Ethical Veganism: An Evaluation Through Societal Moral Expectations
by Emily Drouillard
The purpose of this paper is to argue that the consumption of animals and their by-products is unethical. The morality (to be used in the same sense as the word ethics in this argument) of these practices will be examined in the contexts of their effects on the animals involved as well as on the environment. Consuming animals and animal by-products in a first world country in 2015 condones and promoters the torture and abuse of beings capable of feeling distress and pain. The products are also the result of a system that has had the single largest human-made impact on the planet (Robbins 58) yet is consistently overlooked by the public, especially the American public, in terms of contributors to and causes of environmental crises. Ethical veganism is the consumption of a vegan diet – one devoid and any animals or animal by-products – for primarily moral purposes. This definition is not standardized and often is expanded to other parts of life outside of sustenance. The current focus will be solely on diet.
A majority of humans in the world are omnivorous beings that consume foods of both living and agricultural origins. This is typically seen as a ‘normal’ diet, especially in the Western world. This is not true universally as vegetarianism and spiritualism are connected in some Indian religions. Abstaining from the consumption of meat is compulsory in Jainism and is encouraged by both scriptures and leaders in Hinduism and Buddhism. Regardless of the original purpose, religious dietary restrictions are followed out of belief in and obedience to a higher power, rather than for ethical purposes alone. The morality of these restrictions is intrinsically linked to the morality of the religion itself and the former cannot be evaluated without the latter. For the purposes of this argument, direct religious influence over diet will not be discussed. This paper will assume a typical diet includes meat and dairy products. It will also assume an American perspective, as that is the one from which it is written, investigating primarily offenses and practices that occur in the United States.
The omnivorous diet is taught and fed to humans by their parents beginning when the baby is old enough to stop consuming his or her mother’s breast milk. Infants are too young to choose or obtain their own food and eat blindly what is provided for them by their guardians. They are fed things that they are told is food and told to take out of their mouths things that are not food. As the child grows, this sense of what food is and what it certainly is not also expands and becomes solidified in the mind, which is why we know not to eat rocks or other people or cats. While we are able to sort everything imaginable into a vast number of sub-categories, the broadest classifications of ‘food’ and ‘non-food’ do not change. While many items seem to fall under both categories before preparation, after preparation there is generally little discrepancy. Even in other cultures that may eat things we may not typically regard as being food items, the distinction between what is a food and what isn’t within that culture is still generally established and passed from parent to child. This is why we have a hard time separating the origins of and moral consequences associated with typical food items like corn and chicken when they are presented together in edible form on a plate. We do not view one of the foods as a grain and the other as the corpse of a formerly sentient being. We simply see them both as types of food.
An argument regarding the morality of something is contingent upon having an ethical standard against which the claims can be compared. While utilizing an established philosopher’s moral system would be simple and provide an established standard, it would not be beneficial to this paper. This would desubstantiate the argument by placing it entirely in the realm of the ideological rather than the realistic. It would be easily refutable by claiming that because the specific moral system chosen isn’t universal or the current societal standard, the arguments based upon it are only valid in a context where that is the prevailing morality. It would not be particularly useful for this argument to review the moral ideals presented by an author and label veganism as moral and its alternatives as immoral in accordance, or even to analyze one of the prominent philosophers on subject and agree.
Peter Singer and Tom Regan, arguably the two most prominent animal rights philosophers, both adopt a utilitarian view in their writings on the topic, Practical Ethics and The Case for Animal Rights, respectively. While utilitarian ideals are common in the current societal expectations of morality, the entirety of the philosophy itself is not. Philosophical assumptions must be made for the sake of the argument but upon adopting a rigid philosophy, the arguments are limited. It also important to note that it has been 30 years since the works were published. The issues being investigated themselves have evolved and grown significantly since then, making it even more necessary draw from current ideologies and facts rather than to simply expand upon Singer and Regan’s ideas.
This paper will not attempt to create its own moral philosophy but, for the sake of practical application and proving the claims to be immoral in an accessible way, will formulate moral assumptions that attempt to reflect current societal standards against which claims will be compared. These standards will, in the interest of remaining objective, reflect things that could be reasonably assumed to be true by the vast majority of citizens in Western first world countries. Some of the assumptions will be based upon what is legal and illegal. While the law and ethics are not the same by any means, more common and severe laws generally have a basis in morality that transcends religious influence or classification, making them viable ways in which they gauge the general moral standards of society from a broad perspective. By making the moral standards set in this paper as close to popular opinion as possible, the resulting analysis will result in a moral argument directed towards society, using its own behaviors and beliefs to prove its actions immoral. The problems expand further when seen as societal moral hypocrisy.
These assumptions will not stretch to include absolute societal outliers. It would be fruitless to justify each claim in the case of a psychopath, a comatose person, or any other easily accessible extreme. It is assumed that when discussing emotions and ideas, they are held by the average person or vast majority of average people. For example, in taking an opinion poll on flowers it is reasonable to assume that not every person you survey will like roses, but even without reviewing the results, it is very reasonable to assume that most people like or are generally unbothered by them. Allergies, phobias, and smart alecks exist, but do not detract from what can safely be assumed to be an average opinion.
The first major assumption: Killing is wrong. This is the most straight forward of any moral assumption. We as humans instinctively fear death and do not wish it upon ourselves. It is the utter cessation of being. It can be claimed, without elaborate justification, that killing is immoral. In today’s society, it is considered the ultimate wrong. We would not kill our grandmother or our pet dog. We would also see it as equally wrong to kill a stranger’s grandmother or stranger’s pet dog, assuming that there is no provocation from either. We place value on things and beings we feel emotion towards. We, as humans, feel at least some level of empathy towards others simply because we are human and assign to ourselves and thus to the entirety of our species intrinsic value. It is clear that this value is present only in life as we dispose of bodies when they are dead. It’s wrong to kill someone else’s grandma, even if we don’t know her or care about her or even like her, because she is another human. We place value upon the life of our dog because we love it. We interact with it, think it’s cute and because of the level of intelligence it possesses, value it much more than a pet rock. Even though we understand that the dog is not a human, we still view it as a sentient being. We would not kill someone else’s dog, even though we do not love it, because we do not want to hurt another sentient creature that has had value assigned to it.
The second major assumption: That which causes harm is immoral. This seems simple, but it simply is not. Human instinct and laws support this claim. We feel pain, something our body knows is bad and tries at all costs to avoid, in some iteration when we interact with things that cause harm such as fire. This harm can also be indirect, such as having your house burnt down when you are not in it. While the fire didn’t touch you, you are still harmed by the destruction of your home and property, making both setting a person on fire and setting their home on fire immoral. We also feel emotional pain when we are insulted or separated from those we care about. Clearly not everything that can cause harm, physical and emotional alike is immoral. But when motivated by purely selfish needs, we are more inclined to view them as immoral. This also carries over things that are not we, such as our dog or our apartment building. Kicking our dog causes it pain. We may want to kick it because it will not stop humping our leg, but because we know that doing so will cause said pain, we do not. If the dog were aggressively attacking, the kicking would be justified out of self-defense, as we merely retaliated in the most accessible way possible to the factor that was causing us pain. We would also yell at the dog for being bad for causing us pain, assigning moral value to the act of causing pain.
The complete destruction of our apartment building, even with nobody inside, is upsetting. Even though not a sentient being, it still causes harm. Because the building is not a sentient being, its well-being is not of moral importance to us to the same degree that the dog is. But it provides you a home, giving it some value to you, thus making it upsetting. If an arsonist burned down the building, the action would be considered immoral, but if it were demolished in order to build a safer building, the demolition would actually be preventing more harm than it caused, making it ridiculous to view as immoral. It would also be done in the interest of others rather than a selfish pyromaniac desire. Our society, although admittedly vain as documented by the meteoric rise of ‘selfies,’ puts a definite value in helping others over helping oneself. Charitable acts and leaders are lauded while leaders of corporations known for exploitation and reaping benefits at the expenses of others are seen as ‘bad guys’ quite often.
These two claims form the basis of the argument for the immorality of consuming animals and animal by-products. While far from thorough or complete moral standards of society, they are representative of what appear to be the basal tenets of what is considered moral in modern Western society and provide a foundation for moral extrapolation in the subject of human consumption of animals.
Animals are often not seen as deserving the same ethical treatment that is given to humans. This is logical, as we are not animals and cannot relate to them. We are aware that they are not as cognizant as we are based upon our own standards of cognizance. They are below us in our minds but are clearly different from inanimate objects. Thus, animals in general are assigned a certain level of dignity, such as valuing the life of our pet dog and thus other dogs, even if we do not emotionally connect to them. The value is placed not on the emotional connection, which is not present with a strange dog, but on the attributes such as personality and intelligence possessed in varying degrees by all dogs that allow you to love your dog on more than just a selfish level. But not all animals receive the same treatment, despite all being animals and falling into the classification of sub-human intelligence but still with emotions and intelligence a step above objects and plants.
A strange disconnect exists between animals considered to be pets and those considered to only be animals. Pets such as dogs, cats, and rabbits exhibit humanistic traits such as advanced emotions and intelligence and are considered to be ‘above’ animals that are seen to be mindless and merely existing for the sake of consumption. Why, then, are goldfish, turtles, and lizards often kept as pets? They do not show excitement towards owners, nor do they like to play. They are also, in the advent of technology so advanced it allows for wide scale creation of animal robots to prove this opportunity, not replaceable with stand-ins that perform the same functions. Even when all of the things that make a pet turtle loveable are imitated, the love for the creature remains inimitable because we have also assigned value to life itself.
This value, however small it is or however much we claim to not notice it, is still present in every living creature. Even if we hate rats, most of us would be more willing to stomp on the head of a rubber toy than a real rat. That life, when placed directly into our hands, even though it may bother us, is still difficult to snuff out. What separates these less active or adored from the animals their owners eat for dinner every night is our perception of and attachment to them. Not all animals possess the intelligence or emotions of dogs or cats, but their owners take care of them and appreciate them as living beings. Emotional attachments are formed and the animal ceases to be random and becomes a unique creature to be cared for and loved. It would be safe to assume that any pet owner would be horrified at the prospect of eating their beloved pet. Like with the dog, the value we assign to the lives of seemingly lesser animals does not rest in the individual animal itself, but inherently with all animals of the same kind.
Our changing perception, as mentioned earlier, of something before and after being prepared for consumption is also a part of why we separate meals from pets. When presented to us, the animal corpses more often than not do not resemble their original form, creating a further mental separation between living and dead. We generally don’t see dead chickens. We see live chickens and we see saran-wrapped breasts and breaded wings. We also use deceptive language in labeling our animals and animal by-products. We call pigs ‘pork,’ baby cows ‘veal,’ breast milk products ‘dairy products,’ and as a result are able to distance us from the uncomfortable reality of immorality.
Even greater cognitive dissonance is present when animals not typically kept as pets are taken into consideration. The value we place on our dog over our turtle can be found in its potential for intelligence and ability to love. We are aware that the mind of a dog is more similar to ours than that of a turtle and that the turtle won’t be able to be loyal or caring, thus the turtle is assigned less inherent value. Perhaps it is a lack of general exposure or popular naïveté but this same logic is not carried over by many to animals outside of the realm of pet. Cows, which are used for both meat and dairy products that comprise an astonishing amount of foods, have more intelligence than many animals kept as pets. Cows have long memories and are socially complex. They foster friendships, can hold grudges and even mourn the deaths of those close to them. Research has been found to support their cognitive abilities to comprehend cause-and-effect relationships and in social situations choose leaders based not on size or aggression but leadership skills (“Cows Used for Food.” n pag.). Animals this intelligent are able to comprehend the cries of other animals in slaughterhouses and often attempt escape. As PETA so frankly states on their website, “eating meat means eating animals who don’t want to die” (“Cows Used for Food.” n pag.). Taking a life cannot be equated morally with the enjoyment of a good meal. The two cannot cancel each other out the way the construction of safer building overrides the seeming immorality of taking away the homes of many people. Taking a life, especially one unwilling when its positive effects are minimal and easily replicable through alternative means, is immoral. If taking the life of an innocent dog is considered cruel and therefore immoral, then by our own societal standards of cruelty and innate animal value placed capacity for intelligence and compassion, then taking the life of a cow is in turn even more immoral.
Slaughterhouses are the root of animal abuse, which goes beyond simply ending the animals’ lives. It is easily assumed that slaughterhouses are considered to be so evil because their sole purpose is to kill animals. Slaughterhouses do far more that just kill the animals though, and often the act of killing is the kindest thing they do to them. In these facilities, there are laws and regulations in place. These rules were made to protect animals from torture, unnecessary pain, cramped spaces and exposure to the death of other animals. In a utopian society, these slaughterhouses would be immoral for unnecessarily killing animals but only for that. After all, don’t the rules requiring animals to be stunned unconscious before being killed protect them from cruelty and pain? Unfortunately, no situation is utopian and slaughterhouses regularly disobey these laws (Barnouin and Freedman 72).
Slaughterhouses have one goal: to make money, which is made by delivering the final products, the corpses of animals, to whomever is purchasing them. In a business where the end goal is to kill the animals and dangerous conditions allow for the greatest profits by moving the animals through faster and allowing for more per facility, there is no motivation for workers to care about the wellbeing of the animals the interact with there. When workers are stunning cows into unconsciousness by inserting a metal bolt into the cow’s brain, it is easy to miss the target when a cow is frightened and struggling, leaving the cow fully conscious for the rest of the slaughter house process and able to feel all of the pain and fear that accompanies being herded to towards a painful death. This is magnified when there are hundreds of cows. The care required to ‘humanely’ stun each and every one of them requires more time and effort than the easy short cuts. (Barnouin and Freedman 66).
Cows, pigs, turkeys, chickens and any other animals that are eaten are living in pain during the final chapters of their lives. One worker reports “you take condemned horse, skin him, cut him up, sell the meat…we’ve sold it as beef” (qtd. in Barnouin and Freedman 70). Another recalls grabbing a pig “by the ear and sticking it right though the eye…taking its eye out, go[ing] all the way to the hilt, right up to the hilt, and wiggl[ing] the knife” (qtd. in Barnouin and Freedman 70). What about all of those regulations protecting animal safety and preventing cruelty like that? “Nobody knows who’s responsible for correcting animal abuse at the plant. The USDA does zilch” (qtd. in Barnouin and Freedman 72). The United States Humane Slaughter Act aims to protect animals from this treatment, but birds, including chickens and turkeys, are exempt from this legislation. Exemption and rules barely matter, however. The Government Accountability Organization found that the United States Department of Agricultures (USDA) was not consistently enforcing the HMSA (“Should People Become Vegetarian?” n pag.). Poultry plants are just as bad as those that kill cows. Aside from the abuse to the animals themselves, there are also major health violations. “After they are hung, sometimes the chickens fall off into the drain…where roaches, intestines, diseased parts, fecal contamination and blood are washed down. Workers [vomit] into the drain…[and] sometimes the have to relieve themselves on the floor… The Perdue supervisors told [workers] to take the fallen chickens out of the drain and send them down the line” (Barnouin and Freedman 73-74). Regardless of the health positives that come from a vegan diet, the health negatives and risks that come from an omnivorous diet are bountiful and should be taken into consideration.
This abuse is so bad that it is even breaking laws meant to protect the animals and save them from pain, laws put in place by a society that has little regard for the well being of most animals and more specifically by people with a financial interest in the prosperity of factory farming. The treatment of animals in slaughterhouses is immoral. The cruelty inflicted upon some of the animals, as evidenced above, is clearly unnecessary and, in the case of the pig losing its eye, is nearly sadistic. Through buying and eating meat products, this abuse is financially supported and allowed to continue, playing moral responsibility on the buyer, an integral cog in the slaughterhouse machine.
Rampant abuse and torture isn’t limited to animals being killed; those being used for their byproducts also face these practices. Cows, like humans, only produce breast milk when pregnant. In order to get the maximum amount of milk from cows, factory farm operators use artificial insemination to keep cows pregnant almost constantly. The cows hooked up to milking machines and forced to produce over four times as much milk as they would naturally (“Cows Used for Food.” n pag.). These cows, and all other animals in the industry, are given antibiotics to combat the unhealthy conditions in factory farms. 80% of antibiotics administered in the United States are given to these animals. Factory farming has become “utterly dependent on the use of these drugs” (Robbins 91) which cause breeds resistance to the antibiotics in the animals’ bodies. This resistance is passed onto the humans that consume them. The abuse administered to animals is deeply connected to the health risks of eating those animals (Robbins 89).
Eggs are also not exempt from the horrors of the industry. Like drug-infused meat, eggs are negative both for the animals involved and often for the humans who eat them. Hens are kept in cramped cages and, to protect the workers and other hens from being injured, have their beaks clipped off (Robbins 95). Eggs that come from caged hens have an increased chance for salmonella. It is estimated that salmonella caused by eggs could drop by 50% in Americans if cage-free facilities were utilized (Robbins 96). While it is impossible that personal health is a popular moral issue in current society with the astonishing levels of obesity and junk food consumption, personal health issues remain somewhat important as the buying products like contaminated meats and possibly-salmonella-possessing eggs perpetuates their production. Even if you do not personally fall ill or feel negative health effects as a result, buying from and supporting brands that allow for such major health risks keeps the business and its practices going, making the buyer financially supporting the spread of unhealthy and unsafe goods. The products could kill or sicken a person, making you indirectly cause harm and possibly indirectly contribute to the ending of a life. If Nestlé staff allowed their urine to get into their water and began physically abusing their domestic employees (because delving into their sweatshop practices abroad requires another paper entirely) we certainly wouldn’t encourage the production of their products. This example is especially ironic in light of the current drought facing southern California. Many are quick to fault Nestlé for continuing the production and domestic exportation of bottled water while in reality, they account for less that 0.008% of water consumption in the area (personal calculations based off of public data). Almost half of all of the water used in the entire United States goes to animals to be used for food. One pound of edible meat requires 2,400 gallons to produce. 80% of the agricultural land is used to produce food for animals that will become food. Animal agriculture contributes more greenhouse gases than all of our gas-based transportation combined. Yearly, cows alone eat a massive amount of food, so massive that it could feed the world and them some readily (Gold 52-7).
Eating meat and supporting these industrial practices are does harm to the environment we live in as well as other humans. We are causing harm to the environment that is potentially irreversible. We are also not doing this harm in order to do more good. It is done for the satisfaction of eating what we want, a selfish benefit. It is immoral to support such destruction to our natural habitat for purely selfish needs. The massive amounts of food wasted on animals bred for the purpose of being killed could also be used to expand the food economy and lower prices, allowing for greater accessibility to food as well as potential to afford it for those in poverty. By perpetuation the industry, we are supporting using extra food for our own pleasure at the expense of someone starving, unable to afford to eat. We are often unaware of the indirect consequences of our actions. It does not place the burden of bad intention upon us, but still places a moral responsibility to not do harm to our environment and fellow humans, even if doing harm to animals is something we ignore.
If abuse like that imposed on animals everyday happened to humans, there would undoubtedly be an outcry against it and a call for its cessation. Even if animals are regarded as ‘lower beings’ than humans, it is still considered cruel to abuse them. Kicking dogs and skinning squirrels is considered disgusting behavior and by many an indicator of psychopathy. Why, then, is behavior far worse than this considered easy to ignore and less important than having a delicious meal? It is pertinent for the sake of animals and ethics that the disconnect between eating animals and animal by-products and the consequences of these actions ends.
When considering a vegan diet form a purely ethical standpoint, it is easy to suggest a free-range or organic diet. When high value is placed human life only and the life of the animal is considered less valuable, we are comfortable with the idea of painlessly and swiftly killing them for our own benefit, as we aren’t really causing much harm or pain to them. Foods produced under ‘free-range’ and other Whole Foods buzzwords circumstances claim not to use unnatural chemicals, antibiotics or abusive techniques and circumstances. This almost sounds too good to be true, and unfortunately it often is. The USDA is meant to monitor and regulate companies that claim such things. In one case, condemned meat was stamped as USDA inspected by a factory worker’s boss who had his own personal stamp-a stamp that only an inspector should have (Barouin and Freedman 73). Even when it really is the USDA acting, this often means just as little. The USDA is unbelievably corrupt. Many working on its Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee are affiliated with the meat and dairy industries (Barouin and Freedman 98), which is why meat and dairy products are promoted as extremely important and are served in schools. Products such as Horizon milk that are routinely approved as organic have had claims by independent groups in support of organic agriculture filed against them citing inorganic practices and abuse if not at the actual company, from where the animals or their products originally came from (Barnouin and Freedman 105). Even if we attempt to find a moral loophole that provides us a sound way to enjoy our hamburger (animals die anyways, so as long as it’s not being torture or filled with poison it’s ok) we haven’t truly found one. In America, provided that the consumer doesn’t kill the animals themselves, it is nearly impossible to trust that the products were a result of ‘humane’ procedures.
Despite the recent popularity of eating healthy in the United States and around the world, vegetarians and vegans are still an underwhelming majority of the population and the numbers have actually dropped over the years. According to a 2012 national poll conducted by Gallup, 5% of Americans consider themselves to be vegetarian while only 2% classify themselves as vegan (n pag.).
If eating animal products is harmful, why is this percentage so low? Often the answer is that the food just tastes good. If something is so delicious, why give it up to try and combat a problem but far removed and seemingly unstoppable? If we can’t end the immorality, it is easier to simply ignore it than to live knowing it is occurring while being unable to stop it. Many people don’t know the full extent of the abuse animals receive. Clever words like ‘pork’ and ‘steak’ are used so that consumers don’t have to be directly conscious that they are eating pigs and cows. The way in which the animals are slaughtered is meant to be humane so often, without further research, it is easy to believe that. It is not unusual to hear an omnivore state that they are aware of the reality of what they are eating, they just don’t want to know the details or acknowledge how severe that reality actually is. Even with the knowledge of what truly happens at slaughterhouses, many people just don’t care. Ethics do not appeal to many. This is not to say that the masses are unethical but that issues that do not directly involve them or seem minor are often ignored. It is astonishingly easy to mentally detach from an issue that is not visible or directly affecting ones life. We have grand ideas about morality, but often only about the morality of situations we are entwined with. There are simply so many injustices in the world that attempting to be a bastion of morality and be aware and acting in reaction to all of them is impossible. Food, something we’ve always had in our lives and grown up loving, remains food in our eyes and the fulfillment of the personal want is more important to us that the wellbeing of anonymous animals in an undisclosed location. Even though immoral to choose torture and death for our unnecessary gratification, we do not view it so objectively and, as tends to be human instinct, choose what is comfortable to us.
It is also important to note that not all animals that are used for consumption are mercilessly abused or raised by corrupt and money hungry businesses. Todd Price, a 7th generation farmer at Wagner Farm in Glenview, Illinois, is in favor of consuming meat and dairy. He believes that diet “should not be dictated by others” (“Interview with Todd Price” n pag.). His small farm does not kill animals. He states that “farmers raise animals for what they produce but they still love them” and goes on to explain that the animals are well cared for medically and are in no way abused. Price uses growth hormones on the animals. Farms like this protect and nurture animals, offering an ethical and safe option for consuming products such as dairy and eggs. If the death of the animals consumed is not seen as a major deterrent from eating meat and rather the abuse or health reasons cause the greatest concern, small local farms such as Wagner Farm, which provide to the community rather than claim humanity through a bought sticker from a corrupt business, and are the ideal place for meat to come from. In a situation such as this, the validity of statements is easily verifiable by looking into the barn and chicken coop. The animals have plenty of room and are treated with love. They are also not killed. Their by-products are ethically sound. Not all consumption of non-vegan item is immoral, but in can be considered as such in general when the almost absolute majority comes from businesses proven to be unethical. If all products were produced on farms such as Wagner, this paper would not be necessary.
Eating vegan goes far beyond simply not wanting to kill animals. It is a protest of the unethical abuse and torture animals are subjected daily for the purpose of human enjoyment. These practices are unethical. They fundamentally disrespect life regardless of how much value we place into it. They modern agriculture industry is filled with torture, abuse, corruption and is the large contributor to a variety of environmental problems. Despite the many regulations put in place and the ‘organic’ and ‘free-range’ farms that claims to be caring and protective of the animals, the abuse and torture the happens in farms and slaughterhouses is utterly inhumane. It is unethical to adhere to an omnivorous diet because it perpetuates these atrocities. A vegan diet is more ethical because it excludes foods that are made under immoral circumstances.
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