Utah State University

Veganism: A Moral Imperative

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It’s not difficult to convince people of the moral case for veganism because it rests on assumptions that everyone already believes. A vegan is someone who does not eat, wear or otherwise consume animal products. Veganism is the rejection of animal exploitation in one’s own life. It is an integral principle of non-violence and non-harm, which I consider to be the foundation of all morality and ethics.

I doubt that there is a person reading this that disagrees with the idea that we should not inflict unnecessary or frivolous pain, suffering, or death on animals. But even if there is, it makes no difference to you, the reader, because you do not share that view. We all feel outrage when we see people harming cats or dogs as evidenced by the Michael Vick dog-fighting debacle a few years ago. A recent documentary, Blackfish, has brought attention to cruelty against orcas at Sea-World. Many people are greatly concerned about poaching elephants or the slaughter of dolphins. But our focus on these marginal issues hides a glaring contradiction between our own personal beliefs and behavior.

All of us are involved in the use of animals everyday. So if we really take our belief seriously then we ought to examine our use of animals and ask ourselves whether our use of them constitutes a necessity or not. And whatever we may say qualifies as a “necessity”, our pleasure, amusement, or convenience certainly do not. Let’s begin with an easy illustration of this—what we wear.

Most shoes today are made of leather—the skin of animals. Yet there are a number of widely available alternative materials that do not necessitate killing. Fur is another clothing material we do not need to wear today because there are plenty of alternatives that do not involve inflicting pain, suffering, or death. So, we have easily established that if we take seriously the idea that we ought not to inflict unnecessary suffering or death on animals then some purchases, such as buying leather or fur, contradict that belief. But by far our largest and most frivolous use of animals is for food.

Annually we kill about 56 billion animals worldwide for food, excluding fish and other water-dwelling animals. But the dogs, cats, and other animals that we may share our lives with, are no different than the animals whom we routinely kill and whose bodies we eat. Cows, pigs, chickens, just like cats and dogs, are someone not something. They too can feel pain and suffering. And just as we would think it wrong to inflict pain or death on a dog or cat for no good reason, it is as wrong to do likewise to other animals.

Many people can understand why someone would avoid meat to avoid killing but what’s wrong with dairy and eggs? The truth is that no coherent moral distinction can be made between meat, milk, or eggs because all animals used for food production end up at the same place: the slaughterhouse.

For example, a cow will live about 25 years naturally. But most cows used for dairy are slaughtered after about five. Why? Because after that period of time the amount of milk the cow produces begins to decline and it is more profitable to sell her for slaughter (most spent dairy cows are used for ground beef) than to continue to feed and take care of her without earning the same amount of return. Additionally, because she is a mammal, she must be impregnated in order for her to produce milk at all; it isn’t automatic. A dairy cow is typically impregnated every year during her lifetime. The milk she produces is for her young. But to ensure the maximum amount of milk for human consumption, the resulting calf is taken away soon after birth. A female calf will be sold to another dairy farmer or will replace her mother after her production declines. If a male is born, he is obviously of no use to the dairy producer. Most male dairy cows are sold to veal farmers whose industry could not exist without a ready supply of these unwanted male calves.

A similar situation exists for egg producers. The laying hens are killed after a certain number of egg-laying cycles and replaced with another younger, more productive hen. At hatcheries which supply producers, hundreds of millions of male chicks are killed by suffocation or being ground alive every year because they are useless to egg producers because they cannot lay eggs and are unsuitable for use as meat because of the characteristics that make their mothers useful for egg production.

Many well-meaning, sincere people, recognizing the horror of modern, industrial animal agriculture seek to buy “humanely raised” or “free range” meat, eggs, or dairy. But every “free range” producer faces the same economic realities that govern their more industrial counterparts and could not profitably operate without engaging in the same practices described above. Moreover, what can ever be humane about raising and killing any animal when we do not need to? If we claim to care about animals and then try to justify unnecessarily harming or killing them, we need to rethink what we mean by “care.” The best way to help these animals is by not consuming them in the first place.

We do not need to eat ice cream. We do not need to eat cheeseburgers. We do not need to eat chicken. We do not need to eat bacon. We do not need to eat eggs. In fact, we do not need to eat any animal products at all. Indeed, the American Dietetic Association’s position on vegan diets is that they are not only “healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may [help] in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases” but “are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.” Moreover, eating animal products has been linked to a variety of health problems. But even if that were not the case, it’s still perfectly possible to live healthfully without them.

Thus, if we take seriously our belief that we ought not to inflict suffering or pain or death on animals for unnecessary, frivolous reasons then it does not matter how good animal products may taste—the pleasure we derive from eating them cannot be a sufficient justification.

For those interested in finding more about how to become vegan or answers to their questions I recommend the work and podcasts of Prof. Gary Francione to whom I am greatly indebted for clarifying these issues for me and influencing my thinking on animals. His website www.abolitionistapproach.com has great resources as well as his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/abolitionistapproach. A great primer on veganism can be found at www.vegankit.com.

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The opinions expressed in this blog are solely the opinions of the writer and in no way represent those of Strata itself.

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One Comment »

  1. Andrew,
    A very insightful commentary. I’ve always thought people should have to kill whatever they wish to eat because then they would eat a lot less meat. I read a great article in the Atlantic when I was in high school about how chickens were processed and I couldn’t eat it for a long time after that. I will still eat meat though and be as conscience of the choice as possible. I think it would be also good of you to do research on all the GMO crops growing in this country and all the radiation of vegetables and chemical ripening of tomatoes and other things. Unfortunately, our veggies are very contaminated and genetically altered and not as nutritious as you think. Thank you for the article it was fun to read.