Confessions of a backslidden vegetarian

Adam Kotsko posted today about why he’s not a vegetarian, even though he seems like the sort of person who should be one. I was a vegetarian, of increasing strictness, for almost 10 years. I found philosophical arguments for vegetarianism convincing (though I never accepted animal rights arguments in their strongest forms). I read lots of books about it. And I posted about it quite a bit on this blog. So why did I stop? Did I discover a previously unnoticed hole in arguments I had once accepted? Or did I just find living without meat unbearable?

Nothing as exciting as that, I’m afraid. Basically, it had to do with pragmatism and a desire to maintain family harmony. My wife and I have two small children (ages 4 and almost 2), and as many people with kids will tell you, getting them to eat can be a challenge. Early on we agreed that we weren’t going to try to enforce a particular diet on them. We would try to make sure they ate a variety of more-or-less healthy foods, but we weren’t going to exclude meat, if that’s what they were willing to eat. (My wife had never been as strict about not eating meat as I had.)

We never intended to eat meat at every, or even most, meals. But eventually it became clear that it would be burdensome for my wife, who does the majority of the cooking in our house, to provide a “vegetarian option” at every meal. So we agreed that I’d eat meat–generally poultry or fish–once or twice a week, along with the rest of the family. This would only be at dinner, since, at least during the work week, we eat breakfast and lunch separately. If I wanted to keep eating veggie at those meals, that would be up to me.

And this arrangement has worked out well for us. The majority of my meals are still vegetarian, but I eat meat with the rest of my family at supper a couple times a week. I’ve generally stuck to poultry and fish, but have occasionally eaten beef too. (For some reason, I still can’t bring myself to start eating pork again.)

I don’t really have a good intellectual rationalization for this, except that figuring out what works best for my family is more important to me than avoiding meat because of my personal scruples. I still think that factory farming is a moral scandal and that we as a society should probably eat a lot less meat. But the difference between me personally eating all vegetarian and just eating mostly vegetarian, as far as its contribution to the sum total of good in the world goes, doesn’t seem worth fussing over at this point in my life. Maybe this will change as my kids get older, but for now call me a demi-vegetarian or a flexitarian. Or maybe just a sellout.

Does vegetarianism kill more animals than meat-eating?

Contrary to what you may have heard, I don’t intend this to be an all-vegetarianism, all-the-time blog, but this objection came up in comments to the previous post, and it seemed like it was worth addressing separately. The objection here is that a vegetarian diet also results in animal deaths, since animals such as voles, field mice, and certain birds will be killed in the process of clearing land to grow crops and during harvesting.

I’ve seen this argument canvassed more widely in recent years, and its popularity seems to stem in part from a 2003 paper by Steven Davis in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. Davis argued that, because of the animals killed unintentionally in raising crops, a diet consisting of plants and pasture-raised beef actually would actually result in fewer total animal deaths than a strictly vegetarian diet. Note that Davis is not defending the status quo–his “least harm” diet would actually require a radically different food system (chicken, pork, eggs, and dairy are out, as is conventionally raised beef).

Moreover, Davis’s article was criticzed by, among others, Gaverick Matheny, who pointed out some critical flaws in Davis’s calculations, including that he assumed that the same amount of land would be required to support a plant-based diet as one that included beef. Since less land is required to produce the same number of calories from plants than meat, the relevant comparison should be animals killed per capita. Matheny also pointed out that Davis only considered animal deaths and ignored the question of animals’ suffering during their lives, which is surely a relevant part of the moral calculus.

While this is an interesting debate, I’m not sure it’s a terribly relevant one. As I’ve pointed out before, the debate between proponents of all-vegetarian (or vegan) diets and proponents of free-range, “humane” meat-eating is a rarefied one. The overwhelmning majority of meat produced and consumed in the U.S. results in far more death and suffering for animals than either. That’s why I think “progressive disengagement” from the factory farming system is a worthy goal, but am not particularly interested in picking fights with people who choose to eat meat raised in more humane or sustainable fashions.

A simple argument for vegetarianism

The New York Times “Ethicist” column recently challeged its readers to submit essays making the case for why it’s ethically okay to eat meat. The submissions are supposed to offer a pro-meat answer to the question “Whether it is right to eat animals in the first place, at least when human survival is not at stake.” The essays will be judged by a panel consisting of Peter Singer, Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Andrew Light.

One interesting thing about this contest is that it puts the onus back on meat-eaters to justify a practice that’s usually taken for granted as the normal thing to do. Getting people to question this assumption is a worthy goal in itself.

But for the sake of clarity, let’s flesh out (so to speak) the anti-meat (or pro-vegetarian) argument. Here, in schematic form, is what I take to be a simple, but powerful, moral argument for vegetarianism:

1. It’s wrong, other things being equal, to be the cause of avoidable suffering.
2. Meat-eating causes avoidable suffering.
3. Therefore, meat-eating is wrong.

The first premise is about as close to a moral truism as you could find. It would be a very different value system from any most of us would recognize that endorsed the idea of causing avoidable suffering. Most of us also think, of course, that sometimes there are good reasons for being the cause of suffering (e.g., a painful medical procedure that saves someone’s life). But to cause suffering when it’s not necessary seems like a paradigm case of acting immorally.

The second premise is more contentious. Let’s stipulate, along with the Times, that we’re talking about cases where meat-eating isn’t necessary for human survival. The question then becomes: is the suffering caused by meat-eating justifiable on some other grounds?

For this infliction of suffering to be justifiable, the human interest in meat-eating would have to outweigh the animals’ interest in avoiding suffering. So what human interest is at stake? Well, pleasure is one obvious one: many people really like the taste of meat. There are also cultural and culinary goods associated with the practices of preparing and eating meat which, in a meatless world, would have to be abandoned or at least modified (the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, for example).

Now, the tricky thing is that there’s no mechanical way of weighing competing interests to find out whether the animal’s interest in not suffering should trump the human’s interest in having a tasty meal. That being said, though, I think it’s intuitively quite plausible that an animal’s interest in not suffering is greater than my interest in the pleasure I’d get from eating a steak. Consider the case of a sadist who derives great pleasure from torturing kittens: would any of us say that his pleasure outweighs the kitten’s interest in not being made to suffer? The only way I can see to decisively tip the scales toward meat-eating is if you’re willing to say that animal interests count for nothing, or for so little as to be trumped by even the most trivial human interest.

You could also develop a parallel argument where “avoidable suffering” is replaced with “avoidable death.” That is, even if animals could be raised and slaughtered for food without being made to suffer (a questionable proposition, but let’s concede it for now), they would still be killed, and, other things being equal, killing a sentient being seems like a significant harm. Now, there are some philosophers (including, ironicially, Peter Singer) who say that painlessly killing an animal doesn’t actually harm the animal, because they don’t have a concept of death and thus can’t take an interest in not being killed. This response only works, though, if you’re willing to accept Singer’s particular version of preference-based utilitarianism, and other philosophers have argued (persuasively, in my opinion) that death is indeed a harm for animals.

Assuming this is all correct, or at least plausible, let’s note a couple of things about this argument. First, it doesn’t require accepting that humans and animals are “morally equivalent” or denying “human exceptionalism.” It’s quite possible to hold that humans are more important than animals but that trivial human interests don’t justify overriding or disregarding vital animal interests. Second, it doesn’t rest on detailed claims about the horrible state of factory farming. So long as raising and slaughtering animals for food entails any significant suffering–which includes both factory and traditional farms–the argument can get some traction. Finally, it doesn’t require adopting any controversial ethical theories like utilitarianism or a particular notion of animal rights. All it assumes is that it’s wrong to cause avoidable suffering (or death) and that animals’ interests count for something, even if not as much as comparable human interests. I think these minimalist assumptions help make it a pretty strong argument.

What do you think?

The indispensability of vegetarianism

This article at Grist observes, I think accurately, that, at least among eco-conscious foodies, “conscientious carnivorism” is in, and vegetarianism is out:

At some point over the past few years, vegetarianism went wholly out of style.

Now sustainable meat is all the rage. “Rock star” butchers proffer grass-fed beef, artisanal sausage, and heritage-breed chickens whose provenance can be traced back to conception on an idyllic rolling hillside. “Meat hipsters” eat it all up. The hard-core meaties flock to trendy butchery classes. Bacon has become a fetish even for eco-foodies, applied liberally to everything from salad to dessert, including “green” chocolate bars and “sustainable” ice cream.

The piece goes on to argue, however, that vegetarianism remains indispensable, as a response both to the challenges of sustainability and the inhumane treatment of animals. This is true for a variety of reasons. First, as the article points out, the percentage of meat produced in this country that could accurately be described as “humane” is vanishingly small. Second, it’s extremely doubtful whether a model of humane, sustainable meat production is scalable enough to meet the current demand (which is growing worldwide at an alarming rate, even if meat consumption in the U.S. has declined somewhat).

I’d add that not only is genuinely humane meat a tiny niche market, it’s also extremely difficult to know if what you’re buying actually fits that description. This is because there are essentially no agreed-upon or enforceable standards for “humane” meat (or for that matter, “natural,” “free-range,” etc.). Unlike “organic,” which is regulated by the USDA, these terms mean whatever the producers say they mean. The only way to be sure that the meat you’re buying actually conforms to a specific ethical or environmental standard is (a) to look for a third-party-certified label (there are some) or (b) to buy directly from a farm that you have personally visited to observe how it operates. (Significantly, almost all discussion around this focuses on how the animals are raised, but even animals raised under not-terrible conditions are typically slaughtered in just the same way that factory-farmed animals are.)

So, I agree with the author of the piece here:

To nudge our horrific food system toward sustainability, we don’t need vegetarians to shift to occasional consumption of ethically produced meat. We need the American masses who eat an average of half a pound of factory-farmed meat a day to shift to the occasional consumption of ethically produced meat. (Americans are actually eating a little less meat overall these days, no thanks to the meat hipsters.)

Eating truly sustainable meat, in modest quantities, is a fine thing. But it’s not better than eating no meat — certainly not when we’ve got more than 7 billion people on a fast-heating planet competing to feed themselves via shrinking, oversubscribed cropland and increasingly limited, degraded freshwater supplies.

That’s why, when people ask my advice (not that they often do), I simply encourage them to eat less meat. Eating less meat doesn’t require a radical lifestyle change. It’s flexible and open-ended. It’s not elitist the way conscientious carnivorism often tends to be–after all, almost everyone has access to plant-based meat alternatives. And it doesn’t lead to situations like this:

I don’t know if universal vegetarianism is a real possibility–or even a desirable one. But if we agree that our current system of meat production is both inhumane and unsustainable (and we should), then our only viable future is one of drastically reduced meat-eating. This means that vegetarianism remains one important–indeed indispensable–path into that future.

Meat in a vat?

This piece from NPR has generated some interest in the topic of in-vitro meat–that is, meat grown in a lab from a cell culture. Apparently there is a real possibility that sometime in the next decade or so we could see lab-grown meat on our supermarket shelves. On its face, this seems like a win-win for animals and for the environment given the well canvassed evils of industrial meat farming. That is, assuming the resulting product is safe for human consumption.

Undoubtedly the idea of eating meat grown in a petri dish will not sit well with a lot of people, at least initially. Similar to concerns about genetically modified crops, they may consider lab-grown meat “unnatural.” But in the case of GMOs there are legitimate concerns about cross-pollination or other forms of environmental harm that wouldn’t seem to apply here. This likely wouldn’t satisfy everyone, but the way most meat is currently produced isn’t exactly natural either, unless you consider being pumped full of hormones and antibiotics meat’s natural state. Maybe in the in-vitro future, “real” meat will become a niche or luxury item affordable only by the very rich. Or maybe eating real meat will come to be seen as grotesquely immoral given the widespread availability of ethically sound alternatives!

From a vegetarian/animal liberation perspective I can imagine that in vitro meat might seem like admitting defeat or a concession to “carnivore culture” (or “carnism” as some people refer to it): instead of convincing people to give up eating animals through moral persuasion, we’re enabling their flesh-eating ways. But assuming the rationale for animal liberation is reducing or ending the suffering and exploitation of animals, rather than just an objection to meat-eating per se (and what would the rationale for that be?), it’s hard to see this as much more than an emotional response.

I could be persuaded otherwise, and I likely wouldn’t eat “vat-meat” myself, but I have a hard time seeing anything wrong with this apart from the initial “ick” factor.

Friday Links

–Marvin on the Presbyterian Church’s decision to allow congregations to call non-celibate gay and lesbian pastors.

–Libraries are part of the social safety net.

–”I hated vegans too, but now I am one.”

–On anti-Semites and philo-Semites.

–Mark Bittman asks, “Why bother with meat?”

–Jesus and eco-theology.

–Jeremy discusses Herbert McCabe and Gerhard Forde on the Atonement.

–Your commute is killing you.

–Rowan Williams’ Ascension Day sermon: “The friends of Jesus are called … to offer themselves as signs of God in the world.”

–Grist’s “great places” series continues with two posts on the industrial food system and its alternatives.

–Keith Ward on his recent book More than Matter?

–Russell Arben Fox on the Left in America.

–The Cheers challenge. My wife and I have already been rewatching the entire series. We’re on season 6 now, which replaces Shelley Long’s Diane with Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca. It’s one of my all-time favorite shows, although the earlier seasons are probably the best ones.

–Ozzy’s first two solo albums, which are generally considered classics, have gotten the deluxe reissue treatment. Here’s a review.

Friday Links

I spent the day hanging out with my family, so these are coming a little late…

–Why Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal is neither brave nor serious.

–Free-range meat isn’t necessarily “natural.”

–A case for universalism from the Scottish evangelical preacher and biblical scholar William Barclay.

–A review of a recent book called What’s the Least I can Believe and Still Be a Christian?

–The WaPo reviews a local prog-metal band called Iris Divine (here’s their MySpace page).

–Do Americans love war?

–Speaking of war, April 12 marks the 150th anniversary of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter and the onset of the Civil War. I’m thinking of marking the anniversary by finally tackling James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom this spring.

–As I write this, it looks like the two parties are getting close to a budget agreement that will avert a government shutdown. But I still wanted to note that a shutdown would have a major impact on the District itself, shutting down a number of basic city services. This is something that hasn’t gotten much attention.

–The AV Club continues its feature “Loud”–a monthly review of the latest in punk, hardcore, metal, and noise.

Time article on the debate over “humane” meat-eating

This article from Time provides one of the best overviews I’ve seen in a mainstream publication about the issues surrounding factory farms and the use of animals for food. It notes that there’s debate among “humane” meat proponents, vegetarians, and vegans about whether it’s okay to use animals for food at all, but also highlights that most of these folks are united in opposing intensive industrial farming practices. It even gives a lot of space to Farm Sanctuary founder Gene Bauer’s case for veganism. The piece concludes on an ecumenical note, lauding the food movement for “encourag[ing] people to think about their relationship to the food on their plate, about the environmental, social, political, moral and, yes, even culinary factors affected by their choices.”

Friday Links

–Today is the Feast of the Annunciation; here are some thoughts on that. BLS also has one of her outstanding musical offerings for the day.

–John Piper, theological nihilist?

–Catholics are “more supportive of legal recognitions of same-sex relationships than members of any other Christian tradition and Americans overall.”

–How to live without a mobile phone.

–A proposal for a vegan-omnivore alliance against factory farms. Related: Mark Bittman on prospects for laws protecting farm animals.

–A semi-defense of B.R. Myers’ anti-foodie polemic.

–On the anniversary of Bishop Oscar Romero’s assassination.

–Washington, D.C.’s black majority slips away. Related: the percentage of the nation’s black population living in the South has hit its highest point in fifty years.

–An interesting blog I recently discovered: Marginal Utility, hosted at PopMatters; it covers the culture of work and technology from a leftish perspective.

–Why is media coverage of Africa so unrelentingly negative?

–The Lutheran theology journal Dialog currently has its Spring 2011 issue available free online; it includes some reflections on Carl Braaten’s recently released memoir, which apparently (and not surprisingly) has some harsh words for the ELCA. Added later: Here’s another take on the Braaten autobiography from last year.

–Let the D.C. beer renaissance begin.

Added even later: Gateways to Geekery: Kurt Vonnegut.

God’s right to the respectful treatment of God’s creatures

I’ve been re-reading Andrew Linzey’s Christianity and the Rights of Animals and just wanted to jot down some salient passages.

On intensive farming:

To put it at its most basic: animals have a God-given right to be animals. The natural life of a Spirit-filled creatures is a gift from God. When we take over the life of an animal to the extent of distorting its natural life for no other purpose than our own gain, we fall into sin. There is no clearer blasphemy before God than the perversion of his creatures. To the question: Why is it wrong to deny chickens the rudimentary requirements of their natural life, such as freedom of movement or association?, there is therefore only one satisfactory answer: Since an animal’s natural life is a gift from God, it follows that God’s right is violated when the natural life of his creatures is perverted. (p. 112)

On vegetarianism:

The Christian argument for vegetarianism … is simple: since animals belong to God, have value to God and live for God, then their needless destruction is sinful. In short: animals have some right to their life, all circumstances being equal. (p. 146)

On “progressive disengagement” from animal exploitation:

What we need is progressive disengagement from our inhumanity to animals. The urgent and essential task is to invite, encourage, support and welcome those who want to take some steps along the road to a more peaceful world with the non-human creation. We do not all have to agree upon the most vital steps, or indeed the most practical ones. What is important is that we all move some way on, if only by one step at a time, however falteringly. (pp. 148-9)

Linzey’s basic perspective is that animals’ rights are grounded in God’s prior right to have God’s creatures treated with respect. This provides a basis for objecting not just to the infliction of pain on animals, but to the deprivation of their ability to live out their natural, God-given lives. In Linzey’s view, human “stewardship” of the natural world, properly understood, has a Christ-like and cruciform shape. It therefore can never justify the wanton use of animals for human benefit. Instead, it should be characterized by valuing the non-human world for its own sake, letting it be without undue human interference, and generally living peaceably with other creatures.