I’ve been pondering the ethics of meat, which inevitably involves taking life (unless we’re talking lab-slime, which we’re not).
If you have read my previous blog posts, you’ll know that I think the argument for/against any diet rests on three “legs”…
- What’s good for my health?
- What’s good for the environment?
- What’s good for animals?
Note, I’ve focused the first question on the individual, because I realise that various diets suit each of us differently. Some people genuinely seem to thrive on plants alone (not many, long-term, from what I can see), whereas others are intolerant to plants’ defence mechanisms, most often grains and beans. (Yes, it seems plants don’t want to be eaten either.) It’s the responsibility of each person to figure out what diet works for YOUR body.
In this post, I want to focus on the third issue only: What’s good for animals? Can it be “good” to take another animal’s life just so we can eat? I’ll make the case for why I think it’s perfectly okay.
Let’s go right out on a limb and say that, for the purposes of this exercise, the other two factors don’t count: health and environment are not issues. If it ALL came down to just the ethical question, what do we say?
The vegan might say, “It’s never ethical to take another life,” because that’s their religious viewpoint. Okay, I respect that, although it’s extremely debatable. Let’s leave aside arguments about euthanasia of pets (because that’s mercy).
There remains the problem that modern industrial agriculture probably takes more lives of sentient animals than “good”, outdoor-reared meat. But let’s take it right down and say, what if there was no industrial agriculture, and all farming was done on a small scale without machines, pesticides, artificial fertilisers, etc.? What if our options were mixed-organic and veganic farming only? What’s more, if we could all survive on veganically-farmed produce… even then, is there still a case to kill to eat?
The Myth of Exploitation
Vegans tell me that to own or to use an animal, for any reason, is exploitation. I get the rhetoric, but I disagree. Sure — it can be exploitative — if you see an animal as nothing more than a stock unit, as raw materials. And sure, there are plenty of businesses out there that treat them in just that way, but I’m sick of seeing the actions of the lowest versions of animal “producers” being used as representative of all.
Here’s a counter-argument. Farm animals, when properly looked after, are in symbiotic relationship with human beings, not a one-way exploitative relationship. (In Nature, symbiosis is where different species coexist in a special relationship that benefits both.)
When any of us keeps a pet, they provide the pet with shelter, protection, veterinary care, a regular supply of food, companionship, and (in most cases) a quick and painless death. The pet “owner” gets a good deal and the pet gets a good deal.
I’d argue that the relationship between a good farmer and their livestock is no different. Farmers provide their animals with shelter, protection, veterinary care, a regular supply of food, companionship, and (in most cases) a quick and painless death.
Despite the rhetoric that vegans repeat to inculcate themselves and each other, farmers can love the animals that they rear and send to slaughter. I don’t care if you can’t understand it. I don’t care if it doesn’t fit into your worldview. It’s a fact, and if your worldview can’t handle that fact, it’s your worldview that’s at fault, not reality.
The Myth of Saving a Life
“There’s no way of ethically killing a sentient being that doesn’t want to die.”
This is repeated over and over. It’s part of the vegan creed. While repetition can make a statement seem more true to the person doing the repeating, it doesn’t make it any more True.
No animal wants to die. It’s very likely that no plant wants to die either.
(It’s also likely that plants are also sentient, so by eating annual plants we’re falling into unethical as defined above. That’s why there’s a more extreme version of vegetarianism: fruitarianism, where followers eat only the fruits, nuts, and seeds of perennial plants, not the whole plant.)
None of us wants to die. Of course we don’t. It’s in our DNA: to survive so we can procreate and continue our selfish genes.
Does not wanting to die make death bad? No, it makes death something we all try to avoid, which of course is ultimately futile, because every single living thing dies.
Not eating a cow/pig/fish does not mean there’s one more cow/pig/fish in the world. For every cow/pig/fish that is born, there is always exactly one death. That is the law of (capital-L) Life. There is no life without death. So if we love animals, if we want them to live, we must accept the fact of death.
If we stop breeding these animals we love — as many vegans argue is the right approach — if we let their bloodlines extinguish, then we are consigning them to (capital-D) Death. This is the great Death, the total end and absence of life. Extinction. Honestly, the thought of that scares me more than the thought of killing a pig.
So slaughter doesn’t increase death any more than not slaughtering increases life. Slaughter is simply managed death: death at a time and place that has been preordained. But it’s still exactly one death.
I care about slaughter. I care that it’s done right, minimising fear and distress and pain, and I care more about the quality of life that each animal I eat has enjoyed before their “one bad day”.
And let’s be really clear… even when an animal’s one bad day is done badly, it’s still likely preferable to the death that it would expect to suffer in the wild. Very few herd animals die of old age. What kills them? Predation (being chased, choked and torn apart), illness (which might be long and agonising), or injury (which might be long and agonising).
Every single animal dies. If doing that in a slaughterhouse or on a farm constitutes cruelty, what does that say about Nature, which is far crueller?
The Myth of Death
What’s behind the idea that by not killing, we’re somehow enhancing life? Sure, we could take away the animals, which means fewer deaths, but it also means fewer lives lived. What do vegans think they’re actually achieving in that animal-free vision?
I keep coming back to one simple answer: avoidance of personal guilt.
Vegans like to believe that by not eating animals or using animal products, they’re living lives that are guilt-free, or at least more guilt-free than the rest of us. (We’re not going to go into the death and habitat destruction caused by plant agriculture, because we’re pretending that we all have the option of getting all the food we need from our local veganic farm.)
The idea of guilt rests on the idea that killing is a bad thing per se. And that rests on the idea that death is a bad thing per se. But if death is the flip side of life, if you cannot have one without the other, what does that say about life?
Is the fear of being responsible for death so great that we would prefer to circumvent life, so we don’t have to face it?
Yes, we all fear death. Of course, that’s natural, it’s the most natural thing in the world. But that doesn’t make death evil, only scary.
Every living thing will die. And everything that dies will be reabsorbed into Nature’s wonderful, rich, cyclical system of life, death, decomposition, reconstitution.
Pippin: I didn’t think it would end this way.
Gandalf: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take.
It seems to me that it is this paralysing phobia about death that must lie beneath the motivation to step off the merry-go-round.
At this point, I choose to embrace the lessons that Life is offering me. I acknowledge, respect, honour, and love the cycle of life and death. I honour and love the animals whose lives have been passed on to me. I honour and respect the worms and microbes that will one day carry my borrowed nutrients back into the wondrous cycle. I acknowledge Death for what it is: the mystical spouse of Life, terrifying, and also essential to who we are.
So, vegans, if the prospect of joining in with that mystical dance terrifies you, fine. I get it. I know it’s scary. Knock yourself out. It doesn’t change a damn thing. But don’t try to tell me that, because I do participate, that I lack empathy or compassion.
A thought experiment
Do you believe that a lion’s life is worth more, or less, than a gazelle’s? The lion is a carnivore that eats gazelles and other herbivore prey animals.
When the lion eats the gazelle, is the lion “wrong” for doing so? Would it be “better” if the lion could eat carrion, or termites, or squashes? If you believe so, or even if you think it would be preferable for a lion to have a non-meat alternative, then you have a serious problem with Nature. You’re making Nature wrong.
A vegan activist will typically respond with, “Ah yes, but the lion is an obligate carnivore. It has to eat meat to survive. It has no choice.” But that argument avoids the question. Either killing to eat is wrong in and of itself, or it isn’t.
If it’s natural and fine and not “wrong” for the lion to kill the gazelle, then you agree it is not wrong to kill to eat per se.
By extension, then, whether I eat gazelle or cabbage is morally equivalent.
To close, here's a short (under 5-minute) commentary by farmer Joel Salatin, whom I interviewed earlier in 2018:
Hi, I have tried all kinds of diets for health and ethical reasons, including vegan until I realized it was unhealthy. Currently trying carnivore. I appreciate your attempt to address this issue. Wondering though, couldn’t a person extrapolate your argument to justify human murder, or killing animals for sport?
Thanks for your comment Christy. It’s great that many of us are motivated by the health and ethical impacts of what we eat. I’d be interested to hear more about your experience on a plant-only diet.
As for extrapolating the argument to apply to killing other human beings, obviously people kill people all the time, often with the lamest justifications, whether war or murder or death penalty or careless driving, etc..
I think part of my argument stands, in the sense that death and killing are not necessarily bad. There have even been lots of cannibalistic indigenous societies (but no vegan ones). However, we as a society have agreed together on a set of universal human rights. We have agreed among ourselves when it’s permissible to take another human’s life and when it isn’t. So the primary reason we don’t farm other humans for meat is that we have agreed that it is wrong to do so. It is not many generations ago that African slaves were treated as non-humans in North America, so did not qualify for society’s protection.
The vegan position, as I understand it, is that those arbitrary human rights we have decided upon as a culture should also apply to other large animals: cattle, hogs, chickens, sheep, etc. It is as though through evolution we arrived at a place where we agreed not to go around murdering each other, which I get. Perhaps vegans think that our next step of evolution is to agree that the same could apply to animals as well. And perhaps it could, one day. But I can’t see that day ever coming around, because I don’t think we’ll ever agree that giving up meat and animal products is better for the planet, for our health, and for animals’ wellbeing.
I think part of it also is that most species (not all) naturally don’t kill their own kind, except in rare circumstances. It simply wouldn’t be in the best interest of the continuation of the species. So we as humans , short of certain mental health issues, have a natural instinct to not kill other humans, also. That’s why it’s so traumatizing for soldiers who experience it. Old WWII veterans almost never talk about it, even with their closest friends or family. Even though we have collectively agreed that killing humans is ok in those circumstances, we’re not ok with it.
“At this point, I choose to embrace the lessons that Life is offering me. I acknowledge, respect, honour, and love the cycle of life and death. I honour and love the animals whose lives have been passed on to me. I honour and respect the worms and microbes that will one day carry my borrowed nutrients back into the wondrous cycle. I acknowledge Death for what it is: the mystical spouse of Life, terrifying, and also essential to who we are.”
How ironic that you trash veganism for being “religious”.
Exercise in logic: Spot the wrong one out!
– “I love my cat and I also want her to die to satisfy my tastebuds, even though I could eat a million other things.”
– “I love my sister and also it would be good to kill her so I could eat her legs.”
– “I love animals and I also want to slit their throats for my taste pleasure.”
– “I care about animals so I avoid harming them by being vegan.”
My words are not religious, perhaps mystical if you like. Yes, I do use the word “religious” about the vegan movement, because it’s inherently bigoted. “Our position is correct, everyone who doesn’t agree with us is wrong.”
I do love animals and I can reconcile that with killing them for their meat. It’s not illogical to me.
There area reasons I don’t eat cats or humans. Partly it’s because both species are natural predators, not prey animals, and mainly it’s because we have agreed as a society that killing other humans is wrong (except in the case of war, or euthanasia). I wouldn’t eat my own cat, because I have decided it’s a pet. In an emergency situation, I might consider cat the same as pigeon or rabbit.
People who care about animals and therefor avoid harming them by not using their corpses or secretions for food, fashion, entertainment etc. are not acting this way because of any supernatural beliefs, but because of a sense for justice and morals. It’s nothing to do with religion, as in fact most vegans are atheists, like myself, nor is it bigoted.
If you loved animals, in the sense of having affection for them, you’d avoid harming them. It’s the very simple meaning of very simple words. Killing someone to selfishly satisfy completely trivial culinary preferences is not compatible with love. There is no difference between your cat and the animals you choose to exploit and kill. Humans lack a lot of features commonly considered to be crucial for “natural predators”. But it’s entirely irrelevant anyway since science and experience tell us that it’s perfectly possible to live healthy as a vegan. In an emergency situation, most people even resort to cannibalism. But you are not in that situation.
Funny, from what I can see, most vegans either quit or suffer serious health conditions. Actually, that’s stating the obvious, because most people who go vegan quit. I don’t know of any long-term study though.
When I talk about religion, I’m not referring to any spiritual belief system, but rather any belief system that adherents maintain is THE TRUTH in the face of alternative evidence. Bigotry is simply maintaining that your views are the right views, and making people who don’t hold your views wrong.
If you *really* care about animals, you’ll grow your own food using no-dig, no-till methods, because that’s the way to minimise harm. It’s very likely that my diet results in fewer deaths of sentient animals than yours, yet you continue to accuse me of not caring.
It’s clear that you cannot or will not accept any other point of view than your own, so we shall have to agree to differ.
I’ve been vegan for seven years now and I know a lot of healthy people who have been vegan for 10+ years. The animals you kill and eat are fed with plants, so every argument made against the farming of plants is multiplied when someone is a non-vegan. I gladly accept other points of view when talking about politics, music, art, literature etc. But I won’t accept deliberate violence towards animals and I will continue to advocate for non-violence and veganism. Until every cage is empty.
I’m pleased you’re healthy. The important thing is to listen to what your individual physiology needs. You may be interested to check out the Swiss “2018 Vegan diets: review of nutritional benefits and risks”.
But you’re wrong on this point, my friend: “every argument made against the farming of plants is multiplied when someone is a non-vegan”.
When animals graze on perennial grasses/forbs/trees, that builds and enriches soil, soil life, water and carbon sequestration, etc. and is not in any way subject to the very serious problems that industrial arable causes.
That’s the whole point of ethical omnivorism: that there’s a huge difference between “bad” and “good” meat. Feeding industrially-farmed grains to ruminants in CAFOs is awful, but that’s a million miles away from pasture-fed meat, on ethics and health and environment.
First of all: There is no ethical omnivorism.
Your example only applies to ruminants, but most “farmed animals” are chickens and pigs, who both cannot thrive on grass.
You claimed: “It’s very likely that my diet results in fewer deaths of sentient animals than yours”
Which could only be true if you only killed cows and made sure they didn’t swallow or step on any insects etc. and did not eat any plants yourself. So we both know this is not true.
There is no ethical omnivorism… in YOUR worldview. That’s a very bigoted statement.
Chickens and pigs can do very well on grassland, particularly rich perennial pasture that offers a rich variety of forbs, seeds, roots, and ideally trees. They’re both types of woodland animal, really.
Regarding the death toll of various diets, I wouldn’t state it if I knew it not to be true. Meat from grazed animals encourages biodiversity and very few deaths, whereas modern mechanised annual arable agriculture literally destroys ecosystems. And I’m not claiming the death toll on my plate is totally minimal, I know and accept that most of the food we eat comes with a mortality price tag. However, the food that I grow myself in my garden and greenhouse is about as death-free as you can get. We can agree to disagree, but I’m confident in that statement.
If you will some day consider your victims, you’ll see why this statement is not bigoted at all. Veganism is not a diet, it’s the active refusal to take part in injustice towards animals. As you say yourself, growing plants can be as death-free as it gets and hopefully once we’ll live in a vegan society, farming methods will be optimised to reduce deaths. This is not the case with animal flesh, as obviously someone inevitably has to die for it.
I appreciate your vision of the future, but I do not personally believe it will make a better world. All the best, and thank you for a very stimulating discussion.
It will make a better world for the billions of animals who, unlike today, will be spared a short existence of suffering and enslavement and a violent death. Yeah, I think everything has been said that needed to be said. Goodbye.
Florian, I would be interested to get your view on the passage I just added to the post titled “A thought experiment”.
When lions choose a new mate, they kill the cubs of their predecessors. Would you accept human men to act the same? If so, why is something wrong when humans do it but not when lions do it?
Apart from that: It would be natural for us to die at 35, have all sorts of diseases, live in caves and starve most of the time. But we all agree that something being natural does not make it good and when nature is harmful, it’s better to act against nature (by brushing our teeth, using condoms, heating our apartments etc.)
We agree that killing a rival’s babies is wrong for humans, for the sole reason is that we have decided it’s wrong (for humans).
Are you using that argument to say that, because one thing can be right for wild predators but not right for humans, we can/should extend that to any other activity, like eating meat? That’s a flimsy argument. To be equivalent, eating meat would only become wrong for humans if society as a whole decided that it was wrong, and that’s never going to happen.
The rest of your comments about dying younger etc. are inaccurate, I think. Our caveman ancestors lived about as long as we do, unless they died at an early age, which means they were generally as healthy (if not healthier) as modern humans. They will certainly have been less prone to the “diseases of civilisation” that we suffer from.
Yes, we can all safely reject the “appeal to nature” fallacy. Something being natural does not validate – or invalidate – it. It is what it is.
A lion is a lion, a gazelle is a gazelle, a human is a human. Killing to eat is natural, which fact neither validates nor invalidates it, although in the case of nature, the onus surely has to be on the argument to invalidate.
As a society we have invalidated “natural” behaviours like the rape and murder of other people, cannibalism, etc.. We have not, as a society, invalidated the keeping of animals and the eating of meat, and I don’t think we ever will because the arguments are not strong enough.
“Are you using that argument to say that, because one thing can be right for wild predators but not right for humans, we can/should extend that to any other activity, like eating meat?”
Yes, of course, this is completely obvious. “Lions do it, so I can do it” does not work. It does not matter what society thinks when talking morality. There are societies who have agreed on corporal punishment or even the death penalty for “crimes” like adultery, homosexuality or apostasy . Which is obviously immoral.
“Yes, we can all safely reject the “appeal to nature” fallacy.”
Yet it’s the only argument your advocacy for harming the vulnerable boils down to.
“We have not, as a society, invalidated the keeping of animals and the eating of meat, and I don’t think we ever will because the arguments are not strong enough.”
I may not live to see it, but the argument that it’s wrong to kill when we don’t have to is actually strong enough for most people. And once abolitionist vegans will reach a critical mass, I’m sure that things will change very quickly.
I don’t think either of us will live to see it.
“But it’s entirely irrelevant anyway since science and experience tell us that it’s perfectly possible to live healthy as a vegan. In an emergency situation, most people even resort to cannibalism. But you are not in that situation.”
Florin, with all due respect, your response here is not only logically unsound, but also filled with emotional opinions and scientific inaccuracies. “Science” (which, btw, is not something that can be summed up with one umbrella term when it comes to nutrition and health) does not “tell us” that it’s perfectly possible to live healthy as a vegan. There is a lot of scientific data looking at the impact of plants on human health and looking at the impacts and removal of all animals on human health… and there is in no way a clear consensus amongst respected scientists or the available data to demonstrate that veganism is healthier for humans. There are, unfortunately, a lot of correlations and embellished articles written by pro-plant zealots that only confuse the public and act as fuel for overgeneralizations. “Experience” also doesn’t tell “us” that all humans can live healthy as vegans. Veganism, despite its growing success and an ideological movement, is still a fringe diet and lifestyle and there are also millions of people identified as “ex-vegan” whose health only declined with this diet. I am one of these many. I was a health-conscious plant-based vegan for nearly 5 years and it deteriorated my body and mind. I worked and managed one of the most influential vegan cafes in California and went to a holistic health school ran by vegans. I did everything there was possible and still deteriorated. This is a common theme. The only consensus that veganism is healthy for humans is the one that is upheld for inflexible vegans themselves who haven’t yet hit a wall with their own health. The American Dietetics Association and other health organizations may make claims that veganism is healthy for all, but this is the same health organization that endorses processed foods being marketed to children — the very reason I dropped out of my dietetics program and chose a private nutrition school instead – too many conflicts of interest.
Everything you have written here wouldn’t hold water with anyone who actually understands the “science” and “experience” of human health.
Ben is stating the fact that veganism is considered a religious entity because of the sanctimonious, holier-than-thou attitude towards all of those who do not agree with their dogma, regardless if the facts displayed in support of veganism are actually truthful. You just displayed exactly that right here.
I’ve come to believe that veganism most definitely is NOT a show of love or caring about animals. The ultimate goal of veganism and animal abolitionists is a total extinction of all domestic animals, if not all life on this Earth. The, “I’d rather animals to have never been born than to live a [good] life where they will die in the end,” shows that very dark, empty, and Life-depriving mantra that does anything but save any animals. It’s a death-knell for all life on Earth, and certain societal suicide for all of humanity. I find it amusing that you vegans think you’re “saving animals” by not eating them, when I know for a fact that’s not true at all.
Here’s the thing: Yeah, all animals want to live, we get that. But what you don’t seem to understand is that all animals, including humans, have absolutely no control over when or how they will die. You also fail to understand that **There is NO LIFE without Death.** Stating how you are so much against “non-violence” and killing animals for food (including that for humans) means that you are completely against Life itself: Life, which encompasses the very biological fibre that makes Earth what it is.
Another thing you completely do not understand or acknowledge is that it NOT ethical (NOR moral) to deny an animal’s right to life if you are so afraid of death and the fact that it will one day die and become food for others. Just as an animal has the right to a good life (as many farmers really try hard to accomplish), so it too deserves a good death. Animals die, VERY rarely do they live to old age, even in the wild. Animals DIE all the time, it’s a part of the Life Cycle.
I’m sure people have the right to choose, based on cultural norms, personal choices, cultural/societal/personal ethics, what animals are worth more alive than dead or killed for human consumption.
I sort of see the list of right action differently. We all live and die. It’s how we do it that matters. My wife a vegan, and I’m an avid hunter and fisherman. I do most of the shopping and cooking (and cleaning hahaha). I cook vegan meals everyday (vegan diets are not that healthy – I have to work hard at getting her the protein she needs and they use a ton of sugar, gluten, and butter in their recipes – very carb heavy. ) But I have no guilt over the wild pig I shot and ate. Or the fish, or the deer. I don’t take more than I can eat. Whenever I take a life I always ask myself, “is this the way I would want to go?” I want to live free and when its my time I want it to be quick – so I offer the same with my food choices. I make sure my hunting skills are sharp as are my knives and fish hooks. When I can afford it I buy up the animal wellness scale as far as i can go.
I love that, thanks Matt. My wife and I also taken the decision this year to start killing our own Muscovy ducks for the table. We’ve kept poultry for eggs for the last few years, but this year we’ve had three clutches of new Muscovies, and no one’s buying in our area (except buying cheap for meat) so we figured we’d cut out the food chain and eat the birds we’ve loved and raised ourselves.