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Why Vegetarianism Makes No Sense From A Moral Perspective

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Guest Essay by Ken Hopes

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Back in the late 1970s I read Animal Liberation by philosopher Peter Singer and shortly thereafter adopted a vegetarian diet out of concern for animals. The vegetarian diet I ate and which I refer to throughout this brief essay, was what it had come to be generally understood by then—one that excluded flesh but included dairy products, eggs, and honey. So common was this kind of vegetarian diet, that it was rarely necessary to describe it more specifically by using the term “lacto-ovo vegetarian.”

Singer’s book, and others, got me thinking that I should not eat meat because animals used for meat were killed. Obtaining milk or eggs didn’t require first killing the animals, and I assumed that this made some kind of meaningful difference. But obviously I was not thinking clearly. Of course those animals used for their mammary and reproductive secretions are ultimately slaughtered when they no longer produce milk or eggs in quantities deemed economically efficient. It’s morally irrelevant whether slaughter occurs before or after the milk or eggs are obtained, as it is an inevitable part of the overall process, and even hypothetically if the animals weren’t killed, they would still be exploited, still tortured, still brought into the world by us and regarded as resources or commodities for our use.

But Singer, a utilitarian, doesn’t believe in the concept of “rights” when it comes to animals, or humans either for that matter. Nowhere in Animal Liberation is veganism promoted. The focus is clearly on how animals are treated, not on the wrongfulness of their use as a fundamental violation of individuals’ rights. Reading that book changed how I looked at things, but only many years later would I realize how little.

For the next 25 years I was a vegetarian. All that meant was that I ate a vegetarian diet. Vegetarianism is a diet, while veganism is the process of living in accordance with a simple, fundamental moral principle—that we should not cause unnecessary harm to animals. There is one context I can think of in which vegetarianism makes sense, and that’s for people who don’t eat meat simply because they don’t like the way it tastes. But anyone who is a vegetarian for the benefit of animals is delusional or in denial, just like I was.

It didn’t help that the big animal advocacy organizations did not at the time take a strong and unwavering stand in favor of veganism. They still don’t. No doubt this is out of concern for alienating a significant portion of their donor base. I had friends who very much considered themselves animal rights activists, who were eating dairy. Like me, they had read Animal Liberation and followed many of the donation-driven animal welfare organizations like PETA.

I don’t consider my years as a vegetarian as a stepping-stone or prerequisite to veganism. Instead, I was stuck in a morally confused state as I arbitrarily avoided eating flesh while continuing to consume dairy and eggs, wear leather shoes and belts, and falsely think I was doing a good thing and setting a rational and consistent example for others. Had I been exposed earlier to clear arguments for veganism, I’m sure I would have gone vegan sooner than I did.

I eventually acted on the inconsistencies I increasingly saw with vegetarianism, and became a vegan. A few years later I discovered Professor Gary Francione’s animal rights theory, known as the Abolitionist Approach, and it quickly became apparent to me how the confused messaging from the big animal groups that embraced Singer’s work and focused on treatment rather than use, was counterproductive. I regret that my years as a vegetarian were not additional years as a vegan. However, looking forward, I hope through clearly presented vegan education to keep others who care about animals and justice from going down that same morally muddled path.

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0 Comments
  • jnthn

    I am in full agreement that vegetarianism is an incoherent ethical position. Yet the statement “But Singer, a utilitarian, doesn’t believe in the concept of ‘rights’ when it comes to animals, or humans either for that matter,” is misleading. Utilitarianism is not opposed all “concepts of rights”, but rather a “concept of rights” that invokes a “fundamental,””natural,” or pre-legal basis. Thus, for applied ethics, a utilitarian perspective will argue for rights as they serve to protect the interests of beings who have interests, i.e. sentient beings.

  • Bgav

    Animals are not slaughtered bc they don’t produce milk or eggs. In many religions Hinduism for one, you care for the animal (a cow for instance) until it dies. So yes I agree with the inconsistencies of wearing leather and being a vegetarian but disagree that vegetarianism is some confusing limbo land between meat and veganism. It is definitely possible to be a vegetarian, sustainably raise chickens and cows for the sole purpose of eggs and milk and not for meat. They would be slaughtered if the individual demanded eggs or milk every single day which was never intended thus forcing you to have a population that is not sustainable without slaughtering the animals to sell it for meat.

    • Camila

      “Animals are not slaughtered because they don’t produce milk or eggs”. Yes, they are, for economic reasons, otherwise the exploiters would have to keep raising them, and that requires money — but they want to profit (i.e.: more production, cheaper and faster)… capitalism and speciesism hand in hand. Now, assuming the animal wasn’t killed, we don’t have to wait up to the point of killing someone to stand for the rights of this very sentient being — we need to incorporate the idea that animals aren’t resources — anything less than this abolitionist line of thinking means speciesism and, consequently, means that non-human animals don’t matter morally. Go beyond this slaughter concept. Cows make milk for their babies solely, they are not interested into sharing with us, not at all. Chickens will eat their unfertilised eggs, that’s good for their (not ours) bodies, since they leach 10% of their body calcium for each layer egg. Also, every time you take a hen’s egg, she will lay even more (since she finds necessary to fulfil a nest). Animals aren’t here to serve us, they have their own reasons to enjoy life, we shouldn’t be getting on their way.

  • Tom P

    This is what you get when you don’t understand what you’re reading. At no point does Singer discuss morality of farming animals. He only discusses the moral difference between killing a “sentient” being and killing a fetus (or an unfertilized egg for that matter).

    From utilitarian point of view industrial farming of chickens in small filthy cages is far worse than free range farming of e.g. cows regardless of whether the chickens are killed or not. On the other hand, eating eggs from free range birds who are not killed afterwards is morally acceptable within Singer’s theory. That is how I understand the works of Peter Singer.

  • KP

    Well, I am an ovo-lacto vegetarian who has been so for 22 years who doesn’t feel “morally muddled” or need a book or theory to tell me what is good or right. I don’t eat animals because I love and respect them and the biosphere. To be frank, the kindest thing one can do for animals is to kill oneself. Your very existence as a human being is absolutely destructive unless you are so off-grid it’s not funny. If veganism makes you happy, then be a vegan. I personally know my carbon footprint is waaay smaller than Gwyneth Paltrow’s. She is causing more animal suffering than me. QED. (From someone who is tired of vegans thinking vegetarians are somehow even worse than omnivores. I don’t make a religion out of my eating habits, and unlike the Friends of the Earth food co-op cafe co-worker I used to have the misfortune to volunteer with I don’t go around making the excuse that upon finding a dead mouse that she could not deal with it and I had to. The reason was…[outraged] “I’m a vegan” I picked it up with my bare hands, put it in the bin and washed my hands and said “So what, I’m vegetarian, this is a public kitchen, it’s a dead mouse…if I wasn’t here what would you have done?”

    Vegan cats. No. Cats are essentially carnivores. Giving your cat a supplement with some mash (good luck on the cat eating it) is awful for the cat. Cats. Are. Carnivores. Your cat should you have one does not subscribe to your philosophy, you are forcing a human philosophy that already stands on rather shaky ground upon a cat – whose life you should be respecting and harmonising with. They eat meat almost exclusively, and the digestive system reflects this. But vegans will merrily go on about respecting animals whilst crapping on their cat and what it likes, wants and needs and force it to eat a diet that is totally foreign and it only stays alive because of a powder mix. Great…but that’s the morally muddled vegan mindset.

    I have met the odd sane vegan. Not many. Sure, I am vegan-bashing, but so what? You just sanctimoniously trashed every vegetarian who happened to read your post – “I hope through clearly presented vegan education to keep others who care
    about animals and justice from going down that same morally muddled
    path.”

    Yep, another nutter religio-vegan. You do know your next step is Jainism? The Jain have it allll over vegans when it comes to sanctity of life, and far pre-date the philosophy of veganism.

    I sincerely hope you eat no root vegetables, or peanuts. Because it’s been very scientifically proven that plants feel pain, and well, you end the life of that root vegetable.

    At least the Jain are fairly consistent. Sweeping the path before them, and wearing a scarf over the mouth and nose to avoid inhaling insects. One last tip: considering when asleep you will eat 4 or so spiders that crawl into your mouth when asleep and you swallow per year, put on a surgical mask before retiring.

    Want to get stupid? I can keep going – vegan. Don’t trash vegetarians, because vegans are f***ed in the head. No wonder no-one can stand you lot, sanctimonious gits.

  • Ethical veganism is not about the environmental impact of our actions; it is about our moral obligation not to intentionally harm non-human animals even if we benefited from doing so. Even if the animal agriculture were not the number one cause of global warming, pollution, oceans’ dead zones, soil erosion, drinking water shortages, species extinction and destruction of rainforests, and even if our actions did not jeopardize the survival of our own species, intentionally bringing into existence, torturing and killing billions of farm animals and pulling trillions of sea animals out of the oceans each year would still be morally wrong. Ethical veganism is about justice, someone’s right not to be used as resource, and rejecting all animal use altogether.

    All human activities harm other beings in some ways, however, there is a moral difference between causing deliberate harm and causing unintentional harm. To say that it is morally acceptable to shoot humans because driving perpetuates human deaths makes no sense.

    Many vegans support Peter Singer who is not vegan and who wrote a letter of appreciation on behalf of all the major animal organisations endorsing Whole Foods’ Animal Compassionate Standards, which grades the level of animal torture that consumers wish to purchase. Thankfully, many vegans reject Peter Singer’s philosophy entirely.

    Many vegans are confused about pet ownership, which, if we want to be consistent, must be abolished, just as the animal agriculture, by stopping our demand for breeding more animals. We must protect the victims of domestication that we have already brought into existence by taking care of them including cats. The fact that cats are carnivores does not morally justify eating meat, dairy and eggs by humans.

    The fact that many vegans appear to confused does not change the facts about vegetarianism:

    1. Dairy and egg production involve creating animals who produce 30 liters of milk a day instead of 3 liters, 200 eggs a year instead of 20 they would lay in nature. These animals have lost their ability to survive in nature due to human manipulation for human benefits.

    2. Dairy cows endure forced impregnation, their babies are taken away and all dairy cows end up in a slaughterhouse. Egg-laying hens all get slaughtered after one to two years of miserable life, and 50% of the hatched chicks are ground alive at birth simply because they are males. All animal use, including raising backyard eggs, involves injustice, torture and death.

    3. There is no moral difference between eating animal flesh and eating dairy, eggs, or honey. Vegetarianism involves animal exploitation. If exploiting animals is morally wrong, vegetarianism is morally wrong too.

    Lastly, being vegan is not a matter of moral superiority; abstaining from deliberately harming other sentient beings including humans is a matter of basic moral decency that each one of us is morally obliged to live by.

    • KP

      Please stop repeating mantras. There are answers not in your chosen one’s book. I don’t think you GET IT. I am not a vegan, I wear leather shoes and am comfortable with that. If the omnivores stop eating meat then there is no skin and I won’t wear it. There are definitively ways to produce eggs and dairy without the cruelty, and frankly telling people that they can’t have pets because of a zealous belief system (despite the symbiotic relationship between humans and pets INCLUDING cows and sheep that goes back thousands of years and many cultures) just alienates almost everybody else.

      Frankly, veganism is a cult that is unappealing to nearly everyone. I reject your cult, I reject your text and the sad fact is you need to affirm each other or it all falls apart. That’s the very definition of a cult, one book, repetition of it’s assertions as faith amongst the sisters and brethren and refusing to see any other point of view.

      Go for it but don’t expect many others to care or take you seriously. Which we don’t.

      Your starting position is that the most important thing and the greatest problem with the world is the treatment of animals. In some ways I agree in that I am a deep environmentslist but a lot if you miss the class structure of capitalism and don’t broaden it out holistically.

      I love dairy, I love eggs, I refuse to stop eating them because vegans want me to. I love cats and they love me, I have a LIFE that I don’t intend to change to make vegans hsppy. Do you get it?

      At all?

      My profession is environmental planning and policy and I have yet to come across anyone who thinks ethical veganism is the answer to overarching environmental concerns. That doesn’t mean a few are vegans but they DO NOT propose that their personal beliefs translate into a practical framework that solves all. Unlike what I hear here.

      This website has been attacked from other vegan authorities (not Ecorazzi who clsim to be the font of wisdom on the internet for ethical vegsnism) and I refuse to spend any more time on a philosophy that I reject and many others do.

      I don’t wish any of you good luck – I have found many vegans to be obnoxious crackpots who we avoid and have to humour when in your presences. The crackpotism is implicit in your post – cats need to be fed meat. How you extrapolate this out into a defence of eating meat is beyond me. I can only go back to: I have only met a few sane vegans. I dropped into the lunatic asylum by mistake (actually via PETA) and well, I’ll leave you Ecorazzi people in your own festering little freskshow along with the likes of Seventh Day Adventists, Scientology. Hillsong, the Raelians and Kim Jong Il.

      • Ian Somerville

        KP. I don’t agree with what Balint Balasa says about pets but otherwise, he’s spot on. You, on the other hand, have spent ages here trying and failing to justify your own position while simultaneously slagging off vegans. All the vegans I’ve known have been calm and rational and also care about other people and the environment, too. None of them claim to be perfect but do try to do their best in a very non-vegan world. As an ovo-lacto vegetarian, you are directly contributing to the abuse and killing of animals. Deliberately, too, judging by your evidently high level of self awareness.

        • KP

          Well, thanks for the concession re: pets. Very generous of you.Hmmm, justifying? No. This whole little saga reminds me of a contretemps I had with a young fundamentalist Christian 25 years ago where I kept repeating “But, I don’t believe in the Bible” to which I received the quite bepuzzled and angry “But you have to, it’s the word of God”. Around and around it went.

          I know precisely how my milk is farmed. Ditto the eggs.

          I also know precisely how many other despicable things go on in this world and as an activist I have achieved a lot in concert with others in many areas of life.

          I am tired of crazed vegans. I don’t care, I will reiterate it again but I have only met the occasional vegan who has a non-evangelical attitude and not attacked me for being an ovo-lacto vegetarian.

          There’s a thread on here somewhere about why single-issue fur campaigns don’t work unless they advocate strict veganism. And a very sane vegan replying as to a) how they actually do, and b) how many people s/he has convinced to become vegetarians or vegans in the process and argues that alienating nearly everybody GETS NOTHING DONE. S/he gets attacked ruthlessly.

          Hassle people who glorify meat eating. Write to Gwynneth Paltrow who loves to espouse her veganism then has a roast chicken bust – publicly. And I’m bloody well unsubscribing this whole thread from Disqus because I didn’t want to see your reply in my inbox!

          P.S. I found it interesting that because there is no answer to the use of oil and oil by-products (as pointed out oil was once animals) any vegan who uses any product or service that involves oil extraction (nearly everything) is very guilty of using dead animals every single day of their life. That is essentially anyone living beyond subsistence farming/foraging level with only vegetables and fruits consumed combined with no animal labour.

          Utilitarian much? Yes. I see no difference except an abstract distinction.

          Oil is dead animals. Use it in any fashion, your ill-conceived purity is non-existent.

          I won’t get a cogent answer because there is none. We are all trapped in a big bad box which we need to change paradigmatically, and it’s called late-stage capitalism. The answer is not “ethical veganism” but a lot larger.

          Can I go now? I’m pretty pissed off with people that think PETA do no good, and nor can anyone unless they join the Ecorazzi fanclub.

          Begone foul daemon of the web! Avaunt ye, over and out, sayonara, ciao, auf wiedersehen.

  • Marcus Riedner

    Any vegan claiming a moral high ground because their wealth, social status, and geopolitical location allows them the luxury of picky eating needs to check their reality. Even if you ignore the socioeconomic privledge that veganism represents and focus on the ethics in sourcing food for a vegan diet you rapidly crash into a moralality tar pit.

    Claiming a lack of animal suffering collapses in the face of the industrial food system that grows vegan foods by destroying ecosystems wholesale. Animals suffer greatly when their food and homes are reduced to rubble to plant staple crops. Claiming “less” suffering by cutting out the death of one cow or pig when tensing thousands of animals have died to grow crops is a pathetic moral high horse. Especially if you compare that to a pasture and perennial food system that can get you a steak for one death instead of thousands. (Please note I refer to a pasture based cow not an industrial grain fed cow. Apples and oranges.)

Let’s Consider What We Can Do for Animals Instead of What Animals Can Do for Us

The first and most effective thing we can do as individuals is to go vegan.

PIG TRIAL VERDICT: PIGS LOSE, PETA WINS

In short, the lawyers ineptly argued that pigs are not property, and then went on to argue that they are property.

The only label you need on egg cartons: exploitative

We have to recognize that the ‘free range’ campaign (and the many chicken related campaigns like it) is as frivolous as the ‘humane meat’ one.