Abolition of Meat
In Animal (De)liberation: Should the Consumption of Animal Products Be Banned? Jan Deckers makes a convincing argument for qualified moral veganism. Qualified means that it “does not demand that human beings abstain from eating animal products in all situations” (p. 99). In most societies where plant-based food is readily available, vegan diets should be adopted because consumption of animal products undermines human health and undermines the health of vegans because animal agriculture has a tremendously negative impact upon the environment (p. 108).
The writing is clear and engaging. This book can be useful to three different groups: meat eaters can benefit from Deckers’ detailed first-hand experience on factory farms to help them think about the negative global impacts that animal agriculture causes; second, physicians who currently recommend their patients animal products for good health; third, as a college text since it discusses some ethical theories, environmental, and nutrition science.
In my view, Animal (De)liberation has not received the attention that it deserves. This is rather unfortunate because it shows convincingly that human health, holistically conceived, must take center stage in animal ethics. Contrary to most work in this field, Deckers’ concern with human health leads him to embrace animalism, an extension of speciesism, which encompasses both a bias in favor of animals and a bias against eating them (p. 10). By showing that vegan ethics must be grounded in a concern with human health in order to be robust, Deckers advances animal ethics significantly. Whilst he makes the valiant point that his discussion may or may not convince people to go vegan, in the meantime, animal agriculture undermines human health and is rapidly destroying our environment. Thus, it is now time to make truly radical changes and consider ways to legally ban the consumption of animal products.
In the opening chapter, Deckers suggests that human rights should include healthcare. Consequently, it is of utmost importance that the food that humans eat should be conducive to good health and respect for the environment. In the early chapter, Deckers shows how the consumption of animal products jeopardizes the human right to healthcare unjustifiably and how diets can change when this is the case. Also, there is a detailed discussion of the negative impact of zoonotic diseases on the health of those who do not consume animal products; and most importantly, Deckers discusses how natural resources can be used more efficiently if we grow food for human consumption. First of all, as the world population is growing, demand for animal products is also growing. To satisfy this demand, more animals must be brought into existence. More animals means using more natural resources, such as water, fossil fuels, food, and more. Second, confinement of these animals leads to infectious diseases that are spread farther and farther as animals are transported around the world.
To fight diseases, the farm animals’ sector uses drugs, such as antibiotics, to prevent diseases. Globally, half of the antibiotics that are produced are used to prevent diseases. This promotes drug-resistant strains of bacteria. Not to mention that these drugs are consumed by the animals and end up not only in the bodies of those who will eat the animals, thus compromising their health, but also in the soil and the waters and polluting them. Speaking of diseases, vector-borne diseases are caused by infections transmitted to people by insects. Such diseases are caused and became more severe as a result of the environmental changes that resulted from the practices of animal agriculture, such as deforestation and reduction of biodiversity. Deckers gives the example of the forest clearance in the early 1960s in Bolivia that led to a viral fever known as Machupo (p. 20). He also discusses the spread of HIV, influenza, and the Nipah virus. Bottom line, those who consume animal products contribute more to the emergence of zoonotic diseases that cause illness and kill people and animals than those who consume plant-based diets (p. 22).
Another problem is that the farm animals sector uses too much agricultural land, since 70-75% of earth’s arable land is used to grow food to feed animals. In North America and Europe only 40% of arable land is used to grow food for humans (p. 23). Using land to feed animals is highly inefficient. Vegetarian diets generally require five times less arable land than meat-based diets. Consequently, meat-based diets contribute more to land use and degradation than plant-based diets.
Farmers apply phosphorus fertilizers to supplement the low quantities available in the soil. In many cases this has led to the buildup of phosphorus in the soil, and in turn the potential for phosphorus to become soluble. Dissolved phosphorus is transported from farms to lakes, rivers, and streams causing excessive aquatic plant growth, such as eutrophication. Decomposition of algae leads to hypoxia in rivers and seas, which causes suffocation of aquatic ecosystems. Eutrophication also generates Pfiesteria Piscicida, literally a group of fish-killer eukaryotes. Animal farming uses more fresh water than any other sector. It also pollutes more water than any other sector. Furthermore, farmers use fertilizers and pesticides that cause the formation of nitrates that leak into the groundwater resulting in negative health effects. Farmers in the USA use recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBTS), hormones that pollute waters. Consider that half of the fish that humans consume are produced in aquacultures systems.
The points are (a) we could feed more people by using the same amount of plant protein that is now required to feed the animals; (b) with animal farming out of the picture, we could use less arable land in a more sustainable way; and (c) animal agriculture degrades more land and has a more negative impact upon the environment than any other agricultural sector (pp. 24-25). Vegan diets, on the other hand, are shown to be more efficient than any other diets. They consume less water and reduce water pollution. Animal farming is a leading cause of climate change as a result of greenhouse gas emissions.
Deckers formerly worked on a farm and so shares his first-hand experience of the practices. Such practices can be described as cutthroat, profit-driven, callous, absurd, revolting, and more. There is nothing remotely fair, just, compassionate – nothing noble, nothing that evinces good intention or good human character – with such practices. If the practices described in this chapter won’t make the reader decide to become a vegan, I do not know what will, at least in my opinion. Consider that most societies have the fortune to have an abundance of fresh fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, and more. Yet, people demand animal flesh irrespective of the suffering of animals and the negative environmental impacts of animal farming.
Although there is a general agreement that farm animals are sentient beings, some dispute this fact. Clare Palmer (2010) thinks that many organisms may only be capable of “unconscious responses to pain” (pp. 14, 18). Her argument is that “research on human fetuses indicates withdrawal reflexes before the development of the thalamo-cortical circuits associated with pain perception” (p. 12). But what if a fetus feels pain before the development of the thalamo-cortical circuits associated with pain perception? Murray (2008) argues that organisms exhibit pain behavior when exposed to pain-inducing stimuli. Animals with a more neurologically complex structure experience first order pain, that is, they feel pain, but are not aware that they are feeling pain. Only humans, and perhaps other primates, experience second order pain, which is awareness of suffering, i.e., they know, anticipate, and reflect upon their pain experience.
Deckers does not find commonly made cognitive distinctions or distinctions made on the basis of organisms’ interests in the avoidance of pain convincing. He argues that inflicting pain on sentient organisms should be avoided in many situations, but not all. Deckers suggests that sentience does not stop at farm animals, but continues down to clams, insects, plants, and even bacteria – a position to which he refers as “pan-sentientism” (p. 70). Deckers addresses the issue as follows. First, Deckers points out that most philosophers are wrong in asserting that only certain animals have an interest to continue their existence. All organisms have been “designed” by nature to have an interest in continuing to exist. Whether the organism can say or think to itself, “I want to continue to exist,” is ultimately unimportant from a moral point of view. However, we have to eat, and everything that we eat is sentient, though in different degrees. Thus, a morally acceptable diet must take into account that animals like pigs, chickens, and cows, are not human food, except in extreme or particular circumstances. This is grounded in the notion that while all living organisms are related, we are more closely related to animals than to plants. This notion Deckers calls animalism, that is, we should attribute more moral significance to animals than to other organisms because we are more closely related to animals biologically (pp. 85, 99). In other words, Deckers argues that we are morally justified in eating plants but not justified in eating animal products. Therefore, in most cases we ought to adopt qualified moral veganism, not on the basis of reducing animal suffering, but on the ground that consuming animal bodies undermines human health (p. 103).
Despite these considerations, some meat eaters and vegetarians may remain unconvinced about the moral necessity to adopt veganism. However, having documented the negative impacts of animal-based diets upon the environment and human health, it is clear that diet is not a matter of taste or personal preference. Something must be done to move in the direction of qualified moral veganism. Thus, in chapter three, Deckers offers a valiant answer to this problem, and that is, the political project that includes “political and legislative reforms to reduce the likelihood that people will not fulfill their duties when they make choices about what to eat” (p. 107). In other words, to ensure a human right to healthcare, the next step is to ban the consumption of animal products. This is of course a gargantuan difficulty in light of the fact that our society is animal-product-centered. We have been disciplined by society that consuming animal products is the norm, and that being vegetarians or vegans is a radical position. It is not difficult to understand why – blueberries don’t generate money, meat does!
In spite of many social and political obstacles, Deckers suggests three strategies to move governments and people to promote and eventually adopt qualified moral veganism. The first option is to educate people about moral veganism. This may be accomplished by promoting educational initiatives to encourage discussions on the negative effects resulting from consumption of animal products and the benefits of qualified moral veganism. In my own work (Alvaro 2017; 2019) I suggest educating children from a young age through clear information in the form of lectures, videos, and more, on the impacts of animal agriculture; moral education emphasizing virtuous actions; and vegan food preparation and nutrition. The second strategy is to increase the costs of animal products; and the third is to implement a qualified ban on the consumption of animal products, qualified in the sense that it would not apply to all people in all circumstances. The remainder of chapter three is dedicated to addressing three challenges to the vegan project.
The first objection is that people are not ready to go vegan, and consequently it is pointless to pursue a ban. Deckers shows that in fact it is quite the opposite. There is evidence that people are ready to make changes. Anecdotally, the recent interest in veganism may be observed. Non-philosophers have become more and more interested in veganism because they understand that animal agriculture contributes to the degradation of the environment; that eating more fruit and vegetables is more conducive to good health, which is a no-brainer that somehow has been contested, not surprisingly, by the meat industry; and that meat-based diets require the unjustified infliction of pain to farm animals. The second objection is that the vegan project seems to undermine human food security. This worry seems groundless especially considering that a vegan scenario would release more arable land that would allow biodiversity and a greater abundance of plant-based food. Furthermore, veganism would lead to growing a wider range of vegetables and fruits than what is available today. The third objection is that the vegan project may alienate human beings from nature. In my view, this is quite an extravagant worry. First, there are many human endeavors that have alienated us from nature. I am reminded of that every time I go to work on an overcrowded train where every single person stares at his or her cellphone holding a cup of coffee in the other hand. It is hard to see how the perpetuation of factory farming and killing animals will bring us closer to nature.
In chapter four, Deckers discusses what other people think and have to say about qualified moral veganism. This discussion includes a number of views of academics as well as non-philosophers, including slaughterhouse workers. Deckers argues that qualified moral veganism “stands firm in light of the various problems that beset other positions” (p. 156). Here he reiterates that more people than we think understand the moral importance of the vegan project and are willing to make changes. Deckers ends the book with an appendix that addresses the unjustified fear of many people that vegan diets may not be nutritionally adequate. I find this issue very interesting because most people know little about nutrition in general. Meat eaters do not research to find out if their particular diet is nutritionally adequate. By the same token, without research people who are interested in adopting a vegan diet cannot possibly know that it is possible to thrive on vegan diets. To address the question of the adequacy of vegan diets and conclude this review, I wish to make two points: one is that there is a massive body of ever-growing scientific evidence showing that vegan diets are more healthful than meat-based diets, and that vegan diets can prevent and reverse certain diseases. Thanks to the Internet, nowadays it is quite easy to learn this information. Second, considering that we live in a carnist society, and considering that the meat industry and many meat eaters try to discredit veganism at any possible occasion, were vegan diets nutritionally deficient, by now we would know about people becoming ill or dying as a result of vegan diets. Anecdotal or not, the fact is that millions of people, including scholars, athletes, construction workers, children, housewives, young and elderly, truck drivers, and more have been strictly vegans and thriving for decades. After all, it is said that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, not that a steak a day would do so.
Alvaro, C. (2017). “Ethical Veganism, Virtue, and Greatness of the Soul.” Journal of
Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 30 (6):765-781 (2017).
Alvaro, C. (2019). Ethical Veganism, Virtue Ethics, and the Great Soul.
Deckers J. (2016). Animal (De)liberation: Should the Consumption of Animal Products
Be Banned. London: Ubiquity Press.
Murray, M. (2008). Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal
Suffering. Oxford University Press.
Palmer, C. (2010). Animal Ethics in Context. New York: Columbia University Press.
- CARLO ALVARO is a moral philosopher and the author of Ethical Veganism, Virtue Ethics, and the Great Soul
copyright©2019 by Carlo Alvaro – All Rights Reserved