This essay aims to show that we are morally obliged to go vegan by our own core values. The essay is divided into two parts, where the first part presents a simple argument for veganism based on an ethical principle that we all hold valid, while the second part argues that the only reason we are not vegan is that we are speciesists, and that this is no more justifiable than supporting other forms of discrimination such as racism or sexism.
The Simple Argument
It seems widely believed that people who are vegan have chosen to be so based on some rare and unusually noble ethical values that few of us can claim to hold. The fact of the matter, however, is the complete opposite, as we are all obliged to go vegan according to the perhaps simplest ethical principle that we all accept. So unlike what most seem to believe, deep philosophical contemplations and arguments in favor of new value systems are not required in order to reveal that we have an obligation to go vegan; all it takes is to point out two simple facts and then connect them.
The first fact is that we can be perfectly healthy on a vegan diet. We do not need to consume “animal products” such as flesh, eggs or dairy in order to be healthy, which has been expressed clearly by numerous professional dietitians, doctors, and scientists working in the field of nutrition. Here is for instance the position of what is now called the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (previously known as the American Dietetic Association), which is the largest organization of nutrition experts in the United States:
It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.
The second fact we need to point out is that we all agree with the following basic ethical principle: It is wrong to impose unnecessary suffering and/or death upon another sentient being. This is perhaps the most basic and solidly established ethical principle that we all agree upon, and connecting this with the first fact mentioned above reveals that we are indeed obliged to go vegan: if we maintain that imposing suffering or death upon another sentient being for unnecessary reasons is wrong, then we must also admit that we cannot defend killing a sentient being in order to eat or wear her or him when we have no real need to do so. Neither can we defend buying and consuming eggs or dairy, as the “production” of these also involves both suffering and death – to an unthinkable extent even. In the egg industry, for instance, male chicks are killed right after they have hatched, as they will not serve any commercial purpose, and a similar tragedy is taking place in the dairy industry, where calves are taken from their mothers right after birth. And if the calf is unfortunate enough to be a male, he will be killed not long after, while if the calf is unfortunate enough to be a female, she is cursed to have the same life as her mother – a life where she will go through an unending cycle of painful insemination and pregnancy that results in the birth of a calf who will be taken away from her immediately every time. And, needless to say, the chickens and cows who are exploited for their eggs and milk also end up getting killed themselves, hanging upside down in a slaughterhouse. These are the horrors behind eggs and dairy, whether “organic” or not, and only our loyal adherence to old habit seems able to explain why we dare not face these tragedies and respond with viral outrage as we should.
The best reasons we can provide for subjugating and killing non-human beings in order to eat, wear, or otherwise exploit them is that we like the taste, look, smell or texture of them or things they can provide; that we are in the habit of eating, wearing or using them; and that it is convenient to do so. Yet we must admit that none of these reasons – reasons that basically come down to pleasure, habit, or laziness – can be considered even remotely necessary reasons for imposing suffering or death upon another sentient being. Therefore, if we accept the validity of the above-mentioned ethical principle, as the vast majority of us surely do, we must admit that we cannot justify killing, or giving an industry our money for killing, a sentient being in order to eat, wear, or otherwise use things that came from this being. We must admit that this core value we all share obliges us to go vegan.
This may seem counter-intuitive – after all, even some of the most compassionate people eat non-human beings, so it seems hard to believe that it is wrong, and that it is so even according to one of the most basic and widely shared ethical principles of all. Yet this is indeed the case, and an analogous example put forth by animal rights theorist Gary Francione that is ethically equivalent, but not so closely tied to an old habit that most of us are slaves to, may help us realize this: Most of us condemn the actions of people who kill non-human animals for sadistic pleasure – kill them because they like seeing them die. The reason we condemn such actions is that this bizarre pleasure clearly is not a necessary reason for killing a sentient being. However, ethically, such actions are in fact equivalent to the killing of non-human animals that we all support, directly or indirectly, when we buy their flesh, eggs, or milk. In both cases, a being is killed for the mere sake of pleasure, which renders them both equally unjustifiable according to the basic ethical principle stated above.
The main difference between the two cases is that the killing of non-human beings for the sake of economic gain and palate pleasure is accepted by our culture, while killing for sadistic pleasure is not, and as a result there seems to be a big difference between the two cases intuitively, yet ethically, the difference is negligible. So we clearly have a moral illusion, and it is about time we see through it and realize that we cannot justify killing other beings for the mere sake of palate pleasure or other frivolous reasons. For until we do, we will keep on acting in ways that in the most relevant regards are practically indistinguishable from the evil actions of a sadistic killer, although on a scale that by far exceeds what even the most vicious sadist could keep up with in his wildest dreams, as we needlessly kill about 2000 land animals every second, and far more marine animals, for no higher purpose than our pleasure and convenience. It is about time we realize that when we buy the flesh, skin, or fur of another sentient being, no matter how “happy” the being that this “product” came from was, we are inevitably supporting something that we all actively condemn: the needless death of a sentient being – death for the mere sake of pleasure.
Speciesism: No Better than Racism or Sexism
One of the defining traits of our moral progress since the beginning of the Enlightenment is that we gradually have moved away from discrimination based on ethically irrelevant criteria. Where it was once more or less the norm that the rich man above a certain age had privileges that nobody else had, while people of a certain ethnicity had no rights at all, we have finally come to realize that such discrimination is deeply unethical. We have finally realized that racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of discrimination against human beings cannot be justified; not that they do not exist anymore, but they are no longer the norm, and no longer as widespread as they were 200, 100, or just 50 years ago. We have finally realized that women should not be given fewer rights because they are women, that people should not be discriminated against because of the color of their skin, and that people who have a disability should not be treated with less care and respect because they have a disability. When it comes to humans, we have finally realized that it is by virtue of sentience alone — the fact that we are conscious beings who can experience suffering and well-being — that we have moral value. When it comes to humans, we recognize that this and nothing else is the true basis of moral concern. Black, white, male, female, physically or cognitively impaired or not, it is all irrelevant for our status as beings of inherent moral value, beings who should be respected and treated as ends rather than means.
Unfortunately, there is still a form of discrimination that thrives as well as ever: speciesism, discrimination against non-human beings because they are non-human beings. When it comes to these beings, we still see the outer appearance as relevant, we fail to connect with the conscious subject, and we justify our discrimination more or less in the same way as we justified our racism and sexism in the past: because they are black, they don't deserve the same rights, we said, and because they are women, they should not be granted the same rights, we claimed. Today we put non-human beings into the x of this equation of unjustified discrimination: because they are “animals”, we can raise and kill them as we please.
”But discrimination against non-human animals is not ethically unjustifiable. Human beings and non-human animals are different. Humans have cognitive capacities that other animals don’t have.”
Humans are surely different from non-human animals, but men are also different from women, and people who have a disability are also different from people who do not. The point being that mere difference does not justify discrimination. The contrast between our view and treatment of humans who do not have certain abilities and our view and treatment of non-human animals who also do not have certain abilities is indeed quite striking. For we obviously do not find it defensible to kill or to grant less moral consideration to a human if s/he does not have certain mental faculties that most other humans have; for instance, if we imagine that we have a human being with the mental capacities of a cow – a mind that cannot understand words, but which can feel emotions and feel degrees of joy and pain, probably every bit as intensely as other humans. We do not accept disadvantageous consideration for, or treatment of, such a person. On the contrary, we rightly realize that we have an obligation to help this person even more than we need to help other humans.
The pressing question is then why we not only do not feel the same way about a being who has both the mind and body of a cow, but feel the complete opposite: that it is okay to exploit and kill this being for no higher purpose than palate pleasure. This is clearly indefensible discrimination, because it reveals that if we could only transplant the nervous system of a cow into a human body so that this cow's mind and experience would be embodied in a human body instead, this – that the being gets another shell – is what is needed in order to save this being from our dysfunctional moral intuitions and the butcher's knife, since we will, as pointed out above, not only not kill such a being for mere palate pleasure, but realize an obligation to help him or her.
The same line of reasoning can be used to reveal how outraged we would be about the dairy industry if only the cows who are exploited by it had human bodies – and how outraged we should be over the dairy industry today, even though the cows “only” have cow bodies. It seems safe to say that we would never accept a practice that forcefully makes women pregnant every year and which takes away their children right after birth – the boys being killed soon thereafter, and the girls being bound to have the same fate as their mothers – in order for us to get milk from these women, no matter how much we enjoy drinking milk or are unable to "give up cheese". Nobody would consider supporting this industry a matter of personal choice. And saying that we do it to women who have a cognitive disability does not change this; the mere pain and nausea of being pregnant and the pain of labour, along with the sheer lack of necessity for milk, makes it obvious that we should not do this. Yet this is exactly what the dairy industry that most of us happily throw our money after does to innocent cows, whom we have every reason to believe experience as bad pain and suffering from pregnancy and labour, not to mention the violent insemination they are subjected to, as a human would. Again, this clearly reveals that we have a double-standard, and its source is pure speciesism. If only the cows in our dairy industry had human bodies – if they only had the outer appearance of a human, while still having the mind of a cow – people would be outraged about this practice of forced pregnancy of human-looking beings, and they would no doubt demand that those responsible for it should get the highest punishment possible. Unfortunately, the reality is that they “only” have cow bodies, and that we are all responsible for the continued thriving of this industrialized torture.
These thought experiments where all we do is give a sentient non-human being a human body perfectly expose our speciesism, and expose how this form of discrimination finds itself down on the exact same low level as other forms of discrimination that we recognize as indefensible like racism and sexism. Like these forms of discrimination, speciesism is just another flavor of the indefensible failure to realize the irrelevance of outer appearances. (In relation to the concept of speciesism, I recommend watching Speciesism: The Movie.)
So there is an enormous discrepancy between our moral perception of human and non-human beings respectively, and, as closer examination reveals, this discrepancy is indefensible: we would never find it justifiable to kill a human being just because s/he has the mind of a cow or a chicken, so why do we find it okay to kill a cow or a chicken because they have the mind of a cow or a chicken?
This inconsistency clearly reveals that we need to expand our circle of compassion and ethical consideration so that a human form and the above-mentioned transplant are not needed in order to be granted adequate moral consideration. Essentially, so that we can stop discriminating against beings based on outer appearances. If we do this, if we reject speciesism and reject our ethic based on outer appearances, then we are obviously also bound to go vegan, since we all find it wrong to enslave, raise, or kill beings with a human form for trivial purposes such as palate pleasure or fashion preferences, and it would be speciesist to not have the same stance in relation to non-human beings. So anything but veganism, anything but the refusal to participate in exploitation of other sentient beings, is clearly speciesist. The bottom line: If we reject speciesism – if we reject discrimination based on outer appearances – we must embrace veganism. It is about time we do.
As has been made clear in this essay, the core values we all hold – our belief that we should not impose unnecessary suffering or death upon other sentient beings, and our belief that we should not treat beings differently based on their external traits – clearly oblige us to go vegan. The question we should all be asking ourselves, then, is: do we have the dignity and sincerity to end an old habit and start living according to our own core values?
For a more detailed and broader case for veganism, see 'Why We Should Go Vegan' and 'Why ”Happy Meat” Is Always Wrong'.
For more information about speciesism, see animal-ethics.org/speciesism/.
For a good introduction to, and more information about, veganism, see: vegankit.com.
Parts of this essay have previously been published elsewhere.