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 maim things. 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 become 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. When you start to think about it, many agricultural practices do result in animal deaths, especially if you count insects.  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.

Obviously organic and sustainable farming goes a long way to reducing these impacts on other creatures – but it seems like there will always be some death associated with farming. What can the vegetarian realistically do? If animals are going to die anyway is there any real benefit in not eating animals outright? 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.

I was reading a bit of decision theory, and I think that there has to be an equation to sort this question out. Nothing too complex for me though.

S = s + s + s + s …

Let S be the sum total of suffering we cause though an act of eating. Let little ‘s’ be the suffering of those life forms who suffer through the act of us eating. So if we eat an ox then then the total suffering S = s where s is suffering of the ox, or if we eat some bread which causes the death of ten mice then S = 10s, or ten times more.  Here is the dilemma – for the vegetarian seems to be causing more suffering than the meat eater with this meal.

The difficulty is in what constitutes s, 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 and of life lived – the suffering caused by eating pork from pigs intensively reared in factories is higher than if the pigs had nice lives in a field, regardless of how they died. Perhaps also the duration of life is important – perhaps eating lamb is ethically worse than eating mutton. And an animal might not even have to die to suffer as a result of our meal – battery chickens producing eggs are an obvious example. To experience this sort of suffering might be worse than suffering a short sharp death following a contented life.

But we also have to consider sentience when considering the suffering of the life form – for 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 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. Pescetarians draw the line up higher, above fish. Even meat eaters draw the line somewhere – above oxen but probably below dogs and whales and humans. Some more ancient cultures seemed not to have drawn any line at all.

So ‘s’ in the equation above is really a combination of at least these two things – the suffering experienced (se) and the rank of sentience that experienced it (st).

S = (se * st) + (se * st) + (se * st) …

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 carcases?]

Vegetarianism at least has this appeal: it is a very easy ethical position to practice and understand. It at least excludes some of the most obvious ethical wrongs like eating factory-reared pork. The suffering caused by a vegetarian 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.  Like most things, there is a lot more to this question than is obvious at first glance.