"Don’t harm, and do help." In a 2009 Veritas Forum debate about whether God is necessary for morality, Yale Professor of Philosophy Shelly Kagan gave this statement as the most basic reason which makes an action right or wrong.
Most would agree with this principle, and it seems obvious that we should try to help others and do no harm. But as often happens in philosophy, this simple principle has far-reaching consequences, especially in how we treat non-human animals.
According to Kagan, "the question is, ‘Can creatures like chickens and cows be harmed?’ And the answer is, ‘Of course they can.’ Consequently, I think it’s immoral to harm them. And that seems to me to provide a very strong moral reason to be vegetarian."
As a vegetarian myself, this is roughly why I decided to stop eating meat three years ago. Since we must kill an animal in order to eat it, and killing is usually a form of harm, then we must harm animals in order to eat them in most cases. If we have a moral obligation not to cause harm, eating animals is then an immoral action.
Most people do not find this sort of argument convincing, and the issues involved can quickly become intricate and complicated. However, many do not realize that there may be another moral reason to avoid eating meat.
Climate scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body organized by the United Nations, have indicated that climate change is a major threat to the well-being of humans and animals. In their 2014 Synthesis Report, the IPCC says, "Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause…long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems." These impacts include mass extinctions, decreased food security, increased risk for many diseases and damaged properties near sea level.
Climate change refers to the fact that Earth’s average temperature is slowly rising, as well as the widely-accepted scientific theory explaining why things may be heating up. According to NASA, more than 97 percent of publishing climate scientists agree the Earth has been warming and human activities, especially greenhouse gas emissions, are a primary culprit.
What does climate change have to do with vegetarianism? In their 2009 study, "Climate Benefits of Changing Diet," scientists from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency pointed out 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by various elements of livestock production. They include "fossil fuel burning during production of fertilizer for feed production, the livestock production process, processing and transportation of refrigerated products," as well as mass deforestation to create more grazing land, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States. As a result, widespread reduction in meat-eating may be a viable option in mitigating the effects of climate change.
Though the proposal would face many challenges, switching to a low-meat or no-meat diet on a large scale could substantially reduce gas emissions and costs associated with handling negative climate effects by 2050. While these changes could not single-handedly end climate change, they could be an integral part of a global effort to combat its effects.
Thus, our best science indicates climate change will likely have drastic negative effects for humans and other animals unless somehow kept in check, and one way of reducing its effects may be to have large amounts of people reduce their meat consumption. If we agree with Kagan’s principle, we should reduce our own meat consumption in order to help others and refrain from causing harm. This is especially true in the developed world where dietary changes are easier to accomplish.
Skeptics may respond that individual changes in diet would not have any noticeable effect on the climate as a whole. They would likely say it makes no difference whether any individual kept eating meat or not, and of course it would be wrong to make eating meat illegal.
While I agree that eating meat should not be outlawed, I am not convinced by this response. First, I would suggest the skeptic underestimates the power of leading by example. When people see someone turning down a hamburger at a cookout and become exposed to the idea of vegetarianism, I think they would be more likely to consider the idea seriously. Moreover, social change always starts with a few activists making very little difference, but this does not suggest no one should try to make social changes.
We should take Kagan’s words very seriously. If we wish to help and not harm, maybe we should start by examining our everyday actions. By simply opting for vegetarian options, we could have a noticeable impact on our environment and the world around us.