Why some philosophers think you should be a vegetarian

We all know somebody who avoids meat. These schools of thought suggest those people are onto something.

group of piglets

Cute piglets, or bacon seeds depending on your point of view.

Photo by RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images
  • The moral arguments behind vegetarianism are ancient, numerous, and well reasoned.
  • They tend to focus on the actions behind meat production.
  • While the question of what an ethical diet is remains unanswered, these thinkers and schools provide a good place to start.

Vegetarianism is having a moment in the sun. Record numbers of people are giving it a try, the number of places offering vegetarian food is ever-increasing, and the variety and quality of vegetarian alternatives to meat products are rising with it.

But, is this all just misplaced environmental concern, sentimentality, and hippie mumbo jumbo? After all, the stereotype of a vegetarian remains less than flattering. Or is there a method to the bacon-denying madness? Today, we'll look at three philosophies that endorse vegetarianism, outline their arguments, and consider if you should put that piece of steak down.

Peter Singer’s Utilitarianism: The life you can save might be a pig’s

Peter Singer is an Australian philosopher well known for his work in Utilitarian ethics. His 1975 book Animal Liberation is a groundbreaking work in the field of animal rights and presents a bold program for treating animals much better than we currently do.

He begins with a simple idea: animals have interests that should be considered equal to the similar interests of human beings. If it is wrong to inflict unnecessary pain on human beings, then it is also wrong to do it to animals.

While it is true that many arguments have been made to separate humans and animals because of the differences between them, Singer points out that we never apply them to other members of the human race. If we can't hurt and eat people with very low intelligence or who cannot use language, then why do we justify eating animals because they don't use syntax? Since animals clearly can feel, why should we not consider them as equal when calculating the net pleasure and pain caused by an action?

He argues that any attempt to morally separate humans from other animals when it comes to whose pain matters is based primarily on speciesism, prejudice against other animals, rather than a consistent logic and should be rejected. He then concludes, given the nature of industrial farming and the suffering many animals endure because of it, that we should switch to vegetarian and vegan diets to maximize the total happiness.

There are two subtleties to his arguments that must be remembered. The first is that he is not talking about "animal rights" in the pure sense. He certainly isn't arguing that an elephant be given the right to vote. He is arguing only that the difference between pain in humans and elephants is morally irrelevant and that the elephant's interests should be considered as equal to a humans' when deciding what to do.

Secondly, he is a utilitarian, and some apparent contradictions come with that. Most notably, he argues that some medical experimentation on animals is morally justifiable, as the benefits of the research will significantly outweigh the pain caused to the animal in the laboratory. Similarly, while he likes free-range farming as an idea, he doesn't encourage it in all cases as it can be worse for the environment than factory farming. The cost to benefit ratio doesn't quite work out for him.

His work has been widely influential, and most of the modern animal liberation movement cites him as a major influence. However, some philosophers, such as Richard Sorabji, have argued that his moral theory is simplistic and gives rise to strange moral instructions in some situations.

Religious Objections: Thou Shalt Not Kill Anything

Many religions have lines of scripture that are commonly interpreted as encouraging or even mandating vegetarianism.

The Dharmic Religions of India are well known for their tendency towards vegetarianism. In Jainism, vegetarianism is mandatory, as harming animals is considered bad karma. Hinduism and Buddhism also have scripture forbidding violence against animals, but how much that applies to the killing of animals for food is still debated. For those who do eat meat, ritualized methods of minimizing the suffering of the animal before death exist.

A third of Hindus are vegetarians. The number of vegetarian Buddhists is not known with certainty. The Dali Lama tried the diet for a while himself but was forced back to omnivorism again for health reasons. He continues to encourage vegetarianism in the name of reducing the suffering of animals.

Similar ideas exist in the Abrahamic traditions, though they are notably less hardline. Some Rabbis have argued that Judaism encourages vegetarianism, and many Christian monastic orders have been vegetarian though history. Leo Tolstoy, the author of War and Peace, incorporated vegetarianism into his Christian pacifism later in life, as eating meat required "an act which is contrary to the moral feeling- killing."

Pythagoras, of the theorem, encouraged an entire way of life named for him which included vegetarianism. This was perhaps motivated by his belief in reincarnation and aversion to violence.

Environmentalism: The hippies are taking over!

Lastly, many recent thinkers, including Steve Best and Peter Singer, have put forward arguments based on the environmental costs of industrial animal farming as a reason to cut back on our animal consumption. They point to studies like one in Nature, which reminds us of how much of the carbon footprint of meat production we'll have to cut back on if we want to reach our goals in the fight against climate change.

You might have noticed that most of these schools and thinkers share a common theme; they tend to object to the production of meat, the killing and suffering of the animal, rather than the actual act of eating it. Some people make arguments along these lines, but they are in the minority.

Most, if not all, of the thinkers mentioned above would undoubtedly be fine with lab-grown meat if the energy costs of producing it could be lowered. Similarly, many debates over if it is alright to eat oysters, which probably can't feel pain and are rather plant-like, have taken place as part of the broader discussion of moral vegetarianism.

There you have it; philosophers are often behind vegetarianism, and they make very good arguments as to why you should eat less meat, if any at all. While they won't convince everybody to switch to tofu, they do provide an excellent starting point for any discussion of what an ethical diet is.

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Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
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This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

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