Eat Peas! Thinking About the Ethics of Veganism

world map made form  peasA recent article in the Guardian (that I read via a post about Buddhist Action Month) shares some new research about the environmental effects of meat and dairy farming compared to growing cereals and plants. The results are stark; “even the very lowest impact meat and dairy products still cause much more environmental harm than the least sustainable vegetable and cereal growing”. In short, growing peas has a comparably miniscule environmental impact compared to raising beef. And the opening words of the article sum up the implications: “Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.” So should we eat peas?

I decided to try being a ‘domestic vegan’ 18 months ago, following a hunch that it was time to give a predominantly plant-based diet a go. By ‘domestic’ I mean vegan at home, but not strictly outside. Previous attempts at veganism had been idealistic but short-lived, though overall I have maintained a mainly organic vegetarian diet for 32 years. This time round veganism is easier: it’s more popular, so there are more vegan dishes on offer in restaurants, and more vegan burgers in shop freezers. The invention of Oatly Barista means that vegan coffee drinking is actually pleasant. Still, as the narrator in Simon Amstell’s film on veganism, Carnage, jokes: “a breakthrough in the quality of nut cheeses” would really make a difference.

So I find myself wanting to encourage others to shift to a plant-based diet. As part of doing so, I’d like to present a way of thinking about the ethics of veganism, as it is important to pitch this appropriately. I will conclude that veganism is not an ethical obligation, but rather a reasonable consequence of valuing universal welfare.

From a Buddhist point of view, there is nothing wrong with eating meat. It is well known that the Buddha himself was not vegetarian. On occasions, I get offered cooked meat. If the alternative to my eating it is that the meat gets thrown away, I sometimes eat the meat. Buddhist ethics is based on the principle of not harming living beings, and having an attitude of kindness. What follows from that principle is that one should not act in such a way that animals are knowingly harmed. This precludes buying meat or choosing it on the menu. Vegetarians also avoid fish and seafood since these creatures are harmed by being caught.

Blacknose SheepBut what if the cow or chicken or salmon has been reared with care on an organic farm, and has been killed in a humane way? My brother has started breeding his own sheep for meat, on a very small scale. A lot of petting of happy lambs goes on. My feeling here is that eating carefully-sourced meat is much better than eating meat produced on big industrial farms which are indifferent to animal welfare. The maximisation of animal welfare should be an ethical priority. However, this leaves a residual ethical issue regarding what one might describe in terms of assenting to the intentional deprivation of life. No animal wants to die, but prefers to live and flourish in its own way, just like us. If there is an alternative to eating meat, is it right to kill an animal against its wish? However, the argument here is not straightforward, since domestic animals by definition come into existence by being useful to humans. One might therefore argue that it would be better if domestic animals did not exist. However, in terms of practical ethics, it is still good to maximise animal welfare, even if in theory it would be better still if animals reared to be eaten did not have to exist at all.

This way of thinking about Buddhist ethics does not directly entail veganism, though veganism is a way to contribute to animal welfare. A common argument for veganism among Buddhists has been an ethical perfectionism: that one ought not harm living beings, hence one ought to avoid eating meat and dairy. This argument does not convince me. Ethical perfectionism may be admirable, but the environmental impact, and hence harm to living beings, of human life on this planet is complex. I would rather understand Buddhist ethical perfectionism in terms of working on deep-rooted mental states, as well as on speech and action. Dietary perfectionism is too narrow.

To put it more practically, one of the things that has held me back from turning to a plant-based diet was uncertainty about whether it was any better to eat imported soya beans than local cheese. The environmental impacts on rain forest life are unknown, whereas the positive effects of local organic farming are tangible. My scepticism about dietary perfectionism, together with uncertainty about environmental impacts, meant I had insufficient reason to become vegan. However, the new research presented in the Guardian is completely unambiguous. The evidence is clear that it is would be much better for the planet for human beings to be vegan.

This shifts the ethical emphasis away from animal welfare, and towards the health and diversity of the whole natural world. The human population is heading inexorably towards 10 billion, every one of us wanting to be well-fed. There is a corresponding pressure on land-use entailing environmental changes that are mostly detrimental to biodiversity. With this, the consequences of our continuing to eat meat and dairy will be the impoverishment and degradation of non-human habitats.

The ethical argument for becoming vegan that follows from this perspective is not based on dietary perfectionism, nor even from an ethical obligation not to harm living beings. It is simply an appeal to the welfare of all beings. The welfare and flourishing of the whole planet is good in itself. Human actions that diminish this welfare will harm humans too, for we exist as part of the living whole. From this positive appeal to universal welfare some simple practical reasoning follows. If we believe that human activities are responsible for global warming and environmental change (for which there is plenty of evidence), and if we value the earth’s biodiversity and flourishing (essential for our long-term welfare), then it is reasonable to shift to a plant-based diet, and we ought to do so. Whatever changes we make to our diets, away from meat and dairy, will be good ones to make.

It could be tempting to turn this into a Buddhist ethical argument. Since it is wrong to harm living beings, but right to practice kindness and compassion, then the wholesome or ethically skilful course of action, based on what we now know about the effects of farming practices, is to choose and to promote a vegan diet. But I don’t find it personally helpful to relate to food in terms of right and wrong. I would prefer to promote the positive value of universal welfare, and to invoke the ideal of the bodhisattva, who seeks the well-being of all. From these positive commitments, together with new evidence regarding farming, the practical conclusion rationally follows: “Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.” Eat peas!

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4 thoughts on “Eat Peas! Thinking About the Ethics of Veganism

  1. Many thanks for this post.
    I think it’s also worth noting that we’ve largely replaced the world’s wild mammal populations with populations of domestic mammals. Birds too, to a less extent. Most (or all?) studies suggest domestic animals are less intelligent than wild ones. I think it’s also clear domestic animals are often less able to fend for themselves, more likely to let themselves be controlled by humans, and simply have much less vitality. Next time you’re in the countryside and see some genuinely wild deer, compare how alive they seem to their relatives sheep and cattle, which you can probably see nearby. In other words, we’ve largely turned the animal kingdom into a kingdom of dumbed-down, despirited creatures. I do not like this and see this as another reason for being vegan. Because a vegan human population would need a lot less land to produce food, there would be space for more wilderness in which wild animal populations could, to an extent at least, recover.

  2. Thanks James. Yes, that’s a real concern for me too, that with the growing human population there is still room for wild animals. Obvious really, but it is going to need commitment and effort for it to happen, given the pressures. Hope to see you at Buddhafield…

    • Sadly won’t be at Buddhafield this year. I wish you great weather, great connections and conversations, great vegan food and well-behaved study group participants

  3. Just to add a further comment here in regard to the discusion with James Blake – perhaps again one could argue that your point of view James is simply a subjective one, based on a dislike of agriculture and animal husbandry (which of course is your perogative, but not necessarily anything more than a personal opinion, over-romanticising the countryside).

    It is of course true that domesticated farm animals have been selectively bread for their docility, precisley to make them more manageable. But that hasn’t stopped humans quite genuinely admiring these animals for their inate qualities, say, for example the way that prize bulls are paraded infront of the admiring crouds at agricultural shows!

    On the other side of the coin some animals have been precisley bread to enhance their intellegence – an example here would be sheep dogs. In fact there is an argument that has some validity, that suggest that it might be cruel to keep border collies as urban pets, as they are so full of life and so intellegent that an urban envirionment just simply makes them bored and frusrated; uless their owner can provide them with the open fields where they can work the the sheep herds in conjunction with their masters!

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