Exploring Moral Vegetarianism with Professor John Harris

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By Amanda Smiley, Class of 2019

Keeping up with the growing number of “fad” diets can be exhausting.

Vegetarian, pescatarian, vegan, gluten free, low-carb, dairy-free, paleo, Whole30 – the list goes on. People’s dietary restrictions and choices can seem like a never-ending stampede of bandwagon trends and weight-loss diets. Because of that, it’s tempting to stereotype people into groups like “meat shamers” or  “gluten obsessives.”  However, Texas Christian University philosophy professor John Harris is studying the ways vegetarianism reflects more of a morally inspired lifestyle and less of a bandwagon trend.

Why does five percent of the U.S. population abstain from eating meat? This is a loaded question, Harris explains. While some people avoid meat to increase their consumption of more grains and vegetables, most vegetarians avoid meat as part of a moral obligation: they want better treatment of animals, the environment and even humans.

Moral vegetarianism is all about defining what forms of flesh are “okay” to eat and why. Most Americans would be upset by the idea of eating other humans, dogs and cats. But in other areas of the world, people do eat these domesticated animals. When asked why eating a dog is “not okay” but eating a cow is entirely acceptable, most Americans would revert to the answer that dogs and cats and babies are “cute” whereas cows and chickens and turkeys are not. As Harris explains, the argument for the non-cuteness of “cows and chickens and turkeys turns out to be really hard to do without making some dubious assumptions.”

Whether people realize it or not, each culture actively draws lines between the meat its people can and cannot eat. While this is understandable considering some cultures assign religious meaning to certain animals, global demand for meat-based diets is increasing. In America alone, the demand for meat is expected to be at an all-time high in 2019.

To this effect, Harris says that moral vegetarianism is invested in asking, “what good principled reasons can we give for drawing that line between some animals and others?”

The question remains: is there any morally justifiable reason for killing animals? Harris explains that some philosophers believe there could be no objection to killing animals if their deaths were painless. Still, Harris says “there’s another group that says, if [animals] have valuable lives, we have to have pretty good reasons to end their life. … If the reason why you kill the animal is to satisfy this rather trivial desire of yumminess, it still looks morally suspect.”

While debating which forms of flesh are justifiable to eat is very much a part of the moral vegetarian conversation, the reality of the animal production industry is an ugly one. Harris echoes what countless articles, journals and documentaries point out: to fulfill the increasing global craving for meat, more land is cleared for animal grazing, more resources are harvested to feed the animals, more animals live in close and unclean quarters and more greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere. Two of every three farm animals in the world are factory farmed and likely subjected to unfair conditions. These farms are affecting the environment in a number of damaging ways.

Harris calls himself a “reluctant vegetarian.” After studying arguments in favor of moral vegetarianism (including his favorite article, “Puppies Pigs and People” by Alastair Norcross) for years, he choose to adopt the lifestyle. Harris does not abstain from eating meat because it is easy, in fact he loves the taste of meat, but he says there is something somewhat unfair about comparing his mundane pleasure of eating a McDonalds hamburger with the grotesque conditions animals undergo for that hamburger.

The fact of the matter is that some people remain unconvinced of this argument. They claim that moral importance should be placed on human wellbeing, not that of animals or the environment. Surprisingly, humans are at a disadvantage because of the meat production industry, too. An enormous amount of resources, food and water go into raising farm animals for consumption. What would happen if the world used those resources to fill the mouths of hungry people rather than fatten farm animals for human consumption?

Harris says, “If all you care about is human beings…we still have to actually explain why we take all this perfectly good, edible foods and feed it to a bunch of animals when we could actually be feeding it to starving human beings.”

While moral vegetarianism aligns with other contemporary areas of study like bioethics, environmental ethics and food deserts, philosophers like Harris are not the only ones thinking of ways to inform the public about the realities of the meat-consumption industry. Documentaries and films like “Fed Up” and “Cowspiracy” use live footage and interviews to plead their case. While these films use many of the original arguments of moral vegetarianism to persuade an audience, they also utilize a power founding scientists and philosophers could not: visual content.

When asked if these films might be using a different or a more effective approach to the topic, Harris admits that in today’s age, visual persuasion is just as effective as written persuasion. “Perhaps we need to respond to the realities of human psychology and use pictures because that makes it more real for us.”

Humans have always seemed to walk a difficult line between caring for themselves and caring for the environment they live in. While moral vegetarianism might seem like an inapplicable branch of thought for the average American, people like John Harris are suggesting that eating meat might not be as necessary as people think.