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In many societies, controversy and debate have arisen over the ethics of eating animals. The fundamental ethical objection to meat eating is that for most people living in the developed world it is not necessary for their survival or health; hence, it is concluded, slaying animals just because people like the taste of meat is wrong and morally unjustifiable. Ethical vegetarians may also object to the agricultural practices underlying the production of meat, or cite concerns about animal welfare, animal rights, environmental ethics, and religious scruples. In response, proponents of meat eating have adduced various scientific, nutritional, cultural and religious arguments in support of the practice. In between, some meat eaters object only to rearing animals in certain ways, such as factory farms; others avoid only certain meats, such as veal or foie gras.
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Princeton University and University of Melbourne professor and pioneer of the animal liberation movement, Peter Singer, has long argued that if it is possible to survive and be healthy without eating meat, fish, dairy or eggs, one ought to choose that option instead of causing unnecessary harm to animals. In Animal Liberation, Singer argued that because nonhuman animals feel, they should be treated according to utilitarian ethics. Singer's work has been widely cited by animal rights campaigners as well as ethical vegetarians and vegans. Ethical vegetarians point out that reasons for not hurting or killing animals are similar to the reasons for not hurting or killing humans. Ethical vegetarians argue that killing an animal, like killing a human, can only be justified in extreme circumstances; consuming a living creature just for its taste, for convenience, or out of habit is not justifiable. Some ethicists have added that humans, unlike other animals, are morally conscious of their behavior and have a choice; this is why there are laws governing human behavior, and why it is subject to moral standards.
When people choose to do things about which they are ambivalent and which they would have difficulty justifying, they experience a state of cognitive dissonance, which can lead to rationalization, denial or even self-deception. For example, a 2011 experiment found that when the harm that their meat-eating causes animals is explicitly brought to people's attention, they tend to rate those animals as possessing fewer mental capacities compared to when the harm is not brought to their attention. This is especially evident when people expect to eat meat in the near future. Such denial makes it less uncomfortable for people to eat animals. The data suggest that people who consume meat go to great lengths to try to resolve these moral inconsistencies between their beliefs and behaviour by adjusting their beliefs about what animals are capable of feeling. Ethical vegetarians argue that it is behaviour rather than supporting beliefs that should be adjusted.
Ethical vegetarian concerns have become more widespread in developed countries particularly because of the spread of (1) factory farming, (2) more open and graphic documentation of what human meat-eating entails for its victims, and (3) environmental consciousness. Some proponents of meat eating argue that the current mass demand for meat has to be satisfied with a mass-production system, regardless of the welfare of animals. Less extreme proponents argue that practices like well-managed free-range rearing and the consumption of hunted animals, particularly from species whose natural predators have been significantly eliminated, could satisfy the demand for mass-produced meat.
One of the main differences between a vegan and a typical vegetarian diet is the avoidance of both eggs and dairy products such as milk, cheese, butter and yogurt. Ethical vegans do not consume dairy or eggs because their production causes animal suffering and/or premature death.
To produce milk from dairy cattle, all calves are separated from their mothers soon after birth and fed milk replacement in order to retain the cows' milk for human consumption. Animal welfare advocates point out that this breaks the natural mother and calf bond. Unwanted male calves are either slaughtered at birth or sent for veal production. To prolong lactation, dairy cows are almost permanently kept pregnant through artificial insemination. Although cows' natural life expectancy is about twenty years, after about five years the cows' milk production has dropped; they are then considered "spent" and sent to slaughter for meat and leather.
Eugene Linden, author of The Parrot's Lament suggests that many examples of animal behavior and intelligence seem to indicate emotion, and a level of consciousness that we would normally ascribe only to our own species. Many others have written about animal consciousness
Philosopher Daniel Dennett counters that:
Consciousness requires a certain kind of informational organization that does not seem to be 'hard-wired' in humans, but is instilled by human culture. Moreover, consciousness is not a black-or-white, all-or-nothing type of phenomenon, as is often assumed. The differences between humans and other species are so great that speculations about animal consciousness seem ungrounded. Many authors simply assume that an animal like a bat has a point of view, but there seems to be little interest in exploring the details involved.
Some have argued that sentience (being able to feel sensations, emotions and pain) is not the same as self-awareness (being aware of oneself as an individual). Generally, only the handful of animals that have passed the mirror test are confidently considered to be self-aware.
A related argument revolves around non-human organisms' ability to feel pain. If animals can be shown to suffer, as humans do, many of the arguments against human suffering could be extended to animals  One such reaction is transmarginal inhibition, a phenomenon observed in humans and some animals akin to mental breakdown.
As noted by John Webster, a professor of animal husbandry at Bristol:
People have assumed that intelligence is linked to the ability to suffer and that because animals have smaller brains they suffer less than humans. That is a pathetic piece of logic, sentient animals have the capacity to experience pleasure and are motivated to seek it, you only have to watch how cows and lambs both seek and enjoy pleasure when they lie with their heads raised to the sun on a perfect English summer's day. Just like humans.
Steven Davis, a professor of animal science at Oregon State University, argues that the least harm principle does not require giving up all meat. Davis states that a diet containing beef from grass-fed ruminants such as cattle would kill fewer animals than a vegetarian diet, particularly when one takes into account animals killed by agriculture. This conclusion has been criticized by Jason Gaverick Matheny (founder of in vitro meat organization New Harvest) because it calculates the number of animals killed per acre (instead of per consumer). He claims that when the numbers are adjusted, Davis' argument shows veganism as perpetrating the least harm. Davis' argument has also been criticized by Andy Lamey for being based on only two studies that may not represent commercial agricultural practices. When differentiating between animals killed by farm machinery and those killed by other animals, he claims the studies again show veganism to do the "least harm".
Jay Bost, agroecologist and winner the New York Times essay contest on the ethics of eating meat, summarized his argument in the following way: “eating meat raised in specific circumstances is ethical; eating meat raised in other circumstances is unethical” in regard to environmental usage. He proposes that if “ethical is defined as living in the most ecologically benign way, then in fairly specific circumstances, of which each eater must educate himself, eating meat is ethical.” The specific circumstances he mentions include using animals to cycle nutrients and convert sun to food. Ethicists like Tom Regan and Peter Singer define ethical in terms of suffering rather than ecology.
The use of large industrial monoculture that is common in industrialized agriculture, typically for feed crops such as corn and soy is more damaging to ecosystems than more sustainable farming practices such as organic farming, permaculture, arable, pastoral, and rain-fed agriculture. Other concerns include the wasting of natural resources, such as food, water, etc.
Animals that feed on grain or rely on grazing require more water than grain crops. According to the USDA, growing crops for farm animals requires nearly half of the U.S. water supply and 80% of its agricultural land. Animals raised for food in the U.S. consume 90% of the soy crop, 80% of the corn crop, and 70% of its grain. In tracking food animal production from the feed through to the dinner table, the inefficiencies of meat, milk and egg production range from a 4:1 energy input to protein output ratio up to 54:1. The result is that producing animal-based food is typically much less efficient than the harvesting of grains, vegetables, legumes, seeds and fruits, though this might not be true to the same extent for animal husbandry in the developing world where factory farming is almost non existent, making animal-based food much more sustainable.
Some have described unequal treatment of humans and animals as a form of species bias such as anthropocentrism or human-centeredness. Val Plumwood (1993, 1996) has argued that anthropocentrism plays a role in green theory that is analogous to androcentrism in feminist theory and ethnocentrism in anti-racist theory. Plumwood calls human-centredness "anthropocentrism" to emphasize this parallel. By analogy with racism and sexism, Melanie Joy has dubbed meat-eating "carnism."
Hinduism holds vegetarianism as an ideal, for three reasons: the principle of nonviolence (ahimsa) applied to animals; the intention to offer only "pure" (vegetarian) or sattvic food to a deity and then to receive it back as prasad; and the conviction that an insentient diet is beneficial for a healthy body and mind and that non-vegetarian food is detrimental for the mind and for spiritual development. Buddhist vegetarianism has similar strictures against hurting animals. The actual practices of Hindus and Buddhists vary according to their community and according to regional traditions. Jains are especially rigorous about not harming sentient organisms.
Islamic Law and Jewish religious traditions have similar dietary guidelines called Halal and Kashrut. In Judaism, meat that may be consumed according to halakha (Jewish law) is termed kosher; meat that is not compliant with Jewish law is called treif. Causing unnecessary pain to animals is prohibited by the principle of Tza'ar Ba'alei Chayim. While it is neither required nor prohibited for Jews to eat meat, a number of medieval scholars of Judaism, such as Joseph Albo and Isaac Arama, regard vegetarianism as a moral ideal. Rabbi Kook speaks of vegetarianism as an ideal, and points to the fact that Adam and Eve did not partake of the flesh of animals as all humans and animals were originally commanded by God to only eat plants. According to Richard H. Schwartz, president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America and author of the book Judaism and Vegetarianism, God's original plan was for mankind to be vegetarian.
In Christianity as practised by members of Eastern Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church, Greek Catholic Church and others, it is prohibited to eat meat in times of fasting. Rules of fasting also vary. There are also Christian monastic orders that practice vegetarianism.
It has been argued that a moral community requires all participants to be able to make moral decisions, but animals are incapable of making moral choices (e.g., a tiger would not refrain from eating a human because it was morally wrong; it would decide whether to attack based on its survival needs, as dictated by hunger). Thus, some opponents[who?] of ethical vegetarianism argue that the analogy between killing animals and killing people is misleading. Humans are capable of culture, innovation and the sublimation of instinct in order to act in an ethical manner. Animals are not, and so are unequal to humans on a moral level. This does not excuse cruelty, but it implies animals are not morally equivalent to humans and do not possess the rights a human has. For example, killing a mouse is not the moral equivalent of committing homicide.
Benjamin Franklin describes his conversion to vegetarianism in chapter one of his autobiography, but then he describes why he (periodically) ceased vegetarianism in his later life:
...in my first voyage from Boston...our people set about catching cod, and hauled up a great many. Hitherto I had stuck to my resolution of not eating animal food... But I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and, when this came hot out of the frying-pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc'd some time between principle and inclination, till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs; then thought I, 'If you eat one another, I don't see why we mayn't eat you.' So I din'd upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.
The response of ethical vegetarians is that humans have a choice, whereas animals do not. Hence if hurting or killing animals is not necessary for human survival or health (as it is necessary for obligate carnivores, such as felids), humans can decide to stop doing it, and to outlaw it.
The animal rights movement, sometimes called the animal liberation movement, animal personhood, or animal advocacy movement, is a social movement which seeks an end to the rigid moral and legal distinction drawn between human and non-human animals, an end to the status of animals as property, and an end to their use in the research, food, clothing, and entertainment industries.
Various programs operate in the U.S. that promote the notion that animals raised for food can be treated humanely. Spokesemen for the factory farming industry argue that the animals are better off in total confinement. For example, according to F J "Sonny" Faison, president of Carroll’s Foods:
They're in state-of-the-art confinement facilities. The conditions that we keep these animals in are much more humane than when they were out in the field. Today they're in housing that is environmentally controlled in many respects. And the feed is right there for them all the time, and water, fresh water. They're looked after in some of the best conditions, because the healthier and [more] content that animal, the better it grows. So we're very interested in their well-being up to an extent.
In response, animal welfare advocates such as Farm Sanctuary argue that commodifying and slaughtering animals is incompatible with the definition of "humane". Animal ethicists such as Gary Francione have argued that reducing animal suffering is not enough; it needs to be made illegal and abolished.
Peter Singer has pointed out that the ethical argument for vegetarianism may not apply to all non-vegetarian food. For example, any arguments against causing pain to animals would not apply to animals that do not have central nervous systems if they do not feel pain. It has also often been noted that it takes a lot more grain to feed a cow for human consumption than it takes to feed a human directly, but not all animals consume land plants (or other animals that consume land plants). Oysters, for example, consume underwater plankton and algae. In 2010, Christopher Cox wrote:
Biologically, oysters are not in the plant kingdom, but when it comes to ethical eating, they are almost indistinguishable from plants. Oyster farms account for 95 percent of all oyster consumption and have a minimal negative impact on their ecosystems; there are even nonprofit projects devoted to cultivating oysters as a way to improve water quality. Since so many oysters are farmed, there's little danger of overfishing. No forests are cleared for oysters, no fertilizer is needed, and no grain goes to waste to feed them—they have a diet of plankton, which is about as close to the bottom of the food chain as you can get. Oyster cultivation also avoids many of the negative side effects of plant agriculture: There are no bees needed to pollinate oysters, no pesticides required to kill off other insects, and for the most part, oyster farms operate without the collateral damage of accidentally killing other animals during harvesting.
Cox went on to suggest that oysters would be acceptable to eat, even by strict ethical criteria, if they did not feel: "while you could give them the benefit of the doubt, you could also say that unless some new evidence of a capacity for pain emerges, the doubt is so slight that there is no good reason for avoiding eating sustainably produced oysters." Cox has added that, although he believes in some of the ethical reasons for vegetarianism, he is not strictly a vegan or even a vegetarian because he consumes oysters.
Critics of ethical vegetarianism point out that there is no agreement on where to draw the line between organisms that can and cannot feel. Justin Leiber, a philosophy professor at Oxford University writes that:
Montaigne is ecumenical in this respect, claiming consciousness for spiders and ants, and even writing of our duties to trees and plants. Singer and Clarke agree in denying consciousness to sponges. Singer locates the distinction somewhere between the shrimp and the oyster. He, with rather considerable convenience for one who is thundering hard accusations at others, slides by the case of insects and spiders and bacteria, they pace Montaigne, apparently and rather conveniently do not feel pain. The intrepid Midgley, on the other hand, seems willing to speculate about the subjective experience of tapeworms ...Nagel ... appears to draw the line at flounders and wasps, though more recently he speaks of the inner life of cockroaches.
There are also some who argue that although only suffering animals feel anguish, plants, like all organisms, have evolved mechanisms for survival. No living organism can be described as "wanting" to die for another organism's sustenance. In an article written for the New York Times, Carol Kaesuk Yoon argues that:
When a plant is wounded, its body immediately kicks into protection mode. It releases a bouquet of volatile chemicals, which in some cases have been shown to induce neighboring plants to pre-emptively step up their own chemical defenses and in other cases to lure in predators of the beasts that may be causing the damage to the plants. Inside the plant, repair systems are engaged and defenses are mounted, the molecular details of which scientists are still working out, but which involve signaling molecules coursing through the body to rally the cellular troops, even the enlisting of the genome itself, which begins churning out defense-related proteins ... If you think about it, though, why would we expect any organism to lie down and die for our dinner? Organisms have evolved to do everything in their power to avoid being extinguished. How long would any lineage be likely to last if its members effectively didn’t care if you killed them?