I have been having discussions with some rather enthusiastic vegans who have a degree in philosophy, and they have been trying to convince me that it is a settled issue in ethics and philosophy that the debate is finished, that 'the experts' all consider veganism to be the correct course of action with no valid counter-arguments against it.

I am skeptical of these claims to be sure and I have not found any evidence to support that.

So, are these claims correct, or is veganism as much debated and discussed between philosophers and ethicists as it is among regular folk?

  • I made some edits. You may roll these back or continue editing. You can see the versions by clicking on the "edited" link above. Welcome to this SE! – Frank Hubeny Oct 16 '18 at 20:29
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    You should be skeptical, and this is not specific to veganism. There are no settled "correct courses of action" in philosophy or ethics on any major issue, and absence of counterarguments (even if it were true, which it is not) is not a sufficient ground for accepting a view. That would be the fallacy of ad ignorantiam, taking absence of evidence for evidence of absence. For a survey of related current debates see SEP's Moral Status of Animals. – Conifold Oct 16 '18 at 20:54
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    are there "settled issues" in philosophy? – dessin d'enfant terrible Dec 5 '18 at 17:44
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    I would skeptical of anybody who claims that an issue in Philosophy is "settled" and that they have a degree in Philosophy. – Alexander S King Jun 20 '19 at 18:22
  • If it is a settled issue, it isn't philosophy any more. – Ajax Jun 23 '19 at 23:41

The position they take is that of convinced vegans, not of philosophers. Any ethics position can be used to discuss a philosophical issue, but no ethics position can claim that a discussion is settled. Your question here proves that it is anything but settled.

  • Thank you Frank for editing! Not a native speaker here 😬 – Ajagar Oct 23 '18 at 17:14
  • +1. Right on, Frank. The idea that veganism - or anything else - is a settled issue in philosophy is far-fetched beyond any credibility. I'm glad the question was put, though, if only to disclose this viewpoint and to enable it to be countered. Best - Geoffrey – Geoffrey Thomas Dec 1 '18 at 12:04
  • @Ajagar Maybe I misunderstood what you write: "The position they take is that of convinced vegans, not of philosophers". Your position is that it is not possible to be both convinced vegans and philosophers at the same time? – Fausto Vezzaro May 14 '19 at 16:32
  • No, there is a huge difference between taking a position as a convinced vegan in a philosophical issue and being a convinced vegan philosopher. The convinced vegan philosopher would keep exploring, while the convinced vegan in this issue keeps defending the position. As soon as anyone states that this or that is the “correct course of action with no valid counter-arguments”, the breath of philosophy is smothered. – Ajagar May 15 '19 at 21:16
  • Let me change the perspective. Would the correct course of action for a flesheating plant be to stop eating animals and become a vegan plant? Humans are built for a variety of food, including meat. Eyes in the front of the head and our teeth are not only made to crush plant material. – Ajagar May 15 '19 at 21:28

Before wondering if veganism issue is settled we should be clear about its meaning. "Veganism is good?" (but reason alone can't answer to that). "If veganism is good what should I do? Only be vegan?" (If I'm vegan because so I'm feeling physically better probably I don't care about others choices, I can't know which diet they find ideal, while if I'm vegan for animal pain I'll try in expanding veganism as much as possible). "If veganism is good and if I should try to expand it, how could I reach this goal"? (surely not being harmful and hassling, but rather with silent example and answering to intelligent questions). And finally "What exactly veganism is?" (to my eyes a not so trivial question: someone wouldn't eat animal food at the cost of his own health or life, someone other could be less inflexible). Anyway in the face of some not settled issue linked to veganism, I see at least one very important settled issue (for the sake of brevity I say "eat meat" instead of "eat animal food"):

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This implication is strong like a mathematical theorem (with the only regard to the possibility that in very special circumstances eating meat could be not useless). From some premises (on which there is common but not universal agreement) we reach some conclusions. This has nothing to do with goodness or badness, but only with dealing rationally with a problem. We all (no matter if we are atheist or believer) have our non-scientific prejudice and unprovable starting point about our moral values. A starting points could be that it's good searching satisfaction of our needs when they don't damage others (a starting point not so obvious as it seems). Another interesting starting point is the idea that pain is a bad thing even if it is not proved directly by me, and here come the veganism issue.

The pain issue

If you never notices the implication I boxed I don't blame you, probably you never happened to take a pause to reflect on this problem. When I say that the issue is settled I don't want belittle the importance of doubt. I agree with Giovanni Tonzig when he say that the most scientific word in the vocabulary is "maybe" and with Bertrand Russell's statement "The problem with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt", truer words... nevertheless there are many things on which we can be reasonably sure: "prime numbers are infinite" or "if I am a meat eater I cause terrible and useless pains to animals". If you claim the opposite I beg you to put your arguments I'm very interested to them. I confess that I'll listen them with skepticism, because I've thought a lot about these two things, and I'm sure about my conclusions, but this doesn't mean that I don't find interesting your arguments, and that they don't deserve an answer (for that matter, it is interesting finding bug in 1=0 proof too). On the contrary I find very praiseworthy the hopeless effort of a meat eater to justify his choice.

Be careful, I'm not saying that reason says that veganism is a good thing (reason don't say what is good and what is not). I'm speaking about an implication: if you think that it is not good inflict terrible and useless pain, then you should be vegan. If you say that you don't agree with the premise of the implication (that is if you think that is good inflict terrible pains only because of an alimentary whim) then I disagree with your view but I respect it (me too often I don't do the right choice, I only find strange eating meat because being vegan is very important, it's simple and costs nothing). But if you say that this implication doesn't work, then I can't follow you; it's just like you say to me that the Earth is flat. You are free to eat meat because the law of our democratic state allow you to do it, but if you are a man and not a child you are not free to don't take responsibilities for yourself, to deny the consequences of your choice, to look the other way and say "I didn't know". I agree with Savater (see the beautiful book he wrote for his son) each of us is responsible for himself, everything else are only excuses.

It must be made clear that vegan choice is not only for animal lovers (you don't have to love someone to refuse to torture him), neither necessarily a radical choice (for example once at restaurant I ordered tagliatelle with mushrooms specifying to use normal spaghetti: when arrived a plate with tagliatelle, to not cause inconveniences and problems to the workers, I acted as if nothing has happened and I ate it). Veganism is not even an abstract way to sympathize with a philosophy, but only a very concrete way to avoid pains. The question you see is "if I became vegan, I will spare some animal torture?". We don't need high philosophical flight to see that the answer to this question is yes...

The useful pain issue

I want underline that I'm speaking about useless pain, but in some cases pain can be useful. Without being exhaustive, four examples come to my mind:

  • Scientific research (if very useful) can justify pain (if not extreme).
  • Hygienic needs too can (it's obvious that I can't live with a mouse in my house, and kill it is the most effective way to solve the problem).
  • In some way even income could justify pain: if I were a meat producer probably I would be a meat eating supporter: to my eyes it would fail the premise of the implication ("useless"), my position would prevent me to see things in the right way. It's normal. I add that if even a meat producer changed its job, he would damage himself without a positive impact on the world: the niche market will be immediately covered by another meat producer (probably with fewers scruples). The only duty of a meat producer is to treat animals the best way he can (for example not cramming lifetime in body size cages, avoiding castrations, stoning animals before butchering, etc.). Responsibilities falls almost exclusively over consumers (and of course on legislators: responsible on transparency and freedom of information, but after all in democratic states consumers are responsible for legislators too). Each consumer acts alone but, as it happens with vote, it should be clear that his personal choice has an enormous impact and he should think carefully. Your vote is one, nothing among millions, but this doesn't mean you're free to vote a fool. Or better, you are free to do it, but taking responsibility for your actions and for their consequences (without searching easy loophole like "this politician turned out to be a different person from what it looked like"). At first glance this has nothing to do with veganism but it has. Buying food is like voting in moving mechanism of food production toward some directions.
  • Avoiding being stressed by others too could be a reason to eat meat. A weak reason (it's important take into account the views of others only if it is gentle, polite, constructive, open to discussion and debate, etc.) but probably someone can't putting up with mobbing and bullying to which vegans are often subjected. This is the only big price you have to pay if you choose to be vegan: the hate of people that feel offended and scandalized by your choice (but this is an old story, what about Martin Luther King supporters for example? And verbal violence is nothing compared to physical violence). In my life I never, absolutely never, told anyone "why do you eat meat?", "never thought of becoming a vegan?" etc. (and despite the widespread clichés I never knew vegans who do it). I simply say "no thanks" (in the most polite and respectful way possible) when someone offers me animal food. But I am continually overwhelmed with giggles or manifest demonstrations of profound contempt. For some reason, in our civilized western world no one would dream of teasing those who are in front of him because of the color of the skin, sexual orientation, religion, etc. But it seems to be entirely legitimate to mock a person for his food choices (I am not speaking of the village idiots but also of mass media, from which I would expect a little more attention and sensibility). Haters feel they have a right to make fun of you. For example, they can say to me: "stop with being a vegan!" followed by blowing a raspberry, or they can offer me meat knowing that I am vegan (not because distracted, this wouldn't be a problem obviously, but purposely, laughing) because they find amusing my declining (and I'm speaking about adult people). Equally annoying who feel in duty to stress you to save you from this crazy senseless useless choice that will bring you to ruin (they would be less annoying if I would take drugs). Of course not all meat eater are so terrible, most if them are simply and wonderfully indifferent (I really appreciate that, even if I'd like to be asked why I'm vegan, and stimulate some obvious reflections) but among the hundreds of people I know I can count on the fingers of one hand the ones that they told me the only sensible thing " I eat meat but you're right, your choice would be the right one" (one is my incredible wife). Probably because few people have the propensity to stop and thinking and a character so beautiful to contemplate the possibility of self-criticism. We all have various things to do self-criticism, among the many of mine, the fact that I am a waste polluter, but I admire those who are more attentive to the environment, for example using public transport while I love using car: I can't understand why I should mock or hate people whose only fault is being more rational than me. I will continue to use the car even if it is wrong, but I will not rape the truth by inventing nonsense or stupid tall story to salve my conscience. I'm stupid but not up to this point. It is incredible what nonsense can invent the human mind if it feels convenient to believe in it, if looking at the real world would lead him to make a tiny sacrifice. Perhaps the man of the street is partially excused, but no philosopher in search of truth (and so used to thinking, inquiring and linking facts together), can believe that buying meat is not equivalent to cutting the testicles of an animal or other horrible things avoiding simply not following a trend, without any significant sacrifice. So you will be submerged with boring rubbish: you too fixated with this fashion? - You care so much of animals, and what about hungry kids? - You don't know that plants too suffer? - If we have canine teeth it is because we have to eat meat - You don't know what you're missing - I mean, what do you care to eat meat, after all is not you that kill the animals - So a meat eater as me I would be bad? - And where do you find the energy for your job? - You play the saint but surely you have some leather or wool dress - If you were on a desert island I'd like to see if you do not eat fish - But when you're driving you kill gnats eh? - Hitler too was vegetarian - Try saying to a lion to eat grass and see what it will answer - I don't tell you how my grandfather used killing chickens or you'll faint - My dear, in life, you got to be tough - Always was, always will be, this is the nature - Come on take this piece of cheese, nobody see you, we won't tell anybody... list could be longer but I stop, let us draw a merciful veil. Answering to all these rubbish would take too much time (and also would be an insult to the intelligence of the reader, they are malicious and stupid things, when not simply meaningless). Badness or superficiality of some people shouldn't be an incentive to ignore reason dictates, to follow what you know is the right thing. Anyway I can't blame who can't handle the pressure of being, without any reason, hated, and choose to not be vegan or to leave veganism (unfortunately, "hated" is not an exaggerated word: the famous italian chef Gianfranco Vissani can say in tv that vegans are "coglioni", as I saw 2 hours ago on rai2, and that he'd like kill them all).

The radical veganism issue

I want finally say a few words about another problem linked to vegan issue, a strangely not debated problem: the radical veganism. Reason says that in the real world it is naive and impracticable if you aren't willing to die for it (for example you can simply think that medicine on the marked are tested on animals, and that cultivation of plants too kills animals). A radical vegan position is irrational like a not vegan one. I find self-evident that the only potential enemies of expanding veganism are radical vegans: maybe radicalism will serve to satisfy the ego of someone in love with his own presumed holiness, but of course it damages the very good cause they think to support. In addiction radicalism is sometimes married with violence and serious non-legal form of fight, police should play strong with vegans like that (their only excuse is that buy meat is, like beat a child or an elderly, a cruelty against an helpless being, so it brings out strong emotions). It is also clear, however, that the irrationality of extreme veganism can in no way be an excuse to ignore the fact that the veganism is a rational and important choice (of course... only if you think that inflicting strong pains just for a whim is not a good thing).


There are a number of angles to approach this from, which fuzz the sharp ethical line.

Domesticated livestock account for 60 percent of mammal biomass (humans 36%, 4% wild). That scale sees them closely linked to current landscapes and ecologies. Vegan advocates have to address this, as a practical matter. The management of landscapes especially which can't be farmed, like much of Tibet, or Bangladesh, and how the people there eat. And the fate of current domesticated animals, and of their species when they can no longer survive healthily without humans. Rewilding is a popular solution, and research suggests vegan diets need far less farmed space and are much less damaging to the climate.

Suffering of animals in well regulated farming systems can be minimised, it may often be less than their wild ancestors faced. Slaughter is more-or-less always painful, although most developed countries have a lot of regulation around this. There can still be strong arguments made around opportunity to be free, for self-determination, and for an animal's and species right to express themselves. To say that all pain is intrinsically bad and must be stopped though, implies needing to interfere between carnivores and prey. And that will cause surges in prey species numbers until mass starvation and ecosystem collapse. If we accept predator animals, can't humans also hunt?

We differ from other predator animals, in being able to make a vegan diet healthy (in the developed world), or at least an ovo-vegetarian diet as has been widely practiced in India for 1000s of years with coexistence with cows rather than slaughtering 'excess' bulls as the industrial dairy system does.

The science shows pigs are among the most intelligent non-humans, passing the mirror test, and showing other sophisticated thinking. Humain treatment and conditions can be mandated, but is always undermined by cost considerations, and frequently by the impact of the work on people who raise and kill animals industrially. Pigs even the best conditions, in the UK for instance all must be allowed to range outdoors, suffer from the absence of woodland which they evolved for, and natural social structures.

We also have the freedom to decide whether or not to hunt, or use our buying power to commission others to raise and kill animals, and we are accountable for our motives and how we balance harms and benefits. Peter Singer makes probably the strongest arguments for the ethical desirability of becoming vegan in The Expanding Circle. We used to have various ways to define other humans as lesser- or non-human. Moving away from genocide and slavery based on racial essentialism is one of the stronger ethical arguments. Taking into account the science which shows us the capacity of animals to suffer, if we don't essentialise being human as giving greater moral value, we have to expand the circle of who deserves moral concern beyond simply humans to animals based on their capacities. And wanting to keep a sense that there is something sacred about not using humans as food or exploiting people without regard for there interests and wellbeing, we must have a way of applying that to at least some animals.

There have been moves to give chimps a charter of rights. Widespread outcry over killing dolphins. Some people only expand the circle that far. But Singer's argument generalises, that the more we expand the circle the better, the more developed we become ethically and morally.

Adding in the climate impacts of meat eating, it does seem like a closed case to me - it is the single biggest way through lifestyle change available to reduce our impacts as individuals.

These are not points from a convinced vegan, I am not one, but to be morally and ethically consistent with the best values and thinking, I think I should be.

  • "To say that all pain is intrinsically bad and must be stopped though, implies needing to interfere between carnivores and prey". This is interesting and I think this is true. Anyway in this there are big differences with veganism, that is very important and costs nothing: fight pain in nature is it's complicated and expensive, and maybe dangerous too. Without to forget it, much better concentrate efforts on difficult problems that involve closely human beings (yes, I'm a specesist). – Fausto Vezzaro May 18 '19 at 19:45
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    Clearly there is a series of reasons (saving money, avoiding ecological disasters, avoiding antibiotic-resistant bacteria, saving water, etc.) for which being vegans is important for human beings too, they are important reasons but respect for suffering makes me believe that the most important reason to be vegan is by far to avoid torturing farm animals. I hate animals, they are smelly and stupid beings, but they suffer and I can't torture them because of an alimentary whim. When you start thinking about, you find buying meat completely foolish. – Fausto Vezzaro May 18 '19 at 19:48

This is about rights. Settled issues about rights, generally, are law.

I'm not sure what the highest hierarchy of laws, among nations, is called where basically everyone cross-culturally agrees. But those are "settled" issues. A go-to example is dog fighting. It is a settled issue almost everywhere. Even so, there are a slim few places where dog fighting is actually legal, "In Honduras, the blood sport is legal as well as in Japan, where it has been sanctioned for centuries by military leaders and aristocrats." Detailed Discussion of Dog Fighting. Animal Legal and Historical Center at Michigan State University College of Law.

Certain animal cruelty and intensive animal farming practices are becoming illegal more and more. Animal rights are becoming law: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_animal_welfare_and_rights

Litigation lags behind philosophy. Are certain animal rights virtually settled upon--yet not mostly accepted into laws globally? Yes. (One example is battery cages.) Do other animals have the right to be free from intentional human caused harm? In other words, is it wrong to kill or exploit other animals for food? Debatable.

The logic used to justify eating animals, can be used to justify dog fighting?

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