A Simple Argument for (Quasi) Vegetarianism

The following is a guest post by my husband, Justin.  He doesn't have his own blog yet, but perhaps with your encouragement, he could be persuaded to start one!    -AZ


Anna and I are grad students living in Madison, Wisconsin. Our parents, and Wisconsinites from smaller towns, often like to tell us that our fair city is “not exactly the real world”. There's something to this. We live in one of these puddles of urban blue surrounded by rural red. Drive 30 minutes in any direction and the difference in prevailing worldview is palpable.

I happen to really love the prevailing ethos of Madison. One of the many, many attractions for me is that the city is quite vegetarian-friendly. Nearly every single restaurant, even the barbeque joint I went to last night, is obliged by custom to provide at least one respectable vegetarian option--something that is certainly not the case in the south where we both grew up. Probably about half of our friends here are more-or-less vegetarian, and nearly all the others are at least moderately sympathetic to vegetarianism even if they themselves do not practice it. It's easy to take for granted being around people who share a number of our values and who actively reflect on their food choices. Consequently, it can be a bit jarring to realize that in fact we vegetarians and vegetarian sympathizes form a pretty small minority outside of the bubble-within-a-bubble that is the grad student community in Madison.

I was reminded of this recently when I served on a discussion panel on the ethics of meat eating for an Zoology course entitled “The Philosophy and Biology of Human/Animal Relationships”. I was invited by the instructor of the course to advocate for ethical vegetarianism for a class of about 200 undergrads. Before we began, the teacher asked how many of the students tried to restrict their meat intake in some way or another, even if they weren't entirely vegetarian. Fewer than 10 students raised their hands. Clearly I had my work cut out for me. In this post, I want to share the simple argument I shared with those students. I don't claim any striking originality, and clearly the considerations I'll mention are only one small piece of the big picture when it comes to deciding how to eat. At the same time, I don't think I've ever heard a reply to this kind of argument that has satisfied me. I'm curious to hear what you think. So here it is:

Consider the case of Michael Vick. Four years ago, the promising NFL quarterback was arrested for running a dogfighting operation in Virginia. Vick and his partners would force dogs to fight while spectators cheered. The dogs who lost fights were often shot or wet down and then electrocuted. The operation involved a tremendous amount of animal suffering, and for what? So spectators could get the enjoyment and excitement of it. When news of this broke, people were horrified. Vick was condemned by nearly everybody, and served 21 months in prison.

Now think about modern farming. The overwhelming majority of meat Americans eat comes from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, often known as factory farms. These are operations where animals are severely confined, branded, castrated, and routinely have body parts cut off without anesthetic. In other words, they are places where there is a tremendous amount of animal suffering. And for what? It seems to me that the answer is more or less because people like the taste of meat, and they want their meat to be cheap.

Most people think what Michael Vick did was wrong, while eating meat from factory farms is permissible. If one is permissible and the other is not, there must be some morally relevant difference between them. But what could this be?

Many people object to Vick's actions because he was mistreating dogs. Dogs, as we all know, are pretty smart, lovable and cute. On the other hand, while pigs may not be cute, they are every bit as intelligent as dogs. It seems undesirable to rest a huge difference in moral status on so flimsy a basis as cuteness.

Here's an obvious response: factory farms provide people with food! Unlike Vicks' dogfighting ring, you might argue, factory farms serve a fundamental human need. But the fact is, nearly everyone who doesn't have severe dietary restrictions can be perfectly healthy on a vegetarian diet. Although there are certain parts of the globe where agriculture is difficult (see Minkster's excellent comment on an earlier post), in most places meat production on factory farms uses way more energy, produces way more pollution, and generates less food than if we devoted the same land to growing grains and vegetables. The choice to eat an omnivorous diet as opposed to a vegetarian one is, for nearly everyone, simply a matter of gustatory preference.

You might say: We're not doing the factory farming, we're just eating the products. In contrast, Vick was actually running the dogfighting ring. It's worth noting, though, that Vick could never have maintained his dogfighting ring if people hadn't gone and paid to see the fights. The people who supported the enterprise, and enjoyed themselves while the dogs suffered, were partially responsible for what was going on.

So, it seems to me that it is actually very difficult to provide a principled basis for objecting to dogfighting while consuming meat from factory farms. If you object to dogfighting on the grounds that it subjects dogs to tremendous amounts of suffering merely for the sake of relatively insignificant human enjoyment, you should object to factory farming on the same grounds.

This leaves open the issue of eating meat from more “ethical” sources. (Perhaps that is a topic for another post.) But since well over 90% of the meat Americans eat comes from factory farms, the acceptance of this simple argument would mean abstaining from nearly all the meat that people actually eat.

And yet I realize, as I said, I'm in the minority in endorsing this view. Have I been brainwashed by the Madison bubble? Are there some “real world” considerations that I'm ignoring? If so, what might they be?


  1. Lovely post. Jonathan Safran Foer, in "Eating Animals," makes a similar if slightly more provocative case:

    "...taste, the crudest of our senses, has been exempted from the ethical rules that govern our other senses. Why? Why doesn’t a horny person have as strong a claim to raping an animal as a hungry one does to confining, killing and eating it? It’s easy to dismiss that question but hard to respond to it. Try to imagine any end other than taste for which it would be justifiable to do what we do to farmed animals."

    This argument struck me quite hard and helped to fortify my convictions about vegetarianism. Once we've clarified what cruelty is and what it takes to experience it, it's hard to make any case at all for factory farming (though as you mention, meat eating on the whole, or rather in certain situations, is a different story.)

    I would like to add a fact that you're certainly already aware of: you became a vegetarian several years before entering the UWM double bubble. If you were brainwashed, it happened long before that.

    As for real world considerations - I don't blame people's logical deficiency so much as I blame the prevalence of misinformation or outright deceit regarding the human "need" for meat and the conditions of farmed animals. Not to mention various forms of social pressure, and simple confusion about how to break out of a habit as strong and deep as meat-eating.

  2. Justin, your post inspired me to write like you, a philosopher. As a university town, Madison is a center of rationality first. Vegetarianism and other convictions come next as products of rationality. Vegetarianism can be inferred from ethical standards, energy efficiency, health, and other considerations. Rationality starts with setting some assumptions and then deriving consequences. Let us consider whether we agree with the following premises dealing with factors of happiness.
    1. The main thing that living creatures desire is to exist, to be alive. They prefer almost any level of suffering to the non-existence of death. Those who happened to have different preferences are eliminated by natural selection.
    2. Youth when we are free from handicaps of old age is the most enjoyable period of life.
    3. Among other factors of happiness are:
    Availability of food.
    Protection against elements, predators, and pests.
    Minimum of efforts to get the food and protection.
    Quick and painless death.
    Some unexpected consequences can be drawn from these premises.
    1. The greatest benefactors of our eating meat are chicken and cows: short life of plenty is preferable to non-existence. Vegetarianism may be good for your health but bad for the animals: majority of them would not have chance to exist.
    2. Now when the crowded and polluted environment of feeding lots is on the way out yielding place for free-range systems, meat-eating humans appear not as cruel exploiters but as suicidal (cholesterol kills us) altruists.

  3. Boris: Thank you very much for the reply. I'm sorry it's taken me so long to respond.

    Some people respond to vegetarian arguments by denying that animal suffering matters. Your reply is interesting in that it takes the opposite tack: you assume that animal well-being matters and then claim that we should eat meat because this benefits animals. You reason that existence, however brief and miserable, is preferable to non-existence, and farm animals will only be able to exist in large numbers if we eat substantial quantities of meat.

    One concern with this approach is that it is hard to assess the relative preferability of never existing vs. living a life as a factory-farmed animal. You appeal to the preferences of existing animals, but it seems to me this isn't quite the relevant measure. Animals prefer a painful existence to dying, but this does not show that a painful existence is preferable to never having been born. When I ask myself whether I would prefer a) an eternity of nothingness after my death, or b) to return to earth as a factory farmed animal, I think I'd prefer the nothingness.

    But this is highly speculative, and I think there is a more promising way of responding to your objection. As you mention, moral reasoning involves inferring the logical consequences of principles, and assessing those consequences. I'd like to continue by drawing out the implications of the position you sketch. Your argument seems to rely on a the following assumption: if creating an organism and then using it for our own ends creates more well-being for that organism than it would have if we never allowed it to exist, then we cannot be accused of treating the organism unethically. Indeed, by your lights, failing to bring such an organism into existence would be immoral.

    I suggest that this approach is implausible when applied to other contexts, and should be rejected for this reason. Suppose that tomorrow, President Obama were to issue an executive order for a certain line of stem cells, which are currently set to be destroyed, to be transformed into human clones. Further suppose that the plan is to use these clones for "spare parts"; whenever an American citizen needs an organ, we simply kill a clone and harvest that organ. Applying your principle, there can be no objection to this. Had we not created the clones, they would not exist. And in the case I've described, we never would have created them unless we intended to use their organs. Since a short life is preferable to no life at all, such a practice of cloning and organ harvesting would be morally praiseworthy. But in fact such a practice seems completely monstrous.

    It seems that the problem is that consequentialist reasoning runs into trouble when we apply it to issues of creating new life. Painful existence is preferable to non-existence, but the mere fact that we're responsible for a creature's existence does not entitle us to treat it however we please provided its life is better than non-existence. No organism has any "right" to be brought into existence; this explains why there is nothing wrong with couples deciding to remain childless. If a being does not exist, it can hardly complain that it is being wronged! It seems more plausible to conclude that only organisms that actually exist at some time are entitled to our moral consideration. Thus, it seems to me that any “harm” caused by failing to bring new chickens and cows into existence is of no moral concern.

    Thanks again for responding to my post. If you have more thoughts on my thoughts, I'd be interested to hear them.

  4. Justin, who am I to argue with a specialist in metaethics? Surely, you are right. It occurred to me that we are dealing with different dualities. My thinking concerns the opposition between natural and unnatural rather than moral/immoral. Ethically, it may be true (though I doubt it) that there is nothing wrong with couples deciding to remain childless. But definitely those couples are not natural because they are not able to pass their traits to the posterity. Eating chicken and even cabbage is immoral (because it involves killing other organisms) but it is natural. It is natural to prefer a short life to no life at all.

    For us, natural behavior is called anthropocentrism. It does not mean cruel or even egotistic. Anthropocentrism includes care and responsibility for other creatures, except those that harm us. The real opposition is between the immediate gratification of short-sighted anthropocentrism and inclusive anthropocentrism concerned with all species useful for us now and in the future. Can such inclusive anthropocentrism be called morality?

  5. Hi Boris,

    Thanks for the further comments. Your opening sentences sound disconcertingly like something Socrates would say. I hope I fare better than his interlocutors!

    I have a hard time assessing claims about what is “natural” or “unnatural”, and I think this is because these terms have a number of different senses, such that a single thing can be “natural” in some senses and not in others. In claiming that a behavior is “unnatural”, one might be claiming that it is statistically unusual, or that it is not practiced by other animals besides humans, or it does not proceed from innate desires, or that it somehow violates the “natural purpose” of some organ, or something else entirely. Behaviors might be natural in some of these senses and not others, so I think claims that something is “natural” or “unnatural” are hard to assess until one clarifies the sense of “naturalness” that is in play. As as philosopher, I'd prefer this to take the form of an analysis, along the lines of “x is natural if and only if...”. But I'd settle for some clarification that falls short of this.

    Even with this clarification, though, I think another step of argument would be needed: we would need some explanation of why considerations of “naturalness” give us any reason to act some ways rather than others. One might reasonably claim that vaccines are “unnatural” in at least some of the senses listed above, but this does not establish that we should stop using them. Likewise, I accept that there is some sense in which the decision to remain childless is “unnatural”, but I think more would need to be said to show that such a decision is worthy of condemnation.

    I doubt very much that you actually think that eating cabbage is immoral. I should further point out that vegetarians are not committed to such an implausible position. The argument of my original post was simply this: given that it is immoral to cause large amounts of suffering for the sake of trivial pleasures (a principle most of us already accept), eating meat from factory farms is immoral. Cabbages don't suffer, so this argument has no implications about the morality of eating cabbage.

    I'm puzzled by your identification of “natural behavior” with anthropocentrism. As already mentioned, to assess this I would need a clarification of what sense of “natural” you intend. I'd also need a clarification of “anthropocentrism”. In philosophical debates in environmental ethics, “anthropocentrism” typically refers to the view that only human beings are morally valuable for their own sakes. According to this view, to the extent that we have any moral obligations at all concerning animals, these derive from our moral obligations to humans. So, for example, an anthropocentrist could claim that I have an obligation not to harm your pet dog in virtue of the fact that I have an obligation not to harm your property. Kant famously adopted an anthropocentrist position and argued that we have a duty to treat animals kindly only because those who are cruel to animals inevitably become cruel to humans as well. I find anthropocentric positions implausible because they entail that there is nothing wrong with gratuitous torture of animals in cases where doing so does not harm any humans (directly or indirectly).

  6. Justin, I couldn't agree with you more. I can't see the difference between a dog and any livestock animal. Michael Vick was prosecuted for activity that is equal to what happens every single day to farm animals. I will never be able to grasp that so many people can't understand that.


Post a Comment