Values & Moral Judgements
Values are beliefs or outlooks that an individual, group or society accepts or thinks are desirable. You might value status, personal achievement, independence, music and money, but these are not necessarily moral values. Moral values are worthy and virtuous. We rely on them to help us make decisions about moral problems and do the right thing. The most basic moral values concern issues such as life, health, freedom, happiness, and opportunity for all. Since the 18th century such basic moral values have been incorporated into formal statements of moral rights. If we had no sense of moral values then morality would be impossible.
Your own personal values are an important part of you. They combine with all your other characteristics to make you unique. Your values derive from biological evolution and cultural background picked up from parents, teachers, colleagues and peers. They develop from childhood and continue to form throughout your life. You may modify or abandon your values and they combine in a hierarchy by which some values have priority over other ones and everybody embraces mutually conflicting values without realising it.
Inevitably your values will clash with other people's values and this in particular is where you have to make moral judgements about what you think should be and what you think you should do. Learning that your neighbour has just poisoned your beloved pet, you must go through a decision-making process: do nothing, prosecute him for acting illegally, or kill him in return. You have to make a moral judgement, an expression of the rights and wrongs, goods and bads of your position, and that depends on your moral values.
Also see Intrinsic Value and Instrumental Value
Vegetarians do not eat animals. A strict vegetarian, commonly called a vegan, does not eat animals or their products (like milk and eggs).
Why give up eating animals? You might see the raising of food animals - their production, transportation and slaughter - as inhumane and therefore immoral and unacceptable. The way animals are raised at factory farms and the vast numbers of food animals raised and slaughtered makes the food animal industry the single biggest cause of domesticated animal suffering nationally and worldwide.
Eating animals was once accepted as an essential part of a good diet. People claimed your health would fail and you might die if you did not eat meat. But generations of healthy vegetarians show that eating animals is dispensable. Most concerned individuals are powerless to influence the food animal industry; but by not eating animals they opt out of contributing to it. Vegetarianism is a personal commitment to animal life by setting an example to other people.
The term vegetarian was coined in 1847 at the inaugural meeting of the Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom, the world's first vegetarian society. The word is derived from the Latin vegetus, meaning whole, sound, fresh, lively.
"Our custom is all the support that the meat industry needs." Peter Singer (1986): Applied Ethics: All animals are equal. p223.
Numbers of Food Animals Killed
Billions of animals are killed every year worldwide for billions of people to eat. The US alone annually slaughters around 36 million cattle, three million sheep, 100 million pigs and over nine billion poultry. And the average amount of meat eaten per person worldwide has doubled from 21 kilograms per person in 1961 to 40 kilograms in 2002 (see Meat Consumption Worldwide.
You Cannot be a Complete Veggie
No one can be 100 percent vegetarian. You swallow the cells that are continually sloughing off on the inside of your cheeks. You also emit a near invisible spray from your mouth when you speak. Some of the spray carries cheek cells and other debris. While dining and talking with people across the table, some of their spray will land on your food. In the right light you can see this happen. Vegetarianism is about not eating animals. People are animals; so by eating yourself and other people you cannot be completely vegetarian. Vegetarianism is a matter of degree because we are all inadvertent cannibals!
Again, food crops are fertilised with the ground-up remains of millions of farm animals (see Factory Farming and Chickens). So their molecular remains are incorporated into your grain and vegetables. Furthermore, there are just so many animal derivatives incorporated into medicines and used as food additives that we cannot always definitely know whether or not we are forgoing eating animals. On the other hand, if you argue (narrowly) that vegetarianism is only about not eating actual meat, then you might disagree with this.
Degrees of Vegetarianism
You do not have to abstain from eating meat totally to call yourself a veggie because people practice different styles of vegetarianism. Grades of vegetarianism depend on whether you eat dairy products, eggs, fish, or even small amounts of mammal or bird meat. Grades include:
- Strict vegetarians or vegans
- Do not eat animals or any animal products, like milk, cheese, yoghurt, eggs, lard, gelatine, renet, cochineal, honey.
- Ovo-lacto vegetarians
- Do not eat meat but do eat dairy products and/or eggs. Ovo stands for egg and lacto for milk.
- Do not eat so called red meat (that is mammals, for instance cattle, sheep, pigs). But do eat poultry and seafood (fish, molluscs). Some semi-vegetarians may eat red meat but not from animals who are factory farmed or raised or obtained in some other inhumane manner.
- Do not generally eat meat but may do so if other people discard it as waste.
- Rarely eat meat.
You may think these grades are cheats: either you eat animals or you do not. But then you might also argue that being even a partial vegetarian is a first step toward a greater commitment to animals and is better than no commitment. Even if you are a meat-eater you could get your meat organic (fewer pesticides) and free-range.
Numbers of Vegetarians
A difficulty estimating the number of vegetarians is agreeing on the definition of vegetarian. Even so, the number of people who are vegetarians is small nationally and globally. Various polls suggest that one to three per cent of people in the US are vegetarian and about four to six per cent in Britain. In both countries the number of vegetarians appears to be growing. However, the habit of meat-eating is increasing, as human populations grow in developing regions, like China and Africa, and people become affluent they eat more meat.
Why Be a Veggie?
People become vegetarians for a number of reasons, some of which are:
You might agree that animals have moral rights - for instance the right to life, make their own choices, form normal social interactions with their kind, eat natural food and live in natural conditions - so that farming and killing animals to eat is a violation of their rights and is therefore morally wrong.
People give up eating meat when they become aware of how food animals are treated, especially where rearing, transport and slaughter cause the animals to suffer.
Vegetarians claims they are healthier in certain ways then meat eaters, for example vegetarians have lower blood pressure and fewer heart and bowel disorders. Some vegetarians claim pathogens in meat or chemicals ('additives') commonly added to meat can harm health. There is also a big illegal trade, largely unknown to the public, of slaughtering and processing animals in poor and unsanitary conditions whose meat is unsafe for human consumption.
Two good reasons for backing vegetarianism or for eating animals mindfully are:
Constant grazing of multitudes of cattle, sheep or goats prevents regeneration of the natural flora and its associated fauna. The topsoil erodes, making the land barren and the wild fauna and flora disappear. Forests in some countries are clear-felled for raising meat-animals and disappear along with the indigenous people.
Weight for weight the energy value of grain is several times greater than the energy value of the meat it produces if fed to food-animals. It is often said that a diet of grain could feed Earth's human population more efficiently than feeding the grain to animals so that we can eat their meat instead.
If you concede animals have interests, that like humans they want to survive and fulfil the full potential of their lives, then raising them for food and killing them would be morally wrong. To act morally right you would have to be a vegetarian or vegan, anything else is ignoring the intrinsic value of animals as food items and expresses speciesism.
Some people argue in favour of eating meat because it is what predators naturally do: the strong (predators) eat the weak (prey) and humans are the strongest so they should eat meat too. But predators cannot decide to be vegetarians. They evolved to eat meat and would die out if they did not eat animals. The same people who say we should eat meat because meat-eating is natural also disparage animals as mere 'beasts'. But they cannot have it both ways. If humans are on a higher level than the beasts then we should exercise a moral choice and protect beasts, not exploit them.
Another argument entreating meat-eating relies on humans always having eaten meat, even before they lived in caves. However, just because something has a long tradition or seems natural does not necessarily make it morally right. Robbery and murder are also part of the natural, long-established stock of human behaviour, but this does not make them necessarily ethical (see Naturalistic Fallacy).
The worst excesses of factory farming, raising animals as inert products on an industrial assembly line opposed to the least shred of caring ethics, seem set to blunder on. Although more people appear to be giving up eating animals, there is no way that all humanity will embrace vegetarianism by choice. The only possibility for conversion is if a meat-making machine were invented: chuck in any old junk at one end and out of the other streams food cheaper and indistinguishable from Jane Chicken and Joe Cow!
For & Against: argue your case
- Claim: Humans have rights. So animals who are also sentient should have a measure of rights too. The most basic animal right is to live and not be killed for food.
- Claim: Animals have interests and rights but people are more important. A moderate view is that humans are entitled to eat animals but that we have an obligation not to make animals suffer unnecessarily.
- Influence vs Morality
- Claim: Being a vegetarian will not influence the animal food industry because the industry is so big. Therefore it is pointless being a vegetarian.
- Claim: Any influence on the animal food industry by being a vegetarian is irrelevant. What matters is that if something is immoral, you should not do it. Meat eating is immoral, so you should not do it.
- Evolution & Choice
- Claim: We have evolved to eat meat, like wolves and tigers, so humans should eat meat too.
- Claim: Animals evolved to eat a mainly meat diet cannot survive as vegetarians. Humans evolved to eat a wide range of food; as omnivores we eat fruit, grain, vegetables as well as meat. So we can give up eating animals without harming ourselves.
- Extreme Places
- Claim: Eating meat is necessary in some regions of the world where crop yields are too low for people to survive. The Lapps in the Arctic eat mainly reindeer (caribou) because crops will not grow in such a cold climate. Therefore, some people have no choice but to eat meat.
- Claim: An atypical case like this one does not support eating meat in places where wholesome alternatives exist, as in most parts of the world where people live. The vast majority of humanity, unlike the Lapps, can choose whether or not to eat animals.
- Claim: A vegetarian diet does not supply enough protein. Meat supplies more energy and protein than vegetables, invaluable against malnutrition and starvation.
- Claim: Eating animals is not essential as we can meet all our nutritional needs from non-animal sources. We get too much protein in our western diet and can get all our needs from a balanced vegetarian menu.
- Grain vs Meat
- Claim: Raising meat animals is wasteful because to do so you have to convert several kilos of grain protein (feed for animals) to get one kilo of animal protein (meat).
- Claim: Meat animals can be raised on land, such as mountain pasture, that is too infertile to grow crops for humans to eat. In such places growing animals for meat can be worthwhile.
- Humane Slaughter
- Claim: Meat animals are not really harmed because they are slaughtered humanely.
- Claim: But the animals are still killed. In any case, transport to the abattoir and the slaughter are often inhumane.
- Claim: If animals have a moral right to life, then plants, as living creatures, also have a moral right to life. Vegetarians therefore deceive themselves that they are morally correct.
- Claim: Food animals are sentient; plants are not. Plants do not have minds. Vegetarianism is about not harming sentient creatures.
- Long Life
- Claim: Farm animals live longer lives than wild animals. So farming is good for them.
- Claim: But they must all go to the slaughterhouse in the end.
- Also see Factory Farming.
Some people call animals vermin for competing with human interests, particularly economic ones. For instance, gamekeepers, farmers and ranchers call any animal vermin that harms their stake of maximising the number of game animals to shoot (like deer, pheasants or partridges) or the number of livestock for the market.
Vermin (or varmints) are often predators like coyotes, wolves, dingoes, foxes, African wild dogs, stoats, wildcats, lions, cheetahs, leopards, tigers, and raptors such as eagles, hawks and falcons. Rodents, like brown rats and house mice who can pose health problems to humans or spoil human food, are also called vermin.
Great effort and expense is made to kill off vermin. Farmers and ranchers in the US kill coyotes, even though the money spent on killing them exceeds the cost of the damage they do. In Victorian and Edwardian Britain, gamekeepers came close to extirpating wildcats, polecats and pine martens, and succeeded in extirpating some raptor species.
Perception of animals as vermin is variable. For example, a profitable business existed in Britain in rabbit skins and meat up to the 1950's. But then the rabbit numbers plummeted and the rabbit industry subsequently collapsed after the introduction of the lethal rabbit disease myxomatosis swept the country. Thereafter rabbits were seen largely as vermin, an economic burden to be eradicated for the damage they cause, such as eating pasture that cattle might otherwise eat.
The term vermin is derogatory and used by people who are ignorant of man's place in nature and the role of competition among species. Competitor is a more intelligent term for species in competition with each other and with man.
Philosophical theory asserting that good and right moral acts do not depend on the consequences of your action, or on doing your duty, but arise instead from being a virtuous person. Virtue Ethics (also called Virtue or Value Theory) asks what should a moral person do. It replies that a moral action is right if it is founded on a morally virtuous character and wrong if based on a corrupt, depraved or vicious character.
Virtue Ethics is about the kind of person you are and as such contrasts with Consequence Ethics (acting for the best outcome) and Duty Ethics (doing what duty says you should do). Whereas both these theories ask what is the right thing to do, Virtue Ethics brings personality into consideration.
Virtue Ethics says you cannot isolate the making of ethical decisions from your personality. Your good actions are the result of good character. A person of good character is someone who has good admirable personal qualities, such as empathy, compassion, kindness, loyalty, honesty, prudence, wisdom and courage. Possessing admirable personal qualities makes you a virtuous person.
Examples of moral values of a virtuous person:
- Autonomy: your maximising the moral rights of others to make their own decisions.
- Beneficence: your doing moral good.
- Equality: your viewing all as moral equals.
- Finality: your taking moral action that overrides the demands of law, religion or social customs.
- Justice: your treating all morally fairly.
- Non-maleficence: your causing no harm to individuals and all.
- Respect: your consideration for the moral rights of others.
- Tolerance: your understanding and accepting the viewpoints of others.
- Universality: your basing your moral actions on decisions that hold for everyone, everywhere, for all time.
Moral education is an important aspect of Virtue Ethics if you assume that childhood is a critical time for developing virtuous character. Virtue ethics says you should always improve your character to be able to make moral judgements using your wisdom and should always act morally appropriately with the right intention.
As a virtue ethicist you might, for instance, approve or reprove individuals or companies. You might only support the ones that do not harm animals and nature. Are these individuals or companies advancing or opposing virtue? Are they progressive, admirable and responsible entities? Or are they insensitive, negligent and dishonest? Do they support virtuous or immoral values? Again, as a virtuous person, you could abstain from eating animals and from wearing fur, or you could keep a low environmental impact lifestyle.
Virtue Ethics flourished in Ancient Greece and Aristotle (BC 384 - 322) is often cited as its main philosophical representative. He said the opposite of a virtue is a vice, and that a virtue lies between two vices, that is between two extremes; courage is better than fearlessness and cowardice. Aristotle argued that a virtue is the mean or middle path between two vices.
Virtue Ethics expired in the fourth century AD when moral theories purporting to be given by God supplanted it. However, the 20th century brought it back to life and modernised it. Modern virtue ethics does not emphasize specific moral traits but says you should be virtuous in all aspects of your life and be a good person all the time.
An advantage of Virtue Ethics over Consequence Ethics and Duty Ethics is that it brings in all the qualities of being human - like reason, responsibility and emotion - to influence ethical consideration. You can apply Virtue Ethics in situations where you ask what sort of person you should be.
Virtue Ethics is one of three ethical frameworks we can employ to try and resolve moral issues, the other two being Duty Ethics and Consequence Ethics.
- Virtues or Attitudes?
- What is a good virtue? Some Ancient Greeks said virtues exist in their own right independently of man and are indisputable. Many people today hold that a virtue depends on people's attitudes and since attitudes vary from person to person and from society to society, so virtues must also vary. Thus there is no indisputable list of virtues and a virtue to one person or culture may be a bane to another. Virtue Ethics is therefore relative. It is not a consistent guide on how to act.
- Admirable personal qualities or traits do not in themselves tell us how to deal with moral problems. As a virtuous person you would not innately know the right thing to do. You would then have to turn to some other moral framework for guidance, like Consequence Ethics or Duty Ethics. Thus Virtue Ethics is not a basic ethical theory and is redundant.
- Even the most virtuous people make wrong moral decisions. So Virtue Ethics is not infallible.
Cutting into live animals to find out how bodies work. A part of biomedical research and teaching. See Animal Experimentation.
© 2004 Roger Panaman All rights reserved