Common Arguments Against Vegetarianism-and How to Answer Them
Posted by Lisa Towell at 5:48 AM | Permalink | Comments (37)
I’ve been vegetarian since 1995, and over the years I’ve fielded a lot of questions about it. At first, I found it hard to resist the soapbox. I had just learned about animal abuse on factory farms, the environmental impacts of animal agriculture, and the human health risks associated with animal foods, so I had a lot to say. My friends were quick to inform me of my mistake. Over the years, I got better at handling the questions gracefully and at finding opportunities to share information with people who are interested.
Just about everyone is opposed to cruelty to animals, and many people are aware of the specific abuses endured by animals killed for food. But it’s a basic human tendency to resist change, so people will defend their animal-based diets to their vegetarian friends. It helps to have answers ready for some of the most common questions that people ask.
People are natural omnivores. We’ve been eating meat for thousands of years.
That’s true. People have also owned slaves, kept women from voting, and forced children to work in factories. Just because something has a long tradition doesn’t mean that it’s right. Modern factory farming and slaughter practices inflict horrendous abuse on billions of individual animals, and we directly support those practices every time that we eat animal foods.
Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine giving a hamster and a carrot to a small child. Which one does she play with and which one does she eat? Now imagine giving the hamster and the carrot to a cat. Natural meat-eaters don’t need their meat shrink-wrapped, cooked, and served with a nice sauce.
I respect your right to be vegetarian. Why can’t you respect my choice to eat meat?
I agree that personal freedom is a fundamental right, but as a society, we must set limits on personal freedoms when others might be hurt. For example, people have the right to care for their children and animal companions as they see fit, but that freedom doesn’t include the right to beat a child or a dog with a baseball bat. The right to humane treatment for all outweighs the right to personal freedom.
Animals raised for food are routinely treated in ways that would result in felony cruelty-to-animals charges if dogs or cats were the victims. The choice to eat meat leads directly to terrible suffering for the animals involved.
But I love the taste of meat. I could never give it up.
Someone once put it to me this way: “I love animals. They’re delicious!” Meat is tasty to many people, and if vegetarianism is going to be a lifelong exercise in deprivation, who wants to sign up for that? Here’s how I answer this one.
I enjoyed eating meat for many years myself, and it does taste great. But once you know how cruelly farmed animals are treated, it’s hard to insist that your dietary preferences are more important than the pain of animals who are just as intelligent and friendly as your dog.
Sure, I miss some of the things that I used to eat. But I’ve discovered delicious new recipes and flavors as well as amazing vegetarian convenience foods. And with so many things wrong in the world that I can’t control, it’s incredibly satisfying to know that I’m preventing suffering every time I eat.
Going vegetarian is great for animals, but it’s not the only way to help them. If you feel like you can’t give up all animal foods, start by not eating meat just one day a week, or try not cooking meat at home. Most people know and cook only a dozen meals, so you really only have to learn 12 new meat-free recipes to reach this goal. Another way to help is to share this video with friends. Don’t let the size of the problem prevent you from doing what you can to help animals.
What about humane/grass-fed/cage-free animal products?
Buying humanely raised animal products is a step in the right direction. But slaughter practices for almost all animals raised for food, even the humanely raised ones, are very bad news. Chickens are often scalded to death in feather-removal tanks while they are still conscious, and it’s not uncommon for cows to reach the knives on the assembly line while still alive.
Many nice-sounding labels used on animal products don’t ensure humane treatment and are not strictly regulated or enforced. “Cage-free” egg-laying hens have more room to move, but most of them still have part of their sensitive beaks burned off. “Natural” beef must not contain artificial ingredients, but the animals are still dehorned and castrated without pain relief.
Is it OK if I order meat? (asked at a restaurant)
I love this question. The people who ask it are kind enough to consider that it might be difficult for me to watch them eat meat. Someone who shows this much compassion for a friend might also be sympathetic to the plight of animals. I always say, “Please go ahead!” and then answer their questions about vegetarianism with gratitude for their thoughtfulness.
The best answer to questions from your meat-eating family and friends might be the unspoken one. Every time that they see you enjoying delicious vegetarian food, they’ll think about the choice that you’ve made. Learn some great veg recipes and take them to parties and dinners. Live a happy and cruelty-free life, and people will notice.
You can find more answers here, and the “Vegetarianism in a Nutshell” podcast outlines all the facts.
There are three potential responses to my argumentation which I would like to tackle. One response is that the conditions animals in factory farms suffer are indeed worse than death. I do not believe this is true but even if it is, it is entirely possible for meat eaters to restrict themselves to free range meat which gives the animals it is taken from a reasonable quality of life. If this means eating meat less often, so be it.
The second, better response is that morality if absolute, not relative. Even if eating meat is better for animals than not eating meat, that does not make it moral, just comparative less immoral. For example, torturing and raping someone is worse than just torturing them. That does not mean torture is moral, only that it is comparative less immoral. Hence, both eating meat and killing animals as well as not eating meat and causing the non-existence of potential animals are both immoral. The moral course of action would be to ensure animals exist and to not kill them, for example by donating money to animal sanctuaries
The issue with this line of argumentation is that it presumes acceptance of not only a negative duty to not harm animals but a far stronger positive duty to ensure they live and live well. If you accept we have such a duty, than vegetarianism can indeed stand up to my objection. But, the consequences of accepting we have such a positive duty are that we need to intervene wherever animals are suffering, even in nature at the hands of other animals, in order to prevent that suffering. Given that most people would not accept that we have a duty to intervene in nature in such a way, I doubt most people do believe that we have a positive duty of care towards animals and hence I believe that this specific defense of vegetarianism is not sufficient to persuade the average informed voter that they should be a vegetarian.
The final response is that talking of the preferences of non-existing beings is ludicrous. For example, arguing that women should always be pregnant else they deny non-existent children their right to life is crazy. So is arguing that not eating meat denies non-existent animals the right to life. Our aim should be to avoid killing and if that means less animals so be it. The problem with this response is that even looking only at the preferences of currently living animals, insofar as we can assume animals have preferences, it is hard to imagine that any species of animals would prefer a world where their species did not exist, or existed in far reduced numbers, to one where they did exist but some of their kind who would otherwise not have been born are killed by humans. Hence, even ignoring the preferences of non-existent animals my argument still holds.