Vegetarianism is Immoral!

I meet vegetarians almost every day. Some of my good friends are vegetarians. In fact, my wife is a vegetarian. While there is one good reason to be a vegetarian – the reason, conveniently, that my wife espouses, which I will explicate below, many of the other reasons are either inane, insensitive, overly subjective or not very well thought through. Accordingly, we will review some of the famous reasons to be a vegetarian and analyze each argument’s merit individually.

Religious: Rav Kook said that in messianic times, people will no longer eat meat. Offerings in the Third Temple will be vegetable based, so let’s be vegetarians now.

First, no where do we find that it is a virtue to live our lives in accordance with the prophetic expectations of the messianic era. No one puts their pet fox in the lamb’s pen, smartly. Second, there is no reason to believe that Rav Kook is correct. Putting aside that Maimonides writes in the last chapters of the Mishnah Torah that we have NO authoritative tradition of what will occur during the messianic time period, save certain generalizations, many people would claim that it is heretical to believe the Torah’s commandments will change then.

Pain: We ought not pain, stress or otherwise inconvenience animals unnecessarily. Apparently slaughtering them is one of the greatest inconveniences to their lives. Therefore, moral people ought to refrain from eating them.

The “pain” argument is one that humans are specifically attune to. In truth a large percentage of the human race, as well as many philosophers, define a ‘good’ day (or a ‘good’ life) by the avoidance of pain (in addition, sometimes, to the experiencing of pleasure). Accordingly, they superimpose that definition on the animal kingdom. If it is good enough for me, they reason, then it should also be good enough for animals, and equally apply to them. Accordingly, they feel, one may not kill animals. There are many underlying assumptions in this argument, but the one that is most fraught with philosophical haughtiness (1) is that human/animal pain is special, and therefore must be avoided more than others’ pains. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that plants HATE being killed. (2) I’ve never discussed this with a plant (or an animal for that matter, in the name of full disclosure), but I think it is a safe assumption. So, why would a vegetarian be more attune to the pain and suffering of an animal than that of a plant? Two reasons come to mind: it is more obvious (ie in your face), and the animals seem to feel the same pain I feel when I am pained. It is clear that these two reasons are self-serving, and do not exist in a vacuum.  Indeed, it is not that we care about animals, but that we truly ONLY care about ourselves. Indeed, these vegetarians would reason: I can empathize with that pain, therefore I must try to stop it from ever occurring.  Obviously, one should not make ethical decisions solely based on the fact that I can empathize with the event. If that were the case, depending on the level of empathy, a minority group could be thrown under the train tracks, and be excluded from enjoying the protections of a civilized society. Personally, I want all to feel the same care, understanding and sense of loss when they kill ANY living thing on earth. We ought to empathize with death in general. When one consumes meat or vegetables, s/he ought to care and understand that this thing has sacrificed its life in order to sustain my life: everything is part of Elton John’s ‘Circle of Life,’ not just the things I care about. If one does not feel comfortable with that fact, it is possible that s/he has chosen the wrong universe to take part of.

Experience: One ought only eat an animal if s/he kills it him/herself.

I see no merit in this argument. Should I only drive a car if I could build it? This argument is not one that modern economies can stomach easily. I think a really tough (and possibly abusive) parent thought of this once, and just went with it. Nonetheless, if one does see merit in this perspective, I encourage you to learn the laws of slaughtering, and slaughter the animal yourself. And, if that it too hard, there are bugs and fish that one can enjoy without performing the ritual of slaughtering.

Animals are treated inhumanely: hormones, poor living conditions, inefficiency, etc. By supporting the unethical treatment of animals, your actions just further this vicious cycle. Therefore, one has a moral obligation to refrain from eating meat.

I feel it makes sense to claim that one ought not support an inherently corrupt and evil enterprise (unless the good outweighs the bad). And, I think that we can all agree that one ought treat animals justly. In fact, Jews are enjoined not to pain animals unnecessarily. And, if one chooses not to support the meat industry because s/he believes that the industry is not doing enough to care for the well-being of the animal population, that is great. But, that does not mean that one ought to be a vegetarian. There are a ton of organic and “good” farms one can enjoy his/her meat from. Or, maybe it is time to start your own ‘ethical’ farm.

Health: It is healthier to practice vegetarianism.

In truth, this is not an argument for or against the consumption of animals, but that we ought to live a healthy lifestyle. I think that we can all agree to that, even if it involves eating a little red meat here and there.

Yucky: I feel meat is ‘yucky.’ Therefore, I’m a vegetarian.

This is quite the compelling argument. First, the argument is not universal; it solely applies to s/he that feels meat is ‘yucky.’ Second, most would agree that one ought to avoid yucky things in life, as long as it does not overly inconvenience one’s life. We still want people to change diapers, and doctors and nurses to do lots of yucky things to us, but regarding matters that ‘preference’ is involved, like the foods we consume, one ought to avoid the ‘yucky.’ Thank God I married the one opinion that makes sense and is ethical.

(1) AKA: wrong

(2)  I’ve actually read an article on the topic where the author explains in detail how  vegetables cringe and are pained by their removal from the ground/tree, but I cannot verify the accuracy of the article



Filed under Miscellaneous

11 responses to “Vegetarianism is Immoral!

  1. I am vegetarian since childhood but I never gave a serious thought about vegetarianism. Great post.

  2. aaa1216

    Good points, Russ! What about “animal-product” vegetarianism like eggs and milk where, apparently, no one gets hurt? (Do eggs cringe when they’re about to be consumed?) And, what about wearing animal stuff – like leather…?

    • Russ Shulkes

      My wife likes to point out that the ‘yucky’ argument does not apply to wearing leather or other animal byproducts (as long as the clothes are reasonably fashionable). I would have to agree with you regarding milk, honey, etc. It is possible that we can enjoy a diet that inflicts no pain, suffereing and/or deaths on others. But the question is: ought we engage in such a lifestyle just because we can? I assert that we ought kill and kill equally, yet appreciate the sacrifices that were necessary in maintaining our diets.

  3. RJZ

    I’m gonna go ahead and assume your title is purely rhetoric and meant as an attention grabber, surely if one were to accept that it is not any more ethical to be vegetarian than it is to not be, that wouldn’t make vegetarianism immoral.
    With regard to your claims as to its immorality though a) you forget the issue of sustainability with regard to the amount of resources that go into the production of meat, if one were to accept the Kantian imperative (which I myself don’t necessarily accept), it becomes clear that there certainly are moral issues with regard to taking part in wasting resources that could go toward far more worthy causes.

    The experience issue comes down to the moral issue itself (and is thus not comparable to the idea of building your own car), it stands to reason that if you would not want to do something for moral reasons, you should not allow others to do it on your behalf. Which brings us to the issue of the morality of it all, in which I believe there are two issues that of our right to end the life of an animal and the issue of our causing it harm.

    Here goes…With regard to pain, while you seem quite comfortable separating between humans and non-human animals, you are less comfortable distinguishing between plants and animals, why so? You take it for granted that killing a member of a minority class would be a bad thing (I would agree) but why? Your answer I assume is because we humans deem pain to be a bad thing for us, but assume there were a person raised to consider pain a good thing, something that perhaps serves a higher purpose, would you think it morally permissible to torture her? I would hope not. It is not that we humans ‘decided’ that we do not like pain,as we may have decided that democracy is a good form of government, it is that pain in itself is bad.

    The question is whether or not we choose to care for the pain of others and if so which others. Getting back to the plant-animal distinction the question now becomes where and when pain is experienced. Simply seeing things look like they are experiencing pain (which we relate to) is not the moral question, a machine made man or animal that appears to be suffering, but has no actual subjective experience of such suffering, is not a moral issue. Should we find a plant that though it appears to have no internal mental life, but in fact has one as great as human beings, it would be clear that we would be morally responsible for it (to say otherwise would be mere speciesism). The only way of knowing how much something is capable of experiencing pain and suffering is by coming to a proper neuro-biological understanding of living organisms. It is not the neuro-biology that matters at the end of the day, but the subjective experience created by such a neuro-biological make up.

    Certain animals, certainly do seem to have neurological make up similar (though radically different in many ways) to ours in their ability to experience pain and suffering. Should that not concern us? Would you be comfortable eating the meat of a Bonobo that was killed for the purpose of your consumption? How about a dolphin? Two animals that have been shown to not only have awareness, but self-awareness. I would argue that we certainly have no right to cause serious harm nor take the lives of such creatures purely for the purpose of a good meal. Could it be argued otherwise? What of the crying of a cow when its calf is taken from it? Is that merely the mechanical activity occurring that Descartes would have us believe, or is it a sign of actual emotional pain being experienced by an animal perhaps more sentient than often believed?

    The question of where we choose to draw the line and consider something ‘immoral’ is certainly not a clear one, but the willingness to withhold from the pleasure of meat eating, so as to reduce the amount of suffering/the unnecessary ending of an animal’s life, far from bring immoral is certainly morally praiseworthy.
    Not myself a vegetarian

    • I find it hard to assert that following Kant’s categorical imperative would lead one to the conclusion that one ought to be a vegetarian, even if we take into consideration sustainablility! Also, the imperative offers a way to evaluate one’s own actions, and while Kant actually spoke about cruelty to animals (Metaphysics of Morals, 17), I do not think that the imperative would spread past evaluating one’s own actions. For example, I would want all to only eat healthy, and that should be a universal rule, but one does not break the categorical imperative, (ie act immoral) when you scarf down a donut. Similarly, sustainability is something to strive for, but one does not act immorally when s/he acts in an unsustainable way, according to Kant.

      In the conclusion, my main point, is that I do not differentiate between the death of any living creature; we ought to be sensitive to all deaths

      You said: “You take it for granted that killing a member of a minority class would be a bad thing (I would agree) but why? Your answer I assume is because we humans deem pain to be a bad thing for us.” No, becasue it is a jerky thing to kill a minority bc s/he is a minority! I think you misunderstood my point about pain. All pain is the same. All death is the same. Therefore, we ought to care, equally! But, that care does not obviate the possibility of enjoying a good steak here and there.

      You said: ” I would argue that we certainly have no right to cause serious harm nor take the lives of such creatures purely for the purpose of a good meal. Could it be argued otherwise?” Well, you switch to ‘rights’ here, and that’s another discussion. A good meal, I believe is the best reason! Not only can it be argued otherwise, the large majority of humanity believe so!

      • RJZ

        I wasn’t referring to the immorality of killing a minority because he is a minority, but rather with the problem of killing a human being in general. My point in response, was that surely all death is not the same! We should not be equally concerned with the death of a human being as with that of a plant, nor for that matter does it make sense to be equally concerned for the life of animals as for plants. The pain a plant can experience (if it can experience any) is certainly less morally concerning than the pain an animal feels, especially those with a more evolved nervous system.
        With regards to the rights issue, I’m not sure the experience of enjoying a good meal really stands up to the issue of taking the life of a somewhat sentient creature. Would you be comfortable with the animal’s life being taken purely for the purpose of your five minute meal? What the large majority of humans believe certainly has no bearing on the moral issue. No matter which way you spin it, an individual’s choosing to refrain from the pleasures of meat eating, for the purpose of the well being/right to life of an animal, is certainly morally praiseworthy.

  4. Here are some of the Facebook comments:

    Joe Miller: Isn’t there a Jewish concept that an animal is higher on the ‘life scale’ than a plant? In which case, not wanting to cause pain to animals and being okay with causing it to plants would be a rational position. There are four levels: Ha, this quasi-kabbalistic stuff is going to make you so angry and I can’t wait. 😉

    Anna Craven: pah, immoral? article justifies meat eating but doesn’t claim any moral high ground. The argument of inefficiency in meat production has been missed, one that would prove vegetarianism to be overwhelmingly ‘moral’. If meat production ceased, there would most likely be enough food to reduce poverty dramatically, if not entirely.

    Josh Moritz: Russ this is a funny article, and I do sense the ironic tone in some of your points. One counter point to the main argument you tackle about pain and empathy. Who is anyone to argue that someone cannot emphasise with someone else? Surely there is a degree of subjectivity within empathy, as all it is is connecting your own subjective experience with a perceived subjective experience of another. I am pretty sure I can empathise, having broken my leg, with a cow that breaks their leg. The screams are similar, the breaks are similar etc… I am thus not sure that you are correct in dismissing our empathetic nature.

    Gaston Yalonetzky: Very interesting article, Russ. Thank you! By the way, as far as I have read, plants don’t seem to feel pain, at least for sure not animal (e.g. cow, human, ape, etc.) pain because plants lack a nervous system. So while plants may react in many ways to “environmental changes”, at best we don’t have conclusive evidence that plants suffer in any way similar to animals. Of course, here lies an assumption that similar pain can be felt with very different biological “hardwares” (i.e you may not need a nervous system to “enjoy the feeling”). Thus far though it seems that we can for sure discard that plants feel animal pain. Hence, while that does not invalidate your point about “universal empathy” (which I find appealing), it may support the case of an hypothetical vegetarian who would justify his/her choice on the basis of (animal) pain. All that said, I also prefer Esther’s reason.

    Elie Yudewitz: “Apparently slaughtering them is one of the greatest inconveniences to their lives.” Please show your polling results.

    Fred Levy: Finally, a blogpost I understand!

    Moshe Moses: I always wondered why Esther is a veggie!
    Now I know and understand. Enjoyable read

    Yitzy Sprung:

  5. mijnheer

    Plants are sensitive but they are not sentient. That makes all the difference.

    If plants were sentient (subjectively aware), then, since a vegetarian diet involves the destruction of far fewer plants than a diet with meat, the ethical argument against eating meat would be all the stronger.

    As for the number of animal deaths involved in different diets, this is useful:

  6. Vegetarianism is immoral because it is self-destructive biologically and philosophically it tries to equate the value of an animal’s life to that of a human’s. Those are evil ideas.

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