Vegetarianism and The Ethics Behind the Scenes

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Contemporary Moral Issues

Segment 5 Paper

Dr. Eleanor Holvek


                   Vegetarianism and The Ethics Behind the Scenes

       Why are so many people becoming vegetarians? Many are using it as a means of

boycotting the philosophy that animals are mere resources only to be used and abused.

Ethicists help by using the word 'harm' to support the position that the consumption of

meat is wrong, but when weaving the maze of their arguments, it may be possible that a

loophole in their arguments could provide path in which mankind may morally consume


       Since pain is a relatively frequent occurrence in nature, something else must be

used to promote vegetarianism other than the reduction of pain during an animal's

slaughter. Otherwise, animal agriculture could be understood as a saving grace -

allowing animals to live physically healthy lives free of residual survival stress, pain, and

a long, gruesome, torturous death. Captivity also gives life to animals that could never

naturally have one. 'Slaughtering' could therefore be understood as clearing the way for

new entities to be given life.

       Ethicists therefore often move up the linguistic hierarchy and use the word 'harm'

instead of 'pain' to attack mankind's use of animals. Peter Singer defines it as "felt pain or

lost opportunities for pleasure" (Varner 540). He implies that although the existence of

physical pain in animal agriculture may be debatable, harm is not. For example, on
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chicken farms, 3 lb chickens are lined up side-by-side in tiny, half a square foot cages.

"every natural instinct the birds have is frustrated. They cannot walk around, scratch the

ground, dustbathe, build a nest, or stretch their wings. They are not part of a flock. They

cannot keep out of each other's way …" (509). The list of ways in which they are harmed

goes on and on.

       The veal industry is even more heart wrenching. Calves are chained for thirteen

to fifteen weeks in tiny stalls deliberately designed to keep the animal from moving.

When they lie down, they must lie hunched up (Singer 509). They are scared and sorely

miss their mothers, as well as anything at all for them to suck on to provide natural

comfort (510). "Digestive disorders, including stomach ulcers, are common in veal

calves, as are chronically loose bowel movements" (510). Both chickens and calves alike

have completely lost all opportunities for pleasure and so are being severely harmed.

       Tom Regan approaches the issue from a different direction and believes that all

animals have the right not be harmed for the benefit of others, where harm in this

instance is defined as "a decrease in the capacity to form and satisfy desires" (Varner

542). This right is based upon the tediously derived argument that "All who have

inherent value have it equally, whether they be human animals or not" (Regan 528).

By this philosophy, animals are not to be viewed as mere resources because they are

intrinsically valuable and deserving of respect.

       Both Singer and Regan offer a loophole in their arguments, suggesting that there

might be an ethical alternative to modern, harmful methods of animal agriculture. Singer

only specified "self-conscious individuals" in his Replaceability Thesis and

acknowledges that if lower level animals live happy lives free of pain, then using them
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for food could be ethical (Varner 540). Regan's paralleling definition of harm ignores

those animals incapable of forming and satisfying desires. One can see there remains a

large assortment of lower level species still left at mankind's disposal even after the

ethical filters of Singer and Regan.

       However, taking advantage of this loophole involves solving several problems.

There are disputes as to where the boundary line is between higher and lower animals.

Singer says higher level animals are self-conscious and have forward-looking desires,

specifically, mammals. Gary Varner points out that "Cats probably think about what to

do in the next moment to achieve a desired result, but I doubt that they have projects

(long-term, complicated desires)" (Varner 543). Tom Regan believes that "all mentally

normal mammals of a year or more have desires" (543). They all agree that mammals are

off limits, but what about non-mammals? The only certainty is that "if living, then the

more complex, the more morally significant" (Elliott 570). The truth is, ethicists will

never be able to agree on a chart mapping each species to their level of moral


       Even if ethicists could agree on a sort of boundary line, there remains the

economical aspect to be upheld. The reason why animals are detained under such poor

conditions in the first place is to save money. One could imagine that giving lower

animals the opportunity to live happy lives means a significant increase in money spent

on raising them (Singer 506).

       Although vegetarianism may seem fairly appealing at this point, they often

overlook the unintended consequences of increasing crop production to replace animals.

For example, one could only imagine how many field animals become collateral damage
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during crop production and harvest (August et al. 56). Small animal populations can be

reduced by as much as 50% with every pass of the tractor to plow (56). Using fields for

grazing instead of for growing crops would significantly reduce the number of plows

passing over fields, and thus, the number of rabbits, mice, pheasants, etc. needlessly

killed (56).

        Tom Regan stated in his Worse-off principle that when forced to inflict harm on

individuals, one should avoid harming that which has the most to lose. For example, if

four people and one million dogs are about to drown and a lifeboat suddenly appears that

can hold four entities, one should save the four humans (Varner 543). In this case, the

question would be whether to kill thousands of small animals in order to generate crops,

or to kill a few dozen large animals to generate meat. By Regan's Worse-off principle,

one should raise crops and not raise cattle.

        Regan's second principle, the Miniride principle, stated that when forced to inflict

harm on those of equal status, harm as few as possible (Varner 543). If one takes a step

backward and pictures what existed in the place of crops before man whipped out his

plow, they would most likely think of grasslands or forests. By the Miniride principle, if

there were more gophers in the grasslands and forests than in the crops, then these

habitats should never have converted the land to crops in the first place and should

probably be returned to nature.

        The truth is, those grasslands and forests did not just support gophers. They often

fostered larger animals like deer, foxes, wolves, buffalos, raccoons, eagles, bears, etc.

Farmers chopped down trees, put up barbed wire fences, and shot at these hungry

invaders. The Worse-off principle would say that nature's big animals are more valuable
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than the crop animals because they have higher level thinking processes and thus have

more to lose.

       Although these larger wild animals are more valuable than crop gophers, they

may be on an equal level to that of captive farm animals. When debating on which is

more ethical, allowing large captive animals life or large wild animals to life, the Worse-

off principle and Miniride principle appear to be of little use because the issue really

depends on which set of animals live better lives. Are farmers allowing their stock to live

physically healthy, happy lives free of residual survival stress, pain, and a long,

gruesome, torturous death? It would seem that if the answer is 'yes,' captivity would offer

a better quality of life than nature, where animals die of starvation, open wounds,

diseases, the cold, and carnivors.

       Neither Singer nor Regan could object to this form of captivity based upon their

definition of harm, but are there other grounds for objection? Elliott's work may have

suggested that if farm animals are kept in a large enclosures where they are fed, not

treated cruelly, and are able to behave according to their nature, they may be morally

confined (Elliott 570). However, this assumed that they were only confined temporarily

and for lifesaving medical research. So, even if the animals live happy captive lives, they

are still being harmed when their life is suddenly and unnaturally ended.

       Singer would agree and then quote his Replaceability Thesis. This entails that

"self conscious individuals are not replaceable, because when an individual with forward-

looking desires dies, those desires go unsatisfied even if another individual is born and

has similar desires satisfied" (Varner 541). This means that as each sentient animal

raised and slaughtered is accumulating increasingly more harm. However, would this not
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also mean that nature's animals are irreplaceable as well? Are farmers therefore doing

less harm than nature if they also increase the lifespan of the animals on the farm past

that of their natural life expectancy?

       Regan would argue that the core problem remains intact, namely, "The

fundamental wrong is the system that allows us to view animals as our resources" (Regan

523). Is this really a problem? If the animals have a heightened quality of life in

captivity over a natural one - a near perfect one - why not mutually benefit both humans

and non-humans at the same time?

       Even after a great deal of analysis, the unanswered questions surrounding

vegetarianism only seem to raise more. Since all carnivores naturally consume meat, has

the blessing of a superior intellect charged humans with the moral responsibility of not

mimicking nature? Has economic competition disabled mankind's ability to negotiate

their treatment of animals? Should animal rights laws change the veal and poultry

industry? What moral responsibility would be included if genetic engineering could

produce a near brain-less mammal? The morality involved in these sorts of philosophical

issues is clearly very complex. So complex, in fact, that the certainty is that

vegetarianism is a reminder that there will always be a moral issue at the heart of raising

and eating animals.

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