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wildpotato's avatar

In what ways does vegetarianism support animal rights as much or more than eating ethically sourced meat?

Asked by wildpotato (15030points) October 28th, 2013 from iPhone

I am confused by the notion that vegetarianism supports the ethical treatment of animals. Isn’t it just burying one’s head in the sand, rather than confronting the problem? It seems to me that if the current population of vegetarians began supporting farms that raise cows and chickens in the pasture rather than in feedlots, the demand for these animals would rise and thus so would the number of animals being raised in an ethical way. I’m not sure if there would also be a drop in the number of factory farmed animals, but in any case the resources and profile of the ethical farming movement might rise dramatically.

Please note that this is a different question than why people are vegetarian – I realize that there are other, often overarching moral or healthful reasons to be veggie. So I think an answer like “I believe it is wrong to deprive another animal of life in order to feed myself,” while an excellent answer to this question I am not asking, does not speak to how food animals could possibly still continue their existence as a species and also be treated humanely. I am wondering specifically about how (or if) vegetarians think that abstaining from meat helps the cause for ethical treatment of animals.

The only answer I can come up with on my own is that many veggies must not want food animals to continue existing. Truth? Or is there a scenario you guys could imagine where we live with and eat food animals in a way you’d find morally acceptable? Or am I way off mark?

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20 Answers

SavoirFaire's avatar

A brief rundown with many omissions:

There are two major philosophical schools of moral vegetarianism. The first is the utilitarian school. Utilitarianism is concerned with maximizing happiness for all sentient creatures capable of suffering. On this view, a creature isn’t an object of moral concern until it exists and is sentient. (Note: this is not unique to utilitarianism. Many moral philosophers believe that sentience is a necessary and sufficient condition for being an object of moral concern.) Utilitarians cannot find intrinsic value in the mere existence of a species. If you can show that it significantly undermines the happiness of the remaining species to let one go extinct, then they would say you have a reason to prevent the extinction. Otherwise, future non-existent cows are just as worrisome as all of the siblings I’ll never have because my parents weren’t constantly trying to churn out babies.

The second is the deontological school, from which we get the term “animal rights.” Deontological vegetarians argue that the basis of rights is a set of cognitive abilities that are shared by human and non-human animals alike (or at least, many non-human animals). Though non-human animals cannot act as moral agents—that is, they cannot assert their rights, and often lack a deep understanding of ethics—the same can be said of many human animals (infants being the most obvious example). So long as an animal—human or not—is a bearer of rights, it cannot be killed for no reason or owned by anyone else (life, liberty, and self-ownership being considered basic rights that a being must have if they have any at all). But notice again that this is based on individuals. There is no place for attaching value to the species itself, which is not a being (and thus cannot be the bearer of rights).*

That the two major schools cannot—or at least do not—place any weight on the species itself has led to at least one other approach, known as deep ecology. This approach rejects all efforts to understand the moral value of animals in terms of the ways in which humans get their value. That is, it takes animals to be valuable in themselves even if they do not share any of the qualities that make humans valuable in themselves. Indeed, deep ecologists typically find moral philosophy to be irredeemably shallow, arguing that it is anthropocentric and based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the world. Ethics, they say, must be holistic. The real question is how to promote the well-being of the system—the planet, or possibly the whole universe—understood as a single functioning unit. Though some beings have no other choice but to prey on other beings, those that can appreciate the intrinsic value each being has are obligated to respect them all and promote their continued existence.


* Note that there is another deontological school that holds closely to Immanuel Kant’s views about animals and what we owe them. According to the Kantians, animals are not morally considerable at all; however, we are required to treat them compassionately in order to prevent ourselves from becoming immoral beings. The idea is that allowing oneself to be cruel to animals will eventually erode our character to the point that we start acting cruelly to other human beings. For whatever reason, Kant didn’t think this prevented us from killing and eating other animals.

fundevogel's avatar

I don’t know where anyone else’s line is on the matter, but I don’t expect my vegetarianism to topple unethical animal treatment within the farm industry. I just got to a point where I knew that the meat I ate made me a part of the system that mistreated animals and I didn’t want to be involved with it anymore. I can’t afford the ethically raised meat nor do I have the time to vet which producers are ethical so I just opt out.

I’m not fixing the problem, I’ve just decided not to be a partner in it anymore.

glacial's avatar

I have raised this question with my “meat is murder” vegan friends before, and my conclusion is that they care about the charismatic megafauna that they recognize as “food”. They don’t want to know that their own choices have serious consequences (including pain and death) for different living things – which they do, whether it’s killing gophers and mice in fields, or insects that compete for the crops, or whether it’s increased roadkill due to habitat loss to crop fields.

In my view, we need to be conscious of where our food comes from, and spend our money with providers who care about the wellbeing of their livestock (if we are eating meat), because our choices can improve the lives of stock animals. But it is not true that humans can feed themselves without causing pain and death to any animals, and the militant “meat is murder” types are hypocrites for demanding that others stop eating meat for this reason.

I would also point out that I have vegan friends who do not try to convert anyone, and I completely respect their choice. We all have to do what we think is right. Just as long as they don’t show me graphic pictures of animals in pain and tell me I’m responsible for that.

wildpotato's avatar

@SavoirFaire Well, if you want to talk shop, here’s my take – also very brief with many omissions.

I tend to find both the libertarian and the conservation views of environmental ethics wanting, as well as the theories I’ve read that attempt to mediate between the two, such as Callicott’s land-ethical holism. The worldview that is held in any theory that works from the intrinsic value/instrumental value dichotomy grows out of and contributes back to the everyday conception of the environment as a collection of things, animals, and people. I suspect my man Heidegger would say that such theories work from an ontology of the present-at-hand (in taking aspects of the environment as useful in the case of instrumental-value theories, or, in the case of intrinsic-value theories, in basing the theory on rejection of this idea) rather than allow phusis to unfold itself as the clearing that clears. I’m down with deep ecology, so long as it truly escapes the anthropocentric axiology of moral philosophy by, say, including the spectre of valuation in the factual properties of ecology thought as a whole, so that the two (facts and values) grow out of each other and simultaneously – as in H. Rolston III’s theory of ecological extension.

In any event, I am not sure that the various environmental ethics really say all that much about why people behave as they do. I think vegetarianism, in particular, often has more to do with sentimentality than with a thought-through approach to how and why we value animals or the environment. I guess that with this question I intend more to gather data points and then work them into one or another ethic than t’other way around. Super review though; way to provide the context I neglected.

JLeslie's avatar

The less demand there is for beef and milk the fewer cows will be inseminated. They literally make the cows pregnant. That is pretty upsetting to me. They violate the cow. I eat meat and some dairy products, but I try to be veganish or cheaganish as I heard recently (cheating vegan). I know you are not only talking about beef, I just use it as one example. Certainly some vegetarians do try to fight for animal rights and humane treatment of animals. That includes how the animals are treated on farms, even if they are slated for certain death eventually for consumption.

I try to buy free range eggs, but the prices sometimes are triple. I winder if they are making much more money on each dozen? That because it is marketed owards people who can afford such things, that they charge a lot of money, because that market will pay? Thing is, if that is true, if they charged a more reasonable price they would have a bigger volume in sales. When the price is outrageous I buy the cheap ones. It’s like there is no middle ground, it’s frustrating.

I don’t buy veal at all. If I knew veal came from a farm where the calf was free to walk around I might consider buying it for my husband, but they are so mistreated on so many farms I won’t buy it. If more people gave up veal I feel pretty sure farmers would want to know what they need to do to make it marketable again.

KaY_Jelly's avatar

Did you know that 1 vegan saves approximately 95 lives a year. In my house there is 3 vegans. :D

I believe it supports the ethical treatment because with the proper information we would not ever know about what is ethical or not.

Also when I tell my vegan friends they tell theirs and so on and so forth and we support each other and send the word to each other and things happen and messages get out.

I would of never heard of Blackfish

I wouldn’t know about palm oil and orangutans. Or about tin. Or even about gelatin.

snowberry's avatar

There are 13 different descriptions of how hens are raised and eggs are produced, including Free Range, Cage free, Certified Humane, Organic, Omega-3, etc. Many of these operations engage in beak cutting and enforced molting by starvation, over crowding, etc. For many of these designations, there is no governing body that actually enforces how those chickens are housed and eggs are produced. If you really want to buy fresh eggs that are cruelty free, buy them from a local farmer where you can actually see the chickens.

The Humane Society has come up with this:

ragingloli's avatar

Not eating meat supports an animal’s right to life.
dat ain’t rocket science, y’all.

livelaughlove21's avatar

One person being a vegetarian does not “save” a significant amount of animals from being slaughtered. I think it’s just based on principle with no desire or motivation to actually make a societal change. They can’t possibly think they’re making a big difference by simply abstaining from eating meat.

thorninmud's avatar

(Vegetarian here)

I would rather that there be little to no meat production, but I would certainly rather that whatever meat production there is happen under humane conditions.

As @SavoirFaire‘s exposition noted, the welfare of the species is not the concern here, since the species in question have been so far removed from the (non-human) natural selection process for so long that they no longer contribute to the overall health of the ecosystem. Quite the contrary, in most cases.

If we want to maintain the existence of representatives of the species out of principled concern over the loss of species in general, then a tiny fraction of the current number of individuals would largely suffice. Since they would be unable to fit back into the ecosystem (due to our genetic manipulations), they would have to be curated, of course. Presumably, those select individuals would get pretty good care.

As for individual animals now existing, we are their de facto custodians, since we have made them dependent on us. As such, we have a responsibility to provide what they seem to need to live healthy, stress-free lives. It’s a given that they will die, but let that death be as stress-free as possible. Want to eat them? Fine. Yes, this is a higher standard of living and dying than most wild animals enjoy, but I think that we have incurred that responsibility by co-opting their development.

Is the solution to just raise all our meat animals under happy conditions and give them all trauma-free deaths (somewhat as we do for our pets)? I’m not convinced that we can actually do that on a scale that would support anything like current levels of meat consumption. Factory farming has a huge market advantage in that it relies heavily on converting corn into meat, and corn is cheap thanks to massive government subsidies. The price of factory meat doesn’t reflect anywhere near the actual cost of making it (not to mention the environmental cost). Because our culture grew up around abundant meat, scaling back would be very difficult. Humanely-raise meat is a niche market whose consumers care enough about animals or the environment or their own health to pay the premium.

People who are publicly vegetarian serve to heighten general awareness of the downsides of factory farming and raising sensibilities to animal welfare. Many people respond to this awareness not by becoming vegetarian themselves, but by moving to humanely raised meat, so I think that there is an indirect benefit to humane farmers from having vegetarians around. The result is a lower overall demand for meat, and a shift of the remaining market toward humanely raised meat. I guess that would be my answer to your question.

That said, I find that these are not the most compelling arguments for vegetarianism, but those are outside the scope of your question.

josie's avatar

Animals do not possess the prerequisites to have rights.
Everything after that is just talk.

Response moderated (Personal Attack)
snowberry's avatar

This just showed up in my news feed. Icky icky!

Not only is this truly abuse, it’s also unhealthy meat because it is not bled out before processing.

KaY_Jelly's avatar

I almost stole saved a cow. When I realized I probably would have been committing a crime. I was coming home and I frequently pass by this house in a Podunk town that has cows. One cow in the summer was always kept away from the grazing cows and not allowed to graze. They tied the cow to a tree about 50m from a for the lack of a better word highway.

Now that summer is over I haven’t seen the cow for awhile and I thought “OK maybe they are treating it better”.

The other day I drive by and where is the cow? On their front lawn tied by a chain to a metal pole, now the cow was literally 15m from the road. And other cows are just grazing around in the fenced in area. I started wondering, what did this cow do?

So I pulled over. It was like a freak show of sorts, the humiliated cow didn’t even have enough chain to lay down or turn around, its ass facing traffic. The cow made eye contact with me at that moment turning it’s head with a look in it’s eyes and I can’t explain it but the look said “help me”.

I got out of my car, and I started walking across the busy highway, in a daze really, and when I got across the road I stood there for a second and I looked back at my car with the 4 ways blinking and it was then that I realized what I was doing…“what am I going to do with a cow and where am I going to take it and how am I going to get it there?”

Now I have to find out where I go so I can know what sort of rules are for this county that the cow is in and what is considered ethical treatment for farm animals there. And I also wonder how the heck you take care of issues like that if they are not being ethically treated. This will bug me until I find a solution.

JLeslie's avatar

@KaY_Jelly I will never forget seeing an episode of Oprah where they showed puppy mills in PA. They dogs were treated so badly, and what they pointed out on the show was the laws would be the same for the puppy mills as they would be for cattle. The way it was said was like for cattle it’s ok. I couldn’t understand differentiating between two types of animals like that. The reason I mention it to you is I fear laws for cows might not be very protective. They seem to vary by state though. Most dairy farms I have been to the cows have quite a bit of autonomy and space, but I am sure it is very different from farm to farm.

snowberry's avatar

@JLeslie With animals we use for food, there is no profit to the farmer if they are sick. If the milk cows you see get to move around, they need it for health and milk production. That’s not the case if you’re a “farmer” producing puppies for sale. Your bitch doesn’t need to be able to walk, just produce puppies, regardless of their health.

KaY_Jelly's avatar

@JLeslie I don’t like puppy mills. I was going to tell why but it’s a long story so I decided not to.

Anyway, I still think that even though they make us believe that dairy farms and so on are “ethical” I do not think they are. I also think since we have dairy farms in my town and they isolate the cows in these ridiculous small plastic igloo (I swear a bigger version of a cheap dog house) that a cow on a pole is of no significance to anyone but little old me and I’m not that influential.

I watched an amazing movie called Samsara. This to me is unethical treatment of cows and other animals

The more aware we are, and the more we protest this stuff, I think the more we can possibly change the laws.

JLeslie's avatar

@KaY_Jelly My point was the laws for cattle suck from what I can tell.

KaY_Jelly's avatar

@JLeslie Yes I’m sorry. I understood that. I was just touching further on that as to why I think the laws for cattle suck ass even more.

shrubbery's avatar

You said you didn’t want this answer, but literally my answer to the question “in what ways does vegetarianism support animal rights as much or more than eating ethically sourced meat?” is that by not eating meat, I am not contributing to ending an animal’s life for my pleasure, whereas by eating ethical free range etc meat, while they may have had a happier life up until the point they are killed, I am still eating an animal that was killed for my personal benefit, and I don’t agree with that. Sure, by eating ethically sourced meats you might be contributing to the animal’s rights to go outside, but by not eating meat at all I’m contributing to the animal’s right to live. Sometimes I agree that it’s sort of a cop-out, rather than doing something active to show my dissent I’m passively retracting my support, but when you’re a poor student trying to get your life together, not contributing to the system that tortures and kills animals is the least I can do right now. I sign petitions, support friends who buy free range (without scorning non-vegetarians cause that doesn’t help anybody), I support events like world vegan day to add to the numbers they can report on to say hey look how many people are interested in this, I just do what I can with what I have.

The fact of the matter is that less animals are killed when I don’t eat meat than would have otherwise, and until maybe one day when I have money, power, and influence, that’s all little old me can do.

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