An Appeal to Reason

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An Appeal to Reason

Arguments for veganism frequently get polluted with spirituality, pseudoscience and misinformation. If you’re already vegan, I hope this article gives you further insight into the logical support for veganism and helps you to bolster your reasoning. If you’re not vegan you’ll find the following is largely addressed to you.

Many pro-vegan websites and blogs attempt appeals to emotion to spread their message, sometimes presenting shocking videos of animal abuse. Appealing to emotion can facilitate empathy and understanding in some, but it’s not without its flaws. Like myself, many will avoid watching these videos altogether to spare themselves the distress. Others will claim that specific examples of abuse are the exception and not the rule, and in some cases, I will agree. Finally, some will respond with complete indifference because they do not consider non-human animals as members of the moral community. For these reasons I would rather appeal to your intelligence.

You probably consider yourself a reasonable person. I have no reason to doubt this assumption. Thanks to our disproportionately large frontal lobes, our ability to reason is one of the traits that sets us apart from other animals. To briefly clarify before I continue: to reason, in the context I am referring, is to think, understand, and form judgements logically. Logic can be described as valid reasoning. Simply put, to form a logically valid conclusion, one starts with one or more premises to reach a logical deduction. This process is called deductive reasoning. For example:

  1. John is a pilot
  2. All pilots are human
  3. Therefore, John is human

Note that if the premise is false or any conclusion does not logically follow, then the argument is rendered invalid:

  1. All pilots are human
  2. John is human
  3. Therefore, John is a pilot.

In the above example, the first and second statements are true, but the third does not logically follow because it makes the error of assuming that John is a pilot because all pilots are human. We, of course, know that there are many humans who are not pilots. Even if John were a pilot, the second premise does not justify the conclusion, rendering the logic of the argument unsound.

Premise One: Sentient animals matter morally

For a being to matter morally it must have interests and some awareness of those interests. For example, you probably have an interest in not suffering*. In other words, if I were to cause you needless suffering, my actions would be at odds with your interests. Since you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you also have an awareness of your interests, and therefore you matter morally.

Sentience is ubiquitous among most vertebrates and even some invertebrates*. Sentience is the capacity to feel, think or experience subjectively. Sentience is distinct from self-awareness, which is observed largely in humans, and is generally described as the ability for one to introspect and view oneself as an individual. In essence, sentience is the ability to experience subjective awareness, while self-awareness is the understanding of that awareness. In other words, the difference between thinking, and thinking about thinking.

There is significant variance in animal cognition. Some great apes, as well as dolphins, elephants* and magpies*, have, to varying degrees, demonstrated the capacity for self-awareness. It’s debatable whether many other animals share this experience. Intriguingly, one might posit that we see our pets as individuals more than they themselves do.

We consider animals like cats and dogs, who may not be self aware, to be individuals, and we recognise their interests and desires. This demonstrates that sentience, rather than self-awareness, forms the basis of an individual’s interests, and that beings with interests are those that we consider to matter morally. We understand dogs and cats have their own subjective awareness and likely experience a spectrum of emotion* from happiness to anxiety*. For this reason, we prefer not merely to spare them from suffering, but strive to promote their happiness. We intuitively understand that even without self-awareness, our pets are still sentient, and consequently, we include them in our moral community.

It is as palpable as it is inescapable: sentience demands moral consideration. It makes little sense to discriminate arbitrarily, which is precisely what we do when we shift some animals away from the moral realm in order to justify continued exploitation. Animals such as cows, pigs, chickens, horses and sheep, are sentient in the same way our dogs and cats are, and thus, must have some intrinsic moral value. They might not see themselves as individuals in the complex way that we do, but they are nevertheless capable of experiencing pain, harm and suffering, and, by virtue of this fact, they have an interest in avoiding these negative experiences.

Premise Two: It is wrong to cause unnecessary harm or suffering to sentient creatures, or to deprive them of happiness

Without delving into a lengthy discussion on necessity, we can instead agree on what is not necessary: doing things for reasons of taste, convenience or habit. It’s these three factors that largely drive the animal agriculture industry in developed countries. We have no inherent requirement for animal products and we are perfectly capable of thriving happily and healthily on a plant-based diet*. There’s a significant body of evidence for this, but the American Dietetic Association sums it up most succinctly:

It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.*

Given the fact that the consumption of animals and their by-products is unnecessary for health, it follows then that the killing and consumption of animals is largely carried out to satisfy our trivial interests. Despite this, we continue to exploit animals by breeding and slaughtering them by the billions*.

(As an aside, according the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, livestock are responsible for at least 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than all our transport combined. This figure includes 37% of anthropogenic methane release, which has at least 23 times the global warming potential as CO2. This damage is expected to double by the year 2050*. This environmental degradation affects not only humans, but all sentient life on the planet.)

Even if we consider morality to be entirely subjective, most of us will still agree on core principles. For example, we consider benign happiness a good thing, and gratuitous suffering a bad thing. At the very least, we can agree that the latter is much worse than the former, and in doing so we may declare that causing needless harm to sentient beings — including depriving them of happiness and liberty, while causing any degree of suffering — can only be a bad thing.

Premise Three: Killing an animal, with or without pain, always causes harm and always deprives them of happiness

Unless it is euthanasia, killing a sentient animal always robs them of the potential for experiencing future happiness. Moreover, the way we currently treat animals tends to deprive them of their present happiness as well. Furthermore, this involves physical harm and emotional distress to the victims. Depriving a being of happiness in the present as well as depriving them of any potential happiness for no good reason can never be reasonably justified — let alone humane.

If, as some believe, killing an animal without good reason does not qualify as harm, why is it considered harmful when inflicted upon a human animal? Suppose I take a gun to the street one day and shoot a pedestrian at random in the back of her head. Someone who, until this moment, lived a happy life with no knowledge of her impending doom. Suppose for concision that she has no family or loved ones to grieve for her. A happy person murdered, no fear, no pain, no grief. Every sane person will agree that this is still morally egregious. The heartless premeditation alone would warrant sufficient outrage. There is no morally significant difference between this fictitious human and any of the billions of sentient non-human animals slaughtered every year, who arguably suffer a fate far worse. Both have the mental capacity to experience states such as wellbeing and suffering, and both would choose to escape slaughter rather than succumb to it.

One could argue that in the above example it is more immoral to kill the human because her superior cognition gives her the ability to reflect on the past and ponder the future. Thus, it’s assumed, depriving her of her future experiences is worse than doing the same to an animal who may experience awareness solely in the present. You might assume that this eternal present means the animal has no interest in a continued existence, and therefore, killing the animal may be of no harm.

Consider cases of anterograde amnesia in humans, such as Henry Molaison, or H.M., as he was known to psychologists and neuroscientists. Molaison had part of his brain removed in an attempt to cure his epilepsy which resulted in him losing the ability to form new memories, as well as leaving him unable to retrieve some older memories. His sense of awareness was restricted to that of his working memory—about 30 seconds—and existed only insofar as he maintained his thoughts. Once his train of thought was derailed, his memories vanished from consciousness, never to be retrieved again*. Henry Molaison lived in a state that was decidedly more present than many animals. He was unable to use current information to form new memories and associations—such as a dog associating a new toy with excitement—however, as Suzanne Corkin has elucidated in her book, Permanent Present Tense*, Molaison’s life was still immensely valuable. She describes him as intelligent, quiet, remarkably good-humoured, and always happy to see her. Although he existed entirely in the present and was unable to contemplate his own future for more than a few seconds at a time, he still valued his own life and others considered him morally valuable.

Even if we give more consideration to humans and less consideration to animals, and thus conclude that it is more morally problematic to kill humans, it does not logically follow that the killing of animals is in any way justified by this inequality. Just because one thing may be deemed wrong, does not imply the other is good. In fact, when we consider the similarities we have with animals, such as sentience and the ability to experience suffering and pain, it should render the repercussions of their needless killing at least qualitatively similar.

Veganism is the logical conclusion

Veganism is defined by the Vegan Society as:

A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose*

If you accept my previous premises

  1. Sentient animals matter morally
  2. It is wrong to cause unnecessary harm or suffering
  3. Killing a sentient animal (except in cases of euthanasia) always causes harm

Then adopting a way of living that seeks to avoid harming animals is a logical choice.

If we are able to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything significant, it seems wrong not to do so. If animals matter morally, as I hope we all agree by now they do, it’s vital that we consider their interests seriously. No being who is worth moral consideration should be needlessly harmed, killed or exploited. The idea that such treatment is justified runs contrary to both our reason and intuition. When we concede that a being matters morally, we should feel morally obliged to spare them needless harm.

I once believed that people were simply averse to the discussion of the unethical industries we support, but I feel now that this was a naive assumption. I suspect it is not so much the dose of reality that upsets others—people tend to welcome knowledge—but the tacit implication that we all have choices and thus may elect to withdraw our support from practices to which we’re morally opposed. But for various reasons, find ourselves reluctant to do so. Taste, habit and convenience largely influence our actions and many of us feel overwhelmed at making a change that feels so at odds with our current behaviours. Even when we know it is the right thing to do.

My arguments might not have stifled your ambivalence, but I hope I have convinced you that choosing to be vegan is the right thing to do. You have the power to make a choice that not only rejects violence, but aligns your actions with your beliefs; that recognises and protects the most fundamental interests of sentient animals. Perhaps the most compelling reason to be vegan is the fact that we have countless good reasons to make the change, and no good reason not to. Be reasonable, be vegan.

Chris McMullen is a vegan activist, chef and fitness enthusiast. He is a stout rationalist, and at times, a sentimental dreamer. He avoids small-talk, but thrives on deep conversations that carry late into the night. Residing in a small coastal town in the south-west of Australia, Chris enjoys reading, writing, hiking and exploring. Topics of interest include neuroscience, sociology, philosophy and biology.

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