Vegan Buddhist

Eat Peas! Thinking About the Ethics of Veganism

On Fri, 8 June, 2018 - 14:16
Sadayasihi's picture

Here’s some interesting reflections on the ethics of veganism by Dhivan:

“A recent article in the Guardian (that I read via a post about Buddhist Action Month) shares some new research about the environmental effects of meat and dairy farming compared to growing cereals and plants. The results are stark; “even the very lowest impact meat and dairy products still cause much more environmental harm than the least sustainable vegetable and cereal growing”. In short, growing peas has a comparably miniscule environmental impact compared to raising beef. And the opening words of the article sum up the implications: “Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.” So should we eat peas?

I decided to try being a ‘domestic vegan’ 18 months ago, following a hunch that it was time to give a predominantly plant-based diet a go. By ‘domestic’ I mean vegan at home, but not strictly outside. Previous attempts at veganism had been idealistic but short-lived, though overall I have maintained a mainly organic vegetarian diet for 32 years. This time round veganism is easier: it’s more popular, so there are more vegan dishes on offer in restaurants, and more vegan burgers in shop freezers. The invention of Oatly Barista means that vegan coffee drinking is actually pleasant. Still, as the narrator in Simon Amstell’s film on veganism, Carnage, jokes: “a breakthrough in the quality of nut cheeses” would really make a difference.

So I find myself wanting to encourage others to shift to a plant-based diet. As part of doing so, I’d like to present a way of thinking about the ethics of veganism, as it is important to pitch this appropriately. I will conclude that veganism is not an ethical obligation, but rather a reasonable consequence of valuing universal welfare.

From a Buddhist point of view, there is nothing wrong with eating meat. It is well known that the Buddha himself was not vegetarian. On occasions, I get offered cooked meat. If the alternative to my eating it is that the meat gets thrown away, I sometimes eat the meat. Buddhist ethics is based on the principle of not harming living beings, and having an attitude of kindness. What follows from that principle is that one should not act in such a way that animals are knowingly harmed. This precludes buying meat or choosing it on the menu. Vegetarians also avoid fish and seafood since these creatures are harmed by being caught. 

But what if the cow or chicken or salmon has been reared with care on an organic farm, and has been killed in a humane way? My brother has started breeding his own sheep for meat, on a very small scale. A lot of petting of happy lambs goes on. My feeling here is that eating carefully-sourced meat is much better than eating meat produced on big industrial farms which are indifferent to animal welfare. The maximisation of animal welfare should be an ethical priority. However, this leaves a residual ethical issue regarding what one might describe in terms of assenting to the intentional deprivation of life. No animal wants to die, but prefers to live and flourish in its own way, just like us. If there is an alternative to eating meat, is it right to kill an animal against its wish? However, the argument here is not straightforward, since domestic animals by definition come into existence by being useful to humans. One might therefore argue that it would be better if domestic animals did not exist. However, in terms of practical ethics, it is still good to maximise animal welfare, even if in theory it would be better still if animals reared to be eaten did not have to exist at all.

This way of thinking about Buddhist ethics does not directly entail veganism, though veganism is a way to contribute to animal welfare. A common argument for veganism among Buddhists has been an ethical perfectionism: that one ought not harm living beings, hence one ought to avoid eating meat and dairy. This argument does not convince me. Ethical perfectionism may be admirable, but the environmental impact, and hence harm to living beings, of human life on this planet is complex. I would rather understand Buddhist ethical perfectionism in terms of working on deep-rooted mental states, as well as on speech and action. Dietary perfectionism is too narrow.

To put it more practically, one of the things that has held me back from turning to a plant-based diet was uncertainty about whether it was any better to eat imported soya beans than local cheese. The environmental impacts on rain forest life are unknown, whereas the positive effects of local organic farming are tangible. My scepticism about dietary perfectionism, together with uncertainty about environmental impacts, meant I had insufficient reason to become vegan. However, the new research presented in the Guardian is completely unambiguous. The evidence is clear that it is would be much better for the planet for human beings to be vegan.

This shifts the ethical emphasis away from animal welfare, and towards the health and diversity of the whole natural world. The human population is heading inexorably towards 10 billion, every one of us wanting to be well-fed. There is a corresponding pressure on land-use entailing environmental changes that are mostly detrimental to biodiversity. With this, the consequences of our continuing to eat meat and dairy will be the impoverishment and degradation of non-human habitats.

The ethical argument for becoming vegan that follows from this perspective is not based on dietary perfectionism, nor even from an ethical obligation not to harm living beings. It is simply an appeal to the welfare of all beings. The welfare and flourishing of the whole planet is good in itself. Human actions that diminish this welfare will harm humans too, for we exist as part of the living whole. From this positive appeal to universal welfare some simple practical reasoning follows. If we believe that human activities are responsible for global warming and environmental change (for which there is plenty of evidence), and if we value the earth’s biodiversity and flourishing (essential for our long-term welfare), then it is reasonable to shift to a plant-based diet, and we ought to do so. Whatever changes we make to our diets, away from meat and dairy, will be good ones to make.

It could be tempting to turn this into a Buddhist ethical argument. Since it is wrong to harm living beings, but right to practice kindness and compassion, then the wholesome or ethically skilful course of action, based on what we now know about the effects of farming practices, is to choose and to promote a vegan diet. But I don’t find it personally helpful to relate to food in terms of right and wrong. I would prefer to promote the positive value of universal welfare, and to invoke the ideal of the bodhisattva, who seeks the well-being of all. From these positive commitments, together with new evidence regarding farming, the practical conclusion rationally follows: “Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.” Eat peas!”

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Jane_Easton's picture

Hi, thanks for this thoughtful post and congratulations to Sadayahisi on her dietary journey. I’ve a few points to add to the mix.

I’m not entirely sure where the idea of black and white thinking comes from. Surely we have regular dialogues about all aspects of ethics in our various sanghas and a compassionate, skilful challenging about our various life choices? And the Theravadan tradition has a list of five trades from which Buddhists should abstain- including trading in flesh. That places slaughter and its products on the same footing as arms dealing, pimping and other forms of human slavery! But these aren’t just commandments. At their heart is a common thread- that of the welfare of the beings involved- victims and perpetrators. Animals suffer badly and die horribly in the meat industry (which includes fish, eggs and dairy) - but the damage done to the hearts and minds of those in this industry isn’t always considered. Surveys show that PDSD, substance abuse and domestic violence are all too common amongst abattoir workers- let alone the impact on their families.

So I’d suggest that we can’t turn away from those whom our species employs to do their dirty work for them. And no amount of petting takes away the hideous fate of those animals we bred for our use, against their natural instincts. This is no even trade, there was no negotiation by the voiceless. We did it because we could, not to do them a favour.

I’d also question the idea of veganism as a kind of dietary purity. As a popular vegan slogan says - vegan is a state of kind. It’s the desire to not harm, to not take the not given that drives me and the many vegans I know. Animal ‘foods’ are no longer foods to us.

Which leads neatly to the idea of eating foods given to us. I just couldn’t do it. I don’t eat my friends. I do my best to let people know my diet beforehand and I would be polite in my refusal. But not eating the body parts of another sentient being is not a ‘waste ‘. I doubt many of us would eat human flesh if it were offered, however hospitably, so why is it ok for us to eat a pig or fish or chicken etc? Basically, it normalises the violence of eating animals. Also, it might be argued that had we all accepted what we were offered, there would not now be the vast array of vegan options available.

So I’d suggest that the points above To me, all these ideas are as important as the environmental and global food issues explained by Sadayahisi - they feel very interconnected.

I’d highly recommend this non-blame, compassionate TED talk by Melanie Joy (some graphic scenes but a clear warning is given so watchers can look away.)

And who better than Pooh and Piglet to explain the myth of humane slaughter?