Vegetarianism – the moral, eco-friendly choice?

The topic of eating meat can often devolve into both sides of the debate making defensive, emotionally-charged arguments. This post will examine the moral and environmental issues and ultimately list some common objections to vegetarianism and why I reject them. In a later post, I will examine the health claims made by proponents of both omnivorous diets and vegetarian/vegan diets.

The moral argument – animals

Nonhuman animals, including cows, pigs, chickens, ducks and other animals whose flesh we consume, are sentient beings; that is, they have the capacity to feel pain and suffer. Many lines of evidence appear to demonstrate this. Firstly, using argument-by-analogy, we can observe the same behaviours in nonhuman animals that we do in humans when they are in pain and are suffering: screaming, writhing, facial contortions, attempts to avoid the source of the pain, and so on. Secondly, all vertebrates have nocicpetion – the process by which the body detects harmful stimuli and initiates a reflex response. Third, the evidence suggests that many nonhuman animals, particularly mammals and birds, have some form of consciousness. For example, Cambridge University released the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which had this to say:

“The neural substrates of emotions do not appear to be confined to cortical structures. In fact, subcortical neural networks aroused during affective states in humans are also critically important for generating emotional behaviors in animals. Artificial arousal of the same brain regions generates corresponding behavior and feeling states in both humans and non-human animals. Wherever in the brain one evokes instinctual emotional behaviors in non-human animals, many of the ensuing behaviors are consistent with experienced feeling states, including those internal states that are rewarding and punishing. Deep brain stimulation of these systems in humans can also generate similar affective states.”

Thus, it is not surprising that many of the responses to pain that nonhuman animals have: respiratory and cardiovascular changes, the secretion of stress hormones and unusual behaviour patterns, are “complex and coordinated” responses rather than simple reflex actions. In other words, they involve the brain. So, while nonhuman animals cannot verbally communicate their suffering to us in terms of language, it’s clear that they most likely are suffering and do feel pain – newborn babies and severely intellectually disabled humans can’t use language either, but we nevertheless assume that they can feel pain and suffer using argument-by-analogy as well as looking at their physiology.

Having established that nonhuman animals can feel pain and suffer, most people would agree that it is our duty to minimise the suffering in the world, and according to one of the most basic ethical principles, adhered to in various cultures, the Golden Rule, we wouldn’t like to be treated in a way that would make us suffer, so we shouldn’t treat other beings in ways which make them suffer. Indeed, we should be respecting the preferences of sentient beings, and the more preferences adhered to, the greater the good. Some people may posit that only human preferences matter, but this is based on nothing more than speciesism – the irrational discrimination against other species. Some may argue that humans are worth more because they’re more intelligent, more emotional, or both, but intelligence and complex emotional and social bonds have been observed in many nonhuman animals, from elephants to chimpanzees to pigs. Furthermore, not all human beings are as intelligent as nonhuman animals; for instance, newborn babies and severely intellectually disabled human beings are not as intelligent as some adult non-human animals, but would making them suffer be justifiable? The vast majority of people would answer ‘no’ to this question, but may still postulate that these individuals’ membership of the species homo sapiens is enough to make them more worthy than nonhuman animals. Again, no rational justification is given for this: it’s pure speciesism. Thus, we have established that we should minimise the suffering of all sentient beings, whatever the species, and one of the best ways to do this is vegetarianism, as it reduces the suffering and stress that nonhuman animals go through in the often long-winded process of meat production.

The Environmental Argument

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, the livestock sector contributes to at least 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, roughly in line with its previous estimate, published in its 2006 report Livestock’s Long Shadow, which estimated that it contributes to 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. The magnitude of the figure, however, is disputed – the highly respected Worldwatch Institute, for instance, states that the livestock and meat sector actually contributes to 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Taking the conservative figure of 14.5%, around the magnitude of the transport sector’s contribution to global warming, the livestock sector is still one of the top three contributors to global warming.

The reasons are straightforward – the predominant way of producing meat in the United States – intensive farming, is spreading elsewhere. This means that the meat industry produces greenhouse gas emissions by having to run farms to produce grain, which is then transported to the livestock farms in which the animals are kept, which itself uses energy to run. On these farms, the cows in particular produce copious amounts of methane, another greenhouse gas. They are then transported in CO2 emitting vehicles to the slaughterhouse, which itself uses fossil fuel energy. Finally, the meat is then transported to the shops. On top of this, however, we have to add the impacts from deforestation, which is occurring to gain more land to raise animals on.

These figures have led the United Nations Environment Program to urge people to become vegetarian and vegan:

“Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth and increasing consumption of animal products. Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”

The moral argument – humans

Back to morality, now, and the moral argument against meat-eating doesn’t merely involve the status of nonhuman animals. Humans, it appears, are also negatively affected by the meat industry.

Indeed, simply breeding animals for consumption can also have a negative effect on human health. As Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote in a letter to the US Congress, there is “a clear link between antibiotic use in animals and antibiotic resistance in humans”. The existence of this simultaneously potential and existing problem, as attested to by Dr. Frieden, is corroborated by numerous studies into the link between use of antibiotics in animal feedstock and antibiotic resistance. Further, it is widely acknowledged that the agriculture industry is among the most dangerous in the world for workers, with the International Labour Organisation stating that agriculture is one of the three most dangerous, on par with mining and construction. Indeed, the World Bank, in 2008, reported that around half of all on-the-job fatalities occur in the agricultural sector. While it could be argued that conditions simply need to be improved, the job of slaughtering nonhuman animals is intrinsically dangerous and traumatic. An industry which cannot even protect the welfare of its workers is unlikely to be able to protect the welfare of its products, namely nonhuman animals. Its treatment of its workers is indeed a microcosm for the treatment of its nonhuman animals: both are treated as economic units in an industry in which efficiency is everything – as Human Rights Watch has noted in its detailed criticism of the meat and poultry industry, “[a]utomated lines carrying dead animals and their parts for disassembly move too fast for worker safety.”

Conclusions

Moral judgements, under which judgements about the environment come, are up to the individual, and individuals often have different outlooks on morality. The information above is “merely” factual: consuming meat causes harm to sentient beings and the environment. It is up to the individual to act upon facts though, and decide whether they want to act upon them at all.

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