A Vegetarians Guide
It is likely that you have been eating meat since you first ate solid foods. So you might not have thought much about how many animals have been dying for you. But think about this: if you eat meat, you are participating in the process of unnecessarily killing billions and billions of animals every year, and if you ate less meat, fewer animals would die. If you care for the welfare of living beings other than yourself, perhaps you should spend a few minutes considering a way to not share in the responsibility for killing so many creatures.
There is no reason why you must eat meat. An emerging consensus among health organizations, government health agencies, and nutritionists is that the best diets contain very little or no meat. If you have access to an abundance of non-meat food (if you're using a computer, you probably have access to a grocery store), you can live a healthy, normal life without eating animal flesh.
In modern society, the only remaining justifications for killing animals for food is that people find meat to be convenient and/or that people enjoy the taste of meat. In other words, meat provides convenience and pleasure. These morally vacant justifications for eating meat should be weighed against unnecessarily killing of billions of animals each year and the devastating effects of meat production on both the environment and human starvation.
Food for Thought Click here to see images of dead animals being converted into food. Be warned that these images can be unsettling.
Any person who thinks about these factors may want to decrease the amount of meat in their diet.
In face of those uncomfortable conclusions, many people almost unconsciously come up with attempts to justify their continued practice of meat-eating. The arguments I have encountered most are these:
- Meat is necessary for proper nutrition
- I guess eating meat's just a habit... I never really thought about it. Besides, everybody does it
- Eating meat is natural
- Meat tastes good
- A vegetarian diet is inconvenient; a meat-based diet is convenient
- Life's not fair. It's survival of the fittest, and the strong kill the weak
- Where do you draw the line? All ethics are arbitrary
- God put animals here for our use
- Meat gives me energy
- The meat's already there. The animal's already dead. I can't make a difference
- What about all those poor little plants you eat? Don't they count?
- Animals are raised to be killed for meat, so its OK
- Why shouldn't I eat meat?
Have a question to add to this list? Send me an e and, if it's cogent and at least marginally reasonable, I'll post it and a reply on this site.
Let us look at each argument in turn…
“Meat is necessary for proper nutrition.” [top]
This is simply not true. Research on the health effects of vegetarianism is generally quite positive. Nutritionists and other health experts generally advocate that vegetarians should be careful to get a balanced diet... but they say that about everyone. If nutrition is important to you, consider that the majority of the evidence suggests that the less meat you eat, the better.
The only nutritional advantage of meat is that it packs a lot of nutrition (along with a lot of harmful substances) into an easy-to-consume package... in other words, it can be convenient. But mere convenience is a very poor justification for causing our annual slaughter of billions of animals.
The Journal of the American Dietetic Association states that, "...appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, are nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases." The article then goes on to describe a variety of ways in which vegetarianism is a healthier lifestyle, citing lower mortality from and incidence of a variety of diseases and conditions.
Additionally, the Center for Science in the Public Interest quotes Marion Nestle, chair of the Nutrition & Food Studies department at New York University as saying: "There's no question that largely vegetarian diets are as healthy as you can get. The evidence is so strong and overwhelming and produced over such a long period of time that it's no longer debatable."
A great number of other health organizations and government agencies also support the view that vegetarian diets are either sufficient or beneficial. Most criticisms from such organizations apply mostly to people who have bad eating habits. For more information, follow this link.
“I guess eating meat's just a habit... I never really thought about it. Besides, everybody does it.” [Top]
I think this is the real reason why most people eat meat. In the past, meat was a luxury item in most cultures and a necessity in a few others (Eskimos really needed to eat meat to survive). It was generally eaten sparingly, and it greatly helped supplement diets that may not have been well-balanced due to the limited amount of plant foods available in any one region.
That was the past. In the past there may have been some reasonable justifications for eating meat. In most modern societies, it is perfectly possible to live a healthy, normal life without causing the deaths of animals. We still cling to the past out of habit.
A brief examination of the morality, environmental impact, and healthiness of eating meat easily produces the reasonable conclusion that one should probably avoid meat as much as possible. Most people so far have simply been too lazy, self-centered, or unthinking to consider the consequences of their actions concerning diet. "Meat is readily available in stores, so it must be OK, right?" Clearly, that is not very careful reasoning. Just because cigarettes are readily available in stores does not mean they have no harmful health effects, does it?
Other practices which we now consider immoral were once considered common and acceptable... everyone did it. Slavery was perfectly acceptable in large parts of the world before this century. Murdering a person outside of your clan or tribe was fine behavior for people in many hunter-gatherer societies (and is still accepted behavior in modern street gangs). Rape was normal behavior for primitive humans, and retains various degrees of acceptance today. Suppressing some or all rights of women or racial minorities was perfectly legal in the United States until very recently, and is common in other nations. Because these behaviors were or are generally accepted, does that make them right?
Just because a lot of people do something, is it right? (Incidentally, for thousands of years many Buddhists have believed that eating animals is wrong.) Regardless of what the nameless hordes do, shouldn't you consider the consequences of your actions? Don't the thousands of animals you're going to kill deserve at least a cursory bit of thinking on your part?
“Eating meat is natural.” [Top]
Assuming this is true, so what? Living in caves and dying of old age at 30 is natural. Murder, rape, and random violence are very natural behavior, not just to humans, but to most animals. Just because humans have often killed animals for meat in the past is no justification for continuing the barbaric practice.
Yes, humans have canine teeth which are good for rending flesh, and there is also evidence that our intestines are well-adapted to processing meat. But, look at a gorilla picture sometime: they have huge canine teeth and do not eat any animals except some bugs. Additionally, as noted above, a vegetarian diet is generally acknowledged to be as healthy or more healthy than a meat-based diet.
Historically, the majority of human cultures developed diets of mostly plant materials, with meat as a nutritional supplement (not as the main part of most every meal). In modern cultures that have healthy trade with other regions, humans have access to a vast variety of plant foods and do not require meat for good nutrition.
It is just as natural for humans to not eat meat. Our closest cousins, chimpanzees, hunt and eat animals, but only as a tiny minority of their mostly herbivorous diet. Since they do not have grocery stores, they may not be able to get complete nutrition from the plants in their area. Also, they may like the taste of flesh. But then again, they also may not be considering the moral consequences of their actions. The real question here is, do you have higher morals than a chimp?
“Meat tastes good.” [Top]
Perhaps human flesh tastes good; is that any reason to kill people? Additionally, many vegetarian foods taste wonderful (a huge variety of Mediterranean, Indian, Asian, and Latin American foods are vegetarian or vegan).
The argument that you should eat meat because it tastes good is equivalent to saying: "I want to participate in killing billions and billions of creatures so that I can occasionally experience the transient pleasure of something tasty. I want to kill and kill and kill for a small amount of pleasure."
Does that little bit of pleasure outweigh the lives of the trillions of animals that are going to be slaughtered in your lifetime?
“A vegetarian diet is inconvenient; a meat-based diet is convenient.” [Top]
Not killing anyone who annoys you is inconvenient too. Restraint from killing for your own convenience or pleasure is simply part of being a responsible human being. A minor inconvenience is no justification for mass-killing.
In fact, once you make the minor mental effort to try to be a vegetarian, the lifestyle is really not that inconvenient. It requires thinking a little before ordering from a menu or grocery shopping and it may require you to learn some new cooking habits, but once you've adapted to those conditions, they become habits, not inconveniences.
The only persisting inconvenience is that in some public eating arrangements (some restaurants, parties, etc.), meat appears to be the only option. However, the more people that become vegetarians, the less this becomes an issue. Already, most restaurants are prepared to serve good food to vegetarians, and the ones that aren't are losing customers (I, for one, will not go to PoFolks until they significantly change their menu).
Regardless, consider if you showed up at a restaurant or a party and the host said, "Sorry I can only feed you some potato chips and lettuce, but if you'd like, you can kill the cat and eat some meat." What would you do? How is killing that cat any different than killing a pig, which is much more intelligent and more genetically similar to a human being?
Maybe being a vegetarian is somewhat more inconvenient to some people. So what? Can you really justify a few thousand murders for a minor convenience?
“Life's not fair. It's survival of the fittest, and the strong kill the weak.” [Top]
There is little difference between this opinion and the idea that it is justifiable to kill, hurt, or otherwise violate any person you want as long as you can get away with it.
The "life's not fair" argument is the logic of such wonderful people as Fascists, military dictators, murderers, rapists, school-yard bullies, and self-centered people in general. If the philosophy of vegetarianism goes against the philosophy of this sort of people, then that is just another tremendous benefit of vegetarianism.
Indeed, it is reasonable to assume that people who are willing to consider the moral consequences of killing animals are more likely to restrain from violence against other human beings if at all possible. Vegetarianism inherently encourages peaceful thought and thus peaceful action. Conversely, it is not unreasonable to assume that thoughtlessly killing creatures by the thousands for nothing more than pleasure and convenience might lend to generally more violent thoughts and behaviors.
“Where do you draw the line? All ethics are arbitrary.” [Top]
That's easy: draw the line as low as you think you can, and reevaluate it from time to time.
I would agree that all ethical statements have some arbitrary component, but that does not mean we should abandon all ethics. The key is to be as reasonable as possible. The most ethical behavior probably would be to eat absolutely nothing so as to cause no impact on your environment. This is clearly impractical. The least ethical behavior would be to kill and eat anything you want, including humans. Almost all people would consider this wrong.
Everything in-between those two extremes is gray area. The best way to settle on a spot in that gray area is to carefully consider the issue and choose a diet which for you balances the ill of harming or killing creatures against the necessities of your life. Occasionally, you should evaluate your decision to see if you should modify it one way or the other. The most important aspect is that you give it some thought: consider the consequences of your actions.
As for where to draw the line, there are a few natural lines that make sense and are relatively un-arbitrary. Choose one of these lines and see how it works for you:
Don't eat humans. That shouldn't be too hard to do, as it's illegal anyway. Most everyone follows this standard without giving it any thought.
Don't eat primates. Well, most Westerners don't do this, but some people eat monkeys and even Chimpanzees. I'm hoping you don't.
Don't eat any mammals, as they are very closely-related to humans. Also, mammals experience a broad range of feeling and many are quite intelligent. Despite the derogatory connotations associated with their name, pigs are some of the most intelligent animals on this planet.
Don't eat any vertebrates because they experience high-order pain and other nervous responses in basically the same way that humans do. Some of them are quite intelligent, too.
Don't eat any animals (Vegetarian, a.k.a. Ovo-Lacto Vegetarian). This is one of the least arbitrary standards, as there's a fairly clear line between animals and non-animals. All animals are sensate, react to pain, and are arguably a higher form of life than plants, fungi, etc.. Even some invertebrate animals, such as octopuses, can be extremely intelligent.
Don't eat any animals or animal products (Vegan). This is also very un-arbitrary. Products such as milk and eggs come from enslaving animals in sometimes horrendous conditions. It makes sense that if you're trying not to kill animals, you also should try to avoid inflicting other forms of violence on them.
Don't eat things which result in animal death when they are harvested. Mass-harvesting of grains, for example, causes the deaths of many creatures, including a variety of mammals, which are caught in the farm equipment. Meeting this standard is extremely difficult in modern societies as it basically requires that you eat only food you grow yourself or that come from a source you know to be safe. Over time, this may become more feasible. Consider however, that eating only meat certainly wouldn't help prevent animal deaths from grain harvesting. Meat animals eat huge quantities of harvested grain, and they also displace enormous numbers of animals from their natural habitats.
Don't eat anything that is killed to become food (Fruitarian) - It may be possible to live without eating any dead things, including plants. Eating things such as nuts, fruits, and many vegetables does not directly cause any deaths. Personally, I see this as a somewhat unreasonable standard both because it sounds nutritionally near-impossible and because just taking a shower causes the deaths of countless microorganisms. I don't think it's reasonable to expect to be a human being and not cause some other things to die... I only look to minimize it. However, if you think you can live a Fruitarian life, more power to you.
Don't eat the products of any living thing. I'm pretty sure this is impossible (at least in today's society), because it doesn't leave much to eat besides salt. However, it may be possible in the future that we could grow our food in enclosed environments (thus avoiding killing animals during harvesting), and that that food could be replicated through advanced cloning techniques, thus meeting at least the Fruitarian standard of not causing deaths. Right now, I'm not going to worry about it... but it is something to think about for the future.
In all of the above definitions, understand that not eating something also refers to not using it. Non-cannibals generally don't use human skin for ornamentation, and vegetarians generally avoid leather.
“God put animals here for our use.” [Top]
Various people will use various religions to make this claim, but it doesn't really make sense. Supposing that God said in scripture that animals can be used for human purposes, does that mean that they must be used? Does any god demand that people kill animals? I know that some gods require animal sacrifice, but most religions have abandoned that practice. (Also, if you're looking at the Bible, consider that God says that animals are for human use, but plants are for human food. Try reading Genesis 1:29)
In other words, God does demand animal sacrifice, but you don't do that. On the other hand, God does not require that you kill animals for your use... how can you use God's word to justify your killing?
If you accept any notion of spirituality, doesn't it make sense that all life has at least some intrinsic meaning? If you can live a healthy, normal life without killing God's creatures, why should you?
Besides, meat is a very environmentally-destructive food. If God doesn't outright require you to eat meat, shouldn't you avoid it at least to help the Earth be a less deadly place for your children?
Finally, if you believe in the right to life, you have no excuse for killing animals.
“Meat gives me energy.” [Top]
I've heard people make that claim as much as I've heard vegetarians claim that they had more energy once they stopped eating meat. I've also heard people claim that they tried to stop eating meat and found that they always felt lethargic.
The reason for all of these claims is most likely a matter of proper or improper nutrition. If you become a vegetarian and find you have more energy, it's probably because you are giving more attention to your diet, eating better, and thus feeling better. If you stop eating meat and feel lethargic, it is probably because you are not eating right.
A vegetarian diet is not simply a meat-based diet minus the meat. You can't live off salads and french fries. It does take a little thought to be a vegetarian. If you change your diet and it makes you feel worse, just take a look at your nutritional intake and reevaluate.
If you find that eating meat gives you energy, that's most likely because meat is an excellent source of B vitamins, which make many people feel energetic. You can get all of these vitamins from a vegetarian diet, but it may take a little effort. Mostly it is determined by your metabolism. If you feel that meat gives you energy, then you probably have an imbalanced diet and are often starved for B vitamins. In that case, reevaluating your diet is in order anyway.
Now, weigh your unthinking statement about energy against the lives of a few thousand animals.
“The meat's already there. The animal's already dead. I can't make a difference.” [Top]
When a human dies, we do not slaughter and eat them simply because "the meat is already there." Why treat animals differently?
If you eat meat, you contribute to the demand for meat and thus spur more killings at the slaughterhouse. Although your consumption of a particular piece of meat does not directly cause the death of the animal that it came from, it does directly contribute to the demand to kill another animal. Meat industries kill billions of animals each year. If you eat meat, you participate in and condone this process, and thus share some of the responsibility for every one of those billions of deaths. The only way to fully remove yourself from the responsibility of killing meat-creatures is to not eat them.
And your ceasing to eat meat does make a significant difference in many ways. First, it decreases the demand. Although in a huge economy your decision might not directly save any animal's life, it does make a significant contribution to the decrease in demand. If you consider how many steer, pigs, chickens, etc. you will eat in your lifetime, consider that becoming a vegetarian removes the demand for that many animals' deaths. Consider if all vegetarians were to suddenly become meat-eaters: that would certainly cause the meat industries to kill more animals. A recent poll concludes that there are 4.8 million vegetarians just in the United States. If they all ate the average amount of pork, manufacturers would have to kill another 1.25 million pigs each year. So your opting out of the meat trade does help save animals' lives.
Additionally, your being a vegetarian increases the demand for non-meat foods at the restaurants you frequent. The more times you order vegetarian dishes from a restaurant, the more likely it is that the management will expand their vegetarian offerings. This helps both because it makes it easier for other people to be vegetarians, and because it may cause some people who would normally eat meat to sometimes eat a vegetarian dish instead (even meat eaters are known to eat spaghetti with garlic sauce or egg foo young). Oh, and you can also simply ask restaurant management to add more vegetarian dishes to their menu. Many of them listen.
Also, being a vegetarian sets an example to the people around you. Personally, I try never to preach to my friends and colleagues about being vegetarian. I don't even mention it until people ask why I'm not having the steak, or whatever. The simple, quiet fact that I am a vegetarian (and obviously healthy and fit) makes the people around me consider that vegetarianism is possible and that it is worth considering.
If they were already considering vegetarianism; seeing that I've lived well without meat gives them the additional impetus toward making the choice. If they have not really considered it, then my absolute refusal to eat meat may make them start to consider the consequences of their actions. And thus, by being a vegetarian, in this way you can significantly help reduce the demand for meat by helping propagate the idea to others.
In sum, saying "I can't make a difference" is equivalent to saying, "I am worthless." Think about it.
“What about all those poor little plants you eat? Don't they count?” [top]
First, you eat plants too; you have no moral ground on which to stand and criticize vegetarians' eating of plants.
I see the morality of what we kill as a sliding scale. Most everyone agrees that killing other humans is wrong. Almost no one thinks that killing malignant bacteria is wrong. So there's a line in-between the two somewhere.
Anywhere you draw the line, it will be arbitrary to some degree. What I've done is to make what I hope is the least arbitrary ranking of living things, and try to keep my killing as low on that list as possible. The least arbitrary place to draw a line on almost any hierarchical ranking of life forms is between plants and animals. But I'm also open to the idea of making a gray-area near that line. Mussels are extremely simplistic, plant-like creatures, and it's hard to argue that they belong on the same plane as humans.
On the other hand, pigs feel pain in pretty-much exactly the same way we do. They also experience complex emotions and can exhibit a high level of intelligence. Killing a pig seems to me very similar to killing a human being. Killing a spinach plant just doesn't seem to rank on the same level. I certainly can't empathize as much with the nearly-inanimate spinach plant as I can with the pig that is screaming and trying to get away as people are trying to kill it.
Is empathy a good basis for determining morality? I don't see why not... it's a lot less arbitrary than reading some book written by a bunch of primitive desert nomads a few thousand years ago.
Is the scale I reference above with humans on top and plants on bottom correct? No, I don't think anything is absolutely right or wrong, but that scale is as UN-arbitrary as a human can get, to date. I don't see anyone offering any alternative except: "Kill anything which is weaker than you for any reason whatsoever (and maybe don't kill humans because you might go to jail)." I think the vegetarian mentality is blatantly more moral.
“Animals are raised to be killed for meat, so its OK.” [top]
This is hardly a good reason to kill animals, but I hear it all the time.
How does the location in which a creature is raised have any impact on whether or not killing it is good or bad? By this sort of reasoning, it would be perfectly acceptable to eat humans if we raised them for food.
What is the difference between a pig raised on a farm and a pig raised as a pet? What is the difference between a human hypothetically raised on a farm and a human raised in society?
Im having trouble writing a lot in response to this argument, because it just doesnt make sense. People used to be raised to be slaves... was that OK?
“Why shouldn't I eat meat?” [top]
Why should you? There is no compelling reason to eat meat, while morality, health, and the environment are all reasons not to kill animals for your pleasure and convenience.
Additionally, vegetarianism is a non-action. It takes no real effort to not eat meat. Being a vegetarian is one of the most dramatic ethical improvements you can make in your life compared to the amount of effort it takes. All you have to do is eat a healthy diet, and you are suddenly leading a more healthy, moral, eco-friendly life.
If you disagree, feel free to send me an e-mail containing a cogent reason why you should blithely kill animals.
For More Information...
When this web page was first written, there were few resources on the internet about vegetarianism. Now that the web has matured somewhat and vegetarianism has become more mainstream, the number of resources for vegetarians and for going vegetarian are rather complete.
If you are considering becoming a vegetarian and want to know more about what's involved, check out “New Veggies” by the Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom and/or the “Vegetarian Nutrition Resource List” from the National Agricultural Library of the U.S. Department of Labor. And iVillage has a nice article entitled “Guidelines for Proper Nutrtion for Vegetarian Kids.”
Great general resource pages can be found at VegWeb.com, the Vegetarian Resource Group, GoVeg.com (from PETA), and the Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom.
The Vegetarian Society of Colorado has produced a report which I think is a summary of data from the book Diet for a New America, and provides detailed statistics of the environmental reasons for vegetarianism.
For another rational explanation of reasons to be a vegetarian (and related vegetarian resources), try Brett Garrett's "Why Vegetarian?" page.
For a good, web-based commercial source of cruelty-free products, check out Pangea.
To understand just how many animals you are killing if you are eating meat, go to my page on Animals Killed for Meat.
I got a letter from a meat-packing company trying to convince me to discontinue my site! Click here to read it.
A host of links to specific topics about vegetarianism can be found at both The Vegetarian Pages and VegSource.
A plethora of other pages can be found on Yahoo's Vegetarian index or in any search engine, of course.
Copyright © 1998-2007 by Ed Pastore. All rights reserved. Excerpts from this document may be quoted with proper reference to the URL, the author, and the modification date listed below.
modified October 2, 2007