This article was co-authored with Anna Charlton.
We are going to defend what may appear to be a controversial position: that our moral rejection of meat, dairy, eggs, and all other animal products as food is required according to our conventional morality concerning animals. That is, if you reject the idea that animals are things that have no moral value whatsoever, you are morally committed to adopting a vegan diet. And you don’t even need to embrace a theory of animal rights.
Let’s start with a hypothetical: You encounter Fred, who enjoys imposing pain and suffering on animals. Fred keeps a number of animals in his basement and goes down regularly and causes them to suffer physical pain, fear, and distress, and he then kills them. Fred is otherwise a lovely person; his penchant for killing animals does not affect his dealings with other humans in any way. When asked about why he does this, Fred explains that he derives pleasure and amusement from these actions.
Would anyone not regard what Fred was doing as morally objectionable and, indeed, as morally odious? Of course not. Would such a reaction assume that the objector accepted the equality of humans and nonhumans? No. Even if we think that animals have a lesser moral value than humans do, we would still object to Fred’s fetish, as long as we believe that animals have some moral value.
We kill almost 60 billion animals a year worldwide
Most people believe that animals have some moral value but that it is not objectionable per se to use and kill animals for human purposes as long as we do not impose unnecessary suffering on them. And necessity must exclude suffering imposed for the reason of pleasure, amusement, or convenience. If imposing pain for pleasure, amusement, or convenience may be considered as necessary, then there is nothing that can be considered as unnecessary. If pleasure, amusement, or convenience can be considered as “necessary,” then the conventional wisdom about animals is that we can use animals as long as we don’t impose unnecessary unnecessary suffering, or gratuitous suffering. So in Fred’s case, conventional wisdom would say that Fred should not impose more harm than is necessary for him to derive the pleasure and amusement he seeks. But no one would anyone regard that as a plausible understanding of “necessity.”
This is precisely why most people object to blood sports such as fox hunting and bull fighting: they involve imposing suffering and death on animals for the purposes of pleasure and amusement.
So the question becomes: on what basis can we justifiably kill almost 60 billion animals a year worldwide (not counting fish)? Under the best – the most “humane” of circumstances – the amount of suffering we impose on animals in the process of using them for food is staggering. If we believe that unnecessary suffering is wrong, how can we justify that level of suffering? Indeed, even if we made animal agriculture much more “humane” than it presently is, there will still be suffering, fear, distress, and death. And there is no morally coherent distinction between meat and other animal products, such as dairy and eggs. They all involve suffering, distress, and death.
Animal agriculture is an ecological disaster
Given that we have criticized Fred, what do we have to say in our defense if Fred points to his critics as hypocrites who consume animal products? Until recently, most people have believed that it was necessary to consume animal foods and that, without those foods, humans would shrivel up and die. Many people still believe that today.
This belief is not justifiable. We’ve known for centuries that humans can live without consuming any animal protein. To the extent that anyone holds that belief today, it is a testament to the combined power of advertising and a corporate-controlled media reinforcing our desire for eating what we are used to and what tastes good to us in light of our past experience.
The view that we need animal foods for human nutrition is clearly and unequivocally false. It is now acknowledged by just about every respected professional organization, including the American Heart Association and the Mayo Clinic, as well as by governmental agencies all over the world, that a diet consisting only of plant foods can not only be perfectly healthy, but is almost certainly more healthy than a diet heavy in meat, dairy, and eggs. But whether a vegan diet is more healthy, it is certainly not less healthy and animal foods cannot be considered necessary for human health. There is also broad consensus that animal agriculture is an ecological disaster.
So, in the end, what’s the best justification that we have for imposing suffering and death on many billions of animals?
Animal foods taste good.
We enjoy the taste of animal flesh and animal products.
We find eating animal foods to be convenient. It’s a habit.
How, then, is our consumption of animal products any different from Fred’s situation? It’s not. Palate pleasure is no different morally from any other sort of pleasure.
You are committed to veganism
The usual response at this point is to say that there is a moral difference between Fred and someone who goes to the store and buys animal products. There may be a psychological difference but there is no moral one – any more than there is a difference between someone who commits a murder and someone who pays to have the murder committed. And there is no difference – psychological or moral – between Fred and a hunter.
So if we object to what Fred does, we are acting inconsistently if we don’t stop eating animal foods and go vegan at least in those cases where we are not starving to death on the proverbial desert island or lifeboat. In those situations, different considerations obtain. Indeed, there have been instances where humans have eaten other humans in those situations and we have regarded that conduct as immoral (and illegal) but as excusable under the circumstances.
Some argue that our consumption of animal foods is traditional and that many animal foods are culturally significant. If something is morally wrong, the fact that it is a tradition or culturally significant cannot rescue it. There is no more enduring a tradition than sexism and misogyny, aspects of which are accorded considerable social significance.
What about plants? This is the very first question that every vegan gets at a dinner party. Plants are alive; they are not sentient. They do not have the subjective experiences that the animals we consume as food do. They react to stimulation; they do not respond. They do not have interests; there is nothing that they want, desire, or prefer. And even if plants were sentient, veganism would still be a moral imperative given that it takes many pounds of plants to produce one pound of flesh.
Please note that we have showed you that, unless you embrace the idea that animals are merely things that are outside the moral community, you are committed to veganism. And we never even mentioned animal rights. That is because we don’t need that concept unless we are talking about situations in which there is a plausible claim of necessity and we need a rights analysis to understand and resolve the conflict. But 99% of our uses of animals, including our numerically most significant use of them for food, do not involve any sort of necessity or any real conflict between human and nonhuman interests. If animals matter morally at all, then, even without accepting a theory of animal rights, those uses of animals cannot be morally justified.