Morality, Vegetarianism and Veganism

First, this article was inspired by this post and follow-up comments with awesomeaustin.  

Second, for brevity in this article, I will use veg*n to mean vegetarian/vegan and veg*nism to mean vegetarianism/veganism.


Although I eat meat, I have made multiple forays into veganism, and today have significantly cut down my consumption of animal products.

Why?  Because I believe animals can suffer and hope to do my part to reduce this suffering.  However, I believe this suffering comes in degrees and thus this dietary issue is not as black and white as the more ardent veg*ns make it out to be.

In fact, as I have reflected on this over time, the following questions keep coming up.

1. Do all animals suffer equally? This question has two components.  The first is the vividness of the animal’s sensations.  The more vivid an animal experiences, the more it will suffer unpleasant experiences.  So with this in mind, does a fish suffer as much as a chicken, a chicken as much as a cow, and so on?  The second is the animal’s ability to psychologically suffer, likely due to its ability to reflect on its condition. So for instance, one would consider caging a rat or putting a leash on a dog to be different from doing the same to a human.

2. How many animals must die to feed people?  For instance, a cow can feed more people than a chicken, so if one avoids beef in favor of chicken, one is killing more animals.  On this front, I am confused that many people transitioning to vegetarianism actually kill more animals by increasing their consumption of chicken and fish.

3. Animals die to support veg*n diets, namely from pesticides, being caught in harvesting machines and so on. Admittedly, the same holds for meat based diets, as the animals raised for food also eat farming products.  But it still illustrates that a veg*n diet is not cruelty free, it’s simply less cruel.

4. Typical dairy and egg production causes a lot of suffering.  Animals are mistreated, kept in cramped conditions, and killed when they are no longer productive.  So what causes less suffering, vegetarianism or a mostly vegan diet with some occasional beef?

5. Regarding advocacy, if it’s more likely to convince many people to cut down on meat than it is to convince a handful to go vegan, and if the former would have a greater impact than the latter, then is it ethical to advocate veg*nism rather than something more mainstream, and thus more likely to be adopted?

7 thoughts on “Morality, Vegetarianism and Veganism

  1. Thanks for mentioning my post, I appreciate it!

    You raise some really interesting points here. It’s fascinating how different normative principles motivate eating certain meats rather than others. You point to the idea that fewer cows must be killed than other animals for the same quantity of meat, and that this is a good reason to eat cow, if you are to eat a meat for its nutritional benefits. Many people use a psychological complexity model to decide which animals are better to eat, and finding that fish exhibit less intelligence than pigs and cows, this leads them to favor a pescatarian diet. But of course, as we discussed, you and I have our doubts about psychological complexity being the deciding factor, and so, I am sympathetic to your utilitarian calculus based on number of animal lives taken per pound of meat. An important insight, thanks for sharing!

    The other really interesting thing you mention is the notion that it might not be for the best if everyone acts for the greatest good — the familiar problem that it might not maximize utility if everyone where to live by a utilitarian principle. In this case, more good would be done for animals by being realistic about the eating habits of persons and so encouraging them to eat less meat rather than none. This is a really excellent point you bring up and one that should be considered by more extreme animal rights groups (looking at you, PETA). Thanks for bringing this to light.

    1. No problem on mentioning your post; it motivated the article, and besides, your blog is excellent, so it deserves mention!

      Balancing the number of animals killed against their psychological complexity should factor into things, and it gets into classic utilitarian dilemmas. If an animal is barely conscious, then how many of them are worth a much more intensely conscious animal? How dim must an animal’s consciousness be before we consider it might as well be a plant? I think of the utilitarian example of having $1,000 and choosing to distribute it to 2 people who would get some significant benefit, or to 10,000 people who’d get barely any at all.

      You are right on the mark about the greatest good, and in fact, I was thinking specifically of PETA. My time as a vegan really opened my eyes as to this advocacy and made me wonder what the real reason was for some people’s diets.

  2. The subject of veganism being the right thing to do has always been a tricky one for me. You mention some good points for both sides.

    There’s still much debate on whether or not veganism is even a healthy diet to live by. Of course it’s going to appear very healthy in the beginning if you are going from a crap diet to being a vegan. A lot of what makes being vegan presumably healthy is the notion that meat is bad for you.

    I think there are many people who falsely believe that if humans stop eating meat that it is going to solve the issue of animal cruelty without bringing about other negative issues. Wouldn’t there be an issue of over population of certain animals? It’s easy to say animals should not be killed until deer are all over your backyard kicking your kids while 30 million bison run by.

    It’s silly to think that if a human does not kill an animal for food then that animal is going to live happily and die in its sleep. Sooner or later all grazing type animals are going to die a horrible death and get eaten. Is getting ripped apart by a pack of wolves not just a frightening as getting shot in the head? If I were to take a moral stance on meat eating, I would opt for eating meat that was raised more humanely instead of cutting it all out completely.

    I guess the moral issue can come down to whether or not someone believes not eating meat is a step in the right direction or if eating meat is the way it should be.

    1. Great points!

      Another confusing factor on the health front is that often people who adopt veg*n diets will naturally pay more attention to what they eat, so they can get a health benefit not from the diet itself, but from making choices thanks to their consciousness of what’s now going into their bodies.

      Yes, not eating meat would not eliminate animal suffering, which is why I believe we should focus more on reduction, otherwise we get into all-or-nothing thinking and then do nothing to help animals.

      In fact, for me the issue of animal cruelty is a function of the animal’s life, not it’s death and is the distinguishing factor between vegetarianism and veganism. Vegetarianism treats the animal’s death as being of prime significance, while veganism treats its life.

      If an animal lives a good life and is killed painlessly, I’d have much less problem with eating its meat. So for instance, I’d rather eat meat that was hunted in the forest than drink milk that was the product of factory farming.

      In the end, we won’t stop animal suffering, but we can at least reduce it, and I think focusing on the good that we can do is the key. Sadly, we’ll never fix all the world’s problems.

  3. When I first went vegetarian I used to say that I gave up meat for welfare reasons and fish for sustainability reasons. I wasn’t convinced that fish had the same level of suffering. Now I’m not sure that matters. For me it basically comes down to this: given that I can survive perfectly well without them why would I want to be responsible for the deaths of creatures that clearly feel at least a fraction of the suffering that we would feel in their place?
    I thought there were a lot of red herrings in the comments (excuse the pun).
    I think that the right thing to do is to be vegan (have you seen what the dairy industry get up to? e.g. However, I’m human and weak. I haven’t drunk cow’s milk in a long time but I probably eat it in lots food (milk chocolate springs to mind ;)). I recently gave up cheese but I can’t seem to manage without eggs yet.

    1. Food for thought — and pardon the pun :).

      The purpose behind the article was to overcome identity thinking. That is, if someone does X for reason Y, it’s easy to identify with X and forget about Y. When that happens, bad things often follow.

      One consequence could be less moral decisions being made. For instance, is veg*n advocacy really the moral thing, or is it done because many of the advocates identify with veg*nism?

      Another example (that seems silly, but which I’ve seen) is when people slip up and eat some meat, then decide they’re no longer veg*n because they screwed up and fall off completely. However, if they keep sight of their goal (to lessen suffering) and don’t identify with the diet, wouldn’t that be less likely to happen?

      So the idea here isn’t so much to justify eating meat, as it is to get out of the identity mindset. One could be a veg*n, yet not identify with it, and instead look at their life as being about cutting down suffering, and never losing sight of that goal.

      1. I see what you’re getting at. I agree that it would be easier to stick to your principles if you’re not so identified with veg*nism. However, I’ve always thought of myself as a vegetarian even when I’ve temporarily fallen off the wagon. I’ve NEVER considered switching back because I’ve NEVER changed my mind that the only justifiable reason for eating meat is survival (and even that reason has caveats).
        Also, people that identify strongly with the idea of being a veg*n can be intolerant of lapses on the part of those trying to make the switch to a veg*n diet. That can be discouraging. I’ve come across some quite aggressive vegans who make me feel quite defensive. We have to acknowledge that our principles sometimes come up against human frailties. It’s not easy to give up meat in a meat-eating culture. I’m fed up of being told that being veg*n is easy: it’s quite clearly not. Unless, like somebody I know, you happen to hate the look/taste of meat and you don’t eat out much. 🙂

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