Animal Welfare and Rights: II. Vegetarianism

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Vegetarianism is traditionally defined as the practice of abstaining from eating animal flesh. Modern vegetarian societies, such as the Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom, define the practice as abstaining from flesh, fish, and fowl, with or without the addition of dairy produce and eggs. Those who wholly or occasionally abstain from "red meat" but eat fish and/or poultry are described as "demi-" or "semi-" vegetarians. Veganism, or "pure" vegetarianism, is the practice of abstaining as completely as possible from all products and by-products of the slaughterhouse, including products derived from treatment deemed exploitative to animals. Vegans do not consume dairy produce or eggs and also exclude products such as honey on the grounds that animals are used and/or killed in producing such types of human nourishment. Most vegetarians do not wear slaughterhouse by-products such as leather, and vegans avoid wearing leather completely.

Health Vegetarians

As late as the 1950s, the unwritten consensus among health specialists and dieticians was that animal protein in some form is essential to maintain adequate human health. While this position has not been completely reversed, medical advice from official studies increasingly recommends low-animal-fat diets, some of which eschew animal protein completely. Studies suggest that vegetarians have lower rates of diet-related cancer (Chang-Claude et al.), especially colon and rectal cancer (Phillips; Willett et al.) and prostate cancer (Giovannucci et al.). Vegetarians experience lower mortality from coronary heart disease than nonvegetarians, possibly due to their lower serum cholesterol levels (Burr and Butland). One study has shown that mortality from cardiovascular disease among vegetarians was less than half that of the general population (Chang-Claude et al.; see also Snowdon et al., 1984). Vegetarians suffer less from hypertension (Armstrong et al.; Rouse et al.), obesity (Thorogood et al.), and diabetes (Snowdon and Phillips).

Interpretation of these and other studies has become a source of controversy, with advocates for each side citing evidence in their favor (Frey, 1983; Robbins). Increasingly, however, health specialists seem to favor vegetarian diets on medical grounds alone. According to present knowledge, a balanced vegetarian diet poses no health problems and offers some indisputable advantages.

"Green" Vegetarians

Green political parties in Europe (i.e., those parties committed to programs that give priority to ecological sustainability) increasingly advocate a vegetarian diet or, at least, reduced meat consumption for environmental reasons. For example, the policy of the Green Party of the United Kingdom "encourage[s] a reduction in consumption of animal produce and promote[s] the development and use of foods which are more healthy and humane" (Green Party, p. 15). They offer two arguments. The first is that if enough Westerners become vegetarians, worldwide food distribution will become more equitable. It is calculated that "if we all had a vegetarian diet and shared our food equally, the biosphere could support around six billion people; if 15 percent of our calories came from animal products (and again food were shared equally), the figure would come down to four billion people; if 25 percent of our calories came from animal products, then it would fall to three billion; and if 35 percent of our calories came from animal products, as in North America today, then it would fall to2.5 billion" (Myers, discussed in Ticknell, p. 67). The second argument is that the present system of intensive farming, while cost-efficient, will prove inefficient in the long run in terms of energy and environmental costs (Porritt). Hence, Greens argue that the "expanding livestock industry contributes to … the destruction and pollution of the planet" by being "energy intensive rather than labour intensive" and contributes to "world starvation" (Green Party, p. 15).

Assessing these arguments is problematic. While intensive farming is energy inefficient and environmentally damaging—apart from concerns it raises about animal welfare—any measurement of food resources must take into account not only the quantity of food available but also the way in which complex systems of supply and demand militate against egalitarian food distribution. Again, while animal farming is not always an efficient use of food resources, it is not clear that the political will exists to adopt alternative economic policies. Those who are sympathetic to vegetarianism on environmental grounds believe that widespread and increasing vegetarianism can and will affect worldwide trade. Despite the evident increase in the number of vegetarians in the West, it is as yet unclear how far, if at all, such minorities will have lasting economic impact.

In response to the "Green" argument against vegetarianism, some environmental ethicists, while sympathetic to the view that modern industrial agriculture is environmentally damaging, hold that since nature is a predatory system, it is natural for humans as well as animals to consume sentient life forms. Frederick Ferré argues, "From the broadest biotic perspective, life is cannibalistic upon itself; an ecological ethic must begin with the affirmation of the nutrient cycle" (p. 392; see also Birch and Cobb). This view is reinforced by Holmes Rolston III, who states that "humans in their eating habits follow nature; they can and ought to do so." Rolston's argument is dependent upon a distinction between nature and culture: "Humans, then, can model their dietary habits on their ecosystems, but they cannot and should not model their interpersonal justice or charity on ecosystems" (p. 81).

Both arguments presuppose to some degree that what should be must be modeled on what is. Only faintly, if at all, do ethical considerations fundamentally apply to the human act of killing sentient animals even when it is unnecessary. Ferré and Rolston do not sufficiently consider that what is "given in nature" is as much a social construct as what may be presupposed in "human nature." No perception of nature is value-free. What we judge to be "given in nature" often turns out to be what we ourselves judge on other criteria should be the case. In sum, there is no ecological shortcut to avoiding the question of whether the human killing of sentient animals is a moral issue. Since not all ethicists, especially theological ethicists, are convinced that the natural order exists as God intended, arguments based on what is "natural" beg metaphysical questions about the justice of what is (see Linzey, 1987, 1994; Clark, 1994).

Ethical Vegetarians

Of three main arguments for vegetarianism on ethical grounds, the first is based on the value of animal life. Even if we grant animal life secondary or even minimal value, it is difficult to see how human taste preference alone can justify killing. In general, killing for food when it is not required for human health or survival fails the test of moral necessity. Consuming flesh when we could do otherwise is "empty gluttony" (Clark, 1977, p. 183). Some philosophers have argued that it is not justifiable to kill animals even painlessly, asserting that it is logically inconsistent to care whether animals suffer without also valuing animal life itself (Godlovitch).

Other philosophers perceive gradations of value. Ferré, for example, argues against the assertion that all beings with inherent value possess that value equally. "There is no reason to suppose that the quality and intensity of the mental life—and with it its value for itself—of an oyster is on a par with that of a pheasant; but there is likewise no reason to suppose that the quality and intensity of the mental life of the pheasant is on a par with that of a human child" (p. 396). Ferré argues that "there is no 'line.' … All living beings have some degree of inherent value … but different organisms call for different forms of respect" (pp. 397–398). But even if such gradations are admitted, the case of mammals, as distinct from plants, calls for greater ethical justification. We still need to know how the killing of animals—which are sentient beings with inherent value superior to that of plants—without strict necessity is compatible with appropriate "respect" for their lives. The logic of Ferré's position is inclusive. Even the killing of plants requires strong ethical justification.

The second argument derives from considerations of animal welfare. If animals should be spared unnecessary suffering, then eating meat should be avoided, since the rearing, transport, and slaughter of farm animals invariably—and in some cases, necessarily—involves suffering, sometimes of a severe and prolonged kind (see Singer; and Frey, 1983, in response). This argument gains credibility in light of modern farming methods and the recognized fallibility of slaughtering techniques (Harrison; Mason and Singer; Johnson).

Ferré accepts that many modern farming practices are cruel but argues that "moderate" meat eating is justifiable if "nearly painless methods" of slaughter are adhered to (p.400). If such a goal were to be achieved, fundamental changes would be required at all levels of livestock management. Minimally, slaughtering techniques would have to be indisputably humane (i.e., render the animal instantaneously unconscious), slaughterhouses would have to be regularly inspected, and regulations would need to be enforced by law. Animals would need to be killed as close as possible to their point of origin to avoid suffering in transit. Handling of animals on farms would have to be subject to a new range of welfare criteria. Conscientious meat eaters could justify eating meat only in specific circumstances when all such conditions have been met. The current failure to secure humane farm management and slaughter renders "moderate" meat eating ethically problematic. While in theory this second argument justifies only provisional vegetarianism in most, perhaps all, circumstances as a protest against animal abuse, it is difficult to envisage a time when conditions will universally prevail so as to preclude animal suffering in agriculture.

The third argument appeals to notions of animal rights. Sentient beings, or beings that can be classed as "subjects of a life," have a right to live that is equal to, or analogous with, human beings' right to live. Vegetarianism, according to the rights view, is obligatory in principle, and entails the end of commercial animal agriculture in practice. However, even this animal right not to be harmed is viewed as "a prima facie, not an absolute right" (Regan, p. 330).

The precise implications of this argument are not always clear. Do animals have in each and every case an equal right with humans to life? To what extent may individual rights be overridden in particular crisis situations? Commercial nonanimal agriculture also depends to some degree upon the control of competing species. Some animal rightists defend a stricter definition of avoidability or necessity than others. For example, some would concede that meat eating may be justified in those limited situations were alternative resources are inadequate (Linzey, 1987).

Discussion has sometimes centered on the cultural survival of the Inuit peoples, for example, and the question of whether their cultural rights should override the rights of the animals they hunt for food and clothing. Some animal rightists would accept the legitimacy of a limited human-preference approach in such circumstances. George Woodcock maintains that there is not "a single responsible person in the animal rights movement who would object to the Indian or Inuit, where he can, following a partly subsistence life of hunting for food" (p. 5). Other animal rightists, however, would question whether cultural considerations should be paramount when considering the exploitation of animals. Both "moderate" and "strong" animal-rights positions would, however, concur with Woodcock's judgment that both indigenous peoples, as well as fur-bearing animals, "have always been the victims of the fur trade" (p. 5). The rights position may be described as the strong welfare position, more uncompromising in its insistence upon the correctness of not harming animals as a prima facie duty. The rights view may not always require absolute (as distinct from obligatory) vegetarianism, but it would contend that vegetarianism should be the ethical and social norm.

Religious Vegetarians

Two primary motifs, ascetic and mystical, have informed an ethico-religious awareness. Vegetarianism has an established place in some Indian religious traditions, especially Jainism and, to some degree, Buddhism and Hinduism. The ascetic motif, particularly within Jainism, is based on the doctrines of nonviolence and nonpossessiveness. The goals of the spiritual life are, among other things, the renunciation of aggressive and possessive urges and following the path of purification (Jaini).

While Christianity has not formally endorsed vegetarianism, some strands of its tradition have affirmed that abstaining from meat can have value as a spiritual discipline. Some religious orders—for example, the Benedictines—eschewed meat as part of their ascetic regime (Sorrell). Self-denial as part of striving toward moral perfection has sometimes formed the basis for vegetarian lifestyles (Tolstoy). Ascetic practices may involve a vegetarian diet as a conscientious ecological response to wasteful consumerism and affluence (Lappé).

Allied to asceticism has been a mystical appreciation of other creatures as valuable beyond human calculations of utility because of their divine creation. The origins of this outlook are clear in the early and medieval periods (Sorrell). Only in modern times has this viewpoint received systematic expression in notions of reverence for life or in life-centered ethics (Schweitzer; McDaniel; Linzey, 1994). Historical Christianity has not fostered these insights, mainly because of its continuing anthropocentric theology. However, theological affirmations that animals are humans' fellow creatures, whose life or spirit belongs to God—and that they are therefore worthy of respect—undergird an ethical impulse to minimize injury and harm to them. Because of the rights of their Creator, animals can be said to bear "theos-rights," or God-rights (Linzey, 1987, p. 68).

The "modern vegetarian movement"—in the sense of organized societies specifically founded to advance ethical or religious vegetarianism—can be traced to the emergence of humanitarian sensibility from the nineteenth century onward. The Bible Christian Church, founded in 1809 by an Anglican priest, William Cowherd, made vegetarianism compulsory among its members and heralded the later growth of specifically vegetarian societies in the United Kingdom and the United States. The Bible Christian Church found its inspiration in the biblical command, recorded in Genesis 1:29, to be herbivores. Later commands to eat flesh (for example, in Gen. 9:3) were understood as permission given to humankind only after the fall and the flood (for a discussion of Judaism and vegetarianism, see Schwartz).

The Bible is, however, ambivalent about meat eating. While carnivorousness may be construed as a divine concession to human sinfulness (Baker), almost all biblical writers accepted the practice as ethically justifiable. Moreover, Jesus Christ was not a "pure" vegetarian; the gospel accounts record that he ate fish. There were various sects advocating vegetarianism in early Jewish and Christian circles, but none of their practices became normative within Judaism or Christianity (Beckwith). Carnivorousness has seldom been theologically challenged within mainstream religious traditions and only comparatively recently has ethical vegetarianism emerged as a serious option. Some modern Jewish vegetarians (see, e.g., Kook) argue that abstaining from meat is one step toward realizing the biblical vision of universal peace as described by prophets such as Isaiah (11:6f). Some Christian theologians hold that contemporary vegetarianism constitutes a more Christlike response to the evil of animal exploitation (Linzey, 1994).

The best defense of meat eating is based not only on a denial that animals have rights (Frey, 1980, 1983; Leahy; Carruthers) but also a denial that they have any moral status. According to this view, the gastronomic pleasures humans experience by consuming flesh far outweigh the value of animal life and suffering. "By comparison with animals, our lives are of an incomparably greater texture and richness, and when we say of a dying man that he has led a rich, full life we allude to something incomparably beyond to what we would allude, were we to say the same of a dying chicken, cat or chimpanzee" (Frey, 1983, p. 110).

It is difficult to see how such a position can be sustained without putting at risk the moral status of some classes of humans, for example, the mentally handicapped, the comatose, or newborns. Furthermore, it follows from the denial of animal status that a species superior to humans—as some humans now regard themselves in relation to animals—would not be morally obligated to respect human lives and suffering. The hope that "our aliens' nobility will match the quality of their imagined mentality" (Ferré, p. 406) and that therefore they will spare us unnecessary suffering and death, sadly cannot be deduced from humans' own moral record in relation to sentient nonhumans.

What has given contemporary secular and theological arguments for vegetarianism their strength and cogency is the realization that meat is not generally essential for human health and well-being. Consuming meat may have been necessary at certain times in the past; it may sometimes be necessary in the present. But eating a balanced vegetarian diet carries with it no medical or nutritional handicap. And, more important, it respects the ethical injunction to avoid killing sentient beings whenever possible.

andrew linzey (1995)

SEE ALSO: Harm; Hinduism, Bioethics in; Jainism, Bioethics in; Moral Status; Utilitarianism and Bioethics; and other Animal Welfare and Rights subentries


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Animal Welfare and Rights: II. Vegetarianism

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