Veganism as a Food Ethic

  • Corey Katz
  • Tristram McPhersonEmail author
Living reference work entry


In this chapter, we distinguish veganism from neighboring eating patterns and explain different ways of understanding a vegan ethic. We then consider several values at stake in eating and using animal products. Finally, we consider ways of using conclusions about value to assess animal agriculture, individuals’ food choices, and social and political institutions.


Millions of people around the world are vegan. But what precisely is veganism? What can be said in favor of a vegan food ethic? And what are the implications of adopting such an ethic? This chapter takes up these questions.

The section “Veganism and Food Ethics Introduced” introduces the idea of veganism as a food ethic. It distinguishes veganism from neighboring views and explains different ways of understanding a vegan ethic. Few people just find themselves with a vegan ethic, in the way that you might find yourself angry, or having just binge-watched an entire season of a trashy TV show. Often, at least, people become vegan for what they take to be good reasons. In this chapter, we suggest a simple framework for reasoning about veganism. On this framework, we first identify (some of) what is valuable (the section “Values at Stake in Eating and Using Animal Products”). Then, we consider ways of using our conclusions about value to assess animal agriculture, individuals’ food choices, and social and political institutions (the section “Putting Values to Work in Assessing Veganism”). Although we will occasionally argue for conclusions in this chapter, our main aim is not to argue for or against veganism. (For an argument in favor of veganism, see McPherson 2016.) Rather, it is to put the reader in a position to understand and critically evaluate the most important reasons that have been offered for embracing or rejecting a vegan ethic.

Veganism and Food Ethics Introduced

In this section, we aim to orient the reader to different ways of understanding what a vegan ethic might be. We begin by distinguishing the vegan pattern of eating from others. We then introduce the idea of an ethic and discuss different ways of understanding veganism as an ethic. Finally, we introduce the use of reasoning as a basis for adopting or retaining a vegan ethic. This section will prepare the reader for the following sections, which explore important kinds of reasoning that one might use to argue for or against veganism.

We can begin by provisionally understanding veganism as a pattern of eating which does not involve the consumption of products made from animals (such as meat), or by animals (such as milk, cheese, or eggs). It is useful to distinguish this vegan pattern from several other salient patterns. These include:
  • The omnivore, who eats both plant and animal products

  • The lessmeatarian, who limits but does not eliminate their eating of animal products (Discussed in Bittman 2007)

  • The pescatarian, who eats seafood, but otherwise refrains from eating meat

  • The ostrovegan, who eats plant products as well as some shellfish (Go Vegan Box n.d.)

  • The vegetarian, who eats food made from plants, and food made by animals (such as milk), but not food made from animals

  • The fruitarian, who only eats products made by plants, such as fruits, nuts or seeds, but not foods made from plants, or foods made from or by animals

  • The freegan, who seeks to eat in a way that is less wasteful and “consumerist,” and more environmentally friendly than alternative diets, for example, by focusing on recovering edible food that has been discarded by corporate restaurants or supermarkets (Freegan Info 2018)

  • The locavore, who aims to eat locally produced food (Barnhill 2016)

  • The person who refrains from eating gluten

  • The person who seeks to eat only organically grown food

As should be clear from this list, the vegan pattern is more restrictive than some of these alternatives (such as the omnivore, vegetarian, and ostrovegan), less restrictive than others (the fruitarian), and distinct but compatible with others (the freegan, the locavore, etc.).

While the preceding provides a provisional understanding of veganism, it is not adequate as a characterization. For example, suppose that Abbas scrupulously avoids animal products, but that his rival sometimes sneaks some beef broth into his soup. It is plausible that Abbas counts as vegan despite sometimes eating animal products. By contrast, suppose that Bita would eat meat if she could, but finds herself on a desert island with only fruits and vegetables to eat. Even if Bita has a vegan diet, it is plausible that she is not vegan. Finally, suppose that Caz believes that it is wrong to eat animal products, but occasionally succumbs to cravings for cheese. We might call Caz a weak-willed vegan.

These examples show that veganism is best understood as a feature of a person’s psychology, not merely his or her behavior. Specifically, veganism appears to be a kind of practical stance or commitment. Perhaps, to be a vegan is to embrace vegan eating as in some way better than less restrictive alternatives. We will call veganism understood in this way a vegan ethic.

So understood, there will be many variants of the vegan ethic. For example, one could think that consuming animal products is wrong. Or that vegan eating is an ideal to aspire to (Gruen and Jones 2015). Or, less intellectually, one could simply be against consuming animal products. Vegan ethics can also vary in whether they disfavor consuming animal products given certain facts about how things are, or more strongly, disfavor it however things are. An analogy may help to illustrate this contrast. There are two kinds of death-penalty abolitionists. Some think that in principle, killing could never be a just punishment. Others think that the death penalty could in principle be just, but that given facts about our actual institutions, it should be abolished.

Once we think of veganism as an ethic, it is easy to see that the scope of vegan concern can vary as well. Some vegan ethics focus narrowly on eating, but others do not. For example, many vegan ethics oppose wearing animal products, or using them for furniture, as much as eating such products. Some also take their vegan concerns to extend to questions of which policies and institutions to support, and what stance they should take towards nonvegan persons. For example, should they attempt to convince others to become vegan? Should they hold omnivores responsible for their wrongdoing? We return to the scope of vegan concern in the section “Vegan Ethics Beyond Consumption.

In what follows, we will largely be concerned to explore careful reasoning that can be used in order to evaluate vegan ethics. It is worth emphasizing that not everyone who accepts a vegan ethic does so on the basis of reasoned arguments. For example, someone might watch a video of factory farming and be motivated to adopt a vegan ethic as a direct response to their horror at the treatment of animals.

Some might even be suspicious of, or opposed to, the use of reasoned arguments to evaluate veganism. A vivid literary exemplar of this possibility is provided by the character of Elizabeth Costello, portrayed in J. M. Coetzee’s novel The Lives of Animals. In her first lecture, Costello implores her audience to exercise their capacity for sympathy, not for reason (2001, p. 34). She refuses to offer ethical principles for her audience to consider, instead asking them to open their hearts to animals (2001, p. 37). Her lecture suggests that she distrusts the ability of reasoning – exemplified by the philosophers she discusses – to properly orient one to the ethical question at hand.

Costello’s view deserves serious attention. Reasoning can and does sometimes lead us astray, and there is no guarantee that it is the most reliable means to orient our attitudes regarding nonhuman animals and veganism. For example, watching vivid videos may be more effective than reasoned argument as a way to move many people towards veganism. Despite this, we think that much can be learned from examining reasoning about vegan ethics. Consider three points.

First, reasoned arguments in favor of veganism can complement the exercise of sympathy. For example, it may make it more difficult to rationalize away one’s sympathetic reactions. Second, reasoning can potentially be illuminating in ways that exercises of sympathy (for example) are not. When successful, reasoning can help us to understand why we ought to treat nonhuman animals in certain ways, whether we have sympathetic reactions to them or not. Third, reasoning can potentially be informative in ways that the bare exercise of sympathy is not. For example, suppose that one were extremely sympathetic to the plight of nonhuman animals. Should such sympathy lead one towards veganism, or instead to ostroveganism, ethical omnivorism, or another of the patterns of eating mentioned above? Plausibly, reasoning is needed at least to see what precisely a certain sympathetic reaction calls for.

In this chapter, we will focus on reasoned arguments concerning veganism. This is in part because of the significance of such reasoning, just mentioned. But it is also because our professional expertise is in reasoning about ethical questions, not in aptly eliciting emotional reactions in our audience.

We now want to say a little about the sorts of evidence that we will appeal to in reasoning about veganism. This evidence contrasts with the characteristic sorts of evidence deployed in other academic disciplines. For example, in many such disciplines, one paradigm of excellent evidence is the sort that can be summarized by a statistically significant result in a well-designed study.

Where such evidence bears on ethical questions, it is of course important. But many philosophers working in ethics doubt that such evidence can settle many ethical questions. For example, suppose that one established beyond controversy a set of facts about how animals in a given factory farm are treated: the shortness of their lives, the mutilations and illnesses they suffer, their inability to exercise those capacities characteristic of life for their species, etc. (Mason and Singer 1990). Arguably no collection of such information entails any ethical conclusion about their treatment. What is needed are further claims about the ethical significance of these facts. And it is not clear what sort of empirical study could establish such claims.

In light of this, philosophers working in ethics typically seek to reason starting from claims that have a different property: the property of being highly plausible on reflection. Moreover, conclusions that result from well-structured reasoning that begins from these highly plausible premises can itself inherit the plausibility of those premises. Very often such connections in reasoning are not immediately obvious. Because of this, careful thinking can sometimes reveal strong support for conclusions that might initially appear surprising or implausible.

There are many different ways to structure one’s ethical reasoning. For simplicity, we organize the discussion that follows around the following structure: we first explore a series of values that are at play in the ethical evaluation of veganism (the section “Values at Stake in Eating and Using Animal Products”). We then put the values we have introduced to work, in evaluating animal agriculture and our relationships to it (the section “Putting Values to Work in Assessing Veganism”). Our aim is that at the end of this chapter, the reader should be in a good position to understand the most influential reasoned arguments available both in favor of, and against, various forms of ethical veganism.

Values at Stake in Eating and Using Animal Products

This section introduces a series of values – ways that things can be good or bad – that are relevant to the ethical assessment of veganism. We organize our discussion in four parts. First, we introduce the organizing idea of ethical considerability and the idea that nonhuman animals are ethically considerable. We then consider three values that may be significant given the ethical considerability of nonhuman animals: animal well-being, animal agency, and animal life. We then consider several relevant values that arise from the considerability of human users of animal products, including, pleasure, tradition, and health. Finally, we consider the evaluative significance of the environmental impacts of animal agriculture.

Ethical Considerability

Imagine you are sitting at your desk, feeling bored and aggressive. Here are two things you could do: you could walk over to a co-worker’s desk and hit him. Or you could smash the treasured – yet hideous – vase that he keeps on his desk.

It is highly plausible on reflection that you have strong reasons to refrain from each of these actions. But there is a striking contrast between your co-worker and his vase. If you hit your co-worker, you will cause him pain, distress, and possibly physical damage. You might have prudential or legal reasons to refrain from doing so. But, importantly, these effects also appear to be ethically bad, in a way that directly gives you reasons to refrain from producing them.

By contrast, the fact that smashing the vase will also cause it physical damage and probably destroy it does not appear to give you a direct ethical reason to refrain from smashing it. Rather, your reason not to smash the vase arises from the effects this might have on your co-worker; namely, that it belongs to your co-worker, he treasures it and its loss would cause him pain and distress. Put another way, we might say that your co-worker has an interest in not being hit that counts against you hitting him. While the vase will also be damaged or destroyed if you smash it, it is not the sort of thing that can have interests. We will say that a being is ethically considerable if it has interests that can directly ground ethical reasons to treat it or not treat it in certain ways (Jaworska and Tannenbaum 2018).

A crucial question therefore is: are nonhuman animals ethically considerable? If they are not, then for ethical purposes, they are just things, and we should organize our thinking about them around human interests, much as we would with the vase. To answer this question, we need to think more deeply about what makes a being ethically considerable. Examining a commonly proposed answer to this question is instructive.

Consider the idea that what makes your co-worker ethically considerable is that he is a human being, while the vase is not. One thing that makes this idea plausible is that those who criticize practices that treat people differently based on their race, sex, etc., often do so by emphasizing the shared humanity of both those privileged and those burdened by such practices. Even so, if shared humanity were the sole basis for ethical considerability, this would bar any entity that is not a member of the human species from having any level of ethical considerability. This is a difficult position to maintain for at least two reasons.

First, the idea that some nonhuman animals are ethically considerable is highly plausible. For example, imagine finding a stray cat, and torturing her. The cat plausibly has an interest in your refraining from torturing her. And you plausibly have a strong reason to refrain from torturing her in light of that interest. More generally, many people think that cruelty to animals is ethically bad. Others, for example, also think that strict laws should regulate the treatment of animals in medical experimentation, requiring the use of anesthetics and humane forms of euthanasia if the animals must be killed. The most natural explanation for these plausible judgments is that at least some nonhuman animals are ethically considerable, and so ethical considerability cannot be based uniquely on being human.

Second, we might wonder why it is membership in a particular biological species that grounds an entity’s ethical considerability. This is because species membership appears to be as arbitrary a ground for differences in ethical considerability as the differences in race, sex, etc., that have often been appealed to in order to claim that some human beings are not ethically considerable. Put another way, appeals to a shared humanity in order to reject the view that skin pigmentation or sexual characteristics make a difference to ethical considerability should not be understood as literal appeals to shared membership in the genetic species Homo sapiens sapiens. Rather, what appeals to a shared humanity emphasize is that no matter a person’s race, sex, etc., that person has attributes that make him or her ethically considerable. Such attributes include the fact that he or she can have hopes and goals that can be thwarted, that he or she can suffer injury and pain, or that he or she can die. Indeed, part of ethical reflection is a search for guidelines that set out if and when it is appropriate to, among other things, thwart another’s goals via imprisonment, or cause him or her pain, injury or death. It is the fact that a human being can undergo such things despite his or her race, sex, etc., that make it the case that such differences do not matter to his or her ethical considerability.

If an entity were ethically considerable in virtue of being human, no nonhuman animals would be ethically considerable. But shared humanity is not the basis for ethical considerability. A more credible account is that if an entity has the ability to have its goals thwarted, to suffer pain and injury, and to die, then it is those facts that make that entity ethically considerable. Your co-worker’s vase lacks ethical considerability because it is made out of glass, and glass cannot have its goals thwarted, experience excruciating pain, and/or be killed. This is why the vase does not have interests. Yet, we know that many animals are capable of undergoing some or all of these things. Thus, while they are not human, many animals have interests and so are ethically considerable. This fact is key for many arguments for a vegan ethic. In the next section, we consider three candidate ethical values that could be argued to ground the ethical considerability of nonhuman animals.

Values Based in the Considerability of Nonhuman Animals

In this section, we consider the well-being, agency, and life of nonhuman animals as values.


Popular use of the term “well-being” is often linked to health, for example, numerous governments and institutions have a “Department of Health and Wellness.” The use of the term in ethics is broader (Crisp 2017). A being is well-off when it has a good quality of life, is thriving or flourishing. In a slogan, an entity has well-being when its life is going well for it. Contrast the vase. It can be in a good or bad state, for example, it can be whole or smashed. But it is not the type of thing that can be well-off or poorly-off; things cannot be going better or worse for it.

Something is good for a human being when it promotes his or her well-being. Bodily health may contribute to making someone’s life go well for them, but it is not the only thing that can do so: think of a very healthy person who lacks friends, love, or education. On some philosophical views, well-being is wholly constituted by happiness or pleasure. On other views, lives can also be better or worse for reasons that are independent of happiness and pleasure: for example, perhaps accomplishment or friendship can just make a life better, independently of how much happiness or pleasure they provide.

Many animals, including the mammals and birds most often used in agriculture, can be well-off or poorly-off. First, these animals are sentient, which means they are capable of experiencing pleasure and pain. If experiencing constant excruciating pain makes a human being poorly-off, then it also makes a sentient animal poorly-off. Second, many of these animals are conscious beings capable of emotions. They do not simply react to stimuli but have some level of experiential life. They can experience, for example, fear, boredom, loss, and grief (Bekoff 2010). If living in fear or regularly experiencing loss and grief makes a human’s life go poorly for him or her, then these things also make life go poorly for individual members of these species of animals. These features plausibly make it possible for nonhuman animal lives to go well or poorly for them, in a way that contrasts strikingly with the vase.

Well-being is an ethically important value. For example, it is very natural to think that we have strong reasons not to do things to others that are bad for them, by causing them ill-health, negative emotions, and pain and suffering (that is one reason why it would be wrong to hit your co-worker). Since many of the animals that are used for their products or for food can be well or poorly-off in similar ways, moreover, it would seem that their well-being is ethically significant.


Broadly construed, “agency” refers to the ability to initiate action in order to achieve desired goals. For a being capable of agency, exercising one’s agency and achieving these desired goals has important value.

Consider an example of each of these dimensions of value. First, consider the use of imprisonment as punishment for serious crimes. Plausibly, one of the central ways in which imprisonment constitutes a punishment is that it radically restricts prisoners’ ability to exercise their agency. They can only go outside when they are told, they can only eat what they are told and when they are told, and so on. This restriction of agency clearly has disvalue to those who experience it: this is what makes these restrictions punitive.

Second, imagine you have wanted to be a chef since you were young. You have spent years working as a line cook trying to move up and achieve your goal with no success. You experience extreme frustration and finally give up. Along with any negative emotions you might experience because of this, the frustration of your goals seems to be bad in itself.

Most human beings over a certain age are clearly capable of agency. But now think of a dog. A dog has likes and dislikes, desires, and hopes and has the ability to initiate action in order to achieve these goals. You change his food to a new kind and he refuses to eat for  four days. He likes the old kind, wants it, and will do what he can in order to get it back. He also wants to go outside and stands at the door barking until you come and open it. In either case, there is value for him in getting what he wants, and disvalue for him in not getting what he wants, just as there is for the aspiring chef or the incarcerated inmate. If you kept the dog in a cage all day, every day, beyond the disvalue of the boredom and other negative emotions he would experience, it would have great disvalue for him because of the way doing so almost completely suppresses his capacity for exercising his agency.

Like dogs, moreover, most of the animals used in agriculture are capable of agency. This suggests that the restriction of their agency matters ethically: it is a bad outcome for ethically considerable beings. Some degree of control over animals is essential to animal agriculture. And in many actual cases – paradigmatically on “factory farms” – the restriction of animal agency is intense.


That human life has value is manifest. But why is it bad for life to end? One central part of the answer to this question appeals precisely to the values just mentioned. One reason why it is more tragic for a young person to die than an elderly person is precisely that the young person would very often have a future full of well-being and the successful exercise of agency (Nagel 1979; Marquis 1989). And when a person’s future promises only agony and frustration of their agency, it is not clear that death is a bad thing to happen to them.

Because the animals used in agriculture are alive and have the capacity for well-being and for agency, then they also have the capacity to have valuable futures. Thus, death also has disvalue for them. This line of thinking supports the judgment we sometimes make that continued life for animals is not in their interests, as we when make the difficult decision to euthanize a pet who is suffering from an agonizing and incurable disease. In such cases, we might judge that living its future life was a fate worse for the animal than death. Whether agricultural animal or pet, when an animal’s future life will be full of well-being and valuable experiences, then life has value for the animal and death disvalue. Insofar as practices of animal agriculture engage in mass animal killing, then the disvalue of animal death matters for the evaluation of those practices.

So far, we have been emphasizing continuities between humans and nonhuman animals: in both cases, it is plausible that these entities are ethically considerable, and that their well-being, agency, and life are important values. It is worth emphasizing that this does not mean that it is as bad when a dog dies as it is when a person dies. Humans are plausibly capable of important sources of well-being and important types of agency that are not available to extant nonhuman animals. (Here, we leave aside the hard question of whether this is a matter of degree or a matter of kind.) Our aim here is not to argue for a crude equivalence. Rather, our primary point is noncomparative: many nonhuman animals are ethically considerable, in a way that makes their well-being, agency, and lives matter in our ethical assessment of our choices and institutions.

Values Based in the Considerability of Humans

In the previous section, we argued that the animals used in agriculture are ethically considerable, such that their pain, suffering, illness, injury, captivity, and death have a disvalue that is directly relevant for our ethical reflection. These considerations provide an ethical foundation for the arguments for veganism that we will consider in the section “Putting Values to Work in Assessing Veganism.” However, animal agriculture does not only affect nonhuman animals; it also affects humans. In this section, we consider some of the central anthropocentric values that are relevant to assessing the ethical case for veganism.

Gustatory Pleasure

Eating is necessary for survival, yet unlike other things that are necessary for survival like breathing or sleeping, eating can provide us with complex aesthetic experiences and great joy (Trubek and Doggett 2014). For many people, the consumption of animal products plays a large role in these experiences. Given that humans are evolutionarily adapted to consume an omnivorous diet, it is unsurprising that we are generally disposed to take pleasure in the taste of animal products. Furthermore, a great deal of human culinary culture has been dedicated to crafting especially delicious foods out of animal products. At least for many people, foregoing these products would mean foregoing pleasurable experiences that contribute to their well-being.


Animal products are linked with valuable traditions in at least two ways. First, the cooking and eating of particular animal products can take on symbolic value or play an important role in cultural traditions. In the United States, for example, the preparation and consumption of turkey has become linked over generations with the celebration of the holiday of Thanksgiving. For many, therefore, it has become linked with the value of tradition, memory, family, and so on. A Thanksgiving celebration without a turkey may therefore have less value or symbolic meaning for such people.

Second, the production of animal products can also become linked with valuable ways of life in particular cultures. For example, across the globe, traditional ways of life have developed around hunting, fishing, trapping, and herding. Giving up these practices to switch to the production of plant foods would potentially dramatically disrupt valuable traditional ways of working and living.


A central value that bears on food ethics is the effect on one’s health of following a certain food ethic. Here the implications for veganism vary. Some human communities are constrained by the environment in which they live such that the hunting or production of animal products is necessary for survival. Inuit peoples who live above the Arctic Circle, for example, do not have ready access to sufficient plant-based foods to survive on a vegan diet. Other human communities are constrained by economic and political structures, such that they could not meet their dietary needs without the consumption of animal products. For both groups, the production, hunting, and consumption of animal products clearly have very important value, in light of being indispensable for health.

In other human communities, however, the overabundance and ready access to animal products in one’s diet may contribute to ill-health. For example, the overwhelming majority of North Americans have diets that are unhealthy in part because they involve eating too many calories and too much saturated fat, and too few vegetables and whole grains (Walker et al. 2005). Campbell and Campbell claim that nutritional evidence provides some support for completely eliminating animal products from one’s diet (2005, p. 242). While one can be an unhealthy vegan, some choose a vegan diet because being vegan rules out many of the most problematic foods and helps promote the value of personal health.

Environmental Impacts

Animal agriculture has substantial environmental impacts. Here we focus on three examples.

First, large amounts of arable land and water are used to produce grain to feed to animals that could otherwise be used to produce plant-based food for human consumption. Animal agriculture thus puts pressure on increasingly scarce and vulnerable cropland and water resources.

Second, economic pressures on animal agriculture increasingly push toward industrialized farming practices. This has increased the amount of environmentally toxic byproducts generated by farming, which can in turn lead to environmental impacts to land and water resources. For example, concentrated housing of large number of animals can create a level of fecal matter and urine that exceeds the buffering capacity of local ecosystems, leading to nitrogen and phosphorus contamination of surrounding areas (Foley et al. 2011; Peralta et al. 2014).

Third, animal agriculture is a significant contributor of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, which is arguably the most serious environmental threat to human well-being that we now face. Estimates of just how significant of a contributor it is, however, range wildly, from between a twentieth to a half of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (Goodland and Anhang 2009; Fairlie 2010, chap. 13; Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2014).

These impacts have disvalue both for humans and for nonhuman animals. Cropland scarcity, pollution, and climate change are all bad in part because they harm human beings. They are also very bad for many nonhuman animals. This is perhaps most dramatically illustrated by the horrifying acceleration of species extinction due to human activity (Pimm et al. 2014).

Putting Values to Work in Assessing Veganism

So far, we have explained what veganism is and distinguished it from neighboring stances. And we have introduced some of the prominent values relevant to veganism. In this section, we put these resources to work. In doing so it will be useful to identify and distinguish three distinct targets of evaluation:
  • Practices of animal agriculture

  • Individual practices of consumption

  • Political institutions and action

We will discuss these three targets in turn. There are also important connections between how these targets are evaluated, as we will make clear as we proceed.

Evaluating Animal Agriculture

We begin by considering animal agriculture as a target of ethical evaluation. Arguably the central motivation for ethical veganism begins by pointing to the effects of contemporary industrial animal agriculture on the billions of animals that are its central commodities. These animals are made to suffer in myriad ways. Their agency and ability to pursue their desires is dramatically restricted. And they are killed long before their natural life spans (Rachels 2011). In the previous section, we introduced the idea that nonhuman animals are ethically considerable: that their pleasure, pain, life, and death matter ethically. Applying this idea strongly suggests that contemporary animal agriculture causes a massive quantity of bad to ethically considerable beings. Moreover, as we also claimed in the previous section, it is plausible to think there are strong reasons against causing these sorts of bads to ethically considerable beings, whether your co-workers or agricultural animals.

How might animal agriculture be defended against this simple argument? There are several possible strategies. We can divide those strategies into two broad groups: those that seek to defend animal agriculture in the aggregate and those that grant the general force of this sort of argument and seek to distinguish some animal agriculture as ethical.

The most direct way to resist the simple argument is to deny the evaluative premise that underlies it. But in light of the arguments in the previous section, it is hard to reasonably deny that nonhuman animals are ethically considerable.

It might be argued that animal agriculture in the aggregate is typically on-balance good for the relevant animals (Tannsjo 2017). After all, these animals would not exist but for the relevant agricultural practices. Thus, even if a chicken is confined to a tiny cage and made to suffer before being slaughtered for meat in a matter of weeks, it might be claimed that its life was better than not existing.

There are two difficulties with this sort of argument. First, it might reasonably be denied that the life of such a chicken is really worth living on balance: some lives are surely so bad for the beings living them that we rightly regret the existence of those beings. And the short, miserable life of a factory-farmed chicken seems like a good candidate here. Second, it might be that even if some animals would have on-balance good lives, there are ethical reasons against bringing them into existence if one will then substantially harm them.

One might instead seek to defend animal agriculture by appeal to the valuable interests of the humans with a stake in such agriculture: the owners, workers, and consumers who benefit from this agriculture. For owners and workers, the primary benefits will be economic. In the previous section, we also mentioned several ways that producing and consuming animal products might be valuable for humans, including providing gustatory pleasure and allowing humans to participate in valuable cultural traditions.

This sort of defense also faces difficulties on at least three fronts. First, these benefits arise from an activity that also causes harm to ethically considerable beings. It is highly plausible on reflection that these harms undermine the ethical justification for the activity. For example, in cases of slavery, child labor, or economic exploitation, even large benefits to the exploiters do not justify the treatment of the exploited.

Second, some might argue that the amount of pleasure and happiness human beings derive from producing and consuming animal products is so great that it far outweighs the harm done to nonhuman animals. Yet, it is worth emphasizing that many pleasures are intuitively substitutable. Consider an example. A delicious pear tastes different from a delicious peach. But it is not clear that someone who is deprived of delicious pears is deprived of pleasure in an ethically relevant sense, if they have ready access to the different but roughly equivalent pleasures of eating delicious peaches. With this in mind, many people have access to many delicious vegan foods. Even if one values a wide-range of enjoyable gustatory experiences, it is likely possible to surround oneself with a dizzying variety of delicious vegan foods, such that one need never be bored at the table. Thus, most humans could gain substantial gustatory pleasure in ways that do not also cause widespread harm to ethically considerable beings.

Third, it is far from clear that humans benefit more overall from producing and eating animal products rather than not. We need to be clear about how to think about the relevant benefits. Consider an analogy. When a prescription health plan is considering whether to cover a name-brand medication, they should not simply consider what the benefits of the medication are, but should consider the benefits of that medication relative to a less expensive generic competitor. This is the relevant benefit of the name-brand medication and, in many cases, it will be zero. Similarly, we should evaluate the benefits of animal agriculture to humans in the various mentioned roles by comparing how well-off the relevant persons would be if they were not engaged in animal agriculture. In many cases, there are comparable alternatives available to capital, labor, and consumers who currently benefit from their engagement with animal agriculture. In the previous section, we mentioned the disvalue of the environmental damage wrought by such agriculture, and the harms that eating too many animal products can have on the health of consumers. In light of these facts, most humans might be better-off on balance if we moved away from intensive animal agriculture.

The second way to resist the simple argument that animal agriculture is unethical is to distinguish different types of animal agriculture. Very broadly, the idea is that if we distinguish which animals are farmed, and how they are farmed, we can identify parts of animal agriculture which are ethically unobjectionable, even if much of such agriculture is unethical for the very reasons suggested above.

First, consider the question of which animals fall under the scope of the simple argument against animal agriculture. As we claimed in the previous section, it is the fact that a being has the capacity for well-being and agency that grounds its ethical considerability, and not its biological species. Still, it is plausible to think that there are some nonhuman animals that lack the physiological basis for well-being and agency. For example, oysters entirely lack brains, making it very plausible that they never feel anything. This suggests that shellfish may be an important exception to the simple argument against animal agriculture. Further, the environmental impacts of shellfish harvesting and farming are less clearly problematic than much other industrial agriculture (Jacquet et al. 2017). Recall from the section “Veganism and Food Ethics Introduced” that one view distinct from veganism is ostroveganism, which permits the consumption of shellfish. This discussion of the significance of ethical considerability and environmental impacts suggests that ostroveganism may be a plausible competitor to ethical veganism (Cox 2010; Huemer 2019, Day 4).

Shellfish and mammals represent relatively clear extremes on a continuum of considerability-relevant capacities. Between these extremes, we confront two vexed questions:
  • What precisely are the capacities relevant to making a creature ethically considerable?

  • How can we ascertain whether a type of animal possesses such capacities?

Depending on how we answer these questions, even ostroveganism might turn out to be unreasonably demanding: perhaps certain fish and birds fail to count as ethically considerable, for example.

A different strategy for distinguishing ethically defensible parts of animal agriculture appeals to how the animals are farmed. Not all animals raised for food face the grim life of the factory-farmed chicken, after all. A small proportion of farmed animals have lives that are very plausibly worth living (Lomasky 2013, pp. 191–192). Some farms seek to minimize the harmful treatment of animals by promoting their well-being and allowing them to exercise their agency. But almost any economically viable animal agriculture will involve killing the farmed animals. For example, consider dairy farming: milk production in cows declines before their natural lifespans. And it is not economically viable to keep a full complement of adult male cattle through their full lives. One of the values we introduced in the previous section was the value of animal life. A clear objection to actually existing humane animal agriculture is that it involves the intentional killing of animals for human economic benefit or pleasure, values that are normally outweighed by the value of the life of an ethically considerable being.

Evaluating Eating

The previous section evaluated animal agriculture but conclusions regarding that topic do not address the question of how individuals should respond. In this section, we explore ethical reasons for individuals to respond by adopting a vegan diet.

Some values that might be claimed to support vegan eating have nothing to do with the issues just discussed: for example, one might become a vegan purely out of an interest in one’s own health. However, it is implausible that health concerns distinctively favor veganism over several of the competitors mentioned in the previous section, including the lessmeatarian, vegetarian, and ostrovegan. Because of this, the most prominent reasoning that favors veganism appeals to a link between the vegan diet and the ethical badness of animal agriculture.

Suppose for the moment that the way in which animal products are made causes vast amounts of ethically relevant bads (despite some of the complications sketched in the section above). One might deny that this had any implications for how one should eat. For example, suppose that you order the chicken entree at dinner. Let the treatment of chicken you will eat be as unethical as you like. Still, the chicken was already dead: you ordering and eating the chicken cannot possibly harm it.

There are several ways to try to bridge this gap. Here we will briefly discuss two prominent approaches.

The first approach appeals to the expected effects of one’s consumption choices on the values of animal well-being, agency, and life. The canonical presentation of this idea by Peter Singer begins by granting that it is highly unlikely that one’s own food choices will ever make a difference to actual animal welfare. However, Singer claims that this is not the end of the story. He suggests there must be some (unknown) threshold, at which – for example – increased numbers of vegetarians or vegans will reduce demand for chicken sufficiently to reduce the number of chickens made to suffer in factory farms. For example, “Perhaps for every 10,000 vegetarians there is one fewer 20,000 bird chicken unit than there would otherwise be” (1980, p. 335). However, we are ignorant of where the relevant threshold is. Perhaps we are away from the threshold, in which case the individual vegan makes no difference to how much chickens suffer. But given our ignorance of where the threshold is, we should take there to be a 1/10,000 chance that we are at the threshold. And if we are at the threshold, then one individual refraining from consuming chicken will save 20,000 chickens from a short life of suffering every couple of months. The probability of this chance for each vegan is the same as certainty that one will save two chickens from suffering. In a slogan: it is vanishingly unlikely that one will make a difference by being vegan, but if one does, it will be a correspondingly massive difference. One might then argue that this is enough to entail that one is ethically required to be vegan (see McPherson 2018, pp. 222–223).

This sort of argument faces several difficulties. Some of these difficulties are empirical in nature (Chartier 2006; Budolfson 2018). For example, some have argued that we have empirical reasons for believing that we are more than proportionally likely to be stably between thresholds of the imagined sort. Others have argued that we should be skeptical of the ability of individual buying decisions to produce any economic signals whatsoever in a large market. Other difficulties are more theoretical in nature. We can certainly grant that a small chance of making a large negative difference is sometimes significant, but it is unclear how precisely to theorize this significance. And it does not always seem to entail that an action is unethical: every time I drive a car, I marginally increase my chances of killing an innocent person. This does not seem to make it unethical for me to drive to the store to buy a snack.

At this stage we are granting for the sake of argument that animal agriculture is an unethical practice. A second approach suggests that we can have ethical reasons to avoid certain problematic relationships with unethical practices; for example, benefiting from practices that are unethical, and complicity with practices that are unethical.

First, consider benefiting from an unethical practice. One might think that other things being equal one should strive to avoid benefitting from such things. And one might think further that in eating animal products, one is precisely benefiting from the fruits of unethical animal agriculture. Yet, it is unclear whether one has reason to avoid mere receipt of an unethically produced benefit. Consider the freegan, who seeks to eat in ways that avoid contributing to (allegedly) unethical consumerism. And suppose that the freegan retrieves some meat from a supermarket dumpster and eats it. Such a freegan might insist that this behavior is not unethical because she is also single-mindedly opposed to the animal food system (Bruckner 2015).

Second, some might think that purchasing things produced via unethical activities makes the consumer complicit with those performing those activities. Complicity involves a primary person or persons engaged in unethical activities and a complicit person who helps those activities succeed or plays a role in them. Take a bank robbery. Asam and Bert rob a bank and are fleeing the cops. They ring your doorbell and ask if they can hide out. You let them hide in your basement. You didn’t commit the crime but your act made you an accomplice to Asam and Bert’s crime. It is plausible that being complicit with their crime in this way is itself unethical. Similarly, let’s say a dress was made by slaves that a shopkeeper owns and he tells you this. You buy it nonetheless. While it is not you who is enslaving the workers, you do play a role in their enslavement by giving the shopkeeper your money in exchange for the dress. This makes you complicit because in doing so you fill the role of customer, providing resources that help the shopkeeper continue his unethical activities. Similarly, purchasing animal products makes one complicit with the unethical practices used to produce them. As in the bank robbery example, it is plausible that being complicit in this way is itself unethical. So, there may be good ethical reasons to refuse to purchase animal products, as vegans do.

So far, we have been focusing on how to argue for veganism given the assumption that animal agriculture is generally unethical. It is worth emphasizing that similar questions apply for the ethical omnivore and the ostrovegan, given different assumptions about animal agriculture. Suppose, for example, that one took the cultivation and harvest of shellfish to be ethical, but other animal agriculture to be unethical. This will only support ostroveganism provided that some connection of one of the types just discussed can be forged between the ostrovegan stance and any unethical practices.

Vegan Ethics Beyond Consumption

It is easy to think of veganism as concerned only with questions of what one should buy, eat, or otherwise use. And this invites the idea that veganism is in some sense ethically myopic, motivated by a desire to have “clean hands” instead of concern with the treatment and lives of animals. It is plausible that this is a bad picture of a vegan ethic: to invert the familiar slogan, it seems to suggest that the personal is apolitical. While discussion of veganism has largely focused on consumption, it is arguable that a vegan ethic can have much broader implications, which we briefly explore here.

As we noted in the section “Veganism and Food Ethics Introduced,” veganism might be associated with different ethical statuses. For example, it might be good to be a vegan, or veganism might be ethically required. If it is required, the requirement might be more or less serious. (Contrast the seriousness of the requirement to keep your promises with the requirement not to engage in genocide.) The implications of a vegan ethic beyond the question of consumption will vary with the seriousness of its ethical status.

For example, if veganism is merely a good way to be, this may have quite limited implications beyond one’s consumer choices. By contrast, suppose that being a vegan is a serious ethical requirement in light of the ethical considerability of nonhuman animals and their horrendous treatment in agricultural systems. (Some vegans believe this. For example, Michael Huemer claims that eating animal products was the worst thing he has ever done (2019, Introduction)). It would be very surprising if this sort of conclusion had no implications for ethical and political questions beyond one’s consumption choices. Here, we will sketch several potential avenues for such implications.

Consider first a classic question of political philosophy: the nature of ideal socio-political arrangements. It is striking that leading accounts of this ideal rarely include substantive discussions of the relation between these arrangements and nonhuman animals. Given that a vegan ethic is grounded in the judgment that animals are ethically considerable, it would fit naturally with a view of ideal socio-political arrangements which ensures that all ethically considerable animals are protected from unethical treatment. Yet there are important questions about how this aspect would affect the overall structure of existent views of ideal arrangements (Nussbaum 2006; Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011; Plunkett 2016). For example, one important question concerns the relationship between a vegan ethic and liberal political ideals that make a place for pluralism, reasonable disagreement, and individual freedom. A stock liberal idea is that there is a profound contrast between how ideal socio-political arrangements should treat those who hold reasonable views with which their fellow citizens might reasonably disagree, in contrast to how it should treat those with unreasonable views. A liberal vegan ideal would thus need to determine whether the omnivore’s view is reasonable, such that an ideal liberal state should not use its coercive powers to prevent, for example, farmers from keeping and harming animals, or unreasonable, such that the ideal state should, for example, outlaw the production or consumption of meat.

Consider next implications for how we evaluate our actually existing political institutions. If animals are ethically considerable, the systematic nature of their mistreatment may have implications for whether existing political institutions are flawed but legitimate or are systematically unjust. In turn, this evaluation will have implications for how citizens ought to relate to those political institutions. For example, it may affect what sorts of reasons one has to respect or resist the law, or to treat one’s engagement with one’s political institutions as something more than strategic.

More straightforwardly, if the treatment of nonhuman animals is an ethical catastrophe in our midst, this may demand political action of each of us. What sort of action it demands – from voting, protest and civil disobedience, through to more radical possibilities – will depend both on the legitimacy of one’s political system, as well as strategic considerations.

Finally, consider the ethical implications of veganism for our relationship with each other. If eating animal products is very seriously unethical, how should this affect one’s relationships to nonvegans? Should the vegan be willing to go to restaurants with others who will eat animal products as part of a shared social activity? Consider an analogy. If we learned that someone we knew had trafficked in slaves, this would strikingly alter whether it was appropriate to form or maintain a friendship with this person. Is it fitting for the vegan to react to the omnivore in the same way (Michaelson 2013)?


The number of people choosing a vegan diet has been growing at an increasing pace and mainstream brands, grocery stores, and restaurants have increased their vegan offerings in response. Many all-vegan restaurants have opened and some chefs have committed to producing all-vegan menus to show that vegan cuisine can be both as experimental and as satisfying as any other. An interest in personal health and concern with the environmental effects of animal agriculture do lie behind this trend. In this entry, however, we have emphasized the ethical criticisms of the way animals are treated in contemporary agriculture that motivate many people to choose a vegan diet. We have also endeavored to show that this ethical basis might push veganism beyond a personal food ethic to have wider social and political implications.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Georgian Court UniversityLakewoodUSA
  2. 2.Ohio State UniversityColumbusUSA

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