- Vegetarianism and Veganism:Animals and Moral Status
Traditionally, food has been related to social gatherings, and we can’t help but see in food an entity that helps define us as human beings in a social context. But food preference is also highly personal. We express our own inclinations, desires, and tastes when we select what we eat, and we should be at liberty, surely, to choose what we eat—well, ruling out cannibalism. And yet many vegetarians hold that morally we should not be at liberty to eat meat, since it involves animal cruelty, especially in the case of factory-farmed meat, which is how most meat today is produced. Vegans who take a moral stance on animal well-being eschew all meat plus dairy products. Why? Because the hens that bring us our eggs and the cows that bring us our milk may endure even greater suffering than the pigs and cows slaughtered for our dining benefit.
The moral status of animals has generated a vast literature, freighted and nuanced with complex philosophical and ethical theories. If this literature has flourished in the last forty years, it has its roots much earlier, framed not only in theological doctrine but also in philosophy. Are animals things with instrumental value only? For René Descartes, seventeenth-century French philosopher, there were two kinds of reality: [End Page 179] mind and matter. In Descartes’ view, humans have nonmaterial minds; animals are matter only. Lacking a cogito, or an “I am,” lacking consciousness, even sentience, animals cannot think, nor can they feel pain or pleasure. For Descartes they have no moral status, just as machines have none. We can treat them as we wish. Descartes, a philosophical modern, is the forerunner of scientific materialism. I mention him only to establish the connection between one’s metaphysics and one’s ethics. A later Enlightenment philosopher who also illustrates such a connection is Immanuel Kant, who holds that animals are not “persons”—they lack moral agency, being incapable of reflecting on their lives, and for this reason, they do not have inherent value. But, for Kant, they are sentient; they do feel pain. Even so, since they are not “persons,” we have no direct obligations to animals, though we may have indirect ones, in that our mistreatment of animals can carry over to our treatment of persons, who do have inherent value. Animals have only extrinsic, or instrumental, value for Kant. Descartes’ and Kant’s ideas have laid the groundwork for much of the philosophical/ethical discussion of animals in the literature today.
Before further discussion, I need to point out that the term for animals today is “nonhuman animals,” a term that places humans in the same basic biological category as the living beings we call “animals,” but with a different status. The central question in the ethical literature on animals is: What is our responsibility, if any, toward them? Here, one first needs to distinguish between animal rights and animal welfare. Animal rightists subscribe to rights theories: for example, Tom Regan, who holds that any “subject of a life”—that is, any being whose existence matters to it—has inherent value, just as humans do. Peter Singer, famous utilitarian in the footsteps of Jeremy Bentham, adopts an interest or welfare theory, holding that any animal that can “suffer” must be included in our moral universe. An animal’s need to enjoy pleasure and avoid pain must be counted. Animal welfare is a theory that argues for protecting animals from pain. Killing has been seen, traditionally, as a postwelfare issue.
A short chronological overview of seminal figures in the animal rights literature may be helpful at this point. In 1975, Peter Singer launched the modern animal rights movement with Animal Liberation, arguing that harmful treatment of animals, especially in...