No one is against all killing. 

The average pro-lifer hates fetus killing, but is cool with war killing, self-defense killing and killing animals for food (as long as they aren’t of the feline or canine variety). Euthanasia supporters are fine with self-killing and assisted suicide. Meat eaters are all about killing non-human animals for their flesh. Vegans are all about the opposite of that, but tend to be okay with fetus killing and self-defense killing.

We use “justice,” “desert,” “choice,” “freedom,” “necessity,” “guilty” and “right and wrong” to lend respectability to the types of killings we defend. But strip away the moralizing terminology and all we’re saying is that certain forms of killing create a world that we like more.

American hawks prefer a world where non-Americans are killed if “necessary” to “preserve our freedom,” even though peace-lovers and friends and family members of war casualties may see the killings as an injustice. The self-defense thesis is that the world is better if the attacked turn the tables on the attackers. Most of us imagine ourselves as the ones potentially fending off an unprovoked fatal assault, not the ones starting it, and we get along better with people who aren’t planning to kill us for fun, out of anger or for our money. An ethic that allows us to kill in self-defense makes the world a safer place for the rule abiders, which is what most of us largely are.

It’s easier to advocate killing if we can slap a “guilty” label on those we want gone. This is why we often romanticize revenge killings, but abortion, meat, “collateral damage” and suicide are more controversial — fetuses, non-humans and sometimes hapless civilians and suicidal people are “innocent,” but for various reasons some of us prefer a world where we have the freedom to kill them. 

Advocates of abortion think the world is better if women have the choice to terminate their pregnancies, even though fetuses haven’t intentionally harmed anyone and have their whole lives ahead of them. And advocates of killing animals for their flesh prefer a world where humans get to eat meat, even though animals also have their whole lives ahead of them. 

Some vegan ethicists like Gary Francione use logical consistency arguments to show meat eaters the parallels between the killings we don’t like and the killing of non-human animals — animals are “innocent,” sentient, and have a desire to live — in the hopes that we’ll see that there’s no moral difference between it all and go vegan. 

One problem with this is that vegans aren’t necessarily consistent themselves. Even for them, sentience and a desire to live aren’t always enough for us to leave someone alive. Violent humans don’t lose their sentience and interest in living just because they threaten our lives, yet most vegans think it’s okay to kill them to save ourselves. Yeah, unlike knife-wielding bandits, animals are always “innocent,” but innocence is no guarantee of anything either, since vegans are generally okay with killing fetuses, and they’re also okay with killing animals who threaten our lives, and even non-threatening animals that we need to kill for our survival, or for urban development. 

Another problem is that most people just don’t care about logical consistency. They want their dogs to live forever and they want their pigs to live until they’re big enough to slaughter, because they like to pet dogs and eat pigs. Most people don’t like a world where we send our severely mentally impaired children to extermination camps, but do like a world with barbecue. Consistency arguments aren’t going to change their minds. For animals to get a right to life, most people need to agree with vegans that they’d rather live in a world where animals are not routinely killed for food. 

Whether you’re for or against a certain kind of killing depends in part on who you’re identifying with. Are you ideologically allied with the one who is killed and/or their loved ones, or do you side with those who benefit from the killing? Most of us find ourselves identifying with both killers and those who are killed, depending on the context.

For vegans to succeed, they need to get us to care more about animals and to care less about the products we get from them. They need to get us to stop thinking of veganism as a sacrifice, and to start thinking more about the suffering that animals endure, or other ways that raising animals for food might make the world a more terrible place. 

Here are four major reasons that people oppose certain forms of killing, and how they translate to various vegan arguments against eating animals:

1. The killing negatively impacts those who are killed, and/or their loved ones or ideological allies.

Vegans can’t argue that a veal calf might have grown up to change the world by developing a brilliant new tech product or philosophical paradigm, but they can point to the sufferings of animals raised for food, their confusion and terror as they are led to slaughter, and their missed opportunities for enjoyment once they are killed. They might also say that animals’ family members or friends could miss them when they’re gone. 

Humans, too, can suffer from the killing of farm animals. After witnessing the merciless slaughter of a pig on his uncle’s farm, a traumatized Donald Watson became a vegetarian, and eventually coined the word “vegan” and got this whole thing started. And in my interview with vegan RD Jack Norris, Norris said:

I suffer knowing that right now there are warehouses with tens of thousands of chickens scrambling frantically to escape from wire cages that are digging into their bodies, or pigs who have not been allowed to turn around or walk in months. For some people, living with such knowledge is terribly painful and I suspect some of the animal activists who have committed suicide have done so at least partly because they could no longer bear thinking about these things. 

2. The killing has significant downsides for those who otherwise benefit from the killing, making it lose-lose for everyone. 

In anti-abortion rhetoric, this is the argument that mothers may have second thoughts about the abortion and live in regret, always wondering what the child would have been like. Sucks for the fetus and for the mom. 

In veganism, this becomes the “selfish arguments” for giving up animal products. Veganism is not a sacrifice — animal consumption is. Meat eaters may enjoy eating all that flesh, say some vegans, but they’ll pay the price with a higher risk of heart attacks and colon cancer, and we’ll all pay the price in the form of environmental damage. Also, slaughterhouse jobs are dangerous, underpaid and desensitizing, and those workers would be better off making tofu. 

3. The killing worsens the world in a practical sense by changing its make-up in an unfortunate way, usually by removing the individuals or the kind of individuals we like, while leaving behind the bastards who killed them.

The murder of humans falls uncontroversially into this category since it destroys the people we like, or at least can deal with — the rule abiders — and leaves the criminals we hate and fear.

The direct translation of this into anti-meat talking points can be incendiary, however, since it means gloating over hunting accidents and saying that non-human animals should slaughter us instead of the other way around. But vegans can interpret this in a less misanthropic way by saying that it’s more enjoyable to be a wild animal than a domesticated animal — no matter how well the domesticated animal is treated — and so meat eating worsens the make-up of the world because it takes land and resources from wild animals to bring our domesticated flesh slaves into existence. Much of Lee Hall’s On Their Own Terms relies on this sort of argument. 

4. Sanctioning this form of killing makes the world worse in more of an abstract way, sometimes independent of its direct consequences, by endorsing questionable values and actions like selfishness, power abuse, prejudice and arrogance, making us look bad to more enlightened future generations, and turning the world into a less wholesome place. The approval and practice of the killing in question coarsens the world, could lead to something worse down the road, or (for the religious) offends God. 

This is the sort of argument that euthanasia opponents usually need to make, because in a pragmatic sense, euthanasia has a desirable effect: it ends the lives of people who can no longer tolerate them. Euthanasia may hurt surviving family members and friends, depending on what they feel and believe about it, but it could just as likely comfort them to know that their loved one is no longer suffering. When euthanasia seems positive overall, its opponents have to say that assisted suicide violates our sensibilities and the values we hold dear, like “first do no harm” and “the sanctity of human life.”

Vegan arguments based on concepts like justice, intent and anti-speciesism, which speak to how we feel about ourselves than how animals feel about what we do, fall into this category. Other animals don’t know what speciesism is, and they don’t care if we’re killing them accidentally or on purpose. But we may nevertheless be uncomfortable with routinely discriminating against animals, since it reminds us of discrimination against humans. And we might feel worse about killing animals on purpose rather than unintentionally, even if animals don’t notice the difference, since we think of murder as a worse crime than involuntary manslaughter.

Some people wonder whether death is a harm to the one who dies, since when you kill someone, they cease to exist, and it’s impossible to violate the interests of the non-existent. If death isn’t a harm for the one who dies, then the only ones potentially harmed are the survivors. This raises the issue of whether it’s harmless to kill someone that absolutely no one cares about, or to kill farm animals as long as their remaining animal friends don’t get sad or stressed about it. 

The sort of argument that number four represents allows vegans to ignore these issues; whether or not death is a harm to the one who dies, they can say that the killing itself casts a shadow upon the world. So vegans could even say, “Sure, there’s nothing so bad about being a farmed animal who is treated relatively well and then is dispatched quickly and forgets that she was ever born. Nevertheless, institutionalizing this practice is distasteful and prejudiced, it numbs our empathy, it makes us a more brutal and less admirable species, and it makes the world a bloodier, more violent, less livable place.”

The pro-killing contingent has responses to all four of these objections. Here are the flip-sides, and how they translate into defenses of animal consumption:

1. There’s no point in considering the opinions of the dead because they don’t have any. Of course most people don’t want to die, since our genes wouldn’t have made it this far if they’d failed to impart a desire for living, but there’s no way around death and nonexistence is the same whether it comes prematurely or around the time we expect it. Our desire to live dies with us, as well as every other desire we have. Killing someone ends their perspective entirely, so then the only relevant question is how this killing affects the living. If no survivors mind the death, and if this sort of killing doesn’t create a climate of fear that makes all of us worried for our own lives or the lives of our loved ones, the killing could be for the best. 

The criteria in the last sentence are difficult to satisfy with humans — though detested criminals can come close — but some meat eaters believe that animals raised on humane farms fit the bill. Animals on a farm don’t know that they’re going to die, or that the animals who disappear from the farm have been ferried away to their demise, which means there’s no cloud of death-related terror hanging over them. And since the farm takes care of animals’ food and shelter needs, animals rely on the farmers more than on each other, so they don’t materially suffer from the loss of their farmyard companions the way wild animals could suffer when a hunter takes out one of the group’s best breadwinners.

Vegans protest that once non-human animals are born, they are attached to life and want to live as long as possible, so it’s cruel when we kill them before they reach nature’s expiration date. A pro-meat rejoinder to this is that yeah, animals are sentient and want to live… while they are alive. But once the bolt enters their brain, their consciousness flicks off like a switch, and they are no different from a plucked flower: non-sentient and without desire. It’s not like killing animals traps them in some horrible limbo where they still have interests but can’t fulfill them. Killing someone removes their identity, their thoughts and their interests simultaneously. The cow used to be sentient and the flower never was, but that was then and this is now: death nulls and voids that distinction. Animals that we kill do not experience nostalgia for the life they no longer have, nor regrets for the things they never got to do. For them, it’s as if they were never born. The only difference between the death of a cow and the death of a flower, then, is what it takes to kill them, the visceral nature of their deaths, the composition of their corpses and how the survivors react. And if the dead animals’ farmyard pals aren’t too broken up about it, where’s the loss? 

If death were such a terrible thing to the one who dies, you’d have to be a monster to intentionally have human children. Don’t you realize they’ll become attached to life and yet will die, just like the animals we raise for food? Worse even, since humans are aware of this death and fear it from childhood on, and odds are pretty good that they’ll die of a painful disease that gratuitously draws out the final blow. Breeding non-human animals into existence and killing them swiftly is chivalrous in comparison, since the animals probably don’t stress much about the future prospect of death, and then (in a well-designed and competently operated slaughterhouse, at least) are gone before they realize what’s happening. 

Vegans are fine with non-existence before an animal comes into being. In fact, many vegans prefer us not to breed animals into existence at all. And yet, they’re against hastening animals’ return to non-existence once they’re born, even though pre-birth non-existence and post-birth non-existence are identical as far as the non-existent entity is (non-)concerned. It’s not like post-birth non-existence, which we all get to eventually, is any better if we die later rather than sooner. Life is a vacation that the non-existent don’t remember; to the dead, it doesn’t matter how good or how long their life was. Kill a cow at age one or let it live until 22 and the ultimate outcome is the same: the non-being of that particular consciousness. So all that matters is how the killing affects the living. Does it leave the world better or worse off? 

Which is why meat eaters often see meat as a positive for humans and a neutral for the animals we raise for food. If the animals have decent lives, there’s not much for them to complain about while they exist. And once they’re dead, they are back to nonexistence, where they started, no better or worse than if they’d never been born. We’ll eventually die too, but in the meantime, we benefit from having animal corpses to eat.

Admittedly, this sometimes glosses over that no matter how “nice” the farm is, when farmers breed animals, they are bringing beings into the world who did not ask to be born and are going to experience suffering — and it’s all for our own advantage. Meat eaters who want to justify this suffering could point out that there is pain and suffering for all sentient beings, and it may even be worse for humans than for humanely raised animals. The emotional pain an animal feels upon losing a friend to the slaughterhouse may not be any worse than the pain we feel when a friend moves to a new town or we get dumped. We may not get dehorned or branded, but we’re no strangers to physical pain either. We didn’t ask to be born any more than farm animals did, and many of the arguments that vegans make against bringing animals into the world for our selfish desire to consume them could work just as well against bringing human children into this world for our own selfish desire to be parents and continue human existence. 

Meat eaters who nevertheless don’t like the idea of micromanaging other animals’ lives and reproductive behavior might feel more comfortable being advocates of hunting instead. You don’t have to castrate fish or deer. 

Naturally the vegan response to all this is, “What if we did it to humans?” To which meat eaters can either say that they don’t care about logical consistency when it comes to killing animals for food, that vegans themselves are not logically consistent about the treatment of other animals, or that it would indeed be harmless to kill humans if you were sure that no one would mourn their deaths and that it wouldn’t contribute to a climate of fear or otherwise harm surviving humans.  

But that last claim can be a difficult one to accept emotionally, even for those who see logical sense in it. So here’s an alternative approach for meat eaters who don’t believe that death is harmless to the one who is killed: instead say that death is a harm, but it’s a harm that veganism doesn’t abolish. According to this argument, human civilization, agriculture and even just human propagation and existence kills other animals all the time no matter what we eat or wear, and so veganism is a needless and onerous restriction that doesn’t even save animals from us.

Vegans have two main counter-arguments to this (which they often switch between when you’re not paying attention): suffering reduction and intent.

The suffering reduction argument says that veganism causes less harm than non-veganism because it kills fewer animals and causes less pain, and so is ethically preferable. The intent argument says that there’s a major ethical difference between killing animals unintentionally — even if we know that a certain action will cause their deaths — and the intentional killing of animals for their bodies.

In response to the suffering reduction parry, meat eaters can try to show that there are ways for meat eating to cause less suffering than veganism. For instance, you can cause less suffering by replacing some vegan agriculture with hunted animals, insects, elevation-raised bivalves, or grass-fed ruminants. Or meat eaters can say that vegans are reducing suffering to an arbitrary level because they aren’t reducing suffering as much as they possibly could (freegans who only eat food that would otherwise go to waste reduce suffering more, as do people who don’t spawn children and who convince others not to have children); how can vegans demand that meat eaters stop compromising on the amount of suffering they’re willing to reduce when vegans compromise on the amount of suffering they’re willing to reduce too?

At this point, vegans are likely to shift the debate from suffering reduction to “intent,” and suggest that it’s worse to kill animals purposely, as meat eaters do, rather than accidentally, as vegans (and meat eaters) do. 

One possible meat eater response to the intent claim is that it just doesn’t make sense to apply our intent standard to our killings of non-human animals because the animals we kill are completely unaware of our motives, and even if they were aware, it wouldn’t help them. Intent is a human-centric concept with no practical applications for other animals.

When judging the severity of a crime, humans consider intent for two main reasons: to help determine if they’re going to commit the crime again, and to satisfy our desire for revenge if the action was malicious, and thus especially enraging. We assume that if a criminal intentionally shot someone, they’re more likely to kill again than someone who knocked out an AC window unit by accident. However, our “accidental” killings of animals who get in the way of our crops aren’t due to temporary lapses or clumsiness — they’re routine consequences of something we’re not going to stop doing. These deaths aren’t whoopsies so much as predictable casualties that we’re willing to accept. 

The revenge aspect of intent also isn’t relevant to other animals in their dealings with us. Since they will never really know exactly why we’re hurting or killing them, there’s no way for them to treat us differently based on our malice or lack thereof.  

Setting motives aside — which non-human animals have no choice but to do — animals aren’t any better off starving to death because we’ve developed their land, or being crushed or chewed up by our farm equipment because we’re harvesting our crops, than they are when we slit their throats. 

A few months ago, a commenter on this blog referenced the concept of the “depraved-heart murder” or the “depraved-indifference murder.” According to SFgate.com, which recently reported on a case in which a Mississipi resident was charged with depraved-heart murder for conducting a fatal amateur plastic surgery job, “Depraved-heart murder is a legal term for an action that demonstrates a ‘callous disregard for human life’ and results in death,” even if death was not the intent. The commenter on my blog felt that based on this standard, the foreseen but unintentional deaths of animals for agriculture could constitute a depraved-heart murder, or at least a depraved-heart killing.

Another response to the intent argument is that veganism doesn’t avoid killing animals intentionally either. For one thing, pesticides in vegan agriculture intentionally kill animals — that is their job — and rodents, birds, deer and other “pests” are also killed intentionally to protect vegan crops for human consumption. Vegans are against killing animals for meat, but don’t seem to be against killing animals for fake meat. 

To this, vegans are likely to say that they advocate some form of agriculture that keeps animals away from crops without killing them. If these vegans consider insects to be sentient animals, then this would mean doing away with pesticides. But even if vegans were okay with eating food that’s sometimes half-devoured by creepy crawlies, there is still a problem here, because no matter what form of agriculture you advocate, by developing land in any way, you can’t help but violate animals’ interest in their homes and also their lives. Dumping sewage, paving roads that fragment habitat, taking water for irrigation or to quench our thirst, chopping down trees for paper or wood, or building a town all constitute direct and intentional destructions of animal homes. This may not be intentional murder, but it is an intentional violation of animal habitat, which is something animals cannot live without. So how does intentionally violating animals’ habitat interests jibe with a philosophy that claims to stick up for all of animals’ vital interests?

The way vegans typically use “intent” is to suggest that if a certain action can theoretically be done without harming animals, then it’s okay to do it it even when it does harm animals. For instance… No matter what, an animal has to suffer and/or die for us to be able to eat its flesh. For vegans, this automatically puts meat in the off-limits realm of bad intent. But if there were no animals in the world other than humans, it wouldn’t harm any animals to chop down a tree. Therefore, chopping down part of a forest is theoretically okay because it need not harm any sentient beings.

However, because there are animals all over the place and they make their homes in and around trees, chopping down trees does kill animals: it either kills them immediately or it kills them slowly by destroying the habitat they rely on to survive. Nevertheless, vegans say we can overlook this. Since chopping down trees is not in itself bad, as a tree is not a sentient being, it’s fine to do this even while knowing that there are sentient beings around the trees who are going to get hurt and die. All we have to do to make this ethical is say that we theoretically don’t require that animals die for us to clear trees away for a road, or to get paper and wood, and we regret that their deaths are an inevitable consequence of our justifiable vegan actions.  

The logic here reminds me of that scene in The Simpsons when Bart and Lisa “accidentally” hit each other with their whirring arms and punching fists and blame each other for falling into the line of fire.

It’s also a bit like saying it was okay for the Europeans to take over the Americas because theoretically this wouldn’t have required killing any humans if there weren’t already humans inhabiting it. Sure, the Americas were inhabited, but it was still fine for Europeans to take them over because North and South America weren’t themselves sentient beings who were being harmed. The European invaders would have preferred the continents to have been uninhabited so that they wouldn’t have needed to kill anyone to move there or plunder the natural resources, so their intent was good, even if the process of them moving in necessitated the side-effect of a lot of killing because of the unfortunate fact that Native Americans happened to be in the way. 

This isn’t a perfect allegory because much of the killing of Native Americans involved directly murdering them, and when compared to how we treat non-human animals, that’s more like hunting than habitat destruction. But there were policies that took Native Americans off their land and hastened many deaths without always killing them on purpose, like “The Indian Removal Act” and the Trail of Tears, and these do fit with vegan notions of how it’s okay to treat non-human animals. 

Since vegans like to challenge meat eaters by asking “what if you did it to humans?”, let’s turn it around on them. If vegans are okay with the destruction of animal habitat as long as we aren’t doing it to purposely kill animals, what if we treated human homes the same way? What if we knocked down human houses without compensation in order to re-develop the land, even if we didn’t know whether there were humans inside or not? The houses aren’t sentient, after all, and it’s not like we want there to be people inside who will die, so is this cool? What about taking over areas of the rainforest that humans live in, and evicting them and essentially killing them?

If vegans object to violating human habitat interests, but not animals’ habitat interests, how are they not hypocritical speciesists?

This is when tenacious vegans may switch from “intent” back to “suffering reduction,” so this debate can go on forever. 

2. The advantages of a particular killing outweigh the costs for those who want the killing to happen. 

Meat eaters taking this kind of stance would say that veganism, not animal consumption, is the sacrifice. Meat eating can be enjoyable and it doesn’t have to be unhealthy, and in fact, a lot of people feel worse on a diet that is completely free of animal products. It’s true that most people still wouldn’t want to work in a slaughterhouse, but slaughterhouses don’t have to be miserable places

Factory farming is clearly bad for the environment, but small-stock farming and other ways of procuring meat can be environmentally positive in a lot of ways. Besides, all of us do plenty of things that are bad for the environment, yet most vegans aren’t asking us to give up all of that, so there’s an arbitrariness to their asking us to give up meat but not necessarily airplanes, cars (other than the Prius Solution), human reproduction and all fossil fuel use. Why do vegans want us to give up meat for the sake of the environment, but not the massive environmental blight of human civilization itself? Could it be because vegans mainly want animal use to end and so hype up every possible flaw with it?

Also, vegans often cite the UN’s “Livestock’s Long Shadow” report, but the report’s case against animal farming seems to be exaggerated, and one of the co-authors admitted to a significant flaw in it

3. The killing improves the world in a practical sense by changing its make-up in a positive way, usually by removing the individuals or the kind of individuals we dislike, to the advantage of the individuals we like.

Meat eaters can use this general argument to defend hunting and eating animals that are going to die miserably of starvation otherwise, or to justify hunting and eating invasive species who are causing destruction and suffering to us and other animals.

4. This form of killing makes the world better in more of an abstract way, sometimes independent of its direct consequences, by bolstering values we’re proud of and making the world a more livable, pleasant place. 

This becomes the aesthetic defense of meat eating, promoted by permaculture and small-stock farming advocates like Simon Fairlie with Meat: A Benign Extravagance, and foodies like Anthony Bourdain.

Fairlie believes that small-stock farming and non-vegan permaculture can help us maintain a connection to nature and to other animals. In contrast, he eyes veganism suspiciously as potentially technocratic and post-humanist, leading us away from the land and alienating us from the glorious mess of life and death in the natural world, while offering us spun soy fibers and meat grown in sterile labs as a consolation. Fairlie sees small-stock farming as a worthwhile and inspiring occupation that would leave the world worse in its absence.

Chefs and consumers sometimes talk about the richer culinary experience that a diet with animal products offers — with a wider variety of flavors, textures and perhaps a greater feeling of nourishment than a plant-only diet provides — and how sharing animal products is so often important to cultural traditions and connectedness with other humans.  

An advantage for vegans is that many of their assertions are simpler and more intuitive than the pro-meat comebacks. A disadvantage is that this doesn’t help them so long as the majority doesn’t feel much of a need to question meat eating at all. For now, most of us consider veganism a sacrifice, and don’t empathize enough with farm animals to make that sacrifice. We see killing animals for food as one of the good killings.

But maybe vegans can change that.