I’ve been a vegan for just over six years. I was a vegetarian for about a month before then, celebrating my last meal as a meat eater with a double cheeseburger, extra bacon. Initially, my primary reason was an extreme devotion to animal welfare. Being raised Quaker, I’ve always had a strong sense of equality, and I saw no reason not to extend that appreciation to all sentient beings. I felt, and still do, that our treatment of animals is a cruel and unnecessary luxury.
I saw a vegetarian diet as different from an omnivorous one in degree, not kind, so my transition from vegetarian to vegan was a way of easing myself into a radical change in diet. I saw being vegan as the compassionate choice, at least for me. I no longer felt good eating animal products, so I stopped.
I’ve had numerous conversations with intelligent people who choose to eat many different combinations of foods, and although I’m still vegan, my perspective has changed in a number of ways:
I no longer believe that animals are equal to humans. When I first became a vegan, I felt like my Quaker belief in equality should easily and naturally be extended to include all sentient beings. I felt bad when I squished bugs.
I no longer feel this way, and I don’t know whether I ever was truly committed. Following true species equality logic, if I were stranded on a desert island I would sooner starve than hunt or fish. That doesn’t sounds realistic. Nowadays, I do believe in a hierarchy of animals. The life of an ant doesn’t carry the same weight as that of a dog, or even a chicken. Human lives are more important to me than other animals. I can’t back this perspective change up with logic, except that I am ok with valuing my life over the life of other beings.
My main philosophical concerns with the meat industry have changed in order of priorities. When I became a vegan, my biggest beef with meat was that animals were being killed. I’d seen slaughterhouse videos, and the killing process was one of a very few things that I labeled as truly evil. My main problem with dairy and eggs was that eventually those animals too would be killed in a cruel and gruesome fashion. I was aware that the lives of the animals were horrible in their own way, but I was most morally outraged with the needless death. The environmental concern was a distant third. I was dimly aware of the ramifications of factory farming in terms of air quality and methane emissions, but didn’t give the issue too much thought.
Today those concerns have flipped almost completely around. Animals in the US produce approximately 130 times the amount of feces that humans do, but have no realistic infrastructure for waste disposal. The shit itself is a hazard, in that it can seep into rivers and streams, polluting drinking water. Ruminate livestock (cows) alone produce 20% of the total methane released annually within the US . Methane, by the way is estimated to be more than 20 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2 emissions. In Eating Animals Jonathan Safran Foer makes a compelling argument that factory farms are the number one source of global warming. I’ve seen arguments both for and against this view, but the fact that it is even debatable makes me not want to have anything to do with it.
My secondary concern now is for the actual lives of the animals (rather than their deaths). At some point, I read some research that indicated that most animals probably have no concept of self. To me, this is profound. What is death to an animal that has no concept of self? If a cow has no self, it can’t make plans for the future. It cannot believe things will get better or worse, or miss a future it can’t imagine. On the other hand, a life of suffering with no sense of self seems the ultimate cruelty. Rather than experiencing pain, I imagine that animals have an identity of pain. This, to me is the best argument for eating ethically raised animals, especially cows that have lived mostly cruelty-free lives.
I continue to endeavor not to harm or contribute to the harm of living creatures, but I recognize that being vegan is an arbitrary point on a continuum from slaughterhouse owner to Buddhist monk. Veganism isn’t the compassionate choice; but for me it is a more compassionate choice than eating meat. I eat honey, I step on ants sometimes, and sometimes I lie to homeless people about not having change. For me, being a vegan still feels like a positive thing. My standards for ethically raised animals are much stricter than any of the currently enforced labels demand. I don’t like the idea of slaughtering an animal; even one that was raised under ideal conditions, because I still imagine the trauma of being led to a slaughter is a horrible thing.
On the other hand, I do sometimes seek out eggs from animals that people I know have personally raised. I imagine I would drink milk too, if I knew someone who raised cows or goats. This is a fairly significant change for me, and one I feel no moral qualms about!
I’m always excited to hear new and interesting arguments on this subject, drop me a comment if you’ve got one!