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Ethics and the Vegan Way of Life

Originally printed in Philosophers' Magazine – by Les Burwood and Ros Wyeth


In this article we try to show how philosophy can be seen as culture criticism, in particular how moral philosophy can be used to criticise the use of animals for food, clothing and other purposes. We examine possible philosophical underpinnings of the way of life which is called 'veganism' and the main justifications in term of a broad-based utilitarianism and rights theory.

In the former, everyone's pain or pleasure counts and matters morally, be it that of a human or a nonhuman animal. Every sentient being's interests count and count as much as the like interests of every other sentient being. In the latter, rights theory, it is deemed that it is never morally acceptable to try to obtain good results by using bad means that violate an individual's rights. Individuals have value as individuals; they have what might be called inherent value. From this it is often argued that animals, human and non-human, have rights to life, liberty, to be free from pain and degradation and so on.

Ultimately, though, we adopt a broad utilitarian perspective which argues that greater utility for all is achieved by adopting general moral rules which protect interests such as life, liberty and freedom from pain and degradation. The language of rights is seen by us to be useful as a campaigning measure. It is in the light of this that we interpret core vegan beliefs such as the claims that all animals have a right to life, a right to avoid pain and a right not to be involuntarily used as a resource by others. This is in recognition of the fact that other rights vary from being to being, depending on the nature of that being. In sum, we argue that in being a vegan one is taking an ethical stance which eschews using sentient beings as mere objects. Refusing to use and eat all animals is a refusal to take part in some of the real abuse that happens in the world and an affirmation of our own moral sensitivity.

The argument

We live in a time of magpie ethics and politics. The implied eclecticism has yet to touch, in a big way, the world beyond human beings: that is, the natural world and the world of sentient non-human animals. Despite this, environmentalism and animal rights have ceased to be cranky minority issues; the former has lip -service paid to it by many, although the latter is still an enigma to the lay person. In this article we try to make a bit less puzzling what is, for some people, a whole way of life by examining its possible philosophical underpinnings. The way of life in question is veganism. Most people who adopt a vegan lifestyle do so because they believe it to be wrong to use and kill animals for food, clothing and other purposes. Such people think of themselves as ethical vegans.

A vegan is someone who adopts a way of life which, as far as possible, tries to avoid all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose. The most distinctive aspect of being a vegan is diet. Vegans exclude from their diet all animal produce: meat, fish poultry, eggs, honey and dairy produce such as animal milk and cheese and their derivatives. Of course, some people become vegans because they do not like animal produce, or because it makes them ill. Others believe that adopting a vegan diet will keep them healthy. But the moral reasons ought to be taken seriously. The vegan's moral stand challenges the cruel practices inherent in rearing animals for food, especially those such as intensive dairy, livestock and poultry farming. Philosophy is often viewed as cultural criticism and vegans, implicitly, criticise and challenge many aspects of modern culture. In what follows we will try to outline how vegans, typically, view the issues and how these issues relate to such philosophical approaches as utilitarianism and rights theory. Are vegans right when they assert that the possibility of an ethical and cultural revolution must be squarely faced?

Let us first consider utilitarianism. This is often cited by vegans in support of their way of life. A classical utilitarianism, originating in Bentham, accepts two general principles: first, that we should promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number; secondly, that each is to count for one and no-one for more than one. While many traditional writers once concerned themselves with only human animals, most recent moral philosophers, such as Peter Singer, have applied the theory to all sentient beings. In this sense, the moral circle has been expanded. Peter Singer's influential work, Animal Liberation (1990), is an example of this. So, for the utilitarian, everyone's pain or pleasure counts and matters in the moral calculus, just as much as the equivalent pain or pleasure of any sentient being, be it human or animal. The great merit and appeal of utilitarianism rests with its uncompromising egalitarianism: its belief in a basic equality. Every sentient being's interests count and count as much as the like interests of every other sentient being. But note, as Singer is careful to point out, this is not the claim that each sentient life counts for the same. More of this later. Where to draw the line on what counts as a sentient being is, however, a difficulty for this approach. But it is so for any moral theory. In this article we try to, examine to what extent a broad based utilitarianism can consistently capture some key. but diverse, strands of moral justification for the vegan way of life.

One problem with some interpretations of utilitarianism is that individuals, both human and non -human, are viewed as mere receptacles of pleasure and pain. This has led some critics to say that utilitarianism does not value individuals as ends in themselves. Consider this analogy: suppose a cup contains different liquids – sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter and sometimes a mix of the two. What has value are the liquids; the sweeter the better, the bitterer the worse. The cup or container has no value in itself; it is what goes into it, not what the cup holds, that has value. On some interpretations of utilitarianism, what has value is what goes into us and into other sentient beings. That is, what has value is what we serve as a receptacle for: our feelings of pleasure have a positive value and our feelings of pain, a negative value. It seems to follow from this that who feels the pleasure or pain is irrelevant. It is the experience of pleasure that is good and I can only experience my own pleasure and no one else's.

A more serious and, it turns out, related, problem arises for the utilitarian when we face up to the fact that the theory requires us to bring about the best consequences – that is, the maximum balance of pleasure over pain or happiness over unhappiness. The problem is that sometimes the best aggregated consequences for everyone concerned are not necessarily the best for each individual. Utilitarianism is inherently an aggregative theory; different individuals' pleasures and pains are totalled. Taken in a purely quantitative sense, the theory might seem to allow us, indeed to require us, say, to kill or torture an individual if this would promote the maximum benefit of others: the majority. So, our rich and intellectually challenged aunt, Molly, could be killed in order that we inherit her money which we would then give to deserving causes such as VegFam. Indeed, hundreds of lives, human and non-human, might be saved and/or much suffering reduced. The maximum happiness in the world, by killing our aunt, might be considerably increased and, therefore, it would follow that this is what ought to be done. But, of course, Kantian influenced critics of utilitarianism take it for granted that it is always wrong to kill and wrong to torture, even for the predictable good consequences that might follow, and that because this is implied by the theory, it is therefore to be rejected as an ethical theory. These two problems of utilitarianism, are related. It seems to us that what is wrong with the sort of utilitarianism so far outlined is that what is valued is the maximising of pleasure over pain, whereas what is seemingly not valued is the inherent worth of individuals. Suppose it were the case that by killing certain animal vivisectors considerable animal suffering and death would be avoided. A simple-minded utilitarian might believe that that is precisely what should be done. It is not a clear cut case, however, because the factual considerations are uncertain: the public outcry against the animal liberationist killing vivisectors might be counter-productive and if the practice became widespread it would create fear among the general public, especially those involved in controversial work. But, more importantly, most people would believe that the vivisector should not be killed because, no matter how despicable the vivisector might be, she or he still has certain basic rights, such as the right to life, and inherent value as a sentient individual. Moreover, utilitarianism is double edged in that it might allow the vivisector to try to justify her or his trade by arguing that by experimenting on animals she/he is, despite the suffering involved by individual animals, overall and in the long term, making significant medical advances which will increase the balance of pleasure over pain for the majority, albeit human majority.

It seem to us that a naive utilitarianism needs to be supplemented by what is the second main moral justification standardly cited by vegans: rights theory. This claims that individual sentient beings (at least) do have value as individuals: what might be called inherent value. In Kantian language, they are ends-in-themselves and not mere receptacles for pleasure and pain nor means to ends. Above all, so the argument goes, all sentient beings have inherent value and possess it equally and all have an equal right to be treated with respect, to be treated in ways that do not reduce them to the status of objects – such that they can exist merely as resources for the needs of others. So, X's value as an individual is independent of Y's usefulness to X and vice versa. On this view, to act in such a way that we fail to show respect for another's independent value is to act immorally: to violate the individual's rights. The work of Tom Regan on animal rights is an example of this sort of view. Justifications in terms of rights theory are often taken to deny that we can justify good results by using bad means; that is, by means that violate an individual's rights. So, on this view, even if it would have beneficial consequences we cannot just kill others such as our aunt or even the vile vivisector. Moreover, on a strict rights theory, it would be wrong to violate legal rights in any circumstances and this, indeed, might make protest and social change very difficult. Protesters would morally have to refrain from, say, even economic sabotage, which, if it were successful, might severely damage distribution and retail outlets of the meat and dairy industry. A strict rights theorist would say that even factory farmers, veal calf exporters and butchers have the right to work and to have their property protected.

So far we have seen that vegans typically draw on two supposedly incompatible ethical approaches: a naive utilitarianism and an approach which uses the language of rights to say that some interests should always be protected. At worst, so critics might argue, veganism uses for its justification a hybrid system in order to give vegans the moral intuitions they want to apply to real-life situations. It does, however, seem to us that a consistent and plausible ethical viewpoint can be developed which embraces the seemingly diverse types of justification identified above. In claiming that this should be broadly utilitarian in approach we are firmly based in the tradition of vegan literature which gives much weight to beneficial consequences of actions. But we have seen that a naive utilitarianism has its problems in trying to take account of the interests of individuals. Whether we use the language of rights or not, it is clear that the interests of individuals should not be overridden rough -shod. Indeed, the attributing of rights – important interests to be protected – to all sentient beings seems to be a major plank in the support system on which a vegan way of life ultimately should depend. While Bentham dismissed the idea of moral rights, many utilitarians, including Mill, have been less naive and rigid. They have attempted, in our view successfully, to formulate a consistent form of utilitarianism which can accommodate basic protection for fundamental interests. This has often been turned into the difference between 'act' and 'rule' utilitarianism. As is well known, the argument is that while greater utility is sometimes achieved through violating interests with particular actions, in general greater utility is achieved by there being moral rules which protect these interests as rights. Mill spoke about the permanent interests of men, concerning physical nutriment and general security of person and possession. A more sophisticated utilitarianism needs to have a more complex theory of interests, both human and non-human.

In our view, this broadly utilitarian philosophical position depends, to a large extent, on the fact that all sentient beings are essentially similar, despite many obvious differences. What does this claim amount to'? We are, each of us, the experiencing subject of a life, a conscious creature having an individual welfare that is important to us, whatever our usefulness to others. We all want and prefer things, believe and feel things, recall and expect things. Some beings are better than others at doing these things. And all these dimensions of our life, including our pleasure and pain, our happiness and unhappiness, our satisfaction and frustration, our continued existence or our untimely death all make a difference to the quality of our life as lived, as experienced by us as individuals. All these dimensions of sentient life are valuable.

Of course, what Singer and Regan would call speciesists try to argue that only human animals have inherent value – but it is an untenable position to hold. They say: this is because only human beings have the requisite intellect, intelligence, autonomy or reason. But factually, this claim is useless because there are many human beings (like Aunt Molly) who fail to meet these criteria and yet are still, correctly, viewed as having value above and beyond their usefulness to others; brain damaged children being a prime example. What is ultimately more important, as even Bentham recognised long ago, is that all sorts of animals feel pleasure and experience pain, gain satisfaction, endure frustration and so on.

Note that this view does not claim that all sentient lives are of exactly equal worth, or that all interests of human and non-human animals should be given equal weight, no matter what those interests might be. It does claim that where animals, both human and non-human, have similar interests, especially those such as avoiding pain and death, then those interests are to be counted equally, with no special weighting given to humans. This is a simple point, but one with far reaching moral and political implications, such as the adoption of a vegan life style with its implicit criticism of much of modern culture in the West.

In our view it is a convincing general point that members of all sentient species have interests which should be protected and sometimes it is useful to put this in terms of their having a right to life, a right to avoid pain, a right not to be involuntarily used as a resource by others. These are core vegan beliefs. Of course, crucially, some rights vary from being to being, depending on the nature of the being. This is because of clear differences between individuals; for example between brain damaged and non-brain damaged humans; children and adults. Most human adults have the right to vote; children do not and it would be nonsense to accord the right to vote to most non-human animals. By contrast with the above, fish have the right to swim unimpeded in sea and river, birds to fly in the sky, nest in trees and so on. But, in general, it would make little sense to attribute such rights to humans. Rights vary because animal natures vary and the sort of lives different species typically lead vary. Also, what harms humans, say, might cause much less harm, or even no harm at all, to other animals and vice versa. It would not much affect the interests of a hedgehog to be confined to Hampshire, but it would harm considerably the interests of most humans to be so constricted. It would not much harm the interests of a human to swallow a slug pellet, but it would considerable harm the interests of a hedgehog. Clearly, in some cases humans can suffer more and in others less; quite often though the harm is similar. Any justifying moral theory, whether for veganism or not, has to recognise, however, that there have to be found practical ways of weighting interests and, indeed, one way of doing this is by evaluating the consequences of right X in relation to those of right Y. Because of similar potential harm, despite differences, we find plausible, and do support, the claim that all sentient beings have the right not to be killed, physically hurt, tortured and degraded by being involuntarily used as a resource by others. If this is accepted, then it strikes at much which most humans take for granted in human culture. At a stroke, it implies an end, in general, to using nonhuman animals as mere resources for human animals. It demands the end of the meat and dairy industries, animal experimentation and so on. It imposes an obligation on those of us who can, to try to put an end to them. This is the ethical and cultural revolution that is at last beginning to take place, but which has yet to touch mainstream society and politics.

A few concluding remarks about practicalities and implications. Extending the moral circle to nonhuman animals and acting as though they matter morally does not mean that vegans care more about animals thin people. It is a false choice to care only about animals or only about people. Animal and human issues can be seen as one issue: where animals suffer, so do people. If it is wrong to kill and abuse non-human animals, those who do so degrade themselves. When animals are slaughtered for meat, people become brutalised through their work in the abattoir or the butcher's shop. When animal coats are worn as fur in a display of wealth, somebody has already hunted or trapped many innocent animals.

It takes vastly more land and energy to produce protein from animals than it does to grow it as a first food in the form of pulses and cereals. Yet many people mistakenly consider meat eating as a purely personal issue, while the consequence in reality is that a large part of the world's population is starving. From a vegan point of view, it is not enough to be a vegetarian. It is as wrong to eat animal cheese, milk and eggs, as it is to eat meat, fish and poultry. Milk can be obtained only when a cow is pregnant and so calves continue to be born. Half of the calves are male so go off immediately for slaughter. Death is part and parcel of milk and cheese production. Similarly, whether free-range or not, eggs can only be obtained by producing chickens in the first place and half of these will be male and do go for slaughter. Cows and chickens are also slaughtered once their milk and egg producing days are over. In general, dairy and egg production takes new born calves from their mothers, subjects cows to continued enforced pregnancies, and causes male chicks and calves to be killed because they cannot lay eggs or produce milk. Such practices are inherent in dairy and egg production. People who use animals as machines for profit care little about the harm caused either to the animals or to the human consumer by the drugs and hormones used in current farming practice. BSE and CJD speak for themselves in this matter.

We have tried to show how philosophy can be seen as culture criticism. In this paper, aspects of moral philosophy have been used to criticise the use of animals, an aspect of human culture taken for granted by most. Being a vegan is 'doing your bit' against food and land wastage, against the senseless and unnatural raising and killing of farm animals and against the dehumanisation of those who work in the killing industries. Being a vegan carries a commitment to stop using animals as 'things'. It is transferable into an ethical stance which eschews using people as things. Like humans, non-human animals are sentient beings. Refusing to use and eat all animals is a refusal to take part in some of the real abuse that happens in the world and is an affirmation of our own moral sensitivity. You can read the concluding part of this debate here.

Objection 1

In 'Ethics and the Vegan Way of Life', Burwood and Wyeth argue for Veganism. But simple consistency requires their argument to advocate the unethical, even ridiculous, treatment of some animals in order to protect the rights of others. In the end, I think that one must surrender Veganism; one cannot make a moral call to stop meat-eating.

First, a Burwood -Wyeth Vegan must stop lions from eating meat. Why? Because lions intentionally exploit other sentient beings, which exploitation cannot be in the prey's best interests. (The pain is still there, regardless of whether a responsible agent is behind it.) A Vegan holds that interests similar to our valued interests must also be valued, must be protected, if any are to be protected, as 'rights'. So, a consistent Vegan must stop lions; but how? Perhaps by re-education or incarceration? Can one imagine a day when the lion lies down with the lamb, both of them munching on falafel? I doubt it. If the lion lies down with the lamb, the lamb won't get any sleep. Since we cannot convince a lion not to be a lion, and since we cannot secretly replace his ordinary prey with mobile, soya -based decoys, the only remaining option, if we are to respect equally the rights of all, is to incarcerate all predators and force them to eat vegetables. They would live as 'predators', tackling jumping beans, maybe chasing carrots-on-a-stick, but at least they would be off their traditional diet of Mixed Herbivores. This is such a nasty proposition that I am confident most would find that it need not be explored further, yet this is exactly what the Vegan wants humans to do.

“What you are missing,” might say the Vegan, “is that the behaviour of predators, in light of some positive character, is an exception to the rule. For example, the suffering of a few wildebeest is a sacrifice for the interests of both groups (the lions and the wildebeest) as a whole.” But how can one distinguish between the rights of an individual and the rights of the group without falling prey to arguments against utilitarianism? Are we not re-establishing the priority of pleasure, valuing only “what goes into a cup, and not the cup itself”? That aside, consistency requires that this kind of justification for lions' behaviour must also justify the behaviour of the scientist and others; exploiting the rights of thousands for the benefit of billions.

If to save poor Veganism, predators are to be exempted on grounds like “it is (a) their nature to eat meat, and (b) that it is a benefit to all in the end,” then any human who showed a and b to be true of themselves must be exempted. It may be that I need not be a Vegan because lions need not be Vegans, and not the least because our interests are so very similar. If Veganism is not necessary (and this is my second point), then it cannot be a question of ethics, of morals; rather it can only be a question of taste. These problems, I think, are too much for B-W Veganism. They ought to give it up and come dine at my table; after all, there's plenty to go round, and if we run out, we'll just make more. — Kent R., Smith, St David's University College, University of Wales -Lampeter, Lampeter Ceredigion

Reply to Objection 1

We take it that Smith's main point is that to be a consistent vegan one would have to, say, try to stop lions killing lambs and, in doing so, vegans would be failing to respect the rights of lions. This is a strange misconception. As our article made clear, vegans do not deny that normal human beings are different from other animals in some respects. One important difference is that we have the evolved capacity to think about what we are doing and to evaluate situations morally. That is why it can make sense to blame a human being for choosing to kill a lion, but why it makes no sense to blame a lion for killing a lamb. The lion cannot reflect on the choice between killing and not killing; the normal human being can. We assume that Smith would not want us to give up the capacity to think and so act instinctively like the lion, because all morality would then disappear. Evolution has produced a situation such that for the carnivorous lion killing is the only means of survival. Killing other animals for food is for the human being now an immoral, because unnecessary, luxury.

Objection 2

“Fish have the right to swim unimpeded in sea and river, birds to fly in the sky”. No they don't! Burwood and Wyeth claim that they do. Animals have rights because they have interests, they say. What kind of things are interests? What interests of a snail must I consider before eating it? How does it matter to the shrimp whether it is the next meal for me or for another of its numerous predators? Why should I abstain from preying on the deer, when the tiger does not? And what does rights' theory say we should do when our interests inevitably clash: when the fly exercises its right to vomit on my dinner, the rat to infest my basement, and the pigeon to poop as and where it pleases? Burwood and Wyeth choose a rights-based approach, following Tom Regan, after a cavalier dismissal of alternative theories. Regan's cup analogy is cited verbatim to illustrate “one problem with… utilitarianism” without a mention of Singer's pretty conclusive reply. They dismiss a grossly oversimplified depiction of consequentialism, set up as an Aunt Sally (disguised as Aunt Molly), even though they admit that this is a nave utilitarianism.

Diversions like this aside, their article is bereft of good arguments for the fundamental position they want to take: that it is immoral to eat animal flesh for any reason. They obfuscate the issue by defining a vegan as “someone who… tries to avoid all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals”. Tut, tut! Just because all vegans avoid “X”, doesn't mean that all “X-avoiders” are vegans! The authors do not make a convincing case against eating meat. They dish up numerous red-herrings to disguise their logically unrelated claims: in the process of food production animals are “physically hurt, tortured, and degraded”. Yes they are. And this is deplorable. These are reasons for eliminating suffering, ending cruelty, and treating sentient animals with care and compassion. This doesn't necessarily entail that we refrain from eating them.

But, rearing animals for food is inherently cruel, they say. No it isn't. Defining it as such simply begs the question. And, even if it is, this doesn 't mean we shouldn't eat meat: we need to go out and hunt and kill wild animals instead, right? No, they say, because killing animals for food is “senseless” and “unnatural”. So, clearly, cruelty isn't really the issue here, because even if we avoid pain and suffering, it's still wrong to eat meat. Baloney! For the Inuit caribou hunter it's not only sensible and perfectly natural but also absolutely essential. Try living a vegan life north of the Arctic Circle! Condemn the Masai nomad, the Aboriginal turtle-catcher, and the Alaskan trapper as moral reprobates. Or are they exceptions? No exceptions. Kantians say, “it is always wrong to kill and torture… therefore (Utilitarianism) is to be rejected as an ethical theory”. (Notice that “torture” gets thrown in here as a little emotive padding just to make you meat-eaters feel slightly uneasy, as if all meat-eating inevitable “tortures” animals). Here 's the rub: all killing is wrong! Odd that Kant wasn't a vegan. Sounds like a good reason to reject Kantianism to me!

Argue against meat eating per se; not against cruelty to animals, unnecessary slaughter, the rape of the environment, the depravity of battery farming. To bleat on about ignorance and bad practice is not to proselytize veganism. There is no necessary moral inconsistency between campaigning for compassionate treatment of animals and enjoying a tasty cod supper. Give us syllogisms we can salivate over instead of tendentious tub -thumping. — Simon Eassom, De Montfort University

Reply to Objection 2

It would seem that Eassom is a speciesist of the worst kind. His reply to our article is imbued with the unargued assumption that humans are somehow infinitely more valuable than other animals. Racists have a similar prejudice in favour of their own race and sexists have it with respect to their own sex. Eassom has the unargued prejudice (which some humans have) in favour of his own species, human beings. In all these cases speciesists, racists and sexists all say: the boundary of my own group is the boundary of my moral concern. Never mind what you are like, if you're a member of my group, you're superior to all those who are not members of my group. Eassom uses, like the racist and sexist, an arbitrary and morally irrelevant fact – membership of the human species – as if it were morally crucial. Eassom claims that we choose a rights-based approach after dismissing alternative theories. Well, we simply do not do this and it is there for all to read. We DO accept a broad rule-utilitarian perspective which can accommodate the language of rights for campaigning purposes.

Eassom claims in his sneering manner “Tut, tut! Just because all vegans avoid”X“, doesn 't mean that all”X-avoiders“are vegans!” Well again we simply have claimed no such thing. Rather we tried to give a broad definition of what it is to be a vegan. The conception offered is one accepted by the Vegan Society and its opponents alike. Doubtless, cruelty and exploitation can be interpreted in a number of ways, but our paper gave our specific interpretation of the vegan ethical stance and our reasons for it. We certainly claimed that in the process of food production animals are physically hurt, tortured and degraded. But for us, unlike Eassom, this IS a reason for refraining from eating them. It is naive in the extreme to imagine that there can be some method of killing animals for food which does not involve pain and degradation. Perhaps Eassom could creep up behind them quietly so they didn't notice before slitting their throats individually? It is precisely because of scenarios like this that vegans find a naive utilitarian ethic useless: “it's OK to kill farm animals providing they don't suffer”. Well, no it's not OK; they DO suffer and, like Eassom, they have an interest in not being killed also. And finally, if certain human beings cannot be vegans north of the Arctic Circle, then stop living there! Many human sub-cultures are immoral and should be abandoned, such as female genital mutilation. Just because a certain culture exists, it does not follow that it is morally acceptable, unless you happen to be an out-and-out cultural relativist. We gave our reasons for veganism and these should weigh heavily with humans wherever they choose to live. Fortunately, more and more people are adopting the vegan way of life and giving expression to their moral sensitivity in a way that really can help stop cruelty and degradation in this world.

Objection 3

Dr Les Burwood and Ms Ros Wyeth say, in their defense of veganism, that 'all sentient beings are essentially similar, despite many obvious differences'. They note in support of this claim, that 'We are, each of us, the experiencing subject of a life, a conscious creature having an individual welfare that is important to us, whatever our usefulness to others. We all want and prefer things, believe and feel things, recall and expect things. Some beings are better than others at doing these things.' Against this idea it is seriously arguable that only human beings have the requisite nature for ascribing to them basic rights. A right is a sphere of liberty wherein the agent has full authority to act – eg, my right to life confers upon me the sole authority to govern my life, to be in charge of what happens to it; my right to liberty implies my authority to take the actions I decide to take, good or bad, right or wrong. Now the main reason why this freedom is ascribed to human beings is that they are moral agents and to make decisions as to their lives, actions, belongings has moral significance. It is their dignity as basically choosing agents – who must take the initiative to act and whose actions can turn out to be right or wrong – that makes having rights important. Any taking over of their decision-making authority is to seriously undercut their human moral agency.

Without rights, in other words, one lacks moral authority and others can obliterate it. So the very moral worthiness of one's life cannot be decided, ascertained – just as what happens under most tyrannies or dictatorships – except in a very private, limited sense wherein some de facto authority remains with citizens.

Burwood and Wyeth go on to say, also, that 'members of all sentient species have interests which should be protected and sometimes it is useful to put this in terms of their having a right to life, a right to avoid pain, a right not to be involuntarily used as a resource by others. These are core vegan beliefs.' But having interest is not a sufficient ground for having rights – my interest in a lovely woman does not confer a right over her to me. It is to have the capacity to direct one's actions toward or away from the fulfillment of proper interests that matters. And that capacity belongs to human beings alone (although there may be some minimal moral agency evident in some animals species and hardly any in some damaged humans but borderline cases do not defeat a general point).

Indeed, while humans share about 97% of their DNA structure with some higher non-human animals, those last 3% are so vital that all of human civilization, religion, art, science, philosophy and, most importantly, their moral nature depends upon it. And this is attested to by most vegans, for example, when they appeal to human beings to deal with other animals in considerate ways rather than to other animals to do this (to a lion, for example, to kill the zebra more humanely).

So while sound ethical reasons can be given for treating non-human animals humanely, for avoiding wantonly inflicting pain, the higher status of human life in the chain of living beings (a) provides a basis for ascribing to humans basic rights that would not make sense to ascribe to other animals, and (b) justifies occasional use of other animals for human purposes which, comparatively speaking, merit greater service than the interest of animals.

'Animal rights' is, therefore, a concept that embodies a category mistake and veganism a wrong ethical view that rests on it. — Tibor R. Machan School of Business & Economics, Chapman University, Orange, CA 92866

Reply to Objection 3

Machan's basic point seems to be that only human beings have rights and that, therefore, we can use non-human animals in the service of human animals. We interpreted the attribution of rights to non-human animals in terms of their having interests worthy of moral consideration. Machan's main reason for denying rights to animals is that they are, allegedly, not moral agents like human beings. Nonhumans cannot make certain choices. But, of course, while it would be absurd to attribute to cows the right to vote, it would be no less absurd to attribute that right to young children and severely retarded humans. None of these can make the appropriate choices. Yet we still give moral consideration to the interests of young children and severely retarded humans. We don't deny them rights just because they can't choose. We don't and shouldn't raise them for food or experiment on them just because they cannot make certain choices. What matters is that they can experience pain and have an interest, inter alia, in their life continuing. These are the morally relevant facts with respect to which one might use the language of rights, so, in our view cows, pigs and humans have rights, but lettuces, for example, don't.

Objection 4

This argument stands or falls on the basis of what is meant by the term 'sentient.' This meaning is not clearly explicated within this article, and thus the degree to which my response to this article is considered valid is based on what I can extract from it – what, in other words, seem to be implied. It is stated by the authors that as sentient beings, animals being included in this class, 'We all want and prefer things, believe and feel things, recall and expect things.' This I take to reveal the essence of what it means to be sentient, since these are the effects of such a state. I highly doubt that any animals in the order below humans can truly be considered to 'believe' anything, for a belief, properly speaking, is an opinion, whether it be a right of incorrect opinion. Forming an opinion about a subject requires making at least one judgement about it. And judgement involves affirming or denying one idea of another. Possessing an idea further requires the ability to abstract from sense experience and attach one's self to, or if you prefer, form, a concept. Terrestrial non-human animals, it seems, do not have the ability to do this (unless anyone can show me evidence to the contrary). They do, however, respond to sensual stimuli. They do not contemplate, they do not deliberate. As for wanting and preferring, these are based upon instinct-desire for food, desire to mate, desire of some for freshly killed meat, of others for carrion. It all depends upon their special natures. They feel things only insofar as their instinctual desires are or are not fulfilled. Pleasure and pain in animals goes only as far as security. Recollection and expectation are functions of their instinct-based sense of pleasure and pain. Animals don't have conversations that begin: 'Remember the time when…' Animals cower or attack because of expectation of pain – essentially because of immanent danger. On this basis of implied definition, I do not consider animals to be sentient. Thus they do not have, from this argument at least, the right to anything a sentient being has a right to. In the last sections of their article, the authors advocate in support of veganism a consequentialist philosophy. Just because it takes more energy and resources to raise cattle than it does to raise crops, while millions are starving, it does not mean that animals should not be raised for food. If the earth did not have the resources to furnish its inhabitants with meat, that would be another story. But the way we use energy and distribute food is an entirely different issue, though it may be linked on a holistic level. If we could properly feed all people and use our energy in properly efficient ways, which we have the expertise and money, but not the political interest, to do, raising animals for food should not be considered an issue.

I do not necessarily disagree with the authors of this article, but I cannot let fallicious arguments slip by. I encourage dialogue on this subject, and if I can be proven wrong, I would like to put in my place. But for now this is where I stand. — James M. Lyons

Reply to Objection 4

Lyons claims that our argument stands or falls on the basis of what is to be meant by the term 'sentience'. He seems to assume that sentience is largely about wanting, preferring, recollecting and expecting and that many non-human animals simply cannot and do not do these things. Our view is that he is simply wrong on this. Sentience is not a simple notion but it would certainly include the capacities he identifies plus many others, not least the ability to feel pain just as we do. Thirty years ago we would have probably replied that the then old view of non -human animals as inanimate objects had long been rejected. Today, we reply that the old view that the subjective experiences of many non – human animals are 'merely' responses to sensori stimuli is totally discredited also. Lyons' views are very dated scientifically and the nature of conscious awareness in animals has been a subject for serious study for over three decades. With the accepted rejection of a nave view of mental states as inner-events causing or caused by outer-stimuli, most research takes a neo-Wittgensteinian approach to mental states and focuses on what might be called the expressive life of animals. One readable text that summarises the vast literature is in the 'Mind Matters' series entitled 'Can we understand animal minds?' by Michael Bavidge and Ian Ground. Such a work can show just how much we do in fact share with other animals once our prejudices about out so called higher status are removed.

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