As a vegetarian for a year, I struggled with this for a long time. Even just days ago I struggled with this idea. Is Vegetarianism really that ethical a choice? I have been thinking about this due to many vegans who want to shove it in the face of vegetarians in a “holier than thou” tone, as well as just a little bit ago when I ran across this article.
In terms of environmental impact and dietary health, it is of no debate that being a whole-food vegetarian is indeed better than eating meat, especially beef. Most vegetarian efforts seem to revolve around beef and pork production as the primary evil, and to be honest, it is. Beef and pork contribute to far more environmental destruction, greenhouse gas emissions, and health issues than any other form of animal product.
But what about animal ethics? That is more of a sketchy story. Espessially if you are referring to the Lacto- and Ovo- side of things.
For instance, the way milk is produced in the US and elsewhere is brutal. Cows are forcefully impregnated, pumped with all sorts of things, and then hooked up to machines where they spend the rest of their lives producing way more milk then they are naturally able to handle. Their kids are ripped from them, which causes emotional trauma, and often killed to make veal. This is far more brutal in objective terms than the cows raised for meat, which are still raised in bad conditions, but are then simply killed. In fact, cattle raised solely for beef has a shorter life span, filled with less agony, than a dairy cow, which is often overworked for 4-5 years before they are killed off.
And eggs are not much better. Laying eggs takes a lot out of a chicken, kinda like a human woman giving birth. Usually, a chicken will lay anywhere from 10-15 eggs a year. But to keep up with strict demand for eggs, chickens are now bred and forced to lay up to 250-300 eggs a year. This puts a lot of strain on chickens, who in normal conditions are often locked in small cages at worse, and at best have about a square foot of room to move. Chickens are often debeaked, which involves a sharp hot blade slicing off the end of the chickens beak, and chickens often suffer from disease and anxiety, which causes it to peck it’s own body raw.
More than this can be said about both industries, but I will leave it simply at that.
In terms of eating cheese, eggs, or dairy, even cheese, eggs, and dairy that come from “humane” or “organic” farms, the practice appears to be far more unethical than simply eating the meat of the animal. There are, of course, exceptions to this.
Veggans are a group of vegans who only eat eggs if they come from well-treated backyard hens. If you want to know how this plays into the definition of veganism, check my article about it here. Backyard hens are simply pet hens who lay eggs, instead of tossing the eggs, the owners usually either eat the eggs themselves, or sell the eggs to others. Since this practice is much nicer to the hen, it is far better than conventionally bought store eggs, and thus more ethical to eat these eggs than it would be to eat meat.
There are cheese alternatives that still have small amounts of cheese byproducts in them, such as Casein, which promotes the meltiness of the cheese. These are more ethical in my opinion because since almost no dairy is present, it is much better than eating meat, or full dairy cheese. These can also be found in almost every supermarket, and contribute far less to the harmful dairy industry than typical dairy.
What if you dumpster dive for tons of perfectly good food, and you run across a perfectly edible pack of chocolate chip girl scout cookies that contains dairy and eggs? Since this food was destined for the trash, you are not engaging in the capitalism that encourages the dairy and egg industries, so this would be a far more ethical choice than eatig conventionally farmed dairy and eggs.
There are some loopholes that make vegetarianism more ethical than omnivorism, but they are not common practice with vegeterians, so the only way a vegetarian who consumes diary and/or eggs can be more ethical than a carnist is if they consume far less animal products in general than the average carnist. And to be honest, that is what we see.
Vegetarians tend to consume far less animal products than your average american. In fact, they seem to eat less dairy than your average american as well. So in these terms, vegetarianism IS more ethical than omnivorism, but it’s still contributing greatly to a bad and unethical system of cruelty.
In terms of vegetarianism, it is simply more ethical and logical to cut out the dairy and eggs than to try to claim that “at least you are better than…” Aside from the loopholes mentioned above, there are many vegan replacements for dairy and eggs that one can eat, including vegan cheeses, vegan yogurt, almond and soy milk, tofu, vegan mayonnaise, and actual vegan eggs. These, however, might be harder to find outside of a healthfood store, aside from the almond and soy milk, which can be find in many places, including Dollar Tree, Kroger, Walmart, and I even saw soymilk once at Dollar General.
Just realize that just because you are vegetarian does not mean you are ethical, or even more ethical than a meat eater, depending on how much in animal products you consume. It is best to reduce or eliminate animal products, even animal products that one might think is more ethical than others.