Of course the amount of animal suffering incidental to our use of animals is horrendous, and we should not be using animals for “frivolous” purposes, such as entertainment, but how can you expect people to give up eating meat?

In many ways this is an appropriate question with which to conclude our discussion because the question itself reveals more about the history of the human/animal relationship than any theory, and it demonstrates our confusion about moral matters in general.

Many humans like to eat animal products. They enjoy eating them so much that they find it hard to be detached when they consider moral questions about animals. But moral analysis requires at the very least that we leave our obvious biases at the door. Animal agriculture is the most significant source of animal suffering in the world today, and there is absolutely no need for it. Indeed, animal agriculture has devastating environmental effects, and a growing number of health care professionals claim that meat and animal products are detrimental to human health. We could live without killing animals and could feed more of the world’s humans–the beings we always claim to care about when we seek to justify animal exploitation–if we abandoned animal agriculture altogether.

The desire to eat animal products has clouded some of the greatest minds in human history. Charles Darwin recognized that animals were not qualitatively different from humans and possessed many of the characteristics that were once thought to be uniquely human–but he continued to eat them. Jeremy Bentham argued that animals had morally significant interests because they could suffer, but he also continued to eat them.

Old habits die hard, but that does not mean they are morally justified. It is precisely in situations where both moral issues and strong personal preferences come into play that we should be most careful to think clearly. As the case of meat eating shows, however, sometimes our brute preferences determine our moral thinking, rather than the other way around. Many people have said to me, “Yes, I know it’s morally wrong to eat meat, but I just love hamburgers.”

Regrettably for those who like to eat animal products, this is no argument, and a taste for meat in no way justifies the violation of a moral principle. Our conduct merely demonstrates that despite what we say about the moral significance of animal interests, we are willing to ignore those interests whenever we benefit from doing so–even when the benefit is nothing more than our pleasure or convenience.

If we take morality seriously, then we must confront what it dictates: if it is wrong for Simon to torture dogs for pleasure, then it is morally wrong for us to eat animal products.

Isn’t the matter of whether animals ought to be accorded the basic right not to be treated as our resources a matter of opinion? What right does anyone have to say that another should not eat meat or other animal products or how they should otherwise use or treat animals?

Animal rights are no more a matter of opinion than is any other moral matter. This question is logically and morally indistinguishable from asking whether the morality of human slavery is a matter of opinion. We have decided that slavery is morally reprehensible not as a matter of mere opinion, but because slavery treats humans exclusively as the resources of others and degrades humans to the status of things, thus depriving them of moral significance.

The notion that animal rights are a matter of opinion is directly related to the status of animals as human property; this question, like most others examined here, assumes the legitimacy of regarding animals as things that exist solely as means to human ends. Because we regard animals as our property, we believe that we have the right to value animals in the ways that we think appropriate. If, however, we are not morally justified in treating animals as our property, then whether we ought to eat meat or use animals in experiments or impose pain and suffering on them for sport or entertainment is no more a matter of opinion than is the moral status of human slavery.

Moreover, as long as animals are treated as property, then we will continue to think that what constitutes “humane” treatment for your animal property really is a matter of opinion because you get to decide how much your property is worth. Just as we have opinions about the value of other things that we own, we can have opinions about the value of our animal property. Although our valuation of our property may be too high or too low relative to its market value, this is not generally considered a moral question. So when Jane criticizes Simon because he beats his dog regularly in order to make sure that his dog is a vicious and effective guard dog, Simon is perfectly justified in responding to Jane that her valuation of his property is not a moral matter up for grabs, but a matter of his property rights.

On another level, this question relates to a subject discussed in the Introduction, the position that all morality is relative, a matter of convention or convenience or tradition, with no valid claim to objective truth. If this were the case, then the morality of genocide or human slavery or child molestation would be no more than matters of opinion. Although it is certainly true that moral propositions cannot be proved in the way that mathematical propositions can, this does not mean that “anything goes.” Some moral views are supported by better reasons than others, and some moral views have a better “fit” with other views that we hold. The view that we can treat animals as things simply because we are human and they are not is speciesism pure and simple. The view that we ought not to treat animals as things is consistent with our general notion that animals have morally significant interests. We do not treat any humans exclusively as the resources of others; we have abolished the institution of human property. We have seen that there is no morally sound reason to treat animals differently for purposes of the one right not to be treated as a thing, and that the animal rights position does not mean that we cannot prefer the human over the animal in situations of true emergency or conflict where we have not manufactured that conflict in the first place by violating the principle of equal consideration.

If we adopt a vegan diet, animals will inevitably be harmed when we plant vegetables, and what is the difference between raising and killing animals for food and unintentionally killing them as part of a plant-based agriculture?

When we plant crops, we will inevitably displace and possibly kill sentient animals when we plant vegetables. Surely, however, there is a significant difference between raising and killing animals for food and unintentionally doing them harm in the course of planting vegetables, an activity that is itself intended to prevent the killing of sentient beings.

In order to understand this point, consider the following example. We build roads. We allow people to drive automobiles. We know as a statistical matter that when we build a road, some humans–we do not know who they are beforehand–will be harmed as the result of automobile accidents. Yet there is a fundamental moral difference between activity that has human harm as an inevitable but unintended consequence and the intentional killing of particular humans. Similarly, the fact that animals may be harmed as an unintended consequence of planting vegetables, even if we do not use toxic chemicals and even if we exercise great care to avoid harming animals, does not mean that it is morally acceptable to kill animals intentionally.

Moreover, because it takes so many pounds of plants to produce one pound of plant protein, we actually kill more animals in crop production when we are feeding those crops to animals rather than consuming the crops directly. So a vegan diet results in many fewer of those unintended and incidental deaths.

A related question is: why don’t plants have rights given that they are alive? This is the question that every vegetarian gets in the company of a nonvegan. These nonvegans may be otherwise rational and intelligent beings, but when confronted with a vegetarian, their discomfort with their diet often rises to the surface in the form of defensiveness.

No one really thinks that plants are the same as sentient nonhumans. If I ate your tomato and your dog, you would not regard those as similar acts. As far as we know, plants are not sentient. They are not conscious and able to experience pain. Plants do not have central nervous systems, endorphins, receptors for benzodiazepines, or any of the other indicia of sentience. Plants do not have interests; animals do.

How do I know a product is plant-only?

Reading the list of ingredients is not always enough to determine whether a product is plant-only:

  • Many food, cosmetic, and clothing ingredients use names that do not make it clear that they are animal-derived.
  • Many micro-ingredients can be made from either plant or animal sources. Glycerides, l-cysteine, lecithin and similar ingredients for example, can be source from animal products or plant sources.
  • Natural flavoring, spices, seasoning, dyes and other seemingly innocuous ingredients — even vitamins — may contain animal products or be derived from animal sources.
  • Many products use animal ingredients during their processing, even if the final product does not contain animal products. Cane sugar, for example, is bleached in many parts of the United States and other parts of the world using animal bone charcoal. Alcohol, such as red wine and beer, are often filtered with egg albumen or isinglass (derived from fish bladders).
  • “Synthetic”, “fake”, “natural”, “organic” and other modifiers do not guarantee that a product is free from animal use.

The following, however, are some of the more common ingredients almost always derived from animal sources.

Albumen
Ambergris
Carmine
Casein
Down
Gelatin
Isinglass
Lanolin
Pepsin
Propolis
Suet
Tallow
Whey

Further, because a product is plant-only in one locale, it does not guarantee that it is plant-only in another. Checking the source of micro-ingredients with the local manufacturer of a product is the best way to determine the source.

Many cereals in the United States, for example, are fortified with animal-derived Vitamin D3. This is not the case in many other other countries, even when the brand of cereal is the same. A product might be sweetened with high fructose corn syrup in the United States, cane sugar in Canada, and beet sugar in Britain.

Even the same product in the same country may be problematic.  For example, the same product in the United States may be sweetened with animal bone charcoal bleached sugar one month, and cane sugar bleached using a different method another month, depending on how the company sources its sugar.

it is also often important to check with the local manufacturer rather than the parent company. Many commercial products are also produced under license internationally. A product may be manufactured and distributed by an entirely different company, one country to the next. Contacting a main or corporate office in a different country may provide you with the wrong information.

In short, if you don’t understand all of the ingredients in a product or are unsuare whether those ingredients involve animal use that’s practicable and possible for you to avoid, that’s a good reason to check with the manufacturer or avoid using it.

What are the common dietary recommendations for vegans?

The nutritional requirements of individuals vary, and scientific understanding of nutrition continues to evolve.  The consistent recommendation from health and dietary organization is that vegans should  (1) ensure intake of an appropriate amount of calories overall for age, sex, lifestyle, etc., and (2) eat a varied diet with foods rich in calcium, iron, vitamin D, vitamin B12, zinc and other nutrients. The following is not a complete list:

  • Protein: Plant sources of protein include soy and wheat products (e.g., tofu, tempeh and seitan), beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. (1)
  • Calcium: Plant sources of calcium include tofu, kale, turnip, collard and mustard greens, bok choy, sesame seeds, tahini and black strap molasses. (2)
  • Iron: Plant sources of iron include various beans, tofu, spinach, raisins, and black strap molasses. (3)
  • Zinc: Plant sources of zinc include beans, cashews, chickpeas, sesame seeds, tahini, and pepitas. (4)
  • Vitamin D. Plant sources of vitamin D include sunlight!  But also mushrooms grown in sunlight and foods fortified with Vitamin D2. (5) Note, however, that most sources of Vitamin D3 are not plant-derived.
  • Vitamin B12. Plant sources of B12 include B12 fortified soy, rice and nut milks, breakfast cereals and other foods, as well as nutritional yeast. (6)
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Plant sources of Omega-3s include flax seeds, walnuts, soy beans, canola and soy oil, among others. (7)

Whole foods are a good source of varied nutrition. It’s worth noting, however, that one cup of many common brands of fortified plant milks provides 45% calcium, 30% vitamin D, and 50% vitamin B12 of the daily intake requirements. Many cereals are fortified in the United States and Canada. Fortification for cereals, plant milks and other foods, however, vary by brand and by region. Many products not be fortified at all.  Be sure to check the label for nutritional information.

Supplements for B12, Omega-3 Fatty Acids and other vitamins and minerals are available. Blood tests through your physician can help you determine whether you are getting ample amounts of iron, B12 and other concerns over time. General nutritional guidance shouldn’t replace consultation with an appropriate health professional to discuss your dietary needs if you have any concerns.

  1. See http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/vegetarian-diet/art-20046446?pg=2
  2. See http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/calcium#h2
  3. See http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional#h2
  4. See http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional#h3
  5. See http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional
  6. See http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-HealthProfessional#h3
  7. See http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/vegetarian-diet/art-20046446?pg=2

Is it necessary to eat animal products to be healthy?

Many health organizations worldwide, including the American Dietetic Association, have affirmed that a well-planned vegan diet can be healthy. In a 2009 position paper, the American Dietetic Association indicated that:

“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”  (1)

Any unbalanced, unhealthy diet may lead to health problems.  Planning and balance are important, even for vegans. It’s possible to be vegan and unhealthy, but the fact remains: you can be healthy on a well-planned vegan diet.

For further confirmation and information:

1. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, July 2009. 109(7): 1266- 1282.

Hitler was a vegetarian; what does that say about vegetarians?

It says nothing more than that some evil people may also be vegetarians. The question itself is based on an invalid syllogism: Hitler was a vegetarian; Hitler was evil; therefore vegetarians are evil. Stalin ate meat and was himself no angel. He was responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people. What does that say about meat eaters? Just as we cannot conclude that all meat eaters have anything in common with Stalin beyond meat eating, we cannot conclude that all vegetarians have anything in common with Hitler beyond vegetarianism. Furthermore, it is not certain that Hitler actually was a vegetarian. And in any event, the Nazi interest in reducing meat consumption was not a matter of the moral status of animals but reflected a concern with organic health and healing and avoidance of artificial ingredients in food and pharmaceutical products that was linked to the broader Nazi goals of “racial hygiene.”

Another version of this question is that since the Nazis also favored animal rights, does this mean that animal rights as a moral theory is bankrupt and attempts to devalue humans? Once again, the question is absurd. In the first place, the question is based on a factual error. The Nazis were not in favor of animal rights. Animal welfare laws in Germany restricted vivisection to some degree, but they hardly reflected any societal preference for abolishing the property status of animals. After all, the Nazis casually murdered millions of humans and animals in the course of the Second World War, behavior not compatible with a rights position, human or otherwise. It is no more accurate to say that the Nazis supported animal rights than it is to say that Americans support animal rights because we have a federal Animal Welfare Act.

But what if, contrary to fact, the Nazis did advocate the abolition of all animal exploitation? What would that say about the idea of animal rights? The answer is absolutely clear: it would say nothing about whether the animal rights position is right or wrong. That question can be settled only by whether the moral arguments in favor of animal rights are valid or not. The Nazis also strongly favored marriage. Does that mean marriage is an inherently immoral institution? The Nazis also believed that sports were essential to the development of strong character. Does this mean that competitive sports are inherently immoral? Jesus Christ preached a gospel of sharing resources on an equitable basis. Gandhi promoted a similar message, as did Stalin. But Stalin also devalued human beings. Can we conclude that the idea of more equitable resource distribution has some inherent moral flaw that taints Jesus or Gandhi? No, of course not. We no more devalue human life if we accord moral significance to animal interests than we devalue the lives of “normal” humans when we accord value to certain humans, such as the severely retarded, and prohibit their use in experiments.

Isn’t human use of animals a “tradition,” or “natural,” and therefore morally justified?

Every form of discrimination in the history of humankind has been defended as “traditional.” Sexism is routinely justified on the ground that it is traditional for women to be subservient to men: “A woman’s place is in the home.” Human slavery has been a tradition in most cultures at some times. The fact that some behavior can be described as traditional has nothing to do with whether the behavior is or is not morally acceptable.

In addition to relying on tradition, some characterize our use of animals as “natural” and then declare it to be morally acceptable. Again, to describe something as natural does not in itself say anything about the morality of the practice. In the first place, just about every form of discrimination ever practiced has been described as natural as well as traditional. The two notions are often used interchangeably. We have justified human slavery as representing a natural hierarchy of slave owners and slaves. We have justified sexism as representing the natural superiority of men over women. Moreover, it is a bit strange to describe our modern commodification of animals as natural in any sense of the word. We have created completely unnatural environments and agricultural procedures in order to maximize profits. We do bizarre experiments in which we transplant genes and organs from animals into humans and vice versa. We are now cloning animals. None of this can be described as natural. Labels such as “natural” and “traditional” are just that: labels. They are not reasons. If people defend the imposition of pain and suffering on an animal based on what is natural or traditional, it usually means that they cannot otherwise justify their conduct.

A variant of this question focuses on the traditions of particular groups. For example, in May 1999 the Makah tribe from Washington State killed its first gray whale in over seventy years. The killing, which was done with steel harpoons, antitank guns, armor-piercing ammunition, motorized chase boats, and a $310,000 grant from the federal government, was defended on the grounds that whaling was a Makah tradition. But the same argument could (and is) made to defend clitoral mutilations in Africa and bride-burning in India. The issue is not whether conduct is part of a culture; all conduct is part of some culture. The issue is whether the conduct can be morally justified.

Finally, some argue that since nonhuman animals eat other nonhumans in the wild, our use of animals is natural. There are four responses to this position. First, although some animals eat each other in the wild, many do not. Many animals are vegetarians. Moreover, there is far more cooperation in nature than our imagined “cruelty of nature” would have us believe. Second, whether animals eat other animals is beside the point. How is it relevant whether animals eat other animals? Some animals are carnivorous and cannot exist without eating meat. We do not fall into that category; we can get along fine without eating meat, and more and more people are taking the position that our health and environment would both benefit from a shift away from a diet of animals products. Third, animals do all sorts of things that humans do not regard as morally appropriate. For example, dogs copulate and defecate in the street. Does that mean that we should follow their example? Fourth, it is interesting that when it is convenient for us to do so, we attempt to justify our exploitation of animals by resting on our supposed “superiority.” And when our supposed “superiority” gets in the way of what we want to do, we suddenly portray ourselves as nothing more than another species of wild animal, as entitled as foxes to eat chickens.

Domestic animals, such as cows and pigs, and laboratory rats would not exist were it not for our bringing them into existence in the first place for our purposes. So is it not the case that we are free to treat them as our resources?

No. The fact that we are in some sense responsible for the existence of a being does not give us the right to treat that being as our resource. Were that so, then we could treat our children as resources. After all, they would not exist were it not for our actions–from decisions to conceive to decisions not to abort. And although we are granted a certain amount of discretion as to how we treat our children, there are limits: we cannot treat them as we do animals. We cannot enslave them, sell them into prostitution, or sell their organs. We cannot kill them. Indeed, it is a cultural norm that bringing a child into existence creates moral obligations on the part of the parents to care for the child and not exploit her.

It should be noted that one of the purported justifications for human slavery in the United States was that many of those who were enslaved would not have existed in the first place had it not been for the institution of slavery. The original slaves who were brought to the United States were forced to procreate and their children were considered property. Although such an argument appears ludicrous to us now, it demonstrates that we cannot assume the legitimacy of the institution of property–of humans or animals–and then ask whether it is acceptable to treat property as property. The answer will be predetermined. Rather, we must first ask whether the institution of animal (or human) property can be morally justified.