dietary choices (for my vegetarian friends)

I have a serious question. I'm looking for two things: 1) recommendations for books that discuss the morality/ethics of eating different foods (plant, animal, etc) and how those decisions are made, and 2) your own personal opinions/anecdotes about/for the dietary strategy you have adopted.

The reason I ask this is because I'm a bit perplexed about what factors go into this for various people. I've asked a lot of my various vegetarian/vegan friends why they don't eat meat, or some forms of meat, but not others, or animal products/byproducts but not meat, but I've never gotten a concise/straight answer, really. I realize I'm opening a big can of worms here (but not eating them).

Here's an abbreviated list of some of the various points/counterpoints and strategies I've encountered for dietary decisions, some of which I agree with and some that I don't (as noted):

  • Taxonomy-based exclusionary diets -- the most general definition of vegetarianism is "doesn't eat animals -- that is, the decision-making is based essentially on the evolutionary class/branch of creature. Although this taxonomy is the common-place discriminator, it's clearly just a convenient mechanism and not the actual justification for not eating them. For example, if it became clear that a plant suddenly developed some form of sentience, I don't think most vegetarians would eat it, right? More on that later. But why do animals get a pass and not plants? Why not fungus? And what about slime molds?
  • Sentience -- this is a complicated one, because our (humanity's) definition and understanding of sentience itself is pretty weak, so I have a hard time with this as a method for discriminating what you eat or not. If we define it as general awareness, then it fails a consistency test with vegetarianism, because there almost all plants are aware in some way or another. They grow, they reproduce, they re-orient towards light sources. They fight, they consume one another. They consume animals. They sense and repair injuries. One common test for advanced sentience is self-recognition, but obviously all sorts of animals (dogs, for example) fail that test miserably. So a more likely criteria for "sentience" in this context is something else, aka:
  • Pain/Suffering -- this is the other most common justification for vegetarianism -- that killing for food causes undue suffering/pain in the victims. Either in the actual act of being killed for food, or their suffering in being raised. I can jive with this, but I again have doubts/questions about how exactly this is a form of criteria that somehow applies to animals but not to plants or other creatures. There's an old Mitch Hedberg joke: "If fish could scream, the ocean would be loud as shit." I know it sounds a bit puerile or something you talk about on the couch after smoking a joint, but who's to say plants don't feel pain? Or, to be a little more scientific, what is our criteria for discrimination there? A central nervous system? Or does it have less to do with pain/suffering and more with:
  • Killing -- this is an odd one for me, but there is the criteria that you should never kill anything for food. A lot of vegetarians consider this consistent with their diet, because I guess they don't consider plants alive, or alive (or conscious) "enough". There are groups, however, that extend this to plants as well. Jains, for example, will not eat root vegetables, because it kills the plant.
  • Intelligence -- I've heard this as a basis for dietary decisions in general, vegetarianism aside. For example, I have a friend who won't eat octopus because of their recently observed intelligence. This gets into a similar interesting discriminatory strategy I've seen:
  • Evolutionary/genetic similarity -- i.e. very rarely will you hear anyone (in our western culture anyway) advocating eating primates at all. There seems to be a trend based loosely on the food chain, or maybe more superficial shared characteristics that makes it taboo to eat a creature similar to us. (And there are evolutionary theories that demonstrate why this is potentially a good strategy.)
  • Environmental concerns -- mostly citing the vast quantity of resources put into domesticated production of meat. For example, the number of people that could be fed with a vegetable crop versus the number of people that can be fed by a domesticated animal fed using that same quantity of crop. This is actually the only compelling argument I've heard, but only in a very limited circumstance. This concern really only pertains to mass-farmed domesticated animals (pigs/cows) and is really a question of our oversized agricultural system in general. It's a compelling argument to avoid eating mass-farmed red meat or pork (which I've considered), but it's not a moral argument for not eating meat. And further, if you consider that human beings evolved as omnivores, there's a compelling argument to make that everyone switching to a vegetarian diet could be disastrous for the environment. Just as many animals could be displaced/killed by expanding agriculture, if not more. We evolved in a complicated, sympathetic system of competing and cooperating species/organisms for millions and millions of years. Granted, that delicate balance and our dietary evolution has been jarringly disrupted and upended in the last few thousand years, but that's a side-effect of technology and scale, not of our dietary choices. That is to say: our evolutionary "nature" isn't really justification to keep eating meat necessarily, but there's no compelling argument that it's "natural" not to, either (or even relevant anymore)

Part of the reason I am curious about all this is because of the controversy that has emerged as a result of this story:

DES MOINES, Iowa – An animal rights group publicized a video Tuesday showing unwanted chicks being tossed alive into a grinder at an Iowa plant and accused egg hatcheries of being "perhaps the cruelest industry" in the world.

This story was posted on facebook by a few friends, and most of the resulting conversations involved vegetarianism/veganism as a choice that precludes and condemns this sort of thing. The controversy is interesting to me because all the above arguments factor in to how/why we should/shouldn't consider this cruel. As far as intelligence goes, chickens are pretty lacking -- they're basically a giant hardwired grain-pecking egg-laying machine. Neural network science probably isn't far off from reproducing this sort of behaviour. As far as the pain/suffering -- I hate to say it, but being tossed into a grinder is probably a pretty quick and painless death, compared to other methods (and arguably the pain experienced in a millisecond of crushing is comparable to a lifetime cooped up in close quarters being forcefed and stuffed with hormones until having your head chopped off and body drained for processing, I'm just sayin'). What is the outrage, here? Is it really that people are having an emotional response because a chick is "cute"? Is this how most people make decisions on their dietary intake? I can think of a million other standard practices in food processing that strike me as way worse than this.

So, anyways, that's what got me thinking, but in general I'm curious, as I said, how you guys make these decisions. I'm also looking for reading material on the topic, if you know of any.

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  • bob

    I don’t much like meat, and it’s expensive.

    Arguments of the form “we evolved to eat” are usually suspect, since usually the speaker eats almost no bugs, which is a good deal of what actual omnivores eat.

    The environmental concerns argument, which I favor, makes a lot more sense if you restate it as “we should eat a lot less meat, collectively, than we do here in the USA.”

  • Richard Johnson

    One motivation you didn’t mention: “Will changing my diet help get me a date with that hot vegetarian girl or guy?” That’s a subset of social expectations as a reason for dietary choices. Changing diet to match family and village is almost always required to fit in.

    (For a lighthearted view of the mating motivation:

    On a more serious note, one of my family friends growing up wasn’t going to eat anything he couldn’t grow or hunt and kill himself. It was more a self-sufficiency attempt than anything (he also built his own house), but I find it applies to the avoiding cruelty argument for vegetarianism and veganism as well.

    It can be summed up as, “If you’re not willing to harvest or butcher it yourself, you should probably not eat it.” That’s originally what turned me to vegetarianism with occasional fish. Since, the health benefits have kept me there most of the time, though the mercury content in any fish I can catch has me changing again.

    Michael Pollan gets into the whole hunting and killing experience in more detail in the third or fourth part of his book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. Read it. I also highly recommend his “In Defense of Food”, of which you should at least read the tag line ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly vegetables.’

    In the end, I’m less motivated by the cruelty arguments now (because I’m also not one to raise humans on a pedestal above other animals), though I will go for organic, cage-free & free range. My mostly vegetarian diet is now informed by my experience that vegetarians taste better, as well as by my will to live more lightly on the Earth.

  • Megan

    I am very new to being vegetarian (like, not even a month in), but maybe I can help a bit.

    I have wanted to stop eating meat for years because I consider myself an animal-rights supporter, and I felt hypocritical saying that and then turning around and supporting the industry that treats cows, chickens and pigs so horrifically. I also have a hard time believing that we are superior to animals, at least in a sense that makes it ok for us to raise them in shitty conditions and then slaughter them. I don’t think cows, chickens or pigs are cute, but they are close enough to humans in physicality and I feel awful looking at them, knowing they are going to die just because I think barbecue (or whatever other food) tastes really good.

    To which I have been asked: If I lived in a country where animals raised for food were treated better, would I go back to eating meat?

    And that answer would probably be “no,” or at least not very often. Another part of the reason I stopped eating meat was for health reasons. For years I have just not felt good and have had a lot of stomach issues. After researching a bit, I learned that cutting meat out of my diet might help. I am kind of surprised by the result–I have felt so much better in the ~3 weeks I have not eaten meat, and I have even been able to stop taking one of my acid-reduction medications.

    So… not very eloquent, but that’s the “short” version of why I stopped eating meat.

  • Amber Adams

    I’ll skip the religion stuff that informed my thoughts on this subject for the majority of my existence, and fast forward to the here and now. I’ve never been able to whole-heartedly commit to vegetarianism on a utilitarian moral basis for the same reasons you describe above, although emotionally I can sympathize with the desire to minimize the suffering of other species, particularly the cute and fuzzy creatures that inspire our nurturing responses. When it comes right down to it, though, I place the priority of my own survival above that of other creatures, sometimes even other humans.

    Insofar as I can avoid that conflict of interest, I do, and I think the excesses of modern agriculture actually hurt my survival more often than it helps. For instance, the industrialized meat industry provides an extremely poor product that is not a healthy addition to my diet. The waste and government subsidies involved help spread poverty and environmental degradation and therefore make my planet more insecure (I’m thinking of Frances Moore Lappe’s books on this subject), and if I have a moral duty to prevent anyone’s suffering I think it would be my fellow humans.

    I’ve yet to discover any seriously compelling evidence that vegan/vegetarian diets are generally more healthy, though. For every book supporting vegetarianism there are books like Paleo Diet, Evolution Diet, or the Blood Type Diet, that all claim otherwise. I’ve known a few vegans and vegetarians that received some health benefits from the diet, at least at first, and I’ve known some people who didn’t respond well to it at all. You could spend a lifetime analyzing these successes and failures and still not know what you should eat. I think the best idea is just to be aware of your body and notice how it reacts to different foods and develop your own diet accordingly. As in most things, living consciously gets good results. When I manage to do that (with meat or without it), I feel and look better. When I don’t do that (with meat or without it), I feel and look pretty awful.

  • Joshua Pruitt

    Okay, I’ll attempt to explain why I pursued a strict vegetarian diet for a long time, and why I no longer adhere to it as rigorously I once did.

    First, you hit upon two main classes of reasons for doing this: ethical, and health-oriented reasons. So I’ll try to tackle them in that order.

    1) Ethics

    a) The root of my personal ethic (a tangent, bear with me…)

    I decided some time ago that I wanted to live my life with as much conscientiousness and awareness, of how deeply and subtly my choices can affect others, and pervade my environment, as possible. That said, before you call me out as a hypocrite in light of some stupid, insensitive thing or other that I’ve done, let me say that for the most part, I am a complete and utterly abject failure at this. I live right now as little more than a dim-witted fool, a fuck-up, who makes dumb, sometimes cruel choices, driven by impulse, fear, delusion, and ignorance. So I am on no high horse. :) Nonetheless, my hindsight is usually pretty good (often painfully so, in fact) and so I still want to try to live in such a manner, as best I can, and do what I can to cultivate such an heightened level of awareness. In short: I want to be more than just your average monkey (see: Monkeysphere).

    To embody a heightened awareness of the effects of every single choice in life (and to do so without being paralyzed with fear), requires one to increase one’s capacity to understand, empathize, visualize, and mentally process the cascading effects of actions down many, many potentially mindnumbingly complex levels of possibility, and encompassing everyone and everything affected. Concern for everything and everyone. We call a person who is good at living this way a “spiritual” person, for lack of a better term (for many “spiritual” people I know of actually carry no belief on the literal existence of ‘spirits’ persay). A “spiritual” person, then, by definition, must possess a much greater moral capacity, clarity, and experience of life than the rest of us (think of the Ghandis, MLKs, Jesuses, Buddhas, etc. of the world—those who live just a little more deeply and richly than the rest of us… thinkers and seekers, like Spinoza, or Carl Sagan strike me this way as well…).

    So, on to dietary choices, then.

    One way to be conscientious is to live in a way that minimizes the suffering of others (and again, I’m no saint, but this is a goal of mine). Regardless of the outcome of debates about things like “do plants have feelings?,” and so on, we do know that animals, all animals, have some capacity for suffering, be it great or small (in fact, it is the common core experience of all animal life), and, we also know that humans knowingly cause suffering in animals that are used for food / material / entertainment, when said suffering can be avoided altogether.

    b) The question of choice, and necessity

    Now, to address the question “is it wrong to kill an animal for food?,” as somewhat of a utilitarian, I’d have to say it comes down to a question of necessity. Let’s compare the motivations of the following two people:

    i) An ancient migrant, who kills a buffalo with a spear, because it supplies a rich source of protein to feed himself and his family, as they traverse the harsh savannah, where edible fruits and tubers are few and far between.

    ii) A modern person, who purchases and eats a ham sandwich at a local fast food restaurant, not because he has to in order to survive, or because he lacks options, but because he simply likes it, ignorant of (or not caring about) the fact that the pigs who live in our industrial caged farming operations (CAFOs) that supply the modern food system live their entire lives in nasty, cruel, unsanitary conditions, and do indeed suffer greatly, go even go mad, because of it. Conditions not fit even for a pig.

    One scenario, it would seem to me, given the two situations, speaks well of human nature and motivation, whereas the other does not.

    The fact is, we modern humans do not need to inflict much or any suffering on animals in order to survive, and even live richly and healthfully. We have an agricultural system that can supply every single bit of our nutritional requirements entirely from vegetable matter. Where is the necessity? Eating meat these days is simply about pleasing our senses and cultural expectations, it seems to me. Not about survival.

    Is there a difference between a person who kills a rabbit in order to eat it and live, and a person who kills a rabbit because it simply gives him pleasure to do so? I believe there is. And is there a difference between a person who eats a chicken because he must, in order to live, and a person who eats it because, damn, it’s delicious, and costs less than $4.00, and it comes fries and a coke? Again, I think there is a difference.

    c) The hidden nature of our food supply, and our relative ignorance

    People, of course, don’t spend a lot of time thinking about things like “where does my food come from?,” because, the process that went into forming that nicely shrink-wrapped pork loin at the local grocery store is entirely not within our daily experience. If you go into any grocery store, you will see “farm-life” imagery everywhere—barns, green pastures, trees, etc. on much of the packaging and decor. So, most consumers carry around a mental picture: of that pig living on a traditional farm, wallowing around in the mud, eating grubs and corn-slop, and just doing what pigs like to do, until one morning when “farmer Brown” brings ol’ Porky ’round to the back of the barn, and bam: bacon! The reality nowadays is far, far different.

    I want to be as reality-aware, and reality-driven, as possible. That’s all.

    Many of our food animals live in conditions that are ghoulish, ghastly, and not becoming a civilization that places value on a quality we call “humanity.” I believe that how we treat animals, even dumb animals, is a reflection of who we are, and what we value.

    And I should point out: I personally think many of PETA’s strategies and positions are ridiculous, and sometimes harm the reputation of vegetarians and vegans. However, I do think one good thing they’ve done very well, is exposing the industrial food industry’s policies and practices concerning the handling and treatment of food animals. People should know these things.

    2) Health

    And now, on to questions of health.

    a) The quality of the meat itself

    I won’t go into details here—it would require an exploration of modern meat packing processes, but, I’ll just say: the quality of industrial source meat is poor, and filthy. It is not worthy of human consumption, really, in my opinion.

    And I also won’t get into the growth hormones, the rampant use of (and need for) powerful antibiotics in order to combat the wild E. Coli cultures growing in corn-fed cattle rumens, the dangers of potentially infectious prions, the practice of grinding up long-dead animals in with the healthy ones, and feces contamination of meat. I could write a book. Fortunately, others already have… :)

    (And, yes, I likely ate industrial-sourced beef today. I’ll touch upon that in a moment…)

    b) The question of human health

    I hear people argue about whether or not humans were “meant” to eat meat: the length of our colons, the existence of incisor teeth vs. molars, side-grinding jaws, etc., etc. I won’t get into “meant to,” because that’s largely a Creationist’s phrase. :) I’ll simply say that our hominid and human ancestors did in fact eat meat; indeed meat-eating did help shape and direct our species’ evolution as it carved out survival strategies in a harsh and unforgiving world… but they ate not nearly the quantity we do today. I don’t think one can override 10 million years+ of natural selection within 100 short years, in terms of what a species’ physical bodies can handle, and what keeps them in prime working condition (this principle is seen, BTW, in cattle who consume corn instead of grass, and require massive injections of antibiotics just to make it to 3 years of age, but I digress…). We eat too much meat, and our bodies suffer for it.

    (FWIW, we also consume way too many simple carbohydrates and starches, but anyway…)

    c) The question of my health

    When I followed a strict vegetarian diet, my digestive process was, to omit key details, FANTASTIC! Phenomenal! My bowels never felt better in all my life. That is a fact. And, my daily energy levels were indeed higher than they are today. This is not a very scientific assessment, just personal experience.

    Also, the quality of all the foods I ate were better, because I had to be more choosy about where my foods came from, and so I spent more money and effort on food processed at home from raw fruits and vegetables, and less on fast food / convenience food. I think half the reason many vegetarians are healthier than the general population is simply that they tend to eat better food—meat or no meat. Much to the surprise of meat-eaters, the variety of the foods in my diet was actually MUCH GREATER as a vegetarian than as a run-of-the-mill standard American diet eater, probably just because I had to get creative about what I was going to eat, and make conscious choices about how to fuel my body, rather than just shoveling something into my hole.

    d) Environmental health

    This ties back into awareness of one’s actions, and ethics, but, meat, as it is cultivated today is a very EXPENSIVE, inefficient way to supply calories to the human population. It relies heavily on fossil fuels, plant monoculture (namely: corn), and it is disruptive to land resources, requiring large parcels of property in order to yield small quantities of calories, generating tons of biological waste that runs into our water supply, and so on. It’s very ecologically disruptive, especially considering the size of our modern population’s caloric requirements. A cow has a plant-to-meat caloric ratio of 7:1 – meaning it takes seven calories of grain to produce one calorie of meat. That 6-calorie deficit could be used to feed hungry people, or reclaim land for better, more sustainable uses. And cattle have a 35:1 fuel-calorie ratio (35 calories of fossil fuel are burned to produce and transport 1 calorie of meat). This is not a sustainable system: it’s stupid. It only exists because we’re not thinking, as a people, about the effects of our actions short- and long-term, on our personal health, and on the health of our ecosystem, which is our sole means of support and sustenance.

    I could go on, but I’ll stop here.

    And finally:

    3) Why I fell off the strict vegetarian wagon

    Because my desire to live as somewhat of a “foodie,” being conscientious and aware of how the things I purchase and put into my body affect ME, how those choices affect the ANIMALS that were wrangled and slaughtered to produce those calories, and how those choices affect the ECOSYSTEM that sustains all human life, and even how those choices affect the HUMANITY and DIGNITY of the mostly immigrant workers who labor in very grotesque and dehumanizing conditions…

    Because that desire is struggling with another desire working in me: a desire for convenience and ease. It sounds very shallow, in light of what I have written, and it is, but there you have it: when I work a long day, and I’m hungry, I often don’t want to chop vegetables, clean fruit, cook something up, etc., when I can just run through Taco Bell, and get a chicken soft taco for $1.29, knowing full well what I know about industrial food. I don’t like to cook, and I don’t like to clean dishes. I’m a lazy man.

    Or when I want to eat out with my friends, and the restaurant’s only excuse for a “vegetable” is pork ’n beans, or green beans with pork fat. ::sigh:: “Okay, I’ll have the pot roast.”

    Long story short, I’m not a very “spiritual” person right now. I only want to be. Someday, maybe. Today, I live with the fact that I have an awareness, and an ethical sense, that I do not live up to very well at all! :(

    4) Books

    If I had to recommend one book, I would absolutely agree: “Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan. It’s not a book about vegetarianism, so don’t worry: it’s simply an exploration of our modern food system. It’s a great read, definitely!!! Also good: “Fast Food Nation.” I have both books, and I can let you borrow them, if you like. Also, I think they’re showing “Food Inc.” at the Belcourt. A little preachy, but not bad.

    I’ve found the books I’ve read about vegetarianism itself to be a little preachy / propaganda-ish, IMO. YMMV.


    Oh, and BTW, on the question of “how do you know plants don’t also feel pain?…” To ask this question is to ask someone to disprove a negative, which, as you know, cannot be done. We don’t know that plants don’t feel pain and suffer. We only know that animals indeed can and do; it’s demonstrable: the only debate is about degree. So, given that people must eat something, it seems to me that if one was striving to minimize one’s role in causing any suffering, plants would be the logical choice.

  • @rno

    I have been vegetarian during my whole life (born in 1955), and I have never noticed a convincing reason to eat meat or fish.

  • Laura Creekmore

    Josh’s wonderful answer contains much of what I would have told you. I will just add that my favorite book for food decisions is Marion Nestle’s What to Eat. Long, but an easy, eye-opening read.

  • Kate O’Neill

    Honestly, I dislike debating this topic. It feels too personal, like defending why I love someone who’s close to me. But since you asked me to comment — nay, since you “expect” me to comment :) — I’ll add my thoughts.

    Pain/Suffering — this is the other most common justification for vegetarianism — that killing for food causes undue suffering/pain in the victims. Either in the actual act of being killed for food, or their suffering in being raised. I can jive with this, but I again have doubts/questions about how exactly this is a form of criteria that somehow applies to animals but not to plants or other creatures. There’s an old Mitch Hedberg joke: “If fish could scream, the ocean would be loud as shit.” I know it sounds a bit puerile or something you talk about on the couch after smoking a joint, but who’s to say plants don’t feel pain?

    This rationalization always irks me, no matter where I encounter it. Just because you don’t know all there is to know about something shouldn’t keep you from acting in accordance with what it seems you do know. We do know that animals feel pain and that they suffer. Many of the veg*ns I know, when they say they’re concerned with pain and suffering, are talking less about the act of killing and more about the state of factory farming and the horrendous conditions for animals therein. If you know anything about the state of factory farming, and I suspect you do, it’s pretty hard to argue that there isn’t probably a high degree of pain and suffering for the animals trapped in those circumstances.

    Farm Sanctuary, perhaps my favorite charity ever, was started when a couple of animal activists were touring a farm, snuck around back, and found the “dead” pile, with a still-living sheep on top of it. She was too sick to survive the trip to the slaughterhouse, so they simply threw her on the dead pile. Makes sense, right? Pure economics.

    I can’t do everything possible to remove the effects of cruel and thoughtless decisions from my life, but I can do some things. Choosing not to eat meat or any animal products does not ensure that I will never support cruelty, but it does ensure that I will never support that cruelty, and even if that’s the best I can do for now, it’s something.

    (For what it’s worth, I make other decisions to lessen my support for what I perceive to be cruel and unjust situations, too. For example, I buy all my clothes second-hand so that I do not directly contribute to the demand for sweat-shop-produced clothing. Is it a perfect decision? I’m sure it’s not. But it allows me to feel that I am not furthering a process I don’t want to support.)

    Do plants feel pain? Who knows? If some researchers had evidence that they do, I’d be intrigued and it would almost certainly influence my diet (and my garden), but the question is largely irrelevant at this point in my ethical framework.

    You seem to be disappointed in what you consider logical fallacies from those who approach their diet with compassion. Surely that sentence makes my point obvious, but to be even more clear: most of the vegetarians and vegans I’ve met seem to have heart-first-then-head reasons for eating the way they do. Which brings me right back to my dislike for the debate. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be debated — nothing gets that pass — but in a case where people believe there’s pain and suffering, and they’re reacting with compassion, you can’t expect to engage them only with detached logic and be speaking the same language.

  • Kate O’Neill

    As far as reading material goes, I found John Robbins’ “Diet for a New America” to be the catalyst for my decision-making about vegetarianism 13 or 14 years ago. There are certainly criticisms with it, but it’s one of the classics in the category and deserves at least a cursory read if you’re interested. I have a copy I’d be happy to lend.

    “Animal Liberation” by Peter Singer is another in the classics category, but probably feels more radical if you’re not already a committed supporter of animal rights.

    “Mad Cowboy” by Howard Lyman is an interesting read because he’s an ex-rancher turned vegan activist.

    And as far as viewing material goes, Karsten said “Earthlings” was the movie that moved him from mostly vegan to fully vegan. (I haven’t seen it; I’m already vegan, have seen a lot of atrocious footage already, and don’t need the added anxiety for now.) Again, not sure how it would resonate if you’re not already close, but it might make interesting viewing.

  • Amber Adams

    Since you asked for books, I asked my friend Jill the Vegan Nomadic Environmental Warrior-Photographer for some recommendations. She highly recommends Kateo’s suggestions (particularly The Food Revolution, also by John Robbins, and Animal Liberation by Singer), as well as Introduction to Animal Rights by Gary Francione and Becoming Vegan by Vesanto Melina and Brenda Davis.

  • Megan

    Joshua I don’t know who you are but you just explained myself better that I could.

    And I’m going to start reading some of the books you all have suggested here. I know why I have stopped eating meat personally, but I can imagine being better-read on the subject will help when my choice gets attacked and/or ridiculed, as it has been several times already.

  • Chris Wage

    This rationalization always irks me, no matter where I encounter it. Just because you don’t know all there is to know about something shouldn’t keep you from acting in accordance with what it seems you do know. We do know that animals feel pain and that they suffer. Many of the veg*ns I know, when they say they’re concerned with pain and suffering, are talking less about the act of killing and more about the state of factory farming and the horrendous conditions for animals therein. If you know anything about the state of factory farming, and I suspect you do, it’s pretty hard to argue that there isn’t probably a high degree of pain and suffering for the animals trapped in those circumstances.

    This is a good point, and there’s even a logical fallacy in there I’ve commited, but I can’t remember the name of it. I should make it clear, though, that I’m not necessarily trying to isolate logical “gotchas” so I can disprove your choice, or something — rather, I am just trying to isolate/identify a rational framework for it..

    The suffering versus killing distinction is an important one, I think — Suffering itself is pretty easy to get behind wanting to avoid, although even there it can complicated from a rational perspective as far as the justification. Obviously causing suffering in other humans is something we avoid as a natural tendency.. “Do unto others” isn’t just a biblical golden rule — it’s the basis for our species’ cooperative evolutionary success. Avoiding causing suffering in other creatures, though, gets a little more difficult to rationalize.. Maybe there’s some evolutionary advantage to not causing mass amounts of suffering in other creatures — or maybe it’s just a byproduct of our tendency to anthropomorphize our reciprocity in other creatures.. Even the subjectivity of what qualifies as “suffering” gets difficult. Examples abound of animal rights activists taking the percieved mistreatment of animals somewhat too far. Chickens crammed in a coop side to side without breathing room is bad. What about slightly bigger? Free roaming is ideal (presumably) because it’s closest to their natural state, but what if we change the rules of the game and engineer a species that is actually designed for and enjoys extremely close quarters and living in filth? (more on this later)

    Killing, though, gets even harder. Does every animal have a right to life? In general, or just a certain duration of life? Is there a moral difference between killing an old animal versus a young animal? Is it immoral to be the actor in the ending of a life at all? Certainly, many people and religions adopt that stance.. But if so, why does it not extend to plants, bacteria, etc? (Some people and religions adopt this stance as well, though far fewer, obviously). Once you head down this path, it gets to be a twisty maze of conflicting morality. People need to eat — so is it better to eat something by killing it instantly and painlessly or by allowing to live but feeding constantly off of it. (We might consider it preferrable to allow a plant to live, but only eating its cuttings — but the plant would probably disagree). That is, human beings evolved and live in an ecosystem. We have to consume something.

    There’s another interesting facet of this debate: consider domestication — the application of human technology purposed towards creating animals specifically to serve a human need. Pets, for example, to provide comfort/companionship. Does the same morality that allows this to exist also allow it to purpose an animal specifically for food (as we’ve somewhat done via the domestication of certain animals purely for consumption of food)? What if they’re not just bred haphazardly for it but specifically genetically engineered for it? (this is probably not as far off as we think). Does the solution to our moral diet quandary exist in a future test-tube of a prototype self-reproducing brainless protein sludge? Is that still moral? (that we’ve basically created a form of life that exists for nothing but providing food for us)

    I dunno, I just think it’s interesting food for thought (ha ha). There’s nothing wrong with an emotional decision — after all, emotions exist for a reason. But for me, it’s necessary but not sufficient ..

    Suffering, it seems, is the keystone of a vegetarian choice that is difficult to argue with — so my question is: if a form of animal consumption exists that is proven within reasonable bounds to not cause any form of suffering — either in life, or in death — is that an option within the moral framework for your vegetarianism? My friend rev sent me this link to Temple Gardin’s website, which has some interesting stuff on it regarding the “humane” treatment and slaughter of livestock:

    If as a vegetarian, someone would say “no” to my aforementioned question I’d like to hear elaboration on why.. (again, not as a “gotcha” — just because I am curious)

  • Joshua Pruitt
  • nat

    Most of my answer to your question is covered by Josh and Kate (Josh’s discussion on ethics and Kate’s point that it’s like defending how and why you love). There’s just one thing I want to add.

    Having spent many years making as many choices described by a vegan lifestyle as I could (I consider it impossible to do 100% with things like pig fat in bus tires, etc) my motivation has generally been to attempt to minimize the suffering I cause in trying to support my own survival.

    I have also found some of these questions (esp the ones about plants feeling pain) severely aggravating. I generally find that there are two kinds of people out there: the ones who actually care and reflect that care in their choices, and the ones who just sit around and talk about it, either attempting to justify not making some maybe hard choices or just playing a mental masturbation game with a topic that’s a little too dear to me to tolerate.

    But at this very moment I’m a guest on your blog and you’re asking, so I’m attempting to try and drum up a little more respect and add that thing I said I was going to add.

    On the “what about pain plants might be feeling?” issue.

    Assuming they do-

    And assuming that none of us is going to commit suicide to really ace the whole compassion thing-

    If you’re eating animals, you’re eating plants. The animals had to eat plants to live and grow. Maybe not the same ones you’d be eating, but since we’re talking about potential pain in plants, I’m going to figure we mean all plants. Anyway, my understanding is that most of the animals we eat have to consume a great deal more in the way of plant matter than we would require to survive if we just ate the plants directly. So if you’re eating animals, you’re actually eating more in the way of plant matter than your veg*n counterpart. So the veg*n choices still minimize suffering.

    Wanting to cover other bases that keep cropping into my head: If you’re eating animals that eat other animals (ew!) rather than plants, same argument, just iterate until you get down to a plant eater.

    Ok. like I said, this type of discussion gets me too worked up for my own good (ha. makes me think of a new policy and smartass way to describe it, maybe from here on out: “I make vegan choices for reasons of compassion, and I don’t talk to non-veg*ns about it for my health(!)) anyway, so I’ll probably avoid this joint until this piece is well into the archives. A dialogue would be too much.

  • Kel.


    Regarding the questions- “Why some people (they) dont eat meat?”
    Then my answer is “Why they need to eat meat?

    In fact, people eating meat cos of their old mindset. They eat meat cos they think so, without really doing a serious research on it. They think that eating meat will give them strength, but in fact, they are wrong.

    Strength or no Strength, our mentality plays an important role.

    Below is my little facts:
    Meat consist of uric acid and urine elements. It means that if our body consume meat, then our body inside will be acidic.

    Apart from these, just imagine that our human body is a CAR. Our inner organs is the engine. Our blood is the Car’s oil (ie. petrol, diesel, etc).

    If our Car petrol is dirty, then how? Will damaged our engine (which is equivalent to our heart).

    Last but not least, being a full-time vegetarian, i do feel the differences. However, being a vegetarian, doesnt mean i will not die. It’s just that the risk of getting the chronic diseases will be minimise..

    General Guides: Eat all vegetarian foods (from natural sources).

    Take care, everyone.

  • stega

    easy one to answer: I just don’t like most meat. I don’t like the texture/taste. Even when I was a little kid I wouldn’t eat most things my mother cooked.

  • Nia Stephens

    I’m part of the minimizing suffering crowd. While I concede that science may someday prove that plants and fungi feel pain, no evidence I’ve seen currently supports it. And while I’m a bit iffy on how much of a neural network is necessary to feel pain (insects and arachnids, for instance–I’m not sure they feel pain as I define it, but I don’t want to eat them anyway, so it’s a non-issue for me), I’d rather err on the side of compassion. In my limited experiences with chickens, I haven’t been much impressed with their intelligence, but there are humans who fall into the same category. I wouldn’t eat George W., even though I think he’s an idiot, because I do think that he would suffer as I killed him (he definitely would if I executed him according to my baser inclinations.)

    Even if I could send George W. down the chute in a very, very quick grinder, a la those innocent chicks, I would still refrain. My current acid test for suffering is simple: Would I choose that experience for myself? For me, this means I would consider any form of death suffering, because it would deprive me of all the pleasures of existence. And for darned sure it would exclude being tossed in a meat grinder. True, the pain in question would be pretty darned quick. But I don’t think George W. or the chicks deserve a single millisecond of pain to give me the pleasure of a chicken mcnugget or Texas-raised steak, or to have their simple-minded pleasures cut off for my snack. That, for me, is the real question about meat: how much suffering am I willing to impart for the pleasure of eating?

    For me, the answer is as little as possible. Calculating suffering is the hard part. I have to worry about the forests cleared to grow soybeans and the baby bunnies eradicated to grow wheat for my 100% whole grain bread. I’m none too confident that I have arrived at the perfect balance, but I can live with my lacto-ovo compromise. For sure, I cannot imagine biting into a hunk of flesh (Texan, chicken or otherwise) for the rest of my life. Not even lab-grown, brainless protein sludge. Technically, if it had no nerves, I think that probably is morally acceptable. But in a world filled with perfectly delicious fruits, vegetables and cakes, why would you want to eat lab-grown protein sludge, or freaky animals bread to enjoy suffering and death? I would definitely rather have a slice of cake.

    Additionally, for those who consider their own pleasure as more important than another creature’s suffering, vegetarianism does seem to increase the length of life and the quality thereof. Lacto-ovos have a much lower rate of heart disease, diabetes, and almost all forms of cancer than their meat-eating friends. While it is entirely possible to enjoy a thoroughly unhealthy vegetarian diet (cookies, cupcakes and french fries are the basis of certain vegetarian diets), most vegetarians eat more vegetables than meat eaters, and that seems to have significant protective effects. I want to live forever, so vegetarianism works for me.

  • Erik Ostrom

    The conversation that started my motion toward vegetarianism was about resource consumption. My friend Gabe felt that the sheer amount of land and energy it takes to support the American diet was unsustainable. That made sense to me, and it didn’t require me to imagine I knew what an animal’s inner life was like. I’d been reading Wittgenstein. It was college.

    I’ll spare you the journey from then to now, but these days it just doesn’t occur to me to eat meat. I don’t particularly object on principle to people doing it. I just think it’s kind of weird. So much for rational argument.

  • lilakay

    I think that I have been impressed with Robert Pirsig’s explanation of the morality of vegetarianism. Let me first say that I echo, support, and wholeheartedly agree with the opinion expressed by Kate O’Neill and other fellow veggies.

    Pirsig has posited that it is scientifically immoral for anyone to eat the flesh of animals because animals are at a higher level of evolution than are grains, fruits and vegetables. So, it is to say that a doctor would be acting immorally to allow a patient to die for the life of bacteria. And it would be immoral for a person to die of starvation just so that a cow could survive. It is the person who is higher evolved in both of those situations.

    When people need to survive, cannibalism of the dead, which is unthinkable in ordinary circumstance, suddenly doesn’t seem as unpardonable a transgression as previously thought, as in the movie titled “Alive” (1993) Cannibalism for survival is no longer viewed as inherently immoral in that light. –Just some food for thought.

    I would rather have those animals live than have ordered their deaths in some manner so I could consume them. It is a barbaric idea, even if you removed the mass production of animal flesh in horrific farms. But when you add the treatment of farm raised animals into the decision to choose flesh for dinner tonight, there is really nothing about the meal that would appeal to me.

    If your question is why I chose to be veggie, I think that I could recount to you the moment that I decided. It was upon hearing the description of a friend picking out a live chicken for that night’s meal, watch the head get severed and then seeing the thing flail in a funnel. I turned off right then. And I thought of all the times that must happen for me without me witnessing it. When I considered the beneficial environmental aspects, the health issues, and all the other good reasons to be veggie, it only solidified the decision I made earlier. It supported my decision, but wasn’t the basis of it. My basis was purely an emotional response, individual, personal. I decided that I would only eat that which I could with clean conscious kill myself, and it turns out that I can’t kill much. But plants I have no problem killing.

    So, we can all agree with or without reaching the sentience issue or pain/suffering argument that plants are lessor evolved than mammals or birds or fish. I don’t mean to preach, but do what you know in your heart to be right.

    Yay fellow veggies!!

  • Chris

    Pirsig has posited that it is scientifically immoral for anyone to eat the flesh of animals because animals are at a higher level of evolution than are grains, fruits and vegetables. So, it is to say that a doctor would be acting immorally to allow a patient to die for the life of bacteria. And it would be immoral for a person to die of starvation just so that a cow could survive. It is the person who is higher evolved in both of those situations

    Any ethical framework predicated on the evolutionary superiority of human beings is a load of crap. Evolution is not a straight line or a race to a predefined finish line.. And even if it were, by that logic, we should only be eating the earliest step in that lineage. Who wants another hearty cup of self-replicating primordial chemical ooze? Mmmmm.

  • bob

    Why is the phrase ‘I don’t mean to preach’ always followed by preaching?

  • lilakay

    My “preaching” entails my affirmation for you to do what you want with your dietary or other habits. Hardly a sermon, but thanks! See you next Sunday.

  • lilakay

    Yes, choosing the lessor evolved foods seems like a good plan, barring none. Let’s look at what the possible menu choices are. Beef, chicken, fish, or a combination of veggies. I’ll say that when I had to travel to Texas on business and I needed to eat, I couldn’t find anywhere to eat that had a vegetarian dish. So, I had the fish out of necessity. I needed food. I was going to pass out after a particularly stressful day. I thought I’d rather kill the fish than a cow. And I quiet possibly could have passed out while driving to the restaurant or back without food. It was in line with my morals. And in that situation, I could envision justifying the death of the fish for my sustenance. So, I ate it. I still wouldn’t butcher a cow unless there was no fish and no chicken.

    When I can get a cup of primordial ooze to meet all my nutritional needs, I will belly up to that bar.