Questioning The Efficacy and Desirability of Veganism as Boycott and “Moral Baseline” (Links)

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:

Is There No Room for Rod Coronado in the Animal Rights Movement? The Problem With Veganism as the Moral Baseline" by Ian Erik Smith.  

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. 

What Would Plant Sentience Mean for Vegan Ethics?

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. 

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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?

Earlier this year, I came across the writings of Bob Comis, a farmer in New York who has increasingly questioned the ethics of sending the animals he raises for food to slaughter. I thought his perspective was interesting, so I interviewed him. Modern Farmer had me put the interview together in a questionless interview format. The link is in the headline.

Face-off: Why Vegans Always Win Debates

If you knew very little about a debate except that two vegans were facing off against two omnivores over the topic of animal product consumption, and that the audience had a large proportion of vegans and vegetarians but was mostly meat eaters, which side would you expect to win?

Two nights ago, Intelligence Squared hosted a debate between two vegans and two meat eaters. The motion up for debate: “Don’t eat anything with a face.” This is usually a less precise and more cutesy way of saying, “Don’t eat the flesh of an animal,” but in this case it was unclear how literal to take the face part: we never found out if the affirmative was okay with the consumption of bivalves. On the anti-eating-faces side were Dr. Neal Barnard — founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine — and Gene Baur, who founded Farm Sanctuary, which is a home for farm animals who managed to escape a life of exploitation concluding in slaughter. On the pro-meat side were Dr. Chris Masterjohn — a nutrition researcher at the University of Illinois — and Joel Salatin, the owner of Polyface farm, which Michael Pollan used to represent the best kind of animal farm in The Omnivore’s Dilemma

If I told you the vegans won this debate despite a majority omnivore audience, would you think this an upset? Though I had confidence in Masterjohn’s ability to make a good nutritional case for meat eating (full disclosure: I’ve met him and we’ve exchanged some emails), I wondered if the deck was stacked against them on the ethical question. The debate and the triumph of the pro-vegan side reinforced my suspicion that it was, but now I think the nutritional question was an uphill battle too. The speciesist language of this title — shouldn’t it have been “Don’t eat anyone with a face?” — may have been the one way this event was skewed toward the meat eaters. And I don’t mean that this reflects any sort of bias on the part of the organizers: I think it’s inherent to the nature of a debate between vegans and meat eaters. The case for veganism just sounds better than the case for meat eating — even to meat eaters in certain contexts — and I’m not sure there’s much that meat eaters can do about this.

For example, a number of meat eaters criticized my post on Aeon showing how harmful veganism is to wild animals by way of an alien invasion analogy. “Are you saying that since we can’t be perfect, we shouldn’t even try to be better?” was the kind of thing they often said (not that this was the only critique). No, my point was that vegans do not and cannot live up to their own anti-speciesism ethics, but if you want to go vegan, go ahead. These meat-eating critics of course did not want to go vegan. But they resisted the sort of argument I was making, which was questioning the consistency of a way of life that does seem to harm less. Most people want to be aligned with the less-harming side, even if they don’t want to do what it takes to harm less.

But back to this specific debate. Though much of it was free-form with everyone digging into the health, environmental and ethical arguments around veganism, Dr. Barnard and Dr. Masterjohn were basically the health guys and Baur and Salatin were on ethics duty. Like I said, I thought Masterjohn was a good choice for nutrition. And I also initially thought it should be easy to make the case that a diet that includes at least some carefully selected animal products is healthier than one that is totally bereft of them. Now I think that I was incorrect about this. One thing that hurts all people arguing for the nutritional benefits of meat, right off the bat, is that even meat eaters do kind of assume that meat is unhealthy and the only reason to eat it is that it’s there and it tastes good. It’s drilled into us that saturated fat is bad and cholesterol is bad, so when vegans say, “Animal products give you cancer and heart attacks, and it probably has something to do with saturated fat and cholesterol,” most meat eaters will think, “Shoot, that sounds about right.” Hamburgers and heart attacks just seem to go together, and Heart-Attack Grill hasn’t helped matters.

And the truth is, many of the animal products that people eat are unhealthy junk, and they’d be healthier if they gave them up. The case for the healthfulness of eating animal products is heavily dependent on which animal products you’re talking about, and the healthiest animals to eat are often the ones people least like eating. There are good arguments that bivalves, insects and organ meats are healthy, but a lot of westerners refuse to eat these. So when Chris Masterjohn mentioned the benefits of liver and liver oil (they contain pre-formed vitamin A), this resonated with me as an organ eater, but most of the audience probably thought, “Eww, I’m not eating that.” Plus, the idea that eating cholesterol could be healthy — as Masterjohn also asserted at some point — just sounds bizarre to most people. When you think “cholesterol,” it’s almost impossible not to think “is bad” and then imagine white gunk clogging up your arteries. Just hearing the word “cholesterol” itself is practically enough to make you keel over. If that’s an unfair reputation for cholesterol, it’s one that will take years or maybe even decades to shake.

Also, the negative health problems Masterjohn brought up as associated with avoiding animal products just seem less clear-cut, and I say this as someone who experienced them myself. I had brain fog, fatigue and extreme depression as a vegan, and I felt this got better for me once I started eating animal products again. But that not eating animal products can make you depressed or anxious just doesn’t seem as viscerally obvious as “saturated fat gets into your arteries and kills you.” Especially since we tend to hear more about meat and cancer and heart attacks than we hear about vegans’ thinking becoming less sharp over time. I’m sure there’s some cognitive fallacy involved with this, but it just seems easier to process doing something actively bad to yourself by eating bad foods than it is to process passively doing something negative to yourself by a subtle long-term deficiency of we’re-not-totally-sure-what from avoiding too many good foods. Somehow overload is more intuitive than deficiency, it seems.

Still, the health debate over veganism can be more or less a wash as long as both people in the debate are authorities who seem to know what they’re talking about, as was the case here. This is the conclusion that the host John Donvon seemed to reach when he said the nutrition discussion had reached an impasse because it was impossible to show causality on either side. It’s ethics where vegans really kill it (not literally, of course). This is because — and this is something I’ve talked about with Erim Bilgin (follow-up interview forthcoming) — most people pretty much do agree with the foundations of vegan ethics, even though they manage to ignore this for most of their lives and escape being vegan. For one thing, it’s incredibly difficult to argue that eating meat is ethically superior to being vegan. What I think you have to instead argue is that eating meat is acceptable, despite the harms it causes, given the benefits that we receive from it. And that just doesn’t sound as good, especially when a lot of people take meat for granted and haven’t seriously thought about all the downsides of giving it up other than “Mmm, meat tastes good.” In a debate format where the audience is not voting for a leader who will affect their lives, it makes sense to side with the do-gooders, and meat eaters have to strain pretty damn hard if they want to come across as the do-gooders in comparison to vegans — and will almost always fail. It’s easy to vote for vegan ethics if it doesn’t mean you have to go vegan, and I think that’s exactly what happened here.

What really makes it tough for meat eaters is this: if vegans are anti-killing, that makes us pro-killing. This is the position that pro-choice advocates find themselves in, but they at least have the advantage that there’s something more ominous about having a creature inside of you against your will than there is about a lamb in a pasture who only asks not to be eaten. (On the other hand, they also have the disadvantage that this creature is human, which can make the fetuses in question seem more important than the lamb to speciesist humans.) Now this is of course a simplification of both sides, but if someone were to say, “killing is horrible and not okay,” and another person were to say, “killing’s fine, it’s no big deal,” who would you agree with? If you want to be socially acceptable, you’d probably want to side with the former. True, if you heard the specifics, you might change your mind. For instance, the first woman could be saying that abortion should be illegal or that you should never kill in immediate self defense. But in general, most people do tend to assume that it’s bad to die and that you shouldn’t kill if you can avoid it. And that fits perfectly with vegan ethics.

Meat eaters are the ones who have to say, “No, it’s okay to kill, and death’s not a big deal,” which sounds a little unseemly when you say it out loud. We can try to get around this by saying, “Well, actually, if you eat only certain kinds of meat — like grass-fed cows or whales — this ends up killing fewer animals than if you were to eat a veggie burger made from tofu, which required pesticides and tilling, which killed many small mammals.” And indeed, the pro-meat side did make this point in this debate. And I agree, there certainly might be cases in which this is true, but this grants the vegan premise that we should kill as little as possible, and it’s far from clear that someone eating lots of animal products is killing fewer animals than vegans. Especially since even many pasture-raised animals are fed plants that humans could have eaten, as vegans like to point out, which tends to undermine the point completely. So really the most consistent position for the meat people to take here is that death is fine, that lifespan doesn’t matter, and that there’s no real difference between being murdered and dying in old age of natural causes — at least as far as the dead are concerned. I actually do think there’s a case for all that, but this makes me weird and most meat eaters would find this position not only unusual, but perhaps a bit disturbing.

In this debate, Salatin did talk about death, and just how fine and natural and inevitable it is, and all the stuff you read in The Vegetarian Myth, but he didn’t go so far as to claim that it doesn’t matter how old you are when you die (and why this is), and he didn’t explain why there’s no difference in the harmfulness of an animal dying in the wild vs. of disease or old age on a farm sanctuary vs. in a slaughterhouse. These are arguments that meat eaters have to address, and no matter how well they do this, it’s going to leave some meat eaters thinking, “Hmm, maybe this dead body eating thing isn’t so great after all.”

And this is why meat eaters tend to just not to think about the ethics of meat at all, and why vegans will wipe the debate floor with them almost every time.

Here are a few other tips and observations for meat eaters to consider before entering such a debate in the future:

* Vegans will tend to win the environmental issue as well. Again, this is because when we’re listening to a debate, the audience is thinking “What’s the best thing to do?” and will often be able to compartmentalize this from “And what does this mean I have to do?” In this context, the fact that vegans are being ideologically self-serving in requiring animal product abstinence for the environment without also calling for us to give up cars, planes and everything else “unnecessary” that causes environmental harm doesn’t matter. There are some environment-type arguments for meat eaters to make (for instance, the vegan environmental case against animal farming can work in favor of hunting, and it does seem that limited animal farming can have some positive environmental effects), but they’re not as obvious and intuitive as the environmental case for veganism, and these arguments certainly can’t endorse anything close to the status quo.

* It’s possible to farm without animals. Salatin challenged Baur on where you would get manure in a post-animal farming world, and Baur told him about a veganic farm across from Farm Sanctuary that doesn’t rely on manure inputs. It might not be a great way to farm, but it’s technically possible to do and there’s no proof that I know of that it’s truly impossible to feed the world this way. (Especially assuming a smaller human population, which small-animal-farm-advocating omnivores tend to rely on as well.)

* For the love of God, don’t call plants “sentient,” like Joel Salatin did. Vegans were born laughing the “what about plants?” objection out of the room. You will lose.

* Don’t talk about Native Americans eating buffalo a long time ago, or impoverished people around the world who rely on animals for subsistence survival and how veganism would mess everything up for them. As you may have guessed, Joel Salatin did this too, and I get that the topic “Don’t eat anything with a face” means no one should do this ever, but I don’t think that’s how the audience was engaging with this debate. Whether vegan European invaders should have allowed Native Americans to eat buffalo in the past is just not a relevant consideration to an audience who is not impoverished or living in the 1600s. Vegans may want to go after impoverished subsistence meat eaters one day, but I don’t think this is a serious worry, and for now they’re picking the low-hanging fruit — which means rich meat eaters like you who probably can afford to buy b12 pills and maybe even exotic vegan cheeses sometimes.

* Speaking of the past, meat eaters often argue for a style of meat rearing that was more common historically than now, or they talk about meat eating ancestors a long time ago, while vegans tend to be more forward looking: new-fangled techniques for making plant proteins taste like animals, lab-grown meat and 3D-printed meat and so on. This may be an inescapable problem for meat eaters, but since time moves forward rather than backward, this seems to be a point for vegans.

* Not endorsing factory farms doesn’t get you off the hook, because animals on small farms suffer and die too, and vegans like to point out that there seems to be a pretty blatant contradiction between small farmers claiming to care for their animals, and these same farmers subjecting them to various sorts of harms and then the slaughterhouse. Is it possible to care about animals while also causing them harm and then killing them? Maybe so, but it’s not the sort of caring that people are used to, and it requires an explanation, which will probably involve some non-intuitive twists of logic. I certainly had trouble believing Salatin when he bragged about how much he loves to make his chickens happy. How can you smile while being a villain, Salatin?

* Avoid association with the Weston A. Price Foundation if you can. Weston A. Price was a dentist who is also known for researching the health and diets of less-industrialized cultures: research that Price thought showed important health benefits of eating certain animal products and other traditionally prepared foods. I don’t have a strong opinion about Price’s research either way, because I haven’t really looked into it. But I do know this: when you say, “Weston A. Price said…” and you mean this in a favorable way, what vegans hear is, “Never trust a single thing I will say or have ever said.” The Weston A. Price Foundation is known for endorsing stuff that the mainstream science community considers to be quackery, and citing them favorably means instant credibility loss with the vegan portion of your audience. Now, this is probably less true for the meat eating portion of the audience who has never heard of the WAPF. But even they will probably think it sounds a little funny when the primary occupation of the nutritional authority you’re citing was dentistry. There has to be a modern non-dentist that meat eaters can cite as a nutritional authority who supports the consumption of animal products… right?

* Be prepared to either defend speciesism (ideally on non-religious grounds) or show why vegans are speciesists too and thus are in no kind of position to criticize meat eaters for it. A woman in the audience referenced Peter Singer in her question about why speciesism is different than racism, sexism and ableism. Salatin said something about how we have a responsibility to make tough choices because we’re the care-taker species, and this involves eating meat when it’s more ecologically responsible to do so. The defensibility of this relies on premises that Salatin didn’t go on to defend, though perhaps it would be possible to do so. What I would have said is that speciesism is different from prejudices between humans because there is no escaping it, not even though veganism. True anti-speciesism in practice would lead to human extinction because humans and other animals cannot cooperate enough for us to treat each others as equals; except for some domesticated species, we inevitably cause animals harm without being able to offer them much to make up for this. So long as we are here, we are deciding to favor ourselves over other animals: we destroy their habitat, we take space they could have lived in and we eat food they could have eaten, and we kill them through our pesticides and our pollution. Between humans, this is kind of behavior is thought unjustifiable because it is possible for us all to cooperate in sophisticated ways. But vegans are typically okay with humans favoring themselves over wild animals, as long as we aren’t eating them. If they really believe their own arguments, this makes them speciesists in practice too.

* Try to call vegans out on it if they say that veganism is a way of living “without causing harm,” as Gene Baur did. Baur said: “The fact that we can live well without eating other animals, without causing harm, I think is the key question here, the key point. If we could live well, without causing harm, why wouldn’t we do it? And the main reason is that we just sort of grow up doing it, without thinking about it.”

I agree with this sentiment itself, but disagree with its two implications: 1. That veganism necessarily allows us to live well, and 2. That it does this without causing harm. 

1. Health and general life enjoyment is the most obvious way to respond to the first implication. Veganism is a large sacrifice to many people whose health isn’t as good on a vegan diet, or who really miss animal products after giving them up and never stop missing them. Meat eaters can try using science and anecdotes to argue in favor of meat eating for nutritional reasons, which is what Masterjohn was essentially tasked with doing. If Anthony Bourdain had been on the pro-face-eating side, he would have defended meat on an aesthetic, tradition and taste basis. Humane farming advocate Simon Fairlie would have argued that life without animal farming itself is less rich and interesting, because he thinks farming vegetables is comparatively boring, and also that very limited meat production has some environmental advantages.

But there’s no guaranteed way for meat eaters to win this point. That’s because vegans can argue that many people learn to like food more on a vegan diet (many people claim their diet paradoxically becomes more varied on a vegan diet), that their health is better and they live longer (as long as they take the right supplements and eat enough high-protein plants). Plus, many people enjoy farming plants. The best meat eaters can do here is to show that the science on the healthfulness of veganism is unclear, a lot of people anecdotally don’t do well on a vegan diet, and vegans are giving up more than they realize when they exclude animal products from their lives. I can speak from experience: only by quitting veganism and trying a more varied omnivorous diet did I realize how limiting veganism and even my pre-vegan diets were.  

2. As for veganism not causing harm, vegans know this is false, it’s just that they equivocate between “no harm,” and “causing less harm,” as Baur did here. Even when they fess up to this, they have problems, because they have to show that a standard vegan lifestyle causes the least amount of harm that a human can possibly cause (which it doesn’t in most cases, because they could reduce harm even more by eating out of dumpsters or donating most of their resources to relieve the suffering of others, although a freegan effective altruist could win this point) or that the amount of harm a vegan diet causes is non-arbitrary (which it usually isn’t, because it’s almost always possible to reduce harm more). Vegans have to admit that a vegan lifestyle causes wild animals some harm through habitat destruction, harvesting of plants, drifting pesticides and so on, and once they do this, they’ve confessed that the ethics of eating is a balancing act, not a clear-cut set of rules. Even eating just enough food to survive puts our interests above those of other animals, since we’re taking food from them or using land they could have lived on, so it’s arbitrary to say that veganism harms animals the correct amount and eating meat — even from small farms — harms animals too much.

* Vegans have a tendency to refer to meat eating as “unnecessary.” For instance, “Eating meat causes unnecessary harm.” This is technically true, but it can be technically true of just about anything we do that causes some amount of harm, such as eating plants. Whenever vegans talk about meat being unnecessary, as Baur did in the debate, ask them to define “necessary.” This will force them to attempt to come up with a definition that leaves meat eating as “unnecessary” while allowing all the harms that a vegan lifestyle causes as somehow “necessary.” This is not an easy thing to do, especially if meat eaters don’t mind getting a little nihilistic on their asses. Consider the standard definition of necessary: “required to be done, achieved, or present; needed; essential.” If we’re not talking about what something is necessary for, this excludes just about everything from the realm of necessity, except whatever is physically inevitable. So obviously vegans can’t mean this when they talk about necessity, because veganism wouldn’t qualify either. Asking vegans to define the “for what” that goes after “necessary” or “unnecessary” will often turn up a premise that vegans might have trouble defending.

For instance, if Baur means that eating meat is not necessary for being healthy, he would need to prove that everyone can be healthy on a vegan diet: such proof does not exist, and there are many people whose direct experiences have suggested otherwise. This is of course anecdotal, but so is any evidence that we can all thrive as vegans, so the best Baur could say here with this definition of necessary is “Eating meat might be unnecessary.” If, however, Baur means to say that eating meat is not necessary for survival, he’s implying that everything that doesn’t help us to survive is unnecessary. By this definition, eating any amount of vegan food beyond what you need for survival is “unnecessary,” and if it causes harm — as plant farming does to animals — we should stop doing it. Driving, vegan cupcakes and all other sorts of harm causing activities that aren’t strictly necessary for survival would also be out. And this still leaves another question: why is survival itself necessary? Because if human survival is not necessary in and of itself, any harm we cause to animals just by existing is unnecessary. The only way to stop causing unnecessary harm by this definition would be to go extent as a species, which would tend to make veganism a pretty unpalatable ideology to most humans.

So meat eaters do at least have this going for them: even if we have to be pro death, it’s not easy to trap us into arguing for extinction.

* Oh, and good luck! You’ll need it, corpse muncher.

The New Inquiry published an article I wrote about whether it’s possible to be an ex-vegan.

Are Pro-Life Lawmakers Plagiarizing PETA?

The United States House of Representatives recently passed an abortion bill that does not bode well for the future of meat eating in this country. It’s called “The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” (H.R. 1797), and it would ban abortion after 20 weeks, based on the theory that fetuses might feel pain at that point in their development. A number of states have passed similar laws already, including Texas as of yesterday. Despite concerning only humans, these bills and laws have implications for animal rights because their proponents are using the same argument against abortion that many vegans use against meat.

Vegans who are motivated by ethical concerns object to eating animals in part because the animals are sentient. Animals feel pain and pleasure, and want to live, in contrast to plants, which apparently do not. There’s more to sentience than a capacity to feel pain — the standard proof of this are the humans who are born with congenital insensitivity to pain — but many vegans focus on pain since it seems to be the worst part of being an animal raised for food, although boredom and frustration are up there too. Richard Ryder, the writer who coined the term “speciesism,” grounds his defense of animal interests in their capacity to feel pain, and talks about “painience” rather than sentience:

All animal species can suffer pain and distress. Animals scream and writhe like us; their nervous systems are similar and contain the same biochemicals that we know are associated with the experience of pain in ourselves.

Our concern for the pain and distress of others should be extended to any “painient” - pain-feeling - being regardless of his or her sex, class, race, religion, nationality or species. Indeed, if aliens from outer space turn out to be painient, or if we ever manufacture machines who are painient, then we must widen the moral circle to include them. Painience is the only convincing basis for attributing rights or, indeed, interests to others.

“The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” and all its state equivalents mesh perfectly with this painist philosophy. 

According to every informal online survey I’ve seen, most vegans are pro-choice. And of course most pro-lifers are meat eaters, since vegetarians are the minority. Yet pro-life legislators are sounding a lot like pain-averse vegans as they seek to ban abortions at the alleged moment of fetal sentience. The following comparison of “The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” and an article on PETA.org called “Fish Feel Pain,” illustrates some of the parallels:

H.R. 1797: “Pain receptors (nociceptors) are present throughout the unborn child’s entire body and nerves link these receptors to the brain’s thalamus and subcortical plate by no later than 20 weeks after fertilization.”

PETA: “Researchers have created a detailed map of more than 20 pain receptors, or ‘nociceptors,’ in fish’s mouths and heads—including those very areas where an angler’s barbed hook would penetrate a fish’s flesh.”

H.R. 1797: “By 8 weeks after fertilization, the unborn child reacts to touch. After 20 weeks, the unborn child reacts to stimuli that would be recognized as painful if applied to an adult human, for example, by recoiling.”

PETA: “For example, when [researchers] exposed fish to irritating chemicals, the animals behaved as any of us might: They lost their appetite, their gills beat faster, and they rubbed the affected area against the side of the tank.”

H.R. 1797: “In the unborn child, application of such painful stimuli is associated with significant increases in stress hormones known as the stress response.”

PETA: “Researcher William Tavolga, for example, found that fish grunt when they receive an electric shock … Dr. Culum Brown of Macquarie University explained that the stress that fish experience when they are pulled from the water into an environment in which they cannot breathe is ‘exactly the same as a person drowning.’”

H.R. 1797: “[R]ecent medical research and analysis, especially since 2007, provides strong evidence for the conclusion that a functioning cortex is not necessary to experience pain. … Substantial evidence indicates that structures used for pain processing in early development differ from those of adults, using different neural elements available at specific times during development, such as the subcortical plate, to fulfill the role of pain processing.”

PETA: “Even though fish don’t have the same brain structures that humans do—fish do not have a neocortex, for example—Dr. Ian Duncan reminds us that we ‘have to look at behaviour and physiology,’ not just anatomy. ‘It’s possible for a brain to evolve in different ways,’ he says. ‘That’s what is happening in the fish line. It’s evolved in some other ways in [other] parts of the brain to receive pain.’”

H.R. 1797: “It is the purpose of the Congress to assert a compelling governmental interest in protecting the lives of unborn children from the stage at which substantial medical evidence indicates that they are capable of feeling pain.”

PETA: “And Dr. Lynne Sneddon, who led a groundbreaking two-year study by scientists at Edinburgh University and the Roslin Institute in the U.K. proving that fish do feel pain, stated, ‘Really, it’s kind of a moral question. Is your angling more important than the pain to the fish?’”

Of course non-vegan pro-lifers will say the difference is that they’re protecting humans, instead of dumb slimy fish. But if we take these bills at face value, that distinction doesn’t make sense. Fetuses are no less human before they reach the 20-week mark – the only difference these bills posit is the alleged capacity for pain. So instead of banning abortions after 20 weeks because fetuses might be able to experience pain, why not just require that after 20 weeks, doctors use anaesthesia on the fetuses before aborting them? This would be the equivalent of knocking out animals before slaughtering them. If that alternative would somehow be missing the point, because the point isn’t that abortion is painful for the fetus, then why are these bills so focused on the capacity for a fetus to feel pain?

Perhaps what many pro-lifers might say at this point is that this bill is a political compromise, and really they wish to outlaw all abortion because human life (well, “innocent” human life) is precious. This would raise problems of a different sort: if all human life is precious even starting at conception – despite the zygotes having no awareness whatsoever – then shouldn’t we all be having the maximum number of babies that we possibly can?

But then, I suppose a few pro-lifers might agree with that.

Regardless of the endgame, by focusing on the capacity for pain, pro-life lawmakers are setting a precedent that strengthens the case for animal rights. Fetuses who can experience pain do not have most of the qualities associated with human rights. They are not self-aware, they don’t have friends or family members who truly know them and care about them as individuals, and they don’t have a conscious interest in living.

Admittedly, they do have potential for these things, as Jordan Sekulow and Matthew Clark point out in their Washington Post article, “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act: One baby step for humanity.” They wrote: “This bipartisan bill will prevent the unborn from experiencing the excruciating pain of abortion and having their lives cut far short of their potential, the ultimate assault on human rights and human dignity.”

Now of course their pain point is specious – nonhuman animals experience pain too, and doctors can anesthetize fetuses before aborting them. But what about all that potential? Okay, except nonhuman animals have the potential to grow up and enjoy life too, as the PETA article “Steer Chooses 5-Lane Traffic Over Slaughter" explains: 

What a lesson in betrayal: This steer may have grew up being groomed, fed, cared for, and made to feel safe, and then suddenly his life was cut short―sold off to the highest bidder. As this steer proves, animals raised for food don’t want to die—given half a chance, they will fight for their lives until the very end.

Meat-eating pro-lifers could retort that humans have more complicated and interesting lives than animals do, so human fetal potential is more worth protecting than, say, bovine potential. But this logic would permit the abortion of humans who will have significant mental impairments, and that’s an exception that these bills and laws don’t grant.

Besides, this bill’s consideration is for fetuses at this particular 20-week stage of development. It’s not concerned with fetal future potential to experience life, since that would require the abolition of all abortion, given that fetuses at all stages have that potential. At 20 weeks, fetuses are less sentient, less rational, less self-aware, less able to fend for themselves and less attached to life than pigs are. Yes, they’re also human, but that was true even at conception. The focus in this bill is on the capacity for pain, which most nonhuman animals have too. The text of “The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” and its various state equivalents is clear: once you can experience pain, you deserve to be protected.

And if that’s true, we had better stop eating meat.

On his site Animal Liberation Frontline, Peter Young explains the story and purpose behind the infamous (and now defunct) exvegans.com. 

Exvegans.com Becomes Less User Friendly After I Query Suspected Creator Peter Young By Email

Note: Peter Young emailed me to correct a couple of my points. I added his corrections at the end.

The main page of the hot new website that dedicates itself to listing the names and locations of ex-vegans — along with chiding, snarky commentaries on why they stopped being vegan — now redirects to the Alec Baldwin-narrated PETA video “Meet Your Meat.” This happened the day after I emailed animal liberator Peter Young to ask if he created the site. 

A couple of days ago, Nathan Porter and Melissa McEwen tweeted at each other about how Peter Young was probably behind Exvegans.com:

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Peter Young doesn’t have the patience to wait for a vegan world. He is a vegan who advocates liberating animals now, through direct action. He spent two years in prison for the crime of freeing minks from fur farms. One of the sad realities of devoting your life to animal liberation is that animals do not have the ability to return the favor; it would have been awesome if some of those freed minks had come together to bust Young out of prison.

Young is still involved with the vegan straight-edge scene. If he’s the person behind Exvegans.com, that might explain why there are so many ex-vegan straight-edgers named and shamed on the site.

Young has excoriated ex-vegans in the past, although only once that I know of. He was working for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office when he quoted himself bashing Vegetarian Myth author Lierre Keith in their press release confusingly titled, “Animal Holocaust Denier, Author Lierre Keith Pied at Conference Speech of anti-vegan antagonist shut down by masked pie throwers in San Francisco:

Peter Young, a NAALPO press advisor wrote immediately after the attack: “Predictably, the choir of opposition to this action so far is a collection of vegan regressors, ‘rewild’ fetishists / weekend-warrior primitivists, and those who hide behind an ‘anything goes’ nouveau-anarchist critique – all of which breed the culture of degeneracy and hedonistic caveman role-playing that give Lierre Keith her only audience. A disrupted speech is trivial in comparison to the billions of deaths this woman promotes, but yesterday’s resistance to this death-merchant will undoubtedly give Keith some (vegan) ‘food for thought’ while she travels the country, promoting the consumption of animals.”

I emailed Peter Young yesterday. It was short:

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The response I was hoping for was something like this: “Yes, Rhys, and I’m more than happy to answer any additional questions you have about it.” Instead, not long after I emailed him, Exvegans.com became password protected. Today I looked at it again and saw that it was no longer password protected, and instead redirects to “Meet Your Meat.” However, that’s only if you go to the main page. The individual pages still work if you visit them separately. Here, for instance, is the entry with my name on it, which erroneously puts me in Washington, DC and confuses me for ex-vegan butcher Andrew Plotsky:

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Exvegans.com sure hates fake me! Nice hair, though. 

To be honest, I kind of enjoyed the site. I didn’t like that it was mean, sloppy and threatening, but it could have functioned (however inadvertently) as an ex-vegan networking tool. If Peter Young is indeed the creator of Exvegans.com, I can only hope that he’ll become an ex-vegan one day and will resurrect Exvegans.com as the ex-vegan fun zone it was always meant to be. 

Update — Peter Young emailed me to correct a couple of points:

There is no relationship between your email (which I just received) and the URL redirect. The article I posted covers the motive behind this.

It’s not accurate to say that I created or launched the site (the article also covers this). My role was mostly a conceptual and strategic one. Content was not my doing.

Although we disagree on some fundamental things, I’ll say your coverage was by far less hostile and tantrum-ish than any coverage the site received in the vegan sphere during its brief existence.

Last week The Awl posted this article I wrote. The “vegan logic” I’m referring to is the argument from marginal cases. In the article, I listed, numbered and briefly defended all the possible responses to the AMC that I could think of. If you liked the article but wish that it were longer and more detailed (ha), here are a few relevant links…

For a longer look at “2. Deny the second premise that sentience is the only or even main reason that you’re against harming humans, including severely mentally impaired humans,” you can read my blog post “Forget Sentience: Here’s the Real Reason We Grant Rights" from two years ago. 

For a more detailed look at “3. If logical consistency and anti-speciesism are so important to vegans, why is veganism logically inconsistent and speciesist?,” there’s the article I wrote for Aeon magazine earlier this year called “The Vegans Have Landed.”

And if you’re intrigued by the switch vegans often make from animal rights to suffering reduction, and back, I wrote about that in “How the Ethical Argument for Veganism Fails and One Possible Way to Fix It”. 

Food Politic posted an article I wrote about the speciesism that underlies the environmental argument for veganism, even when it’s coming from vegans who claim not to be speciesist.

If someone were farming humans for food, would you complain about the inefficient land use and unfavorable energy conversion ratios?

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