I have on several occasions questioned certain authors, typically ones who write about nonhuman animals, about whether their discovery that non-humans are intelligent, social, and emotional has led to the ineluctable conclusion that those creatures should not be abused, killed, and eaten. In response, I have encountered illogic and ersatz ethics to support the insensate continuation of culturally ingrained practices. I wasn’t expecting to come across yet another specious justification for participating in the meat machine when I picked up a book on Stoicism, but, as you will see from the letter I wrote to the author, he raised the topic, exhibiting willful ignorance. I have not included his response, but, like the others mentioned above, he has not yet found the courage to face facts.
Dear Mr. Pigliucci,
I have been reading your book How to be A Stoic. I consider myself a practicing Stoic, having got my start several years ago by reading William Irvine. Then, I read Seneca, the Enchiridion, and Marcus Aurelius. I was curious to see what practical application you were making of Stoicism. On that topic of ways in which Stoicism plays out in our daily lives, you raised the question of food.
On page 68, you say that one cannot calculate “just how many animals suffer and die when you take up a vegetarian diet, because large scale cultivation radically alters the environment of the planet depriving a number of wild animal species of ecological space.” One underlying assumption is simply inaccurate: that a vegetarian diet would necessarily require more plant farming. To the contrary, the existing footprint of cultivation would not become larger (maybe it would become smaller) because currently plants are cultivated for the consumption of animals that could be given to humans. Frances Moore Lappe in Diet for a Small Planet established many years ago that, if humans ate the plants under cultivation for animals, world hunger would cease. However, even if we imagine that more land would be cultivated with some effect on some species of wildlife, such effect could not approach the current suffering of farmed animals. To conclude otherwise suggests a lack of awareness of the suffering caused to produce all of the meat and dairy that is consumed: thousands of animals on a daily basis suffer and face terrifying and violent deaths. That is simply the truth that you can discover for yourself if you choose to look into how chickens, turkeys, pigs and cattle are raised. If you would care to take a look at the experience of animals put on a stock trailer and unloaded at the slaughterhouse and then look and listen to what goes on there and then magnify that into the millions, you could not question that, whatever else might result from “a vegetarian diet,” that spectacle should end.
Production of food like all human activities has an environmental impact, and, although my concern is mainly with ending suffering and killing of animals, there is no question scientifically that meat production is one of the worst producers of greenhouse gasses. (See https://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/livestock-climate-change-forgotten-sector-global-public-opinion-meat-and-dairy).
As a philosopher, you seem to have determined that morality extends only to humans. I assume you are familiar with Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. After Seneca, that book was the most influential I have ever read. There is no moral justification for cruelty to animals except the maxim “might makes right.” Intuitively that rule strikes me as wrong; deontologically, it is a poor rule to serve as a universal maxim; my experience indicates it is not conducive to the general welfare.
I have found that Stoicism supports morality that includes nonhumans. Just as Stoicism made you think about not wanting to be part of a bank that had engaged in disreputable practices, it has influenced me to conclude that, despite the way I was raised or what my culture dictates, I can and should make the reasoned decision to not be part of a process that inflicts suffering and death—whatever other options might exist, easy or not, that one is clear.