Vegetarianism is an example of the application of the value for ahimsa (non-injury). Many arguments in favour of a vegetarian diet can be made, but the basic argument supporting non-flesh eating is simply ahimsa.
In India, where there are more vegetarians than anywhere else in the world, vegetarianism is based on this value alone.
Why is more himsa (injury) involved in eating an egg than an eggplant, or a steak, than a pumpkin?
Every form of life requires food of some kind. One life-form feeds upon another. What is tragedy to the bird is dinner to the cat. This being the case, why is it not acceptable for a human being to also eat meat? Because a human being is not in the same choiceless category as the canary-eating cat, and therefore he cannot use the cat’s example for his justification.
For the cat and other non-human life-forms, what to have for dinner is not a choice. This is not so with the human being whose self-consciousness brings into play a will – free to choose any means to achieve life’s ends, including the basic need, food. Not being pre-programmed, the human being must choose the kind of food he eats.
All living beings have a value for life. Anything alive tries to stay alive, plants and very simple life-forms included. However, it is also plain that all beings do not seem to have the same relative level of awareness of life, the same conscious ability to perceive threats to life or to struggle to preserve life.
Creatures in the animal kingdom are closer to human beings than plants in being aware of threats to their lives and in struggling to stay alive. Animals, birds, fish (all mobile creatures) run away when they know someone is trying to catch them. When they are caught, they struggle and cry.
Therefore, one cannot but know that they do not want to be hurt, and that they want to live. No mobile creature wants to be someone’s dinner. Since one has been given free will to choose one’s food, one must find some norm to guide one in choosing that food.
The gift of free will carries with it a responsibility to follow a dharmic norm for choice of one’s food.
Since one does not want to be an animal’s meal, one should not make an animal his meal.
Plant food, rather than meat, should be one’s choice because many plants seem designed to give up their produce as food for other lifeforms without surrendering their own lives; and even when this usage does destroy the plant, plants appear to have a less conscious appreciation of any threat or harm to themselves than do animals.
If one insists upon including meat in his diet, to raise such a decision to ethical status, one would have to put oneself on the same basis, as other carnivorous animals.
To be on the same basis one should hunt and kill one’s prey bare handed without the assistance of weapons, thus exposing oneself to the possibility of being someone’s dinner while seeking other creatures for one’s own dinner.
If one is not willing to do this, the use of animals for food will be unethical, conflicting with one’s half-value for noninjury. That one has such a half-value is revealed by one’s failure to risk the possibility of suffering the same result.