problems and the reasons for my vegetarianism.

Vegetarianism and the environment

Firstly, the production of meat is bad for the environment.  Methane from farm agricultural practices account for more damage to the Earth’s atmosphere than do CO2 fuel emissions.12 It’s also extremely expensive in terms of the land-required to food-output ratio – so much so in fact that it’d be literally impossible for the entire world to partake in the same standard of diet as the average Westerner.  There just isn’t enough farmland – not enough land in the entire world to grow the amount of plants needed to feed and then house the farm animals.  The reason why this is is that the plants that are fed to the animals achieve such a poor conversion ratio of plant-based calories and plant-based protein to meat-based calories and meat-based protein that the amount of agricultural farmland needed to feed one man his burger far, far exceeds the amount needed to give a man an equivalently calorific or protein-rich plant-based meal.

The ratio between plant-based protein to animal protein is 7-9:1.  That’s to say that it takes between 7 and 9 pounds of plant-based protein to produce one pound of meat-based protein.  It’s just inefficient.  So inefficient that we don’t have enough land to feed 7 billion people McDonalds.  If everyone in the world wanted to eat McDonalds, a very considerable amount of the world wouldn’t be able to afford it, no matter what the economic imbalance between nations.

The simplest argument for ethical vegetarianism

But the environment isn’t the principle reason I’m vegetarian, and I wasn’t particularly well read on the subject at the time of my transition either.  What really stirred me to change my eating habits is a matter of the suffering caused to animals purely for our own enjoyment.  Consider the following three premises:

  1. Living ethically requires a person to avoid being responsible for causing unnecessary suffering or harm whenever this is reasonably possible.
  2. Eating meat causes animals to suffer or come to harm.
  3. It is not necessary for humans to eat meat.

From these premises, so long as they are all truthful and accurate, we can induce that eating meat doesn’t conform to the idea of living ethically.  Unless one of these premises comes into dispute, the inference that ‘living ethically’ and ‘wilfully holding a diet that includes the consumption meat-based products’ are necessarily contradictory terms is unavoidable.

I have, however, failed to convince anyone else to agree with me, no matter how simple this argument.  It was initially puzzling to me – it seemed to either imply an apathetic attitude to living ethically or a disagreement of what living ethically constitutes (for the second and third premises have not yet been challenged), but I’ve found neither.  Most people consider themselves to be ethical, and they seem to be generally of the opinion that should they find a behaviour of theirs that is reasonably demonstrable to be incompatible with an ethical lifestyle, that they would expunge it.  Humans are unsurprisingly more complicated than this.

In my experience, ethics occupies a similar zone in one’s consciousness as religion.  Ethics are unassailable – we know what’s right and wrong because we just know.  We feel our way, blindly basing judgements on an intuition that was never ours to decide upon.  Eating meat isn’t wrong, right?  People have eaten meat since the dawn of time – and bacon!  Bacon’s so nice, right?  Don’t you just love that smell?

People become logically incoherent when attempting to make their moral intuitions rationally explicable, and it fails fundamentally so long as their intuitions weren’t based on rational reasoning to start with.  We’re not accustomed to basing ethics on what’s explicable – we just feel it.

It’s completely strange to me.  I’m not sure if I’m surprised at how long it’s taken me to become vegetarian – I’d have been ready to do it sooner had I had someone to go through with me the arguments I offer here (or at least I think so).  On the other hand, it was right in front of my face.  A glaring contradiction.  I had heard of vegetarianism plenty, but I never attributed to it any semblance of moral legitimacy.  I don’t know why.  I suppose I was indoctrinated through custom and culture, the same as the people about whom I’m writing.

It’s very striking to me because I now see the practice of raising animals in such torturous fashions specifically for the delight of humanity to be so repugnant and wicked, and so plainly so, that it’s completely in contrast to how I felt about it even ten months ago, when I simply felt mildly guilty about it.  Today, I legitimately feel a horror and a depth of sadness from the merest appreciation of the level of suffering that exists right now just so that, in a few weeks’ time, droves of obese Westerners can gorge themselves on more saturates, some of them inching themselves ever closer to heart disease, and to have the whole affair profited from by various fast food tycoons who I’m sure thoroughly believe their actions to be of the utmost moral calibre.

The idea that essentially the entire world has been hoodwinked into wickedness through blindness to the pain they’re causing is an overwhelming notion.  So too is the idea that farm industries are actively perpetuating that blindness for the sake of their pockets, purposely hiding the grisly details of their professions to such an extent that when a person actually does breach their security and records shaky footage of the institutionalised misery that lays within, people agree, “this is terrible!” – as if it were unusual and shocking to them. But this is the cost of your meat.  £1 for a burger is cheap precisely because we are permitting economic incentives to dictate the treatment of these animals.  Animal rights are expensive.

Our failures with animal rights

Animal rights – now there’s a superficial cultural value.  “Are you for animal rights?” – “Yes, of course!”  We have such a lukewarm idea of animal rights.  We can’t beat a dog, but we can stick a sow on a concrete slab in a cage for years, occasionally hosing away its faeces, because that’s for profit3 – everyone likes pork cutlets.  Either we respect animals or we don’t – we can’t simply call it abuse in one instance and not in another because there was no industrialised incentive for profit.

If our enjoyment of meat was really a convincing reason for our continued indulgence, as my friends have assured me that it is, then what is the problem with dog fights?  Don’t think that I’m being facetious here, because I’m not.  Why have we outlawed dog fights?4  The reason for the occurrence of dog fighting was because it was a spectacle (and gambling opportunity) that a certain number of people enjoyed, and these people paid for the pleasure.  This is perfectly analogous to buying meat – money paid for enjoyment.  Dog fighting, the same as meat, is profitable for this reason.

Meat is nutritional, certainly, but it’s not necessary.  If watching dog fighting and other animal sports was found to be healthy, we wouldn’t be lenient on dog fighting because of that finding – we’d instead insist that people watched horse racing.  In this same way we’d do well to insist that people ate foods that did not require the harm (much less torture) of animals.

So why are we so tough on dog fighting?  My thought on the issue is that it’s just our gut instinct – it seems incredibly unpalatable to us (which is why comparing it with meat consumption earlier might be construed as mere flippancy), yet meat consumption, which seems to offer no ethically significant redeemable qualities, goes by as being a totally acceptable and inalienable preference.

The argument for finding meat acceptable because of personal enjoyment just doesn’t stand up to the challenge demanded of it.  While we’re legalising dog fighting, why not follow with bestiality, fox hunting and all the rest of it?  Or, let’s be consistent with our idea of what constitutes a sensible attitude towards animal rights.  Either inducing animal suffering for our pleasure and profit is acceptable or it is not acceptable; I’m hoping we’ll ultimately decide it to be the latter.

Vegetarianism versus ‘natural’ ethics and moral relativism

I feel that while I’m at it, I might as well dispel the other common objection I’ve come across – that eating meat is moral because it is natural.  This one is just as bizarre, because whenever did we decide what was acceptable or not based on what was natural?  It’s not my intention to be crude here, so forgive me, but isn’t rape natural?  And if your friend is ill, would you not drive him to the hospital – and is this not completely unnatural?  If there has been any trend in the course of human civilisation, it’s been to abstain from what is ‘natural’ in favour of what is to the betterment of man.  We make life better for ourselves.  We suppress our base (read: more natural) urges in favour of more reasoned, more thoughtful action.  We take anger management classes – we don’t smack someone and say, “I’m sorry, but I was angry so it was natural.”  Submission to instinct, tradition, etc. – to what is ‘natural’ – is not the same as acting with moral consideration.  What feels natural is simply our bias – something to be overcome.

Finally, the last argument I’ve had to defend against is that of moral relativism – a distasteful idea put forth by people that, some of whom I suspect, have a deep scepticism for the idea of living ethically in the first place.  A moral relativist holds that we can’t judge any action to be more or less moral than any other because all moral judgements are inherently subjective, and there exists no objective measure from which to make any absolute or definitive rulings.  There is not much that can be said to a moral relativist.  If you believe that (again not to be crude, just for the sake of reductio ad nausem) Hitler’ gassing of the Jews, gypsies and the disabled wasn’t in some sense ‘wrong’, then no amount of reasoned discourse can effect a change here.  This kind of understanding of morality can only be described as catastrophically impaired.

Morality only has any meaning when it’s used to understand aspects of existence such as pain and suffering, happiness and well-being.  The existence of the capacity for suffering implies morality.  If the universe was only full of rocks, void of all conscious beings, the concept of morality wouldn’t mean anything.  Morality only makes sense when we’re able to contemplate better and worse scenarios to be experienced – moral actions improve quality of existence and immoral ones detract from it.  Sam Harris5 makes a good point about the existence of morality when he says to imagine the “worst possible misery for everyone forever,” and then compare it with the “most sublime happiness for everyone forever.”  To admit that one scenario is better than the other is to admit the existence of a continuum of outcomes that vary in desirability.  If the first scenario doesn’t sound very pleasant – and what is the worst possible scenario if not “the worst possible misery for everyone forever”? – then we can usefully define morality simply in terms of the actions which steer us either towards or away from these two ends of the spectrum.  Moral actions are those that push us away from the worst possible scenario.

I know a mild moral relativist whom I chat to on IRC6 who accuses me of having ‘human bias’, a term with which he labels me with for not taking enough consideration for all kinds of life.  He says that I think humans are better than plants and that I have no justification for holding that position because, “life is life.”

I find this view genuinely absurd, though he is serious about it – even getting angry when I refuse to acknowledge that there is legitimate cause to treat all modes of life with equal care and respect.  The problem is that a plant can’t (to our knowledge – we have no reason to think so) feel pain, suffer, or have its quality of experience be harmed in any way.  A human can; a human can experience a broad range and depth of experience, and this is precisely what affords the human greater moral consideration than a patch of grass.  A human has the capacity to experience the excruciating, and this necessitates a responsibility of care when we interract with each other.  A human can – it is very likely – experience far worse pain than can a snake, and a snake can experience worse than a woodlouse, and so on.  This would sensibly translate into a gradient of consideration towards beings.  On the top end would be humans – not because of ‘human bias’, but because we’re the most vulnerable.  On the bottom would be insects, clams, etc. – ‘animals’ in classification only, which can may well experience nothing at all.  Plant or animal, if it can’t have its experience of existence harmed, there’s no reason to be considerate because there would exist no criteria from which we could decide what even constituted being considerate.  A plant has no perspective to be considered.  To assume that a plant would ‘prefer’ to be green and healthy says more about our experience of life than it does a plant’s.

‘Life’ has assumed a mystical quality in culture due to its unusual properties.  In actuality, life is just a process, albeit a very fancy, complicated, interesting one.  Some life can suffer, some can’t.  Life is mysterious and often beautiful, but life in and of itself is not the important factor to be considered – it’s quality of existence.  If a blade of grass is squashed, or some bacteria scrubbed, how could anyone possibly say that harm has come to it without being able to consider the perspective of the subject?  Without consciousness, one can have no values, no preferences, no subjectivity from which to acknowledge or experience any variance in quality of existence.  Quality of existence does not vary – not for bacteria.  It’s ‘alive’, but not in any ethically significant sense.

Summary

Those are the main arguments that I’ve so far received, though I confirmed fairly quickly that debating the issue doesn’t tend to win anyone over.  Reactions from friends to news that I’m a vegetarian is always peculiar.  One person went so far as to say, “you’ve gone down in my estimations,” after I told him.  One wouldn’t usually expect such an acrid reaction to a decision made with the intention of causing less suffering to animals, except perhaps when a person’s so hopelessly duped by the allure of the smell of the next fresh bacon sandwich.

All in all however, I’m very glad I’ve made the transition.  It’s improved my diet, having forced me to cook more, and I’ve only had difficulties through forgetfulness rather than temptation – my conviction, thankfully, is strong enough to endure the occasional waft of a doner kebab house, and that’s generally all that’s required of it.

Vegetarianism is just one step on my path to the embodiment of a harmonious lifestyle, hopefully constituting another asset in my quest to leave this world a better place for having been in it.  If any ambition can have meaning to me, it’s that one.

I anticipate that any non-vegetarian that happens to read this will most likely object to all I’ve said, of course.


  1. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that, “Pound for pound, the comparative impact of CH4 on climate change is over 20 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period.” 

  2. According to the Independent, a United Nations report from 2006 “identified the world’s rapidly growing herds of cattle as the greatest threat to the climate, forests and wildlife. And they are blamed for a host of other environmental crimes, from acid rain to the introduction of alien species, from producing deserts to creating dead zones in the oceans, from poisoning rivers and drinking water to destroying coral reefs.” 

  3. This is not an exaggeration, but an example of farming practice driven by economic incentive.  Farm Sanctuary gives a photograph taken January 3rd 2008 with the caption, “Pigs raised on factory farms are confined in metal and concrete pens with hard slatted flooring. They live here until they reach slaughter weight of 250 pounds at six months old.”  I’d encourage the reader to view their Flickr gallery if you have the heart for it, and I hope to instil the message that this is not in any way an exceptional practice. 

  4. This example has been lifted straight from a lecture I saw from Peter Singer.  His book, Animal Liberation, is well recommended and is probably one of the most important book on animal rights issues available. 

  5. His book on the subject, The Moral Landscape, tackles the widespread assumption that science can’t have any say on moral issues. 

  6. For non-tech readers, IRC stands for Internet Relay Chat, a protocol for communicating with others in channels (similar to chat rooms) with people who share similar interests. 

3 thoughts on “Vegetarianism

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