The moral hand, a complete and coherent ethic, applied to animal rights

The moral hand is a metaphor of five basic ethical principles, one for each finger, summarizing coherent ethic. It is the result of a ten year study of ethics and it captures my complete ethical system. Each principle generates a principle of equality. To start a discussion on e.g. animal rights and veganism, I will apply the five principles to our consumption of animal products. 

-The thumb: the principle of universalism. You must (may) do what everyone who is capable must (may) do in all morally similar situations towards all morally equal individuals. Prejudicial discrimination is immoral. We should give the good example, even if others don’t. Just like we have to place the thumb against the other fingers in order to grasp an object, we have to apply the principle of universalism to the other four basic principles.

-The forefinger: justice and the value of lifetime well-being. Increase the well-being (over a complete life) of all sentient beings alive in the present and the future, whereby improvements of the worst-off positions (the worst sufferers, the beings who have the worst lives) have a strong priority. Lifetime well-being is the value you would ascribe when you would live the complete life of a sentient being, and is a function of all positive (and negative) feelings that are the result of (dis)satisfaction of preferences: of of everything (not) wanted by the being.

-The middle finger: the mere means principle and the basic right to bodily autonomy. Never use the body of a sentient being as merely a means to someone else’s ends, because that violates the right to bodily autonomy. The two words “mere means” refer to two conditions, respectively: 1) if in order to reach and end (e.g. saving someone) you push a sentient being to do or undergo something that the being does not want, and 2) if the body of that sentient being is necessary as a means for that end, then you are not allowed to treat that being in that way. A sentient being is a being who has developed the capacity to want something by having positive and negative feelings, and who has not yet permanently lost this capacity. The middle finger is a bit longer than the forefinger, and so the basic right is a bit stronger than the lifetime well-being (e.g. the right to live). The basic right can only be violated when the forefinger principle of well-being is seriously threatened.

-The ring finger: naturalness and the value of biodiversity. If a behavior violates the forefinger or middle finger principles, the behavior is still allowed (but not obligatory) only if that behavior is both natural (a direct consequence of spontaneous evolution), normal (frequent) and necessary (important for the survival of sentient beings). As a consequence predators are allowed to hunt. Just as lifetime well-being is the value of a sentient being, biodiversity is the value of an ecosystem and is a function of the variation of life forms and processes that are a direct consequence of natural evolution. The valuable biodiversity would drastically decrease if a behavior that is natural, normal and necessary would be universally prohibited (universally, because you have to put the thumb against the ring finger).

-The little finger: tolerated partiality and the value of personal relationships. Just as the little finger can deviate a little bit from the other fingers, a small level of partiality is allowed. When helping others, you are allowed to be a bit partial in favor of your loved ones, as long as you are prepared to tolerate similar levels of partiality of everyone else (everyone, because you have to put the thumb against the little finger).

-The palm: universal love and solidarity. Do not hate or despise anyone. Love all living beings with respect and compassion. The palm holds the moral fingers together.

The forefinger, middle finger, ring finger and little finger correspond with resp. a welfare ethic, a rights ethic, an environmental ethic and an ethic of care.

These five fingers produce five principles of equality.

-The thumb: the formal principle of impartiality and antidiscrimination. We should treat all equals equally in all equal situations. We should not look at arbitrary characteristics linked to individuals. This is a formal principle, because it does not say how we should treat someone. The other four principles are material principles of equality. They have specific content and are generated when the thumb is applied to the four fingers.

-The forefinger: the principle of priority for the worst-off. As a result of this priority, we have an egalitarian principle of well-being: if total lifetime well-being is constant between different situations, then the situation which has the most equal distribution of well-being is the best.

-The middle finger: basic right equality. All sentient beings with equal levels of morally relevant mental capacities get an equal claim to the basic right not to be used as merely a means to someone else’s ends.

-The ring finger: behavioral fairness. All natural beings have an equal right to a behavior that is both natural, normal and necessary (i.e. a behavior that contributes to biodiversity). E.g. if a prey is allowed to eat in order to survive, a predator is allowed to do so as well (even if it means eating the prey).

-The little finger: tolerated choice equality. Everyone is allowed to be partial to an equal degree that we can tolerate. If you choose to help individual X instead of individual Y, and if you tolerate that someone else would choose to help Y instead of X, then X and Y have a tolerated choice equality (even if X is emotionally more important for you than Y).

The five moral fingers can be applied to the production and consumption of animal products (meat, fish, eggs, dairy, leather, fur,…):

-The forefinger: compared to humans, livestock animals are in the worst-off position due to suffering and early death. The loss of lifetime well-being of the livestock animals is worse than the loss of well-being that humans would experience when they are no longer allowed to consume animal products. Livestock and fisheries violate the forefinger principle of well-being.

-The middle finger: the consumption of animal products almost always involves the use of animals as merely means, hence violating the mere means principle of the middle finger.

-The ring finger: animal products are not necessary for humans, because a well-planned vegan diet is not unhealthy (according to the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics). Biodiversity will not decrease when we would stop consuming animal products (on the contrary, according to UN FAO the livestock sector is likely the most important cause of biodiversity loss). Hence, the value of biodiversity cannot be invoked to justify the consumption of animal products.

-The little finger: we would never tolerate the degree of partiality that is required to justify livestock farming and fishing. Hence, tolerated partiality cannot be invoked to justify the consumption of animal products.

It follows that veganism is ethically consistent, and the production and consumption of animal products are ethically inconsistent.

-The thumb: give the good example, even when other people continue consuming animal products. From this principle, it follows that veganism is a moral duty.

Tags: animal, ethical, justice, principles, rights, veganism

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your concept of a creature's nature is still a mystery to me. Either it is something mysterious, or it is very trivial. So trivial that it is ethically irrelevant, like "natural is just what someone does"; try to apply this to a murderer... (yes, what a coincidence that all murderers kill, and yes, the act of a murder is consistent with being a murderer) What do you mean with acting in a consistent way?

Who's talking about individuals? I'm talking about species. Oh, yes, people have a nature, too. In any situation, a person does whatever is in his nature. However, one can't really draw any conclusions from that . But it's hard to deny that it's in the nature of cows to eat grass, for hawks to eat animals and other birds. For people and bears to eat a varied diet including vegetables and meat.

Yes, you refer to an easy definition, although that definition becomes complicated: if you and I happen to be infertile, we still belong to the same species, because you have close family members that could have gotten fertile ofspring with some of my close family members. But the taking such counterfactuals into account... Anyway, let's say it is a nice and clean definition. Then what? What is the moral relevance of having close family members who could have fertile offspring with others? Why close family members, why offspring, why fertile? Such a rule is way to farfetched.

That's the sort of "exception" I'd expect from a college freshman. It's not nonsensical when talking about defining species instead of individuals.

Yes, penguins are exceptions. But all in all that is morally irrelevant. There no essence related to birds (some birds don't fly, some non-birds do fly), and even if there was such an essence, it would not yet be morally relevant. It becomes relevant only if the essence is something that matters from an impartial point of view, such as sentience (having a well-being), or when it is related to a moral virtue (such as compassion), or when there is a non-farfectched link between the essence and rights (e.g. sentient beings have and experience interests, rights are tools to protect interests, so this link is not farfetched in a rights ethic. Other examples: in a fairness ethic: being able to cooperate; in a social contract ethic: being able to make agreements; in a duty ethic: being able to understand duties,...).

If I wanted to use the word "essence," I would have used it.

I said what we eat is open. I don't eat meat. So I am not an omnivore. But I am a human. By the way, omnivorous need to make sure that they get enough of this and enough of that as well. If they don't get enough protein, it is unhealthy, so they should not forget to eat protein food. But the same applies to vegans. What is the difference between not forgetting steak and not forgetting seitan? An omnivore diet is easier, because it's a habit and accessible in stores. But as it is inconsistent with an ethic based on the values of impartiality, well-being, autonomy and biodiversity, we have to make sure that a vegan diet becomes easier.

You're a person belonging to an omnivorous species (there is no species I'm aware of that can't be classified as carnivore, omnivore, or herbivore) who has decided to be exceptional. An omnivorous diet is easier not due to habit or availability, but due to the fact that it's natural, in the sense that it is easy to be well-fed by simply grazing off a variety including both vegetable matter and meat.

As a vegan I am not hopping on one leg. In fact, I eat a much much higher variety of food products compared to an average omnivore. Increasing this variety with animal products is like having ten different colours of m&m's, and now you add another color. It's no real difference. Are you really willing to hurt someone, to harm someone, just for this extra color? How irrationally greedy could that be? There are thousands of vegan recipes, isn't that enough?

You're just trying to make me feel guilty! I'm not hurting animals by making them die. Everything dies. I'm not creating distress and terror any greater than that inflicted by a hawk on a mouse or a cheetah on a gazelle. I'm simply putting their life to a good use in a cycle whereby I will be recycled, too. It's my role in the circle of life. I don't suffer from the obsession that I can never get my hands dirty. Life is a rough business and I'm part of it. You are the priest of a religion that obsesses about purity.

Let me ask you this: If I could prove that plants are sentient, what then? Would you feel obliged to eat only totally artificial food?

And be aware of those 'natural inclinations'. Before you know it, rape and violance are natural in a similar way... I don't care about natural inclinations if they are not fixed, I care about ethics: compassion, impartiality, well-being,...

Ah, yes, the old "Eating meat contributes to the violence in the world" argument. Eat meat and soon you'll be Jack the Ripper. That's an enthymeme.

Finally, as predators harm others, we should hope for healthy feasible vegan diets for them. It might have been better if they never existed, but now we are not allowed to wipe them out.

Okay, now you've been unmasked as a cartoon.

your link between what beings do and what is morally allowed, still seems unconvincing. Even when you can classify beings in sets and claim that most of the individuals in a set have a similar behavior, it doens't make any sense to me to derive moral conclusions from that.

I am an herbivore, belonging to an omnivorous species (most humans eat meat), belonging to a non-omnivorous class (most mammals do not eat meat, looking at the food pyramid). I don't care what the majority of a group do, I only care about ethics. 

Easier because it's natural and not because of habit or availability? Now your notion of naturalness becomes even more mysterious.

I don't care about your feelings of guilt, except that they make you suffer and I don't want you to suffer. But rationalizations like "everything dies" are not valid. You don't mean that in this context. If a murderer says that everything dies, it's no good. If the murderer says that he did not create more distress than Jack the Ripper, it's no good. Even if it's true. You will be recycled, but you do not want to be treated like animals being eaten. I cannot kill you and eat you, because you don't mean that it's ok for you to be killed as part of "the cycle". The "dirty hands" sounds like another rationalization. There is a lot to say about psychology, in particular cognitive dissonance. Based on your rationalizations and you mentioning the problem of guilt, you experience cognitive dissonance. But please, skip that part! Religious people experience cognitive dissonance when faced with inconcistencies. But try to be rational and skip that part. You can do better than that plain old cognitive dissonance. You are openmindedn a critical thinker. You know that I am obsessed with purity any more than an abolitionist is obsessed with it when facing slavery.

If plants are sentient... You really should read my book :-) Think for yourself: what if plants had all the mental capacities that normal humans have? How would that change ethics? Looking at the moral fingers, you can derive my answer: if plants are sentient, we are allowed to eat them, and eat animals, because then eating sentient beings becomes necessary for us and we apply the ring finger. But healthy artificial food would be better yes.

I was talking about violence towards animals. The meat consumption - violence towads humans link remains a not well tested hypothesis.

your link between what beings do and what is morally allowed, still seems unconvincing. Even when you can classify beings in sets and claim that most of the individuals in a set have a similar behavior, it doens't make any sense to me to derive moral conclusions from that.

Sets is a very odd way to talk about species. It implies some sort of ad hoc grouping such that one squirrel and the next are only the same species because we say so. That is so very far from the word species means.

I am an herbivore, belonging to an omnivorous species (most humans eat meat), belonging to a non-omnivorous class (most mammals do not eat meat, looking at the food pyramid). I don't care what the majority of a group do, I only care about ethics.

And as you've admitted that I belong to an omnivorous species, there is nothing wrong than being a member of my species and behaving as members of my species do.

Easier because it's natural and not because of habit or availability? Now your notion of naturalness becomes even more mysterious.

A species does whatever is in its nature to do. Favored diet is just one factor among many contributing to the attributes we associate with a given species.

I don't care about your feelings of guilt, except that they make you suffer and I don't want you to suffer. But rationalizations like "everything dies" are not valid. You don't mean that in this context. If a murderer says that everything dies, it's no good. If the murderer says that he did not create more distress than Jack the Ripper, it's no good. Even if it's true. You will be recycled, but you do not want to be treated like animals being eaten. I cannot kill you and eat you, because you don't mean that it's ok for you to be killed as part of "the cycle". The "dirty hands" sounds like another rationalization. There is a lot to say about psychology, in particular cognitive dissonance. Based on your rationalizations and you mentioning the problem of guilt, you experience cognitive dissonance. But please, skip that part! Religious people experience cognitive dissonance when faced with inconcistencies. But try to be rational and skip that part. You can do better than that plain old cognitive dissonance. You are openmindedn a critical thinker. You know that I am obsessed with purity any more than an abolitionist is obsessed with it when facing slavery.

Oh, come on. Jack the Ripper wasted lives. You are really stretching with that one. I don't want to eat people because of my hardwired aversion to eating human flesh. On the other hand, when I die, it's neither here nor there to me if I'm eaten by worms or another person. 

If plants are sentient... You really should read my book :-) Think for yourself: what if plants had all the mental capacities that normal humans have? How would that change ethics? Looking at the moral fingers, you can derive my answer: if plants are sentient, we are allowed to eat them, and eat animals, because then eating sentient beings becomes necessary for us and we apply the ring finger. But healthy artificial food would be better yes.

I argue that based on the research I linked to elsewhere, plants ARE sentient. If one, then, wants to avoid eating sentient beings, one is left with eating animals AND PLANTS that are already dead.

I thought we were talking about biological species, and so I look at the way in biology we look at species: as a classification, a grouping in sets. And after Darwin and the study of genomes, we realize that grouping individuals in sets called species is not that trivial as it was thought to be in ancient aristotelian-platonist worldviews.

We belong to an omnivorous species, yes, because the individuals of this set are able to consume animal products, and most individuals of this set consume animal products. But what a majority of an arbitrary set does, does not justify that behavior. (The set is arbitrary, because you pick the set of humans, not the set of Indians from Kasmir or the set of mammals or whatever set)

Diet as an attributes associated with a species: now you refer to a niche definition of species (no longer the fertile offpsring definition)? Anyway, even pointing at niches does not morally justify behavior.

Yes, after we die, it doesn't matter for us (being dead) if we are eaten by worms or persons. But I was talking about activelly killing someone. Directly influencing the circle of life by harming someone, so to speak.

Is the fact that you are hardwired for an aversion towards eating human flesh, that cannibalism is immoral? Would you tolerate me killing and eating humans (e.g. a mentally disabled orphan)? If not, then there are two options: either your judgment is not merely based on a taste aversion. Or if you say that cannibalism is immoral because of your aversion, then I could equally say that eating pigs is immoral, because I happen to have an aversion towards that.

About sentience in plants: I will not post the chapter of my book here. Assuming that plants are sentient, based on the current evidence, involves a serious risk, because then we are allowed to eat animals, and there is much stronger evidence that animals are sentient and are harmed by slaughtering them. Giving plants the benefit of the doubt might have serious consequences for other really sentient beings. That is why I would say we need more evidence for sentience in plants, before we start harming animals.

I thought we were talking about biological species, and so I look at the way in biology we look at species: as a classification, a grouping in sets. And after Darwin and the study of genomes, we realize that grouping individuals in sets called species is not that trivial as it was thought to be in ancient aristotelian-platonist worldviews.

Whatever. I'm not going to argue that it's trivial, and I haven't been. WHERE do I assert that taxonomy is trivial?

We belong to an omnivorous species, yes, because the individuals of this set are able to consume animal products, and most individuals of this set consume animal products. But what a majority of an arbitrary set does, does not justify that behavior. (The set is arbitrary, because you pick the set of humans, not the set of Indians from Kasmir or the set of mammals or whatever set)

Well, but choosing a species as the relevant set allows one to draw some conclusions about humans, for example, rather than just humans from Kasmir or Kansas.

Diet as an attributes associated with a species: now you refer to a niche definition of species (no longer the fertile offpsring definition)? Anyway, even pointing at niches does not morally justify behavior.

Are you saying I'm DEFINING a species in terms of diet? No, I'm making an observation about the dietary tendencies of a species.

Yes, after we die, it doesn't matter for us (being dead) if we are eaten by worms or persons. But I was talking about activelly killing someone. Directly influencing the circle of life by harming someone, so to speak.

I'm not for harming anyone. You are. Asking people to stop being omnivores is like asking hummingbirds if they might be able to fly without humming if it would benefit other species.

Is the fact that you are hardwired for an aversion towards eating human flesh, that cannibalism is immoral? Would you tolerate me killing and eating humans (e.g. a mentally disabled orphan)? If not, then there are two options: either your judgment is not merely based on a taste aversion. Or if you say that cannibalism is immoral because of your aversion, then I could equally say that eating pigs is immoral, because I happen to have an aversion towards that.

I don't talk about morality. Morality belongs in religion. I talk about ethics. To me, ethics is an individual and personal matter because it's about attitudes not facts. Cannibalism is aversive under certain circumstances. Those circumstances apply most of the time, however. The aversion is simply an observation about myself which I maintain would certainly apply species-wide. Yet, we excuse those in extreme circumstances who resort to eating "nature's perfect food."

About sentience in plants: I will not post the chapter of my book here. Assuming that plants are sentient, based on the current evidence, involves a serious risk, because then we are allowed to eat animals, and there is much stronger evidence that animals are sentient and are harmed by slaughtering them. Giving plants the benefit of the doubt might have serious consequences for other really sentient beings. That is why I would say we need more evidence for sentience in plants, before we start harming animals.

But you're already ignoring the evidence that's been presented. It's now known that plants have a nervous system analog. Discretion would seem to call for assuming the worst, that plants can indeed sense their world. They may not feel pain and may be fearless, but shouldn't we treat them like the fearless person who feels no pain?

Well, but choosing a species as the relevant set allows one to draw some conclusions about humans, for example, rather than just humans from Kasmir or Kansas.

Why do you always refer to humans? Choosing the infraorder as the relevant set allows one to draw conclusions about simian primates rather than chimpansees and humans from Kansas. Yes, that's true. But it's not relevant. 

Are you saying I'm DEFINING a species in terms of diet? No, I'm making an observation about the dietary tendencies of a species.

And why exactly do you want to do that? Dietary tendencies of humans from Kasmir, simian primates and whatever are not morally relevant. You only have to see what an individual needs for a healthy life. And within this constraint, look for what is morally alowed for that individual.

I'm not for harming anyone. You are. Asking people to stop being omnivores is like asking hummingbirds if they might be able to fly without humming if it would benefit other species.

the question is whether hummingbirds are able to do that. It is a cost-benefit analysis. Our trivial needs are less heavy than the vital needs of others, so cost-benefit points into the direction of veganism.

I don't talk about morality. Morality belongs in religion. I talk about ethics. To me, ethics is an individual and personal matter because it's about attitudes not facts.

morality does not belong (exclusively) to religion, but whatever. It is about attitudes, indeed. But most importantly: about consistency in attitudes. Some attitudes might be cognitive biases, moral illusions (like we have optical, grammatical,... illusions).

Plants, like computers, robots and immune systems, are very complex indeed. but not sentient in the way I define sentience. You are not even arguing for plant and computer welfare laws! Yes, we should treat them as feelingless, emotionless humans. You are allowed to eat those humans, as long as you cause not more harm to other sentient beings (e.g. causing harm to the parents of such a human, when they really don't want you to eat their child) In other words; if a nutritious plant had the exact shape of a human, as a doll, you are allowed to eat that plant. But of course, a lot of people might feel very strong disgust and aversion to that idea of eating humanlike plant dolls, so let's eat the plants who do not look like humans, in order to avoid causing psychological harm to those people.

Well, but choosing a species as the relevant set allows one to draw some conclusions about humans, for example, rather than just humans from Kasmir or Kansas.

Why do you always refer to humans? Choosing the infraorder as the relevant set allows one to draw conclusions about simian primates rather than chimpansees and humans from Kansas. Yes, that's true. But it's not relevant.

I refer to humans, because your efforts aim to prescribe human behavior, not the behavior of goats.

Are you saying I'm DEFINING a species in terms of diet? No, I'm making an observation about the natural (unconstrained) dietary tendencies of our species.

And why exactly do you want to do that? Dietary tendencies of humans from Kasmir, simian primates and whatever are not morally relevant. You only have to see what an individual needs for a healthy life. And within this constraint, look for what is morally alowed for that individual.

I don't see eating what comes naturally to me to be something I need permission to do.

I'm not for harming anyone. You are. Asking people to stop being omnivores is like asking hummingbirds if they might be able to fly without humming if it would benefit other species.

the question is whether hummingbirds are able to do that. It is a cost-benefit analysis. Our trivial needs are less heavy than the vital needs of others, so cost-benefit points into the direction of veganism.

It was JUST a simile. Whether a need is trivial is a decision people make for themselves based on how important it feels to THEM. One person's perceived trivia is another person's perceived need. Anyway, the point is that the notion whether something is trivial is not a fact, it's an attitude.

I don't talk about morality. Morality belongs in religion. I talk about ethics. To me, ethics is an individual and personal matter because it's about attitudes not facts.

morality does not belong (exclusively) to religion, but whatever. It is about attitudes, indeed. But most importantly: about consistency in attitudes. Some attitudes might be cognitive biases, moral illusions (like we have optical, grammatical,... illusions).

Morality, since it is about obeying prescriptions, tends to be a religious concept, though people who don't make distinctions tend to confuse the two.

Morality is distinguished from ethics by being prescriptive. Ethics tends to be proscriptive. The one is authoritarian, the other logical.

Plants, like computers, robots and immune systems, are very complex indeed. but not sentient in the way I define sentience. You are not even arguing for plant and computer welfare laws! Yes, we should treat them as feelingless, emotionless humans. You are allowed to eat those humans, as long as you cause not more harm to other sentient beings (e.g. causing harm to the parents of such a human, when they really don't want you to eat their child) In other words; if a nutritious plant had the exact shape of a human, as a doll, you are allowed to eat that plant. But of course, a lot of people might feel very strong disgust and aversion to that idea of eating humanlike plant dolls, so let's eat the plants who do not look like humans, in order to avoid causing psychological harm to those people.

Your whole theory depends upon your redefinition of sentience to suit the needs of your arguments. That it results in the conclusion that eating humans is okay is a reductio ad absurdum.

I refer to humans, because your efforts aim to prescribe human behavior, not the behavior of goats.

No, please understand. I am not prescribing human behavior, or primate behavior any of these things. I am prescribing behavior of moral agents (beings with a moral consciousness). Of course, most primates are moral agents, but some of them are not. Of course most humans are moral agents, but some are not. You have a strong bias towards 'humans', it seems.

I don't see eating what comes naturally to me to be something I need permission to do.

And what do you say agaoinst someone who claims "I don't see why behavior X (you can fill it in; rape,...) that comes naturally to me, to be something I need permission to do"?

It was JUST a simile. Whether a need is trivial is a decision people make for themselves based on how important it feels to THEM. One person's perceived trivia is another person's perceived need.

Yes, and we need to take an impartial point of view to correctly balance those different needs. Like the veil of ignorance thought experiment. What would you prefer: being eaten or not being allowed to eat meat?

Morality is distinguished from ethics by being prescriptive. Ethics tends to be proscriptive. The one is authoritarian, the other logical.

ah, ok, that distinction is new to me. I don't understand it, but whatever...

Your whole theory depends upon your redefinition of sentience to suit the needs of your arguments. That it results in the conclusion that eating humans is okay is a reductio ad absurdum.

why is that? At the end, it comes down to sticking very strongly to the antidiscrimination principle.

I thought about it very critically, and I don't see any clue to claim that I redefine sentience in order to suit the needs of my argument. I am a scientist, I try to falsify my theories (which I often did, e;g. two weeks ago on a theory in population ethics). Be the worst enemy of your own theory, as they say...

The question remains, are you in favor of computer welfare laws and plant welfare laws? Or are you not conserned about animal welfare laws? Or do you admit that there remains a morally relevant difference between the (evidence of) capacities of computers and plants on the one hand and vertebrates on the other?

I've come in at the end and haven't kept up with the argument.  Is it OK for a lion to eat an antelope? 

yes, that is OK: we can apply the ring finger. If lions are not allowed to do eat, then no predators are, and then a lot of biodiversity will be lost. Or with a fairness rule: if antelopes are allowed to eat for survival, then so are lions.

Humans are predators too.

but eating meat is not necessary for our survival (I excplicitly wrote "for survival" in my previous comment). If we stop eating meat, the value of biodiversity will not get lost.

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