What does vegetarian really mean
Vegetarianism has been around since the days of ancient Greece and whilst it's still a minority view -- at least in my home country -- we all recognize it as a fairly normal, common, everyday kind of thing. There is actually some debate about whether or not vegetarianism is on the rise and part of that is to do with a lot of people /saying/ that they're vegetarian when actually they're not really.
So, we'll define "vegetarianism" as "not eating any animals at all." So let me make this clear: [booming, echoing] If you eat fish, you are not a vegetarian. So are there any philosophical reasons to become vegetarian? People often say that vegetarianism is healthier for you or better for the environment than eating meat. But those are practical arguments. Can we frame any arguments in moral philosophical terms? Some philosophers have pointed out that producing meat is actually quite a wasteful way of getting food. If we all became vegetarians, then we'd need less land to grow that food.
Since there are so many starving people in the world, you might say that there's a moral reason to become vegetarian so we can use that land to grow more food and feed more people. That's a little too human-focused though, right? That's saying that eating meat is bad because of the impact it has on other people. Is there anyway we can frame arguments around the animals themselves? Well, the most obvious argument is that eating meat necessarily involves killing animals.
It's generally assumed that animals are sentient -- they are aware, in some sense. Certain animals like us and chimps are maybe /more/ aware, but it's still feels like something to /be/ a chicken. [chicken cluck] And animals have interests -- by which we mean "states of the world which would be good for them" -- so, animals have an interest in staying alive. Most humans have an interest in eating meat because it's really tasty. But you might say that our interest in that pleasure -- which is very small and which we could kind of do without -- can't override the much more fundamental interests of an animal in /staying alive./ Some people would say that it's just philosophically arrogant of us to assume that we have the right to override the most basic interests of another creature if we can help it.
It feels like /something/ to be a chicken, but it doesn't feel like much. We aren't really depriving it of anything all that big. But there's another argument that has it's locus classicus with the 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and the quote, "The question is not 'Can they reason?' nor 'Can they talk?' but 'Can they suffer?'" A lot of animals, or at least, the ones that we eat, /do/ feel pain. They /can/ suffer. And when they're reared for slaughter -- particularly if they're reared in intensive conditions -- they do suffer. Quite a lot.
You might say that free range animals who live in better conditions don't suffer as much, but surely "death" counts as a harm. Do humans really have the right to inflict that harm? If you raised a human being in really nice conditions for a number of years and then killed it, would that be okay? Now, obviously people are going to say that those two cases are not the same -- that there's some morally relevant differences, in which case, what are they? You might say that just buying and eating the meat doesn't directly contribute to the suffering, but you're supporting the industry with your money -- you're kind of culpable a little bit.
And in my case, I know, it would be really, really difficult to give it up, 'cuz it's just so. . . tasty! Is it fair to set moral standards that most people would find it difficult to. . . meet? Well, morality can be demanding. Just because you really, really don't want to do something doesn't mean you don't have a moral obligation to do it. And remember, demanding this is relative: if you grew up vegetarian, in a society that was predominantly vegetarian, you'd probably find it pretty easy to do without meat.
What do you guys think? Are there philosophical reasons against being vegetarian? Do humans have the right to harm animals? If you're a vegetarian, why? There's also a link in the description to a paper by a guy named Dr. William Stevens, which outlines a lot of these ideas in detail. It's free to read and it contains some quite interesting arguments saying that eating meat is linked to the sexist treatment of women, which is something that I'd never thought of.