The ethics and individual choice of vegetarianism


By Sydney Paluch

Key to the vegetarian debate is what has been called the ethical issue: if it is morally wrong to kill animals for food out of consideration for the animals themselves.

Although practiced since the beginning of time, vegetarianism has catapulted into popularity over the last century.

The new popularity of vegetarianism has brought the issue of the ethics of vegetation consumption to the forefront.

As the consequences of what we eat and ultimately how we live surround us, the ethics of vegetarianism deals with the physical aspects of a human on a spiritual level.

There are numerous reasons for choosing a vegetarian diet, with the most common being ethical, ecological, health, economic and spiritual considerations, as several religions restrict meat consumption.

Vegetarian ethicists typically fall within the ethical, ecological or spiritual categories. Reasoning espoused under the strictly “ethical” standpoint generally deals with the presumed awareness and consciousness of the animal.

However, this is a problematic foundation, as science still has not been able to discover an exact answer as to what “conciousness” is.

One popular idea presented by proponents of an omnivorous diet is the notion that humans are superior to animals and, therefore, there is no unethical act involved in consuming them.

According to Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation, this idea is known as “speciesism,” or the “prejudice or bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species.”

The term “speciesism” was originally coined by Physiology Professor Richard Ryder to illustrate the rights and considerations not awarded to animals based on their nonhuman status.

Perhaps the most infamous “speciest” was the philosopher René Descartes, otherwise known as the father of modern philosophy.

Descartes was one of the leading geniuses of the scientific revolution, and he brought the practices of science and philosophy together.

His famous quote, “Cogito ergo sum,” forms the basis of his speciesist theories: because animals do not think, they are not equal to humans.

Yet animals and humans are different. Their differences are not only physical, but emotional and spiritual, as well.

To deny any difference between the species is to engage in anthropomorphism.

Ryder compared Descartes’ view to that of the Nazis by asking, “Because one species is more clever than another, does it give it the right to imprison or torture the less clever species? Does one exceptionally clever individual have a right to exploit the less clever individuals of his own species?

“To say that he does is to say with the Fascists that the strong have a right to abuse and exploit the weak.”

Additionally, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed, “The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor, ‘Can they talk?’ but rather, ‘Can they suffer?’”

Known as “the first patron saint of animal rights,” Professor Bentham’s idea transitions from speciesism into painism.

Created by the animal rights movement, painism is the suggestion that all beings who feel pain deserve rights.

Painism is a combination of ethics; it mixes the utilitarian view that the ability to feel pain constitutes moral status with the deontological theory of respect being due to rational beings, proposed by Immanuel Kant.

On the opposing side of the discussion, painism is dismissed completely along with speciesism.

Keith Martin, a proclaimed “ethical” farmer and forerunner of the ethical-omnivorous movement swears, “I spend a lot of time with these animals. I watch them get into that truck. I see their eyes. I know they’re good with it. They know, and they’re good with this.

According to Martin, much as there is a social contract between citizens and the government, there is a type of social contract between humanity and livestock.

This social contract is enacted when the farmer cares for the animal and, thus, the animals go “willingly into the truck, stress-free, to the slaughterhouse.”

Such a social contract eliminates both painism and speciesism because, if animals are satisfied with their situation, then they are not being treated unethically. Therefore, ultimately the ethics of vegetarianism are based on whether or not animals have rights and can experience certain sensations.

At this point, those questions remain unanswered and the ethical vegetarian debate rages on.

On a personal note, I havebeen a vegetarian for all my life.

The decision to abstain from meat was made by my parents, because of the barbaric conditions of slaughterhouses in the 1980s.

However, all of my siblings were allowed to make their own ethical decisions about meat consumption when we turned 13.

Although I (and my mom!) chose to remain vegetarian, the rest of my family has decided not to, resulting from the improved conditions of slaughterhouses.

However, I have not premised my decision on the state of the factory farming system, but instead on the reasoning of the “compassionate vegetarian” standpoint.

Therefore, to conclude, it is my opinion that, for me, eating meat is not ethically permissible because I personally will not support animal slaughter. However, I don’t think that all of humanity is immoral for consuming meat!

Rather, it should be an individual’s personal decision to engage in an omnivorous diet. So the next time you are about to grab a chicken sandwich before class, think for a second, first.

Then do whatever you feel is right!




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