Will future people look back on us with scorn for eating meat? Click on the headline to see my take on this at Ethos Review.
If you want the hunting and farming of animals for food to end, it would help your cause if it turned out that humans could healthfully thrive on a vegan diet. So let’s say there are some dietitians who want the hunting and farming of animals for food to end, and they’re telling you that humans can thrive on a vegan diet… do you trust them?
For some reason, vegan dietitian Ginny Messina’s short blog post “Safety of Diet for Vegan Babies” — which is about how veganism was nothing but an incidental detail in the recent case of a vegan parent endangering the life of her infant — inspired me to write multiple related posts in response. This will be the last one.
In the comments to Messina’s post, I said that vegans can’t really argue that veganism is the best for babies, and that it didn’t help vegan dietitian credibility that so many vegan dietitians arrived at veganism through ethics rather than health. Messina disagreed, writing:
Rhys, if there is no health argument for veganism, then how can it be problematic when vegan dietitians are motivated by ethics? I’d be far more likely to question the credibility of someone who insists they know the one and only healthy way to eat. And if there is more than one way to eat to support good health, why not promote the option that is most ethical? I don’t see that as a problematic stance.
What Messina says here makes some sense, but she’s overlooking the concern people may have that if your ethics have you wishing for the entire world to go vegan, you potentially have an incentive to present vegan nutrition in the best possible light. Thinking merely that veganism is the healthiest diet without caring whether the world goes vegan or not seems to come with less risk of an incentive to exaggerate veganism’s positives.
What Messina is getting at, though, is that the people who do end up pushing a vegan diet purely for its health benefits, and who might not care about the ethical or environmental aspects of it, often end up being less credible and science-oriented than the ethics-motivated vegan dietitians. The people who promote veganism as the healthiest diet and only care about human health are often married to a specific form of the vegan diet, and that gives them a marketable “ideal” diet to sell. Build your career on that marketable diet, and science becomes something to cherry pick when it defends your diet and to ignore when it doesn’t.
The ethics-motivated vegan dietitians, in contrast, want the world to go vegan, but they don’t necessarily have a patentable vision of how this veganism should look. They want vegans to be healthy so they can stay vegan and they want outsiders to view veganism in general as not detrimental to health, but they’re not stuck arguing that a low-carb/low-fat/all-fruit/macrobiotic or whatever else veganism is clearly the healthiest diet in the world. Therefore, they can acknowledge studies that look bad for say an all-starch diet without destroying their careers.
Not that this eliminates all possible incentive for pro-veg bias. Even if vegan dietitians aren’t pushing a specific kind of veganism, they do still want humans to stop consuming all animal products. What prevents vegan dietitians from saying, “All animal products are highly detrimental to health and in general most plants are good for health, so as long as you don’t eat only vegan junk food, you’ll be healthier if you go vegan — and coincidentally the animals will be better off too”?
This is essentially what the vegan MD Dr. Michael Greger does, or at least that’s how I and some other people see it. Greger went vegan for animal rights reasons in 1990, and he began his veg activism by hyping the dangers of mad cow disease and possible link between beef consumption and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. Now he makes nutrition videos and speeches that review studies showing the harms of all animal products, the benefits of many plant foods, and the harms of some plants. If you watch enough of his videos, it becomes clear that eating plants has a ton of advantages while animal products are close to 100 percent bad — with the possible exception of insects.
Greger isn’t selling a particular form of veganism, even though he does see some problem plants that should be avoided, like coconut meat and oil because he opposes saturated fat. Still, I doubt we’ll ever hear anything good about animal products from him, no matter what the science says, and as obsessed as he is with antioxidants and phytonutrients, if the research started showing them as useless or harmful, I would expect him to find a way never to accept that. Harriet Hall at Science-Based Medicine seems to feel the same way, and Joe Schwartz, Director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society, wrote a bemused and not entirely negative post about Greger’s fixation on all the negative things about eating animals.
I haven’t watched anything close to every one of Greger’s videos, so it’s possible that there’s more nuance than I’ve seen. Or maybe there is no nuance and Greger is giving a fair representation of the science, which happens to be that it’s universally harmful to consume animal products. I of course have my own biases, but what it looks like to me is that Dr. Greger is using nutrition as a form of vegan outreach, and that might be influencing the sorts of studies he finds and discusses.
However, dietitians Jack Norris and Ginny Messina are themselves evidence that Messina might be right that we can trust ethics-motivated vegan dietitians. Together they wrote Vegan for Life, which I thought provided such a good overview of nutrition science that I recommended it to a non-vegan roommate who wanted to learn more about nutrition. If I’d thought they were blinded by their pro-vegan bias, I wouldn’t have done that. Messina and especially Norris don’t seem to be using their nutrition work as a form of outreach. As much as they would like more people to become vegan, their audience is primarily vegans who want to keep up on the science behind plant-based nutrition, and stay vegan; Norris and Messina are doing inreach rather than outreach, and the incentive for pro-vegan bias might be weaker with inreach.
It’s not that Norris is adverse to outreach. He co-founded Vegan Outreach with the goal of racking up as many vegan conversions as possible. But he got into nutrition because during his activism work he heard from a lot of people who experienced health problems as vegans and went back to eating animal products. He became a dietitian so he could try to do something about this. If the goal is to prevent vegans from feeling unhealthy and running back to animal products, it doesn’t work to just say, “Veganism is the best diet, you can’t go wrong with it.” You actually have to pay attention to the science and figure out what vegans need to do to stay healthy. That seemingly frees Norris to look more honestly at the research and see what it says about veganism, good and bad.
Messina was already a dietitian when she became vegetarian and then vegan for ethical reasons, but she now seems to largely share Norris’ nutritional philosophy, which is basically that even if veganism isn’t necessarily the healthiest diet conceivable, it’s healthy enough that health concerns shouldn’t override the ethical obligation to be vegan. They can’t exactly say, “you should raise your child vegan because that’s in the best interest of your child.” Instead they have to say, “you should raise your child vegan because that’s in the best interest of non-human animals. Fortunately this need not entail any health sacrifices on your child’s part, and it might even come with some health bonuses, though we can’t be sure.” The point is that the consequences of changing your diet between non-vegan and vegan are supposed to be largely ethical, not nutritional. That’s good news for those who want animal farming to end, if not the very best news, which would be that animal products kill us the second they touch our mouths.
When the goal of nutrition research and writing is to keep people vegan rather than to make new vegans, it seems like potential for bias is less of a concern. But as I discussed in “Final Thoughts on the American Dietetic Association/Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Vegetarian Position Papers”, the potential for bias in vegetarian and vegan dietitians sometimes does lead to biased results. A classic case of vegan dietitians being too eager to ignore veganism’s possible risks was when they said vegans didn’t have to worry much about calcium because a lower-protein diet was better for retaining calcium. This is from a 1991 Vegetarian Times article called, “Six Steps to a Balanced Diet”:
There is also evidence, says [vegan dietitian Reed] Mangels, that vegetarians may not need as much calcium as meat eaters because people who eat lower protein diets excrete less calcium than people who eat high-protein diets. “The RDAs for calcium were made for people consuming typical American high-protein diets,” Mangels explains. “For those whose protein intake is lower but adequate, or whose protein is from nonanimal sources, calcium intakes below the RDAs are probably adequate.”
The bottom line for vegetarians is if you’re going to eat diary products, you should use them as a condiment, not an entrée, says [Suzanne] Havala.
This was a common belief amongst vegans at the time. In 1990, Messina wrote to the New York Times, “A high-protein intake, especially a high intake of animal protein, is linked with loss of calcium from the body. Our love affair with protein may be increasing our risk of osteoporosis.”
The argument that vegans didn’t need to worry about calcium because they didn’t eat animal protein had real consequences, as Reed Mangels herself later noted in a comment on Jack Norris’s blog:
I’ve been troubled for some time by emails from long-term vegans who are now in their 60s and have (to their shock) osteoporosis despite weight bearing exercise and plenty of fruits and vegetables (but very low calcium, protein, and vitamin D). The situation reminds me a bit of where vitamin B12 was at one point. Some people were saying that you didn’t need much and that stores could last a long time and, basically not to worry about it. Then, vegans started experiencing B12 deficiencies. More people seem to be aware of vitamin B12 this days. Perhaps the same awareness is warranted for calcium, vitamin D, and adequate but not excessive protein.
Some vegans would blame Mangels’ mistake on the state of osteoporosis research at the time she was telling vegans not to worry about calcium, yet Mangels was already getting called out for being too easy on veganism in the same year she told Vegetarian Times that animal protein was the big culprit in osteoporosis. In 1991, also in Vegetarian Times, Brian Ruppenthal (co-author of The New Laurel’s Kitchen) wrote:
Of course, Mangels is not a disinterested reviewer, and her summaries occasionally reveal her pro-vegan bias. For example, her section on osteoporosis features studies that concluded that American vegetarians tend to have better bone structure and less osteoporosis than nonvegetarians. What she doesn’t point out is that these studies looked at lacto-ovo-vegetarians, not vegans. Or she’ll omit the negative studies; virtually all studies of the “reproductive performance” of vegans (which includes the health of the mother during pregnancy and the infant) up until the Farm study were quite discouraging, for example, but Mangels mentions only the Farm study in her summary.
This isn’t to say that a vegan diet isn’t healthful; in fact, the Farm study shows that it is possible for vegans to have healthy pregnancies and healthy toddlers, but that such results depend on a level of commitment, common sense and knowledge of nutrition like that of the Farm community. But most people pay very little attention to their diets. For those who adopt a restricted diet and aren’t attentive to nutrition, this can lead to problems. Mangels’ easy confidence in veganism as a healthy diet for all people therefore left me uneasy.
This doesn’t mean we can never trust Mangels again, but it does seem to be one example of a belief in vegan ethics leading to unfounded nutritional conclusions in veganism’s favor. Fortunately, it does look like vegan dietitians have learned from specific mistakes like this; if they’re making new mistakes because of bias, I don’t know what they are.
There’s also bias potential when religion and dietetics mix. Seventh-day Adventists believe that God told their prophet Ellen G. White that vegetarianism was the most suitable diet for humankind. Perhaps not coincidentally, Seventh-day Adventist dietitians have been leaders in showing that vegetarianism is one of the healthiest diets for mankind. Even Ginny Messina used to mix religion and dietetics, as when she and her husband wrote that soy was a miracle from God and that Genesis describes all the foods that we need, which happen to be vegan. Potential for bias is of course different than definitive documented bias that does in fact misinterpret research as a way to peddle ideology; in itself, it proves nothing. It’s just something to keep in mind.
My ongoing frustration with some vegan dietitians is that they pretend like this potential for bias isn’t there, which makes this potential seem more serious than it might really be. Mostly I’m thinking of when vegan dietitians cite the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics/American Dietetic Association vegetarian position papers without ever saying that it’s vegans and vegetarians who author these papers.
It makes sense that vegetarians and vegans write these papers, because they’re generally going to be the most familiar with the science on vegan and vegetarian diets. My main complaint is that vegans often use these papers as a way of saying, “Look, it’s not just people who believe in an ethical obligation to be vegan who say that vegan diets are safe — conservative mainstream dietary organizations are saying it too!” It could sound a little less impressive if they added, “By the way, it’s the ethics and religion motivated vegans and vegetarians at those organizations who are saying this.” I would like to see vegan dietitians talk about their involvement in these position papers and explain why we shouldn’t worry about bias there, because they could probably make a plausible case if they ever got around to acknowledging this issue.
That it’s convenient for ethical vegan dietitians if veganism is acceptably healthy doesn’t mean vegan dietitians are skewing the science — it could in fact be the case that a well-planned vegan diet just happens to be acceptably healthy.
In her recent post about vegan diets for babies, vegan dietitian Ginny Messina wrote, “Both the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Pediatrics say that appropriate vegan diets are safe for babies. (And in case you’re wondering, omnivore diets for babies need to be appropriate as well.)” I’m used to vegans citing the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) to establish that there’s a mainstream nutritional organization that is okay with veganism, but this is the first time I’ve seen the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) used in the same way. That inspired me to look into what the AAP has said about vegan diets for babies.
I emailed Debra Burrowes, who is the Manager of the Division of Technical & Medical Services for the AAP, and asked her if the AAP states that appropriate vegan diets are safe for babies. She responded, “The AAP does not have a specific policy statement on the vegan diet; however AAP’s Pediatric Nutrition Handbook, 7th edition, includes a chapter on the nutritional aspects of vegetarian diets. Some information regarding vegan diets is included within the chapter.”
Here are some excerpts from that chapter, called “Nutritional Aspects of Vegetarian Diets”. I left in the source numbers of sources that I’ll refer to:
Vegetarianism is a way of life for many individuals for various reasons. However, there can be potentially serious implications for the growing pediatric and adolescent population as a result of self-imposed or misguided limitations of the vegetarian diet. Therefore, pediatricians should proactively ask and assess the nutritional status of their vegetarian patients to ensure optimal health and growth, as well as provide anticipatory guidance to prevent any potential deficits. …
As with any dietary pattern, the degree of adherence to vegetarian patterns varies, and thus, overall nutrient intake differs from one vegetarian to the next. Most dietary patterns can be accommodated while fulfilling nutrient needs with appropriate dietary planning based on scientific principles of sound nutrition. Most vegetarian parents welcome such advice. However, when goals are zealously pursued and nutrition principles are ignored, the health consequences can be unfortunate, especially for infants and young children. Overall, it is possible to provide a balanced diet to vegetarians and vegans13. …
Position papers of the American Dietetic Association and Canadian Paediatric Society state that appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases14,15. A vegetarian, including a vegan, diet can also meet current recommended daily requirements for protein, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, riboflavin, vitamin B12, vitamin A, n-3 omega fatty acids and iodine. In some cases, use of fortified foods or supplements can be helpful in meeting recommendations for individual nutrients. Well planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence. Vegetarian diets in general have lower levels of saturated fat, cholesterol and higher levels of complex carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, Vitamin C and E14 carotenoids and phytochemicals16.
There have been concerns that vegetarians, and in particular vegans, have lower than adequate intakes of vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, zinc and riboflavin. A Polish study suggested that prepubertal vegetarian children had lower levels of leptin, a polypeptide which plays a role in bone growth, maturation and weight regulation, in comparison to their omnivore counterparts, which may contribute towards reduced bone growth and development in childhood. A vegan diet may also put children at risk for vitamin A deficiency and subsequent keratomalacia, anemia, protein and zinc deficiency if a proper evaluation of the diet isn’t performed and the family isn’t given appropriate information of the potential dietary deficiencies relevant to the vegetarian diet. However the overall belief that individuals following vegan or vegetarian diets suffer from nutritional deficiencies may be exaggerated, as reports of specific malnutrition in these populations are rare.
The study they cite for the line, “Overall, it is possible to provide a balanced diet to vegetarians and vegans” is C Jacobs’ and Johanna Dwyer’s 1988 paper, “Vegetarian children: appropriate and inappropriate diets” (Am J Clin Nutr, 1988; 48:811-818). Dwyer and Jacobs are friendlier toward vegetarian than vegan diets in the study, concluding:
An appropriate vegetarian diet can adequately provide for each phase of growth in the child. The nutritional needs at each stage vary. In general, it is difficult to achieve normal growth following a vegan-like diet unless care is taken to ensure that the diet is sufficient in calories, protein, vitamin B-12, vitamin D, and Fe. Well-planned lactoovo- and lactovegetarian diets for children, on the other hand, can provide adequate nutrition. Further, they may help establish healthful patterns that will continue through all the stages of life.
The third paragraph I excerpted from the AAP’s “Nutritional Aspects of Vegetarian Diets” chapter appears to be a paraphrasing of two main sources, one of them being the most recent Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly American Dietetic Association) position paper on a vegetarian diet from 2009 (source 14). The authors of that position paper are Reed Mangels, who is vegan for ethical reasons, and Winston J. Craig, a Seventh-day Adventist vegetarian who believes that God told the Seventh-day Adventist prophet Ellen G. White that a vegetarian diet was the only appropriate diet for humankind. I bring this up because vegans often cite the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics position paper on a vegetarian diet as proof that a mainstream organization agrees with them, and I’ve never seen them mention that it’s vegans and vegetarians who write these position papers. I’ve even seen vegan dietitians cite one of these position papers to establish mainstream cred for veganism without admitting that they were one of the authors on that specific paper, or of a similar one from a previous year.
The other main source for that third paragraph I quoted from “Nutritional Aspects of Vegetarian Diets” is “Vegetarian diets in children and adolescents” by Minoli Amit of the Canadian Paediatric Society (source 15). The introduction of Amit’s paper states:
The concept that a well-balanced vegetarian diet can provide for the needs of a growing child and adolescent is supported by Canada’s Food Guide, the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. There is sufficient evidence from well-developed studies to conclude that children and adolescents grow and thrive well on vegetarian diets that are well designed and supplemented appropriately.
However, certain components of these diets and some required nutrients may be in short supply and need specific attention. This is particularly true in the case of strictly vegan diets and other very restrictive diets in which significant medical consequences could result from inattention to nutrient needs. The present statement highlights some of these areas and recommends appropriate interventions.
By referencing this paper, the American Academy of Pediatrics is using the Canadian Paediatric Society as support for the claim that a well-balanced vegetarian diet can be safe – and in return, the Canadian Paediatric Society references the American Academy of Pediatrics as support for the claim that a well-balanced vegetarian diet can be safe.
The Canadian Paediatric Society paper goes on to list some concerns they have with a vegan diet, which includes that younger vegan children are at risk of not getting enough calories if they eat too many foods that have low energy density and a lot of fiber. It says that parents of vegan children need to pay special attention to DHA, B12, calcium, and Vitamin D.
The paper concludes:
Well-planned vegetarian and vegan diets with appropriate attention to specific nutrient components can provide a healthy alternative lifestyle at all stages of fetal, infant, child and adolescent growth (7,8,22). Appropriate education of the family and follow-up over time are essential. There are many useful tools and excellent guides to assist families and professionals.
The cited papers there — 7, 8 and 12 — are: the 2003 vegetarian position paper by the American Dietetic Association, which Ginny Messina, Reed Mangles, and vegan dietitian Vesanto Melina co-authored; the 6th edition of the AAP’s Pediatric Nutrition Handbook; and a paper called “Considerations in planning vegetarian diets: Children,” by Ginny Messina and Reed Mangles (J Am Diet Assoc. 2001;101:661–9).
For the most part, the rest of “Nutritional Aspects of Vegetarian Diets” looks at the various pluses and minuses of vegetarian and vegan diets as far as obtaining particular nutrients. The AAP doesn’t seem to be worried about vegan children getting enough calories, protein, fat, fiber, vitamin A, riboflavin or folic acid. They are more concerned about vegan children getting enough B12, vitamin D, calcium, iodine, zinc, iron and DHA, but they don’t think it’s impossible for vegans to get these things. They also mention carnitine and taurine commonly being low in vegetarians and vegans, but they aren’t bothered about this because they don’t know of any adverse effects this could have.
My impression from reading this chapter is that the AAP certainly wouldn’t suggest a vegan diet to anyone who doesn’t see ethical or religious reasons to be vegan, but that they also don’t believe that it’s unworkable. “Overall, it is possible to provide a balanced diet to vegetarians and vegans” seems to sum up their attitude.
However, just like not everyone at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics seems very accepting of a vegan diet, not everyone at the AAP appears to think that a vegan diet is a decent option for children. On page 303 of the AAP’s Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age Five by American Academy Of Pediatrics (Fifth edition, 2009, edited by Steven P. Shelov and Tanya Remer Altmann), it says:
For some children, however, supplementation may be important. Your child may need some vitamin and/or mineral supplementation if your family’s dietary practices limit the food groups available to her. For example, if your household is strictly vegetarian, with no eggs or dairy products (which is not a diet recommended for children), she may need supplements of vitamin B12 and D as well as riboflavin and calcium.
A post on Jack Norris RD’s blog in 2011 noted that the AAP was thinking of promoting red meat as the best first solid food to introduce to infants, quoting AAP Committee on Nutrition member Frank Greer as saying, “Red meat is the nutrient-rich food that biologically may be best as the first complementary feeding for infants.” The link Norris used is broken now, but I found a story about Greer making a similar claim in 2009, called “Rice Cereal Can Wait, Let Them Eat Meat First”.
According to the AAP paper titled “Use of Soy Protein-Based Formulas in Infant Feeding” by Jatinder Bhatia and Frank Greer, there is one definite instance in which they feel a vegan infancy may not be workable: when a prematurely born infant doesn’t have access to breast milk. They wrote,
On the other hand, soy protein-based formulas are not recommended for preterm infants. Serum phosphorus concentrations are lower, and alkaline phosphatase concentrations are higher in preterm infants fed soy protein-based formula than they are in preterm infants fed cow milk-based formula. As anticipated from these observations, the degree of osteopenia is increased in infants with low birth weight receiving soy protein-based formulas. Even with supplemental calcium and vitamin D, radiographic evidence of significant osteopenia was present in 32% of 125 preterm infants fed soy protein-based formula. The cow milk protein-based formulas designed for preterm infants are clearly superior to soy protein-based formula for preterm infants.
As Messina pointed out to me in a comment on her blog, soy protein based formula isn’t vegan either, because it contains vitamin D3 that is derived from animals. But she implied that this was a better option for vegans than cow-milk based formula, which is even less vegan.
Overall, though, “it’s not ideal, but we’ll work with it” seems to be the AAP’s unofficial implied motto in regards to vegan diets. That’s the sense I get from an article called “Vegetarian Diets for Children” on the AAP website Healthychildren.org:
If your child is following a vegetarian diet, you need to guard against nutritional deficiencies. There are various degrees of vegetarianism, and the strictness of the diet will determine whether your youngster is vulnerable to nutritional shortcomings. …
Children can be well nourished on all three types of vegetarian diet, but nutritional balance is very difficult to achieve if dairy products and eggs are completely eliminated. Vegetarians sometimes consume insufficient amounts of calcium and vitamin D if they remove milk products from their diet.
Also, because of the lack of meat products, vegetarians sometimes have an inadequate iron intake. They may also consume insufficient amounts of vitamin B-12, zinc, and other minerals. If their caloric intake is also extremely low, this could cause a delay in normal growth and weight gain.
Vegetarians may also lack adequate protein sources. As a result, you need to ensure that your child receives a good balance of essential amino acids. As a general guideline, his protein intake should come from more than one source, combining cereal products (wheat, rice) with legumes (dry beans, soybeans, peas), for example; when eaten together, they provide a higher quality mixture of amino acids than if either is consumed alone.
Other planning may be necessary. To ensure adequate levels of vitamin B-12, you might serve your child commercially prepared foods fortified with this vitamin. While calcium is present in some vegetables, your child may still need a calcium supplement if he does not consume milk and other dairy products. Alternative sources of vitamin D might also be advisable if there is no milk in the diet. Your pediatrician may recommend iron supplements, too, although your child can improve his absorption of the iron in vegetables by drinking citrus juice at mealtime.
A Zen macrobiotic diet usually presents many more problems than a vegetarian diet. With a macrobiotic program, important foods (animal products, vegetables, and fruit) are severely restricted in stages. This diet is generally not recommended for children. Youngsters who adhere to it may experience serious nutritional deficiencies that can impair growth and lead to anemia and other severe complications.
Given all this, does Ginny Messina’s claim that the AAP says “that appropriate vegan diets are safe for babies” hold up?
I think it holds up well enough, with the exception of premature infants who don’t have access to breast milk. The AAP may surround much of their talk of vegan diets for babies with negative words like “difficult,” but that’s not the same as saying “unsafe.”
Even when Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age Five says, “For example, if your household is strictly vegetarian, with no eggs or dairy products (which is not a diet recommended for children)…” it’s not clearly stating that vegan diets are unsafe for children. They seem to be suggesting that a vegan diet is riskier for babies, maybe, or more challenging, or just not the first recommendation they would make. But that’s not exactly the same as saying “unsafe.”
I doubt that very many people at the AAP are crazy about vegan diets, but I don’t see anyone from the AAP overtly calling them dangerous.
One of the reasons veganism becomes more controversial once children are born into it is that it’s a philosophy that potentially has nutritional consequences without necessarily having nutritional intent. In other words, the point of veganism is to foster an ethical relationship between human and nonhuman animals, yet practicing this ethical relationship means humans might have more trouble getting certain nutrients that are more prevalent in animal foods. (Or, if they’re lucky, they might instead end up healthier.) Whether it grievously harms animals to raise them to be our food tells us nothing about whether it’s healthful for us to eat animals or not. So if parents are raising their child as a vegan to reduce animal suffering, it impacts their kid’s diet without the kid’s wellbeing serving as the primary motivator.
In contrast, when health-conscious parents, say, starve their children of carbs, they are at least inspired by nutritional concerns, however misguided. Raising a child on an unusual diet for health reasons is controversial too, but only because most people will assume the diet is based on questionable science. The objection is not that parents are tinkering with the child’s diet out of concern for the child’s health, but that because the parents have these weird, likely uninformed nutritional ideas, they’re accidentally harming their children more than helping them. Vegan parents — unless they are motivated purely by the belief that veganism is the healthiest diet for their children — are in the more awkward position of intentionally restricting the diet of their children for non-nutritional reasons. In that sense, ethical veganism for babies is kind of like putting your baby on a hunger strike in protest of working conditions overseas.
But there are all sorts of behaviors that have nutritional consequences without nutritional intent. When financial issues limit dietary options, nutrition is compromised out of necessity. Eating pizza instead of vegetables because you like pizza better has nutritional consequences, even if those consequences are an afterthought or not thought about at all.
One difference between this and animal rights veganism is that to the extent pizza vs. veggies is a conscious, considered choice, it’s generally a selfish cost-benefit decision: “Would I rather have a meal that might make me feel better in the long run, or do I want a meal that gives me pleasure right now?” In ethically motivated veganism, the deliberation over (non-vegan) pizza and vegetables isn’t to do with financial necessity and it’s not exactly a choice between two different selfish options; it’s more like choosing between selfishness and altruism. Most people are fine with adults choosing altruism over their own wellbeing, but are less okay with parents choosing altruism over their child’s wellbeing. (That there is an actual conflict between a child’s wellbeing and their being vegan is of course up for debate, but for those who believe there’s something healthy or just delicious about animal products, there is at least a perceived conflict.)
Some people wouldn’t use “altruism” the way I just did, because they don’t think altruism even exists, since everything we do ends up being selfish — the reason we choose to help animals instead of eating pizza is because it feels good to do so, we avoid guilt, we get to feel proud of our ethical beliefs, etc. I don’t have strong feelings about this claim either way, but it gets at something that makes veganism seem like an especially raw deal for infants. The parents of vegan children win because they get to feel good about perpetuating their ethics through their children, theoretical future farm animals win because they get to escape being born to become food, but what does the vegan child get out of this? Maybe later the kid will be proud to be vegan from birth, or then again, maybe not. That makes infant veganism a bit like religiously motivated infant circumcision as far as the child’s wellbeing is concerned: not so great before personal identity and ethical beliefs are formed, but something the child may get into later if their personal identity and beliefs converge with wanting to be circumcised/be vegan.
Another comparison might be to religiously motivated dietary restrictions like kashrut or halal, but most people aren’t going to see it as a major health worry if a child can eat cows, chickens, lambs, and fishes, but not pigs. (Interestingly, though, non-religious vegans have a little more flexibility than kashrut-observing Jews in one regard: they can arguably eat oysters and mussels.) The more foods that a religious or ethical system demands you sacrifice for your higher cause, the more concerned outsiders will be for the children whose diets are constrained because of it.
This is why there is so much pressure on vegans to convince the world that there’s is no significant nutritional difference between veganism and omnivorism, or that veganism is a nutritional plus. (Kind of like the arguments that infant circumcision isn’t that harmful, and may even be beneficial.) That way, veganism for infants allows the parents to live their ethics and for potential future farm animals to not be born, while imposing no health cost on the child. But outsiders are going to have trouble siding with vegans on this when people often link dietary restriction and nutritional deprivation, when babies sometimes need non-vegan medications, when infants have a reputation of being worse at weathering nutritional deficiency than adults are, and when people are suspicious of dietary restrictions that come about from non-nutritionally-related ethical beliefs.
Because of all this, it’s easy for non-vegans to lump ethics-based veganism for babies into the category of health-impacting non-nutritional beliefs that include Christian Scientist parents who withhold medical treatment from their babies for religious reasons — no matter what the science actually says about vegan diets for babies.
Part four will look at the issue of vegan dietitian credibility in light of the ethical motive for wanting veganism to be nutritionally sound.
In her recent blog post “Safety of Vegan Diets for Babies,” vegan RD Ginny Messina criticizes journalists who are quick to label vegan diets dangerous when a baby who happens to be vegan dies or gets sick. I wrote about that post and the latest controversy surrounding irresponsible vegan parenting yesterday. But Messina’s entry made me think about a couple of other things, one of them being, “Why is veganism so easy to blame when a vegan child gets sick or dies?”
Why is it that journalists can’t [figure out that veganism itself isn’t to blame when a vegan child dies or gets sick]? …
I see two issues here for vegan activists. First there is no shortage of bad nutrition information floating around the internet. It creates the potential for people to make poor choices for themselves and their children.
Second, veganism is still pretty unusual in our society. Our diets are regarded with some suspicion and they give rise to lots of questions. This means it’s always more news-worthy when a vegan child gets sick than when a child in a meat-eating family develops deficiencies.
I think Messina overlooked a third issue, which is that veganism is a form of dietary restriction, and many people automatically link dietary restrictions to a decrease in nutritional variety and thus an increase in a deficiency risk. Babies and children are thought of as particularly vulnerable to nutritional deficiency because they are notoriously picky and yet need plenty of nutrients to grow, which — if you believe that restriction means an added risk of deficiency — implies that significant dietary restriction is chancier for them. Plus, being babies and children, they have limited control over their diets, so even if they don’t feel like they’re getting what they need from whatever their parents are allowing them to eat, they can’t necessarily try a non-vegan approach the way non-thriving vegan adults can.
People who tend to link dietary restriction with nutrient deficiency risk will already worry about babies and children having their dietary options tethered because of veganism, so when they hear about a vegan baby who died from a nutrient deficiency, they’ll unsurprisingly assume that the dietary restriction of veganism is to blame.
It’s not only vegans who have to deal with this. The Salon article that Messina criticized as a typical instance of journalists unfairly bashing veganism also linked to a story expressing concern over actress Gwyneth Paltrow “starving her children of carbs” because Paltrow doesn’t feed her children pasta, bread or rice. People are generally suspicious of restricting the diets of babies and children in unusual ways, and that’s a significant PR problem for any version of veganism that frames itself as a dietary restriction.
Of course restriction and deficiency aren’t inextricably linked. If you banish candy and alcohol from your diet, the main consequence is likely to be an increase in nutritional diversity by freeing up space for healthier, nutrient dense foods. But you can’t make a direct analogy from anti-sugar-and-booze-ism to restricting all animal foods, since animal products can be relatively dense in some macronutrients, vitamins and minerals that are less prevalent in whole plant foods.
When a vegan baby’s death is due in part to a deficiency of a nutrient that is prevalent in animal foods and less so in whole plant foods, vegans tend to steer the debate toward the fact that a particular baby’s death didn’t have to happen within a vegan framework. Those French vegan parents Sergine and Joel Le Moaligou were inexcusable fools who didn’t believe in supplements, mistrusted doctors, and breastfed their child for too long, and that rather than veganism is why their baby died. Whatever the nutritional problem in question, it is usually possible to address it in a vegan way. Or, if it’s not — like in the case of a desperately needed non-vegan medication or formula — all reasonable vegans will realize that they should make an exception there.
The problem is that ethics-inspired veganism as a restriction on animal consumption is a negative rather than a positive philosophy. I don’t mean it’s pessimistic, I just mean it tells you what not to do rather than what to do. Vegans can’t purchase and consume animal products because that contributes to animal suffering and exploitation. That’s the main rule. Most (not all!) vegan health experts encourage vegans to supplement important nutrients like B12, but doing so is not a necessary aspect of vegan ethics. When vegans restrict animal products from the diets of their babies and children and fail to supplement those diets to make up for whatever is missing because of that, they are obeying all vegan musts while ignoring helpful (but optional) suggestions from vegan nutritionists. They have not in fact violated veganism. They have, rather, practiced veganism in a way that unfortunately may harm or kill their children. This never has to happen because there are vegan B12 pills and most vegans would make an exception for non-vegan medical interventions in an emergency, and these parents may be foolish, but that doesn’t mean their parenting choices somehow fall outside the realm of veganism. Being reasonable is not a requirement of veganism.
Messina told me in the comments of her last post that Sarah Anne Markham — the vegan mother who recently refused non-vegan medication for her near-death baby — should not have refused non-vegan medical treatment for her baby.
“I wouldn’t expect someone to risk their child’s health for veganism (or their own health for that matter),” she said. “So yes, if there was truly no other alternative, then a responsible parent would choose a medication that isn’t vegan. A case in point is soy infant formula. It’s not vegan because it contains animal-derived vitamin D. But for vegan parents who can’t breast feed and who don’t have access to a milk bank (which is very expensive), then this formula is the only option.”
Well the only reasonable option, but not the only option! Anyway, it’s only the bizarre vegans who take the “no animal products ever” rule that seriously. Of course it’s okay to give your child medicine that has been tested on animals and contains animal products if your child really needs it, and we can simply discount the ridiculous vegan extremists who don’t.
As I said in my last post, I’m not convinced that this is an obvious and necessary stance for vegans to take. Vegans often chide other vegans for being unseemly exception-hunting opportunists or not real vegans if they find and exploit exceptions to the no animal products ever rule. For an example, see this thread on Messina’s Facebook page that started with a link to Diana Fleischman’s post defending oysters as an ethical food source for vegans. Based on what we know about oysters, there’s no reason to think they’re any more sentient than plants, but while some vegans are okay with the consumption of these non-sentient animals, most of the vegan commenters seem to hate that any vegans would embrace this seemingly benign exception to the prohibition on eating animals. So I find it difficult to believe that all vegans can agree that non-vegan medication is sometimes okay.
The big problem for veganism in these cases of child neglect is that it’s not entirely convincing to say that if the parents of a child are vegan, and they raise their child vegan, and the child dies of deficiencies of nutrients that readily exist in animal foods and less so in whole plant foods, that this has absolutely nothing to do with veganism.
It’s true that death in infancy is not anything close to an inevitable outcome of raising kid as vegans, since supplements exist, the nutrition research is out there, and parents are free to make exceptions for non-vegan medical interventions, and no vegan has to feed their child only soy milk and apple juice. But veganism often does play some role in these cases, no matter how much the sciency vegans may wish for all vegans to be reasonable, pro-supplement, and open to non-vegan exceptions in emergencies. That’s why the connection between veganism and the cases of severe nutrient deficiencies in vegan children will continue to be an all-too-easy one for outsiders to make.
In the most recent highly publicized case of vegan child neglect, a vegan woman was arrested because her 12-day-old baby was dehydrated, and she refused the doctor’s advice to give her baby the proper treatment. According to a Salon article with the misleading and irresponsible headline, ”Is veganism child abuse?”, Sarah Anne Markham wasn’t interested in the medication the doctor prescribed for her kid because it contained animal products.
As far as I know, there’s no reported instance of totally mainstream vegan parents who believe in science and supplements who lose a child to overt nutritional deficiency. In all the cases I’ve heard of vegan babies being killed or endangered, there’s always some weird thing about the parent or parents that led to their restricting care for their child more drastically than basic vegan rules demand. This time it was that Markham is a Seventh-day Adventist and wanted to raise her child in some sort of naturalistic way, and she didn’t seem to care very much about science or the advice of medical professionals.
Vegans tend to get snippy and defensive when stories like this come out, and they focus on the point I just made, that the families are always peculiar in some additional way and put too much faith in the worst, most debunked vegan myths, like that vegans don’t need to worry about B12 because it’s in tempeh, or our guts or the air or whatever.
While it’s true that the neglectful vegan parents all seem to exist in the delusional or just uninformed extreme of veganism, I’m skeptical of the claims some vegan apologists make that cases like this have zero to do with veganism, and that we can file them all under general bad parenting and completely ignore the fact that the parents and child happened to avoid all animal products. In her recent post on the Markham case, “Safety of Vegan Diets for Children,” vegan RD Ginny Messina wrote:
Vegan diets aren’t dangerous. However, people with irrational ideas about nutrition are. The stories of vegan parents who starved their babies because of mistaken beliefs about infant feeding are clear proof of that. It is horrible and it’s heartbreaking. But it has nothing to do with veganism.
I agree with some of what Messina says in her post, but I can’t see how this has nothing to do with veganism. Certainly it doesn’t have everything to do with veganism, but “nothing” can’t be right either. It’s not like Markham is a mother who happened to be vegan and dropped her child, and now everyone is saying it’s because she has slippery vegan hands. One of Markham’s major sins was that she refused to give her child non-vegan medication. But from a vegan perspective, that’s exactly what she should have done, isn’t it? Don’t purchase or consume something with animal products, especially if it was also tested on animals… right?
Well, I guess that depends. If your baby is about to die, it might be time to make an exception. In the comments of her post, I asked Messina whether she thought it would have been okay with the animals and with veganism if Markham had given her child the medicine that certainly appeared to violate vegan ethics. Messina responded:
I wouldn’t expect someone to risk their child’s health for veganism (or their own health for that matter). So yes, if there was truly no other alternative, then a responsible parent would choose a medication that isn’t vegan. A case in point is soy infant formula. It’s not vegan because it contains animal-derived vitamin D. But for vegan parents who can’t breast feed and who don’t have access to a milk bank (which is very expensive), then this formula is the only option.
That seems reasonable of course, but is this something all vegans must agree with? Messina “wouldn’t expect someone to risk their child’s health for veganism,” but maybe she’s just not as committed as some vegans are. Could it be that Markham took veganism too literally and too seriously, when all the mainstream reasonable vegans would have known to back off and forget their ideals a little bit until their child was safe enough to go back to avoiding the products of animal exploitation? Or was there actually something un-vegan about Markham’s potentially sacrificing her child for the sake of the animals?
Until it becomes an established and generally agreed upon thing in veganism that non-vegan medication and formula and whatever else are allowed in an emergency — and that in fact, using them to save yourself or your child is actually required by vegan ethics, and that there’s no glory at all in sacrificing your child for animal lives — I’m going to have a hard time believing that all of these vegan child neglect cases have nothing to do with veganism.
A few years ago, I interviewed Erim Bilgin. After subsisting on a low-fat raw vegan diet for three years, Erim turned his back on 30 Bananas a Day and objective morality for meat, nihilism and anti-civ primitivist thinking. Though he still ate plenty of fruit, he disdainfully saw veganism an inevitable extension of society’s drive to impose order and crush passion, to erect more limits and further civilize humanity and nature.
Erim got in touch with me to update us on his perspective – where he still agrees with his angry, fresh-out-of-veganism self, how he’s changed, and whether veganism is still the inevitable path of human society.
Vegans and meat eaters alike usually think it’s weird when ex-vegans don’t immediately stop thinking and talking about veganism once they start eating meat again. It’s been over two years since you quit veganism. Why are you still interested in this?
Yeah, it is weird. My brain just keeps telling me, “Dude, it’s just food. You’re treating it like a high school crush. I mean move on, jeez.” And part of me does want to move on, to no longer spend energy on these bizarre topics like whether or not morals exist independently of individuals, the social value and feelings of a cow or the level of sentience of a plant — and spend that energy more productively. I mean sure, you go through that initial phase of, “What the fuck was I thinking, oh god,” and you start attacking veganism because it’s just your new outlook attacking on your now “outdated” old identity. That’s natural. To keep at it for years afterwards, though, you need something more. The last two years presented me with a lot of real life challenges, and I feel like going through those made me more practicality oriented, and I was like, “What does debating on all this stuff even accomplish? We can figure out EVERYTHING about veganism and still it’s not like when the time comes for the world to turn a major eye on this deal and try to figure out an ultimate answer, it’s not like they’ll turn to us and say, ‘Oh hey look, these guys have been debating this stuff for years and they know all about it, let’s consult them!’” No. Ultimately it’ll be left to the preference of individuals and the influence of the media above anything else, so it felt kinda pointless.
Enter fanaticism. After our interview, I did of course get a lot of emails and such from both vegans and meat eaters about a lot of things. What I wasn’t expecting was to see the vegan emails keep coming, even after two years. I still get contacted at least once a week. I even figured out a kind of accurate system of how it tends to work: a semi-intellectual commentary once a week, something at least mentally stimulating once a month, death threat every two months and if I’m a really good boy, every three months or so I’ll get my favorite kind: the ones with the weird spelling and the voodoo language talking about the universe and peace and our chakras where even the email smells like marijuana. At first I was trying to reply to the more intellectual ones, but it got tiresome. I was also at first getting some emails from anarcho-primitivists, but quickly realized most of those guys were total weirdos and idiots who just seemed mostly interested in buying a whole lot of guns and shooting at stuff in the woods. All in all it was pretty bizarre. What it did though was it kept some of these issues on my radar.
So every once in a while I’d still think about objectivity, ethics, social systems, ideologies, violence etc. And of course I myself have come a long way from the angry, foolish adolescent I was back then. Now I’m just angry and foolish. So some of my views changed. And I’ve found that veganism is sort of a very effective “beacon” for philosophizing; you can start with vegan topics and think on them to get deeper insights into various aspects of existence. It’s certainly very fertile ground for discussion to blossom.
Do you still believe nihilism is the best argument for meat eating?
This is complex, and it was a blind spot in my original argument. I still believe, objectively, that nihilism is the way the universe operates. There is no such thing as inherent meaning; it’s our primate brains that brand things good and bad. So when you’re going for ultimate truth; yeah, you can always argue that there’s nothing “wrong”, or rather, “false”, about eating meat. From an objective standpoint, all you can say is — it’s possible to eat meat, so it’s possible. We can do it. It’s doable.
But that’s about all you can get from an objective viewpoint like nihilism. You can’t really use it in human discussions. Because what I didn’t realize back then was that we humans have an “alternate reality” that we live in. We’re not fully rational, objective creatures. We’re mostly emotional animals. That’s not a good or a bad thing, that’s just what is. Our brains are hard-wired to experience reality that way. So telling someone that eating meat is okay because nothing ultimately matters in the universe is not considered an effective strategy. It’s true, but it does nothing. Because it’s almost like you’re not telling the truth in “the human language”. You’re arguing on facts, not human values. And society isn’t really built on facts. It’s built on human values. Nihilism is the truth, but it’s not our truth. It’s the truth of galaxies, solar systems, elements and energies. But it doesn’t apply to a system of neurons and hormones.
The discussion needs to happen within the human parameters. Which is exactly where everything gets murky. But we have to go there. Otherwise it’s just ivory tower philosophizing.
What are some ways in which your views on veganism, ethics or whatever else have changed over these two and a half years?
This question covers a lot of ground. Let’s get started.
For veganism; I’m no longer angry at vegans, I no longer feel used or anything. I’m over it. No bad blood between me and veganism anymore. I don’t partake in it, but I have no problems with it. I also no longer consider myself “anti-vegan”. I think it’s better to define yourself by what you love, not what you hate. What you’re for and not what you’re against. I’m a meat eater, not a vegan. And I’m not even “against” veganism anymore. I just do happen to eat some meat. Simple.
Now, probably the biggest change I went through was in regard to primitivism. In my original argument, I sided with the primitivists. Not with their methods (bombing and sabotaging shit and murdering people), but with their idea that human nature is too complex for us to claim we can understand it completely, so we shouldn’t try to change our nature, and instead allow our nature to tell us how to live. I personally preached more of a “passive primitivism,” so instead of forcing the whole world to “follow their nature” with us, I said let’s just do it ourselves and let everyone else do their thing.
I later realized something: My rationale for siding with primitivism was that experimentation let us down, so we should quit trying all together. That was wrong. I think the main thing that got me there was the feeling of failure with veganism, and me showing that veganism’s value system is in accordance with the core values of the modern human society. What I said was, the core values of veganism don’t actually go against the core values of modern society, even though it seems like a fringe movement from the outside; and since veganism — a product of human ideology trying to replace human nature — let us down, it’s a good example of why our whole social evolution will let us down. This view was too simplistic. I guess in my anger towards veganism and myself for being dumb enough to believe in it, and my excitement about finding new stuff out, I didn’t consider the whole picture.
What helped to broaden your view?
Some time after our first interview, I was climbing a mountain, and had an accident. I ended up with some serious injuries. At this point, I was living an extremely high octane lifestyle, and exercising heavily and regularly was a major part of how I kept myself happy and functional. When I got the injuries, it was like a kiss of death to me and my dreams. I got really depressed.
It seems that unfortunate events in life always lead to one of two things: defeat or growth. After a brief period of useless self-pity, I decided to tackle my situation. The first thing I realized was that my body most likely wouldn’t heal from all the injuries by itself. There goes the illusion of trusting your nature to always do the optimal thing; out the window. I quickly learned that my biology could very well betray me when the situation became dire enough. I remembered what I had learned before: the human body, like anything else in the universe, is no more than a bunch of molecules put together in a specific fashion. If one part fails, you can, in theory, replace it with external stuff. There’s no shame in using technology to help you achieve what you will.
While I was going to physical therapy, I met some new people. Amputees. Injured. Sick. Old athletes who had to leave their careers because their bodies betrayed them one way or another. As I met these people, saw how amazing some of them were, and saw the tricks mother nature had played on them, how their bodies broke down and betrayed their will, I started to feel like one of them. My nature had betrayed me. My dreams were too much for nature to accept. Nature had rejected us. But how? I previously held the view that we were our animal bodies; and whatever happens to our body or mind was just what we deserved! So why was I feeling like something was wrong now? If all was well with the universe (one primate made a mistake climbing a mountain and physics happened), why did it all feel so wrong?
I came to a new realization: We are not our bodies. We’re not our minds either.
We are the will.
The idea, the raw desire that makes the mind think; the inner thirst that makes the body run. We are the courage that stands up to fear, the discipline that can rise above bodily urges, the hopes that keep the whole system motivated. The only thing within us that’s unchangeably “us” is that little will that drives us. Anything else is replaceable. You can disregard ideologies that don’t serve you. You can drop entire identities in a day. You can change your name, change your body, change your mind patterns. The body isn’t you; “the animal” isn’t you.
So I stopped following “my nature”. I focused solely on my will. Everything else was changeable. For my amputee friends, sometimes this meant replacing their natural useless legs with inorganic prosthetics that sometimes allowed them to sprint faster than “healthy” humans. This was fine for them, because ultimately it was serving them. You can see how this kind of thing shaped my philosophy into something else.
The “human condition” was no longer something final for me. No longer stable. It was free to change as we wanted as much as we could. Nature was a joke. I started identifying more and more with transhumanists. I went back to my medical textbooks to try and cure myself. It took about half a year, but with the right concentrated disciplines, I managed to heal myself until I was finally even better than how I was before the accident. Today I’m fine, but I owe that to the findings of the hundreds of thousands of brilliant scientists that worked to gather the information I used to better myself. I don’t owe it to nature.
So the biggest thing was I dropped the primitivism. Intelligence is one of humanity’s greatest gifts, and all throughout our evolution this is what we’ve been doing — taking control. Instead of letting the universe handle things chaotically, the human force has been trying to control nature, reshape it into its will, rearrange things more to its liking. And this isn’t even going against nature since humanity itself is a force of nature. We are just another manifestation of the universe, so even if we end up destroying everything, a naturalist can’t really argue with things because that’s just like when a sun goes supernova and fucks shit up around it. It’s just the ebb and flow of nature. Humanity’s just another cool and interesting form of the same deal.
What does this mean for your take on veganism and meat eating?
Well, another mindset I’ve dropped since our last talk was the “just kill em all, who cares” mindset. I was very pro-hunting, and I still am, but now for very different reasons. I think I used to be pro-hunting mostly just to spite vegans and show them that one can, in fact, enjoy murdering their precious little animals and pay no price for it. I could taste the delicious vegan tears every time I saw an animal get killed, so turning that activity into a hobby was perfect for an anti-vegan like me.
Once the anger washed away though, I could see more clearly. Yeah I know, vegans are lame and so are their arguments most of the time, but screw veganism, we really are hurting these animals, and they DO feel pain. There’s really no glory in enjoying hurting them. So now I still support hunting, but only because most of the time it provides the least painful death for the animals. I’m still going to kill them and eat their meat, but I want them to suffer as little as possible.
Which is also why I’d support this whole 3D-printed meat deal, if it was perfected. If I can get a steak that is absolutely the same as the real thing nutrition and taste-wise, and I didn’t have to cause any pain to get it, of course I’d prefer that.
So in terms of outlooks, those are what has changed. I still want to eat meat, I still value individual freedoms over anything else, but I want as little pain caused as possible getting there.
Still eating a lot of fruit?
I do, but not nearly as much as I used to. Through much experimentation I’ve finally figured out how my body works best: I increase my carbohydrate intake as I increase my level of physical exertion. The more intense my workouts, the higher the percentage of fuel coming from fruit.
Otherwise it’s animal foods and vegetables. Works like a charm, and you don’t need supplements. My physical performance is higher than it’s ever been, and I have zero health problems. I also enjoy the fruits I eat way more this way, when I’m not stuffing my face with them 24/7. I’ve also benefited greatly from intermittent fasting. If anyone out there’s thinking about giving that a try, I say go for it, see how you do with it.
You were vegan for health, not ethical reasons. Have you started thinking more about the ethics of animal killing and exploitation since quitting veganism?
Interestingly, that’s exactly what’s happened. I think I care about animals more genuinely now than I ever did as a vegan. I don’t know why exactly that is. A vegan would say it’s because I’m trying to deal with the subconscious guilt I must be feeling for eating all that sinful meat of eternal pain and universal suffering. Some people would say it’s because I can think and feel more healthfully now because a meat-based diet is better for your brain neurotransmitters and so on. I personally think it’s because I matured a bit and let go of the anger I felt towards veganism for “betraying” me. So now, my attitude towards animals is no longer an extension of my relationship with veganism, but just a genuine, direct realization of being a part of this planet.
When you’re hurting an animal, you’re not hurting veganism, you’re not spiting vegans, as much as you’re just hurting an animal who did nothing to you. So that’s fucked, from a human perspective. From my more “objective” perspective in our last interview, I put it more like, “Be it plant or animal, everything’s ultimately alive, so you’re always killing. And from an even more objective perspective, nothing really IS alive, so fuck it, nothing matters.” But as I said I believe now, that objective view, while that is the truth, it isn’t how we humans operate. So compassion IS a real thing for us; it is an actual feeling and it’s not that you MUST feel it towards everything — compassion has degrees, I suppose — but I feel like my personal “outer” desire in life is to reduce overall suffering for people and creatures I interact with. That must be balanced with the “inner” wants like various ego gratifications and bodily needs. These are all subjective values and considerations that each individual has to decide for themselves. Most people have it decided for them by society, but yeah, that’s how it works.
Most people try to find some balance in their lives between caring for themselves and caring about others, and veganism is one way that some people choose to balance their selfishness and altruism. Some vegans think that it’s an objectively correct and necessary way, because of “logical consistency,” anti-speciesism, “intent” or whatever else. It sounds like you’ve got your own balance, with hunting being the ideal way to get meat. Do you see your approach as being on an ethical continuum with veganism, or is it something totally different?
Over the years, you’ve done an amazing job on your site of deconstructing those various reasons vegans presented for claiming veganism is necessary and showing how they all fall short one way or another. This is because reality IS there, and it’s not good or bad or right or wrong, but it just IS. So when people try to say one thing is “logically” and “objectively” correct or necessary and it’s not already happening, there’s got to be a reason. Anything that really is “objectively correct” must already be occurring in the universe. Because from an objective standpoint; “correct” can only mean “true, real”. When you say “correct” from an ethical standpoint, you’re no longer arguing objectively, so there’s no point in arguing at all since any interaction between two different minds is never going to be like your subjective perception of the universe.
I’ve got my own personal balance, yes, but I don’t see it as anything that must apply to anyone else. Because it’s not an objective thing. I still don’t believe in objective ethics. Ethics is not like some sort of universal system that we each tap into. I always communicate this best with a computer analogy: It’s not like ethics are a server somewhere away and each individual is a different computer with a connection to that “outside” ethical system. It’s more like each individual’s own ethical system is in their mind only — part of their own “hard drive” and not something external. You can get ideas from the external, sure, but once you get them they are, again, in your head.
Because think about this: What if I snapped my magic finger and every individual in the universe, including me, died this instant? Would there be any “right” or “wrong” then? Would it be “wrong” or “beautiful” for a tree to shake and bend in the wind? Would an erupting volcano be a natural “disaster” anymore? Would it be “horrible” anymore when a bear, ultimately a system of chemicals, kills a fish — another system of chemicals — and eats it?
Things would be stripped of all meaning, labels, definitions, collections. That’s because those don’t exist externally from the individual mind. Whatever exists does exist, but that objective information is not perfectly available to us. So there can never be “objective ethics”. We can still have social rules and mutual respect and all that, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking any of it reflects objective facts of how the universe operates.
Therefore I don’t believe there can ever be an “ethical continuum”. My approach is my approach, and veganism is its own approach. The ONLY problem with veganism here is that IT doesn’t realize this, and tries to enforce its approach on all of us. It’s not right or wrong or deluded in itself. It’s just trying to dictate external things that’s the problem.
But I do think that we as humans would do well to find some new methods to obtain our meat. Like I mentioned, some of the “fake meat” ideas aren’t half bad, but we’ll see how all that turns out. In the meantime we can also work on making it easier for farm animals to both live and die, by not treating them as products without feelings as they live, and killing them extremely swiftly and painlessly when the time comes. We have the means to do both of these things, so why not do it.
Overall I think I take a more humanist approach in practice. I still think it’s foolish to be working to make life better for animals when we still have humans suffering in the world, and ultimately I place human freedom above the happiness of animals. But if there are methods that can make life easier for animals without taking much away from humanity, I have no qualms about meeting veganism somewhere there in the middle.
Once I removed my stupid primitivism mindset out of the picture, things became a lot easier in my mind. We can use technology cleverly to make more parties happy and reduce suffering. So why not? Because we want to live up to some arbitrary ideal of “nature”? Thing about nature is that it’s consistently changing. So there’s no “human default” we can revert back to anyway. The only human default is perpetual change and increasing freedom. It’s been like that all throughout our history. Increasingly, we’ve become more free from our environment, free from kings and queens, free from our own biological limitations, from our mental barriers. It’s cold? Invent fire. Can’t reach the fruit? Use sticks. Can’t see in the dark? Invent the light bulb. Death? Put your brain in a fucking robot and live forever, I don’t know! All I know for sure is that nothing is going to be a permanent “problem” as long as we stick to our human curiosity and ingenuity.
Is the world becoming more vegan?
Yes, without a doubt. My original views on this still stand; veganism is “modern” and “in”, and meat eating is soooo 8000 BC. Veganism appears to be for compassionate, intelligent people who care about animals, care about suffering and care about the environment more than their own carnal desires. In the mainstream view, the concept of “veganism” evokes images of upper-class white people with perfect teeth and perfect lives biting into that fresh green apple that makes that crunching sound which translates into English as “My life is perfect”. Viewed from that perspective, meat eating is bizarre; we kill animals and there’s blood and guts everywhere then we skin them, burn them and eat their charred corpse, and the corpse “clogs our arteries” for revenge. That versus the green apple. You can easily tell which one’s going to appear more feasible to a mainstream society of people who don’t know what the heck’s going on behind the curtains. I actually think that with all these considerations and meat’s public image nowadays, that all well-read, thoughtful people consider some form of vegetarianism at least once in their lifetimes. I’ve seen this more often than not.
As an example, I think it was last year when a friend convinced me to watch the Scott Pilgrim movie and it had a character in it that had “vegan powers,” which basically made him cooler for being vegan. I couldn’t help but think that was a pretty good example of how veganism works socially nowadays.
Heck, in the three years since we did that first interview, even Turkey started to see its first few vegan organizations and restaurants and whatnot. Someday, these issues WILL be talked about in senates. Someday, we might be prosecuting people for “murdering and eating the corpse of mooey the cow”. It will sound horrible to the socially-conditioned ears of our children. And, dare I say it, perhaps it should. But only if we find better alternatives, and solutions to the possible problems such changes may bring.
Our social values nowadays support veganism so well that even the most dedicated meat-eaters, when you ask them about it, will still say things like, “yeah I know it’s not good for me, BUT I JUST CAN’T STOP EATING IT”, so even those who defend it only defend it as an addiction and not as a choice. Health or personal freedom are rarely mentioned as reasons. Let alone questioning the very idea of having to defend meat eating as a habit.
One thing I’ve noticed lately though is that the “paleo” movement seems to be growing. So that may be a major opponent to veganism in the near future, but it’s hard to say. If I were to guess though, I’d say the world’s probably going to end up eating 3D printed meat or some kind of product of science instead of real meat in the end. This, if perfected, would make everyone happy, I think. Except hunters. Meat eaters get something that’s identical to real meat, vegans get… "people not eating meat", and, uh, major corporations get to control our food supply even more strongly, I guess. But yeah, everyone who’s into these issues knows the current system’s not sustainable long-term so something's going to have to give. It's just difficult to predict how exactly things will play out.
A lot of the world seems to be becoming less religious. Could that help veganism become more popular?
That’s a very interesting question. I do agree that religion is becoming less popular as science and rationality are on the rise. Personally, I’m very happy about this. But ultimately I think it can help veganism’s cause.
A lot of meat eaters will be quick to use the argument “because god says it’s okay” to defend meat eating. I’m not going to waste any time explaining why that’s an invalid statement. I think it does help the majority uneducated of meat eaters be okay with their meat eating if they ever do tend to question it, so ultimately it creates the same result with understanding the complex logical facts behind meat eating and “eating meat with an informed attitude” so to speak, like you and I do. Though I’d actually rather see someone think logically, even if they think without all the facts and end up thinking meat eating is logically incorrect, I’d still prefer hanging out with a vegan who doesn’t eat meat because he has half a brain and can think critically about things than with a meat eater who doesn’t give a fuck either way because he just follows what god tells him to do.
All that said, I don’t think the abolishment of religion will be the final nail in meat eating’s coffin. There are plenty of us non-religious meat eaters. A lot of us still use other shitty arguments to defend our meat-eating, and in time veganism will defuse those arguments as well, until ultimately the discussion will be stripped down to just the basic facts.
The world becoming less religious WILL help veganism, but if we had to use religion to keep veganism at bay, I’d rather let veganism take over. Thankfully we don’t have to.
In the last interview, you said you were neither a speciesist nor an anti-speciesist. What are your thoughts on speciesism now?
I don’t believe in species. Now, let’s get some stuff out of the way: I do understand the concept of species. I know it’s a useful system of categorization that we need in order to understand the world around us. I’ve read my stuff, count on it.
So what do I mean?
Let’s say I’m a geneticist. And I’ve got a machine here, we’ll call it Erim’s Machine. Now Erim’s Machine has the capacity to change a creature’s genetic makeup into any sequence I want. So I can take, say, a monkey, and edit its genes until I get a human. I can edit the genes of a human zygote and make it grow into a banana instead.
So draw a continuum. One one end, place a chimpanzee. On the other end, place a human. Some readers will pick up on what I’m getting at here just by this mental image. Let’s say I use my nifty little machine and start editing the chimpanzee and bring him closer and closer to human, inch by inch.
The question is, at what point would the “chimp” end and the “human” begin?
Now luckily, when I first came up with this crazy idea and I was discussing this with a friend, he recognized it and guided me towards further reading. Apparently other people are aware of this “issue” we have with the concept of “species”. It’s a bit of an arbitrary concept.
One point that comes up in some debates about racism is that race is a social construct, and not one that can clearly be defined. Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about that here. Yet racism still exists, based on socially constructed concepts of race. Since you don’t believe in species, you might consider species a social construct as well, but that doesn’t necessarily tell us what to do about this social construct. It would still be possible to be speciesist or anti-speciesist in reaction to the concept of species, even if it’s an artifice. What are the implications for meat eating and veganism if we do away with species as a valid concept?
Yes, I do view species as a social construct. And, like I said, it is a useful one for sure. I’m not saying we should STOP using this concept, I’m just saying that we need to be aware that it’s not hard reality. But if we hypothetically did away with it? Then the entire ideas of “veganism” and “meat eating” would also be gone. Because, what even IS “meat eating” when you can’t define what meat is? Is meat the dead body of an animal? What is an animal? Why is the dead body of a plant, then? Cellulose meat? If we go strictly by facts and not human categorizations, then everything we see around us, the entire universe, is just a bunch of molecules. Some of those are gathered up in a fashion that create what we call “animals”, some of it as “plants”. But those are both species, reliant on more human constructs. Remove the philosophically arbitrary separations between animals and plants, and you no longer have a “vegan” ideal to live up to.
It seems that a lot of people only manage to stay meat eaters because they don’t think about the death, gore and suffering involved in meat production. Do you talk to other meat eaters about meat eating? If so, does your perspective on it ever disturb them? Are there any vegan arguments that you would throw at them?
I do think that most meat eaters, especially in first world countries, would stop eating meat if they were more in touch with how they get it. I find it almost infuriating when my meat eater friends say hunting is cruel and don’t see supermarket meat as an actual dead body of an animal but just another “product” that they buy – neatly packaged, cleaned of all the blood and the nastiness, up to your hygienic standards. Even the meat itself they eat is the “nice” stuff. People rarely eat organ meats anymore. It’s all just white, clean, bloodless chicken breasts and tuna. Nice, clean muscle fibers and vibrant colors. Compare that to bone marrow, heart, brains etc. Even I’m squeamish about eating some of that stuff, and I’m not a very squeamish guy. Compare ripping open supermarket plastic to ripping open the dying body of an animal. I bet most people couldn’t do it.
Is this a sign that humans weren’t designed to eat meat? I don’t think so. I think it’s mostly just a sign that we’re living too protected lives nowadays. Even a house cat will be hesitant when you present it with a live mouse. I remember when I had a cat who had lived his entire life feeding on packaged cat food, and when he saw prey of any kind, he maybe toyed with it a bit but he rarely killed it, let alone eat it. And a cat is supposed to be like the epitome of predatory viciousness.
In any case, what we were “designed to be” doesn’t matter one iota. We weren’t “designed” for a lot of things. But the thing about humanity is that we’ve pretty much broken free from nature to an extent where we can now decide how we live and how we eat, and we’re progressively becoming more free as we gain understanding and control of the universe around us. What nature dictates has no bearing on us, at least on the subject of food.
But yeah, meat IS murder. If you’re a meat eater and you’re not okay with that, then you gotta either be okay with being a hypocrite, redefine your sense of “murder”, or stop eating meat. I think most people fall into that second category; they simply don’t care about animals, or they’re aware of how they get their meat but choose to create a selective mental blind spot there to be okay with it. I can’t really blame them. We have so much shit we deal with every day, people don’t want the added stress of having to think about the ethics of what they eat. That’s why I pointed out that you tend to see this stuff more in first world countries. People starving in Africa don’t care about the global moral implications of what they feed their kids to make their ribcage less visible on their torso; but us bored well-off folks sitting under our anti-bacterially filtered ion-enhanced a/c units with an electrical blanket to keep us from getting too cold behind a computer screen waiting for a new facebook notification to pop up to entertain us, we tend to wonder whether meat is murder or not. That’s not something wrong about us specifically though. Put the starving man in Africa in our position and in a few years he’ll be doing the same, and put us in his position and the morals of meat eating will quickly become less important as we hear our stomachs grumble. I know many vegans who say they’d rather starve than eat meat; I could respect that view if only I just once actually saw them make that choice.
What does it mean for a meat eater to be okay with meat being murder? Does this require devaluing human life too?
I don’t kid myself. One thing I did retain from veganism has been the realization that the meat we eat is, undeniably, the dead body of an animal. We killed the animal to consume that meat. For me personally, I feel better to acknowledge that and make an informed decision, rather than just see the supermarket product of meat, that distanced product, that idea of meat. But once I allow myself to accept the realization, I’m not bothered by the rest of it. Yes, the meat I eat is the result of an animal’s death. The animal had a consciousness, and I killed it. I consider that murder. It’s merely accepting a fact rather than trying to avoid it.
The value thing is subjective. If you could ask an animal, I think all of them would say that from their subjective view, their lives are at least as important as any human on the planet, if not more. What they think doesn’t matter though, what matters is what each of us thinks. Personally, I roll with the good old individuality here. Just because I decide I care little enough about one animal to kill it, doesn’t mean I have to feel that way about the rest of the species, or about other species. It’s just like how it is with humans. There are some humans I love dearly, and other humans I wish would just die. That doesn’t make me a hypocrite, it just means that I deal with creatures individually. I don’t have a right to kill the human I don’t care for, because he’s still part of my society, and I have empathy towards him. Right now, cows aren’t part of our society, and vegans want them to be. That’s the whole issue here. Meat eaters want to keep considering animals “the others”, and vegans do not.
Practically it makes no difference. But that’s why devaluing animal life doesn’t necessarily require devaluing human life. Because we choose not to. It’s not a logical inconsistency, when you realize that you CAN choose to act on an individual or group basis. It’s not illogical, just possibly unethical. And that’s what the vegan argument should stick to. My point is that something rational and objective like logic cannot be a point in an argument like this that’s really all about emotions and morals. There’s no “right” or “wrong” in logic, only “true” and “false”. You can’t start with society’s drive for human preservation and then “logically take the next step” and extend it towards how bad animal suffering is.
You’re in favor of reducing suffering, but allow your personal desires for freedom to ultimately trump the interests of other animals when there’s a conflict between the two. Some utilitarians might say that selfishness of this sort is arbitrary, since there’s no reason to think of your own life and suffering as more important than the lives and suffering of other animals. Why care more about yourself than animals? Simply because you’re you and you can?
Exactly. The same reason we don’t directly apply the objective facts of the universe to our daily lives, we also don’t just submit our own life to simply be subject to the checks and balances of existence. What we understand and what we do can APPEAR to be two different things, but not if you see the whole picture. The key is to realize the difference between objective and subjective understanding. We talk objectively when discussing social issues, because society is comprised of many individuals, so we cannot depend on subjectivity. Subjectivity is only a valid way of thinking for issues only concerning one individual. Objectively, I can understand that ethics exist only in each individual’s mind, that categorizations are human constructs, that there’s no such thing as justice or rights. At the same time, I can acknowledge that I am me, that I consider myself belonging to a group of other individuals categorizing ourselves as “humans”, that we form a society, that the society operates within certain established rules. So why do I care about myself or humanis in general more than other animals? Because I am me, so of course I will have a bias. Animals are not part of human society. My subjective consciousness is what rules my actions. Recognizing that I am me, I can do the things I can do.
So in human terms, of course we care about animals. But they will have to come second. We want to help them, we want to reduce their suffering – but not at the expense of humans. Those of us who disagree and see humans and animals having the same value are vegans!
If you had the possibility of being born into a vegan world or a non-vegan one, and didn’t know what sort of lifeform you would be, would you vote for a vegan or for a non-vegan human society?
A vegan society of course! No need to overthink that one. With all the different species in the world, what are the chances of me ever being born human? Very little. Any species other than humans is going to prefer a vegan world. And the benefit for choosing a non-vegan world for the off chance of being born a human is slim compared to the danger of being born anything other than human in a vegan world. I wouldn’t risk that gamble. And sure, you’d look at that and say, “Well there you go then, you’ve just said the benefit you get from meat eating is very small compared to cost animals pay for you to get that little benefit. If you realize this and still choose meat eating, you’re just, to put it simply, selfish.”
But these kinds of “what if?” questions rarely represent how the real world actually works. Actually, we DON’T have a sense of being anything other than a human, we don’t have that objective approach to making such choices. You were born a human, so that’s all you are, all you were, and all you’ll ever be. All that matters once you’re born is your subjective perception of things. I think this whole “what if you were something else” idea is just a remnant of the old idea of “spirit” or “soul”. It implies that the “you” that you identify as yourself is something separate from the body it’s in. When actually it’s a manifestation of the body that IT IS. I happen to be a subjective perception that has a sense of myself because of a particular arrangement of molecules formed a brain and now the tissues they formed create a sense of self within them.
It’s not like “I” happened to inhabit a human body. Rather it’s the other way around; the human body gave birth to the sense of “I”. Without this body, “I” wouldn’t be assigned to the role of something else. I wouldn’t be a cow. I simply wouldn’t be. It would be a different “I”. Existence does not function via eeny meeny miny moe.
A few answers back, you said, “Meat eaters want to keep considering animals ‘the others’, and vegans do not.” Why should we – in contrast to vegans – want to keep non-humans out of our in group?
I’m not sure that we’d want to keep them out. Like I said, if we had the option, I think we’d all prefer not hurting animals, to be one with them, to be “earthlings” – one big happy family, a perfect reflection of an entire generation brought up on advertisements. But there are complications in the real world. For instance, animals cannot understand the rights of others, nor can they understand their own. How will that work?
If a dog comes into my house and he’s trespassing and I shoot him, what will society’s stance be on that? I’m sorry, but things just aren’t so simple, as much as I wish they were. These are the kinds of questions that inevitably come up, because as much as we philosophize and we think that everything must be determinable with clear-cut solutions if only we had enough debate, or education, or whatever you want to say, the fact remains that we’re trying to fit something chatoic and uncaring like nature into rigid structures such as laws and these kinda big public opinions. Throughout history, humans just intuitively knew “beasts” were to be controlled, fought against, or used. Much of our modern lifestyle is built on values and ideologies that, while nice, sometimes don’t fit with nature. This doesn’t mean that we should throw them away. It means that we’re sometimes going to have to fight nature to uphold these values. I’m all for that, but it will require effort.
When we ask questions like “how can we still keep eating meat in the face of rising social awareness towards the ethical invalidity of meat eating”, it’s obvious that we on some level acknowledge that meat eating may not be a perfect practice. Again I think the best solution would be the perfection of lab-made meat. As long as it’s healthy, cheap, and perhaps even healthier and cheaper than conventional meat, really the only valid objection anyone could have would be regarding personal freedoms. Someone could say, “animals aren’t part of human society and I want my right to be able to hunt animal meat”, and right now, until we find better answers, I could respect that opinion.
Animals simply do not fit in well into human society, for the same reasons they didn’t fit in the past millions of years. But with technology and culture comes change. And it is in this change that we can hopefully create a new kind of social structure where we can both not harm animals, and not suffer for it ourselves. But it’s going to take ingenuity, effort, and cultural shift. It won’t happen overnight, and perhaps humanity will just end up deciding it’s not worth all the effort.
Some vegans or quasi vegans are okay with eating non-sentient animals like oysters. This follows the same ethical logic of veganism, but offers more options. Are you more sympathetic with this sort of veganism than the zero animal product sort?
I’m sympathetic to both equally. They both start off with good intentions. To not hurt sentient beings. That’s admirable, even when it’s a bit uninformed. I’d certainly prefer eating some non-sentient animals if I were a vegan.
The only thing that truly matters in the entire veganism debate is the concept of “sentience”. The only real problem with meat eating is the sense of pain we inflict on the consciousness of the animals we kill. Without sentience, anything that ever happens in the universe is just good ol’ molecules changing arrangement. Sentience is what makes the act of killing an animal a questionable thing rather than just a mechanical act. Cutting a tree is a mechanical act. Peeling an orange is a mechanical act. Cutting horse’s head off is more.
This however brings up another question: If sentience is what makes an act “morally questionable”, then what if we could remove sentience before it has a chance to register the removal?
Since all we have is our perception of existence, if the only bad part of killing a cow is the pain we inflict on the cow’s perception, then what if we could do it so fast, so instantly that it never even has a chance to register? Then the consciousness is removed instantly, and from the cow’s subjective standpoint, which is the only one that matters to the cow, it would be like it never existed. There is no lingering suffering. There are no afterthoughts. It just was, and now it isn’t, and it won’t be around to feel bad about it. We have the technology to be able to do this. To kill animals instantly, to shock the brain into not registering the perception. That’s what I currently advocate doing, until we can manufacture meat in labs that’s on par with the real thing. And when you look at history, you’ll find that a lot of tribes did try doing this to the extent that they could. I think very few people would actually PREFER to inflict pain unnecessarily. Ironically, that’s exactly what a lot of the animals we’re obsessed with trying to protect have no problem with.
As uncool as it sounds, face it, the stinky humans that everyone loves to talk shit about nowadays are the only ones who actually have moral codes. We only seem more destructive and cruel than other animals because we have more power. So any moral choice we make is magnified in its effects. When we decide to destroy, we can really fuck shit up. But when we decide to build, we can also turn pain and starvation into ease and abundance. People always say animals would never do things like holocausts and torture, but let’s not forget that humans are nothing more than just another species of animal. If lions were in power, would THEY even consider having these arguments about whether they should eat weaker species? The problem is that folks look at the damage and destruction some humans cause and then label the entirety of humanity evil, when in fact MOST people are actually quite nice and don’t want to hurt anyone or anything needlessly.
I’m on team human. Go humans!
In some ways veganism is forward looking, in that a lot of vegans are in favor of technologies that could replace animal husbandry by creating meat from non-sentient material. But animal rights philosophy still is in essence a restriction, something to rein in human freedom. Could you see animal rights philosophy being a problem for technological and human progress in some ways? Could it end up clashing with transhumanism and futurism and this sort of thing down the line? And could it be worth worrying about animal rights philosophy now for that reason?
Absolutely. For instance, animal testing. People have no idea how useful it is to be able to test drugs and such things on animals. It is useful, and it is painful. Again, I don’t want to be running away from the truth. It’s a painful truth, and this is one of the burdens of humanity: To know what we need to do, and to know what we must do. I don’t want animals to be hurt, but if someone I loved had a terminal illness and I had to kill a million cute pink bunnies to get to the cure, I would do it with my bare hands without batting an eye. One thing I aimed to focus on in this interview is that things are not always as clear-cut as we’d like them to be. And this is just another one of those points where we’ll all have differing value judgements. I personally think that we need to take care of humans before we turn to animals, but it doesn’t mean that we’re doomed to choose between one or the other. I think the ultimate would be a situation where maybe we could simulate life and run our tests there.
The issue is one of sentience and structure. And in existence, there is always a way. The universe is such that any structure can be created, you just need to find a way. Animal testing will not always be the only way to test substances. Perhaps some day we’ll be able to simulate structures and creatures at the molecular level, and just run all sorts of tests in those computer generated environments just as effectively, without hurting a single sentient thing. In theory, it seems possible, so who knows.
The point is that the world simply isn’t at that place yet. As our technology, information and education increase, so will prosperity, peace, and understanding. I believe that we will leave animals alone as soon as we get the chance. Because honestly, I don’t think humanity is doing it just to be cruel. We test drugs on animals because we need the results. We eat them because we need their meat. But it doesn’t mean we’re not open to alternatives. Give humans a pain-free way to get the same meat, and the majority will want to switch to that and end the needless suffering.
See, this is what I mean when I say that the majority of the world is already in the vegan mindset. The majority of us DO have empathy towards animals. And I know this is hard for vegans to see, but if you’re a vegan reading this, think back to when you weren’t vegan. Were you walking around and kicking dogs in the face for no reason all day? Were you mean to animals all the time just because you ate meat? Of course not, and neither are the majority of the meat eaters you see out there. We care, we do love animals. Every meat eater I know, when they have seen cows, either pet them, joke around with them, or at least say, “hey cow!”. Most people, if they saw a cow in pain, would feel for it and try to help. But right now, we are able to live with the fact that we both empathize with animals and also end their lives and eat them. It’s not something we love, it’s not something we don’t think we can improve, but it is what it is. And I think we ARE looking for a change. But the world isn’t changed by taking things away from people. It’s changed by giving people better alternatives.
Things like lab-made meat, algae products, simulated scientific experiments – these are those alternatives. But we need to arrive at those points in development to be able to enjoy their benefits. The problem with a lot of forward-thinking people, including most vegans, is that they get disturbed – and understandably so – at the gap between what they know is possible, and what they live in right now. We don’t have worldwide respect for animal life yet, because we’re just not at that stage of human development yet. We don’t have 100 percent green technology everywhere, because it simply hasn’t become the best choice yet, in a general sense. But they will come. Respect for animal life WILL grow, but you can’t expect that awareness to jump out of nowhere. We need to accomplish some milestones so change can become commonplace. Once we can have lab-made or 3D-printed meat that’s exactly the same as the real thing, but only cheaper, how many more people will never want to kill animals to eat meat again? That would have a better vegan conversion rate than all the overblown factory farming videos combined!
So the future you dream of IS coming. It will be good. But it will not come out of nowhere. It will not come out of people’s love and understanding. It will not come out of smoking joints and dreadlocks in your hair. It will come out of hard science and efficient, useful technology. So if you truly care about animals, if you truly want to help them no matter what, then help create better alternatives for people. That 3D printed meat is going to save a million times more animals than any stupid PETA ad. The people who are vegans by “not consuming animal products” don’t change anything. It’s good that they don’t contradict their ethics with their lifestyle, I can respect that, but they don’t change anything significant in the world by doing it. If you just want to be a vegan for yourself, then, to be honest, I think you’re just doing it to feel morally at ease. If you’re doing it because you honestly, truly care about saving the lives of animals, then you need to be more active.
And as a meat eater, I think the world of tomorrow needs you to be active. But in the right way. Don’t try to take people’s choices from them. That’s not going to work, and even if it does, I will fight you if you do that, because you’d be opposing freedom. Instead, give people MORE choices, BETTER choices. The world WANTS that. The world is READY for that. Let’s all work on developing alternatives that are just as good, if not BETTER than the current choices.
What haven’t I brought up that I should have?
I think these kinds of discussions usually forget to bring up two things: Some civil and intelligent dialogue and unification between vegans and meat eaters, and, some practical ideas on what we can do with our newly discussed issues.
First, the unification thing. Because, come on, let’s get the cutesy stuff out of the way. I know everyone wants to fight and chew on each other’s intellectual gristle.
But if someone’s reading sites like yours, be they vegan, vegetarian, meatatarian, or whatever they put in their faces, they probably care. I know vegans want to point fingers at the meat eaters and say they’re ignorant – and most of them are! – and the meat eaters want to call vegans dirt worshipping hippies – and some of them are! – the fact is that probably those who read discussions on these issues rather than just spamming simple-minded propaganda on facebook, and instead arguing about ethics, social issues, rights, the very definition of species and the like, are part of the solution. If you’re one of the vegans or meat eaters who are currently reading this and thinking about such issues, then what the hell, RELAX! The people you’re arguing with are probably very similar to you! The guy who pissed you off on some internet forum because you disagreed with him on how pets should be defined legally is probably someone you’d really enjoy hanging out with in real life! Seriously, I’ve had stuff like this happen to me, that’s why I know!
If we’re gonna get anywhere with this whole thing, without half-witted politicians and special interest groups who don’t know what the hell they’re on about making the decisions for us, we gotta put our damn heads together and figure something out. We gotta get some friendly dialogue instead of all these “vegan haven” and “meat haven” websites and meetups and all this shit where we just ban the opposing view and stay in our closed little comfort zone. Stay in an intellectually closed loop and you’ll never challenge your ideas. That’s not a smart, confident thing to do.
So the person you’re arguing with, unless their screen name is “Sunshine_Peacegoddess139” or “xXx_BaldEagleWarHero_xXx,” they’re probably a decent human being, like you. Be open to the possibility that they may not be a stereotypical redneck barbecue dude shooting shotguns into the air or a crystal chakra lady with veins on her neck. Perhaps they’re just normal people. Be nice to them, try to understand them, and even befriend them. You may find much to learn. I myself am certainly open to meeting all kinds of new people, hearing new ideas, first hand experiences, and most importantly, ideas about what we can do.
Which brings me to the second point: We talk about all this, but what can we do? All the discussion in the world won’t do us any good if we just use it to sit back and eat our diet of choice in peace for ourselves. We gotta discuss, agree, and take action on these issues.
I think one thing each of us can do is first of all really get to know our personal sense of values intimately. Do you care for hunting or do you think we’re ready to move past that? Where do you think animals should stand in society? What do you think about the concept of species? Do you have any problems with killing and eating an animal? Don’t let propaganda decide these things for you, decide for yourself. Ask yourself these questions.
Then, we can see if there are others who think like us. For instance, I support the idea of choosing 3D printed meat that’s virtually the same as the real thing over animal meat. So I can find various ways I can support 3D printing. Just something simple as letting my friends know about these brilliant new technologies is something. I can donate to science, study, offer opinions, bring people together to work on these issues.
I don’t like what factory farms are doing, so I can decide not to buy any of their products. I can spread awareness.
On the other hand, I don’t like it when laws and governments get involved in upholding people’s ideals, so I wouldn’t be taking any actions to get legislation or anything regarding any of these issues. I’d much rather just inform and let everyone make their own decisions.
So we should do more real-world, human-to-human, heart to heart TALKING. Let’s talk about these things, understand what everyone wants, let’s not consider our own ideals superior to those of others. For a while, let us all consider ourselves an ignorant pupil, and the people we’re talking to wise teachers – because they are. If someone’s arguing with you and trying to get you to understand their point of view – be they right or wrong – the simple fact that they’re trying to make you understand, rather than just ignoring you and your conflicting views and just going their own way anyways, shows that they’re probably a person worth talking to.
Humanity will be facing difficult questions as technology changes more and more how we exist, and what it means to exist as we do. The answers won’t always be clear cut – they rarely are. The worthwhile answers are usually difficult to come up with, but hey, I guess that’s why we’re all here, huh?
There have been rumors for a while that animal liberator Rod Coronado was no longer abstaining from animal products, which he recently confirmed — thereby inspiring some heated and insightful discussion on vegan blogs and message boards. These first three links are to posts that are at least partially about that controversy:
“Should a Meat-Eater Advocate For a Vegan Society?" by Jon Hochschartner. (You have to scroll down a little bit to find it.)
“Veganism in the Occupied Territories: Anti-Colonialism and Animal Liberation" by Dylan Powell.
Lindsay Gasik’s ”When Durian Isn’t Vegan, and What Every Animal Loving Durian Freak Should Know" looks at all the animal killing involved in harvesting durian. If eating fruit is murder, should vegans develop a new ethic that prohibits animal exploitation but allows animal murder? Or should they simply be more demanding with additional restrictions and improved technology until they figure out how to end the competition for resources between humans and other animals? Or something else? (via Pythagorean Crank).
Jon Hochschartner’s ”What Can Animal Activists Learn from the Free Produce Movement?" casts doubt on the vegan abolitionist belief that abstaining from animal products is a vital or perhaps even worthwhile step in the abolition of animal exploitation by looking at the historical "free produce movement" that tried to attack human slavery through a boycott of slavery produced materials. (via Pythagorean Crank).
This is a little different, but the newly vegetarian pig farmer Bob Comis has been writing some interesting stuff at The Dodo about his transition from pig farmer to vegetable farmer. “My Heart-Wrenching Transition From Pig Slaughter To Growing Vegetables" is a good place to start.
Late last year, there were a couple of popular articles looking at the surprisingly intricate ways that plants interact with their environments, Michael Pollan’s “The Intelligent Plant” and Kat McGowan’s “The Secret Language of Plants.” More recent (and brief) was Becky Ferreira’s “Plants Are Capable of Making Complex Decisions.” None of these articles claim that plants certainly feel pain or have conscious “interests,” but they all suggest there is still far more to plants than we realize.
Some people interested in food ethics (or at least the food ethics debate) think that if science declared plants to have a form of sentience, this would complicate things for vegans without much inconveniencing omnivores. “What about plants?” is a question that meat eaters often throw at vegans in this spirit, as if the fact that plants are alive means it’s silly to consider the interests of the animals we eat. Vegans break down the categories separating humans from other animals in a way that makes meat eaters uncomfortable, so in revenge meat eaters break down the categories separating non-human animals from plants to try to make vegans feel the same kind of discomfort. It’s a shot at beating vegans at their own game.
Essentially, “what about plants?” attempts to discredit sentience as a guide to our ethical decisions by implying that if we respect all sentient creatures, everything we do is unethical. The problem is that the “what about plants?” argument typically equivocates between “sentient” and “alive/responsive” and offers no real proof that plants are sentient.
The animal farmer Joel Salatin was a case in point during last year’s Intelligence Squared debate about the ethics of eating animals:
And, you know, I find it fascinating that all of the attributes given to animals plants have too. The DNA structure of grasses, for example, when you introduce a species, it nativizes its DNA structure to become more climatically nativized to a certain place. That’s memory. That’s genetic memory and adaptation to a certain place. If that isn’t responding to things, I don’t know what is. And I just absolutely don’t appreciate this false dichotomy that when I take the life of a carrot, the carrot doesn’t scream.
This is about as weak as the “what about plants?” argument gets because it utterly fails to anticipate the vegan response that plants don’t feel pain and don’t have conscious interests. With no reference to sentience, Salatin is taking for granted that genetic sophistication is significant in itself, but makes no allowances for degrees of genetic sophistication and so is essentially saying, “Anything that’s alive is all the same.”
Meat eaters who use this argument are typically attacking vegans on two contradictory fronts. On the one hand they say that humans and animals are different, and these differences explain why meat eating is okay. Then with “what about plants?” they do the opposite, linking all of creation together — “All-One!” as Dr. Bronner would say. Unfortunately, by dismissing the distinction between killing plants and killing non-human animals for food by linking them together through aliveness, they also erase the distinction between killing plants and killing humans. ￼
If you think that “what about plants?” means there is no difference between exploiting animals and plants for food, then you’d have to say the same about exploiting humans for food, because you’re denying that there are different levels of aliveness, or at least denying that these different levels could justify different treatments or considerations. To turn around and admit that there’s a difference between killing plants and killing humans in light of this is to grant that there could also be a difference between killing plants and killing non-human animals. The whole argument just renders itself moot.
But let’s pretend for a moment that “What about plants?” is really onto something. What would it mean for food ethics if it turned out that plants do in fact have a form of sentience that was comparable to the sentience of some animals?
This probably wouldn’t be a huge issue for meat eaters, who don’t tend to care much about sentience per se when they’re deciding what to eat. The sentience of non-human animals didn’t stop them, so why would the sentience of plants give them pause? Conscientious omnivores might want assurance that any sentient plants they eat were treated well, given a natural diet of sunlight, fresh water and organic manure, and were killed quickly and painlessly, but there would be no qualms about the killing of plants in itself. For vegans it would have potential to be more of a problem because plants would suddenly fit the bill of what they consider to be unethical to eat. Never eating again would be one possible solution, but probably not one most vegans would want to embrace.
Another option would be for vegans to confess to having a more emotional form of ethics than they sometimes let on, admitting that it’s not violating interests that’s the problem, but violating interests in a more blatant and viscerally disturbing way. Even if plants were sentient, it still wouldn’t look horrific to pull them out of the ground; in comparison, shooting a bolt through a cow’s brain looks pretty gruesome. Vegans could say that’s the key — not that one violates interests and one doesn’t (plant sentience makes that dichotomy impossible), but that one violates interests in a manner that is more emotionally upsetting to vegans. Even if animals were unfeeling automatons (which obviously isn’t the case) there could still be a quasi ethical argument for veganism, which would be that the aesthetics of animal exploitation and slaughter disturbed a lot of people, or that animal slaughter is a dangerous and desensitizing job for humans because of the visual similarity between killing humans and non-human animals.
But this would be a major compromise for any vegans who like to think they argue mostly from logic, so I don’t think many vegans would settle for it.
The stock vegan response to the possibility of plant sentience is to appeal to suffering reduction: “Well, vegans kill fewer plants than omnivores anyway because the animals you eat were fed plants.” But that’s only true when we eat farmed animals. Someone who eats only animals that they hunt is seemingly responsible for fewer plant deaths than vegans, especially if they hunt herbivores. So if plants were sentient and had lives worth living, a hunting-based carnivorous diet would perhaps be the most ethical until we ran out of non-human herbivores to kill. At that point, humans with vegan ethics would again be in the position of having to think of their very lives as inherently unethical, coming as they do at the expense of sentient plants. In-vitro meat would no longer be enough. In a world with sentient plants, vegans would need to develop in-vitro vegetables: lab-cultured plant-like foods, made from non-sentient material.
But this assumes no gradations of sentience and interests. Even if plants were sentient, would this automatically require that vegans try to grant them the same ethical consideration that they want to grant pigs or whales? That depends on the vegan: some acknowledge degrees of sentience and some don’t. In the former group is vegan RD Jack Norris, who sometimes encourages non-vegans to eat insects:
A move from people eating mammals and birds to crickets is something I can get behind. … I follow this hierarchy of valuing animal lives differently in my everyday actions. For example, if I were to see an injured dog, raccoon, or bird on the side of the road, I would stop and try to get the animal to a veterinarian. I will not do this for injured insects. In fact, if I thought insects’ lives were as valuable as mammals, I wouldn’t drive at all because it’s inevitable that I will kill insects with my car just about any time I drive (at least during warmer months). If I knew that I would kill a mouse or a chicken every time I drove my car, I wouldn’t do it. …
From a scientific perspective, I think there is evidence that insects do not have enough brain tissue to assume that they have a self-identity and can be aware of suffering. I might be wrong about this and if so, I definitely need to reconsider my driving habits… [W]hen it comes between a mammal and an insect, I’d side with the creatures that we have a large amount of proof for being conscious.
A veganism that allows this more permissive attitude about eating insects and brainless sea animals would basically be immune from the additional challenges that sentient plants would pose for the philosophy, so this would probably become a more popular stance in the wake of a plant sentience bombshell. If you accept degrees of sentience, it becomes plausible to see a difference between exploiting brainless sentient plants and sentient pigs. Where you draw the line becomes somewhat more arbitrary, perhaps, and you couldn’t exclude all animal products from veganism any more, but you could still make a case for protecting farm animals without extending the same consideration to farm plants. The more difficult issue for these vegans, I think, would still be all the wild animals that a vegan world would routinely harm and kill.
The sentience of plants would however pose a special difficulty for the deontological breed of vegan ethics in that it would become all the more ludicrous to appeal to “intent” and to play up the ethical differences between the accidental or indirect killing of sentient beings versus the intentional and purposeful killing of sentient beings. By eating sentient plants, vegans would be intentionally killing sentient beings for food, so the idea of their granting rights based on sentience would be in shambles. “Hey, we have to eat something!” would be the argument of last resort, which immediately fails because no, we technically do not. There is no obligation for humanity to survive, and so if we go on while knowing that we must violate the interests of non-human sentient beings to do so (both plants and animals in this hypothetical), we can’t plausibly claim to be respecting the rights of non-humans.
That’s why I think another significant change would be a greater shift away from deontological arguments for animal rights toward the utilitarian and utilitarian-esque suffering reduction perspective. (Or maybe eco feminism, or other alternatives like obfuscating continental-style philosophizing.) What distinguishes vegans from omnivores in this scenario is a goal of hurting others less, so it could make ethical sense to eat plants, insects and bivalves — even assuming all are sentient — if this causes less harm than eating farmed animals.
Where this would get really complicated is with utilitarian perspectives that are very concerned with suffering on the aggregate. Here we find utilitarians who think that insect suffering might be one of the world’s most pressing concerns, because there are so many of them and they reproduce and die so quickly, which means that their experiencing even tiny amounts of harm on an individual level adds up to vast amounts of suffering. Utilitarian philosopher Brian Tomasik discussed this in my interview with him. If plants were as sentient as insects, and if we decided to aggregate plant suffering too, it would no longer be so clear that plants and insects were the right things to eat. (Perhaps it would be better to try to make plants go extinct and to eat larger beings like whales, for instance.)
Plus with all this extra suffering to contemplate, life could be seen as an inexcusable nightmare, an unfathomable sea of suffering that can’t dry up soon enough. This could make vegans feel more of a need to align with radical negative utilitarianism, perhaps lobbying for the end of all life. Or it could inspire vegans to stick with a vague utilitarian-esque approach of wanting to reduce suffering, but without aggregating that suffering, so as to avoid thinking too much of all the suffering there is in the world. That would be fine, but it still wouldn’t allow vegans to convincingly propose many solid rules about what was okay to eat.
So basically, vegans should really hope that we never figure out that plants are sentient. This doesn’t mean that impressive new discoveries of plant intelligence are anything for meat eaters to celebrate. If plants are far more brilliant and sophisticated than they seem, might not the same be true for non-human animals?