In this piece, I’m going to lay out the simple, straightforward, indisputable case for veganism. It’s not an argument for veganism for health reasons. And it’s not an argument for veganism in order to combat climate change — though that appears to be a very good reason to go vegan by itself. Instead, I am concerned here with the argument from ethics.
1. The less suffering, the better.
Nobody lives a life in which they do not cause harm to others in some way, shape or form. There is no such thing as a cruelty-free lifestyle. Being vegan does not make you a saint.
But vegans are doing something to reduce the amount of suffering in the world, and that matters. Those who point out that our clothes, cellphones and laptops were crafted by overworked-and-underpaid laborers in atrocious conditions — as if this fact is a refutation of veganism — are not imploring us to make more ethical choices. Instead, they are telling us to stop making the ethical choice to not consume animal products, because the world will always have pain and suffering. Part of this pseudo-argument is in response to the aforementioned belief among many vegans that we don’t contribute to cruelty. If vegans can be shown to contribute to any measure of suffering, the “why bother trying at all” people believe, then veganism loses its higher ground. Of course, the extent to which we can make more ethical choices in our consumption habits is the extent to which we should.
And no, plants do not feel pain. Aside from the fact that plants don’t have brains — a prerequisite to having subjective experiences — pain serves no evolutionary purpose to an organism that cannot move. Even if plants did feel pain, however, veganism would still be the way to go, as plants would not need to die in order to feed animals which we eat in turn — a process that produces far less calories than if the plants are consumed directly.
Similar to the anti-vegan argument above, someone who makes the “plants feel pain” argument is attempting to convince you to abandon all efforts to make the world a better place. Else, they’d have to face the fact that their lifestyle causes a double-whammy of suffering: pain inflicted on plants (so they claim to believe) fed to the animals which are then chopped up and eaten. On top of that, the plant-calories that turn into edible meat after being fed to animals is far less than the number of calories available if a human eats the plant directly. (One can similarly advocate for veganism on the basis of combating climate change using this formula.)
Of course, though we will never get to a world with zero suffering, less suffering is better. If you disagree with this basic idea, there’s not much of a point in continuing to read this post.
2. Animals feel pain.
If you are or have been a pet owner, you can tell when your little friend is suffering. You hear their whimpers and their cries, see their winces, and quite literally feel their pain.
Animals undoubtedly suffer. Cows, pigs, chickens and fish — the most commonly consumed animals — have all of the physiological, neuroanatomical and neurobiological substrates associated with not only the sensation of pain, but the experience of suffering due to said pain. This is not in dispute, as the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness — written and signed at a gathering of some of the world’s top biologists, physiologists, and neuroscientists — makes clear:
“The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”
Every species differs with respect to their ability to experience pain, but the fact remains that just about every animal we consume — with possible exceptions being clams, oysters, and similar species — is capable of suffering much like we are.
3. Animal agriculture causes suffering.
From cramped living conditions to tail-docking and debeaking sans anesthesia, animal agriculture is heartless. There is a very good reason that the laws against cruelty to animals specifically exempt the animals we raise for food. We’ve all seen the videos. And many of us know the standard practices. A baby calf torn away from its mother so that her milk can be purchased by humans who have no need for another species’ mammary secretions. Egg-laying hens stuffed in battery cages; their male offspring immediately placed en masse on a conveyor belt leading to a grinder.
If animals could choose, not one of them would pick a life carved out for them by the animal agriculture industry. And that’s besides the moral quandary of needlessly ending a life, something inherent in such an industry.
To make the argument crystal clear: we should avoid supporting the animal agriculture industry because animals are capable of suffering, and animal agriculture inflicts suffering. For just about everyone, this means going vegan is the right thing to do.
That’s all we need. Arguing that veganism is the healthiest diet is irresponsible and probably incorrect. It could be the case that a ketogenic diet that consists of almost exclusively animal products is the optimal diet for humans. Nutrition science is complex. The only way to know that someone is incorrect is if they are unequivocal in their proclamations about the relationships between diet, health and disease. If we keep saying that veganism is the healthiest dietary choice then we will look like morons if and when we are proven wrong.
We can’t afford to put forward weak arguments. So let’s stick to this, the simple, bulletproof case for veganism.