Should a Modern Stoic be Vegetarian? by Massimo Pigliucci

Vegetarianism is a big deal, ethically speaking. It was put on the map in terms of public philosophy by utilitarian Peter Singer, with his landmark Animal Liberation, published back in 1975. In truth, utilitarians have been very clear on the subject from the beginning. The founder of the approach, Jeremy Bentham, famously said that when it comes to the treatment of animals “the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” (in: Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789).

What about Stoicism? A recent article by Jeremy Corter in Stoicism Today summarizes the situation as far as the ancient texts are concerned. I will not repeat Jeremy’s points here, since he does a superb job of it. After parsing several quotes from Zeno, Chrysippus, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, he concludes (correctly, in my view): “Stoicism and vegetarianism are two separate philosophies. Stoic teachings never denounced eating animals and, in fact, often stated that animals were there for us to use. Musonius and Seneca are the only two Stoics we know of that were vegetarians, but neither cite any Stoic arguments for being so. Seneca cites Pythagoras and it would be safe to think that Musonius would have been aware of the same reasons.”

So why am I not ending the post here? Because of this, one of my favorite quotes from Seneca:

Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come. (Letters to Lucilius, XXXIII.11)

I think vegetarianism is, in fact, one of those cases where the ancient road is not the best one, and we need to revise it. Full disclosure here: I am not a complete vegetarian, though I heavily lean that way. My eating habits can best be described as vegetarianism with the addition of occasional wild caught fish thrown into the mix (paying attention to whether the species in question is being overfished). I have never considered veganism seriously, even though the ethical argument there is at least as strong as the one for vegetarianism (though it’s not easy to be a healthy vegan, an issue I don’t want to get into here because it would distract from the main point). You could accuse me of hypocrisy, and I will respond that I’m trying to do my best, and that at any rate I’m doing more than a lot of other people. Never claimed to be a sage, never will.

As Corter himself recognizes near the end of his essay, this is of course a variation of the somewhat annoying generic question: “is X Stoic?” He is somewhat dismissive of the question itself, which – to be sure – is often abused on social media. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a sensible question. Jeremy says “the Stoics don’t ‘approve’ of anything besides virtue … In short, it’s all indifferent.” Well, not exactly.

To begin with, virtue means nothing in a vacuum. Virtue is a propensity to engage in certain behaviors because that’s the right thing to do (as oppose to a vice, which is a propensity to engage in the wrong sort of behavior). One cannot be courageous, or just, or temperate, or prudent (phronesis) in the abstract. Virtue is considered by the Stoics the chief good because it can never, by definition, be used for ill. But it needs to be used for something nonetheless!

For what? Well, for handling the indifferents, which as we know come in two categories: preferred and dispreferred. This means that it is a bit too reductive and glib to say that the Stoics approve only of virtue because the rest is indifferent. The Stoics, for instance, opposed tyranny, and several of them lost their lives fighting it. Clearly, that means they disapproved of it! Seneca even approved of something as apparently neutral as rest and relaxation, as he makes clear in On Tranquillity of Mind, XVII.

So “is vegetarianism Stoic?” is a real question, and we need to find the answer not in the specifics of what the ancient said (since they are our guides, not our masters), but in the resources offered by the Stoic philosophical system as a whole. This approach is not unusual, being the same sort of exercise that modern Buddhists, say, or Christians, or Jews, engage in whenever looking at their own tradition for guidance concerning modern issues.

Indeed, the likely answer (in the affirmative) to the question of whether vegetarianism is Stoic is hinted at by Jeremy himself, near the end of his essay. He writes:

The Stoics felt that animals were there for human use, including for the use of food. This isn’t to say that the Stoics would have been in favor of factory farming or animal abuse. The Stoics thought that animals had souls, not like a human’s, but a soul nonetheless. Maybe I’m overthinking this part, but I’m suspecting that if they truly thought this, a Stoic would lean towards, if not protecting animals, at the very least not abusing and exploiting them.

Corter is not overthinking at all. He just should have pursued that line of thinking a bit further. We know a lot more nowadays about animal suffering than the Stoics did two millennia ago. Moreover, we have developed truly horrific standardized practices for the treatment of animals in quantities that the Stoics could not have imagined.

Just to give you an idea, these are the USDA statistics of slaughtered animals for the year 2008, obviously limited to the USA only:

Cattle: 35,507,500
Pigs: 116,558,900
Chickens: 9,075,261,000
Layer hens: 69,683,000
Turkeys: 271,245,000

I strongly suggest these numbers ought to disturb you, especially if you know anything about how all of this is actually done. And that’s without bringing into consideration additional factors that the ancient Stoics were not concerned with, like labor practices (generally speaking, horrible) and environmental impact (not at all good, to put it very mildly).

Given all this, I strongly suggest that modern Stoics should lean heavily toward vegetarianism, or at the very least endorse only humane practices of raising and killing animals, as it is done in a number of small, independently owned farms. The problem is that that model simply does not scale up to feeding billions of human beings, which means that, for practical purposes, Stoics should indeed be vegetarian.

But what about the idea – which the ancient Stoics surely did have – that animals and plants are here to satisfy human needs? That idea stemmed from the Stoic concept of a providential universe, understood as a living organism itself, endowed with the Logos, the capacity for rationality.

The problem is that modern science very clearly tells us that that’s not the kind of universe we exist in. Plants and other animals are the product of billions of years of evolution, just like ourselves, and so in no rational way can they be said to be here “for” us. Seneca, above, said that the truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over, as much is left for those yet to come. Well, two thousand years later we are still searching for a lot of truths, but we have found out a few more than in Seneca’s time. It is our ethical duty, therefore, to update our practices accordingly. Remember that one of the pillars of Stoic philosophy is precisely that the “physics” (i.e., all of natural science) should inform our ethics, so better knowledge of biology in particular should redirect the way we think about what is right and what is wrong when it comes to eating habits.

Jeremy argues that vegetarianism is an indifferent, and that “like any indifferent, it doesn’t make you a good or bad person.” I think that’s not the right way to look at it. Our diet is more properly referred to as the indifferent, but deciding what we eat and why is very much a reflection of our character, and therefore a function of how we exercise the virtues. As Epictetus put it in a different context:

What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions – reason. (Discourses I, 1.5)

Substitute “diet” for “money” and you can answer in the same way: reason. And reason – given contemporary scientific knowledge – very much tells us that we, as Stoics, ought to be vegetarians. Therefore, I’m going to redouble my personal efforts to follow this path and further reduce my intake of other foodstuff. I hope you will join me, to reduce both suffering in the world and our carbon footprint as a species. And Seneca adds, you’ll also feel better and think more clearly.

_____

P.S.: very likely, there will be people who will read the above and argue the facts. I have neither time nor inclination to debate the science, so I will not respond. I have looked long and hard, as a biologist, into the various issues surrounding vegetarianism, and I have concluded to my own satisfaction that a vegetarian diet is: (i) better in terms of the ethics of animal suffering (though not as good as a vegan one); (ii) better for the environment; (iii) not supportive of horrible labor practices that are commonly engaged in by large agricultural corporations; and (iv) better for your health. If you are not convinced, that’s your prerogative, and clearly outside my control.

 

Massimo Pigliucci has a PhD in evolutionary biology from the University of Connecticut and one in philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He teaches philosophy at the City College of New York, and his latest book is How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. He blogs at How To Be A Stoic.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

16 thoughts on “Should a Modern Stoic be Vegetarian? by Massimo Pigliucci”

  1. I can’t seem to post links without being flagged as spam. Unfortunately, this puts the onus on the reader to research my claims.
    One, animals are not rational beings. That being said, intentionally abusing them is wrong. But we can’t take the particular example and generalize about all abbatoirs.
    Two, there is conflicting data about the environmental impact.
    Three, labor practices at farms aren’t necessarily better for vegetables.
    And, finally, the data regarding health benefits is mixed. It may be restriction of processed foods that directly impacts health; not the absence of meat.
    Regarding providence vs atoms. Providence 🙂

  2. El vegetarianismo, y aún más el veganismo responden perfectamente a la ética estoica de “seguir la naturaleza”, y está demostrado, por sus características fisiológicas, que el humano es un animal de naturaleza frugívora. Por otra parte, la Stoa es panteísta y uno de sus principios fundamentales es la empatía universal, no solo la empatía hacia la propia especie, sino hacia TODAS las especies, consideradas como hermanas en el Ser, en la Mente cósmica o divina.
    (Se sabe que Marco Aurelio también era vegetariano). El tema está más desarrollado en mi libro “La Stoa, siglo XXIV”

  3. ” I have never considered veganism seriously, even though the ethical argument there is at least as strong as the one for vegetarianism……. You could accuse me of hypocrisy, and I will respond that I’m trying to do my best, and that at any rate I’m doing more than a lot of other people. Never claimed to be a sage, never will.” – I would really like you to unpack this for me: as you may recognise from other times, I am vegan, have been for 12 years and bitterly do I regret not taking this route earlier. If one knows something IS a better route through life, why would one not take it? Is this a fundamental difference between a recognition of something (in this case, killing or using other lives) as being “wrong” / cleaving to ideas of virtue in the sense of doing better (in this case, for instance, “more than a lot of people”)? I am often told “I respect your beliefs”….”I wish I could do that”, etc etc etc…it is because killing other sentient beings for unnecessary ends is so condoned by and integrated into society that refraining from joining in is considered supererogatory? A “frill”, so to speak, on one’s ethical life, not a downright ethical imperative, which is what it looks like to me? I look forward with keen anticipation to your comments here!

  4. Some very goods points, Massimo. Thank you, you give me something to reflect on.

    I have been torn for a while now. About 18 months ago I changed my diet to a primarily meat based one. This for weight and overall health reasons, as I have noticed that my body best reacts to grass fed beef (yes, I am aware of the cliché).

    However, because of my reflections on vegetarianism, and the lacto-vegetarianism as proposed by Musionius Rufus, I cannot really enjoy eating steaks that much anymore. I have been experimenting with switching to fish (as if they suffer less? I don’t know), eggs and some more dairy (as far as my body accepts it).

    It is interesting how reflecting on the whole nature can drive one to change their behavior. I am not the center of importance, although I do try to find a balance between taking the best care of my body while causing the least amount of suffering.

  5. I became a vegetarian in 1970 while serving in the US Navy on a nuclear submarine. It was a protest against the Vietnam War and killing in general. Besides the obvious health benefits of not eating meat, I feel that humans are on a very fast track to extinction because of our abuse of nature and the incredible effects of overpopulation and consumption of the limited resources available to all of humanity. That does not really say much for us considering our alleged intelligence and knowing what is happening because of our selfish use these limited resources. So sad for our grandchildren and future generations…..
    Harold

  6. An interesting article. However a few points.

    1. The author states “That idea stemmed from the Stoic concept of a providential universe, understood as a living organism itself, endowed with the Logos, the capacity for rationality. The problem is that modern science very clearly tells us that that’s not the kind of universe we exist in.” As far as I am aware modern science has not done this. There is a lot that science can ‘prove’, but much that it cannot offer ‘proof’ for or against.

    2. If we all stop eating meat we will have to kill off all the farm animals we breed for meat as we will need the land that feeds them to feed ourselves. Can we justify such wholescale slaughter just to make ourselves ‘feel’ more virtuous.

    3. Stoicism tells us that we exist in a hierarchy of inanimate, plant, animal and human. If we are to be ‘virtuous’ regards animals as suggested, where do we stand regards the treatment of plants. Are we to become like some Jane monks who will not even kill plants as such will harm their spiritual wellbeing (virtue) – albeit that they will eat plants if someone else has killed them on their behalf.

    1. Hi Adrian, you make some interesting points which I would like to engage with.

      To address your 2nd point, I can’t see the problem in what you’re stating. ‘Can we justify such wholesale slaughter just to make ourselves ‘feel’ more virtuous?’. Well, of course if we were simply going to slaughter billions of sentient beings to feel virtuous, that would not be right. In fact, it would be despicable.

      There are a couple important things to note. Firstly, what exists at present is a system of wholesale slaughter. We even have a highly efficient, mechanised, automated, infrastructure for doing this, using ‘slaughter houses’. So, the slaughter is already happening. Massimo is proposing that we do less slaughtering. Is that not reasonable?

      Secondly, it seems to me that the pressing matter is not to feel more virtuous but to be more virtuous.

      To address your 3rd point, I would answer your question by noting that since plants don’t have nervous systems and are not sentient, there is no ethical obligation not to kill them (at least, for their own sakes, there might be an ecological obligation but that is a different matter). That is perfectly consistent with the article above.

      Since Darwin it is difficult to make an argument for a natural moral hierarchy of species which separates humans from others, since we know now that there is biological continuity between all living organisms. The ancients, being pre-Darwin, could be forgiven for their views on the divine order of creatures on Earth. Furthermore, there is substantial evidence for the mental capacities of non-human animals, including the biological mechanisms for sensation and emotion.

      1. Darwin doesn’t make it more difficult to argue that there is a hierarchy. Can we not agree that a human life is more valuable than an animals? Hierarchy. Can anyone claim that they would save an innocent animal over an innocent human? Not a sane person. So yes, we CAN still claim a natural hierarchy regardless of any sort of “biological continuity.” We are the apex predators.
        Nothing about evolution suggests that we should treat animals equal to humans.

  7. Dr. Pigliucci’s points:
    (i) better in terms of the ethics of animal suffering (though not as good as a vegan one); (ii) better for the environment; (iii) not supportive of horrible labor practices that are commonly engaged in by large agricultural corporations; and (iv) better for your health.

    My short rebuttal.
    i I’m not convinced that the suffering of non-rational beings is a concern for Stoics living virtuously per se. Intentionally torturing animals is against virute, but I’m not convinced that what they go through is specifically torture. Though, being stunned and having your throat slit could sound like torture; I don’t think it is. I must admit, however, the videos I once saw of people beating pigs seems to qualify as torture, but I don’t think this is the general rule. To be fair, it could be argued that factory farms are good at hiding widescale abuses, but we have to admit that there is no evidence that all farms abuse animals during slaughter.

    ii There seems to be conflicting evidence regarding the claim that vegetarianism/veganism is better for the environment.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/12/18/being-a-vegetarian-might-make-you-feel-environmentally-superior-why-that-may-be-wrong/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.19150d5da4c8

    iii I’m struggeling to find resources showing that the meat industry has the market cornered on worker abuse. Vegetable farmers seem to get it pretty rough; I’ve heard it’s even rougher for organic farms (I could only find a general source regarding how tough cali farming is).

    https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/aug/15/california-farms-pick-your-own-fruit-vegetables-working-conditions-jobs

    iv Now, is being a vegetarian really better for your health? Or is it the fact that vegetarians and vegans tend to eat fewer processed foods? The research seems to be conflicting. I found a Harvard article claiming healthy and a poplular science article painting a more ambivalent picture.

    https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/considering-a-vegetarian-diet-is-meat-free-really-better

    https://www.popsci.com/vegetarian-vegan-not-always-healthy#page-2

    That being said, I do like the idea of raising and slaughtering my own animals so that I can ensure it is done humanely. On the other hand, I also like the idea of vegetarianism for reasons unrelated to stoicism; however, I don’t think Dr. Pigliucci’s reasons are compelling.

    And about Providence or Atoms: Providence :).

    1. Hi Patrick, you make some worthwhile points.

      I would question the descriptor ‘non-rational animals’. The position that humans are the only organism on Earth capable of rationality is very difficult to defend (not that you committed to it). This is most obvious in our closer relations, such as chimpanzees, or in dolphins and crows. As for farm animals, it is particularly obvious in pigs, who are noted to be highly intelligent creatures. Similarly, it is difficult to see how cows and chickens are completely ‘non-rational’.

      That would require quite a substantial account of what rationality is and how these animals categorically do not possess it. That’s a very interesting question. I don’t claim to possess a satisfactory account, but the fact that cows and chickens can recognise different individuals and act accordingly is simple proof to me that they possess some form of rationality. After all, we can agree that rationality is not the ability to do calculus or design a bridge, though these are advanced instances of the application of rational thought.

      As for the suffering of animals in the food production process, I am curious as to why torture is specified as the threshold for Stoic ethical concern. This is not a criterion we apply to human-human interactions, we don’t allow everything until it qualifies as torture. Is unnecessary involuntary suffering not a more reasonable criterion?

      There is plenty of torture (1) in animal agriculture, from over-breeding and living conditions (body too heavy for feet, living in the dark for whole life, malnutrition, insanity and depression due to conditions, attack from other animals due to agitation induced by conditions, too little space to move, intense fear due to hearing other animals being killed and smelling blood, abuse by human handlers) to slaughter itself (failure to stun, abuse by handlers, brutal killing methods). But there is also plenty of unnecessary involuntary suffering (2). One human might deem X as (1) and another human deem it to be (2). I don’t think it is the main issue.

      Is there anything virtuous about any of this? Is there anything courageous about using industrial technology to massacre highly vulnerable creatures? Is there anything self-disciplined about doing this just for gustatory pleasure? Can this be described as justice?

      I don’t want to drop an essay on you, so I will address the other points very briefly. Environment: the UN recommends shifting heavily towards a plant-based diet for ecological reasons. Labour: I think you’re broadly correct. Health: you’re right to raise the issue of lifestyle, there are studies which have corrected for this. Here is one which shows that veg*nism improves health controlling for poor lifestyle https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/70/3/525s/4714981.

      1. I think you make great points as well, but when you compare “human-human” interactions with human-animal interactions, you don’t explain why we should treat animals as humans. Do we apply my standard to humans? No, we don’t raise and slaughter humans. There is no comparison here. As long as we minimize their suffering, I do believe we can continue to kill animals and still claim to be virtuous.
        Also, I quite obviously believe we should slaughter animals humanely for consumption by humans and other animals, but I said nothing about “gustatory pleasure.”
        Is there anything courageous about using industrial technology to “massacre highly vulnerable” animals? Not particularly, but I don’t see it as a vice if we at least try to do so humanely. Is there anything “self-disciplined” about doing so just for gustatory pleasure? Who are you arguing against? I never said anything about killing animals for the pleasure of eating. So, yeah, killing animals ONLY for gustatory pleasure is not virtuous.
        Also, please provide a link for your claim about the UN and that animals are mistreated universally.
        But, I do like that you provided a link for your health claim. I didn’t even know there was additional research available for that.
        If any of what I typed here sounds snarky, I apologize. I really don’t know how to rephrase it any better. Thanks for the info.

  8. Excellent article. I have followed a mostly vegetarian diet for about 5 years occasionally eating meat but only grass fed and not factory farmed and agree with the reasoning presented here completely.

  9. In this article it’s mentioned how,”It’s difficult to be a *healthy* vegan”?

    There’s a few many vegan bodybuilders and athletes; try telling them that they aren’t healthy?

    There’s (for sure) nothing unhealthy or unethical about a plant-based diet; I think you rather mean, it’s difficult *for* *you* to be a healthy vegan 🌱

    In that case, I have a couple of resources I’d like to share:
    https://www.trifectanutrition.com/
    https://www.purplecarrot.com

    Trifecta has vegan, vegetarian, clean eating and classic meal delivery services and purple carrot is Tom Bradys vegan meal delivery service. There’s many other delivery services but in this context I picked these two made for/by *healthy* athletes?

    1. I embraced vegetarianism as a teenager with the motivating factor that our digestive system and molar structure was not designed to consume animal flesh but has accommodated the consumption of meat at a physical cost to our overall health. The suffering of animals, the planetary cost and implications regarding the environment are other factors that I have come to embrace. In addition trusting the commercial meat enterprise will be at your peril notwithstanding the unsanitary and inspection conditions at abattoirs . Vegetarianism seems like a reasoned and virtuous choice to make.

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