It happens that people ask me how to convince people to stop consuming animal products if you don’t appeal to health or the environment. Personally I try to avoid arguing for health or the environment as reasons to be vegan. The reason why I avoid arguing for veganism based on health or environment is simply that those arguments alone does not hold all the way on their own. It is true that overconsumption of certain types of meat is coupled to disease and that meat-eating in general is worse with regards to the environment on average than a vegetarian diet (Erb et al., 2016; Steinfeld, Gerber, Wassenaar, Castel, & Mauricio Cees de Haan, 2006; Weber & Matthews, 2008). However, it is certainly possible to have a healthy life style without living as a vegan. All meat is not equally bad when it comes to the environment and some types of meat does not have much worse impact on the environment than certain types of vegetables.
As a vegan, I strongly hold the position that killing and using animals for human gains is wrong. It’s wrong regardless of if it’s healthy or not. It’s wrong regardless of if it’s bad for the environment/climate or not.
If one would argue only from environment and health, what happens if we are able to produce meat sustainable or reduce potential health risks to an acceptable degree? In my opinion it’s still wrong. It’s wrong because it’s unethical, which I will now try to explain.
That’s why I think it’s so important to speak about ethics.
Biological basis for pain and suffering
All living organisms have a need to be able to sense and react to its environment. Even bacteria can sense and respond to external chemical stimuli such as nutrients. They are able to swim using their flagella towards an area with a higher concentration of nutrients – something called “chemotaxis”.
However, ability to receive and respond to stimuli is not, in any way, near equal to being sentient or conscious. Even your own cells will – on a cellular level – communicate with each other, but they are not themselves sentient.
Most animals have some sort of nervous system. It varies from a few neurons to very complex nervous systems with a central nervous system, like a brain. The nervous system is one way that animals are able to receive input from the environment and cause some reaction. Not all animals have complex nervous systems, but no non-animal have a nervous system. It follows from that one of the definitions of animals is that animals should be able to – at least for one life-stage – be able to independently move.
Nociception vs Pain
We can differentiate between the nociception – the ability to receive stimuli and transmit this signal by nerve cells and react by withdrawing a limb. That ability is less difficult to measure and is also observed in many animals (Lynne U. Sneddon, 2004). Pain is when this signal is also transmitted to a brain, which gives an unpleasant feeling – it hurts. If you think of it, you have probably removed your finger from something that would hurt your before you actually felt it.
Pain is significantly harder to measure since it includes the subjective experience of pain. I cannot know how someone else experiences a burn to a finger, but the hypothesis that it’s more or less the same as for me, is not bad.
Pain as unpleasant it might seem is very important for survival. There is a huge advantage of the ability to feel pain; it gives the opportunity to react to the cause of pain. Pain can be caused by physical-, chemical-, thermal stress, disease and much more. In other words, pain is a warning signal for harm thus helping us avoid injury or death (Crook, Dickson, Hanlon, & Walters, 2014).
Practical example, you accidentally set your shirt on fire. When the fire touches your skin, you feel pain. The pain causes a reaction by trying to move, put out the fire, take of the shirt, release adrenaline thereby increasing heart rate etc. for quicker and more efficient response i.e fight or flight response.
However, if you are a very unfortunate plant and find yourself on fire, pain wouldn’t really help that much – they can’t move. Plants don’t have nervous systems, but they can however respond to its environment – as all living organisms can. For example, they can trigger a sort of immune response while being infected by a pathogen (Jones & Dangl, 2006).
There is also a psychological aspect, where we can respond to social situations or abuse by pain and suffering. This also has a function, namely that it helps us work as social creatures. Feeling shame has no point unless you have to socially interact. But the ability to feel for example shame in a social situation might help culturally inherit social codes and rules to work in a social situation (Keltner & Haidt, 1999).
There is actually a medical condition that results in the disability to feel pain – Congenital analgesia. Patients with this condition typically accumulate a lot of injuries, bone fractures and bruises. That leads to a significant reduction in life expectancy (“Congenital insensitivity to pain,” 2016). This disease illustrates the importance and function of pain quite clearly.
It is quite clear from a scientific point of view that all vertebrates – which includes fish, mammals, birds, lizards and many more (there are almost 70 000 species of animals in this group) is very likely to experience pain (Criado, 2010; L. U. Sneddon, 2015; Lynne U Sneddon, 2004). Some research also suggests that some invertebrates – mollusks, worms, and insects – also do feel pain (Elwood, 2011).
We’ve seen that nervous systems are something that is unique to animals. All animals share a common ancestor that is more recent than what an animal species share with something that is not an animal. This means that animals typically – in very broad terms – share some characteristics due to our evolutionary history. An example of such characteristic shared being nervous systems. Of course, animals is a very big group, which makes it very diverse. Animals can be anything from humans to microscopic parasites.
Take for example the eye, a trait that varies between animals. But not all animals have eyes. Some animals have simpler eyes, such as mollusks (squids, clams, snails) and some have more complex eyes, such as humans or falcons. Evolution in different environments has resulted in different degrees of function, plan and performance due to the adaptive benefit in respective environment. For example, a bird that prey from very high altitudes has a need to identify prey from very long distances. The existence of a simpler ancestral eye opens up the opportunity to over time increase it’s effectiveness by evolution. This is one of the reasons why we see similar traits in related organisms, they share ancestry.
The same goes for the nervous system. Some animals have a very complex nervous system – such as mammals. Others have less complex nervous systems such as sea squirts. It should be quite obvious that some animals have a higher ability to feel complex feelings than others. It should also be obvious that pain is a very fundamental biological function that is not reserved for humans.
There is no reason to believe that pain wouldn’t be adaptive in any other animals than humans, firstly because it’s a quite complex system, which we don’t really understand yet. Such major functions as pain has typically evolved over a very, very long time meaning that it’s present in many species.
Consciousness and cognitive abilities
We don’t know exactly how the consciousness works, neither in humans nor in other animals. But we do know that a functioning brain is needed for consciousness and the ability to produce feelings. At least we can say that the brain is responsible for that in humans. But we don’t know how complex the least complex nervous system has to be to produce a consciousness.
The ability to feel, to think and have a consciousness is present in many animals other than humans. Especially social animals have a need for complex emotions (Paul, Harding, & Mendl, 2005). Obviously it’s hard to measure consciousness, especially without direct communication. But there are some approaches other than reasoning from comparative anatomy and evolutionary biology.
The mirror test is a very simple experiment yet widely criticized for its limitations – for example it assumes the visual sensory organs to be the main system for perception. The idea is to put a dot of paint on an animal and show its reflection in the mirror. The idea is that if the animal will react to the dot, that would be evidence for a concept of ‘self’ and the realization that the reflection in the mirror is ‘me’. There are several animals that do just that, such as primates, elephants and magpies (Plotnik, de Waal, & Reiss, 2006; Prior, Schwarz, & Güntürkün, 2008).
There are many approaches to assessing whether non-human animals do have a conciseness other than the simple mirror test. Comparative neurobiology, behavioral sciences and testing how animals react to drugs that alter human consciousness. However, it is generally clear, that humans are not by any means unique in the sense of having consciousness (Low et al., 2012).
Historically people have underestimated the abilities of animals, but it’s becoming more and more clear how many animals display a high level of cognition. Traits many believed were private to humans.
Empathy is a very sophisticated cognitive ability, an ability that humans are not unique having. Rats have been shown to show empathy, they will rescue a trapped rat (Bartal, Decety, & Mason, 2011). Empathy has also been shown in birds, and primates (Clay & de Waal, 2013; Edgar, Paul, & Nicol, 2013). The ability to use tools is also considered to be a sign of relatively high cognitive abilities, and this has been shown in several mammals, but interestingly also in birds and octopuses (Finn, Tregenza, & Norman, 2009; Hunt, 1996). Crows is able to remember a specific human for several years (Marzluff, Walls, Cornell, Withey, & Craig, 2010). These are just a few examples of cognitive abilities in animals. We can clearly say that empathy, problem solving, numeric understanding, face recognition, use of tools etc. is found in several animal species.
The previous discussion constitutes the background for the discussion which will be less science-oriented and more into practical philosophy. Science cannot tell us what to do or how to build our societies. Science can provide useful information about how the universe and everything in it works. But we do not discover, scientifically, ethical principles, but our ethical principles might change in the light of new knowledge. Morality is not objective, but we can reason from principles based on values and what world we want to live in.
Here I’d like to introduce a couple of moral principles. The subsequent discussion relies on agreement on those, at least partly. I hope that most humans have a sense of right and wrong, good and bad. My view is that one can reason their way into many ethical standpoints, but somewhere there are simply fundamental points:
- Don’t impose harm on others
- We have a collective obligation to help those in need
- Everyone has a right to live
Firstly, it’s wrong to do harm on others, is a very basic principle. There are always special circumstances when this is not possible, for example self-defense and so on. But the principle would be – if my action imposes harm on someone else it’s a less preferable choice than an action that does not impose harm on someone else. If one has two choices of actions, the one with the least amount of harm should be preferable if there are no other options. It’s basically consequence ethics and complemented with utilitarianism when needed. I’m not in favour of hard utilitarianism since I hold the principle of not doing harm to someone else higher than maximizing benefit. But utilitarianism can be a good practical guide to the lesser of two evils.
If you would agree to these principles, it would follow that one should not harm, injure or kill anyone, unless very extreme and rare situations such as self-defense. Everyone have a right to live, which means that I do not have mandate, or right to end someone else’s nor do I have a right to prohibit someone to live their life as they want to.
In my opinion, the greatest offence is taking someone’s life. Death is very permanent and whoever takes someone life unjustly take away the time of their victim to live and experience life. One of the cruelest acts imaginable.
Let’s try and expand those ethical principles a bit further.
If one agrees to the ethical principle of not doing harm onto others, the question then follows – who are included in others. I would argue that it’s completely unreasonable not to include all humans into the concept not harming. So what is the reason we don’t want to harm others? Well, mainly because others are sentient beings, able to feel pain and suffering. For humans we do have the human rights that – at least in theory – grants the right to live.
If ‘sentient’ is why, why do we draw the line by species and not by sentient? Do animals – perfectly able to feel pain, fear and suffering – don’t have a right to live just because they are of a different species? As seen above, there is no rational basis for believing that they aren’t able to feel those things.
If one believes that species matters, would one feel it would be legitimate to kill a Neanderthal man (if they lived today) simply because of species difference?
Strangely, some people do extend this empathy towards species that are used as pets. Few sensible people would kill a dog or a cat, yet have no problems killing a calf – or at least indirectly. There is no reason to believe that cats or dogs would be more conscious or aware than cows or pigs.
Animals are social, intelligent, curious and do feel emotions. What right do we have to refuse them their lives? Billions of animals every year are bred only for food, animals that will never see sunlight, never play, never behave naturally, never feel grass under their paws, never understand why they are being treated like mere products. Most animals in animal industry will only live a small fraction of what they could live. Cows typically live 1-2 years before they are killed, when they could live for 20 years.
There is no rational or even irrational argument not to include animals in the right to life and right to autonomy as far as I can see.
I’ve already stated that it’s very hard to measure exactly how conscious and how much pain different animals – or even humans – experience. We do however know that it requires a nervous system. We also know that only animals have a nervous system.
I would argue that the safest way to not cause harm is to be very careful and avoid all animals for any use. I think it’s a good principle to assume that animals do feel pain and suffering until proven otherwise. The contrary would pose a huge risk of inflicting harm in lack of evidence.
I would just like to preemptively direct a number of counter-arguments I typically get here:
“Meat tastes good”
Taste does not trump the right of life. You could in that case argue that I want to eat humans because they taste good. Well that is obviously highly unethical.
The argument then would need a justification why other animals would be fine to kill for taste, i.e. the argument does not stand on it’s own.
“Humans need to eat meat to survive”
No, they don’t. Humans are omnivores and can survive on a variety of diets. See my post “humans are not herbivores” for further discussion
“Animals are bred to be food, therefore it’s ok to kill them”
Assigned purpose in it self does not make it right. If I breed a human child with the purpose of harvesting organs, that would not be morally right just because that I assigned a purpose to the act.
“I need protein”
Well, so do all living beings. Not all living beings eat meat. Actually, all living organisms contain proteins – otherwise they wouldn’t be alive. But there are plenty of vegetables high in proteins such as beans and lentils.
“We have always been eating meat, my ancestors ate meat”
Sure, that is true. But that is just a factual statement. It says nothing of it being justified or not. My ancestors could and probably have done terrible things – that have no bearing on whether it’s morally right or wrong.
“Do you want cows/chickens/pigs to go extinct?”
Well, honestly, due to human actions, the extinction rate is highly elevated. I don’t see the tremendous value in 4-5 domesticated species compared to the vast number of species going extinct as we speak. There is however no need to breed and slaughter animals on an industrial scale to keep them from extinction. Killing is generally not the way to go if you try to not exterminate animals. Also, those species are probably the ones furthest from extinction on the planet.
“What shall we do with all animals then?”
If we stop breeding them, we won’t have billions of orphan animals to take care of. It’s like Snickers; the planet wouldn’t be filled with Snickers if we stopped consuming Snickers – one could just stop manufacture them.
“The animal welfare in my country is super good!”
Usually all nations claim their production is the most ethical and it’s usually very sellable to sell national produce. However, making something slightly less horrendous does not suddenly turn it into something justified.
“Biological diversity! You will change the landscape in my country!”
Please see my post ‘Eating Biodiversity’
“Well, you eat animal tested medicine, you are not perfect”
The classic nirvana fallacy, that if you cannot do something flawlessly perfect, there is no point in doing it. Well, obviously it’s better to do something than nothing.
In conclusion, I think it’s very clear that non-human animals are able to feel pain and suffering. I also think there are no rational arguments to continue to kill and abuse animals. I haven’t been vegan for my entire life, but once I really started thinking on the ethical principles I actually hold, there were simply nothing I could hold in defense of not being vegan. Don’t eat meat, dairy, eggs or anything derived from animals. Don’t buy wool, fur leather. Don’t support zoos or circuses with animals. Just like you – animals have a right to live their own lives.
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