For me, a vegetarian diet is an important part of striving for nonviolence. Writing about this puts me in a vulnerable position, because the great majority of people do not share this belief, while it is very central in my life. Vegetarians can also make the impression of being moralistic; Thieme calls this the ‘accusation of moral superiority.’ However, the writer of the book I’m reading at the moment doesn’t think that is a problem. ‘The happy vegan’ is about veganism, not consuming animal products (meat, milk, eggs, leather, etc.). Van den Berg plainly states that vegans are morally superior to meat eaters in their diet choice:
The argument that meat-eaters would only eat meat in order not to feel morally superior over others is as crooked as “I have to hit my wife. Otherwise I am morally superior to those who don´t do that.” Vegans are an empathically sensitive vanguard.
[translated by me]
The way people treat animals is determined by the scope of their moral circle. The starting position is often that ethics is about people, because they have the ability to reason and discriminate between good and evil. For example, in the past women and black people were outside the moral circle, because they were not supposed to have reason or a soul. Women could not vote and you could do what you wanted with black people. For many people, animals now fall into this category. However, there is a strong case for taking the ability to suffer as the limit of the moral circle. This ability is biologically determined by the presence and complexity of the central nervous system. Plants don’t have this, for example, and with vertebrates it is very developed.
Just like voting rights for women and the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of animals is an example of moral progress, like Donald Watson, founder of the British Vegan Society, wrote:
We can see quite plainly that our present civilization is built on the exploitation of animals, just as past civilizations were built on the exploitation of slaves, and we believe the spiritual destiny of man is such that in time he will view with abhorrence the idea that men once fed on the products of animals’ bodies.
Not everyone who has moral status is also a moral actor. Babies and mentally handicapped cannot vote, but are included in morality. You could also place animals in this group. In any case, the way people deal with animals in Europe at the moment is not acceptable for me. The huge bio-industry that emerged after World War II treats animals as production units. Animal welfare measures always fall within the economic paradigm and do not touch the fundamental problem.
With this blog I have tried to give a short introduction to the ethics behind my conviction. The moral circle as I have described it is supported by a broad range of contemporary philosophers. It strikes me that vegetarianism is not limited to a single worldview. Floris van den Berg is a notorious atheist in the Netherlands. Adolf Hitler was a vegetarian. Examples like Gandhi and Marianne Thieme show that a vegetarian lifestyle is consistent with taking responsibility for creation and recognizing God in all living beings. To me it indicates that for anyone who thinks about it, animals occupy a serious place in the moral circle, a place that goes beyond their economic utility.
- Floris van den Berg, De vrolijke veganist: Ethiek in een veranderende wereld (2013)
- Donald Watson, The Vegan News, first issue (1944)