What does it mean to be a moral vegetarian? You can claim that factory farming is toxic for our community, or that factory farming causes food distribution problems, or that factory-farmed meat is unhealthy, and, there would be ample evidence to support these claims and many others. However, these considerations are independent of the ethical question of vegetarianism, as it is possible to create a model that resolves these complaints but remains omnivorous. You could choose to be vegetarian out of religious conviction, but if your reasoning is only adherence to your church, then your conviction is to tradition and not to moral obligation. The only reasonable argument left, is the true, and simple, moral argument: Is it ethical to eat animals?
Tom Regan, a well regarded and respected pro-vegetarain philosopher, proposed a moral argument for vegetarianism and this argument contains a couple of strong points that are reasonable and a posteriori. First of which, is that humans, pro tanto, subscribe to a moral imperative that deems it unethical to cause human suffering and if eating meat causes suffering on animals it’s reasonable to assert that causing this suffering is unethical, as Regan explains:
We want and prefer things, believe and feel things, recall and expect things. And all these dimensions of our life, including our pleasure and pain, our enjoyment and suffering, our satisfaction and frustration, our continued existence or our untimely death – all make a difference to the quality of our life as lived, as experienced, by us as individuals. As the same is true of those animals that concern us (the ones that are eaten and trapped, for example), they too must be viewed as the experiencing subjects of a life, with inherent value of their own. (Regan, 1983)
Second, Regan asserts that if we rationalize our meat eating by stating that animals are intellectually inferior in some way and this (by some people) justifies the notion of eating meat, then it would follow that it’s also rational to eat humans that are intellectually inferior, as if it was a necessary condition. However, we do not eat intellectually inferior humans, therefore we should not eat meat. As Regan suggests:
[W}e have direct duties to those human beings who do not have a sense of justice – young children, for instance, and many mentally retarded humans. And yet it seems reasonably certain that, were we to torture a young child or a retarded elder, we would be doing something that wronged him or her, not something that would be wrong if (and only if) other humans with a sense of justice were upset. And since this is true in the case of these humans, we cannot rationally deny the same in the case of animals. (Regan, 1983)
Before showing how these arguments are inherently self-contradicting in nature I want to illustrate that this moral position is unequivocally in favor of vegetarianism and veganism, equally. It’s reasonable to assume that an animal that dies to become meat suffers equally to an animal that died for his hide. Additionally, just as it would be unethical to eat a human that is intellectually inferior, it would follow that it would also be unethical to take intellectually inferior humans and inject them with growth hormones, keep them in tight and inhumane quarters and extract milk from them with a machine. Therefore it’s reasonable to conclude that Regan’s arguments are, in addition to advocating for vegetarianism, are also advocating for veganism. For the purpose of this paper I will reconcile his argument to an argument in favor of veganism, as it contains all of the constraints of vegeterianism, in addition to the ones that pertain to veganism.
Tom Regan’s pro-biocentric model of veganism is hinged on the concept that animals and humans alike should be treated with equal dignity and humans should not claim authority over the non-human animal kingdom; in essence, Kantian’s categorical imperatives applied to humans and animals equally. However, if I was put into a cage with a hungry lion, I would most likely be, to my dismay, his dinner. Illustrating that the lion does not give value to respecting my dignity and is very willing to use me as a mere means to an end. Tom Regan’s model of biocentrism, which assumes equality of all human and non-human animals, also presumes human moral authority, as we know the lion is not going to take a moral stance. If humans are the moral authority and we deny eating animals and reject conditions that allow animals to eat us, then we’re projecting our morality upon the rest of the animal kingdom. It would not be a stretch to say that our moral code is the byproduct of the rational mind, as the rational mind would see logic in maintaining moral conduct in a social system. As witnessed in our superior rational mind and moral authority- ipso facto, we are the superior species. I am not implying, by any means, that God gave us animals for our own purpose and we can do as we please, but simply that our ability to objectively examine our moral relationship with animals is evidence of our rational superiority and presupposes our position at the top of food chain. Humans are, biologically speaking, omnivores, so it would be reasonable and rational to assume that an omnivore at the top of the food chain would consume meat. To claim that we should avoid eating animal products as a moral imperative is arguing that humans are not only morally superior, but also that humans exist OUTSIDE of the food chain, and therefore, outside of the ecosystem altogether, as if we could use our moral reasoning to side-step biology and the symbiotic balance of the earth.
Claiming a natural argument, such as this, could be seen as overly simplistic and overreaching as it doesn’t account for the bigger question at hand: Is it moral to eat animals? I believe it does answer the question, in the sense that life and death are naturally occurring conditions in the ecosystem and just because an a priori claim can be made about assuming value to nature, does not mean the claim has value. I could randomly assert that I believe the superior species shall be the largest species, such as the blue whale and from this we should re-shape our ethical landscape, so that it respects the dignity of the supreme blue whale. I am welcome to believe as I wish, but without observable data to show evidence that my claims are worthy of discussion, my opinion will be dismissed as unreasonable. The same can account for the moral vegetarian- arbitrarily giving more value to the blue whale is no more or less arbitrary than stating that all animals and humans are equal in value. Because observations in nature have clearly shown otherwise: if a gazelle has an equal right to life than humans, then shall we move all the gazelles out of harms way? Then once the hungry lion, desperate for food, roams the land and finds civilization and kills a human, shall we put the lion on trial and force the lion to defend its moral position? Could the lion claim he has a bigger family and more lives are dependent on him, in comparison to the single and childless victim of his? Would utilitarianism suggest the lion was just in his actions? Pretentious a priori moral projection upon nature does not change nature, but only satisfies a confirmation bias and presupposes our innate desire for power. In other words, just because we have the capacity to reason and create an idea of the morality of nature and our relationship thereof, thus reinforcing our moral disposition, does not imply that it is right, or that it is valid, or that vegetarianism is worthy of moral examination. In short, vegetarianism is amoral.
Regan, T. (1983). The case for animal rights. (p. 474). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.