by Rhys Southan
There aren’t a lot of people who specialize in spotting flaws in the ethical logic for veganism. That’s quite possibly because no one cares about obscure intellectual discourses over animal rights. I certainly didn’t while I was a vegan. After I saw the light and stopped eating animal products my first year at The University of Texas, I read bits of Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights, Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and Carol Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat, but I could never get into them. I rejected animal farming because it was violent, gruesome, cruel and needless. I didn’t need academic theorizing to keep me convinced.
But after nine years of veganism, I felt chronically tired, brain-fogged and depressed, and thanks to some prodding from an ex-vegan roommate, I came to blame the lack of animal products in my life. This wasn’t a connection I wanted to make. That animals should have rights was pretty much the only serious belief I had. Well, human rights were up there too, I guess, but most of the humans I knew weren’t being ground into sausages, so I was less worried about that. Plus, veganism was a relatively unpopular lifestyle, which almost inevitably made it character defining since I was always “the vegan.” I lived in a vegetarian co-op house in Austin for a couple of years, and even though I’d always wanted to be a writer, the sudden food obsession that veganism engendered in me shifted my career focus toward cooking. I volunteered on and off at a macrobiotic restaurant in Austin for a few years before they finally hired me, and I lost a job as a theatre reviewer for The New York Sun because I left a play halfway through to get to my other job making to-go boxes at the vegan restaurant Angelica Kitchen. (Well, technically I lost the job because I gave the play a negative review without informing my editor that I didn’t know what the second half of the play was like. Sorry Banger’s Flopera.)
It really hadn’t occurred to me that I might ever eat meat on purpose again. I wasn’t bored of vegan food, or annoyed with having only one option at most restaurants, nor did I feel the need to commune with other Americans by ritualistically dismembering and masticating the corpse of a turkey every year. However, I did care about health enough that I wasn’t going to stick with any diet that I’d come to believe was hurting me.
Unfortunately, I still cared about animals and thought they had a right to life. Part of the reason I became vegetarian and then vegan is that I’d internalized the animal rights belief that you couldn’t care about animals and also eat them. This wasn’t much of a problem for me when I was a vegan, except that it led me see most of the world’s inhabitants as heartless animal destroyers. As a meat-eater-to-be, however, this was more of an issue, because I would presumably need to stop caring about animals. How does one stop caring?
The answer to that question in my case was severe depression. I had always been prone to depression, and still am, but as a vegan I finally became so utterly indifferent to my own life that it led to this epiphany of sorts: “If my life doesn’t matter,” I thought, “a cow’s life definitely doesn’t matter.” Eating meat no longer seemed impossible to justify. If it had to be me or the cow… it might as well be the cow. After some dark nights of the soul, I read a chapter from The Omnivore’s Dilemma — in which Michael Pollan accepts his own speciesism because he can’t quite defeat Animal Liberation’s logic — and I returned to meat eating as a born-again speciesist.
The fact that I did still kind of care about animals, despite thinking this was now a glaring contradiction, was a problem. Another problem was that my post-vegan fascination with animal rights philosophy exposed me to the more sophisticated vegan arguments that I’d previously found too boring to read in depth while actually being a vegan. As a result, speciesism started to look like a cop-out. The sin of speciesism wasn’t just that it was a discriminatory prejudice, but that it was intellectually lazy — a sort of deus ex machina to lift meat eaters out of arguments they couldn’t otherwise win, which is how Pollan uses it in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
About a year and a half after quitting veganism, I started a blog to expose what I perceived to be the nutritional deficits of a plant-only diet and the silly and cultish aspects of vegan culture. Some vegans said the project was a way for me to sublimate and redirect my post-vegan guilt. I of course figured they were hurt and lashing out because I was questioning their cherished worldview and thus their core identities, but now I wonder if there was something to that. What was I trying to prove, and to whom? I don’t really know, exactly, but I still seem to be trying to prove it — just a little more sporadically lately.
About six months into starting my blog, I got my first comment from an anonymous member of a hyper-intellectual vegan subgroup that I would quickly dismiss as “Logical Vegans.” Logical Vegans were irritatingly intelligent plant eating philosophy nerds, and were better than anyone else at finding flaws in my reasoning, but debating them was like dueling a vegan Deep Blue. Their empathy and compassion for animals, if they had any, was inadmissible evidence; for them, animals seemed to serve mostly as inputs in their ethical algorithms. It appeared to me their main motive in going vegan was to win online flame wars. The logical vegans struck me as awkward and robotic, and I imagined them nervously patting dogs and cats on the head while saying, “That’s a good sentient being, who has interests and thus rights.” They were, I decided, the most off-putting and least persuasive of all the vegan apologists. No one goes vegan because they coldly accept the logical necessity of it.
And yet, the seeming invincibility of these arguments — and, if the vegans were right, lingering post-vegan guilt — made me want to beat the logical vegans at their own game. I kept refining my points until I thought I was approaching something airtight. I was becoming the flipside of the vegan subgroup I’d previously dismissed: a logical ex-vegan. I wanted to show the logical vegans of the world (all 30 of them) that veganism was not any sort of rational obligation for the rest of us. But this sucked me into their world; like them, I spent a sizable chunk of my mental life on a battlefield of obscure abstractions. You might imagine me awkwardly petting a dog while cooing, “That’s a good doggie who has rights because we value your companionship, unlike farm animals who don’t because we value their consumable flesh.”
This wasn’t an easy hobby to explain at parties. But, for what it’s worth, I did find out that vegan ethics are not logically unassailable. Someone please tell me this wasn’t all a complete waste.
For any aspiring logical non-vegans out there (not that I recommend this lonely and literally fruitless life path), the first step is to realize that animal rights arguments tend to rely on logical consistency to make their basic case. It’s most likely impossible to prove that eating animals is objectively morally wrong — just as it’s most likely impossible to prove the same about eating humans. What many logical vegans try to show instead is that eating animals is inconsistent with the ethics that most of us already hold. To get a sense of how this works, here is what a logical consistency argument looks like without its details, generalized and stripped to its skeleton:
1. “This popular and uncontroversial position is what you and most westerners admit that you feel.”
2. “Here is the explanation for why most of us feel this way.”
3. “If you are going to be consistent with 1 and 2, you have to believe this other thing that I want you to believe (even though you claim not to believe this).”
You could dress up this logical consistency skeleton with just about any thesis you like. For instance, here’s an anti-abortion version: 1. “You are against murder.” 2. “You’re against this because you’re against ending a human life.” 3. “Fetuses are a human life. Therefore you must be against abortion.”
But here it is, fleshed out with popular vegan assumptions. This is also known as “the argument from marginal cases,” which pretty much never fails to make a cameo in animal rights books — usually in the first or second chapter:
1. “You are against harming humans without their consent, for your own benefit, even when the humans are babies or are intellectually impaired.”
2. “The only logical reason for you to feel this way about humans who don’t meet the typical standards of human rationality is that these humans are sentient: they feel pain and experience the world and want to live.”
3. “So if you are going to be consistent, you also have to be against the selfish harming of all sentient beings — including animals — even though you don’t necessarily feel a moral aversion to the use of animals as resources. Therefore, you must be vegan.”
For meat eaters who feel challenged by this rather than bored, and would like to play this game (while aiming for a happier ending than “you must be vegan”), I know of four main ways to retort. This will, I fear, require meeting the logical vegans on their own abstraction-and-logic-cluttered battlefield. If you’re not up for it, you can always just say that God made animals for our culinary amusement because He wanted to see our faces light up when we ate mac and cheese.
1. Deny the first claim that you are against the selfish, nonconsensual harming of humans per se. (Not advised.)
This is a more common meat eater retort than you might expect. That’s because it usually starts off innocently enough. Many meat eaters believe they can escape the implications of the argument from marginal cases by appealing to contractarianism, aka the social contract. “Animals can’t respect our rights, so why should we respect theirs?” goes this reasoning. As for babies and mentally impaired adults, well, to be consistent, since they can’t respect our rights, they don’t get rights either. But don’t worry, that doesn’t mean we can eat them. Since they’re a part of human society, they have family and friends who care about them, and these family and friends have rights. Therefore, we give babies and mentally impaired adults indirect rights, just as we would to beloved pets. Since farm animals and wild animals don’t typically have humans who care about them in the same way, they don’t have even these indirect rights, so we can eat them.
But now you’ve walked right into the logical vegan’s trap. If babies or mentally impaired adults only have indirect rights out of deference to the adults who care about them, does that mean we can eat orphan babies? There is no “normal adult” that this will hurt by proxy, and so like wild and farmed animals, friendless and family-free babies and mentally impaired adults have no indirect rights. And what about parents who are isolated in the wilderness and have a baby because they like to eat young human flesh? If the baby’s death doesn’t bother the parents, no one else knows the baby, and the baby has no direct rights, isn’t this okay?
Having gone the contractarian route gives you three options at this point — four, if you count running away. You can either admit to being a speciesist, in which case you’ve lost this little battle. (But given that we live in an unabashedly speciesist world, this accusation probably won’t sting much. Michael Pollan certainly didn’t think so.) You can go vegan, in which case you’ve surrendered and lost the war. Or you can bite the bullet and say that indeed, you would be fine with using babies and mentally impaired humans as resources when doing so wouldn’t victimize any “cognitively normal” humans. This makes you as consistent as the vegan claims to be, and immune to accusations of speciesism. Instead, you discriminate on the basis of cognitive development. You are a cognitivist, to redefine a word.
If you don’t like copping to cognitivism any more than speciesism (and being a cognitivist also sets you up for a losing argument about neurotypicality), you could go even further and admit to being an egoist. In this case, the premise from which all your beliefs logically tumble would be something like, “I only care about myself and by extension, those who can make my life better — and even then only to the extent that they benefit me. This can be mostly compatible with human rights, because I don’t have a taste for babies and I benefit in a practical sense from not hurting humans if they in turn agree not to hurt me. But since there’s no such mutual benefit from banning the murder of animals, too bad for them.”
If this captures your actual feelings (or lack thereof), then by all means go with number one. But, if not: is it really worth pretending to be a psychopath just to win an argument?
2. Kick the argument apart at its middle. Deny the second premise that sentience is the only or even main reason that you’re against harming humans, including severely mentally impaired humans.
Why don’t human parents normally eat their babies? Is it really just because babies feel pain and their parents don’t want to hurt a sentient being?
A more plausible alternative to the sentience hypothesis is that many of us feel a sense of responsibility for vulnerable humans we have brought into the world, or vulnerable humans who are unrelated to us but live in our societies with us. Sentience is surely part of this — our feelings of responsibility for someone is weak to nonexistent when they have no senses or consciousness — but there’s more going on than that. After all, if sentience were the key component of all our caring, there would be no controversy about early abortions or unplugging comatose humans who are on life support. Also anyone who was knocked unconscious would be fair game, and no one would bother to treat human corpses respectfully.
Natural selection has, it seems, biologically programmed most of us to care about vulnerable humans, and in part this is because these feelings make us better at child rearing — a fairly important activity to get right when you’re a mammalian species with a nine-month gestation period and a lengthy post-birth development process. Babies are how we catapult our genes into the future, and we would go extinct if we ate them all, so of course we care about them even though they aren’t intellectually developed. Biologists have shown that altruism develops because the genes of beings who help each other often tend to survive longer, which is another reason we might care about struggling humans who aren’t related to us. That doesn’t explain why we would be nice to people who we know can’t help us, but our socialization in cultures that claim to respect human rights surely has an impact too.
All of this coalesces into a sense of responsibility for other humans that many of us may not feel as strongly for other animals, sentient though they may be. Vegans might decry this as irrational and prejudiced, but they may as well argue against the cravings for sex or, well, food. Ideology can triumph over many basic instincts, including the urge to survive, but do most vegans honestly see no difference between raising pigs and human babies for food?
The upshot of this biological and cultural responsibility alternative to plain sentience is that if we have caring feelings for humans because it’s an effective strategy for our genes — or because we have been socialized to believe in universal human rights, or because of anything else beyond just sentience — it’s not logically inevitable for this to bleed over into caring for nonhuman animals who could never propel our genes into the future, who couldn’t conceivably save us from drowning, and who we haven’t been raised to see as deserving of rights. As vegans and other animal lovers prove, this caring spillover might happen anyway, but there’s no logical need for it to do so.
3a. Consistency is the virtue of small minds. A logical march from a single or even multiple starting premises does not define our ethics. Logical consistency is not irrelevant, but it’s also not the actual reason that most of us believe precisely what we do, and it’s misleading to pretend otherwise.
Our ethics are a protective duvet weaved from genetics, culture, logic, traditions, emotions, family teachings and interactions with others that manifest themselves partially as gut feelings, partially as ideological rules, partially as laws, and partially as habits; ethics are not so simplistic as following a straight line from one inevitable and objectively correct belief to the next. Even if animal rights were a logically consistent step from beliefs that many westerners hold, that doesn’t make it an inevitable or necessary belief if logical consistency isn’t our sole ethical standard.
Consistency is only possible if we allow everything or allow nothing. The in-between always contradicts. If logical consistency is ethically required, we are all unethical. Any vegans or meat eaters claiming to have consistent ethical answers are fooling themselves.
Since vegans cannot prove that there’s an obligation to be consistent in all actions and beliefs, the best they can do here is call you too illogical to debate. But if you know of some beliefs or actions of their own that aren’t logically consistent either, you might want to point those out in return. Which brings us to…
3b. If logical consistency and anti-speciesism are so important to vegans, why is veganism logically inconsistent and speciesist?
A consistent anti-speciesism would demand far more restrictions on humans than a mere prohibition on animal product consumption; to begin with, true anti-speciesism would probably mean giving up human civilization and industrialized plant-based agriculture. This is because of the inevitable conflict between humans and wild animals over habitat, and how disastrous it is for animals that we have reshaped nature for our own ends and continue to monopolize so much of the land for ourselves. Most of us wouldn’t knock down the homes of humans to make more space for ourselves or to retrieve resources without compensation, especially when we knew this would likely kill them, so why does veganism allow habitat interference that kills animals or ruins their lives?
The implication of this is that we’re all in the same (animal-interest-not-quite-respecting) boat. Not surprisingly, vegans aren’t typically comfortable with that and so the argument is unlikely to stop here. This is the point where vegans suddenly undergo a subtle change in philosophy, from a deontological belief in animal rights to a utilitarian suffering reduction approach. “Yes, we all violate animal interests,” the vegan will admit, “but vegans violate them less often and less egregiously.”
If you’re not late for a barbecue and are up for arguing more, there are two main ways to address this surprise suffering reduction twist.
I. Veganism is an arbitrary cut-off for suffering reduction and so cannot possibly be a rational obligation on that basis.
Since it’s possible to reduce suffering more than veganism alone does, how can vegans say it’s enough to stop at animal product abstinence when it would reduce suffering more to eat road kill and eat out of dumpsters — or for humans to embrace and strive for their own extinction — yet it’s not enough to reduce suffering by eating humanely raised animal products? Eating only animal products from welfare-conscious farms or decreasing meat consumption reduces suffering, so why doesn’t that count if there’s no obligation to prune suffering as much as we all possibly can?
The nice thing about choosing (I) is that it should be a dead end for the discussion. Most likely the vegan will explain their arbitrary suffering reduction cut-off by saying something like, “Well, veganism is the best way to reduce a lot of suffering easily, without a major sacrifice for ourselves, but eating road kill or voluntarily going extinct isn’t realistic.” This turns the discussion into a subjective, personal question of how much of a sacrifice we’re each willing to make to reduce suffering. For someone who is unhappy as a vegan, veganism is not a good way to reduce suffering easily, and so there’s not much left for the vegan to do except deny the meat eater’s personal experience and claim that everyone who is capable of happiness can be happy as a vegan — which won’t likely convince someone who isn’t happy as a vegan. (And not being happy as a vegan is, I presume, the reason you’re arguing against veganism so vigorously.)
II. There are ways for meat eaters to reduce suffering more than vegans do, so veganism is not actually the best suffering reduction diet.
Hunting animals for food allows for the preservation of more animal habitat than agriculture does. Also, it’s likely true that to procure the plant-based equivalent of the nutritional content of a single deer, you would have to kill more than one animal because of the deaths from pesticides, mechanical harvesting of plants, fertilizer run-off and the destruction of animal habitat for agriculture. (Even the rare use of animal-friendly best farming practices, like no-till, no-burn, no-irrigation wheat farming, can somewhat disrupt the local animal ecosystem of voles, pheasants and coyotes. These practices also often cause less food to be grown per acre for the consumption of humans, which would then play a role in driving up prices. As well, better farming practices can actually accompany an increase in pesticide use. These things are bad for all of us.) Conscientious hunting, then, is just one case in which meat eating might reduce suffering more than a purely vegan lifestyle. Raising (non-sentient) oysters for food is another, since oysters can be harvested without harming other creatures — unlike most plants grown on a farm.
But a sneaky, tenacious logical vegan never gives up, and at this point could accuse the meat eater of violating animal rights in the pursuit of suffering reduction. This circles the argument back around to the rights and logical consistency debate we had in the beginning… thus allowing you to argue about animal rights forever.
So this logical debate over veganism becomes either an eternal loop, or a stalemate in which everyone’s logical justifications slap against a stone wall and dissolve into a mist. Does this exercise seem as pointless to you as it now seems to me? The main value in it, I think, is that it affirms my earlier intuition that logic and rationality alone cannot tell us what to eat. Emotions have a big role in most of our decisions, and if someone doesn’t have the sort of emotional response to animal agriculture that compels them to give up meat, berating them with logic probably won’t do much.
This might sound like bad news for someone who has spent so much time scrutinizing the logical case for veganism, but actually it’s a relief. If consistency isn’t everything, I can be a meat eater who cares about animals after all.
Rhys Southan has also written for Aeon Magazine, The New Inquiry, The New York Times and Food Politic. He writes about vegan culture and the minutia of animal rights rhetoric on his blog Let Them Eat Meat. Cat photo by “Andrey.”