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Why I am Vegan
Who was the guy who first looked at a cow and said, “I think I’ll drink whatever comes out of these things when I squeeze 'em!”?
Sometimes it seems that there are as many reasons for vegetarianism as there are vegetarians. I agree with many others on the basic reasons, but as I my thinking has evolved on the subject, I have found it to be subtly different from some of the standard rationales. This is my attempt at organizing my thoughts, writing them down, and perhaps even influencing others (wishful thinking most likely).
The primary reasons that motivate people to adopt a vegetarian diet are:
I first became a vegetarian for health reasons. This left me free to think about the issues of what and how we eat, and my thinking evolved to the point where I now rate the ethical and moral issues first, environmental issues second, and health issues third.
A Personal History
In 1990 a friend of mine underwent surgery to clean out an artery that had become nearly completely blocked. It was caused by high cholesterol. This prompted me to have my own blood test in early 1991 where I found that I too had high cholesterol (though not as high as my friend). I received the standard medical advice to cut down on saturated fat and cholesterol intake. I began to do so (I cut out eggs, shellfish, butter and other fats) and also began reading more on the subject. The more I read the less enticing meat became. I had never smoked; it seemed so stupid to engage in an activity so bad for your health. My reading made me realize that eating meat is just as unhealthy as smoking tobacco. They both cause heart disease and cancer. They both have a similar negative impact on life expectancy (shortening your life by five or six years). So if I refused to smoke because it was stupid, I had to stop eating meat for the same reason. In 1992 I became a lacto-vegetarian. Slowly over time I tended toward a vegan diet, first at home, and starting in 2005 even in restaurants. I also avoid leather and fur and other animal products.
In 1991-2 I found rec.food.veg to be a useful source of information about diet. Sadly, it has not been so informative in recent years, but I have saved various articles from those years in my Best of rec.food.veg. I find this “vegetarian propaganda” to be fairly convincing. There were also articles on the environmental impact of meat production, and these influenced me as well. Surprisingly, I did not find many postings on the ethics of meat eating, other than postings of quotes of famous people [quotes]. Now if anything I am inclined to be turned off by the use of celebrity status to confer acceptability on a position, but I do place value on the opinions of those who have demonstrated track record of free and original thinking. The sentiments of Plutarch, Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein made me stop and think about meat not from a health or environmental perspective (these issues were probably not appreciated in their times), but from an ethical one. Also, at about this time I saw a documentary on modern animal husbandry, showing the living conditions of modern farm animals; it was deeply disturbing.
Right vs. Wrong
Before I explain why I feel eating meat is wrong, I had better explain what Right and Wrong mean to me. I have never felt comfortable with the idea of Right and Wrong as absolutes; I believe the ethics and morality are human creations. It is convenient, but false, to attribute to some silent higher authority the values you wish to promulgate. The Declaration of Independence is a noble, inspiring, and uplifting document, but I cannot help feel cheated when it says “the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them” or “WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” [emphasis added].
History and anthropology show that there are many ways to successfully organize society. I cannot prove that one is right and another wrong or that one is better than another. However, I can explain why I would rather live in one society rather than another. In doing so, I should be prepared to accept any position within the society, not just a particular privileged one (e.g. consider a quote by Abraham Lincoln).
I cannot prove that predatory cannibalism is Wrong in an absolute sense, but I do know that I would rather live in a society where I am not threatened with being another’s meal for the same reason that I would rather live in a society that outlaws murder, theft, torture, etc. A society that permits these things will have its members living in fear and devoting more of their time and energy to defense. In contrast, a society that outlaws such practices is more likely to reach greater heights of creativity and better achieve fulfillment for its citizens.
In a similar fashion, I cannot prove that human slavery is Wrong in an absolute sense, but given a choice between a society where I am equally likely to be a slave owner or a slave (and the odds were rarely that even) and a society where no one is slave owner or slave, most of us would of course choose the society without slavery, because life in slavery is so repugnant. A society with slavery is only appealing when one knows one is to be a free person (if then). If you let only a subset of society define morality, ignoring the consequences for the rest of society, institutions like slavery are possible.
A Common Argument for Vegetarianism
One argument against the eating of meat is that it necessarily involves killing and thereby the pain and suffering of animals. Although I believe that animals are sentient (e.g. [Masson1995]) and do suffer at the hands of meat eaters, I find this argument weakened by the fact that prey in the wild also suffer pain when eaten by their predators. If it is wrong for human beings to kill for food, then is it also wrong for a cat to kill and eat its prey in the wild? Should vegetarians seek to end all predatory feeding?
There are two counters to the human vs. other predator comparison: humans know that their actions cause pain and suffering (although there is a tendency toward denial), and humans have a choice between eating plants and animals (many predators do not). Still, I have trouble condemning a band of human hunter gatherers. They are participating in the ecosystem just as wolves or cats would.
Modern Human Civilization is Different
There is big difference between a band of hunter gatherers and modern human civilization. We have moved outside of any natural position in the Earth’s ecosystem. The human population is orders of magnitude larger than the planet would naturally support. We have ceased to be subject to the normal controls on species populations and we now hold not just the power of life and death over members of all of Earth’s other species, but the power of extinction (both intentional and inadvertent) as well. With our numbers and power comes responsibilities. If our society were to support itself by preying on other animals, we would soon extinct all our food species due to the sheer size of our population. While today human beings still hunt for food (primarily in the oceans, which are on the verge of being exhausted), we have avoided food species extinction by intensive animal husbandry. In doing so, we have moved our food species outside of the Earth’s natural ecosystems as well.
Why Meat is Wrong
To eat meat today is to choose between species extinction (as in the eating of fish from the oceans) and slavery of food animals. Cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and fish are now quartered, bred, and slaughtered for food in ways that are strikingly different from their natural lives. The live their entire lives in slavery, without any chance of a natural life; their existance is often miserable, amounting to torture; and then they are killed. The lack opportunity; opportunity to compete, breed, and evolve and to otherwise express their nature.
Now let us apply the same test we applied to human society to decide that slavery, torture, murder, and cannibalism should be outlawed. Imagine that you have a choice to live in either of two societies.
In the first society, humans restrict themselves to some fraction of the Earth, and sentient animals live in the remainder as they did before the arrival of human civilization. Many animals die as prey of their predators, but they have the opportunity to survive and florish based on their skill and luck. Humans do not keep, hunt, or kill animals. Slavery in all its forms, including ownership of any animal, is outlawed, just as the ownership of humans is outlawed in today’s society. It also happens that humans in this society are healthier and live longer.
In the second society, humans occupy nearly the entire Earth and most sentient animals are either extinct (as a result of what Hardin calls The Tragedy of the Commons), or kept in slavery as food stocks for humans. They are fed growth hormones so that they grow unnaturally fast and fat. They are fed food that they would not naturally eat (e.g. herbivores are fed slaughterhouse remains). Pigs and chickens are raised in metal cages their entire lives; in some cases they grow large enough that their bodies strain the wire mesh of the cages. Male chicks are thrown in plastic bags when they hatch and smothered because only a few roosters are needed; female chickens are painfully debeaked. Cows are kept pregnant most of the time for their milk; their calves do not receive their milk, but are fed less nutritious substitutes, kept crated and chained for immobility, and then killed and sold as veal. In most cases only a few animals are selected to bear offspring. There is no opportunity to do anything but follow a fore-ordained course from birth to the dinner plate. Fish are nearly extinct in the oceans as the result of overfishing.
Finally, imagine that you are sentient being and that you have an equal chance of being either a human, cow, lamb, pig, chicken, turkey, or fish. Which society would you find more desirable?
Copyright © 1997-1999, 2006 Earl A. Killian. All Rights Reserved.
Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.
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