I’ve been vegetarian for 2 years. Most of my friends had already made the switch, and the resulting micro-zeitgeist began to pressure me to do so as well. I am nothing if not exceptionally susceptible to peer-pressure, so I started reading “Animal Liberation” by Peter Singer. As I neared the end I went to a Korean BBQ for a friend’s birthday, where the waiter dumped a mountain of raw meat on the table for us to cook ourselves. Wrist-deep in recently deceased animal carcass I thought, “well this is pretty distasteful”, and haven’t eaten any meat since.
“Animal Liberation” is an incredibly powerful book. It is brutally calm, logical and non-rhetorical. When you finish it, there’s no real option other than to hold your hands up, say “OK fair enough, you got me”, and cancel all your various subscription meat services. This isn’t because of the horrific tales told inside (although there are plenty), but because the main argument is so coherent, simple and makes very few assumptions about what is fundamentally morally important to you beyond the basic tenets of society shared by a majority of the non-institutionalized population of the world. Most of what follows is stolen directly from the book, and I hope it is enough to convince you to read the whole thing.
Suffering is bad. In general, we believe it is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering to anything capable of experiencing it. We store our knives in the kitchen drawer rather than in the fleshy parts of our neighbours, and we don’t go around drop-kicking puppies unless we absolutely have to. On the other hand, a majority of us also condone the mass slaughter of animals for food. Philosophers often look at problems from the point of view of an alien observing our society from outer space, unencumbered by social norms or history, and already something is looking strange to these hypothetical extra terrestrials. If you believe that it is wrong to cause harm when you don’t have to, and tofu is both widely available and surprisingly delicious, why do you kill so many cows and put them in between pieces of bread? And if that’s actually OK, then why do you get so upset when the same thing is done to other humans, even those who you have never met and who support a different football team to you?
We know that animals suffer. We know that they don’t like being punched in the face. We know that they don’t like being left in hot cars. We even know that they grieve for their dead. Obviously we don’t have experiential proof of this, in that no one has ever spent any time being a pig, but I’ve never spent any time being you either. Nonetheless, I’m happy to assume that your response when a hammer is applied to your genitals means that you probably don’t enjoy it very much, and from their actions and reactions, I have good reason to believe that pigs feel the same way. It is very hard to coherently dispute that this is the case, and few people would dream of going postal on a pig for fun. So again, how does this square with killing and eating them?
The most common justifications offered tend to involve making some distinction between the value, rights and intellectual capacity of humans and animals. Animals don’t feel pain, fear and grief as much as people do, and what little they do feel is outweighed by their value as snacks. And I wouldn’t dispute the first part - it seems untenable to try and contend that your average human and animal have equal emotional capacity. So, to introduce a key argument from “Animal Liberation” that may (but shouldn’t) offend your sensibilities, what about a severely mentally disabled person?
There are many unfortunate people who have an extremely limited consciousness, sense of self, and all of the other things that are typically held to distinguish man from beast. To be clear, I don’t believe that the mentally disabled actually have any kind of diminished value; I believe that animals have infinitely more value than society currently ascribes to them, and only bring the mentally disabled into the argument as part of the reductio ad absurdum of the default justification for the meat industry. Consider a person with mental capacities at approximately the same level as a healthy cow - the same reasoning abilities, ability to feel pain, ability to feel attachment to the both their own and other people’s lives. Killing and eating this person on the basis of this reduced sentience would clearly be unconscionable. Is it somehow important that they share slightly more DNA with us than a cow? I’m a white, British male; is it OK for me to kill Chinese women?
This would clearly be racism and sexism on a horrific, fatal scale. However, distinguishing between the correctness of killing the person and the cow on the basis of their species is just as arbitrary as distinguishing between people on the basis of their race or sex, and Singer refers to this discrimination as “speciesism”. Whilst this is an entirely accurate and appropriate term, I fear that it is too open to ridicule from a public unfamiliar with the arguments behind it and already jaded by a perceived overuse of human-focussed political correctness and anti-discrimination laws. Nonetheless, the injustices it represents are entirely analogous to those described by racism, sexism and ageism, and when viewed through this lens can be seen as just as hideous and discrediting to our society.
There are several common attempts to re-justfy meat by skirting around the issue of speciesism:
“Without the meat industry, these animals would never be born.” - This is probably perfectly true, but would in no way make it OK to breed slave-babies in your basement. Being responsible for the creation of a life doesn’t give you any rights or power over what happens during it.
“The alternatives to meat harm the environment.” - This is controversial, and there are numerous studies that suggest the exact opposite. But even if it were true, it would simply mean that we have to find an alternative to meat that does not harm the environment. If the only way the world could be fed was by eating the human population of Denmark, we would be looking for an alternative with all due haste.
“The bacon is already dead.” - This is mostly irrelevant, as it doesn’t mean that it was right to kill the pig in the first place. However, the point is not entirely stupid. Eating a falafel wrap instead of a bacon sandwich won’t bring the pig back to life, and if all that happens is someone else eats the sandwich then not even a hypothetical future pig has been saved. It depends on what you see as being wrong with eating meat. Many people would argue that there is fundamentally something wrong and disrespectful about eating another formerly living being. Personally I am not sure that I feel strongly about this; on the other hand, I see a large part of the rightness of being vegetarian as convincing other people to be vegetarian too. It is unlikely that a single person’s meat-abstinence has more than a negligible effect on anything, but if they tell 2 people, and those 2 people each tell 2 more people, then you start to have a powerful viral loop. With this in mind, whilst it might be possible to justify eating a chicken korma that would otherwise be thrown away, it makes the task of convincing others of your sincerity that much harder. Whilst you may not be a hideous hypocrite, it would still mostly look that way to the untrained eye.
This leads us onto “would you eat meat if…” questions. Would you eat roadkill? Would you eat animals that have died of old age? Would you eat a horse if otherwise you would starve? These questions are useful for pinpointing specifically what it is about meat-eating that is wrong, but beyond that I believe they hold little interest. Being vegetarian is not (generally) a religious thing. It’s not always always wrong to ever ever eat meat and if you do you’re going straight to hell. Killing and eating is really bad because it causes suffering to beings capable of experiencing it, but if the alternative is even more suffering (starving vs eating an already-dead Bacon Double Cheeseburger) then you’re free to use your common sense.
In all honesty, the logical and correct position is very likely to be veganism. Once you realise that animals have rights and interests on the same scales as humans do, it becomes quite difficult to justify locking them up and stealing their milk, even if you don’t kill them at the end of it. For my part, I am slowly trying to transition, but the jump is harder, and, I would argue, not quite as urgent as from carnivorousness to vegetarianism.
On the other hand, being vegetarian is easy. Vegetables are awesome, and after a few practice runs it’s easy (in many Western societies, although I’m sure there are exceptions) to explain what you are doing and why. It’s not an awkward inconvenience to ask to be catered for as a vegetarian. You’re not asking that all your food be pre-chewed and arranged in alphabetical order because you think it would be cool. You’re not asking that some kooky, arbitrary lifestyle choice takes centre stage. You’re asking to be absented from something that is really, actually, seriously very bad. Your explanation of why is simple, understandable, and doesn’t pre-require being a hippy.
There are innumerable other bad things in the world. Living an entirely moral life in a first-world country is probably not far from impossible, and there will always been numerous injustices that you ether underweigh or completely ignore, accidentally or otherwise. But withdrawing from the worldwide slaughter of untold numbers of sentient lives is an incredibly worthwhile and straightforward low-hanging fruit.
Now go and read that book.