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In many societies, controversy and debate have arisen over the ethics of eating animals. Two main ethical objections are to the act of unnecessary killing of sentient beings and opposition to certain agricultural practices surrounding the production of meat. Reasons for objecting to the practice of killing animals for consumption may include animal rights, environmental ethics, and/or religious reasons.
One major ethical objection concludes that consuming meat is not a necessity for most people living in the developed world, therefore the slaughter of animals for the taste of their meat is not morally justifiable. Others support meat eating for scientific, nutritional, cultural and religious reasons. Some meat eaters abstain from the meat of animals reared in particular ways, such as factory farms, or avoid certain meats, such as veal or foie gras. Some people follow vegetarian or vegan diets not because of moral concerns involving the production of meat and other animal products in general, but the treatment involving the raising and slaughter of animals.
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Princeton University and University of Melbourne professor and pioneer of the animal liberation movement, Peter Singer, believes that if alternative means of survival exist, one ought to choose the option that does not cause unnecessary harm to animals. Most ethical vegetarians argue that the same reasons exist against killing animals to eat as against killing humans to eat. Singer, in his book Animal Liberation listed possible qualities of sentience in non-human creatures that gave such creatures the scope to be considered under utilitarian ethics, and this has been widely referenced by animal rights campaigners and vegetarians. Ethical vegetarians also believe that killing an animal, like killing a human, can only be justified in extreme circumstances and that consuming a living creature for its enjoyable taste, convenience, or nutritional value is not sufficient cause. Another common view is that humans are morally conscious of their behavior in a way other animals are not, and therefore subject to higher standards.
This same argument is used by others[who?] to counter the treatment of animals as moral equals with humans. Equality in a moral community requires the capability of all participants to make moral decisions. Animals are incapable of making ethical choices; for example, a tiger would not refrain from eating a human because it was wrong, it would decide whether to attack based on what it felt would allow it to survive.
Thus, some opponents[who?] of ethical vegetarianism describe the comparison of eating livestock with killing people to be fallacious. 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 by definition unequal to humans on a moral level. This does not excuse cruelty, but it does mean 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.
A 2011 study demonstrates that when people are confronted with the harm that their meat-eating brings to food animals, they view those animals as possessing fewer mental capacities compared to when they are not reminded. This is especially evident when people expect to eat meat in the near future. Such denial makes it less troublesome for people to eat animals. The research argues that people who consume meat go to great lengths to overcome these inconsistencies between their beliefs and behaviour.
Ethical vegetarianism has become popular in developed countries particularly because of the spread of factory farming, faster communications, and environmental consciousness. Some believe that the current mass demand for meat cannot be satisfied without a mass-production system that disregards the welfare of animals, while others believe that practices like well-managed free-ranging and consumption of game, particularly from species whose natural predators have been significantly eliminated, could substantially alleviate the demand for mass-produced meat.
Various programs operate in the U.S. that promote the notion that animals raised for food are treated humanely, but Farm Sanctuary believes that commodifying and slaughtering animals is incompatible with the definition of "humane," which according to the Webster's Dictionary, means "characterized by kindness, mercy or compassion".
Defenders[who?] of factory farming argue that the animals are better off in total confinement. 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.
Eugene Linden, author of The Parrot's Lament suggests there are many examples of animal behavior and intelligence that surpass what people would suppose to be the boundary of animal consciousness. Linden contends that in many of these documented examples, a variety of animal species exhibits behavior that can only be attributed to emotion, and to a level of consciousness that we would normally ascribe only to our own species.
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.
This position is further developed with the argument that sentience (being aware of one's surroundings) does not equate to 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 in a way similar or identical to humans, many of the arguments against human suffering could then, presumably, be extended to animals. Others have argued that pain can be demonstrated by averse reactions to negative stimuli that are non-purposeful or even maladaptive. 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.
However, there is no agreement where the line between organisms that can feel pain and those that cannot should be drawn. 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 reject the argument entirely, arguing that although suffering animals feel anguish, a suffering plant also struggles to stay alive (albeit in a less visible way). In fact, no living organism 'wants' 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? 
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.
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 they state that their production causes the animal suffering and/or a 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. Vegans state 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 the natural life expectancy is about twenty years, after about five years the cows' milk production has dropped; they are considered "spent" and sent to slaughter for meat and leather.
It has been pointed out by Peter Singer that much of the ethical reasons for vegetarianism do not apply to all non-vegetarian food. For example, the argument of animal pain does not apply to animals that do not have central nervous systems, and while it is often said that it takes a lot more grain to feed a cow for human consumption than it takes to feed a human directly, not all animals consume plants (or other animals that consume plants). In particular, oysters are acceptable to eat, even by strict ethical criteria: "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." 
Christopher Cox has stated 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:
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. 
Some people choose to follow a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle for environmental reasons.
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.
The concept of anthropocentrism, or human-centeredness, alleges that unequal treatment of humans and animals constitutes a form of bias. Val Plumwood (1993, 1996) has argued that anthropocentrism plays an analogous role in green theory to androcentrism in feminist theory and ethnocentrism in anti-racist theory. Plumwood calls human-centredness "anthropocentrism" to emphasize this parallel.
The eating of meat within Jewish religious traditions are controlled by the set of Jewish dietary laws Kashrut which allows meat that may be consumed according to halakha (Jewish law) and termed kosher and meat that is not in accordance with Jewish law and called treif. Causing unnecessary pain to animals is prohibited by the principle of Tza'ar Ba'alei Chayim.
In Christianity, in times of fasting, that is practised by some Christians like members of Eastern Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church, Greek Catholic Church and others. In this time it is prohibited to eat meat. Rules of fasting also vary.
In Hindus, those who eat meat must eat animals that are killed in one blow known as Jhatka. Observant Hindus, even though they might eat the meat of other animals, almost always abstain from beef, and the slaughter of cows is considered a heinous sin in mainstream Orthodox Hinduism. In Sikh religion eating of other animals is strictly prohibited.