You may think that it is peculiar that some people are vegans — that is, they don’t eat, wear, or use animals. You may even regard veganism as extreme.
But, if truth be told, what is peculiar and extreme is that, given what most of us believe about our moral obligations to animals, more of us aren’t vegan. To put the matter another way: what most of us already believe should make veganism the normal position.
Before you dismiss as extreme my claim that veganism is not extreme, think about what it is that you think about animals. You probably don’t think that animals are just things that do not matter morally at all or you wouldn’t be reading this essay.
You probably subscribe to the view that is so common and uncontroversial that we might call it our conventional wisdom about animals: animals matter morally, but they don’t matter as much as do humans, and we may use animals for human purposes as long as we do not inflict unnecessary suffering and death on them. Part of this view is that, if “necessity” is going to have any meaning in this context, it must be the case that pleasure or amusement cannot justify inflicting suffering and death on animals.
Because we reject imposing animal suffering for pleasure, we excoriate people like American football player Michael Vick, who operated a dog fighting ring; or Mary Bale, who tossed a cat into a garbage bin in Coventry; or Walter Palmer, the dentist from Minneapolis who shot Cecil the lion.
Our widely-held belief about not imposing suffering and death on animals for reasons of pleasure or amusement explains polling released in May 2017, which showed that almost 70 percent of British voters were opposed to fox hunting, and half were less likely to vote for a pro-hunting candidate in the general election. Opposition is not limited to fox hunting. A 2016 poll indicated that, in addition to major opposition to fox hunting, significant numbers of people in the UK were also opposed to deer hunting (88 per cent), hare hunting and coursing (91 percent), dog fighting (98 percent), and badger baiting (94 percent). Most Britons object to the fact that the Royals blow away scores of birds on Boxing Day (December 26) just for fun.
If you are in agreement with the position that it is morally wrong to impose unnecessary suffering on animals and you are not vegan, then, I have a simple question for you:
We kill 70 billion land animals and an estimated one trillion sea animals annually for food. And the only justification for that is that they taste good. We get pleasure from eating animals and animal products.
There is no necessity.
Although, in the not-too-distant past, we thought that we needed animal foods to be healthy, there was never any medical support for that position and, in any event, no one any longer maintains that it is necessary to consume animal products to be optimally healthy. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that vegan diets “are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” The UK National Health Service says that a sensible vegan diet can be “very healthy.” Mainstream health care professionals all over the world are increasingly taking the position that animal products are detrimental to human health.
We don’t have to settle the debate about whether it is more healthy to live on a diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds (although the empirical evidence certainly points in that direction). The point is that a vegan diet is certainly no less healthy than a diet of decomposing flesh, cow secretions, and chicken ova. And that’s the only point relevant to the issue of whether suffering and death are necessary or not.
Moreover, animal agriculture constitutes an ecological disaster. It is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the burning of fossil fuel for transportation, and results in deforestation, soil erosion, and water pollution. The grain fed to animals in the United States alone could feed 800 million people. Against this background, what is the best justification we have for inflicting suffering and death on animals?
The answer is simple: we think they taste good. We derive pleasure from eating them. Eating animals and animal products is a tradition, and we have been following it for a very long time.
But how is that position any different from the justification offered for animal uses to which most of us object? How is palate pleasure any different from the pleasure that some people derive from participating in blood sports? Fox hunting, badger baiting and dog fighting are all traditions. Indeed, almost every practice to which we object — whether involving animals or humans — involves a tradition valued by someone. Patriarchy is also a tradition that has existed for a very long time, but its longevity does not mean that it is morally acceptable.
Many people oppose hunting foxes because they can see no morally significant distinction between the dog they love and the fox who is chased and killed. But what is the difference between the animals we love and those into whom we stick a fork and a knife? The dogs and cats we love are sentient — just as are the chickens, cows, pigs, fish, and other animals we exploit. They all feel pain and experience distress; they all have an interest in continuing to live.
So, if you believe that we should not inflict unnecessary suffering and death on animals, and you object to dog fighting, fox hunting, and other blood sports, why aren’t you a vegan?
There are four responses that I usually get at this point.
The first response is to note that people who engage in fox hunting or who enjoy watching dog fighting or bull fighting are participating themselves in the harmful conduct whereas the person who simply consumes animal products innocently goes to the store and purchases those products.
There is no moral difference between the person who fights dogs or hunts foxes and the person who purchases chicken at the local supermarket and roasts it. In all three cases, the suffering and death of the animals is unnecessary. In all three cases, the only reason for the suffering and death is pleasure. Those who fight dogs or hunt foxes do what they do because they enjoy it; it brings them pleasure. Those who buy and eat chicken do so because they enjoy it; it brings them pleasure.
There may be a psychological difference in that the dog fighter and the hunter enjoy participating in the lethal activity — just as there is a psychological difference between the person who pays to have another person murdered and the person who actually commits the murder. But, in the latter case, both the person who pays for the murder and the person who commits the murder are punished as murderers because the law recognizes no moral difference between them.
The second response goes something like this: “yes, I see what you’re saying but I only buy the more ‘humanely” produced animal foods, such as cage-free eggs or crate-free pork.”
That response is both delusional and substantively unsatisfactory.
It is delusional because the most “humanely” treated animals are still treated in ways that would easily qualify as torture were humans involved. If you are eating supposedly “happy” animal products and thinking those animals had reasonably pleasant lives and relatively painless deaths, you are kidding yourself.
The response is substantively unsatisfactory because the moral principle that most of us embrace is that we should not inflict any unnecessary suffering and death on animals. Sure, less suffering is better than more suffering but that misses the point. No one who objects to dog fighting says that it would be an acceptable activity if the dogs were treated better before the fight. No one who objects to fox hunting would think it okay if the amount of time that dogs were permitted to attack the fox were better regulated and limited in duration.
If animals matter morally, we should not be imposing any unnecessary suffering on them.
The third response is that animals are killed in the cultivation of plant foods.
It is certainly true that animals are incidentally and unintentionally killed when, for example, crops are harvested. But humans are incidentally and unintentionally killed in the process of manufacturing things. That does not mean that we cannot distinguish incidental and unintentional human deaths from murder. Moreover, if we all consumed plants directly, there would be many, many fewer acres under cultivation and many fewer unintended and incidental animal deaths.
The fourth response is to claim that plants, like animals, are alive and, therefore, sentient.
Plants are certainly alive and they have developed often complicated reactions to their environment. They react; they don’t respond. In this sense, plants are like cancer tumors. No one maintains that that plants have any sorts of minds that result in their having interests. Indeed, no one even thinks to raise this until they are at a dinner party with a vegan and they don’t think the “Hitler was a vegetarian” argument is going to get much traction.
In sum, if we really believe that animals matter morally and that we are morally obligated not to impose unnecessary suffering on them, it makes no sense not to be vegan. Given what most of us claim to believe, it is not being vegan that represents the extreme position.
Originally published on Medium, 26 December 2018.