Sunday, March 05, 2006

Ethics and Vegetarianism: Why What We Eat Matters

Leo Tolstoy said, "A vegetarian diet is the acid test of humanitarianism."

It is an interesting concept, that of connecting the food we eat to morality. When we look at it from an individualistic point of view, which is what we pretty much do, it’s easy to just make the choice – to eat meat or not to eat meat. Because, like most other things, what difference does ONE person really make?

Like all other decisions, it’s not that easy. When we look at what we eat from a broader perspective, and consider the realities involved in the decision, it provides a different picture.

  • 9 billion chickens per year in factory farms will never have the chance to do one thing that is natural to them. They will never build a nest, take a dust bath, breathe fresh air, or meet their parents.
  • 41 million cows will be burned and castrated, then transported to the slaughterhouse. Many die on the way. Those that don’t are shot in the head with a bolt gun, hung by their legs, and then have their throats cut. They are often conscious through the entire process.
  • 170,000 pigs die in transport each year, 420,000 are crippled by the time they reach the slaughterhouse. Many are still fully conscious when they are dipped in scalding water for hair removal.
  • 300 million turkeys are killed each year in the US. Before this, their beaks and toes burned off with a hot blade, they are then crammed into filthy sheds.
  • Every year in the laying industry, 280 million newly hatched male chicks – who can’t produce eggs themselves – are thrown into garbage bags or grinders, to suffocate or be crushed or hacked to death.
This is an ethical conundrum right from the start, because we are incapable of meeting our own nutritional needs. We by default act against the interests of others in ensuring our survival. The dilemma is apparent from the get go – we must consume life to survive.

So is there a moral issue? How do we draw the line and decide that animals have some inherent right to life versus, say, a fruit or vegetable? There are several issues at hand.

First, is respect for life. Humans proclaim to maintain a deep respect for life and I do believe, for the most part, this is true. But for some reason our stomachs seem to get in the way, and we use their likes and dislikes as our means for determining right and wrong. I say cannibalism and you say gross. Therefore we can clearly and quite easily place it in the "wrong" column. I say "dog meat" or "horse meat" and most of us have the same reaction. "Yuck" becomes equivalent to "wrong."

I say ribs, bacon cheeseburger, or tandoori chicken, and our reaction is completely different. Our moral opposition drains away in direct proportion to our salivation levels. And while I presume the majority of us do not want animals to suffer, it seems we have an internal on/off switch that allows us to detach from reality when the subject at hand has anything to do with our appetites.

Many cultures can maintain a deep respect for life and still take that very same life. An example is Native American cultures that only killed what they could eat, used every part of the animal, and said a blessing over every killing. Sadly, this would not be possible today without decreasing the amount of our consumption, vastly increasing the cost of meat, or harder yet, requiring a more personal connection to the animals we killed and ate.

We simply cannot truly respect and bless these animals, and by default their lives themselves, when the depth of our connection is a plastic wrapped, Styrofoam container full of hamburger, whose origin or journey we couldn’t possibly fathom.

I know I could not kill an animal with my own hands – so why would I eat an animal just because someone else does it for me? Linda McCartney once said, "if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian." What do you think she meant by this? My interpretation of this is that we simply would cease support our current treatment of animals if we had to participate more fully in the process.

The second concept has to do with the moral question. Under what moral prerogative are we able to apply the tenets of equality, justice, and right to life to humans, and some animals (such as dogs, cats, and horses), but not the remainder of the animal kingdom?

Think about this quote by Peter Singer: "The animals themselves are incapable of demanding their own liberation, or of protesting against their condition with votes, demonstrations, or bombs. Human beings have the power to continue to oppress other species forever, or until we make this planet unsuitable for living beings. Will our tyranny continue, proving that we really are the selfish tyrants that the most cynical of poets and philosophers have always said we are?

Or will we rise to the challenge and prove our capacity for genuine altruism by ending our ruthless exploitation of the species in our power, not because we are forced to do so by rebels or terrorists, but because we recognize that our position is morally indefensible?"

There is a principle called the "Sanctity of Life." Albert Schweitzer was a major proponent. His justification for the principle was the following: (a) I have a will to live, (b) When I am healthy and sincere towards myself, I feel reverence for my will to life, (c) All other organisms have a similar will to live, (d) I experience empathy with other life as I reflect honestly, dwelling on its similarity to my own life, (e) My empathy generates sympathy, caring, and a "compulsion" to approach other life with the same reverence I feel for my life, and (f) Hence, reverence for life is a fundamental virtue."

There is a commonly articulated criticism against vegetarians that they claim to respect life but nonetheless eat plants, and plants are living organisms too. There is some substance to this argument, but not much. The argument about right to life does not define life as merely "alive," but rather as sentience and consciousness. Few would argue that members of the plant kingdom have the same level of consciousness as animals. Additionally, many plants can easily weather the loss of an appendage, where as most animals cannot. And, of course, many plants make their usage as food beneficial not only to us, but to them as well. Bearing fruit is of course the most obvious and delicious example.

Some more moral food for thought:

  • The first statement of Buddhism is "do not kill."
  • Hindu scriptures recognize spirituality in all living things.
  • The sixth commandment: "thou shalt not kill."
  • Genesis: "To man and all creatures wherein is a living soul."
  • The Bible also says that "man has dominion over the animals." But think of the meaning of the word "dominion." The Bible spends the majority of its words imparting a reverence for life. Kings and queens have dominion over their people, but I do not believe this imparts in them permission to torture, kill, eat, wear, or experiment on their subjects.
  • An interesting quote by Reverend Andrew Linzey: "Animals are God's creatures, not human property, nor utilities, nor resources, nor commodities, but precious beings in God's sight. ... Christians whose eyes are fixed on the awfulness of crucifixion are in a special position to understand the awfulness of innocent suffering. The Cross of Christ is God's absolute identification with the weak, the powerless, and the vulnerable, but most of all with unprotected, undefended, innocent suffering."
The third issue deals with whether current behaviors are sustainable given their impact on the environment.

I know you’ve heard all these things before, but I think they bear repeating. As I read these, think about the staggering implications of each one… and the almost incomprehensible implications of them taken in sum.

  • Of all agricultural land in the US, 80 percent is used to raise animals for food.
  • It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat, but only 25 gallons to produce a pound of wheat.
  • Audubon estimates that 50% of the water used in the US is to raise animals for food.
  • A vegetarian diet requires 300 gallons of water per day. A meat diet requires 4,000 gallons. That’s a difference of 3,700 gallons a day or 26,000 gallons a week. For each person that would move to a vegetarian diet.
  • 55 square feet of rain forest needs to be razed to produce a quarter pound hamburger.
  • 360 million acres of forest in the US alone have been cleared for cropland for farmed animals. The Smithsonian says seven football fields of land on earth are bulldozed every minute to create room for farm animals.
  • Farmed animals produce 130 times the excrement of the entire US human population – without sewage treatment. About 86,000 pounds per second. Much of it ends up in our water and soil. The EPA estimates that chicken, hog, and cattle excrement have polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and contaminated groundwater in 17 states.
  • 1/3 of the fossil fuels in the US go into the production of meat.

I know these numbers seem almost impossible to believe, but think about it this way. To eat a hamburger, these are the steps required:

  • Grow tons of grain (tilling, irrigation, etc)
  • Transport grain on 18 wheelers to feed mills
  • Operate feed mills
  • Transport feed to factory farms
  • Operate factory farms
  • Truck animals to slaughter
  • Operate slaughterhouses
  • Transport meat to processing plants
  • Operate processing plants
    (There is an entirely additional, energy intensive process to create all the packaging needed)
  • Transport meat to grocery stores
  • Keep meat refrigerated or frozen until ready for use
    (Then there’s the waste of all the packaging)

Here is a question: is it possible to be an environmentalist and a meat eater? In reality, there are few things we could do as a society that would have a more beneficial impact on the environment than to vastly decrease or eliminate our consumption of meat.

The fourth issue deals with whether current behaviors are sustainable given their impact on the remainder of humanity.

Animals raised for food are fed more than 70 percent of the grains the US produces. It takes 22 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat.

Meat animals of the world alone consume food equal to calorie needs of 9 billion people.
There are estimates that the world currently produces enough vegetarian food to feed 15 billion people. 1.4 billion people could be fed with the grain and soybeans we feed US cattle alone.
40,000 children die of hunger every day.

We all know, of course, that distribution and politics are a big part of this problem, but are not solely responsible. Even if they were, and we can definitely discuss this topic, an ethical question remains: is it okay to engage in a behavior that wastes resources, when it is widely known that people are suffering and dying because of a lack of those very same resources?

Paul McCartney said: "If anyone wants to save the planet, all they have to do is just stop eating meat. That's the single most important thing you could do. It's staggering when you think about it. Vegetarianism takes care of so many things in one shot: ecology, famine, cruelty."

A fifth issue, related to the last couple, just deals with consumption.

I think it’s mostly been covered already, especially in the environmental discussion. But I think it deserves it’s own minute in the limelight. Most people would agree that consumption is, in many ways, related to both waste and equity. Over-consumption results inevitably in waste and, in a world of haves and have-nots, is clearly an equity issue.

Consumption is, thus, an ethical issue. I have a lot of thoughts on this, related to production, productivity, availability, and price, but I’ll leave it with this: most of us believe we live in a nation that is heavy on consumption. In many ways, this is similar to our discussion. One could argue that eating meat, when one can meet their nutritional needs with a vegetarian diet, is akin to buying a Hummer when one really only needs a Corolla. Or to buying a mansion when one only needs a three bedroom.

I think we seldom think about it in those terms, but when one considers the 2500 gallons of water necessary to produce a pound of beef versus the 25 gallons needed to produce a pound of wheat, I don’t think we can deny the depth of the similarity.

Another issue, related but peripheral, is the use of animals in medical research and/or product testing.

I want to spend a second on this, though it obviously could be an entire discussion in its own right. There is no question that animals used for research are basically used as tools for our own benefit. There is an unquestionable ethical question here, similar to the question of how we treat animals used for food. The realities are the same: no dignity, no respect, a willingness to tolerate pain, suffering, and torture, in order to meet our needs. The concept that harming another species for our benefit is okay, or at best, a necessary evil.

However, there is clearly a difference in some ways.

We know for a fact we can meet our protein needs by alternative means. Our treatment of animals for food cannot really be justified on any level, other than the fact that they taste delicious.

Similarly, it is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to find any reasonable justification for animal suffering in order to create cosmetics.

There is, obviously, a much more difficult ethical question when it comes to animals used for medical research. If one were to believe that it is inherent upon us to respect all life, then using animals for medical research should be just as intolerable as Tuskegee in Alabama or experiments on Jews during World War II.

Again, it comes down to whether or not animals deserve moral consideration in their own right. Here is one way I like to think about it. Imagine, if you will, that the Neanderthal had survived. Clearly not human, but pretty darn close. Would research be acceptable? Or, an even better example: what if SOME humans evolved again, into a more advanced species, and others did not. Would we be able to justify experiments on our less advanced cousins in order to provide possibly life-saving treatments for ourselves? What if WE ENDED UP BEING THE LESS ADVANCED SPECIE? What would we think about it then?

This is a different topic, but it is related to our main topic. It is similar in that it gets at the ethical and moral issue of not only utilizing a living creature solely for our gain, but doing so in an inarguably inhumane manner.

Obviously, we could spend another full hour just on this subject, but I’ll leave you with that thought.

In conclusion: There is a lot of talk about humans being omnivores. I think it likely that our omnivorous nature served us well during the evolution of our species. It seems likely that there were times in our evolution when our ability to derive nutritional value from as many sources as possible served as a critical survival mechanism.

However, it is clear that we have more in common with herbivores than carnivores, including our intestinal length, the strength of our stomach acid, the shape and size of our teeth and nails, the existence of sweat glands, and other features. And we have clearly evolved to the point where a vegetarian diet is not only easy to come by, but better for the earth, more sustainable for the environment and the long run survival of our species, and more justifiable on pretty much any moral basis.

If you do think we are truly carnivorous by nature, imagine a wolf or lion stumbling upon a day old cow carcass in the woods. Imagine the profound joy that this animal would feel upon its discovery. Now imagine how you’d react, were you to stumble across the same thing.

Now, with all that said, I not only think our omnivorous nature served us well in our evolution, but actually didn’t contain the volume of moral issues that it does today. When there were fewer humans, each of whom was having a direct connection to the animals they killed and ate, one could certainly argue that the implications were not as dire.

Two examples of this still exist: consuming locally produced, free range, organic meat and hunting or fishing for your own food.

Organic farmers often, but not always, treat the animals with more respect and dignity, and actually offer them some quality of life. Most of the time, the environmental impacts are far less pronounced -- though the reality remains: it will always take more land, water, and resources to produce an animal for food then it would to produce a vegetarian alternative. The other reality that remains is that we have to consciously make the moral decision that the life of an animal is not as meaningful as the life of a human.

Hunting and fishing are a different story. We might have other moral issues with these behaviors, but in many ways, they are the closest example of an equality-based paradigm. While we are still taking a life, and making the moral decision that that life is not as valuable as ours, we are at least offering full respect for the quality of that life prior to its taking. The animal has lived its life, and it’s time has come. One could argue that, were it not a rifle or bow, it could have been a lion or wolf. No resources went into the production of this animal, and its life had full meaning until the very end.

I must allow that there is something to the concept that dying is okay when a life has been well-lived. It’s not like we have a choice about the dying part. There is an ethical issue with leading a cow to a slaughterhouse, but I would argue, had that cow lived the good, true, and happy life of a cow, that the ethical issue is much diminished from the one we face with our current food production techniques.

With all that said, I think this issue comes down to three main questions:

  • What is our moral responsibility to respect life, and how far does it extend?
  • What is our ethical responsibility for our natural environment?
  • And, what is price of our behavior on the human race?

I think we could all agree that there is an ethical responsibility on all of us to help those who cannot help themselves. Then the question asks how far down the food chain this must extend. Ethics is, in the end, almost always about choice. And with that, I leave you with an Albert Schweitzer quote: "A man is really ethical only when he obeys the constraint laid on him to aid all life which he is able to help."


Anonymous said...


Excellent article!

In today's almost-in-touch-with-the-realities-of-oil-consumption (literally and figuratively) society, you could really flesh (no pun intended) this out with how much of an impact a non-local carnivorous diet is dependent on cheap and abundant oil. 'Tis sad, really, that our species has a long history of always learning the hard way.

I firmly believe true enlightenment lies ahead, but we need to adjust our perspectives to include more than one lifetime, one generation, one term, and so on. Until we embrace humility, that enlightenment will be out of reach.

Keep up the great work!

Ted (yup, the one who always needs volunteers...)

Anonymous said...

It is possible to be an environmentalist and be a meat eater.


By avoiding "industrial" meats such as beef, chicken and pork and eat only game meat and horse meat (which, I know, is not legal in the US but is legal in Canada and is actually sold in most groceries).

Horse meat is very ethical to eat. For horse meat to be good, it needs to come from an old animal, and it wouldn't be financially sustainable to raise horses strictly for the meat industry. The only horse meat that is sold is coming from animals that died naturally or that had to be put down. Instead of letting the horse decompose underground, they are leveraging on it.

As for game meat, it's a natural cycle. Smaller fishes get eaten by bigger fishes. Bigger fishes get eater by even bigger fishes or by birds and bears... smaller birds are eaten by bigger birds or animals, and so on.

Of course I realize that it would be impossible to feed the entire planet with game meat and horse meat, so in an utopic world everyone would be vegetarian.

However at this precise moment, I can enjoy eating meat (which humans naturally ate for thousands of years) while being ethical about it.

Dr. Joanne Cacciatore said...

Beautifully said! I've been a vegetarian, now nearly raw foodist, since the last 1970's. I cannot imagine eating a dead cow. The treatment of less sophisticated animals for human enjoyment is contemptible.

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