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The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Tom Regan*
North Carolina State University, Raleigh


The bay was sunlit and filled with boats, many of them just returned from early-dawn trips to the open sea. Fish that a few hours before had been swimming in the water now lay on the boat decks with glassy eyes, wounded mouths, bloodstained scales. The fishermen, well-to-do sportsmen, were weighing the fish and boasting about their catches. As often as Herman had witnessed the slaughter of animals and fish, he always had the same thought: in their behavior toward creatures, all men were Nazis. The smugness with which man could do with other species as he pleased exemplified the most extreme racist theories, the principle that might is right. Herman had repeatedly pledged to become a vegetarian, but Yadwiga wouldn't hear of it. They had starved enough in the village and later in the camp. They hadn't come to rich America to starve again. The neighbors had taught her that ritual slaughter and Kashruth were the roots of Judaism. It was meritorious for the hen to be taken to the ritual slaugheterer, who had recited a benediction before cutting its throat (from Enemies, A Love Story.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1975

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1 The title of this essay comes from Gandhi. (See his The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1959). Though the substance of my essay differs considerably from Gandhi's, it was through a study of his work, made possible by a Summer Stipend from the National Endowment for the Humanities for the summer of 1973, that I first saw the need to think seriously about the moral status of animals. I am indebted to the National Endowment for the opportunity to carry out my research, and to Gandhi for the inspiration of his work and life. I do not think the grounds on which I endeavor to rest the obligation to be vegetarian are the only possible ones. Perhaps a more accurate title of my essay would be “A Moral Basis for Vegetarianism.“

2 The Discourse on Method in The Philosophical Works of Descartes. Rendered into English by Haldane, Elizabeth S. and Ross, G. R. T.. Volume I. New York: Dover Publications, Incorporated, 1955, p. 115.Google Scholar

3 From Descartes: Philosophical Letters. Translated and edited by Kenny, Anthony. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1970, p. 245.Google Scholar

4 From Animal Machine to Beast Machine. By Rosenfield, Leonora. New York: Octagon Books, Incorporated, 1968, pp. 27 ff.Google Scholar

5 Quoted in Rosenfield, Ibid., p. 54.Google Scholar

6 On the use of animals as subjects in research, see Ryder's, RichardExperiments on Animals” in Animals, Men and Morals. Edited by Stanley, and Godlovitch, Rosling and Harris, John. London: Taplinger, 1973.Google Scholar

7 Unless otherwise indicated, I use the word’ animal’ to refer to animals other than human beings. The fact that this is an ordinary use of the word, despite the fact that humans are animals, suggests that this is a fact that we are likely (and perhaps eager) to forget. It may also help to account for our willingness to treat (mere) animals in certain ways that we would not countenance in the case of humans. On this and other points pertaining to how we talk about animals and humans, see, for example, “The Concept of Beastliness,” by Midgley, Mary Philosophy (1973)Google Scholar and Schopenhauer's, Arthur The Basis of Morality. Translated with introduction and notes by Arthur Bullock, Broderick. London: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1915, pp. 219221Google Scholar. See also my further comments on my use of the word ‘animal’ toward the end of this essay.

8 See Descartes, Discourse, op. cit., pp. 116117Google Scholar. But see also his letter to More, alluded to above, where Descartes seems to soften the earlier position of the Discourse, stating that “though I regard it as established that we cannot prove that there is any thought in animals, I do not think it is thereby proved that there is not, since the human mind does not reach into their hearts.” Descartes then goes on to talk about what is “probable in this matter.“

9 On the topic of “talking chimpanzees,” see, for example, Jenkins, Peter’ essay, “Ask No Questions,The Guardian, (London) Tuesday, July 10, 1973.Google Scholar

10 The Principles of Morals and Legislation, Ch. XVII, Sec. 1, footnote to paragraph 4.

11 From “Human Duties and Animal Rights,” an unpublished essay under copyright by The Humane Society of America. I wish to express my gratitude to Professor Feinberg for making this paper available to me, and to the Humane Society for permitting me to quote from it here.

12 “Whewell on Moral Philosophy,” from Mill's Collected Works, Volume X, p. 187.

13 See Kant's “Duties Toward Animals and Spirits” in his Lectures on Ethics. For Aquinas's views, see, for example, Summa Theologica, Part II, Question 25, Third Article and Question 64, First and Second Articles.

14 I am especially indebted to my colleague, Donald VanDeVeer, for many helpful conversations on the general topic of rights. I also am indebted to McCloskey's, H.J. paper, “Rights,” Philosophical Quarterly (1965)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and to Joel Feinberg's essays “Human Duties and Animals Rights,” alluded to above, and “What Kinds of Beings Can Have Rights?” an expanded version of his paper, The Rights of Animals and Future Generations,” published in Philosophy and Environmental Crisis, ed. by Blackstone, William (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1974)Google Scholar. So far as I am aware, the position that only beings who have interests can have rights, and that animals have them, was first set forth by Nelson, Leonard in A System of Ethics, tr. Gutermann, N.. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956Google Scholar. The relevant portion of Nelson's book has been reprinted in Animals, Men and Morals, op. cit.

15 For arguments in support of the thesis that at least some non-human animals satisfy these conditions, see, for example, Goodall's, Jane In the Shadow of Man. New York: Dell Publishing Company, Incorporated, 1971, especially chapter 19.Google Scholar

16 See, for example, the essays by McCloskey and Feinberg, op. cit.

17 Realms of Value. By Perry, Ralph Barton. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1954, p. 7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

18 Ibid.

19 Feinberg, “What Kinds of Beings Can Have Rights?”, op. cit.

20 Ibid.

21 See, for example, Ritchie's, D. G. Natural Rights. London: George Allen: Unwin, 1889.Google Scholar

22 Nelson, op. cit., makes a similar point.

23 See, for example, Harrison's, Ruth Animal Machines. London: Vincent Stuart Publishers, Ltd., 1964.Google Scholar

24 One gets this impression, sometimes, when reading Salt's work. See his The Humanities of Diet. Manchester: The Vegetarian Society, 1914. I have received the same impression from some things said and written by Singer, Peter. See his “Animal Liberation“; The New York Review of Books, Volume XX, Number 5, April 5, 1973, pp. 1721Google Scholar. I am uncertain whether Salt or Singer actually hold this view, however.

25 An expression first given currency by Peter Singer, op. cit.

26 For an example of this kind of argument, see Vlastos, Gregory’ “Justice and Equality” in Social Justice. Edited by Brandt, Richard B.. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Incorporated, 1962.Google Scholar

27 This is a point that first became clear to me in discussion with Donald VanDeVeer.

28 Vlastos, op. cit.

29 See, for example, the essay by McCloskey, op. cit. McCloskey denies that animals have interests, but does not, so far as I can see, give any reason for believing that this is so.

30 I want to thank my colleagues, W. R. Carter, Robert Hoffman and Donald VanDeVeer for their helpful criticisms of an earlier draft of this paper. I am also much indebted to Peter Singer for bringing to my attention much of the literature and many of the problems discussed here.

Lastly, John Rodman of the Political Science Department at Pitzer College put me onto some dimensions of the debate over Descartes, ’ views that I was unaware of. See his “The Dolphin Papers,The North American Review, Vol. 259, No. 1, Spring 1974, pp. 1326.Google Scholar