This essay aims to show that veganism follows directly from 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, since veganism follows from the perhaps simplest ethical principle that we all accept. So unlike what most seem to believe, deep philosophical arguments in favor of new value systems are not required to support veganism. 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, since a plant-based diet supplemented with vitamin B12 can meet all our nutritional needs, and potentially even provide health benefits. This has been expressed clearly by numerous professional dietitians, doctors, and scientists working in the field of nutrition (e.g. Jack Norris RD, Virgina Messina, RD, Joel Fuhrman MD, Neal Banard MD, Michael Greger MD).
Here is 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 implies that we should adhere to veganism: 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. 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.
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.
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 that is ethically equivalent, but not so closely tied to our ingrained habits, may help us realize this: Most of us condemn the actions of people who kill non-human animals for sadistic pleasure. The reason we condemn such actions is that this bizarre pleasure clearly is not a necessary reason for killing a sentient being. However, in ethical terms, 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, intuitively, to be a big difference between the two cases. Yet ethically, the difference is negligible. We are afflicted by 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 are, in ethical terms, 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 2,000 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 suffering and 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 have moved away, ever so gradually, from discrimination based on ethically irrelevant criteria. Where it was once the norm that the rich man above a certain age had rights that nobody else had, while other people had no rights at all, it is now clear to most 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 these forms of discrimination do not exist anymore — they surely do — but they are no longer explicitly endorsed by the majority, and are not nearly as widespread as they were 200, 100, or even 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 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 based on species membership. When it comes to non-human beings, we still see outer appearances as relevant; we fail to connect with the conscious subject; and we justify our discrimination more or less in the same way as we used to justify our racism and sexism: because they are black, they don’t deserve the same rights, the white people claimed, and because they are women, they should not be granted the same rights, the men said. 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. Differences per se do not justify discrimination. The contrast between our respective views of human and non-human individuals who do not possess certain cognitive abilities is indeed striking and worth reflecting on. For we obviously would not find it defensible to kill a human individual if they happened not to possess certain mental faculties that most other humans possess — for instance, if they had roughly the same mental capacities as a cow: a mind that cannot understand verbal communication, but which can still feel emotions and feel degrees of joy and pain, probably every bit as intensely as other humans. (A real-life example could be some humans born with severely reduced cerebral hemispheres due to hydranencephaly; some such individuals have no language but still show every sign of sentience, and indeed of having strong emotions.) We would not accept disadvantageous consideration for, or treatment of, such a person. On the contrary, we realize that, if anything, we would be obliged to help such an individual even more than we are obliged to help other humans.
The pressing question, then, is why we feel the complete opposite about a being who has both the mind and body of a cow: that it is okay to exploit and kill this being for no higher purpose than palate pleasure. This is clearly indefensible discrimination. It reveals that if only we could transplant the nervous system of a cow into a human body, then this — essentially placing the being in another shell — would save them from our dysfunctional moral intuitions and the butcher’s knife.
The same line of reasoning can be used to reveal how outraged we would be about the dairy industry if only the cows it exploits had human bodies, and indeed how outraged we should be over the dairy industry today, even as 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.
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 also experience pain and suffering from pregnancy, not to mention the suffering caused by their forceful insemination and the eventual stealing of their young shortly after they have given birth.
Again, this clearly reveals that we have a double standard, and its source is pure speciesism. If only the cows in the dairy industry had human bodies, people would be beyond outraged about this practice of imposing forced pregnancies on human-looking beings, and they would no doubt demand that those responsible should get the highest punishment possible. Unfortunately, the reality in our world is that the victims “only” have cow bodies, and that we are all responsible for the continued thriving of this industrialized atrocity against them.
These thought experiments in which we give a sentient non-human being a human body serve to expose our speciesism, and to 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, such as racism and sexism. Like these forms of discrimination, speciesism is just another version of the indefensible failure to realize the irrelevance of outer appearances.
This inconsistency clearly reveals that we need to expand our moral circle so that a human form and the above-mentioned transplant are not needed in order for an individual to be granted adequate moral consideration. If we do this, if we reject speciesism and reject an ethic based on outer appearances, then veganism also follows. Why? Because we all rightly consider it wrong to exploit and kill beings who possess a human form for trivial purposes such as palate pleasure or fashion preferences, and failing to extend this moral insight to non-human beings simply because they do not possess a human form cannot be justified. The bottom line: If we reject discrimination based on outer appearances, we should embrace veganism.
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 vegan nutrition, see https://veganhealth.org/ and https://nutritionfacts.org/
For more information about veganism, see https://www.animal-ethics.org/veganism/
For more information about speciesism, see http://www.animal-ethics.org/speciesism/ and
For a book on speciesism, see Speciesism: Why It Is Wrong and the Implications of Rejecting It.