In 2003, Steven Davis wrote a paper called, “The Least Harm Principle May Require That Humans Consume a Diet Containing Large Herbivores, Not a Vegan Diet.” As you might have guessed from the title, the paper intended to show that a diet including ruminant animals fed on grass would kill fewer animals than a diet based purely on vegan agriculture. Davis wrote:

[A] vegan diet doesn’t necessarily mean a diet that doesn’t interfere in the lives of animals. In fact, production of corn, beans, rice, etc. kills many animals as this paper will document. So, in 1999, I sent an email to [animal rights philosopher Tom] Regan, pointing this out to him. Then I asked him, “What is the morally relevant difference between the animals of the field and those of the farm that makes it acceptable to kill some of them (field mice, etc.) so that humans may eat, but not acceptable to kill others (pigs, etc.) so we may eat?” His reply (Regan, 1999, personal communication) was that we must choose the method of food production that causes the least harm to animals. (I will refer to this concept as The Least Harm Principle or LHP.) In his book, Regan (1983) calls this the “minimize harm principle” and he describes it in the following way:

"Whenever we find ourselves in a situation where all the options at hand will produce some harm to those who are innocent, we must choose that option that will result in the least total sum of harm."

Production of forages, such as pasture-based forages, would cause less harm to field animals (kill fewer) than intensive crop production systems typically used to produce food for a vegan diet. This is because pasture forage production requires fewer passages through the field with tractors and other farm equipment. The killing of animals of the field would be further reduced if herbivorous animals (ruminants like cattle) were used to harvest the forage and convert it into meat and dairy products. Would such production systems cause less harm to the field animals? Again, accurate numbers aren’t available comparing the number of animals of the field that are killed with these different cropping systems, but “The predominant feeling among wildlife ecologists is that no-till agriculture will have broadly positive effects on mammalian wildlife” populations (Wooley et al., 1984). Pasture-forage production, with herbivores harvesting the forage, would be the ultimate in ‘no-till’ agriculture. Because of the low numbers of times that equipment would be needed to grow and harvest pasture forages it would be reasonable to estimate that the pasture-forage model may reduce animal deaths by 50% or more. In other words, only 7.5 animals of the field per ha would die to produce pasture forages as compared to the intensive cropping system (15/ha) used to produce a vegan diet.

The specific numbers that Davis concocted at the end of that passage — after conceding that there was no way to calculate the true numbers — ended up sabotaging what would otherwise have been a salient point. He seems to have been so sure that he’d won this argument that he was happy to estimate that raising animals on pasture still kills plenty of wild animals. Hey, why not? Industrial agriculture kills twice as many, so the meaties totally have this one in the bag, right? 

Wrong, responded Jason Gaverick Matheny. Matheny, who is now a leader in the movement to create lab-grown meat, wrote a rebuttal called, “Least Harm: A Defense of Vegetarianism From Steven Davis’s Omnivorous Proposal,” a paper vegans cite to close the case on Davis’ objections, and deem this issue dead and buried. In his paper, Matheny pointed out an error in Davis’ calculations. Davis wasn’t savvy enough to say that the ruminant animals should be raised only on marginal land not suited for crop growth. This allowed Matheny to retort that because land devoted to crops provides more than double the protein per hectare, and because Davis said that raising ruminants only decreased wild animal deaths by half per hectare, vegans still kill fewer animals per capita than meat eaters who eat large, grass-fed ruminants:

Davis suggests the number of wild animals killed per hectare in crop production (15) is twice that killed in ruminant-pasture (7.5). If this is true, then as long as crop production uses less than half as many hectares as ruminant-pasture to deliver the same amount of food, a vegetarian will kill fewer animals than an omnivore. In fact, crop production uses less than half as many hectares as grass-fed dairy and one-tenth as many hectares as grass-fed beef to deliver the same amount of protein. In one year, 1,000 kilograms of protein can be produced on as few as 1.0 hectares planted with soy and corn, 2.6 hectares used as pasture for grass-fed dairy cows, or 10 hectares used as pasture for grass-fed beef cattle (Vandehaar, 1998; UNFAO, 1996). As such, to obtain the 20 kilograms of protein per year recommended for adults, a vegan-vegetarian would kill 0.3 wild animals annually, a lacto-vegetarian would kill 0.39 wild animals, while a Davis-style omnivore would kill 1.5 wild animals. Thus, correcting Davis’s math, we see that a vegan-vegetarian population would kill the fewest number of wild animals, followed closely by a lacto-vegetarian population.

Matheny never says whether he agrees with Davis’ numbers (“If this is true…”), but he uses them anyway, because Davis’ numbers end up being so favorable for Matheny’s own argument. This could be why Davis never responded: Davis scuttled himself by being over-confident and allowing for so many wild animal deaths in pasture-raised animals. Because Davis was (by his own admission) making the numbers up, he didn’t want to skew them too blatantly in his own favor. Especially since he didn’t feel that he needed to, because he didn’t predict Matheny’s counter-argument about differences in yield.  

It’s about time someone stood up for Davis. There are problems with Matheny’s analysis, some trifling and some fatal, and it turns out that even if Davis did a bad job of supporting his argument, his point still stands — a vegan diet is not the diet of “least harm.”

First, since Davis simply guessed the amount of wild animals killed in pasture-raised animal agriculture, an anecdote might provide a little more insight. “Suzanne,” commenting on a vegan’s entry about Davis’ paper, wrote:

Certainly Davis’ paper is not free of flaws, but he is to be commended for delving into the realms that many people, especially vegans, would prefer to ignore – namely, that there is no way to purposefully raise food for humans, whether that food is fruit, vegetable, or animal – without the deaths of other animals and without some degree of negative environmental impact. A previous poster spoke of deep pain at realising that veganism had become his shield – and indeed a source of cognitive dissonance that creates a sense of complacency, perhaps even superiority over unenlightened meat-eaters. …

Speaking from my own experience with a smallholding in South Africa, there’s very little collateral killing when land is perennial pasture. My property was not suited to cropping; it had shallow soil with a lot of ironstone and hardpan resulting from a previous owner’s misguided attempt to grow maize; the rainfall was marginal; it had been overgrazed. I put my efforts into restoring the acacia savannah natural to this area, and year by year I saw the groundcover thicken and the biodiversity increase. This land, marginal for plant cropping, provided an amazing amount of food in the form of eggs, milk, and meat. My livestock (2 dairy cows, seven sheep, seven goats, three pigs, fluctuating numbers of chickens and meat rabbits) thrived on their roughage diet. Only the rabbits were permanently housed (under the colony system, not in individual cages), with all other species going out to graze each day. I didn’t make hay, having no equipment or money for the operation. Instead, I practiced rotational grazing, shutting off some paddocks in early summer to produce winter forage to be rotationally grazed in due time. The bulk carbohydrates provided by the dry grass was balanced by the abundant pods of the Acacia tortilis tree; these pods are rich in protein and oil, and have some sugary pulp – a very little to human tastebuds, but obviously delicious to my stock! I bought in a small amount of lucerne from a neighbour who grew it for his horses – I got the finer material that shook out of bales and would otherwise have been wasted. I also bought in a small amount of mill sweepings, this being husks and meal spilt during the production of maize meal and wheat flour for human use. Again, material that would have been wasted. I mixed the lucerne and sweepings with rock salt and dicalcium phosphate, as well as bagasse (the fibre left after sugar cane is pressed, another waste material from the human food stream), and fed this as treats morning and evening.

My animals were penned at night to protect them from predators, especially bipedal predators, and this manure eventually gave me beds of deep rich loam for the growing of vegetables.

Year by year I saw the wildlife on my property increase both in numbers and in variety. An enormous python took up residence beneath the pump house. A breeding pair of duiker took up residence. Tree mice suddenly appeared out of nowhere, and a flock of yellow-billed hornbills settled in to exploit the mice. Owls called at night, and jackrabbits exploded under my feet during the day. A redlipped herald snake, feeding on ground-living rodents, found my bed so appealing that after three mornings of waking up nose-to-nose with it, I relocated it on the other side of a stream. There were probably collateral deaths – a cow can’t rip off mouthfuls of grass without occasionally gathering a grasshopper with it, for example, but certainly there was no carnage. The real collateral deaths took place in my vegetable garden, where I ruthlessly killed slugs, caterpillars, and beetles (I threw them to the chickens, so the actual killing was done by beaks, but I was the one who caught and threw the critters) that would otherwise decimate my beans, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, sweetcorn, etc.

This is just a comment on a blog and is not proof of anything, but it illustrates how simplistic it is to generalize that pasture-raising animals kills exactly half the number of wild animals per hectare that raising plants does. 

Nevertheless, since there has not been much research into the harm that vegan agriculture causes to wild animals (in fact it is probably impossible to accurately calculate such a thing), you can’t really blame Matheny for accepting Davis’ questionable numbers. There are, however, more tangible flaws in Matheny’s paper. For one, he assumes that plant and animal protein quality are equivalent, even though it is widely accepted that plant protein is not as digestible as animal protein. In her entry “Tryptophan, Milk and Depression,” The Vegan RD Ginny Messina writes: “Since protein from plant foods is slightly less digestible than animal protein, vegan protein and amino acid needs are about 10% higher than for omnivores.” Jack Norris also references that 10 percent figure in his VeganHealth.org article on Protein, though he looks at the scanty and inconclusive evidence available on the topic and suggests that the jury is still out.  

In Meat: A Benign Extravagance, Simon Fairlie cites two groups — one pro-meat and one pro-vegetarian — who agree that animal protein is 1.4 times more digestible than vegetable protein. But Fairlie says that neither group explains where that number comes from. The reality seems to be that it varies from food to food. For instance, isolated soy protein appears to be as digestible as animal protein, while other plant proteins fare worse (at least according to this chart at soyconnection.com).

It does appear that most animal proteins are more digestible than most vegetable proteins, apparently since plant products often have fiber, polysaccharides and phytic acid interfering with absorption of nutrients. Also important: Matheny forgot that dead animals aren’t used only for food. Animal byproducts end up in all sorts of things, and the fact that people are wearing animal skins in Davis’ world means less cotton and synthetic fibers that need to be created, another way to reduce our impact on animals.

But for simplicity, we might as well ignore all that and settle on Messina’s figure of animal protein being merely 10 percent more digestible than plant protein, which still leaves vegans killing fewer animals per capita (according to Davis’ and Matheny’s numbers).

Yet something still seems off about all this. Does it sound right that an individual vegan’s diet is only responsible for 0.3 wild animal deaths annually? I once killed more frogs in a few minutes while mowing my lawn (trauma!) than a vegan supposedly kills by eating for a year. Something has to be missing here. What is it?

Well, for one thing, insects and other smaller animals.

Matheny and Davis only seem to care about mammals. This might have made sense in the context of Regan’s philosophy, since Regan’s standards for animal rights are more rigorous than most vegans’, demanding that animals be a “subject of life,” and not merely sentient. Most vegans, however, do settle on sentience and as a consequence are against exploiting and killing bugs. Insects have a central nervous system, feel sensations, and may or may not experience pain. The debate over pain allows some vegans to disqualify anthropods from rights or interest consideration. But since Matheny later implies in his essay that the deaths of animals being sucked into combines are quick and painless, the capacity for insect pain is irrelevant in this case — the harm here is the irreversible non-existence of a being who experiences life, not pain sensations.

A recent study shows that bees have the same demonstratable emotions that dogs, rats and starlings do. If insect lives count (and vegans who say they don’t will often be at odds with their own ethics), it doesn’t make sense to only consider mammals in a calculation of the harm industrial agriculture causes. We should also consider the grasshoppers, bees, leafhoppers, lygus bugs, corn rootworms, jumping plant louse, sugar beet root maggots, slugs, snails, mites, weevils, chinch bugs, armyworms, Southwestern corn borers, aphids, caterpillars and beetles. This of course makes the actual total lives lost to vegan agriculture even more impossible to determine, but at the very least it shows that 0.3 wild animals killed per vegan anually is ridiculously optimistic (does anyone deny that insects are animals?), and gives further credence to the idea that fewer animals could be killed by displacing some crop consumption by eating large ruminants raised on grass.

But Matheny doesn’t think that number of deaths is all that matters. He wants us to consider quality of life as well. Though we can’t really know what the experience of being a non-human animal is like, Matheny’s bet is that it’s better to be a wild animal who dies in a combine accident, from pesticides or from other consequences of habit destruction due to vegan agriculture, than to be a free-range pasture-fed animal raised for food and eventually led to slaughter:

The wild mouse lives free of confinement and is able to practice natural habits like roaming, breeding, and foraging. In contrast, the grass-fed cow, while able to roam some distance in a fenced pasture, may suffer third-degree burns (branding), have holes punched in his ears (tagging), be castrated, have his horns scooped out of his head (dehorning), and be kept from breeding naturally. Once reaching market weight, he can be transported up to several hundred miles without food, water, or protection from extreme heat or cold; then he is killed in a conventional slaughterhouse. The conditions of slaughterhouses have been described in detail elsewhere (Eisnitz, 1997). Suffice it to say, it is hard to imagine that the pain experienced by a mouse as she or he is killed in a harvester compares to the pain even a grass-fed cow must endure before being killed.

I agree with Matheny that instant death for an animal doesn’t seem so terrible. First they exist, then they hear a loud noise, and suddenly it’s lights out forever — as if they had never been born, and it was all just a dream. This would be worse if death were merely one possible outcome to life, but it’s not… it’s the only possible outcome. And because animals have no future goals to achieve, it’s no tragedy to kill them before a predator or the genetic time bomb of natural causes would have got them.

Though I do have to say that it’s a little inconsistent for vegans to be nonplussed by the disappearance of animals into a farm machine vortex of death yet be outraged when baby male chicks meet pretty much the exact same end as a byproduct of egg production. Why is instant death fine if you’re a mouse and horrible if you are a baby chick? To be fair, Matheny does not say anything about baby chickens here. More pressing to him is the treatment of farm animals who live for a while before they become food. Matheny thinks it is incorrect to say that it is good to raise animals for food if they are happy, because he would rather be a wild animal without a secure food source who is in constant peril from predators, but runs free and copulates, than an animal who has all his basic needs covered but has his horns lopped off, his testicles removed and a logo burned into his side.

This is a matter of opinion. Some want food and healthcare guaranteed for all (domestication), while others prefer to hack it on their own (the wild). (Some people are into scarification too, though most of them want to pick what gets seared into them.) Is a daily struggle for survival worth it if you get to keep your horns? That’s debatable, but there are ways to make the case for domestication stronger.

Dehorning with a caustic paste instead of a hot iron is less painful, and can be avoided completely by breeding naturally polled animals. Pigs are often castrated to avoid the problem of “boar taint,” but some farmers resolve this problem by killing the male pigs before they reach sexual maturity, or use other alternatives, such as injections that produce anti-bodies against the hormone that creates the unpleasant taste in sexually mature boars. When I buy fertile chicken eggs, I have to assume there is some copulating happening somewhere on that farm. Mobile slaughterhouses make it possible to avoid long trips to the slaughterhouse; another possibility is to allow farmers to slaughter their own animals. I’m not sure if there are alternatives to ear tagging and branding, but at least the pain there is temporary, and might be worth a life of ease on the farm.

The life and death of a farm animal doesn’t have to be that bad, and in fact is arguably better than most of the animals who live in freedom and are constantly fighting for life. Even Matheny agrees that the life of an animal on a farm is probably no worse than never having come into existence:

Davis does not address factory farmed animals, as he limits his argument to free-range ruminants, including grass-fed cows. Do these animals have lives worth living? I suspect so, despite the trauma they undergo during transportation and slaughter.

Matheny insists that being a wild animal is better, and so raising domesticated animals is bad because it leads to an overall decrease in wild animals. But what’s so wrong with humans favoring the option that is pretty good for animals and even better for humans?

Vegans loved Matheny for turning Davis’ argument on its head and using Davis’ words to promote vegetarianism. But just as Davis fatally undercut his own argument that a human diet including grass-fed ruminants is better for animals than veganism, Matheny undercuts his own that veganism causes the least harm of any other diet. In critiquing the idea that raising happy animals is good overall, Matheny makes a point that could easily be turned on its head and used to defend invasive species hunting over veganism:

A total-view utilitarian thinks, all else being equal, it is better to have two happy animals than one. In the past, this view has been used to justify the consumption of meat, since farmed animals would not exist if not for meat production. This argument, sometimes called “The Logic of the Larder” (Stephen, 1896), is rebutted by recognizing that while a particular animal may have a life worth living, he or she may harm a number of other animals and/or prevent other animals from existing. In such cases, it may be better if that particular animal had not existed (Gruzalski, 1989).

For example, consider an invasive species such as feral cats on the islands of Northwest Mexico. These cats are responsible for the decline of many seabird colonies and the extinction of multiple terrestrial bird species. The total wildlife population on the islands would have benefited had the feral cat population not increased. For total-view utilitarians, more is merrier until introducing additional animals decreases the total welfare in the population – because these additional animals don’t have lives worth living, harm existing animals, or prevent some greater number of animals from existing. …

Davis does not address factory farmed animals, as he limits his argument to free-range ruminants, including grass-fed cows. Do these animals have lives worth living? I suspect so, despite the trauma they undergo during transportation and slaughter. This does not mean, however, that it is better off that they exist than not, as we saw in the case of the feral cats in Mexico. For by using land and resources formerly or otherwise available to wild animals, grazing cattle prevent some number of smaller wild animals from existing.

As do feral pigs, starlings, lionfish, Asian carp and iguanas (and vegan agriculture, by the way). Matheny is not making a case for vegetarianism — he is making a case for Jackson Landers-style alien hunting. Perhaps that is why he concludes his paper with the line, “Nevertheless, in the end, the case for vegetarianism is still stronger [than Davis-style omnivorism].” Stronger perhaps, at least going by Davis’ numbers, but not strongest. 

Though Matheny was right about the calculations Davis relied upon, it would have been more honest for him to admit that if Davis had tossed those calculations and relied on speculation and logic, he would have had a real point: a vegan diet is not the diet of least possible harm. How could it be? Veganism is a rigid avoidance of animal products no matter what — it doesn’t allow for adaptation. In a scenario where it is clearly less harmful to eat animals than to eat plants, veganism demands that you nevertheless eat the plants. And it is easy to think of cases where eating animal products would cause less harm to animals than growing crops. Eating dumpstered meat, road kill, and our companion animals and our relatives when they die, for instance.

But we don’t have to violate our most cherished taboos to discover less harmful diets than veganism. If Davis had said that the ruminant animals would only be raised on land not suitable for plant farming, this hypothetical would decrease our reliance on crops and save more animals than a purely vegan diet. Raising insects at home likely kills fewer insects and mammals than getting the equivalent amount of calories from crops. Killing a blue whale provides tons (literally) of nutrition and energy. How many more animals would have to die in the growth, production and processing of crops to achieve the equivalent amount of nutrition and energy that a single blue whale provides? More than one, I reckon. Davis actually mentions the whale option at the end of his paper, but dismisses it for practical reasons. Yet even if PETA was joking with their "Eat the Whales" campaign, whales are edible, and people on a diet that includes whale eat fewer crops than people on an all-crop diet — and this decreases animal death and suffering.

And of course, as Matheny himself accidentally suggests, a lifestyle that includes hunting invasive species leads to less harm overall than a vegan diet.

Settling on veganism as the diet of least harm, then, demonstrates either an unshakable attachment to dogma, or a very limited imagination.

Part Two

(What, you didn’t realize you’d been reading Part One?)

A few years after Matheny offered his take, Andy Lamey wrote an even more interesting examination of Davis’ claims, titled “Food Fight! Davis versus Regan on the Ethics of Eating Beef” (PDF). Like Matheny, Lamey is overly concerned with Davis’ flawed numbers and misses the point that an animal-product-free diet is not the diet of least harm, no matter how badly Davis botched his argument. However, Lamey makes some intriguing points that complicate the issue.

Lamey brings humans into the harm equation, pointing out that more humans are hurt in animal food production than in plant food production. He suggests four areas in which manufacturing flesh is more hazardous than making plants: E. coli, farm accidents, slaughterhouse accidents and greenhouse gas emissions.

The second and third examples are easy enough to dispatch. Both consist of consenting adults agreeing to take certain jobs which entail greater risks than certain other jobs. True, it’s more dangerous to interact with heavy, squirming animals than it is to deal with small, docile plants (this would be the case even if Venus Fly Traps were grown as a human staple), and slaughterhouse jobs aren’t particularly safe or easy either. But if we are going to use the harm reduction argument to second-guess consensual arrangements between moral agents, there is no reason to stop at animal farming. Pre-marital sex, alcohol, driving motor vehicles, riding bicycles in cities, sanitation work, logging, roofing, coal mining, construction work, swimming pools, acrobatics and vegan cupcakes all need to go if the least harm principle requires that we take “safety first” literally. According to this 20 Most Dangerous Jobs list, ranching is the third most dangerous job, yes, but grain workers were number 10. And slaughterhouse workers are comparatively safe at 19.

Besides, just because a job is more dangerous does not in itself make it less desirable. Just as Matheny said we should look at the quality of life of field mice versus farm animals when we are calculating harms, we could look at the quality of career of livestock farmers versus vegetable farmers. I have never been either, but a section in Meat: A Benign Extravagance provides some insight into why some people might prefer to farm livestock, even with the greater risk:

In his diatribe against vegan agriculture, the late Mark Purdey (best known for identifying a link between BSE and organophosphates) described how he started in agriculture ‘under the great expanse of striated sky’ of the fenlands, working ‘thousands of bleak acres of vegetables’:

The farm workforce clearly felt estranged from what was once their indigenous native landscape. These labourers resented the fact that a mono-arable/vegetable system of farming had been installed two decades ago after a change in the land’s ownership. This had left many of their former workmates jobless whilst those remaining felt divorced from an aspect of management or relationship with their work …

I, too, rapidly found myself unable to form any working relationship with this treeless prairescape of sterile inorganic moondust. Disillusioned, I left my friends on the fens behind.

Upon arrival in the West Country, I quickly found my niche within the mixed, small farming landscape. Livestock pumped the economic heartbeat that enabled these smaller farms to survive. My first job was to muck out the yearlings’ house and I remember experiencing an innate sense of wholeness the first time I watched a shower of dung being flail-fountained out of the back of the muckspreader; fertile fodder. All of the farms and their staff seemed vibrant with the ethereal relationship flowing between the soil, the crops, the livestock and the landscape. …

A mixed farming system provides more natural landscape than pure arable farming, is less mechanized, and gives humans greater contact with nature. Why should this be so? The answer is that mixed farming, like nature, is complex, whereas pure arable farming (whether it be for animals in feedlots or for vegans in cities) removes an entire order of creation from the system. Moreover it is the order which is closest to humanity, which gallops and gives birth and suckles, which feels pain and anger and joy. Famers talk to their animals and give names to them, perhaps not to all of them but almost always to some of them. What vegetable farmer ever gave a name to a cabbage? (220 - 222)

It’s doubtful that one could write such a glowing tribute to describe the beauty of chopping at the screaming, half-conscious cows in an industrial-style slaughterhouse, but the standard slaughterhouse of today is not what the omnivore opposition to a purely vegan answer wants. For one thing, in a Davis-style omnivorism, or an omnivorism where animals are primarily raised on non-arable land, there would be far fewer animals to slaughter, and less of a need to rush the job through an assembly line.

Most slaughterhouse jobs are miserable, and hardly anybody would choose to work in one if they had connections, an MBA and a limitless trust fund. But smaller scale and more wholesome slaughtering jobs do exist, and that sector is growing as omnivores start thinking more about where their food comes from. Larry’s Custom Meats is a slaughterhouse that seems like a good model. (I defy anyone to watch this video and not beg for a hog scalder for their next birthday.)

And again, even if slaughtering were a universally terrible job and could never improve, the least harm argument becomes derailed and incredibly demanding if we start going after consensual agreements between moral agents.

Lamey’s E. coli argument is closer to the mark. With E.coli poisoning, the victims are often people who have not really consented to take that risk. Lamey cites a case where E. coli leaked into Walkerton, Ontario’s “improperly filtered water supply,” killing seven people with E. coli. But that’s an argument for properly filtering water and not having factory farms with massive pools of useless, poisonous manure, rather than an argument against eating meat. There is a similar problem with vegetables that are contaminated with E.coli tainted fertilizer, or even accidental runoff. Manure from grass-fed cows can have E.coli too, but on small scale farms, that manure is easier to manage. Anyway, if you use such severe cases to call for the disbanding of a particular industry, you need to be consistent and call for the end of any industry whose products sometimes have fatal unintended consequences.

Even if we did accept Lamey’s premise that most animal food production was unacceptably dangerous, there are still non-vegan options that lack the hazards that worry Lamey, and which reduce the amount of sentient animals killed more than a purely vegan system. Eating roadkill, growing elevation-raised bivalves, hunting invasive animals and raising insects for food are a few examples.

Lamey’s fourth human-centered objection to meat — it releases a lot of methane — is of course nothing more than the environmental argument for veganism. And so it fails in the usual way that argument normally does.

It is inconsistent to say that we must give up animal products because farming animals releases more greenhouse gases than plant farming, but then not also say that we must give up all activities that release more greenhouse gases than other possibilities. Why do we have to be vegan, but are still allowed to drive, fly, eat more than we must to survive, buy computers and televisions, eat rice, drink coffee and wine, and maintain a civilization? If veganism is not a subsistence lifestyle, it is disingenuous to single out the main thing it dislikes — animal use — and object to that and only that on subsistence lifestyle grounds.

Okay, new farming techniques have drastically reduced the methane released in rice production, but research is promising methane reductions in livestock too. Plus, it turns out that methane emissions from cattle may have been grossly overestimated.

Furthermore, if our goal is to reduce methane emissions as much as possible, this means that not raising animals doesn’t go far enough. We should also kill all the wild animals that we can, since they too release methane. Just as Matheny’s logic supported invasive species hunting over a vegan diet, Lamey’s appeal to methane reduction is a vindication of plans like the one in Australia to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by killing feral camels. So again we’re led to non-vegan solutions if we want to cause the least harm possible, going by the vegan definition of harm.

Why is Lamey talking about humans anyway, when the question was about animal harm? Lamey justifies this sudden switch from animal to human affairs by honing in on Davis’ premise that animals don’t care whether they are killed in a foreseeable accident or on purpose. Lamey sees this as an equivocation, a trick on Davis’ part of substituting utilitarian arguments in place of Regan’s deontological views:

As [Davis] writes in contrasting deliberately killed cows and accidentally killed mice, “the harm done to the animal is the same—dead is dead.” This notion is central to Davis’s criticism of Regan, as it is what justifies calculating accidental and deliberate harms as indistinguishable wrongs.

However, Davis makes a strange remark in justifying his equal ranking of the two forms of killing. It occurs in the following passage: “[Angus] Taylor says about the questions of intent, ‘A utilitarian is likely to see no moral difference between the two, since utilitarianism holds that it is consequences that count and not intentions’.” The reference to utilitarianism is strange because Regan’s argument is based on deontological rights theory, utilitarianism’s great modern rival. Davis does not cite any passage in which Regan himself calls into question the distinction between accidental and deliberate killing, and I am unaware of any instance where Regan does so. So Davis’s immanent critique, it turns out, silently depends on a premise that Davis himself introduces. The real question his article raises, then, is whether it is plausible to say there is a difference between accidental and deliberate harms.

I believe there is. In most legal systems, the difference between accidental and deliberate killing is the difference between manslaughter and murder. Applied to animals, surely we recognize a distinction between accidentally hitting an animal while driving on the highway and intentionally backing over it with the express aim of ending its life.

Indeed we do, but before I get to that, I want to point out that just because Regan calls himself a deontologist doesn’t mean that every argument that comes out of his mouth is automatically a deontological one. That’s like saying steak is vegetarian because Paul McCartney ate one. A utilitarian argument is still utilitarian even if a deontologist makes it, and that’s exactly what Regan is doing when he says that we are obligated to eat a vegetarian diet because in total it causes less harm to animals:

Whenever we find ourselves in a situation where all the options at hand will produce some harm to those who are innocent, we must choose that option that will result in the least total sum of harm.

Regan has dropped the rights talk here — otherwise, none of those foreseeable deaths of the innocent would be justifiable. Wanting to reduce harm is just the flip-side of increasing utility/happiness/pleasure, which is a utilitarian concept. I don’t see any problem with Davis taking a utilitarian approach to this question when Regan, the deontologist, started it. 

Lamey continues:

Although Regan does not rank animals on a par with people, his theory does urge us to extend many common moral notions we reserve for human beings, such as rights, to other creatures. By that standard, the most plausible version of Regan’s theory would be one that does make a distinction between accidental and deliberate deaths, in the case of both people and animals. If so, then the debate between Regan and Davis hinges on whether our everyday habit of distinguishing between deliberate and accidental harm makes sense. The more Davis seeks to preserve his challenge to Regan, the more he will have to attack this commonsense and, to my mind, reasonable distinction. Moreover, Davis will have to attack it in such a way that accidental deaths become just as important as deliberate ones in the case of animals, but not in the case of human beings. In other words, Davis must show that the accidental death of field mice is no different from deliberate killing and so important that it has ramifications for the agricultural sector as a whole; yet at the same time, he must maintain that the accidental deaths of human beings from E. coli and other aspects of beef production are not to be judged by such a high standard. Surely that would leave Davis, rather than Regan, with the less plausible argument.

Don’t worry, Davis. I got this one.

What Lamey and almost all vegans are forgetting is the purpose of considering intent in harmful or fatal human interactions.

To the dead, intent does not matter. Davis is right about that. This is as true for humans as it is for other animals — non-existence is the same for everyone. You can’t fret about how you died, because there is no you to fret. Anyway, if you could fret, would you really prefer to have died by some pointless freak accident? Who wouldn’t rather be assassinated than hit by a drunk driver or an air conditioning unit knocked out of a window?

Funerals are for the survivors, and so is intent.

And why does intent matter to the survivors? Two main reasons — vengeance and future safety. We want to punish those intentionally causing harm because they hurt us emotionally by attacking our loved ones, and this pisses us off. Also, perhaps more rationally, we want to stop them from doing it again, and we assume that someone who does something destructive on purpose is more likely to be a repeat offender.

We wouldn’t punish the person who accidentally bumps their air conditioning unit out of their window onto someone’s head the way we would punish someone who shot a diplomat. Emotionally, the accident doesn’t piss us off as much, especially if they are remorseful. It’s harder to be upset at someone who made a mistake and is truly sorry. And it’s unlikely that this person will ever do the same thing again. Someone who shoots a diplomat and is proud of this, however, might have their eyes on a senator.

Nevertheless, someone who is dangerously clumsy (especially if they are repeatedly so, even if the offenses are all accidents) is likely to find themselves constrained. The punishment will probably be less severe than for someone who intentionally murders — we have to send a message that stops those determined to cause harm and it’s difficult to deter the accident-prone — but they will be stopped somehow. George Russell Weller, who was 86 when he accidentally drove his car through Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade and killed 10 people, got five years felony probation and had to pay $107,100 in fines and restitution. The judge thought he deserved to go to prison, but decided against it, reasoning that he was too old and sick and would be a tax burden. To be honest, that Wikipedia entry on Weller makes me think he did it on purpose, but the point is that yes, we make a distinction between accidental and intentional killings of humans, but not the distinction that vegans want to make with animals, which is that intentional killings are a rights violation and foreseeable accidental killings are nothing at all.

So the question is how these two key aspects of the human concept of intent (revenge and preventing later harm) relate to other animals, if at all.

The revenge aspect of intent does not seem to translate to our interactions with animals. Animals cannot conceptualize our intent and figure out whether fellow species members were killed on purpose or as a side-effect of another activity. Even if they could determine that, “Hey, that hunter wants to kill us, but that farmer sitting on the big scary machine just wants to harvest that stuff we like to eat,” I have trouble believing that a real life Bambi holds a grudge and would feel any better (or anything at all) to see his mom’s killers put in prison or executed.

That leaves the other relevant aspect of intent: future safety.

Just because animals don’t understand the idea of intent doesn’t mean they are not affected by it. Whether they know what’s in our heads or not, if our intention is to wipe out every living non-human animal, that intent will hurt animals more than our intent to live in harmony with them.

"Applied to animals," Lamey wrote, "surely we recognize a distinction between accidentally hitting an animal while driving on the highway and intentionally backing over it with the express aim of ending its life."

The animal, being dead, does not care whether it was the victim of an accidental or intentional hit. Any animal relatives left behind don’t grasp the difference either. We care, though, because if it was on purpose, the gleeful animal destroyer just got a disturbingly high score on the psychopath test. That’s not necessarily so for someone who realizes that meat is an animal and keeps eating it anyway. (Or if it is, the estimate that psychopaths make up one percent of the population is way off.)

Either way, we’re fussing over our own future safety here, which is a different issue. How does our intent affect the future safety of the animals?

That is the only relevant question, because without a concept of intent or revenge, the only thing that matters to animals related to their interactions with us is whether they are benefitted or harmed by these interactions. Whether we say “oops!” and leave them to rot, or eat them and wear their skin is a non-issue to the dead animals and those left behind. Davis is right that it is consequences and not what’s in our minds that matters to them. Accidental death and being killed on purpose really are the same thing for beings without an ability to distinguish between the two. Murder and manslaughter are not the same for us only because we have concepts of intent, revenge and “ethics of care”. A gruesome intentional death of an animal might be a revealing psychopath test, but that is for our benefit, not for the benefit of the animals. Animals don’t know they are suffering for a good cause when they are being vivisected, and they don’t know they are dying for a good cause when we kill them to eat plants.

With humans, intent is an important measure of whether someone will be a repeat offender. Intent does not work this way when applied to animals and our food choices, because all our food choices hurt animals, and we have to keep eating and eating no matter what. When it comes to eating, we are born to be repeat offenders. Animals die as a consequence of vegan agriculture. Vegans know this, yet they are still eating seitan and nothing seems to stop them. Most of these wild animal deaths may be “foreseen accidents,” but vegans keep repeating the behavior that leads to them just as relentlessly as if they were killing these animals on purpose. This makes them something like the equivalent of an old man who accidentally runs over 10 people every single day on his way to work. Who cares that the old man doesn’t mean it? That guy needs to be put away! Or at the very least he should never be allowed to drive again. Why are vegans allowed to eat again?

If animals cannot look at our intent to determine whether they should feel vengeful, and good intent is not protecting them from future assaults, intent is absolutely useless for the animals.

Even if intent did matter to other animals, it makes no sense to say that the intention of a vegan is the best simply because vegans wish no animal had to die, ever. Who doesn’t wish that? The Davis-inspired omnivore or the invasive species hunter has the intent of causing the least harm possible, even if that requires eating animals. And in many instances, both hypothetical and actual, they would or do cause less harm than vegans. So why does that intention not count, but vegan intention does?

Davis’ point two main points — sullied as they were by poorly-chosen details and imaginary numbers — were simple: it is possible to harm fewer animals by eating some animal products, and to animals, less harm is better, no matter how humans make that possible.

And it seems to me that Davis was right.