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The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism

  • Philip E. Devine (a1)


If someone abstains from meat-eating for reasons of taste or personal economics, no moral or philosophical question arises. But when a vegetarian attempts to persuade others that they, too, should adopt his diet, then what he says requires philosophical attention. While a vegetarian might argue in any number of ways, this essay will be concerned only with the argument for a vegetarian diet resting on a moral objection to the rearing and killing of animals for the human table. The vegetarian, in this laense, does not merely require us to change or justify our eating habits, but to reconsider our attitudes and behaviour towards members of other species across a wide range of practices.



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1 Pride of place among contemporary philosophical vegetarians probably belongs to Peter Singer. Singer's contribution includes an article (in Moral Problems, Rachels, James (ed.), 2nd ed. (New York: 1975)) and a book (New York Review, 1975), both sharing the title ‘Animal Liberation’.

Singer's essay started life as a review (in The New York Review of Books) of Animals, Man and Morals, Stanley, and Godlovitch, Roslind and Harris, John. (eds), (New York: Grove, n.d.). Another anthology is Animal Rights and Human Obligations, Singer, Peter and Regan, Tom (eds), (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1976).

Also worthy of mention are Regan, Tom, ‘The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, V, No. 2 (10, 1975) and the discussion in Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Oxford: Blackwell, n.d.), 35 ff. Clark, Stephen R. L., The Moral Status of Animals (Oxford, 1977), is of special interest as a Christian vegetarian, but does not contribute much to the vegetarian argument. See also Maclver, A. M., ‘Ethics and the Beetle’, in Ethics, Thomson, Judith J. and Dworkin, Gerald (eds), (New York: Harper & Row, 1968).

Useful critical discussions include Donaghy, Kevin, ‘Singer on Speciesism’, Philosophic Exchange (Summer, 1974); Steinbock, Bonnie, ‘Speciesism and the Idea of Equality’, American Philosophical Association (Eastern Division), 1975 (published in Philosophy, 04, 1978); and Ronald DeSousa's comments on Steinbock's paper.

I am also indebted to the following for criticisms and suggestions: Merritt Abrash, Albert Flores, Roger Guttentag, James Hanink, John Koller, Joseph Ryshpan and David Wieck.

I discuss the issues concerning the killing of human beings touched on in this paper in The Ethics of Homicide (Cornell University Press, 1978).

2 One might object to the use of the word ‘animal’ in this context, as concealing the fact that human beings are also a kind of animal. But while this objection has greater merit than most ideological objections to common usage, it would be pedantic to attempt a greater revolutionary purity than that achieved by the revolutionaries themselves.

3 This is the criterion proposed by Mill, John Stuart, Collected Works, X, Robson, J. M. (ed.), (Toronto: 1969), 187.

4 The relevant passage in Bentham is n. 330 to An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. In The Utilitarians (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1961), 380381.

5 The phrase ‘permanently and by their nature’ distinguishes animal pain from that of human infants for example.

6 For an attempt to sort out these elements, see Trigg, Roger, Pain and Emotion (Oxford: 1970).

7 Harris, John, ‘Killing for Food’, Animals, Men and Morals, op. cit., n. i, p. 99.

8 Anscombe, G. E. M., ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, in Thomson, and Dworkin, (eds), op. cit., n. 1, 206207.

9 Regan, , op. cit., n. 1, 199.

10 The strategy embedded in the word ‘sexism’ is already questionable. For a brilliant critique see Dummett, Ann, ‘Racism and Sexism’, New Blackfriars, 56

11 See the passage from ‘Human Duties and Animal Rights’, an unpublished essay under copyright by the Humane Society of America, quoted in Regan, , op. cit., n. 1, 187.

12 Animal Liberation, op. cit., n. 1, 6.

13 See his debate with Wrong, Dennis in A Dissenter's Guide to Foreign Policy, Howe, Irving (ed.), (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1968), Pt. III. The quotation is from Heilbroner, 's ‘Rebuttal’, 274, n. 2.

14 Godlovitch, Roslind, ‘Animals and Morals’, in Animals, Men and Morals, op. cit., n. 1.

15 Animal Liberation, op. cit., n. 1, 245246.

16 This is the point of Orwell, George's discussion (The Road to Wigan Pier (New York: 1958), pp. 173175).

17 Wertheimer, Roger, ‘Philosophy on Humanity’, in Abortion, Perkins, Robert L. (ed.), (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1974), 123.

18 See for instance Jenkins, Peter, ‘Ask No Questions’, in Animal Rights and Human Obligations, op. cit., n. 1.

19 The questions of abortion and contraception are raised in this context by Singer, , ‘Animal Liberation’, op. cit., n. 1, 172. (A vegetarian may of course also be an opponent of abortion; see Clark, , op. cit., n. 1, esp. 7476.)

20 Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard, 1972), 506.

21 See Montagu, Ashley, Man's Most Dangerous Myth, 4th ed. (Cleveland: 1964).

22 For detailed discussion see Lucas, J. R., ‘“Because You are a Woman”’, in Moral Problems, op. cit., n. 1.

23 Letter to Grégoire, Henri, 25 02 1809. Quoted in Animal Liberation, op. cit. n. 1, 7.

24 Nagel, Thomas, ‘Equal Treatment and Compensatory Discrimination’, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 4 (1973), esp. 356358 and 362363.

25 Singer draws the line further down the scale, arguing that while we should abstain from ordinary fish, we may eat oysters and other molluscs (but not octopus), Animal Liberation, op. cit., n. 1, 188.

26 For Aquinas see Summa Theologiae, IIa, IIae, Q 64 a. 1. and la IIae, Q 102 a. 6 and 8; also Summa Contra Gentiles, III, 112. For Kant see Lectures on Ethics, tr. Infeld, Louis (New York: 1963), 239241.

27 Augustine, , City of God, I, 20. Tr. Dodds, Marcus (New York: Modern Library, 1950), 26.

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