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.

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.

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

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Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
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  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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