by Harold Hillman

In the developed world, an increasing proportion of the population is vegetarian, and even more do not eat red meat. The health food industry is thriving. People become vegetarians for the following reasons: a) they believe that it is morally wrong to rear and kill animals to eat, when it is possible to live in good health without doing so; b) they believe that a vegetarian diet is healthier. ( Although a number of well-designed studies have shown that vegetarians are, indeed, healthier than the rest of the population, this may be due to the fact that they eat less, weigh less, smoke less and tend to drink less than there confreres, so it is difficult to separate these factors - which are known to favour good health - from vegetarianism as the cause of their robustness ); c) much more land is required to rear animals for slaughter than for growing the same amount of protein-containing plants; d) the sight, smell and sound of slaughter houses and the slaughter itself is unpleasant, even when the animals have been transported to the slaughter houses in humane conditions; e) an increasing proportion of animals are reared in battery conditions or in factory farms, which are thought to be cruel; f) orthodox Moslems and Jews who eat meat from animals slaughtered in conditions meeting their ritual requirements sometimes say they are vegetarians, because their halal or kosher slaughter is not widely understood; g) their parents are vegetarians.

There are subdivisions of the vegetarian belief. The main one is that vegetarians eat no meat, game or fish, although some people who call themselves vegetarians abstain from red meat or fish alone. Vegans eat no product derived from dead animals, including particularly milk, eggs and animal fats. They wish to have nothing to do with anything derived from animals, bearing in mind that : human consumption of cows' milk involves separating many calves from their mothers and killing most male calves; the vast majority of eggs today are produced under battery conditions, and thediet of hens is often supplemented with fish meal , made by grinding up fish not necessarily of 'edible' quality; animal fats are widely used in cooking, frying, and in baking.

Yet many vegetarians are not entirely consistent in their thinking. Many consider it wrong to eat meat, but they wear leather clothes. Some wear fur coats. Some do not wish to recognise the animal products in such foods as bread, sweets and jelly.

In this article, I would like to consider the consequences of following to its logical conclusion the belief that it is morally undesirable to kill animals unnecessarily. In doing so, I am exploring the consciences of those who practise vegetarianism on ethical grounds. To most of these people, vegetarianism is not merely a diet, but a way the exploitation of animals in the activities listed in Table 1 also becomes unacceptable.

  1. Hare coursing Hunting Fishing Shooting Bull fighting Dog fighting Cock fighting Falconry Horse racing Circuses Rodeo
  2. Factory and battery farming Whaling
    Feeding healthy animals on hormones and antibiotics. Transport of living animals long distances, without due care.
    Castration of farm animals Bee keeping Trapping Ferreting Seal culling
  3. Vivisection
    Experiments or observations on dead animals. Use of tissue cultures.

Table 1 Conditions of animal exploitation in a) sport, b) the food and clothing industries, c) medical, veterinary and biological research.

A few comments are appropriate about some of the conditions in which animals are exploited .

  1. In this country, there have been several attempts in Parliament to make hare coursing illegal, and the official policy of the Labour Party is to make hare coursing and hunting with hounds illegal, if it obtains power at the next election. It has never sought to legislate against fishing, which is believed to be a hobby of over 3,000,000 people in Britain. Many people believe that fish do not suffer when they are caught by the rod or at sea. This is contrary to the beliefs of all biologists.
  2. Some people, for example, the Duke of Edinburgh, and many hunting people, believe that it is possible to take an active part in preserving wild life, while shooting or 'culling' animals; they make a distinction - found naturally in animal populations - between preservation of a species and avoiding killing individual animals. (Is this casuistry, rationalisation, imitation of nature, or genuine concern for animals?)
  3. Dog fighting and cock fighting are illegal in Britain, but are still practised clandestinely as sports.
  4. In horse racing, the animals are subjected to unphysiological stresses, and they are whipped; they sometimes trip and break a leg or back. However, after they have been conditioned by training, they do not necessarily suffer just by running fast.
  5. In bull fighting and rodeo, pain is inflicted on the animals to make them fight or jump more spectacularly.
  6. In circuses, training of wild animals for performances sometimes involves pain for them, but painful techniques are being used less often nowadays, and increasing numbers of circuses are dispensing with wild animal acts altogether.
  7. In factory farming and hen batteries, the animals are regarded as machines, and conditions are manipulated for the maximal production of meat, milk and eggs of appropriate taste and quality, at the most marketable time of the year, frequently in reaction to subsidies from the Common Market. Those who produce food in this way argue that the conditions which favour maximum food production are identified with those of optimal welfare of the animals. However, the difficulty of controlling the spread of epidemics, the high rate of mortality and the growing awareness of the sensitivities of animals, have militated towards developing more humane conditions of farming, which are often as productive of food. The organisation Compassion in World Farming has specialised in promoting the latter viewpoint.
  8. There seems to be no dispute that whaling, in which these sensitive mammals die slowly of blood loss or electrocution, is painful in the extreme. Many countries including the United Kingdom, no longer catch whales, partly because some species are near extinction, partly because appropriate oils, for example, for margarine and lubricants, can be obtained more cheaply from other sources, and partly in response to a growing abhorrence at the cruelty involved.
  9. There is deep concern that feeding farm animals with hormones to increase meat or milk yield will have an adverse effect on the people who consume them. This is possible, but clear unequivocal evidence for this belief is not yet forthcoming. It is far more likely that adding small quantities of antibiotics, so that they would not be effective for treating patients infected by those particular species of bacteria. Microbiologists, physicians and surgeons, are increasingly concerned about the development of bacteria resistant to the safest antibiotics, such as penicillin.
  10. Recent investigations by the RSPCA have uncovered widespread flouting in the European Common Market of regulations governing the transport of live animals. Frequently, they travel in excessively crowded conditions for long distances. The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries has been appraised of these circumstances, but so far, has not been very active in improving them.
  11. Force feeding and castration of animals causes them stress and pain, as, of course, they are done in fully conscious animals.
  12. Some vegans regard the replacement of the bees' honey by sugar as cruel, and do not eat honey.
  13. Trapping animals for fur frequently involves them in a slow death from starvation and cold, often in great pain.
  14. Seal "culling" is justified by those who do it on the grounds that seals eat a great deal of fish, which the fisherman would otherwise catch. Also, in keeping down the population of seals, they are preserving the species in a Darwinian sort of way. Frequently, the young pups as well as adult seals are beaten on the head until they are believed to be unconscious because they cannot move, and then they are skinned alive. It is easier to skin a living seal than a dead one. Of course, their furs are still valuable.
  15. One must make a distinction between vivisection, which is experiments on living animals, and experiments and observations on animals which have been freshly killed under as humane conditions as possible. In Britain, the individual experiments on living animals have to be justified and licensed. If an operation would cause pain, they must be anaesthetized, and often they are killed while still under anaesthesia. Animals used for testing the effects of toxicity of drugs or cosmetics, or the efficacy of antibiotics, may have frequent injection, may be force fed, and may be in pain before death. There is a widespread belief that testing methods using pieces of tissue, so-called "in vitro" methods, do not involve killing animals. Of course, they do, since the original tissue for culturing is obtained from recently killed, usually embryo or very young animals. However, if the tissue grows and divides in culture through many generations, this results in many fewer animals being used than would be necessary, if separate batches of while intact animals were used instead. This is valuable when it yields information relevant to the intact animal or human being. Part of the confusion derives from the fact that the term "in vitro" is used in biology to describe experiments: firstly using tissue excised from recently killed animals, secondly, using tissue which have been cultured for several generations, and, thirdly, employing microbes in culture media.

If one does not eat flesh because it was derived from living animals, logically one should also avoid buying clothes and accessories made of skin. (Table 2.)

  • Attache and briefcases
  • Belts
  • Handbags
  • Wallets
  • Leather and sheepskin jackets
  • Watch straps
  • Fur, sealskin and suede coats
  • Gloves
  • Leather and suede shoes

Table 2. Clothing often made of skins. Nowadays, many of these items are manufactured with man-made materials, which are usually cheaper.

In addition to clothes and food, frequently recognised as being of animal origin, some popular foods and domestic materials often contain animal products, usually in small concentrations. (Table 3.)

  • Bread


  • Toothpastes
  • Cheeses
  • Soaps
  • Biscuits


  • Perfumes
  • Cakes
  • Polishes
  • Sweets and chocolates
  • Glues
  • Jellies
  • Lubricants
  • Baked beans
  • China

Table 3. (a) Foods (b) Household items, sometimes not recognised as containing animal products. The foods often contain animal fats, starch or gelatine, all derived from slaughtered animals, in addition to milk and milk products. Some fine china is made with bone charcoal.

If one pursues the idea of vegetarianism as a way of life, its mode of thinking can be represented as a "syndrome" involving attitude to many other human activites. Most vegetarians also oppose the following list of practces (Table 4):

  • Torture
  • Intimidation
  • Wife battering
  • Threats to relatives
  • Child abuse
  • Starvation as punishment
  • Slavery
  • Deprivation of sleep during interrogation
  • Rape
  • Deprivation of access to toilets
  • Paedophilia
  • Execution
  • Flogging
  • Corporal punishment in schools
  • Child labour
  • Boxing
  • Infanticide
  • Wrestling
  • Child marriage
  • Solitary confinement
  • Female circumcision
  • Nuclear armament
  • Shackling or manacling
  • Imprisonment in cages
  • Psychiatric abuse

Table 4. Human activities (a) probably opposed by most of the population of civilised countries (b) more vehemently opposed by the vegetarian personality.

It would seem superfluous to list the activities under (a) in Table 4, were it not for the facts that: these activities are probably more widely practised in developed countries than is generally realised; they are common in many underdeveloped countries, probably for historical reasons; often pressure from advanced countries can influence practices in countries with which they have had historical or cultural links; the "vegetarian personality" is more likely to be in the forefront of active opposition to these practices than the non-vegetarian is; the vegetarian is more likely to take an internationalist view and oppose such cruel practices abroad. I do not wish to imply that the majority of civilised people in all countries would not oppose these practices resolutely also, but the fact that some of them, such as torture, slavery, flogging, child marriage, female circumcision and psychiatric abuse, occur in many countries today indicates the unwillingness or inability of their rulers or public opinion to eradicate them.

Amnesty International has documented systematic torture in half the countries of the world. Wife battering in Britain has led to the opening of refuges for these unfortunate women, and their number is increasing all the time. The huge response against child abuse to the campaign on television fronted by Esther Rantzen has highlighted the extent in Britain of the problem previously recognised in Holland, and now likely to be investigated in other advanced countries. The Anti-Slavery Society has records of widespread child slavery in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Public flogging is frequently practised in Arabia and Pakistan. Infanticide - especially of girls - has not yet been stamped out in China. All these examples are given to show that in a world-wide context, the vegetarian still has huge international concerns to which he or she might be more sensitive than their confreres.

When now, we examining list (b) in Table 4, we can be virtually certain that the vegetarian will extend concerns for animals to the fates of human beings. Execution is a barbaric practice, (New Scientist, 27 October 1983), many of whose supporters would probably not be prepared to carry out themselves, nor wish to see carried out on members of their own families. Similarly, most modern educators regard the perceived necessity for corporal punishment in schools to be an admission of failure of the educational and disciplinary progress - not necessarily due to the activities of those who regard such a form of punishment as necessary.

Boxing and wrestling are in a different category, in that two persons voluntarily fight each other, so that we should not complain if they choose to do so. However, in boxing the aim of one boxer is to knock down the other. If the latter stands up again fully conscious, he will be just as capable of continuing the fight, and perhaps more motivated to counter-attack. Of course, that is the fun of the game. The aim of the boxer is to concuss his opponent's brain so that he may remain unconscious for the period of the count. This is true concussion in the neurological sense of the word. Occasionally, it results in death without regaining consciousness. In a number of spectacular cases - but by no means the majority - a lifelong career in professional boxing has resulted in neurological, psychological and radiologically detectable, deterioration of the brain. One of the mysteries for neurologists is why some boxers are permanently damaged and some are not.

Nevertheless, one cannot avoid the fact that the aim of a boxer is to cause short-term damage to his opponent's brain. The aim of the wrestler is to score points, weaken and tire his opponents. Society has to ask itself the question as to whether it is a proper activity for human beings to watch two people deliberately inflicting damage and pain on each other. It is as well to remind ourselves that before the Queensberry Rules of the last century, bare knuckled boxers would go on punching each other for any number of rounds. The Rules were devised to enable checks on the state of the boxers to be made at intervals, and to regulate the punishment each could take before the fight was abandoned.

Concern is expressed among the public and boxing authorities whenever a boxer dies after a fight. It is likely in the future that all professional boxers will be examined before and after all bouts, and that doctors will attend the fights. The suggestion that they have some influence on the referees to stop the fights is likely to be resisted by the boxing authorities, mainly because of a suspicion that the doctors might be tempted to order the abandonment of a fight before the referee himself would. Nevertheless, in view of the methods of both boxing and wrestling, one may predict beyond reasonable peradventure that vegetarians would favour their being made illegal.

Solitary confinement is a practice carried out by prison authorities in liberal regimes, by commandants in labour camps and by terrorists on hostages. It varies from a single warmed room with bed, table and chair, natural light and access to reading and writing material, to a prisoner with only a night dress in an unheated concrete room with no bed or chair, or a prisoner manacled to a bed in a dark room. Occasionally, it is done to protect the prisoner himself from being intimidated by others of different political or religious views, or who has committed crimes such as child molesting which other prisoners regard as going beyond their acceptable limits. If solitary confinement is done to protect the prisoner for a short period, it would not offend the vegetarian conscience.

Everyone in the world believes in nuclear disarmament. Some British people think that Britain should abandon its own nuclear weapons and depend on the Americans to defend them. Others believe that the Warsaw Pact has no intention of attacking Britain in any case, so we need not worry. Others do not wish to have anything to do with nuclear weapons, but are not pacifists. Others again, are total pacifist and conscientious objectors. It is both a reasonable expectation and a personal observation that there is a much higher incidence of nuclear disarmers of various shades among vegetarians than there is in the population at large.

Before slavery was abolished, anyone preparing a campaign to persuade the public that slavery was undesirable would try to summarise the reasons for which slavery was then a widely accepted practice among decent people. So it is appropriate to list the reasons for which the majority of the population of all civilised countries eat flesh. These are as follows:

  1. They have always done so, and the question of the desirability on health, nutritional, sociologically, psychological or ethnical grounds has not hitherto been posed publicly enough to invite an answer from those in the forefront of thought.

  2. People like the taste of animal and fish products, and nearly all traditional cookery has been based on their used.

  3. Farming animals is probably the oldest traditional industry, and employs a substantial number of people. If the population became vegetarians, farmers would either have to change to arable crops or give up their occupation. Although, today, they are worried about the diminishing consumption of meat, at present they do not feel that animal farming is under real threat from vegetarianism in the foreseeable future. The wider consumption of artificial textured protein of plant origin will compete with meat and fish, since it will be cheaper, and in time may be made to taste better. In the short run, this will pose a much greater threat to the animal farmer.

  4. There is a widespread feeling that vegetarian food is not so tasty or so easy to prepare. Certainly, it would require a change in cooking methods by housewives if they were to adopt a vegetarian diet, but it might well be no more than that occasioned by the fast food revolution, the deep freezes and the microwave ovens of recent years.

  5. In many countries, eating meat is thought of as being manly.

  6. If one accepts the idea that the vegetarian attitude also encompasses opposition to all the activities listed in Table 4, one is seeking substantial social, political, economic, religious, prison and legal practices in those particular areas, in which each of the activities is accepted or tolerated. These would be resisted by those who currently regard them as normal within their societies.

  7. Blood sports, whaling, factory farming, trapping, boxing, horse racing and rodeo, employ a large number of people directly, and many more earn their living from the betting industry, provision of the equipment and journalism, in connection with them. Therefore, the abandonment of these activities would change the lives of many people, who would have to be employed in other occupations. Obviously these people and those involved in activities discussed under (f) will present a powerful lobby to resist curtailing their own currently lawful and popular activities.

It is clear that it will be a mammoth, if not impossible, task to persuade the public to become vegetarians either in the strictly dietary sense, or in the broader philosophical sense proposed here. Nevertheless, it would be appropriate to list some of the forces in current society, which - if they gathered momentum - might push the international community towards to adoption of a vegetarian regime.

  • First, it would probably be agreed that the advance of a civilisation can be measured by its degree of concern for its weaker members and for its animals. Three hundred years ago, torture and bear baiting were widely practised in Britain. Two hundred years ago, child labour and wife battering were acceptable habits. One hundred years ago, flogging servicemen and execution were legal punishments. As society advances, it becomes more intolerant of cruelty. Indeed, I believe that when historians, say, in a hundred years' time, look back at the late 20th century, they will be surprised that in those days human beings reared animals specifically to slaughter them, eat, have sport in killing them, and wear their skins.

    Vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike make a distinction between killing animals for food, and killing them for sport. Personally, I think that there is a much stronger case for killing them to eat, rather than for fun. I believe this view is gradually gaining wider acceptance and, therefore, advanced civilisations are likely to abandon blood sports long before they embrace vegetarianism. The fact that some of the blood sports - but not fishing which does not seem generally to be recognised as such - are generally indulged in by the rich, makes them more politically sensitive in a democratic age, and makes it likely that they will be abandoned before fishing and horse racing. It is possible that fishing is not recognised as a blood sport because it is not mainly indulged in by the "privileged" classes.

  • Secondly, the cost of rearing animals for food, sports and skin is rising all the time, despite the employment of industrial and genetic techniques in producing them. The cost of textured protein and leather substitutes is gradually falling. As the curves of the cost of natural and artificial materials cross, they will compete in the market place to the advantage of those who sell plant and man-made materials. Field sports have always been expensive, but this is regarded as one of their attractions, rather than disadvantages, so the financial considerations will not militate towards lessening them.

  • Thirdly, there is increasing evidence that vegetarians are more healthy than flesh eaters, even although - as indicated above - unequivocal evidence is not yet available that it is the diet of the vegetarians alone which makes them healthier. The more such evidence accumulates, the more thinking people and those concerned about their health will espouse the idea. In respect of this particular group of people, the ecological argument plus the health consideration plus the economics may combine altogether to persuade them.

  • Fourthly, there is a very small group of patients who are allergic to animal products, so that they dare not even smell the particular food without being quite ill. Similarly, those Moslems and Jews who do not eat foods which contain even a minute proportion of animal products originating from an animal not slaughtered by their ritual methods, will gradually tend to choose food containing no animal products, as the labelling of the contents of foods becomes more universally compulsory.

In this article I have attempted to show vegetarians the direction in which their consciences might lead them logically, by defining what I believe to be the vegetarian conscience. At the same time, I am forecasting that history looks forward to a vegetarian way of life, even although it may be a long time before the lion sits down with the lamb.

Also by Dr Harold Hillman : The Slaughter of Animals

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