Is vegetarianism and veganism about animal welfare or moral superiority?

The western obsession with rights makes it difficult to see their limitations. We speak about rights as if they were the only moral value with meaning, ignoring other important moral values like responsibilities or duties. In fact, responsibilities are the counterparts to rights – you can’t have one without the other.

Philosopher Carl Cohen writes that, “If animals have any rights, they must have the right not to be killed to advance the interest of others.” Another way of putting this is that those who assert the rights of animals are in effect asserting – first and foremost – a right to life for all animals.

But for an animal to realise its right to life, farmers, hunters and researchers must collectively accept a duty not to kill them. Similarly, citizens, consumers and patients must refuse to eat, wear or use food, clothes and medicine that require an animal to die.

As I’ll be arguing in the IQ2 debate “Animal rights should trump human interests” in Sydney on Tuesday night, the assertion of an animal right to life is non-sensical. It would require us – just as one example – to stop animals from hunting one another, just like we stop humans from killing one another. But more importantly, it is unnecessary to achieve what is required to improve the lot of animals.

Is being vegan the most ethical way to live?  Read more Even Peter Singer, one of the intellectual fathers of the animal rights movement, doesn’t believe animals have a right to life. In his seminal text Animal Liberation he says we must refuse to contribute to – and act to stop – the unnecessary suffering of animals.

But he does not contend that animals have a right to life or that they suffer by having their life taken from them.

Instead, what he claims is that intensively farmed animals suffer because of the cruel and tortuous ways they are made to live and are slaughtered. We have a duty to do what we can to stop this by boycotting businesses that treat animals cruelly.

Having done that, we have a choice. We can go without wearing make-up and without eating or wearing animal flesh that required the torture of animals, or we can source and buy cruelty-free cosmetics and eat and wear ethically-farmed and slaughtered animal products.

In other words, while it might have been true that when Animal Liberation was written in the 1970s, the result of a boycott was a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, this is no longer the case. Today, there is more than one way to fulfil our obligations to eliminate the unnecessary suffering of animals.

Indeed, given clear, cross-cultural evidence that only around 1.5% of people are willing to try or stick with a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle – figures that have not changed over time – the promotion of an ethically carnivorous life is likely to be a far more effective way to reduce the suffering of animals.

To me, this is so obvious that I have to ask why in 2016 animal rights groups continue to advance vegetarian and veganism as the only legitimate way to end animal suffering. A 2014 study funded by Voiceless, found that 70% of Australians agreed that “human beings have an obligation to avoid harming all animals”. This sort of sentiment had led “substantial proportions” to buy “free range” meat and dairy and cruelty-free products. Despite this, the Humane Research Council – authors of the study – advised animal rights advocates that while they ought capitalise on “widespread support for incremental improvements” they must also continue to press people to “abstain from animal products entirely.”

Why not press people who have chosen to make a difference through buying cruelty-free products to buy more of them more often? Or to buy them exclusively? Is it possible that vegetarianism and veganism continues to be promoted as the sole way of meeting our obligations to animals not because it is, but because it makes the promoters feel morally superior?

If it were, it wouldn’t be the first time the eco-left stymied mass behaviour change with unpalatable prescriptions delivered in self-righteous tones.

Being a little bit vegan is completely oxymoronic Jill Wooster  Read more Analysis has revealed that mass communications around climate change provoked feelings of powerlessness rather than a desire to act in many people. Often the wrong moral note was struck, too. Environmental activist and philosopher Sarah Bachelard wrote at the time, “There can be a tone of self-righteousness … a kind of shrill moral indignation … We know that we are on the side of the angels, and in our own way we can fail to do justice to the complex reality of most human action and motivation. We get something out of ‘being right’ … (and) satisfaction from making those who do not agree with us wrong.”

The truth is that an ethically carnivorous life is possible so long as we ensure the animals we consume have lived and died without unnecessary suffering.

Do animal rights trump human interests? Not if the animal right we are talking about is a right to life, and the human interest at stake is health. But I join with most people in believing we do have an obligation to stop animal cruelty and to fulfill this duty through the choices we make about what we eat, wear and do every day.

Publication history

Is vegetarianism and veganism about animal welfare or moral superiority?   The Guardian