Why I’m Not A Carnivore: A Vegan Manifesto That Tries Not to Preach
The Problem, Simply Put
Sadly, the sight of Pamela Anderson’s lettuce-clad breasts, bared proudly above the word PeTA, does not compel most people to forsake their next cheeseburger. Nor, unfortunately, do the “cruelty-free,” faux-snakeskin heels designed by Dame Stella McCartney prompt most individuals, even those of discerning taste, to forgo the leather trim in their Prius. Even the news that Moby is a vegan somehow seems less than inspiring, although one could make the case for Bill Clinton.
It is with this disillusionment in mind that a more compelling case needs to be made for not harming animals. In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer tried, and managed with some success, to convince hordes of young hipsters to go vegan for a little while.1 Apparently even Natalie Portman was swayed,2 which must have been tremendously reassuring to the millions of caged screaming butcher hogs. Still, Foer’s was a primarily personal account and, to be frank, too conciliating. To the extent it decried eating meat, it did so for essentially human-centered reasons: the effects on workers, the air we breathe, and our health. While all good arguments, none of those consider that other minor facet: that 65 billion feeling animals are needlessly slaughtered each year.3
No, a broader set of principles is needed. The gravest problem, however, is that few if any meattotalers, as I like to call them, can agree on exactly why consuming animals is wrong, much less come to terms with a strategy for ending it.
Arguably the most successful philosopher of the last fifty years, both academically and financially—although he claims to donate his royalties—is Peter Singer, who made the case most forcefully in Animal Liberation, a wonderful work that has all the readability of Mein Kampf. Still, Singer’s case was persuasive. He takes as his starting point the assumption that humans will never agree on their moral intuitions.4 In other words, if given enough choices, you and I will always differ in how we initially view ethical dilemmas. This is a little bit different from saying that we will always disagree about morality (a view known as moral relativism) or saying that morals do not exist, are invested ad hoc, or are clung to for outside reasons (views which are often grouped together under the label of moral skepticism). Others, most famously Wittgenstein, claim that while morals have some relevance to our lives, they don’t actually contain any truth, at least of the sort that could be used to describe the equation one-plus-one-equals-two, or the sky is blue today. Whatever your view might be about morality—i.e., it’s a relic of the Church, or a good reason for killing infidels—we can probably cede Singer’s basic point. We often have different initial impressions about what constitutes the right thing to do.
To cite a fairly loaded example, even Hitler would say that bombing the National Gallery in London is unwise, if only because it contains priceless works of art. He might disagree with most of us about the propriety of looting those works and housing them back in Berlin, but he would probably share the common sentiment that destroying the engravings of the Old Masters is vile. (Then again, he had no trouble torching Picasso’s, or other “decadent” works). In other words, we can all (mostly) agree on the value of artistic heritage, even if we perceive that heritage to be located in different places or times. An obvious exception to this might be the occasional defacing of artwork, as evidenced, for instance, by the young man who strolled into the National Gallery one morning in 1987, casually removed a sawed-off shotgun from his coat, and proceeded to fire off three-dozen shells at close range at Leonardo’s Virgin and Child, after which one might reasonably ask: A. whether she’s still a virgin, and; B. whether this perpetrator can be seen as operating on the same mental wavelength as others, Neoclassical tastes notwithstanding. The point is that we, as a human race, and perhaps along with other, “high-level” species, probably share a code of values, or set of precepts about what’s right and wrong. We’re just unable to agree on when those values pertain to situations.
One of those agreed-upon values, Singer contends, is the avoidance of pain. Certainly, he’s not alone in claiming this, as many others, including Benthamites, hedonists, most utilitarians, and even some Kantians, would agree. Perhaps a few in the BDSM movement would object—or perhaps for them the causing of such pain is arousingly necessary. Regardless, numerous studies have shown that humans are hardly alone in eschewing pain. While the suffering of primates and other mammals can be readily observed, as any pet owner will attest, recent evidence has suggested that even fish, crabs, and other invertebrates demonstrate nociception, or neural reactions to harmful stimuli.5 Thus, when you hear the lobster screaming in the pot, it is indeed reacting, much as you would upon being immersed in 212 degree water. That we choose not to believe this is simply a matter of convenience, or disregard, since most of us would agree that willfully hurting a feeling animal is wrong.
About a decade back, and writing in the Times, Singer proposed several hypothetical scenarios to help us rethink our commitments. He asked, for example, whether buying an unnecessary and expensive television set doesn’t amount to murder if the money spent on that set could be used to provide life-saving medical aid to Third World citizens.6 His remarks provoked obvious uproar—even from me, since I consider Monday Night Football to be anything but unnecessary. Moreover, even the most preference-based utilitarian, as Singer claims to be, would have to allow some room for proximity to the consequences of an action. (That is, because we don’t personally know those dying in Third World countries, we can hardly equate ignoring them with conventional murder). But regardless of whether we accept all of his claims, we can agree with his premise, which is that we often fail to consider our duties to others, especially those we don’t normally deem part of our moral conversation. For Singer, this includes not only third-world citizens, but also apes, dolphins, elephants, and others with demonstrable sentience, or the capacity to feel pain.
On the other end of the animal liberation debate stand the “rightists”, or deontologists, to be exact, who believe that animals have distinct rights, rather than just an interest in avoiding pain. This group includes Tom Regan, Gary Francione, and Richard Ryder, among others7, and for them, some basic principle, be it the right to live unencumbered, think, or experience the universe, entitles all of us, including animals, not to die. Like the utilitarians’, their approach limits killing but tends to be much more restrictive. Singer, for example, would allow for the killing of a few if it brought necessary good to the many—a position that has earned him notorious scorn from right-to-lifers and religious fundamentalists. He has come out in vocal support of abortion, euthanasia, and even animal testing, in places,8 since those practices can be shown, in his view, to offset total pain.
Importantly, Singer’s utilitarianism does not require vegetarianism, since the killing of animals (or even humans) could be construed as morally correct in some cases. For example, a family of humans struggling to survive in the wilderness might painlessly kill and consume an old bear as a way of preserving itself. In that case, the long-term interests of the bear, which are few, given its advanced age, would have to be outweighed by the family’s immediate interest in survival.9 This has obvious—and potentially radical—consequences for the field of practical ethics, which is why Singer has irked quite a few, even those on the Left. All of which is to say that this is an extremely complicated debate, but not one that should lead us to throw up our hands and say it’s okay to kill as we please.
Ideology aside, the biggest problem plaguing both sides of the animal liberation debate is that terms like “pain” and “animal” are still very hard to define, let alone quantify. While we know that C-fibers, for instance, play a role in signaling pain, we still don’t know how to measure pain or if it even tangibly exists, given all the lingering questions surrounding mental states and theories of the mind. Worse, we’re not even entirely sure which beings are animals properly. Lobsters, yes, but what about slime molds, sea kelp, bacteria, and other borderline species? Obviously we don’t barbecue most of them, but consistency requires a working definition of animal, upon which scientists have yet to agree. That said, we can pretty much agree that a cow is a feeling animal and doesn’t enjoying being scalded with a brand, stunned with a bolt, and turned into a Wendy’s Baconator. When we do those things to it unnecessarily, Singer and all the others contend, we commit a moral wrong.
Strangely, 5000 years of Judeo-Christian tradition hasn’t exactly pointed us in this direction. Sure, there are Christian vegetarians, just as there are murderous Buddhists, gay Republicans, and health-conscious patrons of Wendy’s. But they hardly constitute the norm. The point is that the Western tradition, from Aristotle and Moses to Descartes and Dave Thomas, has viewed animals as either “irrational” (Aristotle’s claim), subject to our “dominion” (Genesis 1:26), soulless “machines” (Descartes’ ingenious explanation), or patties awaiting their bun (assuming there’s meat in the Baconator.)
If you’ve gotten this far in the essay, you’re probably aware of the common defenses for eating meat–that it’s:
B. traditional or religiously ordained
C. justified on the grounds that humans are innately stronger or more intelligent than other species
D. vital for nutrition or human sustenance
One can also respond to these claims by explaining that: A. rape and murder are natural as well, as any quick glance at Animal Planet or the history of Europe will attest; B. stoning gays and fornicators is also religiously ordained, as well as firmly rooted in tradition; C. quite a few humans, including the mentally ill and severely disabled, are less intelligent than dolphins, chimps, and other “high-level” primates, yet we don’t generally deign to eat them. Thus, intelligence cannot be a criteria for moral consideration any more than membership in a family, species, or clan could be; D. there is not a single scientific study documenting the need of a healthy person to eat meat or animal-derived products. Sure, vitamin B12 is not readily obtained from plant sources. And it’s certainly easier to obtain protein, iron, zinc and calcium from animals. Does that mean you should?
There are other alleged defenses for eating meat, such as:
A. that it tastes good
B. poor people need it
C. it helps control animal populations
As for A., most of us can think of more than a few carnal delights in which we might engage but choose not to out of consideration for others. As for B., almost no one on the planet, apart from a few hunter-gatherer societies, depends on meat to survive—and certainly no one reading this article. And as for C., there are much more effective ways to regulate animal population levels, such as reducing human encroachment.
Where the issue admittedly becomes more complicated is in matters of indirect killing. Why vegan as opposed to vegetarian, for example? Should you wear leather, patronize zoos, condone the owning of pets (which are by and large slaves if they’re not let outside; sorry, but it’s true), purchase fur, goose down, wool, feathers, or silk, squash insects when they do not disturb you, or take Tylenol coated in gelatin? Despite writing this manifesto, I’m actually not an absolutist—at least along the lines of Francione et al. I tend to agree with Singer that a general reduction in harm is preferable, and that each person’s goal should be to reduce the amount of pain they cause others, both humans and not. If you want to visit the zoo’s penguin exhibit, or even eat a cheeseburger from time-to-time, I say do as you must. The point is to reduce these visits or consumptions as much as humanly possible. But as any tried-and-true drinker will attest, going cold turkey ain’t likely to get you on the wagon.
Ultimately, I’d favor abolition. And I do my best to avoid all the above practices. But I’m also a father, and I understand that my children, for instance, might want to drink cow’s milk occasionally—or worse, eat a Big Mac. I see the goal of the animal liberation movement as not to create a puritanical system of rights and wrongs, but rather to reduce unneeded harm. How gradually this comes about is certainly debatable, and this position undoubtedly leaves me open to attack, if not the charge of hypocrisy. After all, given the billions of animals that are unnecessarily slaughtered each year, not to mention the millions more which are painfully and superfluously tested on, isn’t showing flexibility on the matter analogous to courting compromise with genocidal fascists, or the slave-holding South? Perhaps. But I tend to think in total numbers. Realistically, X Big Macs are going to be sold tomorrow, and millions of animals will die. No one will go vegan overnight (yes, I too, had a couple relapses). The point is to do your best. Of course, if Lincoln had said that…
Why Organic is Murder, and Other Nice Tidbits
Two other things need to be said about veganism, although they don’t strike me as justifications for it as much as interesting side-notes. One is the environmental aspect. You’ll notice that the effects of meat production on the planet have not been mentioned thus far. Considering that about 200 species—not animals, species—are exterminated daily10, mainly to make room for dairy cows, one could make a very strong case for veganism on purely ecological grounds. Beyond that, meat production, as Foer and many more have pointed out, has caused incalculable harm to the ozone, emitting absurd amounts of methane and other deadly byproducts the likes of which scientists are only beginning to fathom. This is stupid for so many reasons that it almost defies explanation. It also makes one wonder why billions are spent on wind farms, Priuses (Prii?), corn subsidies, and other needless–and often counterproductive–efforts at climate change when we could simply ban meat. Even taxing it appropriately, so that consumers had to pay for the actual harm done to the planet, would likely put meat in the same class as cigarettes.
Yet the ecological argument for veganism—and it’s the one Foer most heavily makes—implies that if we could find a sustainable way to eat meat, there would be nothing wrong with doing it. Perhaps thousands of Whole Foods shoppers and other patrons of supposedly “sustainable”, organic, humanely-raised, hormone-free meat delude themselves everyday into thinking that they’re doing something noble by buying it. If they had no trouble eating sustainable, organic, humanely-raised, hormone-free humans, then perhaps I would agree.
The second aspect is the economic cost of eating meat. A little under a billion people, or a sixth of the planet, suffer from hunger or malnutrition.11 To paraphrase those infomercials you love, an estimated nine million people starve to death annually.12 One child will die of starvation in the time it takes you to read this sentence.13 Obviously, many factors, from infrastructure and market imbalances to corruption and maldistribution, account for global hunger. But when you consider that over a third of the non-arctic land on the planet is used for raising livestock, and that such production requires between two and five times more calories than normal grain consumption would yield, it’s fair to say that veganism is a pretty good start. Even the amount of land the U.S. alone devotes to livestock could probably feed the world’s hungry if that land were more used more efficiently—that is, replanted with soybeans and grain. In fact, one might even say that the current trend of producing small-scale, organic, “humanely-raised” meat is more murderous of humans than factory farming, since the caloric output is greatly reduced.
Of course, the world-hunger issue, much like the environmental one, overlooks the more basic problem: that 175 million animals are needlessly slaughtered each day.14 That doesn’t even include aquatic animals, whose capture is almost impossible to measure (despite the critical state of world fish stocks). Eventually, environmental and economic necessity will probably lead to more sustainable modes of harvesting animals. But sustainable for who? Probably not the charbroiled.
Still, the best argument against veganism, and the one that merits the most serious consideration, in my view, is that of moral skepticism. Ethical beliefs don’t exist, and those who adopt them are foolish, goes the claim. This is an intelligent argument, and throngs of philosophers, from Nietzsche to Mackie, have made it. It’s also very hard to dispute. After all, what is a “moral” but a basic belief in the good? It’s hardly an objective truth. There isn’t much defense for it, frankly, except to say, as most of us would (excluding Herr Nietzsche), that it’s impossible to imagine a world in which moral thought did not steer us. This is, perhaps, what differentiates us from some “lower” forms of life. Whether that justifies eating them, however, can only remain to be seen.
1Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown, 2009.
2Portman, Natalie. Huffington Post. Posted on October 27th, 2009.
4Singer outlines this point in more detail in The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1981.
5See, for example: Magee, B., & Elwood, R. (2012). “Shock avoidance by discrimination learning in the shore crab (Carcinus maenas) is consistent with a key criterion for pain.” Journal of Experimental Biology.
6Singer, Peter. “The Singer Solution to World Poverty.” The New York Times Magazine. Sept. 5, 1999.
7To be exact, Ryder’s position, often termed “painism”, falls somewhere in between the utilitarians and deontologists.
8For his position on animal testing, see, for example: Singer, Peter. “Setting Limits on Animal Testing.” The Sunday Times. Dec. 3, 2006.
9To be fair, not all of the “rightists”, or deontologists, would say that the bear in this case should be saved, since saving the greatest number of lives could be the utmost priority. This depends on how “rights” are construed.
10According to UN Environmental Programme estimates. Cited in: Vidal, John. “Protect nature for world economic security, warns UN biodiversity chief”. The Guardian. Aug. 16, 2010.
12Cited in: Elliot, Malcolm.“People will starve to death because of anti-GM zealotry.” The Telegraph. May 23, 2012.
For a summary of all of these points, in more humorous form, see: http://www.theonion.com/articles/we-raise-all-our-beef-humanely-on-open-pasture-and,30983/