General Education Requirement
Moral Implications of Vegetarianism
Vegetarians and vegans often have some moral justification for becoming vegetarian or vegan. But is it strictly necessary from a moral standpoint? The reality is actually more complicated than it would seem. Vegetarians who use the moral justification tend to ignore the very real possibility of plant sentience, and like factory farming, large-scale plant harvesting operations are not without their problems. But human beings need to eat something, and we’re omnivores for a reason. While most would agree that our treatment of animals on factory farms is abhorrent, there are alternative farming techniques that are more respectful of animals, and eating both plants and ethically-sourced meat is perfectly acceptable.
In All Animals Are Equal, Peter Singer argues that vegetarianism is necessary from a moral standpoint, writing that “there can be no defense of eating flesh in terms of satisfying nutritional needs, since it has been established beyond doubt that we could satisfy our need for protein and other essential nutrients far more efficiently with a diet that replaced animal flesh by soy beans, or products derived from soy beans, and other high-protein vegetable products.” He goes on to condemn factory farming practices, writing that “the suffering we inflict on the animals while they are alive is perhaps an even clearer indication of our speciesism than the fact that we are prepared to kill them.” It’s important to recognize that these are two very distinct arguments, and one need not necessarily agree with both to condemn the concept of “speciesism”.
The first problem with Singer’s argument in favor of vegetarianism becomes apparent as we look closely at plants. The topic of plant sentience wasn’t directly addressed in Singer’s essay but has long been debated, and more recent studies have indicated that plants are in fact capable of some form of sentience and suffering. As Singer himself put it, “if a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration.” If both plants and animals are sentient organisms, what are we morally permitted to eat? The answer is obvious: in a perfect world, human beings and other animals simply wouldn’t have to eat, but sadly that isn’t the world we live in. And taking into account the slaughter of animal species but not plant species could be seen as a form of speciesism in its own right.
Next, we must consider that large-scale plant harvesting operations also bring about problems that are similar to those seen on factory farms. The use of pesticides and fertilizers is widespread, and these chemicals can contaminate the groundwater as well as nearby freshwater sources. Although not always deliberate, animal casualties still occur, mainly in the form of rodents and other wild animals that die due to the use of pesticides and large machinery. And although factory farms are a cause of greenhouse gasses, the machines used to harvest plants also spew carbon dioxide and other byproducts into the air.
Finally, we must remember that human beings evolved to be omnivores and eat meat for a reason. Our herbivore ancestors were unable to get the nutrition they needed from plants alone. The addition of meat to their diet enabled their jaw muscles to shrink and their brains to grow, as the increased energy demands of a larger brain could be fulfilled. Although we might be able to survive on a plant-based diet today, eating meat is literally in our nature, and like it or not we are natural predators and have our ancestors feasting on the flesh of other animals to thank for our existence.
However, unlike Singer’s first argument, his second argument condemning factory farming practices is a much more valid one. Like Singer, Michael Pollan summarizes the horrors of a factory farm in An Animal’s Place. “Every natural instinct of this animal is thwarted, leading to a range of behavioral ‘vices’ that can include cannibalizing her cagemates and rubbing her body against the wire mesh until it is featherless and bleeding. … Whatever you want to call what’s going on in those cages, the 10 percent or so of hens that can’t bear it and simply die is built into the cost of production.” The agony for pigs living on factory farms is just as horrifying, as their tails are frequently chopped off to prevent stressed and under-stimulated pigs from gnawing on each other’s tails. But unlike Singer, Pollan doesn’t see vegetarianism as the only morally-acceptable solution to this problem.
Instead, he describes a free-range, pasture farm run by farmer Joel Salatin. In contrast to factory farming techniques, the animals on this farm aren’t confined to tiny pens or cages, but instead have space to roam and graze freely on open pastures. Although the animals are still slaughtered for food, their natural instincts are not suppressed like they would be on a factory farm, and they can continue to exist as a domestic animal species in a more ideal domestic setting that better meets their needs.
Although buying only free-range meat may seem like a daunting task, Pollan remained optimistic about it. “For my own part, I’ve discovered that if you’re willing to make the effort, it’s entirely possible to limit the meat you eat to nonindustrial animals.” While going vegetarian by itself doesn’t solve all the problems of meat eating, and we still have to eat something, we should at least look for ethically-sourced meat from free-range farms. It’s important to know where your meat comes from, and whether the animals were treated with dignity and respect while they were alive.
Hance, J. (2015, Aug. 4). Are plants intelligent? New book says yes. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/radical-conservation/2015/aug/04/plants-intelligent-sentient-book-brilliant-green-internet
Lieberman, D., Zink, K. (2016, Mar. 9). Impact of meat and Lower Palaeolithic food processing techniques on chewing in humans. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/nature16990
Pollan, M. (2002, Nov. 10). An Animal's Place. Retrieved from https://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/an-animals-place/
Singer, P. (1974) "All Animals Are Equal," Philosophic Exchange: Vol. 5 : No. 1, Article 6. Available at: https://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/phil_ex/vol5/iss1/6
Reflect on how you thought about your relationship and obligation to animals and the environment before you took this course and how you think about it now that the course is over. Have any of your assumptions or understandings changed? Why? What assignments/activities/readings were influential in this process?
I wouldn’t say my opinions regarding our obligations to animals and the environment have changed a whole lot, but my understanding of them has evolved considerably from where it was at the beginning of this course. In particular, the philosophers from modules four: Peter Singer, Tom Regan, and Michael Pollan concerned the treatment of individual animals; and five: Aldo Leopold and J. Baird Callicott, with the more holistic land ethic, as well as Gary Varner who wrote about both. The module four case study I chose, the “Don't Eat Anything With a Face” debate, was also really informative.
Peter Singer’s concept of speciesism was an enjoyable read, as inconsistency and bigotry are two things that really do annoy me, and he was definitely right that most people tend to be speciesist and see humans as inherently worthy of moral consideration above all other animals. Tom Regan extended his argument to say that rights and inherent value should apply to both human beings and non-human animals, which is a logical extension to make.
However, in the view of Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin the issue isn’t that we slaughter animals, but rather that we don’t treat them ethically while they’re alive due to our widespread reliance on factory farming techniques. This was my viewpoint already at the start of the class and I still ended up agreeing with it more, but it’s good to know there’s an active movement of free-range farming as a viable alternative to ethically-questionable factory farms.
But if the individual animals are respected, what about the ecosystem as a whole? That’s where Aldo Leopold’s land ethic becomes relevant. His essay was seriously ahead of its time and make a lot of arguments I agreed with, like the disregard we have for natural ecosystems and the need for therapeutic hunting. I agree that therapeutic hunting is often necessary, because of the invasive species and other changes that humans have introduced into ecosystems where they cause problems.
In what ways have you improved as an thinker/arguer/writer on ethics? What brought about those improvements? Point to specific experiences, readings, assignments, or discussions in this course.
Being the logical thinker that I am, reading Gary Varner’s essay tying together the two seemingly-opposing individualistic (animal rights) and holistic (land ethic) viewpoints was really fun! It reminded me that two seemingly-incompatible philosophies might not really be so incompatible under the surface, and there are always ways to make connections that I can look for.
I also liked how Tom Regan was able to point out what he thought the flaws were in Singer’s and Kant’s ethical philosophies, then combine and adapt them to make a more complete argument regarding how animals should have rights and inherent value. It goes to show that there’s always room for improvement in someone else’s arguments, and sometimes you’ve got to take initiative and do it yourself.