With the rise of social change movements, more people are standing up against injustice and asking to end harmful practices — one of which is putting an end to eating meat.

The advocates of the latter group are called ethical vegetarians, and some believe that one’s species is about as morally irrelevant as their birthplace, color, race, or sex.

But, what exactly are the ethical arguments against eating meat and where did ethical vegetarianism originate from? That’s what we discuss in this thought-provoking article.

Environmentalism and Vegetarianism

Let’s face it. We are destroying our planet. There is irrefutable proof that human activity has altered our planet’s climate. In pursuit of development, we have changed the earth’s composition causing polar ice caps to melt, sea levels to rise, and the oceans to warm up.

Global Warming

Given its disastrous implications, the idea that climate change is a human rights crisis is enjoying increasing popularity every day. Almost two-thirds of Americans think that the government should be doing more to reverse climate change. There are more who believe that climate change occurs as a direct consequence of human activities. These beliefs, coupled with inaction on the government's part, have encouraged many people to take initiatives of their own. One such decision was to cut meat from their diet.

On the surface, it doesn't make sense how our food can cure global warming, right? However, based on the evidence from numerous researches, it has become an established fact that everything we do affects our environment, and yes, even eating beef steak.

For starters, the decomposition of manure produced due to livestock farming is responsible for a considerable portion of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide is another well-known greenhouse gas. This gas, along with methane and carbon dioxide, forms an insulation layer around the earth, thus trapping heat rays. An excess of these gasses prevents most UV rays from leaving the earth, thus causing the global temperature to rise.

Moreover, livestock farming is responsible for 18% of global methane production. So, a decrease in it automatically translates to less methane gas emission. Thus a global-scale transition to a low-meat diet can be key to reversing climate change effects.

Greenhouse Gas Emission

More and more people have begun discussing climate justice from the lens of animal welfare. It's high time we take this discourse seriously and focus on the human-induced climate change resulting from livestock and red meat farming.

If you look at recent studies on this subject, you’ll find that just by reducing meat consumption or completely shifting to plant-based diets at a global scale, we can substantially improve our environment. What's more, we would be able to free 2,700 Mha of pasture and 100 Mha of cropland. By regrowing vegetation on these lands, we can dramatically increase the carbon uptake from the environment.

Protecting Human Interest

Another motivation behind ethical vegetarians is the knowledge that climate change also threatens human rights. According to Simon Caney — Each human has a right to life, health, and subsistence. And no human shall deprive another human of their fundamental rights.

But climate change due to anthropogenic activities threatens these three fundamental rights. Say a tornado hits a man’s farm. The victim is at risk of:

  1. 1
    Losing his life (the first right)
  2. 2
    Getting injured (the second right)
  3. 3
    Losing his farm and livestock (the third right)

Therefore, ethical vegetarians advocate that it is in our best interests to prevent or at least deescalate climate change, for it can deliver carnage to the threshold of millions of humans.

So the question isn’t how climate change affects humans, but how it does not? As mentioned in the example above, there are countless ways in which humanity will suffer due to climate change. But apart from that, we have to consider:

Animal Welfare

But that's not all. Ethical vegetarians believe that we are risking the lives of billions of sentient beings by letting climate change progress. And this is how it's true. Consider all the extreme weather reports we have been hearing about in the news — Australian bushfires, cyclone Ana in Fiji, super typhoon Rai in the Philippines.

These disasters undoubtedly affect human settlements but imagine how many animal lives were lost. The havoc extreme weather wreaks on animal lives is unimaginable. This includes the birds, wildlife, and livestock that weren’t deemed important enough to be evacuated or protected, for example, the loss of three billion animals in Australia during the deadly 2019-2020 fire.

Therefore, ethical vegetarians believe they have to speak on behalf of these innocent animals. Because in all honesty, animals are the most susceptible to disasters caused by climate change.

Animal rights and Vegetarianism

Animal rights is the focal point of all conversations related to vegetarianism. However, this debate isn’t new. Pythagoras, in his book ‘The Kinship of All Life,’ remarked about man’s cruelty towards sentient beings. He believed this behaviour was beastly, and ill-suited to learned men.

Centuries later, the sentiment is preserved, and people are once again acknowledging the maltreatment of animals, hence the rising interest in ethical vegetarianism.

History of Ethical Vegetarianism

The first ethical defense of vegetarianism was not proposed until 6th BCE. The man behind this reasoning was none other than Pythagoras, the famous mathematician. However, he excelled at more than just that, as his work extended to astronomy, music, and apparently philosophy.

According to Pythagoras, the human soul transmigrates to an animal after death. Therefore, man should avoid eating food animals as they may accidentally harm a fellow human. Once again, this belief was tied with Pythagoras’s religious inclinations, which happened to be quite similar to the Buddhist belief of reincarnation.

But, many present-day vegetarians do not believe in reincarnation or similar concepts. So what is their motivation for committing to a vegetarian diet?

Today we call it the ‘Radical Equality Thesis.’ Meaning all living beings are equal in fundamental worth or moral status. And, if you take a look at ancient Greece; the world’s earliest civilization, you’ll find that even philosophers who did not agree with Pythagoras's view on transmigration — Plutarch and Seneca, for instance — still supported vegetarianism, for they believed that animals possessed the same qualities as humans; if a little less.

Later came Porphyry, another great Greek scholar, who like Plutarch, believed that humans and animals belong to the same moral community. Therefore, eating animals sullies the moral fabric of a person.

Thus the Greek civilization believed that eating flesh is a sign of coarse morals and a meat-eater to be a man desensitized to the sufferings of others, particularly animals.

However, ancient civilizations did not practice the vegetable diet for very long. Soon neo-Platonism and Christianity arose and divided humans from animals through radical metaphysical and moral distinctions. Thus, their aversion to eating meat was gradually eliminated. And it remained so until the advent of the 18th century, which saw the vegetarian belief revive itself.

Animal Cruelty and Awareness

Considering climate justice as a means for animal welfare is one thing, to demand the ethical treatment of farm animals; completely another. However, the present-day moral considerations and the desire to end animal cruelty have compelled many people to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle.

Upon forming a connection between the food they eat and the animal from which it is derived, most people decide to give up on it. In a study conducted by the Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, children and adults alike were asked to narrate their reason for becoming an ethical vegetarian.

Young ethical vegetarians, or those who became one at a young age, recalled finding out about the origin of their favorite thanksgiving turkey. As it often is for young minds, the realization was pretty horrifying. Thus, they decided never to eat meat or fish again.

For people who became ethical vegetarians at a rather later stage, the reasons were vastly different. Some people said that a pet or an incident made them more conscious of animals’ lives and suffering. For others, it was merely physical aversion to the meat or a way of taking control of their life when everything else seemed to be spiraling out of control.

However, the majority of the respondents adopted a gradual route to vegetarianism, starting by removing red meat, chicken, fish, then dairy products, and finally eggs from their diet. Although many ethical vegetarians mentioned the health benefits of a vegetarian diet, a thing that prompted them to continue their vegetarian ‘journey,’ it was typically a secondary cause.

On the other hand, health vegetarians described their increasing awareness of animal suffering as a greater driving force to adopt a plant-based lifestyle. Still, the benefits of vegetarianism are vast. Plant-based diets are found to positively impact our blood pressure, metabolic health, diabetes type-2, and certain cancers such as breast cancer and colorectal cancer.

Although many vegetarians remove the red and white meat from their diet, this courtesy is not extended to fish and seafood. A major reason behind this is that fish are not believed to be as sentient or intelligent as other animals. However, one study has falsified this claim.

According to it, fish are more likely to be sentient than not. This study compared the behavior of fishes with tetrapods. Surprisingly, they exhibited the same level of stress, fear, and anxiety as tetrapods. This has led people to demand special cruelty laws made for farmed fish.

One popular question many people ask is how are ethical vegetarians different from vegans? If both groups reject animal-based products on an ethical basis, where does the difference lie?

Firstly, you must know that vegans remove ALL animal-based products from their diet; this includes honey, milk, cream, cheese, yogurt, fur, leather, et cetera. On the other hand, ethical vegetarians only omit unethically obtained animal-based products from their diet.

Consider the fact that vegans refuse to eat almonds in protest of the unethical treatment of bees at industrial farms. On the other hand, ethical vegetarians will consume almonds if obtained through natural bee pollination. Similarly, this treatment extends to eggs and other animal-based products too.

The Takeway

Not eating meat is not a new idea. Quite the contrary —  Vegetarianism has been a widespread religious belief for a long time, particularly in the east. It was first introduced centuries ago by an ancient Greek philosopher. Now, centuries later, we are still entertaining this belief. However, now it's more popular than ever. From health reasons to environmental concerns, and animal welfare, there are many reasons why people abstain from eating meat.


As we are witnessing a global shift in our perception of previously well-accepted beliefs and values, people are adopting progressive stances on all issues — particularly eating meat. The year 1990 first saw the rise of contemporary ethical vegetarianism. Ever since then, it has been gaining popularity every day.


Gone are the days of general ignorance. Now we have proper studies with science-backed evidence showing how ethical vegetarianism can be our way of helping the planetEthical vegetarians call for reducing or omitting meat from the human diet on several grounds such as loss of animal lives, link of livestock farming with climate change, and global warming.


An ethical approach to vegetarianism details how consuming animal meat negatively affect us. Moreover, in the long run, it is us who stand to lose much. Besides, livestock farming disrupts the climate and jeopardizes human life, health, and the well-being of animals.

About the Author Lillian

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