The only strong argument against vegetarianism

Most thoughtful people I’ve debated vegetarianism with eventually come to the conclusion that it’s the right thing to do. Or they accept the weaker claim that it would be a good thing if they ate less meat. Some people don’t accept either of these things, but that’s usually because they don’t want to think about the issue very much.

I recently thought of one argument against vegetarianism that I haven’t been able to convincingly refute, and which I haven’t seen brought up too often, so I thought I’d write about it here in case anyone else had any thoughts.

To recap the pro vegetarianism case: the reason we care about other humans is that they are sentient and feel pleasure/pain. This same reason applies to animals: like humans, they feel pleasure and pain. The fact that animals are less intelligent than humans does not mean we should assign them zero weight in our utility calculations. Eating animals gives us some utility, but for the animal, the utility of living more is higher than the utility we would get out of eating it. (To put it another way, your desire to eat an animal isn’t a good enough reason to kill it.) Therefore, eating animals is bad and we shouldn’t do it.

Most arguments against vegetarianism aren’t very good. You either have to deny that animals have utility (which clearly violates our moral intuitions), or give a good reason why intelligence makes lives more valuable (difficult, and implies that e.g. killing people with low IQs might be OK), or else just bite the bullet and because a ‘speciesist’ i.e. argue that humans’ needs/wants are more important. This violates the basic principle of impartiality.

So what’s the strong argument? Well, it’s a version of ‘The Repugnant Conclusion’, an argument made by the philosopher Derek Parfit in a different context (population ethics). It goes like this:

Suppose that we have a population ‘A’. ‘A’ has few members, but they’re very happy and live in luxury. Now imagine A has the option to add some people to their population, but their quality is life will be slightly less good. They should take this option, because the value of the additional lives is enormous (existing is better than not existing) and the value of the luxuries A has to give up is tiny by comparison. So population A grows bigger.

Now keep repeating this procedure; each time, there is *some* number of additional people you can add to the population, such that whatever the loss in quality of life, it’s still worth adding that number of people to the population, because the total amount of utility in the world increases. The diagram shows the two scenarios:

So that’s the Repugnant Conclusion: no matter how bad life gets for each individual person, it’s always worth adding more people, even if in the end everyone is living a miserable life and barely subsisting.

How does this apply to vegetarianism? Pretty simple: yes, killing animals to eat them isn’t a tasteful practice. But animals do get some utility out of living. So if we bring into a being a cow that otherwise wouldn’t have been alive, let it live for X years, and then mercifully kill it while it’s sleeping and eat it, that is still better than if the cow hadn’t lived at all: it’s had a happy life, and we had a nice meal after it died as well!

On strict utilitarian terms, this seems hard to argue against. You could argue that the animal’s life is so bad that it’s better for it not to have existed at all: this seems plausible for e.g. chickens raised in factory farms. But ‘The Repugnant Conclusion’ still applies as long as the overall utility-value of the animal’s life was positive. This would imply that e.g. eating ethically-raised meat is perfectly OK.

I haven’t been able to come up to a good response to this that relies solely on utilitarian assumptions; you’d have to resort to the idea that killing is *intrinsically* bad somehow, or other ‘deontological’ (i.e. principles-based, rather than consequences-based) arguments such as the Buddhist exhortation to respect all sentient beings.

Does anybody know a good response?


The student Doko came to a Zen master, and said: “I am seeking the truth. In what state of mind should I train myself, so as to find it?”

Said the master, “There is no mind, so you cannot put it in any state. There is no truth, so you cannot train yourself for it.”

“If there is no mind to train, and no truth to find, why do you have these monks gather before you every day to study Zen and train themselves for this study?”

“But I haven’t an inch of room here,” said the master, “so how could the monks gather? I have no tongue, so how could I call them together or teach them?”

“Oh, how can you lie like this?” asked Doko.

“But if I have no tongue to talk to others how can I lie to you?” asked the master.

Then Doko said sadly, “I cannot follow you. I cannot understand you.”

“I cannot understand myself,” said the master.

The Poems Of Our Climate


Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations – one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.


Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.


There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

— Wallace Stevens (1942)