Vegetarians and vegans – a philosophical look into whether they can rightfully adopt a moral high-ground.

By Jonathan M.S. Pearce, August 2011

I recently had a conversation with my partner’s daughter about her sudden decision, as a university student, to become a vegetarian and then, quickly afterwards, to take up veganism. I found the whole situation quite intellectually stimulating for philosophical reasons that I had never fully thought about before. For the point of this article I will not use my partner’s daughter’s name, not because she would not want it, but because I will at times be using examples and hypothetical quotes and positions that she has not given or does not necessarily hold. Thus, Judy is the newly veganised person.

So what is the reason that Judy became a vegetarian? Like many similar people, vegetarianism is an ethical standpoint, a mode of living that is more ethically beneficent and compassionate than being a meat-eater. The cruelty involved in eating meat, not to mention the extra water consumed in producing equivalent nutritional values of meat (though this is not often the primary concern), mean that vegetarianism is a fairly obvious ethical ideal.

The movement to veganism is a little more complex. The use of wool, eggs and milk, for example, do not necessarily involve the death, or even the suffering of animals. And this is where I find there is much interesting philosophical debate. Vegetarianism is fairly obvious and a relatively easy decision to make. It is ethically beneficial on several levels, and most people choose not to be vegetarian out of the love of meat, the variety of food this enables you to have and most prevalently, the laziness of the meat-eater. It takes a large effort to change one’s entrenched behaviours. I am one of these people: I ethically approve and would like to be a vegetarian, but am honest enough to say that I am a meat-eater still. There are many environmentally sound things that I do, even to the point of co-chairing a local green activist group, buying organic etc., but I confess to being guilty of eating meat. I applaud Judy for her decision, though.

Point 1

Firstly, we have the issue of where to draw the line. This is a case of the slippery slope. You see, to claim the ethical high ground in being a vegetarian, it begs the question of why stop at this ethical decision, why not go further? Why not think about where every single product that you buy is bought and change your shopping habits accordingly? Why not ensure that your electricity provider gives you green tariffs, or that you bank with the Co-Op Bank? However, the logical conclusion of this is to end up something like a Jain who sweeps the road in front of them so as not to tread on an ant. This, though, is where a vegetarian should end up unless they draw an arbitrary line somewhere in their decision making. Yet this is an entirely subjective and effectively random line if not followed through to its logical Jainist conclusion. Why should a meat-eater take the extra step on the request of a vegetarian if the vegetarian themselves refuses to take the next step in their ethical progression, and the next step and so on ad infinitum?

Point 2

Secondly, a similar notion of the slippery slope can be applied to the value of an animal life. As above, a Jain takes into account the value of life right down to an ant. But even then, what is to separate an ant (philosophically) from an amoeba or a bacterium? And a plant? The destruction of an animal such as a cow can more clearly be seen as problematic when put up against an amoeba, but where do you draw the line over what animals demand compassion and what ones don’t? Again, we return to an arbitrary line drawn to separate one animal as deserving compassion from the next down the line (presumably of complexity) that doesn’t deserve compassion. A meat-eater draws their arbitrary line much higher than a vegetarian. For example, most meat-eaters would not endorse the killing and eating of polar bears, but accept chickens. Vegetarians draw the line much lower down at around the micro-organism level. There can be a separation here of killing animals to eat, and accidental or collateral death of animals, of course. Driving along the road in a car in the Summer months, the vegetarian accepts collateral deaths of hundreds of flies and insects hitting the car and windscreen as par for the course. If they killed hundreds of cows driving down the road every day, then they would likely not drive. So there is definite and varied value attached to different animal life-forms which is often intuitively established and not specifically and explicitly so.

Point 3

Let us look philosophically at this process of moving away from a given behaviour to a newly adopted one of ethical ‘superiority’. There is a common occurrence of evangelisation when people take up a new ideological position. I know this from experience, from when I first became a green consumer and activist. The evangelising that you do to those around you about your newfound belief is always powerful. Whether it be with religion, atheism, political ideology or green issues, the behaviour is the same, and those closest to you get the full force of that evangelising persuasiveness that pervades all conversations. This manifests itself in ways such as this:

Judy: I can’t believe you eat meat. Do you know how cruel that is to animals?! You should stop eating meat like I have done. It is clearly better for the animal kingdom and for society as a whole.

Bill: Sure. But I already live ethically by only buying organic produce. I spend more money on these products to ensure farms operate ethically, promoting animal welfare, biodiversity, complementary ecosystems, and so they don’t use animal-killing pesticides. What gives you the right to demand that I stop eating meat when you don’t buy exclusively organic produce like I do?

Judy: Vegetarianism is better than buying organic!

Bill: Is it? Based on what value system?

And this is the problem. Bill has a really valid point. Judy may assume the moral high-ground, but they are both on moral high-grounds. There is no way of valuing two such different behaviours – it is akin to comparing the value of flying a kite with eating an orange – the two are complex and not mutually comparable. Ethics isn’t just about animal death and suffering, and even then, organic farming actually promotes more life and biodiversity than standard arable farming which would kill many animals and destroy many ecosystems through pesticide use and such factors as utrophication. If we understand that we are all on a continuum of ethical living, we sit somewhere on a line starting at the world’s most unethical and selfish consumer to the most pious and angelic ethical consumer. Each decision, if we could assign a universal ethical value would add certain units of ethical value to your life and would push you along that continuum. Therefore, a vegetarian wouldn’t have the right to say what Judy says unless they did everything ethically possible in their own lives (and we return here to my first point made above). And decisions can’t be easily compared on a universal system, so Bill would be within his rights, arguably, to claim that he was actually being more ethical than Judy, and that she should get down off her high horse.

I remember going to a debate on what was better: organic, seasonal or local produce. The end result was that nobody knew. Each had their pros and cons that were different and not mutually comparable. This is the same for vegetarianism against any other ethical choice. Now, Judy could demand that someone who does absolutely nothing ethical in their lives (Kelly) adopt vegetarianism. But even then, Kelly could still demand why Judy hasn’t followed through on every aspect of ethical living, and ask why they had to simply adopt the one ethical choice that Judy had adopted. This would seem to Kelly like Judy just wanted everybody to be like her, doing everything that she does – “I do it, and therefore, so should you!” We are on almost identical grounds to Point 1 here. But Judy would be within her rights to at least try to make Kelly somewhat more ethical. But with Bill, Judy has a much harder logical battle. She cannot adopt a moral high ground because she arguably does not hold one over organic Bill. Bill can simply turn around and either say, “I’ll become vegetarian if you become organic” or he can say, “Why should I follow your demands, if you have not considered going organic.”

Interestingly, this is not an argument about vegetarianism. Vegetarianism is simply the example in the debate. Any ethical decision or position here is at stake. You could swap vegetarianism and organic consumption around here, or you could choose two other options entirely. The philosophical point being made is that you cannot adopt a moral high ground over any ethical decision with someone else who has a different ethical behaviour if one is not clearly more ethical than the other. This would necessitate a universal ethical value system.

I must also reiterate that vegetarianism is beneficial, in my opinion, to society as a whole. What I should not do (if I was one) is to automatically assume the moral high-ground over those who were not vegetarians without knowing their ethical repertoire, if you will. I would also have to accept an arbitrary line draw for purposes of practicability, whilst also understanding that this may logically undermine (to some extent) such a position.


It gets a bit trickier now. There are two types of vegan, the dietary vegan and the ethical vegan. The ethical vegan is one who removes all animal products from their diet and any other purpose, arguing that animals should not be seen as a commodity. I will be assuming the stricter definition whilst at the same time acknowledging that it might be a straw man for some people.

Let us look at chicken eggs, and more specifically, free range chicken eggs. I have kept chickens myself, and eaten their eggs. I know that my chickens, while they lived, had a good life. About as good as it gets for a chicken. They had the run of the garden, a hutch, a fantastic diet that far exceeded anything they could have got in the wild, and safety. Compared to a chicken existing in the wild, they had life that was unarguably better. They provided eggs, but this was at no suffering from them. If I was not using their eggs, I would not have obtained the chickens. They would not even have existed, since the demand for them would not have been there. This gets into the realms of Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein here, since we start having to talk about the value of existence. Is it better that a chicken doesn’t exist, or exists happily in a free ranging comfortable environment whilst laying unfertilised eggs to be consumed by a random bloke who occasionally picks them up and strokes them?

Perhaps there is no answer to this. No value can be assigned to non-existence. So let’s compare a free range chicken in my possession with a wild chicken in the jungles of Asia where they are native. The constant threat of predation, a less comfortable roost, no veterinary support if they become ill, no separation if there is unnecessarily vicious henpecking must surely mean that a free range chicken leads a more comfortable and happy life than a wild one. Maslow’s hierarchy would imply a happier chicken is a free range chicken. Chickens do not understand notions of possession such that I own them and they are not free or wild, and as such this is perhaps irrelevant to the discussion.

In this case, it seems obvious that it is better to have free range chickens than to have wild ones.

Cows are a different ballgame. On a subsistence level, I would suggest that milking your own cow or several cows is probably beneficial. However, most cows are intensively farmed, and so milk is potentially more complex than eggs. That being said, the discussion becomes whether a farmed cow is better than a non-existent cow. If this is unanswerable, then what would happen to cows if they were wild? Is it a relevant question, would cows simply die out and would we be back to our first question?

With sheep, and wool, we are at a potentially different discussion too. Is there any harm in rearing sheep, who live exceptionally free range lives, for their wool? Is there any suffering? Would the sheep live easier or harder lives if they weren’t farmed, in the wild, suffering hardships of predation and no medicine? A difficult question, but I would be inclined to argue that it is beneficial for sheep to be farmed. The welfare of the animals is important to the farmer to ensure good revenue from quality wool. With high farming standards in Britain, and the push for more compassionate farming, then there is, in my opinion, nothing wrong with the harvesting of wool from sheep.

What we start to get into is the notion of rights. Does one animal have a right over another animal? Does one animal have a right not to get eaten by another, and not to have any of its products not to be used by another animal? Vegans here deny any kind of speciesism. As others have investigated, vegans adopt a deontonlogical approach, that of objective moral rights, as opposed to a utilitarian or a consequentialist approach. There is utility to humanity that we consume animal products that is higher than the utility for not doing so; therefore, there are beneficial consequences to such a consumption.

Vegan philosophers will argue that the moral rights of the animals override any argument that suggests that the eating of animals is useful in any way. It gets easier to debate this same argument over animal products that do not require the death or suffering of the animal. However, there is scope for a really deep philosophical conversation here about whether rights exist at all, and the more fundamental point as to whether objective ideas or abstracts exist (objectively) at all.

What is a right, and what does it mean? As Andrew Brown has pointed out in the Guardian[1], it is hard to argue that human rights actually exist. The implications here are that it is hard to argue for the objective existence of human or animal rights. This comes down to the debate over whether abstract ideas exist at all other than in people’s minds, whether the position of realism is tenable. I am a conceptualist and this means that I do not believe that objective ideas exist anywhere but in the individual brains of each thinker. I set out a case against objectivism briefly here:

It sounds nice and compassionate to say things like “What about the rights of animals? They have rights too, you know!”, but in order for this to be a truthful statement, it needs to be philosophically substantiated. The only way of doing this is to set up a subjective framework of rights and bills and laws which must be undergirded by a law set out by a consensus within humanity, or for it to simply be a subjective and personal belief. For example, if we set out the goal ‘There will be as little animal suffering in this society as possible’, then you can go about setting up a framework to achieve that goal, which might include the implementation of rights. But that goal is itself a subjective ideal, almost arbitrary. It will usually boil down, after asking countless whys as to the existence of the goal, to human happiness or utility. Therefore, in my opinion, we are back to treating animal ethics on a consequentialist footing.

The ubiquitous Peter Singer has written widely on bioethics. He adopts the consequentialist view that killing animals is not wrong in and of itself in an inherent manner, but that it should be rejected unless necessary for survival on such a basis. This would be the viewpoint I would adopt. At the risk of having to investigate the huge topic of morality here, it is important not to get sidetracked. Thus, improving farm conditions as well as endorsing veganism is the order of the day. He does support what is often known as the ‘Paris exemption’ which broadly states: if you find yourself in a fine restaurant, allow yourself to eat what you want; and if you’re in a strange place without access to vegan food, going vegetarian instead is acceptable[2].

Veganism is not a religion and making the occasional compromise will not commit you to an eternal hell, especially if you can master your guilt.

In reality, it all becomes an entanglement of competing philosophical ideas and ideals. Do objective ideas exist? Do rights exist? Do species exist? (I actually argue they don’t as can be seen here and this renders the separation of ‘humans’ from other animals difficult.) Which animals have sentience and which don’t? So on and so forth. I suppose the conclusion, if any such a thing can be drawn from a subject with so many contentious and arguable points, would be that simple throw-away ethical judgements do not stand on their own intrinsic merit. “You shouldn’t eat meat” and “You should be a vegan” more often than not rely on unsubstantiated philosophy. The whys need to be asked until you get down to that which grounds your position, and this usually means talking about objectivism and subjectivism; talking about moral philosophy and where it is derived; and whether there is such a thing as (moral) duty. Sweeping generalisations and dogmatic statements (nay, all statements) are never easy in the world of philosophy.


[1] (14/4/2011)

[2] Singer, Peter and Mason, Jim. The Way We Eat. Rodale, 2006, pp. 282–283. The term “Paris exemption” was coined in 2004 by Daren Firestone, a Chicago law student, in Paulson, Amanda. “One woman’s quest to enjoy her dinner without guilt”, Christian Science Monitor, October 27, 2004, p. 2