TOPIC GUIDE: Vegetarianism
"We should not eat meat"
PUBLISHED: 09 Jan 2018
AUTHOR: Sam Burt
Share this Topic Guide:
Vegetarianism as a moral stance has its roots in some of the world’s oldest belief systems, including religious and philosophical ideas from ancient India and Greece. Today, despite being minority views, vegetarianism and veganism have become increasingly popular lifestyle choices in the developed world. An estimated five per cent of the UK public identifies as vegetarian [Ref: Guardian] and the proportion identifying as vegan has more than trebled in the past decade [Ref: Telegraph]. Yet at the same time, meat consumption is at record levels and growing fastest in developed countries [Ref: Atlantic].
In response, there have been widespread calls to reduce meat consumption in the interests of public health and environmental protection. Campaigns such as Meat Free Monday and National Vegetarian Week have used the power of social media to change cultural attitudes towards the eating of animals. An increasing number of Britons now identify as ‘flexitarians’: ‘eating predominantly, but not strictly, vegetarian’ [Ref: Independent]. In light of these trends, is there still a clear case for ‘strict’ vegetarianism? In the UK, many politicians [Ref: Independent] and commentators [Ref: New Statesman] seem to think so and have called for government action to encourage a mass shift towards vegetarianism. This echoes developments abroad: the Danish ethics council have advised their government to tax red meat, while China has produced nutritional guidelines recommending their meat consumption be halved by 2050 [Ref: Washington Post]. However, others have questioned whether the endorsement of vegetarianism by public bodies such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reduces what is essentially a political and moral matter to a technical question [Ref: spiked]. Evidence of the net health and environmental benefits of vegetarianism is contested [Ref: BBC] and key reports have made clear that what is required is a switch to ‘plant-based diets’ containing less meat, not none at all [Ref: Oxford Martin School]. So, do we have a clear moral responsibility to go vegetarian?
DEBATE IN CONTEXT
This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.
GIVE UP MEAT AND SAVE THE PLANET?
Cited by under-25s as their leading reason for giving up meat [Ref: Independent], the environmental impact of livestock farming features prominently in pro-veggie campaigns. Vegetarian activists accuse the meat industry of harming the environment in a number of ways. Methane produced by ruminant animals like cattle, sheep and goats adds to the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which is a contributor to climate change. Moreover, deforestation occurs so that crops can be grown to feed livestock, a process that requires more land space per calorie than the growth of crops for human consumption [Ref: Guardian]. The FAO estimated that the meat industry emits 18 per cent of all greenhouse gases, more than the entire transport sector combined [Ref: Scientific American]. In the words of the environment writer George Monbiot, ‘farming animals is as unsustainable as mining coal’ [Ref: Monbiot]. Many also argue that with a growing world population, feeding crops to animals rather than directly
But critics take issue with calculations of the environmental impact, pointing out that measures of start-to-end emissions underestimate technological improvements that could be made to farming practices in the developing world [Ref: Telegraph]. It has been argued that livestock play a crucial role in preserving the natural environment by maintaining the topsoil; desertification in the Sahara, for example, may have been worsened by encouraging farmers to switch from livestock to arable farming [Ref: BBC World Service]. Ecologist and author Simon Fairlie argues that ‘livestock provide the biodiversity that trees on their own cannot provide’ and provide food from land unsuitable for arable farming [Ref: Permaculture]. In addition, many environmental arguments for reducing meat consumption are far from supportive of giving up meat altogether [Ref: Quartz].
THE MORALITY OF MEAT
A second set of arguments concern the moral status of animals vis a vis humans: what moral rights, if any, do animals possess, and what moral duties do we have towards them? At one end of this spectrum, the philosopher Peter Singer argues that meat consumption is immoral because many animals being consumed are sentient beings and we have a moral duty not to cause preventable harm to them [Ref: BBC]. On this argument, even if consumers in more developed countries are freer to abstain from meat than those in less developed countries, we all have a moral duty to strive for a meat-free world. Many animal welfare advocates believe they are expanding the circle of human empathy, their cause comparable in this sense to the ending of slavery and racism. Evolutionary biologist Steven Pinker believes that ‘in the future, people may well look back on the rearing of animals for slaughter as barbaric’ [Ref: Times]. Indeed, the term ‘speciesism’, which describes the belief that a human life is intrinsically more valuable than that of a non-human animal, carries connotations not dissimilar to sexism or racism. At the same time, evolutionary biology is increasingly questioning the uniqueness of distinctive human capacities - self-awareness, altruism, intuitions about justice - which have long been considered grounds for our superior moral status [Ref: New York Times]. Nevertheless a loss of cultural confidence in human exceptionalism could be used to support either side of the meat-eating debate. For the philosopher Julian Baggini, ‘even if all lives do have some value, it does not follow that all are equally valuable, or that all have value worth caring about’ [Ref: Times Literary Supplement]. For those such as Dr. Richard Ryder, a shared capacity for suffering implies something closer to moral parity than the ‘merciless exploitation’ we observe in factory farming: ‘we can treat different species differently, but we should always treat equal suffering equally’ [Ref: Guardian]. However some commentators fear that the more we elide categorical distinctions between humans and animals, the further we erode a reasonable case for any moral duty of care owed by the former towards the latter. According to Damon Linker, the animal rights movement ‘either reduces us to the level of animals or attempts to raise them up to ours.’ Instead, he argues, ‘we should treat animals decently not because they’re just like human beings but rather because they’re not’ [Ref: The Week]. To critics, the surge in support for veganism, and the dubious science sometimes cited in its favour, suggests it may simply be a passing moral fad adopted for the purposes of ‘virtue signalling’ [Ref: BBC]. As the columnist (and vegetarian) Patrick West observes, veganism ‘easily becomes an ideology, underpinned by the ideals of purification, cleansing and asceticism’ [Ref: spiked]. With humanity still facing age-old problems of war, poverty and disease, are vegetarianism and veganism untimely distractions?
IMPACTS ON HUMAN HEALTH
The putative health benefits of a vegetarian diet have long been debated. In light of new public health pressures, they have received renewed attention. Reported benefits of going vegetarian include a reduced risk of obesity and specific cancers, and mitigated impacts of type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease [Ref: Atlantic]. Most commentators agree, however, that it is difficult to establish a clear link between a person’s consumption or non-consumption of meat, and their health [Ref: New York Times]. More importantly, suggestions that public bodies promote vegetarianism using policy ‘nudges’ [Ref: Washington Post] - making vegetarian options the default in school canteens, for instance - raise philosophical questions about how to balance freedom of choice with social welfare [Ref: LSE]. Aside from effects on consumers, the meat industry stands accused of harming the mental and physical wellbeing of its producers [Ref: OpenDemocracy]. Mass-scale factory farming depends on efficiently functioning slaughterhouses, which have been described as loud, intense, and ‘violent’ working environments [Ref: New York Times]. Some have speculated as to whether slaughterhouses help to normalise violence and objectification amongst humans [Ref: OpenDemocracy]. Phil Lempert, however, believes such accounts provide an argument for better-informed consumers at most, and are unrepresentative of the meat industry as a whole [Ref: Forbes]. A key feature of this debate therefore concerns the extent to which undesirable features of the production of meat are inseparable from the act of consuming it.
It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.
George Monbiot Guardian 4 October 2017
Lauren Cassani Davis Atlantic 28 May 2017
Rachel Premack Washington Post 3 July 2016
Alex Proud Telegraph 27 July 2015
Nicholas Kristof New York Times 12 March 2014
Toby Moses Guardian 12 October 2016
Jay Bost New York Times 3 May 2012
Daniel Klein Huffington Post 20 March 2012
Tara Kelly TIME 12 October 2010
James Panton spiked 11 September 2008
Olivia Goldhill Quartz 15 October 2017
Bibi van der Zee Guardian 4 October 2017
Julian Baggini Times Literary Supplement 20 July 2016
Leslie Cannold Guardian 2 May 2016
Peter Whoriskey Washington Post 18 December 2015
Rob Bailey, Antony Froggatt and Laura Wellesley Chatham House 3 December 2014
Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.
Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.
Harvard Health Publishing 4 December 2017
Ray Monk New Statesman 1 November 2017
Leo Barasi Prospect 11 September 2017
Olivia Petter Independent 10 August 2017
Wayne Martindale The Conversation 26 January 2017
Manès Weisskircher OpenDemocracy 1 November 2016
Rachel Nuwer BBC Future 27 September 2016
Jared Piazza Independent 5 May 2016
Chris Mooney Washington Post 21 March 2016
Jeffrey Kluger TIME 9 March 2016
Andy West OpenDemocracy 15 February 2016
Michael Slezak New Scientist 26 June 2014
LV Anderson Slate 1 May 2014
Paul Armstrong CNN 24 March 2010
Kathy Freston Huffington Post 12 July 2009
UN Food and Agriculture Organization 2006
Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.
IN THE NEWS
Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.
Alex Matthews-King Independent 3 November 2017
The Economist 19 October 2017
Rebecca Smithers Guardian 5 October 2017
India Bourke New Statesman 4 October 2017
The Economist 31 August 2017
Meera Senthilingham CNN 31 July 2017
George Caulkin The Times 28 July 2017
Neil Connor Telegraph 21 June 2016
Sue Quinn Telegraph 18 May 2016
Robert Goodland New York Times 11 July 2012
BBC Moral Maze 5 August 2017
BBC News 17 July 2017
The Evidence BBC World Service 19 April 2017
Intelligence Squared 31 October 2016
Counting the Cost Al Jazeera 3 March 2016
Practical Ethics YouTube
This site contains links to websites operated by parties other than Debating Matters. Although we make every effort to ensure links are current, they will sometimes break after Topic Guide publication. If a link does not work, then the publication reference and date should enable you to find an alternate link. If you find a broken link do please send it to the webmaster for review.
TOPIC GUIDE MENU
Select the relevant option
Related topic guides