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Vegetarianism is the purposeful exclusion of meat from a person's diet. I have never been a vegetarian, and, having developed a love of meat from growing up in a meat-eating family, I probably never will. I have tried various forms of partial-vegetarianism, but since I don't care much for vegetarian meat substitutes, fish, or eggs, it's particularly difficult.

Despite not being a vegetarian, I have to admit that vegetarianism is morally superior to a diet with meat, and I think I can effectively argue my case even among some of the more exotic ethical systems.


P1: It's immoral to purposely kill an intelligent being that doesn't want to be killed (without a sufficient reason).
P2: The more intelligent a being is, the more it is injured by being killed, and the more immoral the killing.
P3: The reasons given for purposely killing a being for food are rarely sufficient.
C1: Therefore, it is usually immoral to kill a being for food.

I'll first elaborate on each premise, then discuss common objections below.

P1: It's immoral to purposely kill a being that doesn't want to be killed (without a sufficient reason).

For every ethical system I've encountered, this is an accurate statement. It is the basis for murder laws, animal cruelty laws, and so forth. Everyone I've ever met would agree that killing a human just for fun is immoral, and, as far as I know, they would also agree that killing an intelligent animal for fun is also immoral. Most people I know would even say that killing unintelligent animals for fun is immoral, though this becomes a gray area. Obviously, there is some wiggle room with the "sufficient reason" clause, which I discuss in the Objections section.

P2: The more intelligent a being is, the more it is injured by being killed, and the more immoral the killing.

Immorality of Killing an Intelligent Being.

This is probably the most important premise of my argument. People generally tend to accept this at face value, for example, they feel far worse about the killing of a dog than the killing of an ant, however, I think it's important to understand why this is true, as it gets to the heart of the question, "why is murder wrong?" In general, the more intelligent a being is, the more they have to lose from being killed. The large brain of a human affords them desires, goals, dreams, etc., all of which are subverted when they're killed. An ant, however, doesn't appear to have these things. Likewise, when an ant is killed, its fellow ants don't appear to be bothered by its death, but, when a human is killed, all their loved ones suffer as well. These cases are on extreme ends of the spectrum, but we can see how a chimpanzee has less to lose than a human, a chicken has less to lose than an chimpanzee, and so forth. We may disagree on the actual level of "loss" and "injury" for each animal, but the fact that it exists is all that matters to prove this premise.

P3: The reasons given for purposely killing a being for food are rarely sufficient.

I'll address the reasons in the "Objections" section below.

C1: Therefore, it is usually immoral to kill a being for food.

This conclusion follows if the three premises are true. Note that this argument doesn't attempt to address the logistics of vegetarianism or every conceivable act of killing an animal for food. Instead, it aims to show that a not killing animals for food is morally superior to killing animals for food.


Here I deal with objections to my argument as well as common objections to vegetarianism in general.

We can kill animals humanely.

While I agree that painless killing is better than painful killing, it doesn't change the fact that the being didn't want to be killed in the first place. A person who is murdered in their sleep may not have felt any pain, but they were injured in other ways, they still wanted to be alive. Such a desire to live is also found in non-human animals, and while it may be difficult to demonstrate with an insect, it's quite clear with a chimpanzee.

Animals aren't intelligent enough to care about death.

We must first answer the question, what does it mean to be intelligent enough to care about death? We know some animals make and reuse tools, solve multi-variable puzzles, and identify themselves in a mirror. Zoologists even have shown, pretty convincingly, that the more intelligent an animal is, the more signs of distress they show when an animal in their group is killed, and the more likely they are to risk their own life rescuing another in their group.

When asked the question, "Does the animal want to be killed?" we can safely answer "no," since all animals, even the less-intelligent ones, actively work to preserve their own life. And, while this seems purely instinctual in animals with less intelligence, it seems to be more of a conscious choice as the animal becomes more intelligent, and self-evident when we get to the level of humans.

With our current understanding of neurology, we'd have to admit that any line drawn for when an animal becomes intelligent enough to care about death would be arbitrary. This doesn't mean that we can't say definitely whether some animals can or can't understand death, but it does favor a gradient as described in premise 2.

Killing an animal for food is a sufficient reason.

I've never met anyone who would argue that it's okay to kill a human who doesn't want to be killed for food when alternatives are available, but there are many who justify killing all animals with intelligence less than our own. They're drawing a line on the chart above and saying, "it's only immoral to kill anything above this line." I understand wanting a binary simplification, but such a line is drawn arbitrarily and doesn't address premise 2: the more intelligent a being is, the more it will be injured by being killed, and therefore, the more immoral it is to kill it. Regardless of where you draw the line, unless you can defeat premise 2, you're still choosing between two immoral options, and thus, acting immorally.

Animals kill other animals, it's just a fact of nature.

As animals become more intelligent, they also develop cultural standards of morality. While this isn't measurable in lesser intelligent animals like beetles, it is with very intelligent animals like dolphins and bonobos. They have societal rules against killing fellow group members, stealing from them, etc. This appears to be because their greater intelligence allows them to not only understand the downside of such chaotic behavior, but also because they begin to feel empathy. Like with the chart above, as an animal becomes more intelligent, they also need to be judged by a higher standard. Humans, being especially intelligent and empathetic, should be judged by the highest standard, not just because we truly understand the harm we're causing, but because we're intelligent enough to avoid it. A lion may be excused because, while they may understand that they're causing an antelope harm, they don't have the ability to create farms as a replacement food source.

It's not immoral to kill animals because humans have superior X.

In this case, X can be all sort of things: intelligence, strength, speed, etc. Regardless of what X is, if you reframe the argument to include humans who lack X, does eating humans suddenly become moral? Would it be okay to eat a human who wasn't smart, or really slow, or weak?

It's not immoral to kill an animal for food if you're starving.

First, ask yourself, "If I'm starving, is it immoral to kill another human who doesn't want to be killed and eat them?" Even if you might still do it, it's still immoral, but perhaps not as immoral to kill and eat them if you weren't starving. In that same light, it's still immoral to kill a cow for food, even if you're starving, but perhaps not as immoral as if you have other food options. Also, in the developed world, people are rarely starving, and, even when they are, they rarely only have meat as a food option, and, if they do, it's probably due to a lack of foresight on their behalf.

I don't personally kill the animal, therefore I'm not immoral.

This is like saying, I hired a hitman to commit murder for me, therefore I'm innocent. By buying animals that were killed for food, you're culpable because you've created the market. Think of this on a smaller scale; imagine everyone on the planet is a vegetarian so nobody would kill an animal for food. But then, someone decides they want to eat meat, but they don't want to kill animals themselves, so they hire someone else to do it for them. Even though they aren't personally killing the animals, they are the sole reason the animals are killed. You could scale this up and say that five people hire someone to kill an animal for them to eat, and it's no longer a single person who's responsible, but five people who bear the burden. Scale it up to millions, and it's hard to see how any one person is culpable, but there is a shared culpability. Perhaps having someone else kill an animal for your food is less immoral than killing an animal yourself, but it's still more immoral than not having the animal killed in the first place.

Eating meat is healthier / Vegetarianism doesn't give proper nutrients / Etc.

We know that that there are millions of vegetarians world wide who have shown that humans can, fairly easily, thrive on a diet devoid of meat. However, even if a meat-rich diet were healthier, the argument doesn't address the morality of killing a being for food. If it were healthier to eat humans, we wouldn't stop caring about murder.

Sometimes you have to kill an animal in self-defense.

I agree. An animal's disposition is often difficult to gauge, and sometimes people are required to kill them in order to preserve their own life. I don't have a moral problem with eating an animal that was killed in self-defense. However, animals rarely attack humans unprovoked. It is usually the fault of the human for knowingly invading the animal's space and causing it to become violent.

Everybody kills animals, even vegans eat crops harvested by mechanical means which kills animals.

This is true. You could also add in the animals hit by cars by the trucks that deliver the crops, etc. However, I'm not claiming that vegetarians or vegans are blameless, I'm claiming that people who deliberately kill animals for food are less-moral than those who do not. To use an analogy, even though both would be guilty of theft, a woman who robs a bank to buy a mansion is less-moral than a woman who steals bread to feed her starving family.

Meat just tastes delicious.

I totally agree, but it doesn't address the morality of the issue. If human flesh tasted delicious, we wouldn't stop caring about murder.

My god gave humans animals to kill for food.

Before such an argument can be properly addressed you should be able to properly define your god and demonstrate how you know it created animals for human consumption. But, even if we assume this to be true, most religious people I know still behave as though purposely killing an intelligent being that doesn't want to be killed is immoral. They just turn a blind eye when it's for their own food.


I'm interested to hear your opinion on this. If you disagree or think I could have stated something better, feel free to contact me.