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?

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.

Intelligent dissent on the food movement

I’m obviously sympathetic to a lot of the proposals of Michael Pollan, et al., but some of what passes for criticism of our system of food production can come across as simplistic, naive, or nostalgic.

That’s why I was happy to discover the blog of historian and author Maureen Ogle who, among other things, subjects “Pollanism” and allied movements to a healthy dose of sympathetically critical scrutiny.

See here and here for two interesting series she’s written.

Ogle is also the author of the book Ambitious Brew, an unabashedly celebratory history of the big American beer makers–the sort of thing that drives beer snobs up a wall.

The agri-empire strikes back

California beef producer Harris Ranch Beef Co. put the screws to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo when they found out Michael Pollan was scheduled to speak there, with the company chairman essentially threatening to withhold financial support in a letter to the university’s president. The result? Instead of a speech by Pollan, the university put on a panel discussion with Pollan, a pro-industrial-ranching professor from Colorado State, and organic farmer Myra Goodman. As this editorial from the L.A. Times puts it,

Agribusiness gets plenty of opportunities to preach its point of view at agriculture schools such as Cal Poly, where the likes of Monsanto and Cargill fund research and most professors are trained in modern practices. Students seldom get to hear voices like Pollan’s, though. The university’s attempt to dilute his message in order to placate a donor is a shameful breach of academic freedom.

The vast influence that agri-business wields over agricultural schools and programs is a greatly under-reported story and a significant obstacle to meaningful reform.

Farmers vs. “agri-intellectuals”

A while back, the American–the magazine of the American Enterprise Institute–published an article by farmer Blake Hurst called “The Omnivore’s Delusion,” taking to task “agri-intellectuals” like Michael Pollan who have criticized industrial farming.

Here Tom Philpott points out some of the holes and omissions in Hurst’s argument. Philpott acknowledges that the sustainable food movement hasn’t grappled with some of the big, hard questions about transitioning to a different system of food production, but also points out that Hurst doesn’t address the many serious environmental impacts of industrial farming that call into question its long-term future.

I lean somewhat toward the more middle-of-the-road views espoused by folks like Paul Roberts and James McWilliams: some kind of “industrial” (i.e., large-scale, mechanized) food production is probably inevitable simply to feed people, but distinctions need to be made between sustainable and un-sustainable varieties. (For instance, a modified form of industrial grain production vs. industrial animal farming.) In other words, neither Roberts nor McWilliams sees the solution as a return to an idyllic agrarian past.

“Critical Animal” on Pollan

A couple of posts providing some interesting criticisms of Michael Pollan’s views on meat eating, here and here.

Pollan’s obviously doing more than nearly anyone to draw attention to the problems with our system of food production, including factory farming. And yet, he seems to have a soft spot for silly atavistic arguments against vegetarianism.

Beyond “organic”

Mark Bittman makes a couple of good points here: food labeled “organic” is not necessarily true to the spirit of organic food (i.e., is sustainable, treats animals and the land well, etc.); and you don’t necessarily have to buy “organic” food to eat better. An easier place to start is simply with eating real food instead of processed food, eating more fruits and vegetables, etc. This is largely the lesson of Michael Pollan’s books, too, and both Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Singer and Mason in The Ethics of What We Eat spend time examining the image and the reality of “big organic” producers.

Michael Pollan interviewed in Mother Jones


I do take issue with this, though:

MJ: When you first wrote the mantra “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” did you have any idea what kind of reaction you’d get?

MP: Well, I studied my poetry in school, and I knew there was something about the way it sounded that made it easy to remember. After writing The Omnivore’s Dilemma I wanted to write a book that got past the choir, that got to people who didn’t care about how their food was grown, but who did care about their health. I wanted to make it almost billboard simple. It started out as just “Eat food.” But then I realized, Eh, not quite good enough. You’ve got to deal with the quantity issue. And then plants; the more you looked, the more you realized that the shortage of plants in our diet could explain a lot. Not that I’m against meat eating. I think we’re eating too much. That’s why I said “mostly plants.”

MJ: Did you hear from the beef lobby?

MP: No, but there’s another group, the Weston A. Price Foundation, who are fierce in their love of animal fat. And a lot of what they say is right, but they really don’t like plants. People feel like they have to take sides on this plant/animal divide, and I don’t think we do.

MJ: There’s no dilemma?

MP: [Laughs.] No dilemma. And of course a lot of vegetarians were annoyed that I wasn’t saying “all plants.” It’s a thicket. People have strong, quasi-religious views. Secularizing the issue is challenging.

This is unfortunately not atypical of Pollan’s writing: to dismiss strongly held moral views as “religious” (and therefore, presumably, not rational). For an antidote, it’s worth reading B.R. Myers’ infamous review of the Omnivore’s Dilemma. This isn’t to say I think that everyone has to be vegetarian, but moral concerns can’t just be swept under the rug.

In other foodie politics news, the nomination of “organic food expert” Kathleen Merrigan for Deputy Secretary of Agriculture has been generating good buzz among food reformers. See this Ezra Klein post and follow the links for more info.

The anti-foodies’ foodie

Salon has an informative review of Mark Bittman’s new manifesto/cook book Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating. Bittman is the author of several cookbooks and writes for the NYT, including the “Minimalist” column about cooking. The reviewer, Laura Miller, calls Bittman the “anti-foodies’ foodie” and describes his book as an application of Michael Pollan’s principles aimed at making us healthier, saving money, and benefitting the environment:

The formula is very simple (Bittman is the Minimalist, after all): “Eat less of certain foods, specifically animal products, refined carbs, and junk food; and more of others, specifically plants, in close to their natural state.” It is a recommendation that owes much (as Bittman repeatedly acknowledges) to the work of Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food”; the spirit of Pollan presides over this book like the Virgin Mary over a Catholic Church. In fact, you could describe “Food Matters” as “applied Pollan,” because Pollan, for all his endlessly inventive, inquisitive and adventurous writings on American eating and food production, lacks Bittman’s pragmatic touch.

Miller raises two points worth thinking about. First is that what will sound like common sense to some will seem radical and totally impractical to others:

It can be easy for someone like me to forget that many people would see Bittman’s plan as untenable, since the kinds of foods he recommends aren’t sold in affordable chain or fast-food restaurants or available prepared or frozen in every suburban supermarket. Some of his advice — carry nuts and fruit around with you for snacks, so you can avoid vending machines — may be tenable for them, but some of the rest will seem even less practical than the Atkins Diet.

This is related to Miller’s second point, that “Americans simply don’t know how to cook”:

Real home cooking means having a good repertoire of reliable, quick, uncomplicated recipes and understanding enough of the underlying principles to improvise when needed. It means knowing how to stock a pantry and plan your menus so that you shop for groceries only once a week. It’s a set of skills manifested as an attitude, something you can acquire only through regular practice, and it’s the one thing that can make a person truly at ease in a kitchen.


Like writing, driving, touch typing and balancing a checkbook, basic cooking is a life skill (not an art or hobby) that everybody needs, and it ought to be taught in public schools as a matter of course. The fact that cooking can also be a craft, featuring a certain amount of self-expression, or that contemporary star chefs have been exalted to a degree far exceeding their actual cultural worth, shouldn’t be allowed to obscure that humbler truth.

And of course, though Miller doesn’t mention it explicitly, many people don’t cook because they don’t have time to: they’re working long hours, maybe at more than one job. Preaching at people to cook won’t change the way many of their lives are structured by the demands of work and other obligations.

Miller is optimistic, though, that just about anybody can learn to incorporate uncomplicated recipes of the sort Bittman favors here and in his cookbooks, even if much of what he proposes will seem radical to some people. Recipes like those offered in the magazine Everyday Food, “familiar American fare yet free of processed and fake foods,” should be feasible for most of us, she says, and can help us save some dough to boot.

I want a both/and approach here: I do think there are ways of changing our diets to be healthier and more eco-friendly that are within the reach of nearly everyone. And it’s important to point out that this doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing affair; every little step helps. If there’s one thing that probably discourages people from radically chanigng their diet for whatever reason, it’s probably that it seems like such a daunting task.

But let’s also not forget that forces beyond our immediate control influence the way we eat. For instance, our existing farm policy, as amply documented by Pollan and others, makes a lot of bad foods artificially cheap (e.g. virtually anything with high fructose corn syrup in it), so it’s no wonder that overworked, cash-strapped people hit the frozen food section or reach for a bag of snack chips instead of whipping up an all-natural meal of whole grains and leafy greens. Reducing everything to a matter of individual choice ignores the way market forces and food policy structure the choices available to us. A more sensible policy would make it easier to choose foods that are healthier, more humane, and better for the environment (which, needless to say, wouldn’t eliminate the need for individual choice).

2008: The year in book blogging

I’m not going to provide a best books of the year list, but here’s a sampling of those that got their hooks into me enough to generate some more or less in-depth blogging (needless to say, most of these weren’t published in 2008):

Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power

“Empire of dysfunction”

Evelyn Pluhar, Beyond Prejudice

Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4

Jay McDaniel, Of God and Pelicans

“Creation and omnipotence: a process perspective”
“More thoughts on omnipotence and creation”

Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation

Index of posts here.

John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation

“Initial thoughts on Gutierrez’s Theology of Liberation”

S.F. Sapontzis, Morals, Reason, and Animals

“What kind of equality?”

James Alison, On Being Liked

“An end to sacrifices”

John Gray, Straw Dogs

“John Gray contra humanism”

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma

“Against the globalized food chain”
“Pollan on the ethics of meat eating”
“More on Pollan and vegetarianism”