Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: “How should vegetarians actually live? A reply to Xavier Cohen.” Written by Thomas Sittler
This essay is a joint winner in the Undergraduate Category of the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics
Written by University of Oxford student, Thomas Sittler
“How should vegetarians actually live? A reply to Xavier Cohen.”
Ethical vegetarians abstain from eating animal flesh because they care about the harm done to farmed animals. More precisely, they believe that farmed animals have lives so bad they are not worth living, so that it is better for them not to come into existence. Vegetarians reduce the demand for meat, so that farmers will breed fewer animals, preventing the existence of additional animals. If ethical vegetarians believed animals have lives that are unpleasant but still better than non-existence, they would focus on reducing harm to these animals without reducing their numbers, for instance by supporting humane slaughter or buying meat from free-range cows.
I will argue that if vegetarians were to apply this principle consistently, wild animal suffering would dominate their concerns, and may lead them to be stringent anti-environmentalists. Continue reading
Today is the first day of the 65th meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The commission, set up in 1946 to ensure the proper conservation of whale stocks and assist in the orderly development of the whaling industry, determines how many, which, and for what purpose, whales can be killed. The meeting beginning today is important because it will re-open discussion about Japan’s right to whale for the purposes of conducting scientific research. This past March, Japan lost this right because its findings were deemed to be of little use, and it was clear that the “scientific” nature of the killings were only a ruse. The IWC imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982, but still allows that the meat of whales killed for scientific purposes could be sold for profit. The Japanese whaling industry exploited this fact in order to sustain what was effectively a commercial whaling industry. Whales were killed in the name of scientific research, and then the meat was sold commercially. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that this violated the requirement imposed by the IWC that the killing of whales be only “for the purposes of scientific research.”
Of the many arguments deployed by the Japanese authorities concerning their right to whale, one is of particular interest to me; namely, that whaling constitutes an important aspect of Japanese culture, and thus ought to be permitted to continue. In what follows, I claim that arguments based on cultural tradition alone are insufficient to generate a right to whale. In cases where the species of whale being killed is not endangered, then (on the condition that the method of whaling used is sustainable) no further reasons need be given in order to defend the practice. Whaling will be just like eating meat, and arguments from cultural tradition will be superfluous. However, if the species of whale is endangered, then whaling is permissible only in cases of practical necessity. Continue reading
In the last few years, there has been a push from various bodies—including the UN—to get Western countries to adopt eating insects as an alternative to meat. Insects have been hailed as a type of super food. They are: rich in protein; environmentally friendly to harvest; sustainable; and, they’re already eaten, and enjoyed, in many other parts of the world. There have been a number of occasions recently that I’ve been asked, as a (moral) vegetarian, for my thoughts on eating insects. “What if…?” and “Would you…?” questions are quite a common occurrence for veggies, but this one actually got me thinking. Continue reading
Covertly filming shocking animal abuse in the meat industry (and other industries involving animals) is a common tactic of animal welfare charities such as the Humane Society, Mercy for Animals, Animal Aid, and PETA. The footage is generally obtained by workers for the charities who gain employment at slaughterhouses, farms, laboratories and the like; and it has been instrumental in prosecuting abusers and applying pressure on meat producers to improve welfare standards, as the New York Times reported at the weekend.
The same article also reports a disturbing response to this practice by several US states:
They proposed or enacted bills that would make it illegal to covertly videotape livestock farms, or apply for a job at one without disclosing ties to animal rights groups. They have also drafted measures to require such videos to be given to the authorities almost immediately, which activists say would thwart any meaningful undercover investigation of large factory farms.
Those who flout this so-called ‘ag-gag’ legislation may, among other things, be placed on a ‘terrorist registry’.
Katherine Viner of the Guardian has just chosen The Smiths’ Meat is Murder as her favourite album.
The album came out in 1985, in the middle of a decade in which I myself was an enthusiastic advocate of vegetarianism. I began by being swayed by the arguments of Stephen Clark, but it was the horrible images in The Animals Film (the first film shown by Channel 4, though sadly it was censored – I saw it complete at the Phoenix in Oxford) that motivated me to change and try to change others.
I became a keen vegetarian cook, and did manage to persuade a few friends, for a while, to become vegetarian themselves. But then, having read more philosophy, I began to think further about whether killing non-human animals is in itself wrong, in such a way that benefiting from such acts might itself be thought to be wrong. I decided that things were not as clear as I’d thought. First, not only is killing sometimes right, not killing is sometimes wrong, as sometimes in war or in justified voluntary euthanasia. Second, what is wrong with killing, if we consider only the individual killed, is its depriving them of future goods. This raises the question whether, even if killing is bad for an individual, a practice involving killing may be justified if it is the case that the individuals killed would never have existed in the first place without that practice. It seemed to me that it could be, if the individuals concerned had had a life worth living – that is, a life better than nothing.
Many of the animals now produced for human consumption, under intensive conditions, can plausibly be said to have lives which are worse than a life which is neither good nor bad. So there is no argument here for intensive farming. But non-intensive farming, especially those varieties which give special attention to animal welfare, does seem justified. So here there is an argument in favour of eating non-intensively-reared meat, one that I continue to find plausible.
There is one rather obvious objection to this argument: it could be applied to human beings. Imagine some group of cannibals who set up a practice in which they produced children, who had happy but short lives, and were then painlessly killed to be eaten. If everything else were equal – as that slippery phrase has it – then the argument carries across. But of course in the real world they are not. There are huge benefits to us arising from the general acceptance of a moral principle forbidding the killing of innocent human beings other than in unusual circumstances.
This is not to deny that there are other powerful arguments against eating meat, especially at the levels at which we now do so in the developed world. The production of meat uses resources highly inefficiently, resources which could be put to far better use now or in the future. There are issues here about whether what I do will make a difference either way. But meat is expensive, and there is little doubt that the money spent on it could itself be used to make large positive changes for the better in the world (a point that applies to any luxury good, of course). These arguments, however, do not rely on the assumption that meat is murder. The Smiths’ album may have been a good one, but its central message was a mistake.