The Ethical Argument for Veganism

Veganism and the Ethical Arguments

The past few years have seen a rising trend in the number of people going vegan. Now, it has moved beyond a diet fad and remains steadfast as a healthier, sustainable and more ethical way of eating. It was for the health benefits that I initially tried going vegan. However, it was only later when I learned of the ethical arguments for veganism that it solidified it as a lifestyle choice.

Nowadays many advocates and activists alike preach about the unethical treatment of animals, stating that such actions are wrong as these nonhuman beings are suffering. While I whole-heartedly agree with this stance, such an appeal seems to lack the logical arguments for veganism. This can not only leave advocates vulnerable to counterarguments, but also makes the arguments for veganism less solid. Given that these arguments were the crux for me to commit to veganism 100%, I felt the need to explain and share this argument as well. Hopefully in doing so, I can offer a tool to others in persuading friends and family to go vegan, all the while convincing those on the fence to make the change.

Throughout this piece, I will be referring to animals, as nonhuman beings to reduce the divide between both groups of beings.

Why Animals have Moral Status

Firstly, to understand the ethical argument for veganism we must understand why and how nonhuman beings have moral status. This matters greatly as it not only impacts how we treat them, but also gives us greater insight into our moral treatment of one another.

Many people view nonhuman beings and human beings are separate. Despite our closest genetic relative being the chimpanzee, we often gift ourselves moral status based on an arbitrary characteristic. This characteristic is used to separate human and nonhuman beings. Perhaps it is our use of language, after all our complex language seems like a uniquely human trait that gives us greater understanding and meaning in our world. Or perhaps it is our rational agency, even philosophers from antiquity believed this is what distinguished us from beast. Many traits have been proposed to grant humans, and only humans, moral status. Depending who you talk to, this status can vary greatly from intelligence and sentience, to our ability to use language or plan for the future. For now, let’s refer to it as trait X. No matter what the characteristic is, it becomes problematic to use as justification for moral status for only humans.

If trait X in a given scenario is argued to be language, and that we have moral status due to our complex language structure. One may argue that no animal is able to communicate with the depth and nuances of humans, and this is what separates human and nonhuman beings. What then, does this mean for babies that are unable to talk? Or of mentally impaired beings that have either lost, or never had the ability to communicate? These are what is referred to as marginal cases; called such as they do not have trait X. There are usually 3 categories that these marginal cases fit into

            Do not yet have trait X – children and infants

            Have since lost trait X – elderly, the sick or injured

            Do not, and will never have trait X - those born with disabilities

If language is used as the basis for moral status, do these marginal cases simply not have moral status? If they do - as I’m sure any rational person would agree – then language cannot be the basis for moral status.

But perhaps the problem is simply the example used. Perhaps trait X is in fact something else, such as our rational agency or intelligence. Whatever trait X is, they will run into the same issue wherein some marginal cases will not have trait X. Therefore, they will have to concede that moral status depends on something other than trait X. This other trait – trait Y – will have to be used to determine moral status. However, to encompass both human beings and marginal cases using trait Y, so too will some nonhuman beings be included. Therefore, human beings and some nonhuman beings must have moral status.

The Problem with Speciesism

Those in opposition of veganism when asked why it is okay to treat nonhuman beings so inhumanely will state “Well we’re humans, we’re different from animals” – or something to that effect. This suggests that our moral status is an intrinsic part of being human; that being human is the trait that grants us moral superiority. This is what is commonly known as Speciesism; giving humans greater moral rights than nonhuman beings. Peter Singer, Australian moral philosopher argues against Speciesism, claiming that it parallels that biases that lie behind both racism and sexism.

 “To mark this boundary [the interest of others] by some other characteristic like intelligence or rationality would be to mark it in an arbitrary manner. Why not choose some other characteristic, like skin colour?” Racists violate the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of their own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Sexists violate the principle of equality by favouring the interests of their own sex. Similarly, speciesists allow the interests of their own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is identical in each case.”

Peter Singer is stating that to favour humans over nonhuman beings, “we leave ourselves vulnerable to racist and sexist ideas. In place of this speciesist view, Singer suggests the Principle of Equal Consideration as the best basis for defending equality and opposing racism and sexism. The Principle of equal consideration states that:

“one should both include all affected interests when calculating the rightness of an action and weigh those interests equally”

We consider the interests of all races to be equal, likewise we consider the interests of all sexes to be equal also. This is equality; we do not use an arbitrary characteristic to give more importance to one group or the other. This holds true for species too. This is to say, that the interests of both humans and nonhuman beings are equally. If not, we run the risk of falling back into a racist, sexist and speciesist view.

The Ethical Argument for Veganism

Simply being human and holding a speciesist view is not justification for the inhumane treatment of animals. When looking at the moral status of animals it was realised that there was no trait X; no characteristic unique to humans and marginal cases that did not include some nonhuman beings.

Given that, we have to hold the interests of all beings equally.  The ethical argument for veganism is that if nonhuman beings can suffer, they have an interest in avoiding that suffering. Afterall no sentient being willingly suffers without adequate justification for it. Singer states:  

“If a being suffers there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering of any other being”

This interest is considered equal, regardless of what being holds this interest. So, the interest of a human being to avoid suffering is equal to a nonhuman being’s interest in avoiding suffering. Thus, the suffering is equal for both nonhuman and human beings when judging the rightness/wrongness of our actions toward them. This includes how beings in slaughterhouses are treated.

Despite this, and despite the suffering being equal for humans and nonhuman beings, we condemn nonhuman beings to die every day. Despite their very real interest to avoid suffering, we slit their throats, boil them alive, beat them, suffocate them and murder them.
What makes these acts morally repugnant is that there is no adequate justification for this suffering. If we admit that the interests of humans and nonhuman beings as equal, then how can we possibly justify the way we treat those beings that we torture, kill and eat? Afterall, there is no difference between their suffering and ours. With this knowledge, why is it that we cause undue suffering and death on these beings. Beings which any rational person who understands this argument would agree have the same interest to avoid suffering as human beings.

When we eat meat and animal products, we are promoting the suffering of these beings. They are raised for slaughter and lead agonising lives, as they are caged beaten and repressed. When meat is harvested, it involves the prolonged torture of animals through careless killing methods. In the same way that animals have an interest in avoiding suffering, they have an interest in avoiding death. Even when animals are killed ‘humanely’ it is not justifiable as their interest in avoiding death is just as equal as ours. When we buy milk, we advocate the killing of baby cows that are taken from their mother that can only produce milk when in lactation. And yet, we see no problem with these cows also being forcibly impregnated against their will. When we buy eggs, we perpetuate the suffering of birds in cages, where they cannibalise, suffer and die.

It is widely known by both the scientific community and the general public that eating a vegan diet, comprised of 100% plants is healthy. It is easy to meet the nutritional and caloric needs through such a diet. This is only going to become easier and more prevalent as a vegan diet is further adopted. Now that there are sufficient alternatives, there is no adequate justification for the consumption of animal products. This makes the suffering we inflict fundamentally wrong and indefensible in any just society.

The enjoyment, or the taste of eating meat is not adequate justification for the suffering of billions of nonhuman beings each year. Not when, their suffering is equal to that of any other being on earth, including humans. This also ignores the massive environmental impact that goes on to affect millions of human and nonhuman beings through deforestation, ocean acidification, and climate change due to the animal agricultural industry.

If we truly consider ourselves as intelligent, moral people how can we continue to treat these beings in the way that we do? Torturing, maiming and killing. We have misplaced our morality, assumed a hierarchy, and acted unjustly to these suffering beings who simply wanted to live. To truly live ethically and act justly. we must stop this behaviour.