We live in a time of magpie ethics and politics. The implied eclecticism has yet to touch, in a big way, the world beyond human beings: that is, the natural world and the world of sentient non-human animals. Despite this, environmentalism and animal rights have ceased to be cranky minority issues; the former has lip-service paid to it by many, although the latter is still an enigma to the lay person. In this article we try to make a bit less puzzling what is, for some people, a whole way of life by examining its possible philosophical underpinnings. The way of life in question is veganism. Most people who adopt a vegan lifestyle do so because they believe it to be wrong to use and kill animals for food, clothing and other purposes. Such people think of themselves as ethical vegans.
A vegan is someone who adopts a way of life which, as far as possible, tries to avoid all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose. The most distinctive aspect of being a vegan is diet. Vegans exclude from their diet all animal produce: meat, fish poultry, eggs, honey and dairy produce such as animal milk and cheese and their derivatives. Of course, some people become vegans because they do not like animal produce, or because it makes them ill. Others believe that adopting a vegan diet will keep them healthy. But the moral reasons ought to be taken seriously. The vegan’s moral stand challenges the cruel practices inherent in rearing animals for food, especially those such as intensive dairy, livestock and poultry farming. Philosophy is often viewed as cultural criticism and vegans, implicitly, criticise and challenge many aspects of modern culture. In what follows we will try to outline how vegans, typically, view the issues and how these issues relate to such philosophical approaches as utilitarianism and rights theory. Are vegans right when they assert that the possibility of an ethical and cultural revolution must be squarely faced?
Let us first consider utilitarianism. This is often cited by vegans in support of their way of life. A classical utilitarianism, originating in Bentham, accepts two general principles: first, that we should promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number; secondly, that each is to count for one and no-one for more thin one. While many traditional writers once concerned themselves with only human animals, most recent moral philosophers, such as Peter Singer, have applied the theory to all sentient beings. In this sense, the moral circle has been expanded. Peter Singer’s influential work, Animal Liberation (1990), is an example of this. So, for the utilitarian, everyone’s pain or pleasure counts and matters in the moral calculus, just as much as the equivalent pain or pleasure of any sentient being, be it human or animal. The great merit and appeal of utilitarianism rests with its uncompromising egalitarianism: its belief in a basic equality. Every sentient being’s interests count and count as much as the like interests of every other sentient being. But note, as Singer is careful to point out, this is not the claim that each sentient life counts for the same. More of this later. Where to draw the line on what counts as a sentient being is, however, a difficulty for this approach. But it is so for any moral theory. In this article we try to, examine to what extent a broad based utilitarianism can consistently capture some key. but diverse, strands of moral justification for the vegan way of life.
One problem with some interpretations of utilitarianism is that individuals, both human and non-human, are viewed as mere receptacles of pleasure and pain. This has led some critics to say that utilitarianism does not value individuals as ends in themselves. Consider this analogy: suppose a cup contains different liquids – sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter and sometimes a mix of the two. What has value are the liquids; the sweeter the better, the bitterer the worse. The cup or container has no value in itself; it is what goes into it, not what the cup holds, that has value. On some interpretations of utilitarianism, what has value is what goes into us and into other sentient beings. That is, what has value is what we serve as a receptacle for: our feelings of pleasure have a positive value and our feelings of pain, a negative value. It seems to follow from this that who feels the pleasure or pain is irrelevant. It is the experience of pleasure that is good and I can only experience my own pleasure and no one else’s.
A more serious and, it turns out, related, problem arises for the utilitarian when we face up to the fact that the theory requires us to bring about the best consequences – that is, the maximum balance of pleasure over pain or happiness over unhappiness. The problem is that sometimes the best aggregated consequences for everyone concerned are not necessarily the best for each individual. Utilitarianism is inherently an aggregative theory; different individuals’ pleasures and pains are totalled. Taken in a purely quantitative sense, the theory might seem to allow us, indeed to require us, say, to kill or torture an individual if this would promote the maximum benefit of others: the majority.
So, our rich and intellectually challenged aunt, Molly, could be killed in order that we inherit her money which we would then give to deserving causes such as VegFam. Indeed, hundreds of lives, human and non-human, might be saved and/or much suffering reduced. The maximum happiness in the world, by killing our aunt, might be considerably increased and, therefore, it would follow that this is what ought to be done. But, of course, Kantian influenced critics of utilitarianism take it for granted that it is always wrong to kill and wrong to torture, even for the predictable good consequences that might follow, and that because this is implied by the theory, it is therefore to be rejected as an ethical theory.
These two problems of utilitarianism, are related. It seems to us that what is wrong with the sort of utilitarianism so far outlined is that what is valued is the maximising of pleasure over pain, whereas what is seemingly not valued is the inherent worth of individuals. Suppose it were the case that by killing certain animal vivisectors considerable animal suffering and death would be avoided. A simple-minded utilitarian might believe that that is precisely what should be done. It is not a clear cut case, however, because the factual considerations are uncertain: the public outcry against the animal liberationist killing vivisectors might be counter productive and if the practice became widespread it would create fear among the general public, especially those involved in controversial work.
But, more importantly, most people would believe that the vivisector should not be killed because, no matter how despicable the vivisector might be, she or he still has certain basic rights, such as the right to life, and inherent value as a sentient individual. Moreover, utilitarianism is double edged in that it might allow the vivisector to try to justify her or his trade by arguing that by experimenting on animals she/he is, despite the suffering involved by individual animals, overall and in the long term, making significant medical advances which will increase the balance of pleasure over pain for the majority, albeit human majority.
It seem to us that a naive utilitarianism needs to be supplemented by what is the second main moral justification standardly cited by vegans: rights theory. This claims that individual sentient beings (at least) do have value as individuals: what might be called inherent value. In Kantian language, they are ends-in-themselves and not mere receptacles for pleasure and pain nor means to ends. Above all, so the argument goes, all sentient beings have inherent value and possess it equally and all have an equal right to be treated with respect, to be treated in ways that do not reduce them to the status of objects – such that they can exist merely as resources for the needs of others. So, X’s value as an individual is independent of Y’s usefulness to X and vice versa. On this view, to act in such a way that we fail to show respect for another’s independent value is to act immorally: to violate the individual’s rights. The work of Tom Regan (1988) on animal rights is an example of this sort of view.
Justifications in terms of rights theory are often taken to deny that we can justify good results by using bad means; that is, by means that violate an individual’s rights. So, on this view, even if it would have beneficial consequences we cannot just kill others such as our aunt or even the vile vivisector. Moreover, on a strict rights theory, it would be wrong to violate legal rights in any circumstances and this, indeed, might make protest and social change very difficult. Protesters would morally have to refrain from, say, even economic sabotage, which, if it were successful, might severely damage distribution and retail outlets of the meat and dairy industry. A strict rights theorist would say that even factory farmers, veal calf exporters and butchers have the right to work and to have their property protected.
So far we have seen that vegans typically draw on two supposedly incompatible ethical approaches: a naive utilitarianism and an approach which uses the language of rights to say that some interests should always be protected. At worst, so critics might argue, veganism uses for its justification a hybrid system in order to give vegans the moral intuitions they want to apply to real-life situations. It does, however, seem to us that a consistent and plausible ethical viewpoint can be developed which embraces the seemingly diverse types of justification identified above. In claiming that this should be broadly utilitarian in approach we are firmly based in the tradition of vegan literature which gives much weight to beneficial consequences of actions. But we have seen that a naive utilitarianism has its problems in trying to take account of the interests of individuals. Whether we use the language of rights or not, it is clear that the interests of individuals should not be overridden rough-shod. Indeed, the attributing of rights – important interests to be protected – to all sentient beings seems to be a major plank in the support system on which a vegan way of life ultimately should depend.
While Bentham dismissed the idea of moral rights, many utilitarians, including Mill, have been less naive and rigid. They have attempted, in our view successfully, to formulate a consistent form of utilitarianism which can accommodate basic protection for fundamental interests. This has often been turned into the difference between ‘act’ and ‘rule’ utilitarianism. As is well known, the argument is that while greater utility is sometimes achieved through violating interests with particular actions, in general greater utility is achieved by there being moral rules which protect these interests as rights. Mill spoke about the permanent interests of men, concerning physical nutriment and general security of person and possession. A more sophisticated utilitarianism needs to have a more complex theory of interests, both human and non-human.
In our view, this broadly utilitarian philosophical position depends, to a large extent, on the fact that all sentient beings are essentially similar, despite many obvious differences. What does this claim amount to’? We are, each of us, the experiencing subject of a life, a conscious creature having an individual welfare that is important to us, whatever our usefulness to others. We all want and prefer things, believe and feel things, recall and expect things. Some beings are better than others at doing these things. And all these dimensions of our life, including our pleasure and pain, our happiness and unhappiness, 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. All these dimensions of sentient life are valuable.
Of course. what Singer and Regan would call speciesists try to argue that only human animals have inherent value – but it is an untenable position to hold. They say: this is because only human beings have the requisite intellect, intelligence, autonomy or reason. But factually, this claim is useless because there are many human beings (like Aunt Molly) who fail to meet these criteria and yet are still, correctly, viewed as having value above and beyond their usefulness to others; brain damaged children being a prime example. What is ultimately more important, as even Bentham recognised long ago, is that all sorts of animals feel pleasure and experience pain, gain satisfaction, endure frustration and so on.
Note that this view does not claim that all sentient lives are of exactly equal worth, or that all interests of human and non-human animals should be given equal weight, no matter what those interests might be. It does claim that where animals, both human and nonhuman, have similar interests, especially those such as avoiding pain and death, then those interests are to be counted equally, with no special weighting given to humans. This is a simple point, but one with far reaching moral and political implications, such as the adoption of a vegan life style with its implicit criticism of much of modern culture in the West.
In our view it is a convincing general point that members of all sentient species have interests which should be protected and sometimes it is useful to put this in terms of their having a right to life, a right to avoid pain, a right not to be involuntarily used as a resource by others. These are core vegan beliefs. Of course, crucially, some rights vary from being to being, depending on the nature of the being. This is because of clear differences between individuals; for example between brain damaged and non-brain damaged humans; children and adults. Most human adults have the right to vote; children do not and it would be nonsense to accord the right to vote to most non-human animals.
By contrast with the above, fish have the right to swim unimpeded in sea and river, birds to fly in the sky, nest in trees and so on. But, in general, it would make little sense to attribute such rights to humans. Rights vary because animal natures vary and the sort of lives different species typically lead vary. Also, what harms humans, say, might cause much less harm, or even no harm at all, to other animals and vice versa. It would not much affect the interests of a hedgehog to be confined to Hampshire, but it would harm considerably the interests of most humans to be so constricted. It would not much harm the interests of a human to swallow a slug pellet, but it would considerable harm the interests of a hedgehog. Clearly, in some cases humans can suffer more and in others less; quite often though the harm is similar. Any justifying moral theory, whether for veganism or not, has to recognise, however, that there have to be found practical ways of weighting interests and, indeed, one way of doing this is by evaluating the consequences of right X in relation to those of right Y.
Because of similar potential harm, despite differences, we find plausible, and do support, the claim that all sentient beings have the right not to be killed, physically hurt, tortured and degraded by being involuntarily used as a resource by others. If this is accepted, then it strikes at much which most humans take for granted in human culture. At a stroke, it implies an end, in general, to using non-human animals as mere resources for human animals. It demands the end of the meat and dairy industries, animal experimentation and so on. It imposes an obligation on those of us who can, to try to put an end to them. This is the ethical and cultural revolution that is at last beginning to take place, but which has yet to touch mainstream society and politics.
A few concluding remarks about practicalities and implications. Extending the moral circle to non-human animals and acting as though they matter morally does not mean that vegans care more about animals thin people. It is a false choice to care only about animals or only about people. Animal and human issues can be seen as one issue: where animals suffer, so do people. If it is wrong to kill and abuse non-human animals, those who do so degrade themselves. When animals are slaughtered for meat, people become brutalised through their work in the abattoir or the butcher’s shop. When animal coats are worn as fur in a display of wealth, somebody has already hunted or trapped many innocent animals.
It takes vastly more land and energy to produce protein from animals than it does to grow it as a first food in the form of pulses and cereals. Yet many people mistakenly consider meat eating as a purely personal issue, while the consequence in reality is that a large part of the world’s population is starving. From a vegan point of view, it is not enough to be a vegetarian. It is as wrong to eat animal cheese, milk and eggs, as it is to eat meat, fish and poultry. Milk can be obtained only when a cow is pregnant and so calves continue to be born. Half of the calves are male so go off immediately for slaughter. Death is part and parcel of milk and cheese production. Similarly, whether free-range or not, eggs can only be obtained by producing chickens in the first place and half of these will be male and do go for slaughter. Cows and chickens are also slaughtered once their milk and egg producing days are over.
In general, dairy and egg production takes new born calves from their mothers, subjects cows to continued enforced pregnancies, and causes male chicks and calves to be killed because they cannot lay eggs or produce milk. Such practices are inherent in dairy and egg production. People who use animals as machines for profit care little about the harm caused either to the animals or to the human consumer by the drugs and hormones used in current farming practice. BSE and CJD speak for themselves in this matter.
We have tried to show how philosophy can be seen as culture criticism. In this paper, aspects of moral philosophy have been used to criticise the use of animals, an aspect of human culture taken for granted by most. Being a vegan is “doing your bit” against food and land wastage, against the senseless and unnatural raising and killing of farm animals and against the dehumanisation of those who work in the killing industries. Being a vegan carries a commitment to stop using animals as “things”. It is transferable into an ethical stance which eschews using people as things. Like humans, non-human animals are sentient beings. Refusing to use and eat all animals is a refusal to take part in some of the real abuse that happens in the world and is an affirmation of our own moral sensitivity.