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Deep Vegetarianism

By Dr. Michael W. Fox
July 2009

The Abolitionist-Online interview by Claudette Vaughan

Q: How do you regard animals and their moral status?

A: I am not what you would call an “animal lover,” though I have loved some animals with whom I’ve had a special connection. I am, however, full of admiration and compassion for them all. I do care about animals and what happens to them. In the final analysis, they are all helpless before us and in need of our self-restraint, benevolence, humility, and willingness to let-live. Animals are each expressions of their kind, and need no improvement by us; nor have we any grounds for claiming the superiority of our kind in relation to theirs. As to their moral status, this is rather more difficult to formulate. If rights exist at all, then I think animals have some. Those that seem most clear to me are the right to be left alone to develop and flourish in their own way, and the related right to essential habitat.

Q: You’ve spent a lot of your effort as a professional philosopher arguing for vegetarianism. How did you come to write Deep Vegetarianism?

A: It seems to be a natural tendency of scholars to move toward writing books once they’ve gotten into a subject and maybe published some papers on it. Often the topic calls for more in-depth treatment than these allow for. While I was going through this process in relation to food issues, I also noticed that at conferences on environmental ethics I was attending regularly, nearly everyone else was (among other things) talking about animals as if they had caring concern for them, and eating them at the same time. This struck me as a contradiction and I started to write about it. I quickly realised that many issues regarding dietary choice were related, but that they were being compartmentalised–held separate—and that this bore looking into. Here’s an example: pets are to be lavished with kindness and not eaten; domesticated “food animals” are to be given minimal “humane” treatment and exist only to be eaten. This sort of reflection in turn made me conclude that the various strands of the argument for vegetarianism—ethical, environmental, health, and so on—needed to be brought together and integrated in some way into a comprehensive theory, which might be called the “overall argument for vegetarianism.” Hence, the book was born.

Q: Can you be a meat-eating environmentalist and still be taken seriously?

A: No. That’s the point that sunk in for me. I know some environmentalists and environmental philosophers who adamantly disagree, but I think they’re wrong. All the defenses I’ve heard them offer derive either from outdated and morally outgrown assumptions about the meaning of our evolutionary past as hunters, or from naïve and self-serving ideas about humans’ role in their ecosystem. The bottom line is that we don’t need meat (unless there is no other food source), and meat production on the scale required to feed everyone is unsustainable, as the UN, Worldwatch Institute, and other organisations are indicating. Plus, no environmentalist meat-eater has ever shown convincingly why it is all right to cause gratuitous suffering to animals or to snuff out their intrinsically valuable lives just to satisfy a food preference. Let me add here that you can’t consistently have caring concern for animals and also eat them.

Q: So why isn’t the environmental movement taking vegetarianism on board in a big way?

A: I don’t know all the answers to this question, but partly it’s because of the mistaken beliefs I’ve just noted. Partly it’s because environmental thinking is seen to be opposed to animal rights thinking; that is, the environmentalist is more interested in the big ecosystem picture, not the fate of individual animals. Partly it’s because environmental groups depend on a lot of meat-eaters for their funding. This scene will change, I predict, as the idea that the meat-centered diet is unsustainable and environmentally destructive takes hold.

Q: How would you describe the philosophy of vegetarianism?

A: Briefly, the philosophy of vegetarianism is the view that if we inform ourselves fully about where our food comes from, make dietary choices that are good for us, seek to minimize the harmful impact our lifestyle has on the planet, and take responsibility for these choices, we will conscientiously opt to become vegetarians. In my book I argue that vegetarianism is a way of life grounded in ethical commitment and ecological sensibility. It is strong statement about our respectful role in the scheme of things and a dedication to feeding ourselves thoughtfully rather than in ways that are wasteful and cause widespread cruelty.

Q: It is possible to adequately feed everyone in the world (and then some). Why isn’t this happening? Why is there a food crisis, especially in the developing world?

A: A number of factors contribute to this situation, as you might expect. One of these is the manufacture of meat. As Frances Moore Lappé was the first to point out (in Diet for a Small Planet), meat is a “protein factory in reverse,” requiring as input many more times the protein it yields as output. Redirection of crop production from feeding livestock (where a high proportion of vegetable nutrients now goes) to feeding humans would therefore sustain much greater numbers of people and is a more sensible way to use land, water, and other resources. Then there’s the agribusiness industry--particularly the companies that control seeds--that is eroding traditional crops and pricing farmers to the margins of subsistence. Also, there’s the politics and economics of food production and distribution, neither of which really favors the poor, only the wealthy, the greedy, and those who wield power and their cronies. There are some rays of hope, however, such as the fair trade movement and direct-to-the-people agricultural assistance programs. I agree with George Monbiot’s thoughts in the essay “We cannot feed the world’s livestock and the world’s people,” especially his views that moving away from meat and toward veganism is the key to avoiding “structural global famine” in the future, and that dietary choice is an “urgent social justice issue.”

Q: In chapter 3 of Deep Vegetarianism you say, “Environmental ethics exists in many variants, but common to all of them is a concern to extend or refashion the moral community and to acknowledge and affirm the moral status of nature as a whole, or in part, in a way that has been previously denied.” In Australia currently the debate is just starting up again over nuclear energy and building nuclear power plants. The push is on from the federal government, which seems able to turn a blind eye to the impact it will have on health and the environment. How does your perspective relate to this issue?

A: First of all, as a species, and as a collection of nations (almost without exception), we’re heavily committed to an instrumentalist view of nature. That means using and using up whatever we can, with little or no regard for the long-term consequences, and showing no respect for the independent value of the world around us. In this sense, nuclear power, uranium mining, and uranium exporting represent business as usual. But in another sense, they represent a turn for the worse, in that this is a dirty and dangerous technology, also based on non-renewable resources. Australia has just agreed to export uranium to India (after refusing for the past decade to do so), and this is a bad sign, as India can’t be trusted, and in any case nuclear power and nuclear weapons are easy bedfellows. Australia is so beautifully situated to be a world leader in new clean energy technologies (not to mention other environmentally sound practices), but instead has chosen to let the world pass it by, opting to reap short-term gains from the coal and uranium industries and other forms of ecological devastation that drive same-old, same-old visions of economic growth. But again, there is hope that new leadership might make a difference. This whole issue underlines the critical need for a better relationship between humans and the rest of nature. We have to learn to stop taking all the time, to stop repeating the mistakes of the past, to really think outside the box and ahead of ourselves, to genuinely recycle, to act as if nature mattered. It was recently pointed out by Satish Kumar (author of You Are, Therefore I Am) that: “Without ecology, there is no economy.” The same thought is expressed by Rowan Williams (the Archbishop of Canterbury) and Paul Hawken (author of The Ecology of Commerce and co-author of Natural Capitalism). In other words, if we don’t work with nature it will work against us and we will surely fail, not just economically, but also perhaps dying out as a species. Isn’t it better to be on the right side rather than the wrong one, insisting on our rightness and self-aggrandizement in spite of all evidence that we’re heading toward a dead end?

Q: What are your hopes for the future?

A: We can’t live without hope and without ideals worth struggling for. My hope is that some creative ways will be found to bring peace to very troubled parts of the world, first of all. Next, that resources misdirected to conflict and armaments will be spent instead on promoting health, disease prevention, nutrition, and education, as well as saving the Earth–from global warming, thoughtless exploitation of resources, pollution, loss of biodiversity, and all the rest. Along the way, we may learn too that we have a common agenda of survival, which is more important than our differences—even our differences from other species.

Dr. Michael W. Fox is a well-known veterinarian, former vice president of The Humane Society of the United States, former vice president of Humane Society International and the author of more than 40 adult and children’s books on animal care, animal behavior and bioethics. He is also a graduate veterinarian from the Royal Veterinary College, London, whose research lead to a PhD (Medicine) and a DSc (ethology/animal behavior) from the University of London, England.

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