Cows ethics

For De vrolijke veganistme, 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)