the ethical dilemma of the vegetarian

Life is suffering, said the Buddha. This seems to me to be true much of the time, and what is also unavoidable is that our aliveness causes suffering for other living things. Even the most careful of us will unfortunately step on a few ants and swallow some gnats (unless we follow very particular ascetic orders). At the very least we generally take up space on the planet that might have been used by someone else. This seems to be an unavoidable fact, but it does seem at first glance that we can at least diminish the quota of suffering that we cause in the world by not going out of our way to kill and injure other living creatures. Famously the Buddha advocated this, in a time when animal sacrifice for religious reasons was even more common than it is today. And one of the more obvious ways we still kill a lot of animals is by eating meat, so an easy fix to that is becoming a vegetarian.


But it’s never as simple as you think. As this article delights in pointing out, a vegetarian diet might easily still result in the deaths of many creatures who would not have otherwise died. The most powerful example given is that of mice, as millions of mice are poisoned every year by farmers growing grain. They aren’t killed humanely in abattoirs but poisoned – a particularly nasty way to die. Many agricultural practices do result in animal deaths.  Moles get ploughed, badgers trapped, birds and kangaroos shot, fish poisoned by polluted waterways, not to mention the heavy death toll on insects, if anyone cares about them.

Organic and sustainable farming goes a long way to reducing these impacts on other creatures, and so supporting these kinds of farming seems an essential part of the ethics of being vegetarian.  But it seems like there will always be some death associated with farming, in which case, what is the point of being 100% vegetarian? If animals are going to die anyway is there any real benefit in not eating animals occasionally if they are well-looked after before death? There are certainly some cases where animals are able to subsist on land that is otherwise quite useless to agriculture, which is part of an argument that George Monbiot, once a vegan, now uses to cautiously support ethical meat eating (although he has vacillated again on this topic recently).

Suffering is not just about death of animals either. The vegan diet recognises this, by avoiding food which involves any kind of animal origin, there being so much suffering in the dairy industry and egg producing industries. My family has avoided this problem in part, by keeping our own chickens and sourcing milk from a local cow for a while. I was completely awake to the lived experience of these animals, and they didn’t seem to be suffering more than other animals I have known. Cows seem to like being milked, but don’t like having their calves taken away. In keeping chickens, I have had to kill excess roosters, so I can quantify exactly how much death our egg eating caused, and what it was like. In fact, killing roosters is a mercy to the remaining hens, who are otherwise relentlessly molested (I wrote a poem about this). Of course if they were all living in the wild the males would self-regulate their population, although the foxes would be regulating their population even more efficiently. I’m not sure, but I think our chickens are happy because they are safe and well housed and well fed.

The difficulty is that we don’t always know what constitutes happiness and suffering. I think there are two main things at play here. Firstly, there are the events that are experienced which are ‘suffered’. Some events are worse than others – there are some ways to die that involve more suffering than other ways. We tend to prefer short and sharp ‘humane’ killing to deaths that are long and drawn out. We must also consider the quality of life lived – the suffering caused by eating pork from pigs intensively reared in factories is higher than if the pigs had nice happy lives in a field, regardless of how they died. Perhaps also the “opportunity loss” of life is important – in which case eating veal or lamb is ethically worse than eating beef or mutton.

It is impossible to separate suffering from sentience – and it seems to be widely and intuitively believed that there is a spectrum, with humans at the top, and barely sentient bacteria or slime moulds or plants at the bottom. Killing creatures that are closer to the top is held to be worse than killing those at the bottom, and this is based on an intuitive idea of sentience. We believe that fly does not suffer as much as an ox when he dies, or at least that it does not matter as much to us. And even vegetarians have to draw the line somewhere, about what sentience is acceptable to kill, if they want to eat. For instance, a classic vegetarian is clearly happy to eat plants, which are dimly sentient, and would probably be unconcerned about eating bacteria, even though some bacteria are motile and quite complex. Algae is bacteria like this after all. Pescatarians draw the line up higher, above fish. Even meat eaters draw the line somewhere – above oxen but probably below dogs and whales and humans. Where to draw the line is quite arbitrary – octopus may be some of the most intelligent creatures, but have no protections compared to warm blooded creatures like dogs or dolphins, when it comes to animal cruelty.

The only way to truly calculate the the value of the meal is if we have perfect knowledge of the suffering inflicted and can scale sentience accurately. Unfortunately, calculating this in most circumstances seems to be an impossible task, and open to lots of argument.  But it would be interesting if we could measure these things accurately to discover whether a vegetarian diet still comes out on top most of the time. I think it often would – but I don’t think that it would all of the time.


[A gratuitous picture of offal which is unrelated to the merits of the argument. Although wouldn’t this be less offensive if these were mouse carcasses?]

Vegetarianism and Veganism at least have this appeal: they are a very easy ethical position to practice and understand. They at least excludes some of the most obvious ethical wrongs like eating factory-reared pork. The suffering caused by a vegetarian or vegan diet seems to be less direct – how complicit are we in decisions of farmers to poison mice or poison waterways by over-fertilisation?  It is not enough on its own to improve the lot of other creatures. We need to keep thinking about and tracing the ethical effects of all our eating – vegetarian or vegan or otherwise.  And even the Buddha allowed the eating of meat in some circumstances – for instance, it seems he allowed his monks to eat meat that was put in their begging bowls, as long as it was not killed especially for them. Strict vegetarianism came to Mahayana Buddhism later on. Vegetarians often find themselves in a situation where they are accidentally given meat. If the life is already lost, perhaps eating the meat is the best way to honour that life.