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Should we be vegetarians?
This essay will argue that in western society we ought to adopt a vegetarian diet. This is because causing a sentient being to suffer without good reason is morally wrong. It will begin by stating that animals have an interest in avoiding suffering and this interest is worthy of some moral consideration. Evidence suggests current pastoral practices subject animals to severe physical and psychological suffering. It will argue that the trivial pleasure of taste sensation does not justify exploiting an animal’s interest in avoiding this suffering. The discussion will then reflect on the “impotence of the individual” objection. It will concede that on an individual level, consumer choices rarely have any direct effect upon the number of animals that are killed for the purpose of production. However, not only does refusing to engage in meat consumption make the possibility of pastoral reform more likely, but there is something morally objectionable in benefitting from an act that is founded upon unnecessary harm. It will conclude that individuals are required to actively oppose practices which support the unjust systematic suffering of animals. Given both the nature and structure of the farming industry, this may necessitate the adoption of not only a vegetarian, but a vegan diet. 
Research and observation demonstrate that sentient beings have an interest in avoiding suffering. Traditionally, we accept that this interest is worthy of some moral consideration. (Frey, 2014) This is reflected in widely adopted state laws that prohibit animal cruelty. Accepting this statement does not require accepting that animal interests are morally equivalent to human interests. Instead, it simply concedes that since animals’ interests are worthy of some moral consideration, we have a prima facie obligation to respect them. Causing animals to suffer without good reason fails to ascribe them with adequate moral consideration and does not respect their interests as moral beings. Therefore, to deliberately cause a sentient being to suffer without good reason is wrong.
The use of the term, “Good reason” in this context refers to a situation where not causing an animal to suffer would significantly compromise human lives. We have sufficient evidence to accept that conventional farming methods subject animals to a severe amount of suffering. In order to justify the suffering, we would need a good reason for consuming its produce. This criterion may be met in areas of the world where the consumption of meat is necessary for a stable diet. However, given the availability of vegetarian alternatives, abstaining from meat eating, generally, does not compromise human life. Subsequently, eating meat unnecessarily exploits an animal’s interest in avoiding suffering and is therefore morally wrong. Considering we should not do things that are morally wrong, we are required to adopt a vegetarian diet.
Those who advocate for meat consumption may do so based on “the impotence of the individual.” This objection can be formulated in two was. Firstly, it maintains that given the scale of the market, individuals who abstain from eating meat are causally impotent in decreasing the overall number of animals raised for food. (Garrett, 2007, 224.)[i] Secondly, it states that the contribution of buying and consuming meat that has already been killed is causally inefficacious. Therefore, in both cases the link from the wrongness of harming and killing animals to the wrongness of an individual’s purchasing and consuming them appears to be fractured. (Cumutt, 1997, p.97-107)[ii] Adopting this position allows an individual to consume meat whilst maintaining that causing animals to suffer without good reason is morally wrong.
On the surface the objections appear compelling. It is difficult to deny that on an individual level consumer choice does not yield any significant consequence on the level of meat production. However, when an individual orders a vegetarian meal it is not from the assumption that their action will directly cause the restaurant to purchase less meat from its supplier, subsequently preventing animal suffering. (Although it may increase the likelihood of this happening.) Instead, the individual should choose the vegetarian option because, given what we know about the process of meat production, it would be morally wrong not to. Vegetarianism is not simply a dietary preference, but an ethical position against the unnecessary exploitation of animals.
Each individual consumer choice provides an opportunity to oppose or support unjust systematic practices. (Almassi, 2011, p.398) There is something morally intolerable about supporting a practice that is founded upon a moral wrong. This applies even if the individual is casually impotent in the practice. For example, we would probably regard it unpalatable to buy wigs made from the hair of girls murdered by serial killers. This is not because in doing so we would be contributing to their harm. Instead, it is because by wearing the wig or consuming the product, an individual is benefitting from another’s misfortune. A truly moral and admirable person would not gain satisfaction from such action. It seems a moral contradiction to oppose animal cruelty yet support a practice whose success is dependent upon that very cruelty. Only through dissociating one’s self from the practice of meat production can an individual display a moral intolerance towards unnecessary animal suffering.
It is worth recognising that given the structure of farming practices, it is perhaps not enough to oppose only the meat industry. Morally, we ought to oppose all practices that contribute to unnecessary animal suffering. There is sufficient reason to regard the dairy industry as supporting the meat industry. For example, when dairy cows give birth to male calves, they are fed into the veal trade. These calves are severely confined, force fed and then typically slaughtered between 16-18 weeks of age. (https://www.mspca.org/animal_protection/farm-animal-welfare-cows/ ) If we accept the wrongness of this unnecessary suffering we ought to abstain from all animal products produced in conditions that support the unjust suffering of animals.
Collectively adopting this ethical position will have a significant causal impact, reducing the demand for future animal products and subsequently decreasing the number of animals unnecessarily harmed in its production.
There is little dispute that sentient creatures have an interest in avoiding suffering. Our trivial pleasure of taste sensation is not a sufficient justification to overrule this interest. The “ignorance of the individual” does not provide compelling enough reasons to defend the consumption of meat in our modernised society. An individual may appear causally impotent in transforming unjust pastoral practice and production. However, it seems there is something morally objectionable about benefitting from the misfortune of others. Only through abstaining from the consumption of animal products can we acknowledge and eventually prevent the moral wrongness of conventional farming practices.
- Almassi, B., 2011. The consequences of individual consumption: A defence of threshold arguments for vegetarianism and consumer ethics. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 28(4), pp.396-411.
- Curnutt, J., 1997. A new argument for vegetarianism. Journal Of Social Philosophy-Augusta-, 28, pp.153-172.
- “Farm Animal Welfare: Cows • MSPCA-Angell”, MSPCA-Angell, 2019 <https://www.mspca.org/animal_protection/farm-animal-welfare-cows/> [Accessed 21 October 2019]
- Frey, R. G. (2014) ‘Moral Standing, the Values of Lives, and Speciesism’, in Hugh LaFollette (ed.) Ethics in Practice: An Anthology, 4th edition, John Wiley & Sons, pp. 181-191.
- Garrett, J.R., 2007. Utilitarianism, vegetarianism, and human health: A response to the causal impotence objection. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 24(3), pp.223-237.
- Nobis, N., 2002. Vegetarianism and virtue: Does consequentialism demand too little?. Social Theory and Practice, 28(1), pp.135-156.
- Singer, P., 1980. Utilitarianism and vegetarianism. Philosophy & Public Affairs, pp.325-337.
 This essay will neglect to comment on the moral status of non- sentient beings. However, if their production contributes to the suffering of sentient beings, it concedes their consumption should also be considered impermissible.
[i] Garrett, Jeremy R. “Utilitarianism, Vegetarianism, and Human Health: A Response to the Causal Impotence Objection.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 24, no. 3 (2007): 224
[ii] Cumutt, “A New Argument for Vegetarianism,” p. 165., James Rachels, in “The Moral Argument for Vegetarianism,” in his Can Ethics Provide Answers? (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997), pp. 99-107
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