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Veganism: Morality, health and the environment

The line between arguing for veganism on moral grounds, as opposed to health and environmental ones, is not as bright as you might think in that health and environmental arguments have moral dimensions, writes Gary L. Francione.

At least five times a week, I get some version of the following question:

In arguing for veganism, should we stay with just the moral argument and is it somehow “wrong” or “selling out” to rely on the arguments based on human health and the environment?

I am going to do a podcast on this in the near future but I wanted to make one point clear now: the line between these arguments is not as bright as you might think in that health and environmental arguments have moral dimensions.

When I talk about animal rights, I emphasize the moral argument based on a reinterpretation of the western philosophical tradition. I also discuss the spiritual component of Ahimsa or nonviolence which, for me, has been an important part of my veganism for the past 28 years.

The spiritual component is certainly not necessary to get to an abolitionist conclusion; I do not rely on it, for instance, in the philosophical argument that I make in Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?. But my commitment to nonviolence is a significant part of my thinking.

I also talk about health and the environment as part of the moral/spiritual analysis.

We have a moral obligation that we owe to ourselves to be healthy; ingesting products that cause us harm is a form of violence we inflict on ourselves. The empirical evidence becomes stronger each day that animal products are not only not needed for health; they actually cause harm to our bodies in all sorts of ways. Even small amounts of animal products can be harmful.

Just as we have a moral obligation not to smoke cigarettes (even a “few”), we have an obligation to make sure that the things we put in and on our bodies (remember that what you put on your skin gets into your body!) do not cause harm. We owe this obligation not only to ourselves, but to the humans and nonhumans who love us and who depend on us.

Similarly, although I do not believe that we can have moral obligations that we owe directly to nonsentient beings, we certainly have an obligation to all of the sentient beings that live in the nonsentient environment. Indeed, because there are so many sentient beings who inhabit the environment, it is difficult to see the environment as nonsentient in any way that would affect our moral obligations.

A tree may not be sentient in the sense of being perceptually aware, but there are many sentient beings who live in or on the tree or who depend on the tree. And all sentient beings—human and nonhuman—depend on the environment for a healthy ecosystem. Destruction of the environment raises many serious moral and spiritual questions. An animal-based agriculture is destroying the environment and all of the sentient beings therein.

A common objection to veganism is that if we all ate a plant-based diet, we would have to cultivate more land and that this would result in our killing more sentient nonhumans. But that is not true. At present, we feed most plant food to animals, who require pounds and pounds of plant protein to produce one pound of flesh. If we ate the plants directly, we would need fewer plants and we would not need to destroy ecosystems so that we can have more grazing land.

So, in the end, although I maintain that the moral argument in favor of animal rights and the spiritual argument in favor of nonviolence are the most important notions, we also have moral obligations to ourselves (and to the humans and nonhumans who depend on us) to maintain and improve our health and obligations to humans and nonhumans not to destroy the environment.

Gary L. Francione is Distinguished Professor of Law and Nicholas deB. Katzenbach Scholar of Law and Philosophy at Rutgers University School of Law-Newark. He is the author of several books on animal rights and blogs here.


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