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The 10 Most Common Arguments Against Vegetarianism or Veganism and My Response to Them: Part Three

Updated on March 23, 2012

This is a continuation of a short series of articles I'm writing about the most common arguments meat eaters will level against veggies (I'll use the term 'veggie' from here on to describe vegetarians and vegans). Part One can be found here and Part Two can be found here.

In short I hope to debunk some common myths and concerns about going veggie, and disprove some of the most common (and perhaps some of the less common) arguments against vegetarianism and veganism.

5. The Plant Argument

Generally speaking, my view is that we shouldn't kill humans, so to be consistent we shouldn't kill animals either. It's the old Golden Rule which is found in pretty much every ethical belief system, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you'. I consider animals to be in the 'others' category. (A lot of people say straight away that it's okay to kill animals because they don't know they are about to be killed, but in that case would you say it is okay to kill a human if they don't see it coming, say in their sleep? I hope not!).

The question is, however, if we agree that killing is wrong, then where do you draw the line? After all, uprooting a carrot to eat it is essentially killing it, just as much as slaughtering an animal. Surely the vegetarian is a hypocrit for condemning one form of killing whilst condoning the other? Surely vegetarians are just as arbitrary in drawing the line below animals as meat eaters are for drawing the line below humans?

I hear this argument a lot. Sometimes there is a lengthy rant about the hypocrisy of vegetarians and vegans. Some people even feign some kind of concern for plant life, and will go on a lengthy talk about all the plants that are being killed on a daily basis by vegetarians everywhere.

So firstly let's take this idea that it is arbitrary where we draw the line. If we aren't sure where to draw the line, surely it is better to draw it as far down as possible? If we are only going to draw the line below humans, then what's to stop someone suggesting the line be drawn higher up, say excluding an ethnic minority for example? The point is, if you're saying that it doesn't matter where we draw the line, then you have to agree that it doesn't matter if someone draws the line higher up.

Over the past 200 years, we have, as a civilization, been gradually eradicating racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, and so on. Some philosopher historians have suggested that we are 'widening our moral circle'. Mary Midgley makes this suggestion in her book Animals and Why They Matter (1983). The suggestion is, why not widen the moral circle further to include say, sentient beings, animals that can feel pleasure and pain? Surely this is a progressive step? Surely it is better to widen our moral circle as far as possible than restrict it?

This leads on to another point that veggies ought to make. Animals feel pleasure and pain. If you disagree with this then you might as well disagree with the idea that other humans feel pleasure and pain. Do plants feel pleasure and pain? Well, perhaps, but not nearly to the same extent, if at all. Plants clearly respond to external stimuli, they grow toward the sun for example, but it is hard to imagine how they actually feel in this process, and it seems to me like suggesting a computer feels pleasure or pain when it reacts to certain commands. Animals on the other hand have a nervous system like humans, so we can infer that they feel a similar kind of pleasure and pain to us. Indeed, humans are animals! This is a point which doesn't get made enough.

Further, and perhaps most importantly of all, by adopting a veggie diet, you will be causing far less plant death anyway. This is because those animals that we kill for food also have to eat, and generally they'll eat grains. It's similar to the environmental argument for cutting out meat, by eating less we are using less land that could be used for other things. This is important as some people will say that modern crop fertilizing and harvesting methods will kill a lot of small animals and insects, so we end up having to kill animals whatever we do. We need to eat to survive, but at least by going veggie you are responsible for far less death.

A clued up veggie will know that they can never live without causing some death or suffering, but that they can minimise this through making good choices. This is why it is considered a lifestyle and not just a diet.

It's true, by eating any crop, you will be indirectly causing animal death and suffering, but you'll cause far less as a vegetarian or vegan than as a meat eater.
It's true, by eating any crop, you will be indirectly causing animal death and suffering, but you'll cause far less as a vegetarian or vegan than as a meat eater. | Source

6. The Symbiosis Argument

This argument, in my experience, is the hardest to argue against. I have heard it said many times that farm animals get a pretty good deal out of being farmed as opposed to having to fend for themselves in the wild. Further, some even suggest that it is a form of symbiosis, that we and farm animals have evolved or developed together for a mutually beneficial relationship. Some even suggest that it is better to have lived and then be slaughtered than never to have lived at all, and that by eating animals we are thereby doing them a favour.

Usually I will suggest that this line of reasoning be applied to humans. If I have produced a human, do I then have a right over it's life? I should hope not. We could imagine a situation where human clones were produced so that people would have a set of organs to harvest should they need to (This is the plot in the film The Island, but I won't ruin the ending for you!) If we were to follow the reasoning above, we would have to agree that yes, it is okay to kill the clone, because if we hadn't produced him/her in the first place he would not have had a life, and therefore we have actually done him/her a favour!

The illogic is in suggesting that a being that doesn't yet exist has an interest in existing. Clearly it doesn't, it has no interests at all. We don't have a duty to bring beings into existence, if we did we would have to keep bringing beings into existence until the world could support no more. We don't consider someone immoral for not wanting a child, even if we don't understand their decision. And often we consider it wrong for a couple to have a child when they cannot support that child - the fact that the child that would have existed now won't does not enter the moral equation.

The other suggestion is that farm animals have a better existence than wild animals. Wild animals are a special case for ethics - personally I don't think we should get too involved in delicate ecosystems where we will probably cause more harm than good. And, at the end of the day, it is not our fault if a wild animal has a difficult life, unless we have gotten involved to prevent it having a good life.

But it is a fallacy to compare farm animals and wild animals and suggest that the difference between the two justifies the former practice. Farm animals wouldn't exist if we didn't produce them, but once they exist we have a responsibility to treat them ethically, as with the human clone example above. Wild animals on the other hand were not produced by us, and it is not our fault if they are living a hard life in their natural surroundings.

Finally, you have to question whether farmed animals do get a better deal than wild animals. If you knew what went on in factory farms then you would have to question this belief straight away (I again draw attention to the film Food. Inc, also the book Eating by Peter Singer and Jim Mason). But even free range animals get a raw deal when you think about it. Standard practice is for male and female farm animals to be separated from birth and the males castrated, cows to be impregnated every year so that they constantly produce milk, newborns to be separated from their mother upon birth (farmers don't want the calf drinking all that milk that can be sold), the list goes on. Imagine if these kinds of procedures were introduced for humans! It would be a fate that many would consider worse than death to be denied our nature in such a way. Is it really so much worse to be a wild animal? It is said that there is no worse sound than the sound of a mother cow who has been separated from her newborn calf.

As long as they don't know they're about to be killed, it's okay right?

Thanks for reading! Part Four of this series can be found here.


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