British philosopher AC Grayling on why he’s a vegetarian

AC Grayling will be at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai and host a number of talks during the event. Matthew Horwood / Getty Images
Powered by automated translation

I've been flirting with vegetarianism for some time now. Why? It's largely practical: I figured my wallet, waistline and the wider world would all be better off this way.

The environment – yes. But the ethics of it – the why-is-it-wrong-to-murder-fluffy-animals side of things? Not so much. Despite all my instincts to the contrary, I’ve been unable to convince myself, let alone my detractors, that eating meat is morally wrong.

I recently had the opportunity to interview eminent British philosopher AC Grayling, a vegetarian of 35 years, author of multitudes of mainstream moral tracts and a warm, inclusive speaker to boot. At the end of our fascinating hour, I couldn’t help asking just why it was I should skip the flesh. Here’s what Grayling answered:

“There are three kinds of arguments for vegetarianism – the weakest is the health argument. Saturated fat and factory farmed animals are full of growth hormones, antibiotics and so on. So if you were concerned about your own health or the health of your children, you might especially look at factory farmed meat products with a suspicious eye.

“That might turn your attention therefore to organic meat, which would still be full of saturated fat and naturally occurring diseases, and might raise health concerns – but this is a pretty weak consideration – we’re going to die anyway, so why not eat meat?

“Even the fact that meat has to be rotten in order to be edible – the microbes have to get to work on it to make it soft enough – you could be put off.

“The next set of considerations is that you can feed 20 people on an acre of land if you plant grain on in, but only feed two people on an acre of land if you graze cattle on it. It’s very inefficient. That’s an economic argument for when the world gets more overpopulated and there’s a problem with food – at the moment there isn’t, there’s just a problem with the distribution of food. So the Americans have got too much and the Ethiopians have got too little, but the quantity is right, so that’s not such a strong argument.

“For me the strongest argument of all is this: The kinds of animals that people eat – cows, chicken, sheep and so on – are capable of fear and suffering, and experiences of pleasure. They’re sentient to that extent, and I don’t think there’s any argument about that. There is an argument about fish, and certainly an even bigger argument with shellfish, about whether they’re having a pleasant time or can be afraid or suffer – but I’m rather inclined to draw the line well beyond where it might need to be drawn, just on as-it-were safety’s sake.

“I can eat healthily, pleasantly and well, and enjoy myself without being involved in too much killing of sentient beings capable of suffering and fear. “Now, I wear leather shoes and a leather belt and people point out this is inconsistent, and I tell them they are right. Moreover vegetarianism is actually an illogical position, because if you actually were going to take all this very seriously you should really be a vegan, but I find veganism takes up time and thought and attention and is a bit of a struggle, and there are other things to do with one’s life – so being a vegetarian is really a halfway house where you’re personally self-minimising the involvement you have in factory farming – in the slaughter of sentient beings. Even though you know and I know perfectly well that by being vegetarian I’m not going to change other people’s minds – and it certainly doesn’t sound like I’m going to change yours.”

Not... quite.

• AC Grayling hosts a number of talks at Dubai's Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. Find out more at