The Vegetabalist Manifesto: Version 2

Because version 1 of this manifesto turned more people on to meat than off.

If we set aside any facts about modern food production for the time being, the case for vegetabilism rests on two things. The first is the strength of our interest in consuming animal products, as opposed to an animal’s interests in not being harmed or prematurely killed. The second asks why all humans are granted rights enshrined in law, when animals are not. The following is an expansion on these two points.

Firstly however, let’s address what ‘facts about modern food production’ means. When using animals for food, the facts most directly relevant here are our dietary needs, and the sustainability of the meat and dairy industries at their current size. I will be setting these two aside because I wish to establish a case against using animals for food on its own terms. The meat and dairy industries are bad for animals first and foremost, regardless of the damage these industries are doing to the planet.

In terms of health, the effect of removing animal products from our diets will depend on a number of things. This could include personal finance, range of choice available to the individual, medical conditions, age, and a whole host more. For now, it is enough to say that for the overwhelming majority of people in affluent societies, plant based diets provide everything the human body needs, for most of our lives. In an ideal world, industry and government develop the most cost effective, ethical, and sustainable means of producing food for large populations.

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So now let’s look at how to weigh competing interests. When greeted with an animal, a cow say, what do we know about it? It can feel pain in much the same way as us. It does not like to feel pain. It has certain goals it would like to fulfil. It eats, it wants to procreate, it enjoys company, it enjoys companionship, it wants to raise its young. The list goes on. How should we behave towards the cow based on these facts? Its interests in pursuing these goals directly conflict with our interest in eating it. And that’s before we even consider the torment – prior to slaughter – that many of these animals are put through, in order to produce food on an industrial scale.

In deciding that the cow’s interest in staying alive overrides our interest in eating it, there is one assumption we must make: the cow’s interest is stronger than ours in this instance. First, consider that we have access to a wide range of other foods to sustain ourselves. This means our decision to eat the cow is based solely on enjoyment. Taking our knowledge of pain and how unpleasant it is, and our own fear of death, it is no great leap of logic to suppose that the cow experiences something similarly unpleasant. Given all this, the assumption we make – about the cow’s experiences being of a certain intensity Vs ours in enjoying its flesh or milk – is small, reasonable, and cautious. If there’s even the smallest chance that animals experience suffering on a level similar to humans, it is reasonable to argue that we err on the side of caution, and refrain from killing it for food, given that the benefit to slaughtering the cow is the temporary enjoyment of eating its meat.

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Now let’s look at how ‘human’ as a biological category has become a moral category. Humans have rights enshrined in law that prevent not only murder, but also slavery, torture, coercion etc. This right originated in our evolution, species preservation, nothing more. Over time, as society has developed so has our understanding of who has rights and who does not. Skin colour once determined moral status. At times gender has. Sexual orientation. Over time as societies have grown and nation states born, the concept of ‘human’ as a moral category has grown and developed.

In the present, we can imagine a universal concept of human rights laid down in fundamental laws that apply to everyone no matter what. The argument is simple, the colour of people’s skin should not be a measure of who is afforded these rights. Nor is gender or sexual orientation. The fact that we are all people with similar mental lives is enough to establish that we should all be granted the same protections under law.

This simple moral truth has not been easy for humanity to grasp, it has taken centuries of growing pains to become consensus, and there is still much work to be done across the world. Is the leap from this, to applying some of these rights to animals, a step too far? All the other differences listed above are comparatively minimal, and no basis for making moral decisions, but animals are not just physically different to humans in significant ways, they are mentally different to us as well. They do not have mental lives of the same complexity. For some, this is a clear enough line to justify excluding animals from having rights. It is enough that we should refrain from harming animals needlessly. But when there is a human need, such as food, as long as animals are treated relatively humanely in producing it, pork away.

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This argument runs something like this:

  • Humans have a certain biology.
  • This biology leads to higher level mental reasoning in most cases.
  • Humanity has a collective responsibility to protect the rights of creatures with higher level reasoning.
  • Animals do not have higher level mental reasoning

Therefore

  • There is no obligation to suppose that non-human animals have the same rights as humans.

It is this higher level reasoning, or rational capacity, that leads to having rights, not the physical biology that makes up a creature. So in theory, if a computer reached a certain level of intelligence, we would need to discuss at what point it has rights. Or if we encountered an alien race of similar mental abilities, we would still grant them the same rights as us regardless of their biological makeup. If we wake up tomorrow and all cats are suddenly as intelligent as the average human, presumably there would be a discussion about granting them the same rights.

The one obvious problem with this is that not all biological humans possess this rational faculty. Some are very young, some are very old, some have disabilities and some are comatose. In the case of children one would simply point to their future potential to become a rational adult as enough to say they still have rights. In the case of the elderly or the disabled, they have family and friends who act in their interests, and this affords the same protection in law as a fully rational human. And if they have no living family or friends, one could say that more broadly the effect on society would be extremely negative if these people could be bought and sold, treated as commodities, maybe used for medical research.

But this argument is not trying to exclude these humans from having certain rights. It is asking what is it about these humans that affords them rights when animals of similar mental abilities do not have rights? We have already established that it is not the biological category human that is morally significant. Setting aside the emotional connection we have with humans as a whole, the reason why we do not treat these humans as commodities is because many are still capable of feeling pleasure, and pain, they still have an interest in their own survival, their life has value for them, regardless of what we make of it, in much the same way as the life of a cow or a pig matters for that individual animal.

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This argument is commonly used in debates about the use of animals in medical research. If we use animals in medical research but not people, the argument goes, even people with diminished mental abilities, it is speciesist. If you find the idea of using these people in medical research abhorrent (scientifically, more suitable subjects for medical testing) then you should find it equally abhorrent to use animals. Morally equivalent, our reason for favouring all humans over all animals is prejudice and squeamishness on our part. So rather than excluding these people from having rights, why not include animals as creatures that have rights?

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Rights are tricky. The debate around when it is permissible to violate someone’s rights will never be resolved. From establishing that animals have rights it does not follow that we must never do them harm under any circumstances. Some argue that there are many cases where it is permissible to violate the rights of people in order to save more people; collateral damage. If that is the case, there are many circumstances where it may be permissible to kill animals to save people, a rabid dog or the risk of disease maybe. But the circumstances of the modern diet are not enough to justify a violation of these rights.

Combining these two points – the strength of our interests compared to an animal’s on the one hand, and a universal quality that a living thing must have in order to have rights – forms the foundation of a case against the consumption of animal products for food. What of lesser animals such as shellfish? Again if we ignore any debate around the sustainability of eating shellfish and seafood, they are different enough from us to ask if their interests amount to much at all. My personal view is that the life of a shellfish (a prawn maybe) means the world to that individual shellfish, but my eating a shellfish is a temporary and minor enjoyment. This is enough to make the case against eating them. But this is a personal view.

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The principle that we (both individually and collectively) must minimise, alleviate, and certainly not cause unnecessary suffering is universal. But the application of this principle will vary based on changing circumstances. The proscription that we must refrain from consuming animal products is based on contingent facts about how this food is currently produced. Eating an egg is not inherently evil. But financially supporting an industry that locks up hens in cramped conditions, mutilates them, and kills off entire generations of male offspring for economic motives, is morally questionable. The argument that the majority of us in affluent societies should go vegan is based on our circumstances. Our access to animal products is overwhelmingly dominated by industries that cannot sustain their current level of production without treating animals in morally abhorrent ways.

It is for this reason that I keep opting for the rather infantile: ‘vegetablism’, rather than fine grained distinctions between animal flesh and animal products, it is the level of suffering that goes into their production that is significant. It may be ok to eat an egg now and then, if you are eating one laid by a well-kept hen, one that lives in your neighbour’s garden, has companions, roams about freely in a natural habitat, and is able to live out its natural lifespan. It may be ok to eat cheese occasionally, if the cheese was sourced from a farm where the cows are otherwise free to raise their (naturally conceived) young in peace. At this point however, the debate often encroaches onto ‘ethical consumerism’, whereby all the onus of supply chain regulation is placed onto individuals. We must be sensitive to the complexities behind each and every product that we buy and how virtuous or vicious it is. But is it not the state’s job is to regulate trade? To ensure that companies are not engaged in inhumane practices? We as individuals do not have the time to do this research for everything we buy. All true in an ideal world, but the case made above is designed to illustrate that we individuals do not need to look too closely at the meat and dairy industries to question their moral compass.

Lastly, it is important to point out the reality and necessity of incremental change. If everyone in Britain woke up tomorrow and decided to go vegan (genuinely, what are the odds?), or even if parliament passed a law banning the sale of meat and dairy products (seriously, what are the odds?), then millions of pigs, cows, and chickens would suddenly lose all economic value. Would they be turfed out into the countryside to fend for themselves? Would they be slaughtered wholesale?

The more likely scenario is what is actually happening. Vegetarianism and veganism will gradually become growth markets. As demand for meat slowly shrinks so too will the producers. McDonald’s and KFC would expand their range of meat free lines, as would major supermarkets. And a fresh debate would spark up around the most sustainable ways to grow nuts, beans, grain, and how this affects wildlife, how to source enough manure to sustain this growth and on and on. This is no doubt a crucial debate to have, but it will not be solved by returning to meat en-masse. These are problems around how to make agriculture bountiful, sustainable, and ethical, they have no impact on the current realities of animal suffering and our complicity in supporting industries that cause it.

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