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Why aren’t you a vegetarian?

The  article recently published by J. McMahan on The New York Times  provoked, quite unsurprisingly, both enthusiastic and polemic reactions. Alexandre Erler  wrote an interesting post discussing some of the questions arose by the article and illuminating comments to the post helped to develop some relevant arguments.

McMahan proposal is not entirely new to the ones who are familiar with the debate about vegetarianism, as for instance David Pearce brilliantly discussed the same topic in his on-line book “the abolitionist project”. Pearce, as McMahan, starts from the idea that we should consider the suffering that happens in the natural world, as in the wild many animals are killed by  predators in horrible and painful ways.

One possible solution is to reprogram those predators in order to turn them into “vegetarians”. The idea of “vegetarian” lions or tigers (Vions and Vigers, as Alexandre calls them) sounds a bit odd at the beginning, but then, when one thinks carefully about the issue, it makes much more sense. If pain is a bad thing, and we have a way to avoid it, why shouldn’t we? Leaving aside other problems, my intention is to focus on the question if we should reprogram not just predators, but also humans.

Among humans, being a vegetarian is basically a matter of choice. We are naturally programmed to be omnivores but we can decide not to eat other animals for different reasons  such as: the desire not to inflict pain to animals, or the desire to have a healthy life-style or because it is more environmental friendly or because of religious precepts etc.

Reading Mc Mahan’s article I started to wonder if it is really just a matter of free will and rational commitment and if not, which factors can influence the choice to be a vegetarian. It can be that the decision to be a vegetarian is influenced by a higher level of empathy,  but in general we can suppose that there are allelic combinations that make someone more likely to become a vegetarian (as there are  allelic combinations that make someone more likely to be a believer, a criminal or a pianist etc).

 Even if it would be extreely interesting to discuss about the genetic factors that can make someone a keen vegetarian,  I want to focus on the particular aspect of the pleasure of eating meat. This kind of  pleasure  could perhaps be influenced by levels of iron in the blood or low levels of other nutritionals that can regulate the appetite for a certain kind of food instead of another. We know, for instance, that craving sweets is connected to low serotonin levels. We can therefore suppose that there are similar mechanisms that would explain the “desire” of meat.  Of course I don’t want to suggest that genes  are the only element that determines if someone is a vegetarian or not, but I think that  a genetic predisposition should be taken into account. I am well aware that eating meat is influenced by cultural elements, but if cultural factors would be the only influential ones then we would have no vegetarians in countries where meat is part of the traditional diet. So probably  both allelic combinations and cultural elements determine if one is a vegetarian or a meat eater.

There are a few arguments that I consider relevant, among the arguments against vegetarianism,  and one of those is the pleasure an individual (X) can get eating meat. In a utilitarian perspective, if X gets Z amount  of pleasure eating Y, we need a good reason to claim that Y shouldn’t be eaten. Of course there are a number of possible good reasons why Y shouldn’t be eaten: 1) Y can get a bigger amount of pleasure (K) in being alive compared to the pleasure  X gets eating it or 2) Y is a member or a family or a society so that Y’s death would cause suffering among other members of Y’s community 3) Y has projects, desires, preferences and plans for the future so that Y’s death implies a loss of the opportunity to enjoy future pleasant experiences.

Y could be a human, a chimpanzee or a pig, it doesn’t make much difference (even if of course there are differences among the biographic lives of members of species I just mentioned). At any rate, if Y has a biographic life and a perception of pain, we need good arguments in order to decide if it’s moral or not to eat it. More precisely, in order to establish that it is morally acceptable for X to eat Y, we need Z >K, meaning that the pleasure of eating Y is bigger than the amount of pain produced.

 Since we generally believe that death is a bad thing, cases where Z>K are really a few. This is especially true  if we think of  the cruelty connected to  modern factory-farming. It seems that, everything considered, Z<K is the right  equation in most cases. Still,  we can assume that there are situations where Z>K and, even more important,  we need to take into account  cases where Z>0 (the majority, actually).

 I must confess that  I always feel a bit surprised when someone asks me how can I be a vegetarian, giving up on meat, fish and eggs, because  it really doesn’t require me any effort at all. In a scale where Z is between 0-10 I would say my Z=1. I never really loved meat or fish.  On the other hand, I have a sweet tooth and living without chocolate would dramatically reduce the quality of my life, being Z=9. As I said before,  I suspect  that the subjective evaluation of Z (in relation to different kinds of food) is  influenced by a genetic predisposition, apart from environmental elements. Probably some of us just can give up on meat  more easily   than others. Still, of course, we are rational beings and we have the possibility to be vegetarians even if it implies a lot of effort, as well as we can refrain from doing a lot of things we would like to do, i.e.  sleeping ten hours per night or eating a kilo of ice-cream per day. It could be, anyway, that some humans  are more like cows and others are more like lions, and even if we can decide to be vegetarians, maybe "cows-like-vegetarians" shouldn’t discard as a simple lack of will or lack of virtue the attitude of the ones who claim it is really hard to them to give up on meat (fish, eggs, cheese etc).

If there was something such as a  “vegetarian gene”  (and I mean by this an allelic combination that would make it easier for people to stop eating meat) and if we believe being vegetarians is the most moral option, then we  would have a moral duty to select for vegetarian babies, meaning babies whose Z would be about O. This would make it much easier to everyone who wants to be  a vegetarian to actually stick to this dietary restriction. Before that moment, anyway, taking seriously the issue of  pain inflicted to animals seems to be a strong enough deterrent to eat meat.


With many thanks to David Pearce, Riccardo Carbonaro and Pablo Stafforini for their  precious comments on this topic.









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13 Comment on this post

  1. A couple of comments from my side.

    Firstly, there are many possible responses to the question, “If pain is a bad thing, and we have a way to avoid it, why shouldn’t we?”, and this is basically (in my view) the ground we have been going over in response to Alexandre Erler’s post. As far as I can see you seem to be taking precisely the sentientist-utilitarian position that I was partially defending in my comments, but once again I see this as a matter of choice rather than absolute truth.

    My second comment refers to the recent discussion in reaction to Neil Levy’s post on “procreative liberty” (17 September). In this post, Neilasked whether we should attempt to prevent individuals at highly elevated risk of having children who will be very aggressive from having children, or lat least to “place them under special scrutiny”. I suggested that there were better ways to reduce violence.

    You are not, as far as I can tell, suggesting anything that would infringe anyone’s liberty, but your suggestion does seem to share with Neil’s an emphasis on genetic engineering, which personally I find questionable. I am not disputing that genetic factors play a role in determining (or rather influencing) whether someone is a vegetarian or not, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we should focus on genetic solutions.

    In fact, I think the main reason why people find it difficult to envisage giving up meat is that meat-eating is so deeply engrained in our culture and way of life, so the best way to promote vegetarianism is probably just to lead by example, and then talk about your experience – as apparently you are doing.

  2. I’ve found that the people who say it’s hard have not actually done it. I always thought it would be hard to give up meat, but then I did it and it was pretty easy. When my boyfriend tried to convert me from cow’s milk to soy milk, I thought he was crazy. Now it’s the opposite– I couldn’t imagine drinking cow’s milk, and when I have accidentally I’ve hated the taste. I thought cheese would be the ultimate obstacle to being vegan– cheese at one time could have been classified as my favorite food. But it’s been easier than I thought it would be, as well.

  3. Two things:

    1. “… I think that a genetic predisposition should be taken into account.”

    Do you have any empirical evidence at all that supports the thesis that there is a genetic component here? Because I don’t see any in the text.

    2. I’m with Gloria. People who SAY that it is so hard are people who haven’t even tried. Becoming vegan was one of the easiest things I have done. I just started. After a month I had read the nutritional basics and established firm new habits. That’s it! I have no reason to ascribe that to genetic factors. I note, however, that veg*anism tends to correlate with other beliefs: social justice, moral progress, human rights activism and environmentalism.

  4. I can’t understand the moral argument against eating any animal product because it is an animal product. The elimination of carnivore habits will require the killing off of specialized carnivores, since they seem to be built for killing and eating animals (consider, for example, their teeth). I suppose the cruelty to animals that is produced by high demand for animal products might cause one to cut back on such things. But it takes more work to prepare a well-balanced vegan meal than it does to prepare a well-balanced meal with animal products. Moreover, the same argument (cruelty to animals produced by demand for animal products) cautions us against buying pets and using cosmetics. The desire for a world without cruelty is probably fruitless.

    I am surprised at the comments that say switching is easy. When my wife and I first switched to all all-vegetable died, we had gastrointestinal problems of a most obnoxious kind. A gradual change to a mostly-vegetable diet was easier.

  5. Dennis: “I can’t understand the moral argument against eating any animal product because it is an animal product.”

    Can you understand the moral argument against killing and eating any human three year old child product because it is a human three year old child product? If so, apply that reasoning, mutatis mutandis, to the animal case.

    Then, for the sake of argument, assume that preparing a well-balanced diet void of meat from three year old children takes more work to prepare and ask yourself if that would greatly improve the case for eating three year old children or not. If not, recheck the steps in your pro meat argument.

  6. Two points.

    We could think about what we are prepared to give up in line with Peter Singer’s Drowning Child analogy. Is it then cost too high to not only save a humans life-Climate Change- or that of another animal? Having said that a recent article has basically said that it is industrial ag that is the problem regarding Climate change not organic.

    Joan how do we give value to non person animals? The Rights/Desires/Personhood reasoning doesn’t apply to sentient animals?

  7. Joan: Dramatic point! Eating animals morally includes eating babies! I confess, I hadn’t thought of that.

    I think that humans are different to us from other animals for social-instrumental (and ethical or moral) reasons. As we use humans as mere resources we reduce the effectiveness of a system of rights that maintains our liberties. Such effectiveness depends on more than law enforcement or lawsuits. It also maintaining the respect to which humans are entitled by the norms of a free society. The best argument against cruelty to animals is that it’s toleration or enjoyment can affect negatively customary constraints on cruelty to people, and hence the special respect for humans that underlies our liberal social system. So, as Tom Lehrer pointed out in one of his songs, eating people is bad.

  8. Dennis: eating people or eating persons? Regardless human don’t seem to have any trouble now or historically, using something like ‘do what I say and not what I do’ regarding other humans. We are pretty good at rationalizations after all. As I’ve argued with Peter we could in fact keep the moral value of personhood account and use unwanted babies and non person infants like we do other non person animals, making use of all the benefits this would bring and still normalize this behaviour. Many have decided we can do this with pre-natals so I see no reason why it couldn’t also happen with post partum non person humans as well.

  9. Dennis: Imagine a case where those social-instrumental factors are not in place (e.g. someone breeding, killing and eating babies in complete secrecy and who doesn’t let that affect his dealing with other humans in any way) and ask yourself if that would make the practice right.

    Simon: I think Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights is on the right track in providing such a basis. Mark Rowland’s contractualist case for animal rights is also worth considering.

  10. Joan: If the consumption of babies as food is completely secret, it would be a powerful failure of socialization; moreover, its social significance would still not be nil. The conduct still has an effect on the consumer’s own attachment to social or cultural norms relating to the value, respect for and treatment of humans, affecting the consumer’s social conduct. I suppose that such an effect would not be great if only a few people did such a thing, and did not know about one-another’s practices. But if it became known, it would have to be condemned most vigorously for the reason I gave. The moral judgment and consequent punitive action would have to be hard against the practitioner, again, for the reasons I gave.

  11. Joan: Personally I find Reagan’s and Rowlands accounts just as lacking as those that only gives righst to persons. Welbeing and interest concerns can be grounded in ways not connected to sentience or personhood.

  12. Dennis: I described a possible, coherent scenario. That thought experiment triggers moral intuitions. Those intuitions speak against the view you proposed.

    Your last post changed the scenario in key ways(remember, “complete secrecy” and the meat eater’s practice does not “affect his dealing with other humans in any way”). That only evades the problem. IF it was done in complete secrecy and IF the killing and eating NEVER IN ANY WAY affected the outside human society THEN it would be morally unproblematic, given only instrumental restrictions against killing and eating three year olds.

  13. Why does it even have to be a secret? Even if we just kept it to the use of unwanted newborn orphans as experimentation subjects and body banks? You already have some individuals having abortion parties and wanting the logic of abortion to be expanded Tooley-like to include early infanticide. If this is the preference of the parents and the majority of the population and became the new social norm, why would you object?

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