Vegan Ethics Now

Vegan Ethics Now

Illustrations by Sue Coe

The remarkable thing about current conversations concerning the ethics of veganism is that they so often turn into discussions about the necessity of veganism.[1] At a time of environmental crisis, human civilization itself may depend upon our willingness to protect animals and stop eating meat.  Ethics in this case isn’t so much branch of philosophy as a means of survival.[2] 

 Sue Coe,  Modern Man Followed by the Ghosts of his Meat,  1990. Courtesy the artist.

Sue Coe, Modern Man Followed by the Ghosts of his Meat, 1990. Courtesy the artist.

There are three, equally significant ethical bases for veganism: 1. The obligation and necessity of protecting animals from harm; 2. Our responsibility to restore and conserve the environment during a period of accelerating ecological abuse and climate change; and 3. The need to safeguard our physical, mental and moral being. Taken together, they constitute a single, overarching ethical imperative that may be summarized by the word “reciprocity”: the recognition that taking requires giving, and that the natural and human worlds comprise a totality. To damage the living, non-human world, is also to harm ourselves; on the other hand, to repair the one is to protect the health and happiness of the other.

1. The Protection of Animals:

Animals are sentient beings – they experience pleasure and pain. Many are also conscious subjects – they are aware of the world around them and react to it according to their own wants.[3] A smaller, but still very large subset of animals is self-conscious – they recognize they have distinct selves with interests and needs different from others of the same or different species. And a still smaller group of animals (though the more research we do, the bigger the number), possess what is called “theory of mind”: recognition that other beings have their own unique thoughts and needs, accessible through insight and empathy. 

Large numbers of animals in short, have capacities and feelings very much like our own. They are observant and curious. They form friendships and even bonds of love.[4] They may be jealous or petulant, impatient or bored.  Many use tools, deploy language, and even demonstrate senses of humor. All this and much more is revealed by the vast animal behavior and psychology literature of the last generation. I’d direct you to the writings of Jane Goodall, Jaak Panksepp, Marc Bekoff, and Frans de Waal, among hundreds of others.[5] 

But the moral necessity of animal protection does not depend upon the recognition in animals of anything so complex and subtle as empathy or theory of mind. It is simply the matter of an animal’s capacity for pleasure and pain. The point was first made by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham at the end of the 18th Century: “The [morally relevant] question is not, Can [animals] reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?... The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes... " In 1975, the philosopher Peter Singer made a similar argument in his book titled Animal Liberation, thereby helping launch the modern, animal rights movement.[6] 

For one animal to inflict unnecessary pain upon another – regardless of the species – is a distinct harm, but in the case of humans, a clear evil. For while it is one thing for a big fish to eat a smaller fish, it is quite another thing for a human to cause a fish to suffer. (And yes, recent experiments by Victoria Braithwaite, Lynne Sneddon and others have proven that fish experience conscious pain.)[7] In the first case the pain is a byproduct of organic necessity. Big fish only survive by eating little fish. In the second, it is a matter of choice. Humans don’t need fish in order to live and therefore have no moral right to kill them any more than they have a right to inflict unnecessary pain or death upon another human. (I am leaving aside the small number of indigenous hunter-gatherers who have few other food sources than fish.)  

This doesn’t mean that animals and humans are equal. Humans go to college, write novels, play baseball and compose moral systems while animals don’t. But none of those skills matter when we create morals and laws that forbid murder and assault. The killing of a child who can’t read or write is as heinous as the murder of a college professor. And the suffering of an elderly person with dementia is as unfortunate as that of a someone in the prime of life. It is the fact of sentience – the capacity for pleasure and pain – that is the basis of our laws and protections, and since animals no less than humans are sentient, we owe them the same protection from harm.

Animals have an interest in their own lives, as the philosopher Tom Regan argued.[8] They express joy at the success of their family members and friends, and they clearly reveal fear at the prospect of injury or death. There is nothing so terrible as the sight of an animal when it recognizes that a person or another animal is going to take its life. Many animals in sum, take delight in exercising their unique, species capacities, and display anguish at the prospect of injury or death. They possess what Karl Marx called “species being,” a capacity for critical, self-consciousness that he believed was found only in humans, but that ethologists have shown exists in other species as well.[9] (Had Marx written about “species being” at the end rather than the beginning of his career, he might have come to a different conclusion. Darwin’s Origin of Species, published in1859, demonstrated the evolutionary continuity – of mind, as well as body – between humans and other animals.)

Because of animal sentience, animal consciousness and species being, there is no such thing as happy animal agriculture or benign slaughter. All animal agriculture, small or large, organic or non-organic, industrial or artisanal entails the confinement of animals, the break-up of animal families, the killing of unwanted offspring, close confinement, terror and early death.[10] Pigs and cows may naturally live into their teens or longer but are routinely slaughtered after a few months or years. Chickens have a lifespan of years but are killed after weeks or months. Male chicks born in egg farms are all killed, sometimes thrown live into grinders.[11]

 Sue Coe,  The Scream,  2015. Courtesy the artist.

Sue Coe, The Scream, 2015. Courtesy the artist.

Male calves born at dairies are separated from their mother days after birth and sent to slaughter. Young cows in fact must withstand repeated insemination (rape) and pregnancy in order to continue to produce milk, but are generally killed at about age five when their milk production begins to decline. So-called “humane meat” is an invention of Whole Foods and animal welfare organizations that wish to maintain the status quo in animal agriculture in order to protect their profits and donations.

 Sue Coe,  Weapons of Mass Destruction - Factory Farming,  2003. Courtesy the artist.

Sue Coe, Weapons of Mass Destruction - Factory Farming, 2003. Courtesy the artist.

2. Responsibility toward the environment

For millennia, people have recognized that they may have a destructive impact upon their environment. But environmentalism is much newer, dating only to the 19th century. Most people are familiar with Henry David Thoreau’s book, Walden (1854) in which he counseled his readers to “resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”  But at about the same time, two other writers in Europe were undertaking a more rigorous, if considerably less poetic, examination of the impact of the capitalist economy on the natural environment. In volume three of Capital (1863-1883), Karl Marx discussed what he called the "irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism."[12] By that he specifically meant that when people move from the country to the city, they become alienated (physically divorced), from the world of nature they left behind. For example, when they consume food, they deplete the soil of the agricultural zones from which it came, but return nothing to it. (Agricultural and other waste products, he argued, should be used as fertilizer.) Resources are thus moved in one direction only, from country to city, and the former region gradually becomes impoverished unless soil nutrients are artificially restored. This is of course, what happened historically, but the use of chemical fertilizers has led to a host of environmental disasters, such as algal blooms and dead-zones in rivers, lakes and bays due to agricultural run-off. 

The “rift” between humans and nature continues to grow today as more land is needed to grow feed for livestock, and more chemical fertilizers as well as pesticides are deployed to ensure large and profitable crop yields, leading to still further environmental abuse. It is now widely known that meat production is much more land intensive than other forms or agriculture. Beef requires 100 times more land per unit of protein than pulses such as beans, peas and lentils.[13] And the ecological breach has now extended well beyond soils to include: 1) the carbon cycle -- the capture and release of climate warming CO2; 2) the hydrologic cycle --rainfall, flooding and drought; and 3) the crisis of biodiversity -- the recent, rapid, and catastrophic extinction of species.[14] All of these are made worse by animal agriculture.

In a book titled, The Dialectics of Nature (1883), Friedrich Engels addressed ideas similar to Marx when he discussed what he called the “revenge” of nature:[15]

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first…. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature—but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.[16]

It is increasingly clear that animal agriculture is destroying the environment and that nature is exacting its revenge. Livestock farming is a major factor in changes to the carbon cycle, the first great metabolic rift. It contributes at least 15 percent of global greenhouse gases (GHGs), and possibly much more.[17] Accepting just the lower figure, the top 20 global meat and dairy producers -- led by JBS, Tyson and Cargill -- release more GHGs than the entire global transport sector and more than Germany, the fourth largest economy in the world.[18]  If larger estimates are accurate, animal agriculture contributes more GHGs than BP, Exxon and Shell Oil combined. Even if every gasoline or diesel-powered vehicle on earth were converted to run on electricity supplied by renewable sources, we still wouldn’t meet the target of a maximum 2 degrees centigrade temperature rise agreed in the 2015 Paris climate accords, if we continue to support animal agriculture. Unless we greatly curtail the production and consumption of meat, the planet will heat well beyond the agreed upon threshold, leading to catastrophe.  

 Sue Coe,  Second Millennium , 1998. Courtesy the artist.

Sue Coe, Second Millennium, 1998. Courtesy the artist.

Many other harms result from animal agriculture. The pollution caused by agricultural run-off has killed rivers and streams, estuaries and marshes, and even whole coastlines, triggering the second metabolic rift – the hydrological cycle. Acidification of the oceans, resulting from absorption of carbon, has led to the bleaching and death of great sections of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and other global coral communities. Ocean fish populations have declined 50% or more in the last century as the result of overfishing, acidification, rising water temperatures and pollution.[19] Livestock grazing is the largest source of wild animal habitat loss in the world and reduction of biodiversity, the third great metabolic rift.[20] The current “sixth extinction” – the number of large land mammals has declined 80% in the last century -- is in large measure the result of expanded pasturage and grain production for animal agriculture.[21]  In addition, insects have declined some 75% in recent decades, a potentially catastrophic loss for birds, animals and plant agriculture – insects are of course essential pollinators.[22] Animal agriculture, including the consumption of fish, is simply unsustainable and more and more environmental organizations are discovering that fact and promoting veganism.

3. Obligation to ourselves

Philosophers and theologians have long argued that humans are endowed by nature or God with life and freedom and thus have an ethical obligation to maintain their physical and mental health. In Julie, or the New Heloise (1761), J.-J. Rousseau summarized the issue in a dialogue about suicide.[23] On one side was the impetuous St. Preux who said that just as men could with justice cast off their limbs if they were diseased, so could they dispense with their lives if they were bearing painful burdens. He added that since God gave people free will, he must also have given them the right to exercise it according to the following variation on the Golden Rule, “Do what is good for you and harmful to no one.” St. Preux’s English friend however, Edward Bomston countered that suicide contravened the Golden Rule because people had an obligation to preserve their lives in order to help others, especially their friends, families and the poor. The contours of the debate remain salient today and inevitably arise in discussions of the ethics of veganism.

Eating meat in the amounts most people do, is a form of self-harm, as well as dangerous to others for all the reasons outlined above. Meat eating may cause cardio-vascular disease, colorectal cancer, and type 2 diabetes.[24] (Whether consumption of small quantities of meat is compatible with good health is an unsettled question.) What is clear from recent research is that a vegan diet is better for our physical health than an omnivore diet/[25] And it is much healthier than a diet high in red or processed meat, such as steaks, bacon and hot dogs.

Veganism may also be better for our mental health. It has long been observed – from Greco-Roman antiquity to John Locke to current psychological researchers -- that indifference or cruelty to animals predicts human criminality and cruelty.[26] Lacking compassion for animals in other words, people lack compassion for themselves and other people. That’s why in early modern Europe, it was commonly held that butchers and surgeons should not serve on juries – they were too inured to pain and suffering.

 Sue Coe,  Butcher , 2005. Courtesy the artist.

Sue Coe, Butcher, 2005. Courtesy the artist.

Recently, research into what has been called “Carnism” – the belief that meat eating is good because it is an expression of human superiority over other creatures – has been strongly linked to racial, gender and other forms of intolerance and prejudice.[27]  Most meat eaters, to be sure, consume animals because they like the taste, have always done so, and think it is necessary for good health. But even among these people, there is reason to believe that the daily purchase, cooking and consumption of meat is brutalizing. Only by cultivating an attitude of nurturance and an ethics of reciprocity toward ourselves and all sentient beings can humans hope to create a just and sustainable world.


Taken together, these three ethical obligations – to animals, the environment and ourselves -- add up to a single moral imperative: reciprocity.  We should act toward others – humans, animals, and nature itself -- as we would want others to act toward us. And we must immediately begin to repair the metabolic rifts that threaten the future of human and animal life on earth: the carbon and hydrologic cycles and the crisis of biodiversity and extinction. All of this will require more than just good ethics; it will require effective politics. The economic and political forces of inertia are considerable and the risks of failure great. The power of neo-liberal capitalism and all its sins– economic inequality, privatization, financialization (an economy based on the exchange of monetary instruments), public austerity and militarism – make collective action both difficult and essential. But the adoption of a vegan diet accomplishes two things at once. It is a private act -- there are few things more intimate than putting food in our mouths -- and a public one. The growth of a broad, vegan movement will weaken the power of many powerful industries -- agricultural, chemical and petroleum -- as well as narrow the global rifts described here. Veganism is hardly the end of the struggle for animal rights, environmental justice and planetary restoration. It is however one action that people can take as individuals that will help us collectively. 

 Sue Coe,  Grass Roots , 2017. Courtesy the artist.

Sue Coe, Grass Roots, 2017. Courtesy the artist.

[1] See for example, George Monbiot, “I’m converting to veganism to reduce my impact on the living world,The Guardian, August 9, 2016.

[2] William J. Ripple and 15,364 others, “World Scientist’s Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice,” BioScience, Volume 67, Issue 12, 1 December 2017, pp. 1026–1028,, November 2017.

[3] The scholarship on animal consciousness is vast. See for example the now classis: Donald R. Griffin, Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition to Consciousness (Chicago and London, 2001). Also see my summary discussion in S.F. Eisenman, The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights, (London), 2014, pp. 26-32. The following, recent report, from a highly conservative source, is dispositive:  P. Le Neindre et al, “Animal consciousness,” European Food Safety Authority (supporting publication), 2017. Also see the fundamental “Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness,” 2012:

[4] See for example, Marc Bekoff, The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy and Why They Matter (Novato, CA, 2007).

[5] Jane Goodall, The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior (Boston, 1986); Frans de Waal, Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, (Cambridge, 1996); J. Panksepp, and L. Biven,The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion. New York, 2012); Marc Bekoff, The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age, (Boston, 2017).

[6] Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, (London, 1975).

[7] Victoria Braithewaite, Do Fish Feel Pain? (Oxford, 2010), Lynne Sneddon. Pain in Aquatic Animals. The Journal of Experimental Biology (JEB), 218, 2015, 967 - 976.

[8] Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights, (Berkeley, 1994).

[9] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844:

[10] See for example, Vasile Stanescu, “A Critical Engagement with Peter Singer’s Support of “Compassionate” and “Humane” Meat,” Animal Liberation Currents, Nov. 3, 2016:

[11] “By 2020, Male Chicks May Avoid Death By Grinder,” National Geographic, June 13, 2016,

[12] Karl Marx, Capital, vol. III. (New York, 1981), p. 949. See: John Bellamy Foster, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, (New York, 2011), passim.


[14] Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams, Creating an Ecological Society, (New York, 2017), pp. 75-125 and passim.

[15] Cf, John Bellamy Foster, “The Return of Engels,” Jacobin, Nov., 28, 2016: Engels has also been discussed in reference to recent, climate disasters such as Hurricane Harvey. See Louis Proyect, “Hurricane Harvey and the Dialectics of Nature,” Counterpunch, Sep. 1, 2017:

[16] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (New York1975), vol. 25, pp. 460–61.

[17] P.J., Gerber, et al, “Tackling climate change through livestock – A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities,” Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), Rome, 2013. For a slightly lower assessment of the impact of animal agriculture (based upon recent increases in non-farm emissions), see:  M. Herrero et al, “Greenhouse gas mitigation potentials in the livestock sector,” Nature Climate Change, no. 6, 2016, pp. 452-461. Also see: Rob Bailey, Antony Froggatt and Laura Wellesley, “Livestock: Climate Change’s Forgotten Sector,” Chatham House, 2014; and “Grazed and Confused,” a report by the Food Climate Research Network, 2017. A far larger figure of 51% (which included livestock animal respiration) was plausibly suggested by the World Watch Institute: Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, “Livestock and Climate Change,” World Watch, November-Deecember, 2009.

[18]  “Big Meat and Dairy’s Supersized Footprint,” a report of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Heinrich Boll Stiftung, 2017.

[19] Gregory L Britten et al, “Extended fisheries recovery timelines in a changing environment,” Nature Communications, 2017, 5/19.

[20] Brian Machovina, et al, “Biodiversity conservation: The key is reducing meat consumption,” Science of the Total Environment, 536, 2015, pp. 419-439.

[21] Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, (New York, 2014). Also see: Daniel H. Rothman, “Thresholds of catastrophe in the Earth system,” Science Advances 20, Vol. 3, no. 9, Sept., 2017.

[22] Caspar A. Hallmann et al, “More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas,” Plos 1, July 2017.

[23] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Julie, or the New Heloise: Letters of Two Lovers Who Live in a Small Town at the Foot of the Alps, in The Collected Writings of Rousseau, vol. 6, trans. Philip Steward and Jean Vaché, (Hanover and London,1997), pp. 310-323.


[25] Winston J. Craig, Health Effects of Vegan Diets, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2009,, M. Dinu, et al, Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies,” Critical Revue of Food, Science and Nutrition, 2017 Nov 22;vol. 57, no.17,pp. 3640-3649.

[26] Lilianw Bodson, “Attitudes toward Animals in Greco-Roman Antiquity,” International Journal for the Study of Animal Problems, vol. 4, no. 44, 1983, 312-320; John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, (London, 1777), pp. 170-172. Cynthia Hodges, “The Link: Cruelty to Animals and Violence Towards People,” Animal Legal & Historical Center, Michigan State University College of Law, 2008. Also see the following summary: The recent, tragic case of Nikolas Cruz, the shooter in Parkland Florida, exposes the link between abusing animals and killing people.

[27] Christopher A. Monteiro et al, “The Carnism Inventory: Measuring the ideology of eating animals,” Appetite, Vol. 113, June 1, 2017, pp. 51-62.