Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Vegetarianism Part 1- The Moral Argument.

Scientist P.Z Myers posted this video on his blog Pharyngula a couple of days ago, it is a disturbing video taken from an abattoir, showing how they kill animals that are intended to be provided for us to eat.

Warning, the video is disturbing to watch!!
How disturbed I got during the video got me to thinking, "perhaps I don't need to eat meat". As a heavy weight trainer I eat my fare share of meat, I generally buy 2kgs of red meat (mince) a week to make into spaghetti and curry. I, like many, are aware of the ethical issues of this, some of us choose to turn a blind eye to that, some don't, some can't eat meat, due to repulsion, some like me, enjoy meat almost exclusively! I've seen this argument going around, perhaps you may not have, let's see what people are saying. Michael De Dora over at Massimo Pagliucci's blog "rationally speaking" has this to say:
"Many vegetarians (and vegan, but let’s stick with one position) argue that we should not use animals as a means to some end, but as inherently important, worthy of certain rights and protections. This is a morsel from Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy. Kant argued that every human being is deserving of respect (i.e., moral concern) because of its cognitive faculties – its autonomy, ability to reason, make free choices, and plan for the future. Vegetarians would have us expand this to non-human animals. But there is no reason to suppose that animals have such capacities, and I see little reason – judging from scientific evidence and philosophical thinking – to give them the benefit of the doubt." (De Dora 2011)
I agree that animals deserve rights, sure, they're rights we give them, but that matters little, as I'm not necessarily making an argument against the use of animals as "beasts of burden" (although I'm sure there's a discussion there). The issue, at least for me (and Sam Harris) is about working toward of state of more well-being than harm, for every living creature. I'm not sure that this idea "... there is no reason to suppose that animals have such capacities, and I see little reason – judging from scientific evidence and philosophical thinking – to give them the benefit of the doubt." is accurate, in fact this seems like a remnant of a Descartian era way of thinking (Descartes assumed erroneously that animals couldn't feel pain). Other authors on the "rationally speaking" blog disagree with De Dora too, as Scott Berjot-Stafiej states:
"according to Michael, one may promote animal quality of life and, in a humane way (i.e., with a minimum amount of mental or physical suffering), kill animals without substantial ethical qualms. I disagree...My first disagreement comes from what I believe to be an unintentional over-simplification. What I assume Michael means with the above statement is that animals exhibit the mentioned capacities to a lesser degree than humans, not that they don't exhibit them at all. Virtually all of the traits described may be found to some degree in the animal kingdom: dolphins have been known to hoard trash at the bottom of a pool when there was the prospect of future reward for gathering it; certain fish have shown memory of a year or more and have used memory of negative experiences to develop ways of becoming less easy to catch; ravens make tools; rats solve puzzles; many mammals socialize, etc. While it is relatively certain that most animals have a far less defined sense of self, it is, I believe, scientifically uncontroversial to say that many animals have the ability to reason and make projections at least to a degree." (Berjot-Stafiej 2011)
John Loftus appears to agree with Berjot-Stafiej as I do, that animals not only feel pain, but are developed enough to have similar cognitive processes to humans, or at least analogous to humans which Loftus states in his book, The Christian Delusion:
"There can be little doubt any longer that animals feel pain depending on their central nervous systems. We have evidence of it in their increased heart beats, breathing rhythms, and in the activity of the pain centers of the brains when animals are subjected to pain stimuli." (Loftus 2010)
There is no doubt, that chickens and particularly lambs/cows have fully developed central nervous systems capable of feeling pain, as intensely as you or I. Loftus also quotes Andrew Lizney who states:
"There is ample evidence in peer-reviewed scientific journals that mammals experience not just pain, but also suffering, to a greater or lesser degree than we do ourselves. The scientific reason is straightforward. Animals and humans show a common ancestor, display similar behaviours, and have physiological similarities. Because of these triple conditions, these shared characteristics, it is perfectly logical to believe that animals experience many of the same emotions as humans. " (Loftus 2010)

Here De Dora reaches the crux of his argument, and changes gears slightly:
"Here, then, is where we reach an interesting juncture: if there are no compelling ethical reasons to not kill animals for food, then vegetarianism risks degenerating from a moral stance to the level of preference.
Then again, there may be other compelling reasons in favor of the vegetarian stance. An immediate and undeniable one is the manner in which meat is typically produced, as it relates to the animals themselves.* In the U.S., factory-farmed animals are treated horribly. This matters because of the fact that animals are sentient – that is, they can feel or perceive pain. Thus, one could argue that eating meat is immoral given how the meat is produced. This would once again make vegetarianism a moral stance. This is now the basis of my vegetarianism. In fact, I have realized that it was all along." (De Dora 2011)
Although De Dora seems to be contradicting himself, I think he made an interesting point above, that even if you don't agree with his initial position that animals don't feel pain, there are still the issues of their keeping and the issues this raises about their ability to suffer. But, having said that, what about suffering? If we are to consider an animals plight, we should consider not only their ability to feel pain, but their ability to suffer, and if they do suffer, how much worse is their plight. John Loftus continues his argument:
"An argument has been made that animals cannot anticipate the future or remember the past and so their pain is only momentary. For instance it's claimed they don't worry about the future, nor do they have guilt and the fear of death. This says nothing about their present pain, and we know they experience it. But even if it's the case they have no memory of the past and cannot anticipate the future, such a state of affairs may actually increase their present pain, for in Wennberg's words "precisely because animals lack vivid links to the future (or to the past) physical pain may be actually worse, since there are no future oriented distractions to mitigate these powerful sensations..." Human suffering, by contrast writes Andrew Lizney "can be softened by an intellectual comprehension of the circumstances" of the suffering itself. For instance, a visit to the dentist's chair can be painful, but human beings know why such suffering is needed. This is not the case with animal suffering, for they "experience the raw terror of not knowing." So even if the argument can be made that animals do not suffer as much as humans, Wennberg argues: "The fact remains animals suffer physical pain and suffer from negative emotions, and at times suffer considerably."... in fact, animals can remember, show evidence of guilt, joy, fear, and curiosity, and there is evidence they think and draw conclusions as well (Loftus provides several books demonstrating this point)." (Loftus 2010)
I think we can see in the video above that the sheep who watch the other sheep being killed, are afraid, that the animals being killed are feeling fear, pain and discomfort. But let's assume an animal has no extra dimension to their pain, as in the added case of suffering, is momentary excruciating pain ok? Are we willing to let animals feel excruciating pain, who, if we deny Loftus' argument above, won't be able to reason their way out of the situation, to mitigate their pain, just because we may not think they can suffer (as in when they're kept and killed)? Perhaps, but that's an argument each of us need to wrestle with. I've seen videos like the above before, but this one got to me.

The Environmental issue and agribusiness

One more issue I want to briefly mention, are the environmental concerns in regards to the agribusiness of producing meat. An article by Paul Roberts in SEED magazine demonstrates this:
"The production process has itself brought a slew of complications. Rivers of sewage from China’s new “concentrated animal feeding operations,” or CAFOs, overwhelm local treatment facilities. Public health experts are increasingly worried about avian flu, whose epicenter is Asian poultry. And because factory-raised livestock need so much feed—it takes 4.5 kilograms of feed to make a kilogram of poultry meat and 20 kilograms of feed to make a kilogram of beef (emphasis added)—China’s yen for meat is jacking up grain prices globally. In fact, because Chinese farmland is already so scarce, and because decades of industrialized agricultural have unleashed huge ecological problems (from chemical runoff to groundwater depletion), China has turned increasingly to imported feed—effectively pushing the “external” costs of its meat revolution onto farms in the United States, Argentina, and elsewhere... Even now, China’s meat mania is implicated in everything from deforestation in Brazil to food-price inflation in Africa, and most resources specialists expect that this nutritional domino effect will only intensify." (Roberts 2008)
Obviously China is not the main or only offender, wealthy countries like the United States (and others) are where the real cost comes. The future of this industry can lead to some dire predictions. To quote the article again:
"By 2050, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), worldwide meat consumption will reach nearly half a billion tons a year, more than twice the current level. And yet, no one has any idea how, or even if, the world can support that volume (emphasis added). Quite aside from issues of obesity or sewage, world farmers would need to grow another one billion tons of feed each year by mid-century—and this from an agricultural system already staggering under the impacts of declining acreage, water scarcity, climate change, and soaring energy costs. To be sure, all food production, like all economic activity, affects the natural systems on which life ultimately depends. But because meat represents such a concentrated use of resources, it has now forced a debate over the future of food—a debate that is beginning to reveal the flaws in an economic model premised on endless growth."(Roberts 2008)
I obviously can't go into the sheer depth of the agribusiness and environmental issues here, but this small, uncontroversial snippet should hopefully demonstrate in some small part the reality we face with a growing world wide economy, developing countries and our stunning lack of resources. To quote Massimo Pagliucci: 
"It needs to be said the predictions of climate change models range from: "this is pretty serious" to "this is catastrophic". Not "there's nothing to worry about" to "we should move our butts"!" (Pagliucci 2010)
So to sum up my above points, it seems scientifically verified, if we accept Loftus, Lizney, and Berjot-Stafiej, that animals suffer, and animals feel pain, particularly animals with more developed central nervous systems, and depending on those systems their suffering and pain, can be quite close to a humans. It seems also quite apparent that there is not just the animal suffering and pain to consider, but also the effect the production of meat is having on our resources and on this planet. In my next part on vegetarianism I will discuss the health benefits of vegetarianism, and what strategies one can employ to make the change from an omnivorous diet to vegetarian one.

Berjot-Stafiej S., (2011). Is a Humane Killing Ethical? Retrieved 24/02/2011.

De Dora M., (2011). Vegetarianism: moral stance or mere preference? Retrieved 24/02/2011.

Loftus J.W., (2009). The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (edited John W. Loftus). Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.Pp253-254.

Pagliucci M., (2010). CPBD 055: Massimo Pigliucci – The Limits of Science. Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot podcast. Retrieved 23/02/2011.

Roberts P., (2008).Humanity's rapidly increasing appetite for meat is fast becoming a matter of global consequence. Paul Roberts on the science, and morality, of our planet's modern palate. Carnivores like us. Retrieved 26/02/2011. 


  1. The pain argument is a non-starter, for me. Certainly I'm against excessive pain and animal cruelty and I'll favor improvements in the slaughter industry, but if suffering (the awareness and cognizance of pain) is the foundation, then the argument fails the instant one points out that it is possible to kill without pain.

    This is a rights issue. What sort of rights should we afford non-humans - and why? And are all non-humans afforded the same rights - and why or why not? Do the gnat, chicken, dolphin and chimp have the same standing?

    Humans aren't granted rights because we can experience pain and suffering, we initially take those rights as an act of volition and then grant them as a matter of empathy, practicality and a conscious awareness that it increases the well-being of all of us.

    I tend to afford the same opportunity for rights and defense of rights to all animals and I do so equitably. It's not immoral for the shark or the lion to eat me...and vice versa.

    All that said, there are other arguments (including ethical ones) for vegetarianism that still intrigue me and may even sway me, but the simplistic pain arguments are, I think, horribly flawed.

    Is it immoral for me to anesthetize a bunny so that it doesn't feel pain? If I then lop off it's head, am I immoral - even though it did not suffer?

    Suffering simply can't be the criteria. It's a good emotional argument but it fails in its task. I could kill another human being and make it downright pleasant, using the right drugs - and it'd still be immoral.

    It baffles me that so many science-minded individuals fail to see that the suffering argument fails falsification.

  2. I really appreciate you taking the time to read the post and offer your thoughts, Matt! I imagine you are quite busy (congrats to you and Beth on the engagement by the way!).

    You've given me quite a lot to think about! So much so, I'm reluctant to offer any reply (in fear of only digging myself in deeper), as you're an intimidating presence and I can hardly find fault with the points you've made.

    I can certainly understand the pain argument not being a motivator for you, and that it's perhaps not very convincing to others, it was for me however, in a huge way. Maybe I'm a tree hugging hippy?

    I will say though, I'm going to be putting up a post in the next couple of days on the benefits of a vegetarian diet, perhaps that might have an argument you might find convincing?

    Keep up the great work over at the Atheist Experience and The Non-Prophets!!

  3. For me it's more than the issue of pain, yes. I went vegan because I think the animals in the slaughterhouse IMO have a better life than those who live much longer, but spend their days in tiny stalls, attached to milking machine, or living as battery hens. I'd rather die quickly than live a long life, suffering.

    Also more than pain, you've got the issue of fear. Animals experience fear, and when they see the animals in front of them in the line stunned and killed, it's not crazy to assume they know what's coming next. also in a high-paced production line, the stun guns are rarely that effective/stunning is not always guaranteed. Profits reign, so rapid turnover is vital.

  4. Thanks for the comments Eloise!

  5. If you think racism and sexism is wrong then ask the question, "why do i think this?"

    Here's an answer i would give:

    Racism and sexism are forms of discrimination made on ones race or gender. This discrimination is how people justify that they have the right to treat their fellow human beings as subordinates.

    Speciesism is a form of exploitation and cruelty imposed by ones species over another. This act of dominance is seen in other forms of inequalities such as racism, classism and sexism.

    Speciesism is the belief that the human species is superior to the non-human species and therefore has the right to exploit and abuse them.

    Im a vegan because i do not think humans should have the power to exploit non-human animals.

    There are two positions against speciesism which are the animal rights position and animal welfare position. The animal welfare position seeks to improve the physical and psychological well-being of animals. Notice that it’s not to abolish but to improve. Who then chooses how much or how little to improve their conditions? Humans do of course. The problem with the welfarist response is although it may seem a noble goal, it does not suggest people stop killing and exploiting animals; just that we do it in a manner that we humans, who are more superior, feel is humane.

    A sad fact is that we are able to exploit animals and cause them suffering because we believe we have the right because we are more powerful than they are. Just think if intelligent aliens were too land on Earth today and they turned out to be far more powerful than us. Would we let them without protest, to farm our bodies for food, to kill us for sport, and to run medical experiments on us? Would we accept their explanation that it’s moral for them to do so because we are of a different species to them? I cannot image people arguing that ‘well they are of a smarter and stronger group than we are so it’s understandable and justified that they have complete dominance over us.’

  6. Thanks for your thoughts Ippy!!