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.