Vegetarianism as a Protected Philosophical Belief

Mr Conisbee, a vegetarian, was employed by Crossley Farms Ltd as a Barman or Waiter. He worked for approximately five months before he resigned. He claimed that because of his vegetarianism belief he had suffered discrimination at the workplace and that he had been ridiculed at work for not eating meat. As a vegetarian, Conisbee claimed that he practised and believed in vegetarianism, a philosophical belief. The claimant, Mr Conisbee, argued that vegetarianism is a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010. He further relied on section 4 of the Act on the definition of protected characteristics and paragraph 52 of explanatory notes on the Equality Act.

The employer, Crossley Farms Ltd, a respondent in the case, agreed with Conisbee’s assertions that he indeed was a vegetarian and that he had a genuine belief in his vegetarianism. However, the employer disputed the proposition by Conisbee that being a vegetarian amounted to being a protected characteristic as per the Equality Act. The question before the court was whether vegetarianism is a protected philosophical belief. After considering all the evidence and submissions from all the parties, the Tribunal rejected Mr Conisbee’s claim and agreed with the employer’s argument holding that vegetarianism as a belief does not have among others, a similar status or cogency to religious beliefs.


In this case, the judge had to apply the rules of interpretation to reach the conclusion that vegetarianism was not a protected philosophical belief. To this extent, the key legislation relied on was the Equality Act 2010. The judge in this case was charged with interpretation of section 4 of the Equality Act in light of Mr Conisbee’s claim of having a protected characteristic. According to that section religion or belief is listed as one of the protected characteristics, and a proper interpretation would require one to look at the legislation as whole. This necessitates reference to paragraph 52 of the same legislation which provides for guidance on the definition of a philosophical belief.

While the Tribunal acknowledged that the claimant is vegetarian and had a genuine belief in vegetarianism, it held that it was not a belief capable of protection. Agreeing with the employer’s submissions, the Tribunal concluded that to have an opinion and view point based on some real or perceived logic is not enough. Further, the Tribunal found that vegetarianism is not about human life and behaviour, rather a life style choice that did not have weight and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour. In support of the above conclusions, the Tribunal reasoned that unlike veganism that had cogency and cohesion in belief, vegetarianism has numerous and wide varying reasons for its adoption thus lacking the required level of cogency, seriousness and importance.

Essentially, the Tribunal distinguished between veganism and vegetarianism insinuating that the former could be categorised as a protected philosophical belief. The underlying justification for this proposition is that the reasons for being a vegan is largely the same compared to a vegetarian.

In reaching dismissing the claim, the Judge interpreted several issues raised by both parties to the case. The first issue was whether vegetarianism was a belief genuinely held and not a mere opinion or viewpoint on the present state of information available. In McClintock v Department of Constitutional affairs, Mr McClintock felt that same sex couples cannot adopt a child in the same manner as different sex couples. Similarly, Mr Conisbee’s belief that animals should not be killed for food is merely an opinion or a viewpoint as was the case in the McClintock case. In fact the Tribunal concluded that it was not enough for a person to have an opinion on some real or perceived logic. In this context, the judge applied literal rule by giving the words their ordinary, natural and dictionary meaning. One of the parties to the case, the employer, made reference to the dictionary meanings of the words vegan and vegetarian, which the judge adopted in making the final decision.

Further, the judge was faced with the question whether the claimant’s belief in vegetarianism was weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour. Eventually, the judge concluded that vegetarianism is not about human life and behaviour, but a life style choice. As a consequence, the claimant’s belief that the world would be a better place if animals were not killed for food was a mere inclination that had nothing to do with the weight and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour. Concurring with the employer’s argument, the judge adopted the position in Lisk v Shield Guardian Co Limited & Others where the Tribunal held a belief that people should wear poppy as way of paying their respects did not fall within the purview of protection because it did not relate to the weight and substantial aspects of human life and behaviour.

To determine the meaning of religion or belief, the judge was invited by the respondents to look at the Hansard record for the Equality Bill. In this regard, the Hansard record showed that one Baroness Warsi was of the opinion that cults and lifestyle choices should not be included as protected philosophical beliefs. Therefore, the judge seemed to apply the Mischief rule of statutory interpretation by looking at the Hansard record relating to the Act in question. It would thus appear that this reference was necessitated by the need for the Tribunal to determine the intention of Parliament when they enacted the Equality Act, and that intention can be perceive from the Hansard record.

As to the other questions as to whether a vegetarian belief has cogency in the seriousness and is of a similar status or cogency to a religious belief. Whereas vegetarianism is a belief worthy of respect in a democratic society, the Tribunal was not satisfied that it has similar status or cogency to a religious belief. The interpretation applied here seems to be conservative and not liberal in the circumstances. A liberal interpretative approach would have allowed the judge to construe vegetarianism as having a similar status as religious belief, given that veganism was held to have the same effect.

There are elements of the decision that seem to be contradictory concerning the distinction between veganism and vegetarianism. First, the Tribunal accepted that the claimant was a vegetarian and that he genuinely believed in vegetarianism. Interestingly, the employment Tribunal went ahead to find that vegetarianism was not about human life and behaviour but simply a life choice. It is also possible that veganism can be construed to be a life choice for some people who claim to be vegans. In Hashman v Milton Park Limited, a tribunal reached a conclusion that a belief in the sanctity of life and that hunting foxes was morally wrong could be regarded as a protected philosophical belief. In this case, the claimant though a vegan, had a specific belief that it was morally wrong to hunt animals including foxes for pleasure.

The Judge ought to have adopted a liberal interpretation of the statute and the attendant legislations relating to discrimination of persons at work. More importantly, the Tribunal should have asked itself the effects of deciding that vegetarianism was not a protected philosophical belief. Would the decision leave it open for persons professing such beliefs to be blatantly be discriminated upon? A harsh interpretation of the law although in accordance with the rules of interpretation can occasioned not only prejudice on affected persons but also cause injustice. Outstandingly, the distinction between vegans and vegetarians appears slim, miniature and even more confusing to litigants.

A judge rightfully applying his mind to the law and facts of the case would have reached a different conclusion. The conclusion ought to be that the claimant being a vegetarian had his belief protected under the Equality Act 2010. Specifically, the claimant reiterated that his was a genuine belief on the premise that it was wrong and immoral to subject them and the environment to cruelty and perils of farming and slaughter. According to the claimant, this is not mere opinion but a serious belief and conviction integral to his way of life. Further, the right approach should have been a finding that vegetarianism is a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour since it relates to issues of climate change.

In the same vein, the judge ought to have found that vegetarianism attains a high level of cogency, seriousness and importance and is surely worthy of protection in a democratic society. The rationale for this conclusion would be that although vegetarianism has varied reasons, the claimant had a specific belief and feeling that it was morally wrong to slaughter animals. Equally, veganism is based on the strong belief that it is wrong and immoral to kill animals. It follows that both beliefs have an intersection which ought to be considered before dismissing vegetarianism altogether. Therefore, the final decision should have been that vegetarianism is a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act thus one should not be discriminated for holding or associating himself with such belief. Mr Justice Burton, hearing a case at the employment Tribunal, intimated that in such doctrines as pacifism, free market capitalism or communism might in the future also qualify as for protected status. It follows that vegetarianism would fall and this category of beliefs mentioned by the honourable judge.

Morality and law can sometimes be treated as separate issues and can also be one and the same especially if the two coincide. In the case at hand, the beliefs in vegetarianism and veganism raises moral issues because they bring out the aspects of certain human actions being wrong but not necessarily illegal. For instance, a vegan believing that killing animals is wrong and immoral but such actions are not prohibited by any law. In fact, there is no prescribed punishment for eating or killing chicken rightfully belonging to the concerned person.

Veganism involves the practice of abstaining from both the consumption and use of animal products. Whereas there is no legal obligation precluding people from not eating or using animal products, there are people who have decided on their own volition not to consume or use animal products. Law is defined as a set of commands or rules dictated by a sovereign to guide and govern the lives and conduct of people. There are sanctions for disobedience of these rules or commands as dictated by a sovereign. For

instance, the UK has a government that through Parliament makes laws that must be adhered with failure of which, the Executive arm can arrest and the Judiciary will imprison or fine a person if found guilty. Clearly, there are sanctions for disobedience of commands by the sovereign or non-compliance with the grundnorm. Additionally, there are prescribed penalties for breach of legal codes set by the sovereign or government. For instance, murder may attract a life sentence for a person who unlawfully takes away the life of another person.

Contrastingly, morality is simply concerned with the whole life of man and regulates both inner motives and external actions of a person. Morality condemns a person for evil thoughts or intentions, changes from mana to man and from age to age yet every person has their own principles. It lacks precision and is neither framed nor enforced by any political authority. Practically, no one has the responsibility of checking or inspecting people’s homes or businesses as to whether they are eating or consuming animal products. As a result, either vegetarianism or veganism is a personal choice that has no effect in law.

However, law and morality are sometimes linked such that what is considered morally wrong may also be legally wrong and punishable under statute. Moral issues like veganism and vegetarianism are not enforced by any law, however, the law recognises that a person is free to have such beliefs and one of them is treated as a protected philosophical belief. The protection accorded to veganism as held in Conisbee case does not create any sanctions or commands but merely recognises the existence of such beliefs and framework for their protection. As moral issues, they enjoy the support of public opinion and individual conscience but are not enforced by the coercive machinery of the state like issues to do with discrimination against another person.

Moral theories applicable

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According to the categorical imperative moral theory, people should act in a way that would be rational for everyone. thus if it is right for one person to defend themselves against an attacker then it would be right for everyone to defend themselves in

self-defence. There are four steps in determining whether an action is universally permissible. First, a motivation principle is formulated to guide human action and conduct. For example, I will not eat meat or consume animal products because it affects the environment and it is wrong. Second, the action is transformed into a universal law of nature so that everyone must act for the same reason that I will act on. Everyone will thus not consume animal products because it affects the environment and it is wrong. Third, one considers whether such a maxim would really be a universal la of nature. It would appear that the not everyone would not consume animal products simply because it ruins the environment hence it is an irrational maxim.

The judge’s decision must have been influenced by the above moral theory. In his considered opinion, the judge believed that there were different reasons for a person to be a vegetarian but there were clear and determinable reasons for one being a vegan. Applying the categorical imperative theory, it is clear that veganism would pass the four stage test of a perfect duty in the circumstances. one thus ask whether it would be right if all person decided to vegans because it is wrong to kill animals or to be vegetarians for different reasons that one may harbour. This theory is not necessarily concerned with the consequences and it questions whether an action is morally appropriate for everyone else in the same situation. If the answer is in the affirmative, such action is considered as morally acceptable. Under this theory, belief in atheism is considered permissible as long as it is sufficiently reasonable belie just like any other beliefs.

Virtue ethics is all about living an excellent life by exhibiting certain moral character traits in decision making like honesty, courage, humility, compassion, wisdom, altruism and among others. Accordingly, a judicial officer should possess the above possible traits and have a virtuous character. Aristotle maintains that virtue is the greatest form of happiness and becoming the best kind of person would is the ultimate goal of all

humans. Aristotle was against using rules to make moral decisions, instead, he preferred that people learn to have an intuitive understanding of morality. Practical wisdom obtained from virtuous traits and understanding of morality would help one capable of taking the middle ground without strictly conforming to the rules. For instance, a virtue like courage would help a person to run into a burning house despite the danger to save a child.

Applying the virtue ethics to this case, the most reasonable and virtuous decision would have been to hold that vegetarianism is a protected philosophical belief. A judge exhibiting virtuous character like justice, wisdom and courage would have looked into the case and considered that Mr Conisbee’s claim was valid. Although the belief was not expressly provided for under the Equality Act, it was still possible to hold that it was a protected belief under the law to avoid any future discrimination on a person based on that belief. In the interest of justice and fairness, and without bending the rules, a judge could have taken a middle ground by finding for the claimant. Modern Kantian theorists emphasise that human rights and dignity that must be protected, which is in support of the treatment of vegetarianism as a protected belief.

Positivists construe the law as it is and not as it ought to be. For positivist, there is nothing like bad and one cannot purport to disobey the law merely because in their own inclination it is morally wrong. Further positivists separate law from morality maintaining that the two are distinct elements but some proponents admit that there could be a stifling link between la and morality. Utilitarianism is a moral theory that dictates that right and wrong can simply be determined by a cost benefit analysis. This theory presupposes that humans should focus on maximising their happiness and right and wrong can be distinguished by focusing on the consequences of peoples’ actions. Thus an action is right if its consequences grants more pleasure than pain.

Following a utilitarian theory, a judge would consider that recognition of vegetarianism as a protected philosophical belief would not bring any negative consequences but rather pleasure to the members of the public concerned. Surprisingly, there are many

people who prefer living in pain and suffering for the sole purpose of fulfilling other far more important preferences. While this view challenges the essence of utilitarianism, it is still a moral justification for recognising vegetarianism just as one would with veganism. In the weighing scale of utilitarianism, there is not much difference between the two beliefs given that the units of measurement in the circumstance will be the cost benefit analysis or pain and pleasure. This theory provides for a more liberal approach for judicial officers without subjecting them to rigid requirements of statutory interpretation.


Table of Cases

Conisbee v Crossley Farms Ltd & Others (England and Wales: Unfair Dismissal) [2019] UKET 3335357/2018

Hashman v Milton Park (Dorset) Ltd [2011] ET 3105555 2009.

McClintock v Department of Constitutional Affairs [2008] IRLR 29

Grainger Plc v Nicholson [2010] IRLR 4 EAT

Table of Legislation

Equality Act 2010


Nussbaum M C, Non-relative virtues: An Aristotelian approach. (1988) Midwest studies in philosophy 13

Hart HLA, ‘Positivism and the Separation of Law and Morals.’ (1958) Harvard law review

Raz J, ‘Promises in morality and law’. (1981) HeinOline 916.


Adams, John, and Brownsword R, Understanding Law. (Sweet and Maxwell 2006)

Engster D, The Heart of Justice: Care Ethics and Political Theory. (Oxford University Press 2007)

Lee S, Law and morals: Warnock, Gillick, and beyond. (Oxford University Press 1986).

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