There are many reasons people stop eating meat. For some it is a choice made for a more healthy diet. After all, eliminating meat from your diet is associated with lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, and many types of cancer. Given these benefits, it's perfectly logical to stop eating meat.
But if you're a vegetarian for any of these reasons, I'm not posting this for you — though I think you should read it anyway.
No, I am making this post for the ethical vegetarians. This post is for the people who are disgusted by the way animals are farmed for meat, and want to make an ethical choice to reduce that suffering.
Eating eggs and dairy still causes suffering.
I sincerely hope there are none reading naïve enough to believe that standard, factory-farmed eggs and dairy are in any way morally superior to meat itself. This fact should be self-evident, since the chickens and cows raised for eggs and dairy are treated as poorly or worse than those raised for meat. For this reason, it seems that most vegetarians choose to consume "alternative" eggs and dairy, labeled things like organic, cage-free, and free-range. By doing so, they believe that they are consuming products made by happy animals free from the suffering of factory farms.
In truth, choosing these products is more like choosing to merely punch someone repeatedly in the face rather than beating them with a bat. There are no particularly grand standards that producers must meet to gain these labels; terms like free-range are voluntary marketing devices. Typically, a "free-range" farm is indistinguishable from a factory farm, save a small door leading to a patch of dirt outside that a few animals may use at a time. As long as the animals had such access and at some point ate grass, they may be labeled "free-range."
All of the other suffering associated with animal agriculture remains: cutting and burning of beaks and tails, castration, branding, dehorning, tooth-grinding, and so on, all without anesthetic. They are still crammed into tight, unsanitary quarters.
These labels aren't on products to ensure you that the animals involved lived happy lives. No, they exist solely to make you feel good and not worry about where your food is coming from. They are there to make you halt your ethical inquiry, shut up, and buy the product.
Eating eggs and dairy still kills animals.
"But," says the vegetarian, "there is still no killing involved. A small amount of suffering might be inevitable, but at least no animals had to die for my milk and eggs!"
This is simply wrong.
Do you think that cows naturally produce large amounts of excess milk? Or do you suppose that cows produce milk for calves? If you're drinking the milk, what happens to the calves that were supposed to get it? Veal is the answer you're looking for, of course. Cows do not normally produce excess milk that must be taken and consumed by humans. They are involuntarily inseminated as often as possible to maintain pregnancy and lactation, and their calves are taken away after birth so they don't drink the valuable milk. Female calves are either raised to produce more milk or killed for rennet, while male calves are sold for veal, with all of the terrible suffering that entails.
Similar economic forces are at work in egg production. Most obviously, male chicks are largely unnecessary thanks to artificial insemination, and are killed immediately after hatching — typically by suffocation or being ground up in shredders. And even the hens that lay the eggs are almost inevitably sold and killed as food eventually.
Animals are not property.
This is really the bottom line. Even if we lived in a utopian world in which animals were not harmed or killed in the production of animal products, it doesn't change the root fact that we would still be treating them as means to our ends — purely aesthetic ends of flavor, utterly unnecessary. There is a fundamental ideology at work in the consumption of animal products, including eggs and dairy, which states that animals are ours to use as we please. This ideology suggests that it isn't what we do with animals that is right or wrong, but merely how we treat them while we do it. Anything an animal makes or does belongs to us, as long as they make or do it outside the torturous confines of a factory farm.
This ideology is absurd and hypocritical.
Nobody would argue that we ought to treat humans as property. We have a rather long and sordid history of overcoming this belief around the globe. Nobody would say that keeping slaves is acceptable provided they aren't beaten and are fed well and allowed time for recreation. The notion that this would be the case is abhorrent to modern minds. Nor would we allow that slavery is acceptable if the slaves are infants or mentally disabled and incapable of recognizing their status as property. So why, then is is considered acceptable to treat non-human animals as slaves? Does having a certain stretch of DNA in our cells really mean that we magically become morally immune to enslavement?
No, it doesn't. We grant all humans the moral and legal right to be free from treatment as property, and non-human animals should be granted that same right. Until that happens, the only ethical choice is to personally refrain from participating in their use. Vegetarians still support this paradigm with their voluntary consumption of products that belong only to the animals that make them, not to us. Vegetarians still tell the animal agriculture industry that using animals is acceptable, and encourage the exploitation with every dollar spent. Being vegetarian is not enough.