The Limits of Ethical Vegetarianism

By Hillman, Harold | Free Inquiry, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

The Limits of Ethical Vegetarianism


Hillman, Harold, Free Inquiry


People choose to become vegetarians for a variety of reasons. Some think that it will make them healthier, a position that has been borne out by some studies. However, vegetarians tend to eat, smoke and drink less and exercise more than the population at large, so one cannot know for certain whether their improved health is due to their way of life or to their diets. Other people become vegetarians because they feel that breeding animals for slaughter is not the most efficient way of using land to produce food. Ethical vegetarians feel that it is morally wrong to kill animals to eat when one can live a healthy life without doing so. Their concerns suggest that some guidelines for humanists to follow regarding the treatment of animals are desirable.

FLAWED CHOICES

Some people who call themselves vegetarians abstain from only red meat, but eat fish and seafood. Their attitude may arise from deep psychological aversion to blood and guilt and about eating "higher" animals. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to believe that fish dragged out of the sea are not extremely distressed by asphyxia, or that they do not suffer pain when hooks are pulled out of their palates. Physiologists know that all animals, including marine species, have very complex and sensitive nervous systems.

If it is unethical to kill animals, then one should not eat foods that contain even the smallest proportion of animal tissues. These include: foods with gelatin from bones, such as jellies and sweets, cheese made with rennet, and lecithin in chocolates. Nowadays, some of these ingredients can be obtained from plant or microbiological sources.

Eating eggs and drinking milk present particular moral problems for vegetarians. In Britain about 90% of eggs eaten come from battery hens; the portion in the United States is about the same. The animals are induced to grow unnaturally fast by unbalanced diets and antibiotics. They are crowded together in unhygienic conditions, and their beaks are clipped. These circumstances are not acceptable to ethical vegetarians, who eat only free range eggs. Unfortunately, even free range hens are often fed on supplements containing fish meal. Today, most restaurants and food manufacturers use battery eggs, because they are cheaper than free range.

When milk is produced in large farms, the cows are treated as machines. The calves are taken away from their mothers soon after birth, and most of the male calves are slaughtered for food immediately. The cows are often stimulated to produce 10 times the volume of milk they would secrete naturally; they are given hormones, antibiotics, and sometimes offal. The cows are killed at the end of their "working" lives. It is difficult to avoid entanglement with unacceptable practices of farming when one consumes milk or milk products.

Most vegetarians do not wear fur coats. Minks may be farmed, but "natural" furs often come from hunted or trapped animals. A fox is caught by a limb and dies in pain after prolonged hunger and cold. Nowadays, synthetic substitutes for fur are widely available. However, an ethical vegetarian should not wear leather shoes, belts, or watch straps, or buy such items as wallets, handbags, baseballs, footballs, or cricket balls. Glue is usually derived from animal bones, intestines, or skin and is widely used in the manufacture of furniture and in binding books. I am not sure whether there are any alternatives to the manufacture of these products at present.

ENTERTAINMENT EXPLOITATION

The idea that killing animals can be an enjoyable sport is totally unacceptable to the vegetarian conscience, especially in an era in which more popular nonanimal sports are available than at any other time in history. But abuses that are not obvious occur in other sports involving animals, such as horse racing.

Horses are bred in relatively luxurious conditions of space, exercise, diet, and hygiene. They are trained by conditioning, involving mostly rewards, although the whip is also used to encourage them during the races. …

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