From tomorrow I will be transitioning from a vegetarian diet to a vegan diet, once I have finished the Quorn supply in my freezer, rather than waste it – surprisingly, most Quorn products include egg among their ingredients.
I would be happy to hear any ethical or practical advice from people who have already made this transition. In particular, I would be grateful to hear any advice on where to buy vegan foods and other vegan products in Ireland.
I’ve discussed before how my vegetarianism is related to my atheism. I believe that religion corrupts our sense of reality and our sense of morality, and this corruption effects how we see other animals. I’m not saying religion is the only factor that corrupts our sense of reality and morality, but it is a signifiant factor.
With regard to reality, we see ourselves as humans, and cats and dogs and sheep and cows as ‘animals’. Actually, we are all animals, and I think we should use the phrase ‘other animals’ or ‘non-human animals’. With regard to morality, we should be as empathetic, compassionate and fair with other animals as we are with ourselves. For me, this includes being vegetarian, and now vegan.
How my atheism has influenced my veganism
Before the theory of evolution, it was understandable that people might believe that humans and other animals were designed by a god who created other animals to serve us. Since the theory of evolution, there is no need for such an assumption. We now know that all species evolved over billions of years from common ancestors.
We also now know that we humans are animals, and that we are just one of the millions of species that has evolved over the millennia, on one tiny planet that is revolving around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is in turn one of a hundred billion galaxies in the known universe, which may be one of many universes.
We atheists are sometimes called arrogant, but surely the ultimate arrogance is to believe that all of this, including other animals, was created for our benefit?
Similarly, many religions teach that we as humans have been given dominion over other animals. Many people seem to agree with this, whether they believe it literally or metaphorically.
Morality is about what we see as being good or bad, and right or wrong. So what criteria should we use? Most religious people believe that their god tells them what is right and wrong. Most atheists believe that we have to work it out ourselves.
In natural terms, morality is a property of our brains. It has evolved over generations, based on the survival advantages of values such as empathy and compassion, and cooperation and reciprocity, and fairness and justice.
In philosophical terms, morality is one way to measure the effect of our actions on other conscious sentient beings. Are we causing other conscious sentient beings to needlessly suffer, or are we helping other sentient beings to flourish?
Religion tells us that, in some circumstances, even though an action is not compassionate, and will cause needless suffering, you should or can do it anyway because somebody believes that the creator of the universe has conveyed that judgment.
How did we evolve our sense of morality?
We are social animals and, like other social animals, we have evolved a sense of morality that helps us to live together. We feel empathy and compassion for each other, we cooperate on common goals, and we want to be treated fairly.
In their book ‘Wild Justice: the moral lives of animals’, Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce give many examples of other animals showing these attributes.
- Rats in cages have refused to push a lever that will give them food if they know that it will cause another rat to get an electric shock.
- A monkey who had learned to get food by putting a token in a slot, helped another monkey who couldn’t do it by putting the other monkey’s token in the slot and letting the other monkey eat the food.
- Dogs and wolves show signs that they are playing with each other, and stronger ones will restrain themselves from biting strongly when playing with weaker ones.
- In South Africa, a group of elephants helped a group of antelopes escape from an enclosure, by undoing the latches on the gates with their trunks.
- In Holland, chimpanzees in a zoo, who don’t get fed until they are all present, punish chimpanzees who are late and who cause them to have their meal delayed.
Bekoff and Pierce argue that these behaviours are not merely ‘building blocks for human morality’ but that they are displays of actual morality in other animals. They argue that social complexity leads to moral complexity.
They suggest that, if we define morality by human morality, then obviously non-humans do not have that, but that human morality is just one example of the moralities that have evolved among animals.
I agree, and I believe that the differences in morality between humans and other animals are differences in degree, not differences in kind.
How we relate ethically to other animals
But there is one area in which we are considerably more advanced than many other animals. We are intelligent social animals, able to reason effectively, and we increasingly attribute our fundamental rights to individual beings.
We used to attribute fundamental rights mainly to groups and to adult males, and even then only to adult males who were of the same race as us and who were not slaves. We are now increasingly seeing rights as being related to individual persons, regardless of their race or gender or ethnicity or age or sexuality.
I believe that it is a natural extension of this pattern for us to extend our morality to our interaction with other animals. We should be as empathetic, compassionate, cooperative and fair with other animals as we are with ourselves. We should want to minimise suffering, and maximise wellbeing, among all conscious sentient beings.
A natural (rather than religious) morality will not guarantee that we treat other animals fairly, but it will remove one obstacle to us doing so. It will help us to realise that we are sharing this tiny planet will many other animals, and that our shared future can be more empathetic, more compassionate, more cooperative and more just than it currently is. We can live happily and healthily without killing other animals, and I hope that more of us will choose to do this.
I would be happy to hear any ethical or practical advice from people who have made the transition to veganism. In particular, I would be grateful to hear any advice on where to buy vegan foods and other vegan products in Ireland.
Also, one particular dilemma that I have not yet resolved – although most of my cats’ diet is Royal Canin dried food, I occasionally feed them meat. I’m not sure how I feel about imposing my dietary ethics on them, and I also wonder if they are less likely to kill birds or mice if they are being fed meat at home.