Should We Stop Eating Animals?

On 15 September 2019, I published a brief essay on this blog entitled “Doit-on arrêter de manger des animaux?” (Should we stop eating animals?). This is a translation of that essay into English.

It seems to me that any reasonable person should believe that consuming animal products, at least when they come from factory farms or implied the slaughtering of an animal, is extremely immoral.

And I am far from being the only one to think that way. Virtually all philosophers who have seriously thought about this problem have come the same conclusion [1].

Of course, they do not all support the “strict vegan” position, according to which any form of animal exploitation is necessarily impermissible. Some of them even think that we can eat animals if we do not make them suffer [2]. But none of them go as far as claiming that factory farming and slaughtering, as we practice them nowadays, can be ethically justified.

Yet many people still vigorously defend the view that they have an absolute right to eat meat, most of the time with very bad arguments.

In this brief essay, I would thus like to discuss the reasons why they are mistaken.

The argument for veganism

The classical argument for ethical vegetarianism is quite simple. It can be briefly presented as follows [3]:

  1. It is highly immoral to participate in practices that cause great physical suffering to sentient beings without a very strong justification to do so.
  2. Animals (at least those we raise in factory farms and kill in slaughterhouses) are sentient beings.
  3. Factory farming and slaughtering cause immense suffering to dozens of billions of animals each year.
  4. When we consume products that come from a factory farm or implied the slaughtering of an animal, we participate in those practices (since the very reason why they exist is our consuming such products).
  5. We can be healthy without eating meat or consuming other animal products. The only reasons why we consume them are: (a) the fact that we are used to doing it; and (b) the fact that we enjoy consuming them.
  6. Neither (a) nor (b) can justify participating in a practice causing so much suffering to sentient beings.
  7. Therefore, consuming meat products today is immoral (unless you do not consume anything that comes from factory farms or requires slaughtering an animal, but I highly doubt it).

This argument is particularly convincing because it rests on a very strong and uncontroversial moral intuition: causing great suffering to a sentient being (whether it is a human or not) is prima facie ethically wrong. The idea of torturing our cat feels very wrong to all of us. Similarly, when we watch videos of slaughterhouses and factory farms, we are horrified. And, deeply, we all know that if we can avoid it, we should.

And, clearly, we can avoid it. We do not need to consume any animal-based food to be healthy. Various studies even tend to show that a plant-based diet is probably healthier than the typical contemporary omnivore diet [4].

Then, what reason do we have to not accept the conclusion of the argument for veganism? It is obvious that when we consume animal products, we participate in barbaric practices without any serious justification. Therefore, we should stop doing so in order to end those practices.

Non-vegans' objections

I have presented the classical argument for veganism, but what are the opposite arguments: the arguments of those who claim to have an absolute right to consume animal products (for the sake of simplicity, I will call them the “non-vegans”)?

There are many of them. But I do not know any that cannot be easily refuted. And, one should at least admit that they are much more fragile than the argument for veganism.

I will examine some of the most popular.

Argument 1: Vegans are against freedom! They do not respect my freedom to choose whether I want to eat meat or not.

“I want vegans to leave me alone! I respect their choice not to eat animal products, so they should respect mine. Everybody should be free”. It is probably the argument I here the most.

The problem with this argument is that it is acceptable only if we do not have to take the animals' interests into account when we set the limits of our freedom. But that is precisely what the entire discussion is all about.

Let me explain this more clearly: nobody argues that we have the absolute freedom to do everything we want. If I suddenly decide to randomly kill another human being, can I claim that it would not be unethical because I have the freedom to choose what I want to do? Of course, the answer is negative. My freedom has limits. In particular, I must take the others’ interests into consideration. If my acting in a certain way causes too much harm or suffering to someone else, then my freedom of choice can no longer justify it. My view is simply that the suffering of animals should also be taken into consideration.

Whether you torture a human being or a dog, it is still torture. Perhaps the former is worse than the latter, but it does not entail that the latter is morally permissible.

Therefore, it would be absurd to reply to me that my position is incorrect because we all have freedom of choice without arguing that such freedom is absolute. Such exchange would look like this:

Vegan: you have freedom of choice, but it has limits. And the obligation to refrain from torturing animals is one of them.

Non-vegan: you are wrong because I have freedom of choice, even though it has limits.

Vegan: ???

Argument 2: We are predators. It is our nature to kill and eat other animals

I hear this second argument almost as often as the previous one. “Of course, animal suffering is bad. But it is what it is! Animals eat each other and we are part of the food chain. It is our nature to be predators”.

There are two problems with this argument.

First, our meat consumption is in no way comparable to animal predation. We do not hunt the animal products we eat. We breed and raise animals, most of the time in factory farms, and then we kill them in slaughterhouses.

In doing so, we do not contribute to the balance of an ecosystem. We have built our own food-production system. If, as I wish, more and more of us stop consuming animal products, we will simply breed less and less animals to be slaughtered after a life of suffering. And, perhaps one day, we will only raise a few animals in acceptable conditions.

But even if we admit that our meat consumption is similar to animal predation, does that justify it?

We would be outraged if our fellow human beings behaved like wild animals (let me remind you that wild animals do not only hunt, they also rape, fight for power, massacre their offspring, etc.).

Similarly, we disapprove numerous human practices that are completely “natural”, such as war, slavery, genocide and so forth. So why should the fact that animals kill each other legitimate the torture and slaughtering of billions of animals every year?

Argument 3: the vegan diet is not healthier

Finally, there is another argument that I hear very often. The vegan diet would not necessarily be healthier. Generally, those who advance this argument claim that the studies on which we base that view are biased. For vegans would have an overall healthier lifestyle and do more physical activity.

Once again, there are two problems with this argument. Firstly, whether, all things being equal, an omnivore diet really is healthier than a vegan diet is extremely uncertain. As I have already indicated, the available studies tend to show that a good vegan diet is probably healthier, at least, than today's typical omnivore diet.

Secondly, even if that were the case, that would not give one a good reason to be a non-vegan. For the fact that a diet is healthier than another diet does not always justify adopting it. Suppose, for instance, that a study provides irrefutable evidence that eating only human flesh is marginally healthier than any other possible diet. Would that be a good reason to breed humans in factory farms?

This shows that the real problem is not “what is the healthiest diet?” but “what level of suffering are we allowed to inflict for what benefit for our health in return?”.

In this regard, one thing is certain: even if a well-balanced omnivore diet is healthier than a well-balanced vegan diet – which, again, is highly uncertain –, the difference is unlikely to be significant. Therefore, causing so much harm for so little benefit seems completely unjustified.

Notes:

[1] For a few notable works on this matter, see Johnathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals, Penguin UK, 2010; Michael Huemer, Dialogues on Ethical Vegetarianism, Routledge, New York and London, 2019; Peter Singer (ed.), In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., Oxford, 2006.

[2] About this debate, please see Tatjana Visak and Robert Garner (eds.), The Ethics of Killing Animals, Oxford University Press, New York, 2016.

[3] For a better presentation of the argument, see e.g. Michael Huemer, Dialogues on Ethical Vegetarianism, Routledge, New York and London, 2019, chapter 1.

[4] For example, a meta-analysis of 2017 on 96 studies shows that a plant-based diet seems to diminish some risks of cancer (see Dinu M. et. all. « Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: a systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies » in Critical Review in Food Science and Nutrition, 57(17), pp. 3640-3649). Another meta-analysis of 2014 on 258 studies concludes that the diets that include very little meat and a high quantity of vegetables are associated with a lower blood-pressure (see Yokoyama Y. et. all « Vegetarian diet and blood pressure: a meta-analysis » in JAMA internal medecine, 174(4), pp.577-587).

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