According to Ballundar et al (2006:139), Vegetarianism can be defined as eating food excluding meat and other animal products except milk. It is a trend of not including meat and other animal products in the diet. The individuals who do not eat meat are call vegetarians and the persons who eat meat are called non-vegetarians. The trend of vegetarianism has roots in the religious philosophy. Most religions are thought to believe in vegetarianism and strictly prohibit non-vegetarian food. As per the religious leaders of Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc non-vegetarian food involves the innocent and brutal killings of animals and hence this type of food shouldn’t be permitted. On the contrary, some major religions like Christianity, Islam and Judaism argue that God has created human beings and made them in such a way that they can eat both animal and non-animal products (Naik, 2008).
There is a difference of opinion in Medical and Scientific world also. Although most of the doctors and bio-scientists believe that vegetarianism has not any serious disadvantage however some of them say that it leads to malnutrition. The question has always been an issue of conflict and concern within doctors, nutritionists and religious leaders. It is widely believed that vegetarianism has not any major disadvantage. It doesn’t involve any brutality towards animals so it is considered to be the best form of nutrition.
Analysis and Evaluation:
Most of the philosophers, scientists, nutritionists, doctors, etc believe that vegetarianism has not major disadvantages; it is due to the fact that several major advantages are attributed to this form of eating with little disadvantages. These advantages include healthy living, healthy environment and peaceful world (Zaveri, 2008). Following are some of the advantages attributed to vegetarian food habit:
Verma and Pandey (2007:127) say that vegetarian food is rich in fibre. It constitutes the roughage material of the body. According to Richards (eHow Online) roughage and dietary fibre can be used interchangeably and its main sources are fruits, vegetables and grains. It is important to the alimentary canal in following ways:
- It adds bulk to the food.
- It helps in improving digestion and acts as a sort of cleaning agent for the alimentary canal (digestive tube).
Source of Vitamins and Minerals:
According to a report (vegetableexpert.co.uk), it looks like alphabets from vitamin A to zinc, that each of these alphabets is present in vegetables. It indicates that almost all vitamins and minerals are extensively found in the vegetarian diet. Vegetables contain all the three types of vitamins i.e. Fat soluble, Water soluble and B-complex vitamins including minerals like Phosphorus, Magnesium, Calcium, Potassium, Iron, Zinc, etc which are necessary for the healthy functioning of human bio-system. Vegetables are considered the richest sources of almost all vitamins.
Source of Carbohydrates:
Vegetables are also considered a rich source of carbohydrates. According to a report (weightlossforall.com) the source of energy in vegetables is the carbohydrate content present in them. But the calories depend on the cooking method employed to cook them. Vegetables contain fewer calories as compared to non-vegetarian diet (Ballandur et al, 2006:231).
Many ecologists believe that vegetables help to protect our environment by protecting the animals. In many parts of the world, people use to kill animals for food including wildlife. For example, wild pigs, yak, zebra, deer, etc are killed and eaten in many parts of the world. If every person switches to vegetarian food these killings can be avoided and wildlife can be saved. (Gandu et al, 2005:134)
Vegetarian food-eating also helps to maintain a sort of ecological balance in the ecosystem i.e. even the domestic animals form a part of many food chains and food webs (Renold, 2004:31). If they are not killed it will help to help to keep food chains and webs in perfect order.
The Case of Peaceful World:
According to a speech of Zaveri (2008) supported by scientific evidences and facts of life, most of the violence and fuss in the world is due to the meat eating. The humans also imbibe the qualities of animals in them by eating them. He adds that the eating of wild animals will lead to destruction of peace. However, this argument lacks solid scientific evidence.
Protection from Diseases:
During the ancient times, consuming vegetarian food was considered strange and fashionable thing which was believed to have no concerns with health. But now many health organisations including American Dietetic Association have recognised the fact that adequate vegetarian food with a combination of fruits, nuts, grains and green leafy vegetables is nutritionally balanced and has many health benefits in the prevention and even curing of diseases. (vegetarian-nutrition.info)
According to vegetarian-nutrition.info, many scientists believe that the consumption of vegetarian diet with the avoidance of meat and high-fat animal products along with daily exercise leads to the lowering of blood pressure, cholesterol levels, calories, less heart diseases, less obesity, strokes, diabetes, cancer and mortality rate. According to Quinn (2005:234), consumption of salads rich in green leafy vegetables and fruits leads to the reduction of mortality rates.
Citrus fruits like lemons, oranges, etc are rich in vitamin C which helps to give us protection against infections.
Apart from having these advantages there are also some disadvantages of consuming vegetarian food only. These are as follows:
Although vegetarianism leads to healthy living, healthy environment yet it has many disadvantages also. According to a report of SYL Online, vegetarian food contains less proteins, calcium, vitamin B12, iron and zinc. Although vitamin b12 is found in cereals it is not an issue and can be considered as a part of vegetarian diet but meat is the major source of this vitamin so vegetarian diet may lead to deficiency. Vitamin D is also lacking in green leafy vegetables. It is mostly present in the animal products and soymilk. Non-vegetarian food like meat, chicken and fish are proved to contain more quantities of zinc and iron and animal products like yogurt, cheese, curd, etc contain very much amounts of calcium (SYL Online). These nutrients are not much abundant in the vegetarian food items. Vegetarian food is also believed to contain almost negligible amounts of proteins and other essential amino acids (Rao, 2007:237). Phosphorus is also abundant in the meat products with very little amount in the vegetarian food.
In spite of having various benefits, vegetarian food is not a good choice for wrestlers and body builders as they have a primary requirement of proteins and essential amino acids. Vegetarian food can also lead to anaemia because of the lack of sufficient carbohydrates and proteins. Vegetarian food also leads to bowel problems and due to the fact that a little of cholesterol and fat is necessary for the healthy living, it can’t be called a balanced diet (Rao, 2007:278)
It can be concluded that there are disadvantages of having vegetarian food also. But the disadvantages are suppressed by the advantages of having it. If the vegetarian food is taken in adequate amounts, it ensures healthy living. Also the various nutrients lacking in vegetarian food can be got by having other alternatives instead of having non-vegetarian food e.g., Vitamin D can be obtained from sunlight instead of getting it from Cod liver oil. Also, the most nutrients are present in vegetarian food (may be in little quantities like zinc, vitamin B12, etc) but if planned properly it will meet the whole nutritional requirements for healthy living.
Vegetarian food also has more advantages than the disadvantages. A person can have a healthy living irrespective of having non-vegetarian leading to environmental advantages. So, it can be said that vegetarianism has no major disadvantages.
References and Bibliography:
Richard, R. (2005) List of Roughage Foods.eHow Online, Available at: http://www.ehow.com/list_5904563_list-roughage-foods.html Last accessed 20th May, 2010.
Anonymous. A Know Your Vitamins and Minerals.vegetableexpert.co.uk, Available at: http://www.vegetableexpert.co.uk/KnowYourVitaminsAndMinerals.html Last accessed 19th May, 2010.
Renold, T. (2004) Biological Sciences. 9th Ed. Jallandhar: S. Chand Publishing House
Ballundar et al. (2006) Eating Habits. 2nd Ed. New Delhi: Chinar Publishing House.
Gandu et al. (2004) Healthy Dietary Facts of India. Mumbai: Vikas Publishers Limited. P134- 237.
Naik, Z. and Zaveri, R. (2008) Is Non-Vegetarian Food Permitted or Prohibited to Human Beings (Part 1 to 30). youtube.com. Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KKZ6z307NZM Last Accessed: 20th May, 2010.
Anonymous. (2006) Advantages and Disadvantages of Being Vegetarian.buzzle.com, Available at: http://www.buzzle.com/articles/advantages-and-disadvantages-of-being-vegetarian.html Last accessed 21st May, 2010.
Anonymous. Health Benefits of Vegetarian Diets. vegetarian-nutrition.info, Available at: http://www.vegetarian-nutrition.info/updates/vegetarian_diets_health_benefits.php Last accessed 22nd May, 2010.
Gere, M. (2009) Carbohydrates in vegetables.weightlossforall.com, Available at: http://www.weightlossforall.com/carbohydrates-vegetables.htm Last accessed 24th May, 2010.
Rao, S. (2007) Biology in Human Welfare. 4th Ed. Jallandhar. S.Chand Publishers Limited. p278- 237.
Verma, P and Pandey, B. (2007) Biology. 6th Ed. Srinagar: Dal Inc Limited. p127.
Quinn, T. (2005). Nutritional Facts. Kaulalampur: Sikao Publications. p234-235.
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Nobis argues that Singer’s consequentialist approach is inadequate for defending the moral obligation to become a vegetarian or vegan. The consequentialist case rests on the idea that being a vegetarian or vegan maximizes utility -- the fewer animals who are raised and killed for food, the less suffering and death. Nobis argues that this argument does not work on an individual level -- in a context of a huge industry and market unaffected by my actions, becoming a vegetarian might make no difference to the overall utility of reducing animal suffering. Nobis merges the insights of virtue ethics with consequentialism to argue that individuals can bring about more goodness if they have the virtues of compassion, care, and sensitivity to unnecessary cruelty and suffering. If one ought to be compassionate, sensitive to cruelty, resist injustice, and be morally integrated, then, Nobis argues, one ought to be a vegetarian or vegan, even if saving animals from suffering is not an immediate consequence of doing so.
Vegetarianism and Virtue:
Does Consequentialism Demand Too Little?
“It's a matter of taking the side of the weak against the strong,
something the best people have always done.”
-- Harriet Beecher Stowe
I will argue that each of us personally ought to be a vegetarian.
Actually, the conclusion I will attempt to defend concerns more than one’s eating habits in that I will argue that we should be “vegans.” Not only should we not buy and eat meat, but we should also not purchase fur coats, stoles, and hats, or leather shoes, belts, jackets, purses and wallets, furniture, car interiors, and other traditionally animal-based products for which there are readily available plant-based or synthetic alternatives. (Usually these are cheaper and work just as well, or better, anyway.) I will argue that buying and eating most eggs and dairy products are immoral as well. (Since it’s much easier to avoid fur, leather, and wool than eggs and dairy products, I mention those first.)
Many arguments defending the moral obligation to become vegetarian and, to a lesser extent, adopt a vegan lifestyle, have been given, especially in recent decades. While these arguments have convinced many to become vegetarians or vegans, most are still not convinced. My discussion is directed towards those who have not been convinced, especially for these reasons: first, it is often unclear what the argument is for the exact conclusion that “You, the reader, are morally obligated to be a vegetarian (or a vegan).” Second, it is often unclear what moral premise is given to justify this conclusion. And, third, it is often especially unclear how this premise might be justified from a broadly consequentialist moral perspective.
This final lack of clarity is somewhat surprising, since much of the contemporary vegetarian movement takes its inspiration from the work of Peter Singer, a self-professed utilitarian consequentialist. He writes, “I am a utilitarian. I am also a vegetarian. I am a vegetarian because I am a utilitarian. I believe that applying the principle of utility to our present situation -- especially the methods now used to rear animals for food and the variety of foods available to us -- leads to the conclusion that we ought to be vegetarians.”
While a number of non-consequentialist ethical theories can easily justify a vegetarian or vegan conclusion, I will present some doubts that consequentialism can so easily do so. I will then attempt to cast doubts on these doubts.
So my target reader is a consequentialist who denies that she ought to become a vegetarian or vegan. As a consequentialist, she believes this, presumably, because she thinks that her making these changes in her eating habits and lifestyle would result in her bringing about less goodness into the world than were she to maintain her current omnivorous eating and consumer habits. In effect, she thinks that, in terms of doing what she can to increase the world’s overall amount of goodness, there are ways for her to spend her time and resources that are, at least, morally equivalent to -- if not better than -- becoming a vegetarian, and so it is not obligatory. She must also think that her becoming a vegetarian will prevent her from achieving these other goals that she believes yield equal or, perhaps greater, goods.
Consequentialism is often criticized as being “too demanding,” since it demands that we do the best we can. For most of us this requires doing a lot more than what we’re doing now. Since consequentialism implies that most of us are routinely doing wrong, many conclude that it must be a mistaken moral theory.
I will turn this objection on its head and criticize a standard consequentialist perspective on the grounds that it seems to demand too little. I will argue that if consequentialism does not imply or justify a moral principle that we should not benefit from or (even symbolically) support very bad practices when we can easily avoid doing so, then consequentialism is mistaken. A principle like this has implications not only for ethical vegetarianism or veganism, but for many areas of personal morality that are motivated from a response to practices that essentially involve unnecessary suffering and unfairness. If consequentialism implies that we should be morally indifferent in our response to the factors that motivate people not only in the vegetarian and animal rights movements, but in civil rights and “liberation” movements in general (e.g., opposing slavery, human rights and labor movements, bringing women, racial minorities, homosexuals, and other groups fully into the moral community), then consequentialism is a far too conservative morality because it demands far too little of its adherents in terms of their personal lives.
I will attempt to meet this kind of objection and try to show that a kind of consequentialism can justify the vegetarian conclusions presented above. This kind of consequentialism is unique in that it takes the instrumental value of having and acting from certain virtues and character traits seriously. Some might respond, “So much the worse for consequentialism,” but this might be unwise, since, as Henry Sidgwick argued, the theory provides, “a principle of synthesis, and a method for binding the unconnected and occasionally conflicting principles of common moral reasoning into a complete and harmonious system.” My discussion is directed towards someone who thinks that consequentialism does this organizing and synthesizing job best, but is skeptical that her seemingly well-confirmed theory implies that she should be a vegetarian or vegan and do her best to develop and act from the virtues that are commonly said to motivate vegetarianism: compassion, caring, sensitivity to cruelty and suffering (both animal and human), resistance to injustice, and integrity, among others.
Contemporary Animal Agriculture and Human Nutrition
First, I will briefly summarize some facts about modern animal agriculture and human nutrition. While this information is readily available, relatively few people are aware of it.
Many people become vegetarians or vegans when they learn about modern animal agriculture and slaughter techniques, especially “factory farming.” In the , each year around nine billion animals live in factory farms where most lead generally miserable lives. Newborns are separated from their mothers hours or days after birth; they are then kept in small cages or crates or confined for most of their lives in extremely cramped, overcrowded pens. Male chicks at egg farms are discarded by the tens of thousands each day into trash bins because their meat is deemed unsuitable for human consumption, or they are ground alive into feed for other animals. Male calves of dairy cows are fed liquid, iron-deficient diets and raised in crates that wholly restrict movement so that their muscles remain weak and tender.
Most animals are confined indoors: very few live “happy lives” in an outdoor barnyard. This confinement results in the animals’ basic instinctual urges being frustrated. Many animals become psychotic and exhibit neurotic, repetitive behaviors: many become unnaturally cannibalistic. To ward off death and disease from the stressful and unsanitary conditions, a constant regimen of antibiotics and growth hormones is maintained. On both factory and non-intensive family farms animals are subject to surgical modifications such as beak, toe, and tail removal, ear tagging and clipping, teeth removal, branding, dehorning, castration, and ovary removal. In the interest of containing costs, all these procedures are performed without anesthesia.
Many animals die from starvation and exposure to cold in transport to the slaughterhouse. Those that are unable to walk to slaughter are labeled “downers” and are left to die lying in the yard. Those that remain are slaughtered in extremely painful and inhumane ways, including the few who are raised on small, “organic,” “free-range” farms. Pigs, cattle and sheep are hung upside down by one leg, which often breaks, and their throats slit and their hearts punctured. Most of these animals are improperly stunned and are still conscious throughout slaughter or have been brought into unconsciousness by painful electric shock.Since my thesis addresses fashion also, I note that fur-bearing animals are either trapped in the wild and typically die slow, painful deaths, or are raised in small cages, fed each others’ remains, and killed by anal electrocution so their pelts are not marred.
Understanding these facts is a common motivation for ethical vegetarianism and adopting a vegan lifestyle: people learn of, especially by seeing, the pain, suffering, and death involved in these practices and, at least, simply do not want to be involved with or benefit from it anymore.
One might think that this suffering and death is justified because we need to eat meat and other animal products, but, clearly, nobody needs to eat meat to survive. In fact, the common diet in the and , a meat-based diet, is strongly correlated with such health problems as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, stroke, and various cancers. Vegetarians are far less prone to these chronic diseases and they tend to outlive meat-eaters by seven years. The American Dietetic Association, by no means a vegetarian advocacy group, summarizes the results of the medical literature in its position paper on vegetarian diets -- effectively, an overview of the recent scientific research -- in stating that:
It is the position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada that appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.… This position paper reviews the current scientific data related to key nutrients for vegetarians, including protein, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, riboflavin, vitamin B-12, vitamin A, n-3 fatty acids, and iodine. A vegetarian, including vegan, diet can meet current recommendations for all of these nutrients…. Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence. Vegetarian diets offer a number of nutritional benefits, including lower levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein as well as higher levels of carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, potassium, folate, and antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and phytochemicals. Vegetarians have been reported to have lower body mass indices than nonvegetarians, as well as lower rates of death from ischemic heart disease; vegetarians also show lower blood cholesterol levels; lower blood pressure; and lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer.
Thus, there is strong medical evidence that not eating meat is to one’s health advantage: even conservative health organizations encourage people to cut back on their consumption of meat to reduce cholesterol and saturated fat intake; more progressive health organizations encourage cutting it out completely for better health.
The same things, in fact, can be said about all animal products: no one needs to eat eggs or milk or cheese. Health organizations that seriously advocate preventative medicine, such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, advise eliminating them completely and adopting a vegan diet that contains a wide variety of foods solely from the four new food groups: vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans and nuts), and whole grains. There is ample evidence that people not only survive on such a diet, but that they thrive. The list of world-champion vegan athletes is impressive, so no one can honestly say that vegans can’t achieve optimal health or nutrition. And, of course, no one needs to wear fur, leather, or wool, or use products made from these materials.
Thus, no product of factory farming, non-intensive farming or animal slaughter is necessary for human health or survival. Animals’ short and often miserable lives and cruel and painful deaths are not outweighed or justified by any human need. As for the aesthetic pleasures of taste and fashion, vegetarian cuisine and cruelty-free clothing and accessories can easily gratify those interests. But even if the pleasures of consuming animal-based dishes uniformly outweighed the pleasures of all vegan alternatives (which they don’t), it is exceedingly unlikely that the difference in aesthetic pleasure for us outweighs the great pains, suffering, and death for the animals. Thus, it is quite unlikely that the status quo regarding the use and treatment of animals is justified from a consequentialist perspective, since the consequences of the status quo is quite bad for animals (in terms of their well being and very lives) and for humans (in terms of the consequences for health).
Singer, Regan, and the “Impotence of the Individual” Objection
I now turn to some of the philosophical literature on vegetarianism. I will discuss some recent arguments for vegetarianism and, from a consequentialist critic’s perspective, identify a common difficulty for these arguments that makes it difficult for them to establish the conclusion that each of us, personally, ought to be a vegetarian or vegan.
As sketched above, Singer holds that we should be vegetarians because our being vegetarian will maximize utility: if we were all vegetarians, there would be no demand for meat and so animals would no longer be inhumanely raised and killed for products that are unnecessary and often harmful for human health and well-being.
A critic might accept that it is likely that if everyone became a vegetarian (perhaps gradually, so the economy is not disturbed) utility would be maximized, but object that her personally becoming a vegetarian won’t make any difference to the overall utility. Because the meat and animal products industry is so huge -- over a million animals, mostly chickens, are killed each hour in the United States to be eaten -- and markets are too insensitive, no consequence of her becoming a vegetarian, or even a vegan, would be that fewer animals would be raised and killed than if she were to continue in her omnivorous ways. While these industries do exist only because people buy their products, they don’t exist because she buys their products, and they won’t come tumbling down if she divests herself from them. If she is supposed to become a vegetarian or vegan because doing so will immediately help the plight of animals, this seems to not be the case.
Call this the “impotence of the individual” objection. It obviously depends on an empirical assumption concerning the inability of an individual’s consumer behavior to affect a huge industry. This claim seems plausible; it is even accepted by a number of philosophers who defend vegetarianism. As far as I know, nobody has summoned the empirical data to show that it is false. I will presume it is true and so here’s the rub: if an individual’s refraining from purchasing animal-based products does not make a difference for the animals, then this critic might think that Singer’s argument is sound, but that it just does not imply the relevant conclusion, namely that she should become a vegetarian. The conclusion seems to be that it ought to be the case thatwe are all vegetarians, which is importantly different from the conclusion that she ought to be vegetarian, irrespective of whether others do the same (for one difference, the critic can make it the case that she is vegetarian, but her powers over others are quite limited). A consequentialist case for personal vegetarianism or veganism, if it can be made, will thereby have to be made on the actual positive consequences of an individual’s becoming a vegetarian, and it appears that less animals being raised and killed is, unfortunately, not one of the actual consequences.
This problem is not unique to consequentialism, since it plagues Regan’s account of animal rights as well. Suppose animals do have moral rights that make it, at least, wrong to cause them to have lives full of pain and suffering and, at most, wrong to kill them painlessly for no reason other that many find them tasty to eat and fashionable to wear. A critic might object that since he’s not killing them, he’s not violating their rights. Again, since the market is so big and his share of the purchases so small, his refraining from purchasing these products will not result in any less animals’ rights being violated either. And his eating the last burger at the picnic won’t result in any more animal’s rights being violated. So, even if animals have rights, in itself this does seem to directly support personal vegetarianism, unless animals have an additional right not to be purchased, eaten, worn, and so on, even after they are dead. But this is doubtful. Additional premises are needed here, as in Singer’s case, to render personal vegetarianism obligatory.…
Clear Consequences of Vegetarianism
So where are we? One route is to abandon the idea that, in becoming a vegetarian or vegan, one is immediately helping suffering animals and that this is a reason to do so. If we go this route, then the case has to be made wholly on the basis of concerns that don’t have much to do with animals: improved personal health, appearance and well-being, a longer lifespan, and lower costs associated with healthcare. Since a vegan lifestyle is cheaper, as meat and animal-products are a luxury, one could forgo them and use that savings to bring about greater goods, for example, by supporting organizations that save people who, unlike livestock, are starving to death or are chronically malnourished. While one’s not purchasing animal products won’t make a difference to the meat industry, providing support for smaller vegetarian-product companies might. There, even an individual’s financial contributions, as well as his or her trying a product and telling others about it, might very well make a difference to the fate of a product or company. Finally, many people find great value in the friendships they develop in the vegetarian community: being among and working with people who advocate healthful and compassionate living can be quite rewarding. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many people who adopt this kind of lifestyle find their lives to have greater meaning and purpose, compared to when they were not vegetarians or vegans.
It might be that the consequentialist argument can run on these considerations alone and get one very close to the vegan conclusion: it might be that for each opportunity to buy, eat, or use an animal product, there is nearly always something better that one can purchase, eat, or use that does not involve animals. Going these routes can plausibly be said to result in better consequences for one’s health and finances and so better enable one to bring about more goods for others, as well as one’s self.
Vegetarianism and Virtue
… The common suggestion is that one should be a vegetarian or a vegan because, given an understanding of the relevant facts about both animal and human suffering, this is just how a virtuous, good person would respond. Since people should be virtuous, and being virtuous entails being caring and compassionate (among having other traits), and these traits entail disassociation from the animal-products industry even if doing so won’t result in less harm to animals, virtuous people should be vegetarian.
In exploring a virtue-based defense of vegetarianism, Russ Shafer-Landau suggests that meat-eaters may be “condemnable to the extent that they display an indifference to the cruelty that went into the ‘production’ of their ‘goods’,” and that “they demonstrate a disregard for the suffering experienced by the animals whose remains one is wearing or eating.” He describes fur-wearers as “callous.” He writes that “[s]eeking and deriving satisfaction from ‘products’ that are known to result from cruel practices diminishes one’s admirability. This is so even if the practical impact of one’s indulgence is nonexistent or negligible.” Similar judgments are made outside of the vegetarian context: there is “something morally repugnant about a willingness to utilize or purchase soap made from the bodies of concentration camp victims,” even if doing so won’t prevent any future harms. Also, voicing one’s support for a racist dictator or wearing a fur coat received as a gift both seem objectionable.
From these intuitions, Shafer-Landau formulates a moral principle …: “One must refuse (even symbolic) support of essentially cruel practices, if a comparably costly alternative that is not tied to essentially cruel practices is readily available.” He suspects that something like this principle offers the best hope for those concerned to defend the existence of an obligation to refrain from animal consumption. The problem here, as he notes, is that it’s not easy “to identify the sorts of considerations that can ground such a principle,” or to find a general moral theory that would justify such a principle.
One approach would be to go the route of a rule-based non-consequentialist or deontological ethic, and hold that this is one of the rules. However, this probably wouldn’t be wise, since an ethic of rules is often thought to be “fundamentally non-explanatory” and “anti-theoretical.” Presumably, there is a unifying principle that makes these rules the right rules: if there is such a principle, then this is what justifies the rule and makes it the case that the rule should be followed. This fundamental principle is thereby of theoretical interest, not the mid-level rule.
Another route would be virtue ethics. Virtue ethics says, roughly, that evaluations of character and motive are primary in ethics and that other ethical evaluations -- say of actions -- are derivative from considerations of character and motive: for example, that an action is right if, and only if, a virtuous person would do it. The morality of an action is to be explained by the character of the agent. If one is interested in defending vegetarianism or veganism (and other intuitions about concerned and responsible consumer behavior in general), and one suspects that non-virtue-based theories have a hard time generating the correct judgments about these cases, then one might have a good reason to take more interest in virtue-based ethical theory. It just seems that a virtuous person would not, in response to an understanding of the facts about animal agriculture and nutrition, think that even though animals suffer greatly and die for these products that she does not need (and, in fact, are sometimes harmful to her) and thus only fulfill aesthetic preferences for her, she is nevertheless justified in consuming and using them, even though she could easily refrain from doing so. Thus, virtue theory seems to provide a ready defense for a general principle, similar to … Shafer-Landau’s, that we shouldn’t (even symbolically) support bad practices when good alternatives are readily available, which we might call the “vegetarian justifying principle.”
Virtue theory’s greatest “vice,” however, is that it simply does not seem to provide much of an explanation for why it’s good to be virtuous, for example, why it’s good (or virtuous) to be compassionate or why a virtuous person would accept the vegetarian justifying principle. Consequentialists can plausibly argue that it’s good to be compassionate because compassionate people tend to bring more happiness into the world. They see the virtues as instrumentally valuable: virtue ethics, at least in its bolder varieties (and the non-bold varieties seem to just be theories of the virtues, which don’t imply anything about ethical theory), holds that the virtues are intrinsically valuable.
In taking a consequentialist view on the virtues, one attempts to give more basic reasons why someone should be compassionate (assuming compassion is a virtue), not merely asserting, as virtue ethics does, that it’s just a brute, unexplained fact that compassion is good. The consequentialist critic, of course, will be more attracted to the option that it’s a brute fact that, say, happiness or pleasure is good and that virtues are means to those ends. This seems more plausible than the suggestion that the virtues are ends in themselves or are intrinsically good.
If this criticism of virtue ethics is compelling, then, while virtue ethics does readily support vegetarianism, it lacks explanatory power. The theory-minded ethical vegetarian seems to be faced with a dilemma: either accept a generally plausible ethical theory (e.g., consequentialism) that gets a broad range of cases right (and for seemingly good reasons) but doesn’t seem to do as well with personal vegetarianism or veganism in that it seems to lack a place for concerns about animals to provide reasons for action, or adopt a virtue ethics or other non-consequentialist, rule-based perspective that readily supports vegetarianism or veganism but, unfortunately, doesn’t amount to much of a general moral theory because it lacks explanatory power.
I suspect that there may be a compromise here, one that will be amenable to consequentialists and help them defend the vegetarian justifying principle. There already are reasons to believe that the locus of evaluation for consequentialism should be broadened beyond individual actions to include the “life histories” of a person. One proposal is to hold that an individual action is right for a person just in case it is part of one of that person’s optimal life histories, that is, a life history in which moral value is maximized over the span of the life.
And here we have a natural place to merge the plausible insights of virtue ethics with consequentialist ethical theory. Pre-theoretically, it seems that, all else equal, a person will bring about more goodness if she has the virtue of compassion, cares about and is sensitive to unnecessary cruelty and suffering (wherever it is found, in humans or animals), opposes injustice and unfairness, and, in general, attempts to have an integrated, coherent moral outlook. These seem to be virtues that we try to instill in our children, and for good reason. And earlier we saw that these virtues (and others) readily support vegetarianism and veganism, as well as a general moral outlook typically associated with them (e.g., deep concerns about human health and the recognition that the easiest, most effective, and cheapest ways to promote this are through simple dietary changes and non-animal based medical research, disappointments that people are starving to death while cattle are well-fed, environmental concerns, concern for public health and safety, concerns about the exploitation of slaughterhouse workers, and so on).
These virtues have deep implications for how one lives one’s life and how one affects others’ lives. For each person, it is unclear how their characters would not be improved and how they would fail to bring about more goodness were they to adopt the virtues that commonly motivate vegetarian or veganism. What other better character traits would preclude doing this? How would becoming more compassionate, caring, and sensitive to these issues make one a worse person? Becoming caring and compassionate about animals invariably seems to have “trickle down” positive effects for the rest of one’s life. It seems exceedingly unlikely that anyone would, in general, come to treat other humans worse were she to become a vegetarian or vegan out of compassion or sympathy for animals. In fact, the opposite seems likely. One common motive for telling others about the plight of animals, and attempting to persuade them to be vegetarian or vegan, is that others’ lives will improve and they will develop these virtues.
One could practice these virtues selectively and not have them affect one’s views about animals, or allow oneself to occasionally eat, but probably not buy, meat (whatever amount won’t have negative consequences for health, which is unknown). In doing so, however, it seems not unlikely that one would be taking oneself down a life history that would be, on balance, worse than the vegan one. This is because, first, a thoughtful person who does not care about animals at all should come to conclusions about how to behave that would be very similar to the vegan’s (since all their prescriptions promote human well-being anyway) and, second, personal consistency, integrity and commitment typically contribute to better character anyway. It might be difficult to be selectively caring and compassionate: if this would lead one down a slippery slope, the better strategy for doing the best one can with one’s life might be to consistently hold these virtues and act in accordance with them. If this is the case, this bridges the gap between the consequentialist case for near-vegetarianism or veganism articulated above and the more consistent outlook, character, and behavior that many vegetarian and vegan philosophers advocate.
Singer states that “becoming a vegetarian [or a vegan, I think he’d agree] is a way of attesting to the depth and sincerity of one’s belief in the wrongness of what we are doing to animals.” He probably would agree that veganism also is a way to attest to the sincerity of one’s belief in the wrongness of what happens to humans as a result of how animals are used. I suspect that, in general, a person who has these beliefs and attests to them by becoming a vegetarian or vegan brings more goodness into the world than her non-vegetarian counterpart: some of these ways are more obvious (e.g., health, comparative ability to make financial contributions to good causes), others are less obvious and, of course, harder to evaluate (e.g., consequences of character). If a switch to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle and, in general becoming an advocate for animals, results in a life history that brings about greater overall value than an omnivorous life history, then this is what consequentialism demands, and, therefore, consequentialism does not demand “too little” because it will require that one conform one’s behavior to the “vegetarian justifying principle” (which has implications beyond vegetarianism).
In conclusion, my discussion can be presented as this argument:
(1) If consequentialism is true, then each individual person ought to live an optimal life history.
(2) If each individual person ought to live an optimal life history, then each individual person ought to have the virtues entailed by an optimal life history.
(3) If each individual person ought to have the virtues entailed by an optimal life history, then each individual person ought to be compassionate, sensitive to cruelty (wherever it is found), resist injustice, have moral integrity, etc.
(4) If each individual person ought to be compassionate, sensitive to cruelty (wherever it is found), resist injustice, and be morally integrated, etc., then each individual person ought to be a vegetarian or vegan.
(5) Therefore, if consequentialism is true, then each individual person to be a vegetarian or vegan.
(6) Therefore, if consequentialism is true, then, you – the reader of this paper – ought to be a vegetarian or vegan.
Consequentialists readily accept premise (1) and should accept premise (2) as well, since it explains why it’s good to be virtuous. Premise (3) is defended by the informal, quasi-empirical observation that people with these and related virtues tend to, in general, bring about more goodness into the world than people who lack these virtues. Were major lifestyle changes not at stake, many would probably readily accept this premise: it is difficult to see how people who lack compassion, caring, and sensitivity would bring about more goods than those who have these traits, or have them to a greater degree.
Premise (4) is obviously difficult, since it concerns empirical matters. It is the claim that people who become vegetarians or vegans in order to more consistently practice virtue produce more overall good than those who dabble in virtue or practice it selectively. Admittedly, this is an exceedingly difficult premise to defend. The data regarding the positive consequences of changing one’s character by becoming vegetarian are, for the most part, anecdotal, speculative, and based in personal observations. However, this is a problem in general for trying to defend any view about personal morality from a consequentialist perspective, since it is very difficult to find any hard data on the consequences of character and lifestyle. Intuitions and impressions are often all we have to go on for such matters, especially those concerning personal choice.
But that does not leave us in the dark, since one impression that most of us have is that it is better to be more compassionate and caring, compared to less, unless doing so would be emotionally draining, which being a vegetarian typically isn’t (in fact, many find it quite uplifting). Furthermore, whatever other projects we have, it is unclear exactly how becoming a vegetarian could preclude our efforts with them: if our other projects are noble, it is likely that our reasons for doing them would support being a vegetarian as well, and our being vegetarian would only help us with our other projects also.
So, while (4) is not easy to defend on consequentialist grounds, it is not easy to deny either. The vegetarian consequentialist typically has some personal experience to justify her sense that her becoming a vegetarian or vegan has resulted in her bringing about better consequences, while the critic typically has little personal experience to think that her being an omnivore has had the best consequences. If this consequentialist strategy for defending personal vegetarianism has promise, further research into the actual consequences of having the kind of character that is receptive to concerns about animal suffering will be necessary.
Until then, I hope that some burden has been shifted to those who hold that their becoming vegetarians or vegans would not maximize intrinsic value to explain why this is so and why their characters, and the consequences of their characters, would become worse for their making this change. For those who value compassion, kindness and consistency, and oppose cruelty and exploitation, I hope that I have shown that each time they sit down to eat, they have an opportunity to develop their characters in these virtuous ways. Since this is likely part of each of us doing the best we can to bring more goodness into the world, let us each make the most of these opportunities.