The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

The Ethical Case for Vegetarianism

ethical animal engine

​I’d like to first preface this article by admitting my hypocrisy. I’m currently in the process of reducing my meat intake as much as possible while maintaining proper nutrition, with the end goal of complete vegetarianism. On any given week, I eat fish or shrimp for three to four meals and beef for one. So, I cannot stand on the same moral mountain as pitchfork-wielding vegans, nor can I judge the eating habits of the common carnivore. Nonetheless, I do hope to prime the animal ethics engine for many, even if it sputters along the way as it does for me.

​Most find some intrinsic moral worth in being human, which—while a great heuristic for a prosperous civilization—tends to leave a lot desired in terms of a robust perspective on morality. It fails to recognize the most beautiful aspect of the human experience: the ability to experience! 

Subliminally, most seem to have a grasp on the value of consciousness. One, for instance, wouldn’t think twice about hurling a rock at high velocities towards the surface of the water. I have faith the same couldn’t be said of a projectile in the form of a small child. Apart from the ability to make loud noises when poked, what really differentiates a rock and human being ethically? Is it the ability to grow and develop as an independent being? If that’s the case, anyone who takes antibiotics would be culpable of a genocide that even Genghis Khan would look upon with horror. Is it the beating of the heart? If so, I’d hesitate next time your shoe hovers over a cockroach.

Ultimately, the key difference between a mere geological phenomenon and human life is the presence of consciousness—the fact that it’s like something to be human. But more importantly, it’s the ability to suffer and to enjoy our experience that gives human life its value. This distinguishes humans from other organisms, like cockroaches, that could be conscious but likely don’t have an experience of pleasure and pain. After all, the idea of harm becomes nonsensical when no one’s present to receive it. 

Typically, our intuition is fairly strong here. We know it’s wrong to harm other humans, we tend to treat our puppies well, Shel Silverstein even made a tree tug at our heartstrings. Our capacity for empathy is certainly not limited. 

Yet, we tend to overlook suffering that we don’t have to engage with on a regular basis, regardless of how bad it is. The most egregious example of this deficiency can be seen in factory farming and the treatment of livestock. Many would chomp into a pork chop with complete alacrity, while being fully unaware of the pig’s origins and the living conditions of the animal. But swap out the chop for an Air Bud rib, and the ensuing trauma may rival that of the death of a family member. Undoubtedly, both animals are conscious and can experience substantial suffering. So, why does such an enormous emotional discrepancy exist, especially when pigs have been shown to be more intelligent than dogs? We cry when seeing a downcast golden retriever on an ASPCA ad. Why then are our tears replaced with saliva when greeted with a New York strip?

Because the acquisition of our food is out of sight, out of mind. Sure, the bonds we form with our household pets play a significant role in our response here. Though, I’d hope someone in Sydney would succeed in recognizing the moral evil of a stranger being murdered in Toronto—it’s entirely possible to lack a sizable emotional response to something but still understand its moral consequences. In the case of a murder across the globe, there’s not much one could do, and understandably, their emotions can act as a proxy for moral action, or lack thereof in this instance. However, when it comes to livestock ethics, we either need to recalibrate our empathy to respond to suffering that’s out of sight or ensure a rational ethical approach to take moral action even when our emotions fail us. After all, it takes a multitude of moving parts to prevent a death 10,000 miles away but only our own convictions to control what’s on our plate.

The history of much of the meat we eat is one of suffering and deprivation. It is not uncommon, for example, for bulls to be castrated without anesthetics. Chickens are crammed into battery cages, often with only 67 square inches of space—less area than afforded by a piece of paper—which deprives these animals of their natural movement and drastically increases the chances of a disease-ridden death. To ensure efficient packing, a 650-750 °C blade removes one-third of each chicken’s beak (again, without anesthetics). It is not abnormal for chickens to die from shock during this “procedure,” and those who survive may spend the rest of their lives in excruciating pain any time they use their beak, some dying from starvation to avoid the pain. Pigs suffer through similar cramped and unsanitary conditions. After being artificially inseminated, sows are often put in gestation crates for the entirety of their pregnancy, with barely enough room to turn around. Once they give birth, their litter is taken from them, inflicting a great deal of emotional pain and stress. Prior to slaughter, pigs are typically gassed with carbon dioxide as a means of stunning them. The high concentrations of CO2 enter the throat and lungs as well as acidify the eyes, making the animals feel as though they are burning from the inside-out for up to 60 seconds until they lose consciousness.

All these practices are more or less commonplace in factory farms. I’ll let you use your imagination on just how revolting it can get in more isolated instances, but in case your creativity is failing you today, here is a video from a Tyson farm as reference

Few things would make me happier than the marriage of neuroscience and ethics in the form of a lively discussion about how to consume nutritious meat while maximizing well-being. Fish, for instance, have shown behaviors that could be interpreted as a pain response, yet they lack a neocortex, the brain region typically attributed to pain reception. This makes the ethical debate around eating fish fascinating. Additionally, a conversation could be had for eating chickens if they were kept in humane conditions and had net positive lives that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. But unfortunately, the lives of the livestock we consume are far from net positive by any imaginable metric of well-being, and the conditions of factory farming and its environmental impact make such discussions nearly impossible to have. At our current state, there really is only one simple ethical question to answer: does the temporary pleasure of meat consumption outweigh the cost of billions of animals suffering each year? On a more personal level, would you inflict the full pain of unanesthetized castration onto your puppy for a nice meal? Or inundate their body with carbon dioxide for some bacon? 

​Human lives are of the utmost importance—no one denies that—but that cannot cloud our vision on the moral worth of other conscious creatures, especially those that share with us a similar propensity to suffering. Breaking lifelong habits is hard, but for many, changing your diet is possible. And in the case of animal suffering, doing so holds tremendous gravity. It may be hard, it may require great effort, and there may be hiccups along the way, but even small changes carry immense moral value. Don’t let fang-bearing vegans deter you, it’s entirely possible to curb your meat consumption and still retain your sanity.

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Louisiana State University

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