A Case for Vegetarianism

For me, it all boils down to one question: do animals feel pain in a way that I and others would recognize as pain?  That requires a nervous system and especially a functioning brain, so for fungi, plants, and lower and immature animals, the answer is no.  Even with this definition there is plenty of meat I think most of us would pass on in most situations, including dear Rover who just died of old age, developed embryos of most species (as opposed to eggs), and senile Granny.

But if an animal can feel pain, if I owe it any rights at all, I owe it the right not to have pain inflicted on it by me or on my behalf.  Ok, so admittedly, we could confine ourselves to eating those higher animals that died of old age—but that would immediately cut down the supply of meat and dramatically increase the price.  To have a mass market in meat, we will have to kill animals in their prime.  Is there, then a pain-free way to kill an animal?  “Sure,” you reply, “when Coco was dying from cancer last year, we took her to the vet, who gave her a couple of shots and she just went to sleep; we all cried a lot, but Coco didn’t suffer!”  Nice try, but those chemicals would make an animal unfit to eat.

Historically, the “best” way to kill larger food animals like cows and pigs was to hoist them up by their rear legs, slit their throats, and let them bleed to death, since meat tastes better with the blood drained out of it.  Nowadays the food industry uses putatively more humane methods, such as inserting an electrified needle into the animal’s brain, which is supposed to kill it almost instantly.  “Supposed to,” of course, since it doesn’t always work, which is why they have to keep baseball bats handy….  I don’t think even the meat industry claims their methods are absolutely cruelty free (if they were so terrific, why don’t we use them for human executions instead of our current methods), but simply as humane as possible.  Is that much consolation, you think, to the animal in pain?

Of course, the cruelty is not limited to end-of-life issues in agribusiness.  Take a sheet of writing paper and fold it in half.  That’s approximately the size allotted to the average chicken on a typical chicken farm, that is to say, very nearly the size of the chicken itself.  The chickens are kept in wire mesh cages their entire lives, seldom or never seeing the sun.  As you know, birds’ feet by default curl, so as they grow, it’s not uncommon for the immobile chickens’ feet to grow into the wire mesh.  To keep the birds from pecking each other to death, the farmers often amputate their beaks.

Cows are fed mainly a diet of corn, which their digestive systems were not designed to handle.  Among other side effects, this leaves them with weakened immune systems and vulnerable to infections, so they are commonly given antibiotics (and bovine growth hormone to fatten them for market faster, too).  Tip: those routine antibiotics are a major part of the reason we’re seeing the growth of super bugs like MRSA that won’t respond to most antibiotics.

In breeding pigs to grow as fast as possible, a genetic defect was introduced such that when the pigs panic, their flesh begins to melt down and becomes unfit for human consumption.  Anyone who’s owned a pet pig can tell you that they are very intelligent.  Apparently quite a few of them figure out what’s happening on the way into the slaughterhouse and there’s enormous waste.

A normal, healthy human adult can get all the protein and every other nutritional need from plant sources with an eye on nutrition; it’s even easier if you allow animal products like eggs, cheese, milk, honey, or even shellfish, etc.

Eggplant lasagna, anyone?

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10 Responses to “A Case for Vegetarianism”

  1. tinako Says:

    You make a compelling case… do you follow your conclusion where it leads you?

  2. hauntedrollercoaster Says:

    Not all the way to its logical conclusion, no, alas, and I do feel quite guilty about that. I have given up the most cruelty-intense meats like veal and McDonald’s; I eat considerably less meat overall, especially red meat; and I’m eating more completely vegetarian meals. So no, I haven’t broken a 40-year addiction to meat, but I’m trying and making some headway.

  3. tinako Says:

    I have been there. I gave up meat gradually. I gave up veal around 1988 when I read about how poorly the calves were treated. That was an easy decision because veal is an uncommon meal. Then I gave up beef around 1991 after I read an abuse account that really bothered me. Up until that point I had been able to separate the abuse as “a few bad apples,” but suddenly I realized I was paying that SOB who killed a sick calf with a hammer. The guilt was overwhelming and I finally couldn’t eat beef any more. But I just replaced it with other meat. I gave up each animal one by one as I felt too guilty to eat it, and then I was vegetarian. Last year I went through it again when I found out how bad dairy was. Going vegan was an agonizing decision, but actually doing it has been pretty easy.

    So I feel your pain.

    Good luck.

  4. Tuatha de Curriden Says:

    As I am more than willing to agree with some of this, as a deontological case, I think some attention needs be paid to the counters.

    First, what of the argument from design? Human beings are evolved with the teeth and nutritional needs to include at least some meat within their diet. I do not contest that these nutritional needs can be met via vegetable matter, but I think it bears pointing out that left in its natural state, the human being is designed to be an omnivore.

    Parsing out cruelty issues, what of hunting? Is it predation within our diet that is ethically suspect, or the manner in which we have mechanized and atomized it, separating production from product, or even treating our food as product at all, and not in the sacralized manner that many, many societies on the planet have done?

    Further, what of other carnivores? Are their actions also ethically weighted? Is it intelligence, sentience or some other quality that places the duty to not inflict pain upon humanity, but not upon other complex organisms?

    None of this is to say that I disagree with the original deontological point, but rather that I think it comes with some problematic consequences, and perhaps some problematic presuppositions.

  5. hauntedrollercoaster Says:

    First off, Curri, I’ve not made a deontological argument, I’ve made a rights argument–different paradigm, the same rules don’t apply. We didn’t have time to cover that in our philosophy course.

    (1) Yes, humans, all things being equal, are designed to be omnivores, and following our natural instincts, will eat an omnivorous diet (in the past I was accused more than once of being more of a carnivore, since many carnivores will eat some vegetable matter, like the contents of a herbivore’s stomach).

    (2) A hunter putting a bullet through the brain or heart of a game animal comes pretty darn close to a cruelty-free death. At least we can console ourselves that the deer (or whatever) probably lived a good life by its own standards, unlike the cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys being mass produced in America. Yet, I’m sure you’ve heard horror stories from hunters, as I have, about misses, and having to track the wounded animals for hours or even days, often until it succumbs to exhaustion, blood loss, or infection. This is a worst-case scenario, much worse than when things go wrong at the slaughterhouse.

    (3) It is unfair to judge other carnivores by human standards under a rights model. A lion kills its prey and eats it because that it all it knows how to do. It doesn’t accord any rights to the antelope because such concepts are beyond it. Not so with humans. We might enjoy antelope meat (I’ve eaten it myself), but we can chose to get our nutrition from plants and fungi instead.
    We would accord to the antelope, the lion, and the cow the right not to suffer. It would be ridiculous to talk about giving them the right to vote. According due rights does not mean equal rights when capacities are so unequal.

  6. Tuatha De Curriden Says:

    I’m not familiar with the difference; are we talking contractarianism then? If so, how do animals enter into the social contract?

    If it isn’t, well, whence come rights, and how do we have a duty to observe and accord them?

    Responding to points 2 and 3…

    2) What I was trying to get at, even a slow death from a poor hunter (I’ve heard of them too; they don’t spend near enough time sharpening their skills before going hunting), may be better than a mechanized and seemingly meaningless death to be converted into a product, and not respected as a living thing. While I find hunting for sport abhorrent, hunting to eat seems a ethically neutral act, provided one takes the greatest care possible to maintain a clean shot, and minimize the suffering of the hunted.

    3) Whence to rights reside then? If right may be violated by say, a lion, without ethical implications, but not by a human being, can one say the rights are inherent then, or simply accorded? Must such rights then be inferred?

    In short, what makes “due” rights? Further, whence comes the right not to suffer, and is it an inherent right, or an accorded right? If accorded, what makes it binding, or universal?

  7. hauntedrollercoaster Says:

    Now you’re straying into territory for a graduate seminar on ethics, particularly animal rights, Curri. For a readable overview, see:

    http://www.animallaw.info/articles/arusgfrancione1997.htm

    (2) Most animals rights activists would disagree and would draw little distinction between killing and eating farm-raised animals and wild ones. Think for a moment if there were feral humans alive on some isolated island somewhere on Earth–they shared our DNA, but none of our culture/civilization/distinctive features like speech; they lived much as other great apes. Would it be OK to hunt them, or would that invoke our taboos against hunting, killing, and eating other people?

    (3) See the overview, but it’s not going to answer all of your questions, for there are sharp disagreements even between the animal rights philosophers. Rights theory is not my forte, so you might stroll down to the Philosophy Department and pose these questions to Dr. Tollefson.

    (4) To make it even more complicated, there are sharp disagreements further between those who would accord rights to the land/ecosystems and those making the case for individual animals. Many of the former look upon domesticated animals as scourges upon the Earth that should be wiped out immediately for the damage they do.

  8. hauntedrollercoaster Says:

    Huffington Post, 12 June 2009:

    Going through the comments of some of my recent posts, I noticed the frequently stated notion that eating meat was an essential step in human evolution. While this notion may comfort the meat industry, it’s simply not true, scientifically.

    Dr. T. Colin Campbell, professor emeritus at Cornell University and author of The China Study, explains that in fact, we only recently (historically speaking) began eating meat, and that the inclusion of meat in our diet came well after we became who we are today. He explains that “the birth of agriculture only started about 10,000 years ago at a time when it became considerably more convenient to herd animals. This is not nearly as long as the time [that] fashioned our basic biochemical functionality (at least tens of millions of years) and which functionality depends on the nutrient composition of plant-based foods.”

    That jibes with what Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine President Dr. Neal Barnard says in his book, The Power of Your Plate, in which he explains that “early humans had diets very much like other great apes, which is to say a largely plant-based diet, drawing on foods we can pick with our hands. Research suggests that meat-eating probably began by scavenging–eating the leftovers that carnivores had left behind. However, our bodies have never adapted to it. To this day, meat-eaters have a higher incidence of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other problems.”

    There is no more authoritative source on anthropological issues than paleontologist Dr. Richard Leakey, who explains what anyone who has taken an introductory physiology course might have discerned intuitively–that humans are herbivores. Leakey notes that “[y]ou can’t tear flesh by hand, you can’t tear hide by hand…. We wouldn’t have been able to deal with food source that required those large canines” (although we have teeth that are called “canines,” they bear little resemblance to the canines of carnivores).

    In fact, our hands are perfect for grabbing and picking fruits and vegetables. Similarly, like the intestines of other herbivores, ours are very long (carnivores have short intestines so they can quickly get rid of all that rotting flesh they eat). We don’t have sharp claws to seize and hold down prey. And most of us (hopefully) lack the instinct that would drive us to chase and then kill animals and devour their raw carcasses. Dr. Milton Mills builds on these points and offers dozens more in his essay, “A Comparative Anatomy of Eating.”

    The point is this: Thousands of years ago when we were hunter-gatherers, we may have needed a bit of meat in our diets in times of scarcity, but we don’t need it now. Says Dr. William C. Roberts, editor of the American Journal of Cardiology, “Although we think we are, and we act as if we are, human beings are not natural carnivores. When we kill animals to eat them, they end up killing us, because their flesh, which contains cholesterol and saturated fat, was never intended for human beings, who are natural herbivores.”

    Sure, most of us are “behavioral omnivores”–that is, we eat meat, so that defines us as omnivorous. But our evolution and physiology are herbivorous, and ample science proves that when we choose to eat meat, that causes problems, from decreased energy and a need for more sleep up to increased risk for obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

    Old habits die hard, and it’s convenient for people who like to eat meat to think that there is evidence to support their belief that eating meat is “natural” or the cause of our evolution. For many years, I too, clung to the idea that meat and dairy were good for me; I realize now that I was probably comforted to have justification for my continued attachment to the traditions I grew up with.

    But in fact top nutritional and anthropological scientists from the most reputable institutions imaginable say categorically that humans are natural herbivores, and that we will be healthier today if we stick with our herbivorous roots. It may be inconvenient, but it alas, it is the truth.

    • Robert Curriden Says:

      Then how do they explain the existence of canines, and the necessity of proteins within the human diet?

      It might be a recent (evolutionarily speaking) addition to the human animal, but it still there.It is simply that there are certain systems that have not caught up. Further, I would cite the attention that most vegetarians must pay to their diets, so as to augment protein intake and prevent malnutrition.

      Or is it okay for the environment to not match the case for humans as “naturally” herbivores but not okay for humans to have recently acquired omnivorous traits?

  9. tinako Says:

    Hi Robert. I am having trouble following some of your points, but then I’m not all that interested in what people ate 10,000 years ago. I’m not sure I see that it’s pertinent to my ethics or health issues. But I would like to comment on three of your questions/points.

    Canines: As Haunted mentions, human canines bear little resemblance to true carnivores. Think of the teeth of cats, dogs, lions. Here is a picture: http://www.wildlife-pictures-online.com/image-files/lion_rctb-6394_blog.jpg. Here are the canines of a near-vegan (they eat bugs sometimes): http://pescetarianlife.com/gteeth.jpg.

    Necessity of proteins: All animals require protein. It’s what our muscles are made of. Cows, pigs, squirrels, gorillas, humans. A protein requirement does not mean an animal is an omnivore.

    Lastly, vegetarians do not need to pay any more attention to protein than meat-eaters. You eat meat, we eat beans or nuts. That’s it. As Haunted mentions, the bigger problem is that meat-eaters are eating too much protein. That is a health problem. It is a myth that vegetarianism is so tricky and unnatural that vegetarians have to spend a lot of time worrying about nutrition. The truth is that we ALL need to spend time thinking about nutrition, and that the ones eating a typical western diet high in animal protein, saturated fat, and cholesterol, low in fiber and vitamins ought to be ahead of the vegetarians in line for the nutritionist.

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