Friday, 30 September 2011

Reflecting upon arguments against vegetarianism.

As it is coming up to World Vegetarian Day (1st October), I thought I’d reflect upon some of the arguments that are levelled against vegetarianism. Having previously been a meat-eater, I have experience of both using and being on the receiving end of such arguments. While at university, for example, I had many a discussion with an ethically motivated vegetarian. Rather ironically, when I met him again at graduation and proudly announced that I’d become vegetarian, he informed me that he and his fiancĂ© had started eating meat again! In the brief discussion that ensued, he was using the arguments that I previously used against him, and vice versa.

While some arguments against vegetarianism warrant serious consideration, many are quite ridiculous. Examples of the latter include “But… Hitler was a vegetarian!” and “Carrots feel pain too!”. If such arguments carried any weight, we would have done away with motorways on the grounds that Hitler also thought they were a good idea, and pulling a carrot from the ground would be widely regarded to be as morally reprehensible as an act of animal cruelty. Religious arguments which hold that animals were divinely created for human consumption are no better.

There are a number of more challenging arguments against vegetarianism and it is these arguments that will be considered here.  

“We are meant to eat meat”

It is often claimed that humans are “meant to eat meat”. The ability of the human body to digest the flesh of non-human animals (hereafter referred to as animals) is cited as evidence that this is something human beings should do, and have indeed been ‘designed’ to do via biological evolution. On this basis, it is often further argued that the consumption of animal flesh is essential for good health.

If this is granted as true, for the sake of argument, the obvious implication is that the failure to regularly eat the flesh of animals should have negative consequences. A robust body of scientific evidence on the ill-health caused by vegetarian diets should therefore be expected to exist. Importantly, it does not. As Key, Appleby, and Rose (2006) state, “Overall, the data suggest that the health of Western vegetarians is good and similar to that of comparable non-vegetarians”. The view that humans are meant to eat meat is quite simply irreconcilable with the good health of vegetarians.

If good health does not depend on the consumption of animal flesh, the basis on which humans are meant to eat it is unclear. Perhaps it could be argued that the ability of the human body to digest it is itself an adequate justification. However, on such a view, any action which is made possible by the physiology and anatomy of the human body and which should not cause immediate personal harm must be accepted and engaged in unquestioningly: the mere potentiality of an act is evidence that evolution ‘intended’ for it. Fortunately, behavioural decision making is typically a more complex process involving, amongst other factors, rational and moral thought.

While many meat eaters might like to believe that they are meant to eat meat, they really aren’t. Worlds apart from the genuinely predatory animals that instinctively kill other animals and eat their raw flesh on the spot in order to survive, human beings are carefully cooking (to avoid food poisoning) pre-packaged meat and preparing it into meals in their kitchens despite it being within their power to use non-animal ingredients. Worse still, human beings have developed elaborate intensive farming systems into which certain species of animal are bred, imprisoned, and artificially pushed beyond natural limits. It is absurd to believe that any of this is entailed by biological evolution. It could all be otherwise, in a way it never could be for predatory animals. Vegetarians are living proof that this is a fact.

As an aside, it is instructive to consider the human consumption of cow’s milk. As with meat, it is claimed that this is something we are meant to be doing and something that is essential for good health, particularly of the bones. Most people at least accept the latter claim to be true. But there are good reasons to doubt the truth of both. Milk serves the purpose of providing nourishment to the offspring of an animal. A human baby is meant to drink the milk of a cow no more than a calf is meant to feed from the breasts of a human. The situation becomes all the more bizarre where adults are concerned. If a human adult engaged in the behaviour directly by suckling on the udders of a cow, they’d be considered weird- a sexual deviant of some kind. But if someone else artificially inseminates the cow, collects the milk, pasteurises it, and packages it, then it is completely normal, and essential, for people to buy and consume this product. The very notion that human health is dependent on drinking milk intended for the offspring of other animals is ludicrous.

The truth is that eating meat is not necessary. It is neither required for good health nor is it evolutionarily ordained. In civilised society, human beings are not living in an environment where hunting and eating animals is required for survival. An individual can decide to eat meat or not to eat meat, in the same way that they can choose to wear a real fur coat in winter or not to wear such a coat. They can decide whether to behave in ways that contribute to the killing of animals and the infliction of suffering upon them or to behave in other ways. Sadly, too many people choose the former.

“We are top of the food chain”

Another commonly used argument against vegetarianism is that we are “top of the food chain” and that therefore there is really nothing wrong with killing and eating animals. Just as a cat will kill and eat a mouse or a lion will kill and eat a zebra, humans should kill and eat any animal of their choosing – it is merely the natural order of things in a brutal and amoral world. Some would take this argument further and suggest that the intensive farming procedures developed by humans are just more efficient and effective means of doing what we would otherwise be doing on a smaller scale and that there is nothing really wrong with this as our intelligence affords us a position of dominance over other animals.

Despite the beauty of the natural world, it is undeniably brutal. The strong do prey on the weak and there is no moral dimension to their acts as animals are (to the best of our knowledge) incapable of moral thought. There is no right and there is no wrong where their behaviour is concerned. According to this argument, the human species is just one of millions on this planet and we are too are part of this natural order.

Importantly, however, human beings are capable of moral thought, which draws a distinction between us and animals and requires that our behaviour be judged on a different basis to theirs. A human being is able to evaluate potential acts against notions of right and wrong and to decide on the basis of this evaluation whether or not to act in a particular way. Our ability to understand the existence of other minds, to empathise with others, and to anticipate how a particular course of action would affect their mental state is important in informing this moral evaluation in many instances. We are also not particularly instinctive. Aside from the rare occasion on which the survival instinct might be required to kick in, our behaviour is usually the result of a decision making process that can take into account a wide range of considerations, including moral considerations. Given these important differences, it is inappropriate to judge human behaviour on the same basis as, say, a frog extending its tongue to capture a fly in an instinctive act devoid of a moral dimension. It must also, therefore, be inappropriate to use such behaviour as a guide for human behaviour.

Another important difference is that while the relationship between animals in the wild just is, the way in which humans relate to animals is variable. Human intelligence, adaptability, and the ability to be socialised in vastly different ways allows for societies, and individuals within them, to relate to animals differently. These qualities allow for, say, Westerners to traditionally eat cows while Hindus do not and for individuals to freely adopt an entirely vegetarian diet. They also allow for us to keep domestic pets, which we look after, feed, stroke, and treat, all for reasons relating to companionship, enjoyment, or satisfaction. This desire to have companionship with animals and to look after them certainly doesn’t sit well with the view that we’re predatory animals (which we must surely be if we are “meant to eat meat”) sitting at the top of the food chain. When considered in a moral evaluation of killing and eating animals for food, the ability to freely choose to be vegetarian and to maintain good physical health in so doing is particularly damning.

A further objection, similar to an objection to the “we are meant to eat meat” argument, can be raised here. That is, the potential to act in certain ways does not mean that we should act in those ways or that those acts are desirable, sensible, or moral. There is no doubt that the intelligence of the human species allows it to dominate this planet and to do as it pleases to animals. And it is worth noting here that it is indeed intelligence that affords us this position. In comparison with the predatory animals that meat eaters imagine we are like, we are physically rather feeble – we’re slow, weak, with blunt digits, blunt teeth, and a small and weak jaw. If an unarmed human happened to be confronted by a lion, it is very unlikely that they would emerge from that situation alive.

The important question here is whether the ability to dominate animals and cause harm to them means that we should do so. If this question was asked about the ability to act in these ways towards other humans, the answer would be a resounding ‘no’. Behaviours such as bullying, violent theft, and rape - all of which require that the perpetrator is able to dominate or overpower the victim - are considered morally wrong. Large scale and systematic manifestations of behaviour of this kind, such as enslavement of people (e.g. sex trafficking) or genocide, are met with even greater revulsion and those responsible for these acts are often labelled as ‘evil’. Since moral considerations intervene between the potential for an act and its actualisation where inter-human behaviour is concerned, a clear basis on which to exempt animals from our moral thinking is required if those who eat meat are to do so in good conscience.

“Animals aren’t sentient”

One basis upon which some people argue that moral considerations should not be applied to animals is that animals, they claim, are not sentient. In other words, animals are devoid of conscious awareness and the ability to sense or perceive the external world and it is therefore inappropriate to take moral considerations into account in relation to our behaviour towards them. On this view, killing an animal doesn’t involve the termination of a conscious being and is no more wrong than tearing a plant up from the ground, and while the conditions and treatment that animals are subjected to in factory farms might appear to be cruel, they aren’t aware of anything and so nothing wrong is being done.

This argument is certainly the most challenging one for ethically motivated vegetarians. It is so challenging for two reasons. Firstly, it strikes right at the heart of the issue, for if it is true, and animals are indeed not consciously aware, then it isn’t appropriate to apply moral considerations to our treatment of them and ethically motivated vegetarianism therefore does not make sense. Secondly, the immaterial and subjective nature of consciousness and mind presents serious epistemological difficulties for investigating these qualities in animals, which would be unable to report linguistically on their subjective experiential existence.

Consciousness is a very difficult and controversial area of inquiry. Science has been able to explain many things, but consciousness is not one of them. There are good reasons - such as the ability of psychoactive substances to alter conscious experience - for thinking that consciousness is an emergent property of the physical matter of the brain, but precisely how this occurs is unknown. The scientific method has been able to use advanced neuroimaging techniques to examine neurological correlates of behaviour and reported conscious experience in humans, but this type of investigation has yet to lead to an explanation of consciousness. Self-report is clearly crucial for research on consciousness as there is no means by which the conscious mind can be directly observed. Similar investigations in animals are complicated by the unavailability of self-report, which means that behaviour must be used to make inferences about conscious experiences. This is clearly unsatisfactory and it is therefore not surprising that “no systematic neuroscientific investigation of animal consciousness has yet been undertaken” (Edelman and Seth, 2009).

The implication of the subjective, private nature of consciousness and the additional problems associated with researching it in animals is that it might not be possible to determine whether animals are conscious and, if they are, that it is impossible to know what it is like to be an animal. This is perhaps an uncomfortable idea for those who believe science to be explanatorily omnipotent, but the ‘problem of other minds’ is considered by many philosophers to be irresolvable by the scientific method. Given that it is not known, and arguably not possible to know, whether animals are conscious, the premise of this argument (i.e. that ‘animals are not sentient’) is unwarranted. At the very least it must be conceded that animals might be conscious, in which case it does not follow that we should not apply moral considerations to our treatment of them. If an individual has reason to believe that a particular act might cause suffering, the moral imperative is surely to act differently.

There are good reasons for suspecting consciousness in animals. From an evolutionary perspective, it seems unlikely that consciousness would have emerged suddenly in humans without less sophisticated forms having existed previously. Obviously, the consciousness experienced by an animal would be vastly different to human consciousness – for example, there would be no linguistic element to it and no ability to think abstractly. No sensible person would ever ascribe these higher-order abilities to animals or entertain the idea that animals could be sitting there mulling over the latest discoveries in particle physics or contemplating issues in analytical philosophy. However, it is not these higher-order abilities that are important in informing how we should treat animals, but rather the possibility that they can experience pain, discomfort, distress, and fear. Those who doubt that animals can experience these things would do well to watch video footage depicting animal cruelty – the squeals and shrieks of cats and dogs skinned alive for fur in China would surely be enough to convince anyone that they do.

Interestingly, most people do not consider animals to be the ‘beast machines’ of Descartes. Pet owners, particularly of cats and dogs, view their pets as companions with minds and ‘personalities’ of their own and not as non-sentient biological machines. They like to treat their pets well and ensure that they live good lives. Cruelty to animals is widely abhorred and those who commit acts of animal cruelty are frowned upon. Unfortunately, this opposition to animal cruelty is not extended to those animals which have been unfortunate enough to have been categorised as “farm animals” in our cultures. The conditions and treatment that these animals are subjected to in factory farms and abattoirs doesn’t appear to concern most people, but isolated acts of cruelty or accidental harm to animals in the “domestic pets” category can cause outrage. The case of Mary Bale, who threw a cat into a wheelie bin because she “thought it would be funny” and subsequently received death threats, is an illustrative example. Although it is clearly not nice to put a cat in a bin, farm animals face far worse and on an unfathomably greater numerical scale. To Miss Bale, the cat was “just a cat”, and to many people, the animals they are eating are “just pigs” and “just cows”.

Other Arguments

The arguments considered thus far do not succeed in undermining the case for vegetarianism. Basic appeals to evolution and nature ignore the human potential for moral thought, and the unproven assertion that animals are not sentient does not provide a means by which to avoid the moral implications of our treatment of animals. Many people convert to vegetarianism upon learning of the reality of meat production and deciding that the acts involved are immoral. Unfortunately, for many people behavioural change of this kind represents the path of greatest resistance, and so they’ll use various arguments to exempt themselves from guilt. Three of these will be briefly considered here.

“Eating meat is part of our culture”. Eating meat is certainly part of our culture, but that is all it is. It is a behaviour that has emerged from sociocultural evolution, not biological necessity. It is not something which must be part of our culture and it is not something that any individual is obliged to do. People can and do choose not to eat meat. Therefore, those who do eat meat but feel uneasy about the killing of animals or suspect that the way in which those animals are treated is immoral can’t hide behind the fact that eating meat is culturally normative. Slavery was once part of Western culture, but that doesn’t mean that it was right or that those who kept slaves were doing no wrong. Importantly, people identified it as being wrong and campaigned against it.

“I just buy the meat; I’m not doing anything wrong”. This argument fails quite simply because purchasing meat or other animal products contributes to causing demand for those products and their subsequent production. If no one purchased these products, they would not be produced. Anyone who does purchase these products must therefore bear some of the responsibility for the acts required to produce them.

“I’m just one person, I can’t make a difference”. While it is true that one person deciding not to eat meat will not make a significant impact on the plight of animals, this fact does not absolve them of their portion of the responsibility. In addition to personal behavioural change, people can also inform others of their reasons for becoming vegetarian and perhaps influence them to change too. Being free of the guilt associated with eating meat and enjoying the health benefits attributed to the vegetarian lifestyle surely makes the decision worthwhile.


The arguments considered here, either alone or collectively, fail to undermine the case for vegetarianism. Individuals with a sufficient level of moral development can not avoid the moral implications of eating meat by appealing to non-existent biological or evolutionary imperatives, intellectual supremacy over animals, cultural acceptability, or unproven claims of animal non-sentience. Eating meat is a choice. It is not something we are meant, required, or compelled, to do. It is something that people can not do and suffer no negative health consequences as a result. On this basis, the decision to eat meat is one of evaluating ones own personal gratification to be of greater importance than the well being of animals: the enjoyment derived from tucking into a beef burger justifies the killing of an animal and all the suffering it endured in its life. This is an indefensible position.