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Consider part-time vegetarianism

April 12, 2024

This piece represents the opinion of the author .
Sophia Nicholls

Don’t flip the page if you’ve already settled in your carnivorous ways, not looking to be persuaded into any change. Maybe you’ve already accepted a logical contradiction at the heart of your meat-eating—that you like the taste of steak, and that is enough for you. Fine, but I’m not asking you what you think I am.

It is not my goal here to explain why factory farming is bad—this is something we all know. But to lay the groundwork for the rest of my argument, let’s briefly review. 99 percent of animal livestock are raised in factory farms—intensive breeding facilities where livestock live confined in squalid conditions until their eventual slaughter. As a system that minimizes cost, it reduces livestock to mere means of profit and—if we believe animals have the capacity for pain, as a wealth of research shows they do—almost certainly causes them suffering. (It is possible, though highly unlikely, that nonhuman animals are automata as Kant first suggested.)

If you are willing to concede that animals might suffer, and you further believe that suffering is something we ought to prevent, at least when it is convenient to us, then it follows that you ought to choose not to actively contribute to suffering when you’re in line at Thorne, where the option is always available.

Some might have trouble caring that animals may suffer on the unproven grounds that animals are not conscious. Let’s examine this argument. We largely believe that consciousness is what entails moral status. If an entity is conscious, they deserve moral status. However, we have little to no understanding of what we mean when we say “consciousness,” even human consciousness. We apply a principle of charity to those within our own species that allows us to believe that Ava-consciousness is of the same variety as Aidan-consciousness. We assume that what it is like to be human is the same for all humans, and we cite common phenomena like the experience of pain, color perception and internal monologue as proof of such universality. But, really, who is to say that how I position my self is at all consistent with how Aidan does? Words often fail us.

And you know when words really fail us? With nonhuman animals. We don’t know if animals are conscious, not because we don’t observe animals exhibit tendencies similar to ours, but because we don’t understand consciousness. However, we might want to concede that our dogs feel pain, and we might not want to say that our dogs are mere automata. Following, we cannot say that a dog may be any more conscious than a cow. So, if you don’t want your dog to be carted away and slaughtered, then don’t set such a precedent with a cow.

Now for a bit of calculus: I, following Daniel Dennett’s reasoning on animal consciousness, posit that it is much less harmful to over-attribute minds than to under-attribute them. To take a human animal in a supposed state of comatose, we continue to treat such patients as of moral status because they might still be conscious, not because they definitely are. This is because we know that to erroneously strip a conscious entity of their moral status would potentially cause them pain. On the other hand, if I mistakenly attribute consciousness to my favorite mug, I may go through unnecessary pains to make said mug comfortable, but beyond these impracticalities, no harm is done. So, we can agree that over-attributing minds is far more prudent, and morally defensible, than under-attributing them. Thus, we ought to regard vertebrates as capable of some amount of suffering considering the proof we have for such a possibility.

I agree that the cost of trying to navigate an herbivore diet in some environments is sometimes too great. It is a large ask to refrain from family traditions, cause logistical complications at group gatherings and reimagine the way you grocery shop. These lifestyle changes should not be overlooked when making the vegetarian calculus. If animals may not be suffering in the same way we believe them to be under factory farming or they indeed do not deserve any second-order rights, then all your lifestyle reconfiguring would have been a fool’s errand.

However, your objection fails to accommodate the fact that every meal you eat at Bowdoin could be a vegetarian one without a single expenditure on your part except, granted, the sacrifice of your taste buds. But, you’ve conceded it might be the case that the systematic breeding and killing of nonhuman animals under factory farming causes these animals to suffer. So, when the option is available at no cost of your own, it is your obligation not to be complacent in such a practice. Side note: if you are concerned about your protein intake, you are the victim of tactful marketing promoted by the meat industry. There is simply no contemporary scientific research that concludes that humans, even highly active ones, cannot consume a sufficient amount of protein on a vegetarian diet.

Now, all you are left with is your reason and your taste buds. At the end of all of this you may say, “Yes, Ava, your reasoning is infallible and logic untouchable, but I just can’t deny myself that sweet moment when I get to sink my canines into that sinewy animal flesh.” Okay, sure. I may have a hardline when it comes to my veganism, but there are certainly other things I do against my own reason: For example, occasionally I buy clothing that was likely produced in less-than-ideal conditions by people whose work was less-than-fairly compensated. So, you might say, “Ah ha! You don’t even listen to your own logic. Of course, we do things sometimes that are slightly indefensible for our own pleasure! We are humans after all.” Not so, I counter! Every time I want to buy an article of clothing, I am not instantaneously offered an equally good article of clothing that will serve the same purpose and is just as cheap from ethically-sourced origins. This, however, is an option we are all offered when we go to Moulton or Thorne.

When we get comfortable saying, “I know it’s wrong, but …” we open doors to a brand of complacency that will seep into every nook of our rational lives. That’s just not a sufficient answer. I am asking you to do an easy thing. I am asking you to make a choice that not only will potentially prevent massive amounts of suffering but might also help you straighten out your shoulders, content with your new moral uprightness.


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One comment:

  1. Definitely Not Aidan Sheeran-Hahnel '26 says:

    Aidan consciousness is definitely on a whole other level than Ava consciousness

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