As a vegan I frequently find myself defending veganism. “What made you do it?” people usually enquire about my decision to cut out all animal products from my diet. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind being cross-examined about my plant-based diet. In fact, I appreciate the interest. It’s just that omnivores never seem to get asked these things. They are usually regarded as the control group, the norm, and veganism is considered a deviation from that norm. This strikes me as a very biased way of looking at human nutrition. It seems perfectly logical to me that whether we choose to consume animals or not is in either case the product of a conscious decision, regardless of the outcome. What I mean by that is that if you decide to eat meat you should also be able to defend your decision with sound arguments in the same way as is expected from vegans. This would only be fair. “Why do you eat meat?” “Why do you consume animal products?” Given what we have come to know about animal-eating and its many negative consequences on the environment, our health and the well-being of animals, I would find it very difficult to answer such questions satisfyingly if I was a meat-eater. The plant-based diet, on the other hand, has widely been recognized as the healthier and less ecologically harmful option. That’s not to say that dissenting opinions and beliefs about which diet is the most ethical or the healthiest should be dismissed, but I’m still waiting to hear a single convincing argument why humans should eat meat and other animal products, why we should not consider veganism. I doubt that such an argument really exists, at least not in the context of civilization. It goes without saying that there are obviously situations such as wars or famines that render it next to impossible for people to take ethical considerations into account when it comes to their food, where they battle for their mere existence. This text discusses choices and their implications and I want it to be absolutely clear that it doesn’t criticize the actions of those who have no choice. In the more privileged parts of the world where most of us are free to choose what we want to eat people often bring forward arguments against veganism that are really just statements about their personal culinary preferences or convenience. I don’t think these can really be considered moral arguments. To be fair, not all arguments are like that; some are harder to refute than others; some are very well-founded, others are just plain stupid. The following is a list of such arguments and why I think they are untenable.
“Vegan – that’s too extreme.”
Extreme is a relative term. In human societies, things are usually perceived as extreme in relation to an arbitrary man-made benchmark that determines what is normal. In a society where it is normal to treat living creatures like machines it is indeed extreme to feel strongly about their suffering. Conversely, if veganism is extreme then the daily horror of the abattoir, the ecological madness of factory farming, the sadistic practice of artificially inseminating cows and taking away their calves shortly after birth so we can have their milk to ourselves, the gassing of chicks by the billion simply because they’re male and therefore useless for the “production” of eggs, the transportation of live animals over thousands of miles and the wasteful use of natural resources in order to produce animal source foods must be normal. I for one think these things are pretty extreme, don’t you?
“I’m sorry, but I simply don’t care about animals and their well-being that much.”
Compassion is an emotion and I believe it’s safe to say that the ability to feel it is partially learned and partially in our genes as it has proven evolutionary useful for the survival of the human race. We would never have gotten this far if we didn’t care about one another, if we didn’t also have altruistic motives. Evidently, we are even capable of caring about members of other species, our pets for instance. Generally speaking, our first impulse when we see a creature that is weak and vulnerable is not to kill and eat it, to regard it as easy prey like a predator would typically do, but empathy. The extent to which we feel compassion and empathy and towards whom we feel it definitely varies from person to person, and our personal experiences play an important role in developing a sense of compassion. We can obviously also unlearn empathy. Personally, I feel very strongly about animal cruelty. I’ve always done so, even as a child—albeit engaging in activities like fishing and eating a lot of meat. I found ways to justify the suffering I was causing. After all, it was considered normal behavior. There are people who don’t feel compassion for animals at all; they are blind to their suffering. Others even fail to feel it for other humans, even children, and take actions that will inevitably harm them. We call such individuals sociopaths or, in cases where it is their intention to harm others merely for the sake of harming them, psychopaths. Sure, other animals are not members of our own species and to feel compassion for them means taking one step further, but to be completely indifferent to their pain and suffering is certainly an emotional shortcoming comparable to that of a sociopath, only in this case such emotional detachedness is socially acceptable due to a rather arbitrary dividing line we have drawn between us and different species, between us and the natural world. In any case, it’s not our fault if we’re not compassionate. We have no say in the matter. We cannot choose what we feel. But would lack of compassion hold as an argument in defence of, say, a violent crime? Even if you fail to care about the well-being of others, if you simply don’t have it in you, you can still endorse the idea that a world with less unnecessary suffering would generally be a better one and you can act in ways that are more likely to cause a decrease in suffering than others. This seems to be a sensible moral imperative we can all easily subscribe to as neither of us want to suffer. Imagine a world in which the worst possible misery for every creature is the status quo. It makes sense to think that such a scenario would be objectively bad, regardless whether or not you, personally, are deeply moved by the suffering you witness. Therefore, every step away from a world that means the worst possible misery for every creature would be a change for the better as it would necessarily equal a decrease in suffering. The world we live in today is obviously not quite as bad as the scenario I just painted, but it’s certainly not the opposite either. We don’t live in a world where the maximum of happiness is granted to every creature, which, following this logic, would be the best world possible. It thus makes sense to steer the world away from being in a state of absolute misery wherever we possibly can. The needless manufacturing of unhappiness and suffering is still common place in the present state of the planet and it’s perfectly safe to argue that the meat and dairy industry is a considerable contributor to the enormous amount of misery that exists in this world. Not to senselessly enslave, rape, torture and brutally murder innocent animals by the billion therefore arguably constitutes a step in the right direction, a step towards what is morally good, if good is the opposite of bad, which presumably it is.
The reasons why we humans have drawn a moral dividing line between ourselves and animals and, even more bizarrely, between different species of animals based on the ways we make use of them—i.e. pets and farm animals—are manifold. Neither are we used to, nor are we supposed to empathize with farm animals that endure a life of pain and fear; or we may not even be fully aware that they do. The most common form of “interaction” humans have with animals today happens on a plate, i.e. with fragmented corpses. How can we ever learn to relate to those beautiful creatures emotionally, when they come in slices and with potatoes on the side? For a lot of people it’s really quite a stretch to see a creature capable of complex emotions when they look at their pork chops. It’s no coincidence that slaughterhouses are built like fortresses. We delegate our killings to professionals who operate behind thick walls. It seems every effort is made to keep us from seeing the atrocities we endorse. Sure enough, they show shocking footage from the abattoir on TV every now and then, but it takes very little to simply change the channel and make the horror disappear. In that sense, such TV programs can desensitize us and make us feel even more detached from the reality of animal slaughter. On the TV screen the boarder between what is real and what is make-believe is inherently blurry. The exploitative abuse of workers in sweatshops would be another example of this.
But what about our beloved pets? Many die-hard meat eaters frown upon certain Far Eastern cultures that traditionally include cat or dog meats in their diet, i.e. animals that are assigned a higher status than typical farm animals in our culture—for no rational reason at all! Pigs and cows are social, caring animals with strong emotional bonds to each other and they are no less intelligent than our pets. Such hypocrisy really emphasizes the arbitrariness of the limits we set to our compassion. Granted, the social lives of cold-blooded animals such as fish or shellfish and their level of consciousness appear to be very basic at best, and to relate to the feelings of fish is a rather difficult task. However, does that really say anything about the value of the life of a fish? What would the situation look like from a different perspective? For the sake of the argument, imagine a life form with a much better understanding of the universe, of life and death, than our brains could ever process, and the capability to feel emotions that humans have no understanding of. In the eyes of such a being human life must appear simple and dull and it would surely have a hard time emphasizing with us. What does this say, however, about its moral obligations towards humans, about its right to hunt us to extinction or to breed and slaughter us when it clearly has other food sources at its disposal that could be obtained less violently? I would conclude that lack of compassion is not a good reason to cause suffering.
“I agree with the concept, but I just can’t live without cheese.”
Can’t or don’t want to? Commonly, it has very little to do with a vital necessity when people say they can’t live without cheese or steak or whatever it is they consider an indispensability. What we’re talking about here are preferences based on taste, nothing more, no basic human needs, and certainly no matter of life or death—well, in fact, it’s exactly that: a matter of life or death. Animals die and suffer, are exploited and tortured, and large amounts of fertile land and valuable resources continue to be used up and emaciated because we “can’t live” without certain animal products. Personally, I fail to understand how anyone can justified all this destruction and death by saying, “I like hamburgers.” Appetite is not a moral argument. Again, it’s the dividing line we’ve drawn between humans and animals, between humanity and the natural world that enables us to think this way; at least it’s one possible explanation. The source of this boundary may not be far to seek as it reflects the now widespread anthropocentric world view of a famous ancient desert tribe that rulers from around the world picked up on as it proved a great tool to “divide and conquer” the masses, as it were. In the West, it appears we have overcome most of the abominable teachings (see below) of the Holy Bible, so why not this one? If you publicly claimed that the universe is 5000 years old or that women are inferior to men or that homosexuality is immoral or that some people are born to be slaves, you would immediately pay the price; but the belief that animals are fundamentally different from humans is still very much acceptable even in modern society. “It’s just an animal,” people often say, justifying the most despicable atrocities we inflict on creatures from the other side of the boundary line. “Animals don’t suffer like we do, and their desire to live is only based on instincts and therefore their lives are not as precious as ours.” This is the kind of “reasoning” you’d expect from a sociopath. Suffering is always suffering, no matter whether you’re a human or a non-human animal, and fear is always real; like pain, fear is something all animals are capable of experiencing in one way or another, no doubt, and such feelings of distress are no less torturous for animals than they are for humans. I would argue that if we saw this boundary for what it is, an arrogant human invention, not a universal truth, but just another lame excuse to exploit others, we would treat animals with more respect.
By analogy, let’s look at another instance of utter injustice justified by an arbitrary boundary: slavery. Slavery was common practice in America and Europe until as recently as the 19th century and in some parts of the world it still is to some degree. White people drew a dividing line between themselves and the uncivilized Africans. They considered them inferior and brutish. Consequently, it was okay to treat them like cattle, to abduct, exploit, rape and kill them. This separation was so deeply ingrained in the fabric of Western society that even in the early decades of the 20th century, long after slavery had been abolished, otherwise law-abiding American citizens would round up people of color and lynch them, and, to completely dehumanize them, they would sometimes even take body parts of their victims home with them as souvenirs. The process of “otherization” as exemplified here makes us less empathetic towards others by telling us that the group we belong to is superior to the group we’re victimizing. This principle has enabled us to commit genocides and other unspeakable attrocities throughout human history. As a society we can now thankfully say that we have overcome such irrational beliefs as racism, if not necessarily in practice, then at least as a widespread ideology. Through science we have learned that such beliefs are completely bogus. The question is, why stop there? I believe it should be our moral goal to minimize all suffering and to expand the famous Golden Rule so it also includes animals: one should not treat other creatures in ways that one would not like to be treated. With good reason we frown upon the unfair treatment of women in certain parts of the Muslim world; we condemn sexism and racism as we gradually abolish one oppressive dividing line after the other—that is, except one: as a species we humans still believe in our supremacy and we do so on the basis of absolutely nothing—nothing but our ability to give planet Earth and all life on it a hard time. Do we really want this to be our legacy?
“But plants are living things too. Why do vegans think it’s okay to kill and eat them but not animals?”
The famous slogan “meat is murder” can be seen as a reaction to the sort of morality that generally excludes non-human animals from our moral thinking and says that only the killing of a person is murder; a dead person is a body, a dead calf is veal. On the opposite side of the spectrum, this rather exclusive position is contrasted by the all-inclusive sentiment that the same form of life runs through everything; humans, animals, plants, micro-organisms, even rocks. As far as I can see, both views are residues from obsolete metaphysical worldviews that imply that animal suffering doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. One seems to say, only humans have a soul and are therefore the only species worthy of moral consideration, the other seems to void the very idea of life in that it includes anorganic stuff in its definition based on the notion that at the most basic level everything is just atoms and electrochemical processes. The latter certainly makes a strong point as it is not untrue in principle, but it leaves us to wonder: if it’s all the same, why even bother with ethics? Both positions, I believe, represent an ivory tower way of looking at things in that they ignore the distinct ability to suffer animals and humans share. In moral terms as well as ecologically, eating plants is definitely the lesser of two evils and that’s irrefutably true even if you support one of the aforementioned positions. Furthermore, there seems to be no logical argument that would explain how plant eating would justify animal eating any more than animal eating would justify cannibalism. Humans can only eat a vanishingly small portion of the amount of plants that we would have to feed to a cow before we can eat her or her babies or drink her breast milk, not to speak of all the extra land, water and energy that is needed to support this rather unthrifty form of agriculture. As humans, we’re unable to photosynthesize or absorb nutrients directly from the soil, so we need to eat plants that do it for us, but we don’t actually depend on farm animals to transform these plants into different forms of animal protein and fat before we can consume them. This extra step, it seems to me, makes very little sense. It is in fact needlessly wasteful, unnecessarily cruel and therefore unethical.
In terms of compassion and empathy, we must acknowledge the limited possibility of experience that plants have by contrast with animals. The concepts of pain, freedom, happiness and misery human morality is generally based on—all of these things are in some way connected to our sensory perception of reality and its possible changes—don’t necessarily apply here. Granted, plants do have fascinating means of communication at their disposal that we may not yet fully understand and they react to their environment in amazing ways, but their lack of a nervous system, their inability to move from place to place (with some exceptions) and the absence of social bonds and emotions as they occur among more complex animals like mammals or birds suggest that indeed their range of experience must be significantly smaller—or at least fundamentally different—than that of a chicken, a pig or a human. It would be silly to argue that a plant on a field is caged, for instance. Different standards apply. It is quite fascinating that seemingly clear distinctions between what animal life is and what plant life is, between organic and anorganic matter can be quite deceiving; where does the one begin and where does the other one end? What is life as opposed to non-life? Admittedly, we know very little about the sensibility of plants or micro-organisms, but we do know a lot about our own and we also know that the animals we exploit most likely experience pain and stress in the very same ways we do as they are indeed exactly like us in many ways. No human would seriously want to lead the sort of miserable existence we inflict on many of our farm animals. Even fish suffer terribly when they are caught and they die in great fear. That is to say, plant life must be respected nonetheless, and a plausible counter-argument here could be that similarly the range of experience of most animals is more limited compared to that of humans as they don’t understand the world on the same sophisticated level of intellect. But to use our superior intelligence as an excuse to put the human species up on a pedestal, stubbornly ignoring that other creatures too were born with the same ability to experience a wide range of potential happiness and misery, seems far from intelligent.
“Humans need animal protein.”
The protein myth is a rather persistent one. From a nutritional point of view, the fact that meat and other animal products are rich in protein is their biggest selling point. Protein is of vital importance to us because it’s the stuff our cells are made of. However, the myth that animal protein is superior to plant protein and therefore essential for humans to maintain a healthy body, is simply not true. Quite the contrary is in fact the case. Modern-day humans can quite easily get sufficient amounts of protein from a balanced vegan diet; from nuts, grains, beans, peas, quinoa, soya, gluten, etc. It is, however, noteworthy that not all sources of vegetable protein are equally good. The quality of protein with regards to its nutritional value for humans depends on the amino acids it is made up of. As far as plant protein is concerned, only soya and quinoa seem to contain a sufficient amount of all the essential amino acids humans need (i.e. complete protein). That is not to say, however, that vegans won’t get all the essential amino acids if they don’t eat loads of soya products or quinoa. It’s mix and match, meaning a combination of different plant-based sources of protein will supply sufficient protein. It appears to be truthful to conclude that we simply don’t need animal protein in our diets. In fact, the health risks associated with the consumption of animal protein far outweigh its questionable health benefits. Autoimmune diseases, heart diseases and different forms of cancer have been linked to the consumption of animal protein. No comparable health problems seem to be caused by a varied vegan wholefood diet. On the contrary, some recent research even points towards the conclusion that a plant-based diet can reverse some rather serious diseases.
“Meat gives you strength. That’s why professional athletes eat loads of red meat.”
In fact, more and more professional athletes are beginning to live meat-free or have done so for many years. Many have gone vegan. The ever-increasing list of famous vegan athletes includes former boxer Mike Tyson, elite marathoner Fiona Oaks, natural bodybuilding world champion Kenneth G. Williams, Germany’s strongest man Patrik Baboumian and professional triathlete Brandon Brazier, just to name a few. One thing that virtually every athlete who has switched to a vegan diet claims to experience is an increase in strength and energy and they seem to have better endurance than ever before. The famous Olympic track and field athlete Carl Lewis, for instance, says that his best performance was when he was around 30 and a vegan. This was the time when he reclaimed his 100-meter world record. He is of the opinion that most athletes have really horrible diets, which is largely attributable to old misconceptions about the connection between red meat and strength. Some people argue that these athletes with their meat-based diets act on doctor’s recommendation and so there must be something to it, but who is to say that doctors can’t be biased? Not every MD is automatically open minded towards new scientific findings and unconventional diets. And even if the big amount of red meat some extreme athletes consume does in fact boost their short-term performance, it will most likely have a negative impact on their health in the long run. This kind of diet is plain unhealthy and I don’t think any doctor would recommend it to an average person.
“There’s no better source of calcium than milk.”
Untrue. Recent scientific findings point to the assumption that milk is in fact an inferior source of calcium in comparison to green leafy vegetables like broccoli or kale and rather bad for our health. Fortified vegan foods like cereal or soya milk are also considered a more reliable source of calcium. Contrary to a vegetable diet, every alleged benefit we may obtain from a diet that revolves around meat and dairy seems to come with a number of worrying side effects. Calcium is no exception. Some of the health risks that have been linked to high milk intake are diabetes, breast and prostate cancer, anaemia, kidney problems and, ironically, arthritis and osteoporosis. Yes, milk is hard on your bones. To adjust to the acid in milk, the body will pull calcium and sodium out of the bones and joints to neutralize the acid; the fracture risk thus increases in proportion to the amount of dairy we consume. Lactose intolerance, on the other hand, is not a disease; it seems to be rather normal. Mother’s milk is the ideal food for baby mammals. Once weaned, however, their digestive system seems to undergo certain changes that render them incapable of fully digesting milk and they subsequently lose all interest. Strangely, some human cultures keep consuming milk even after this biological caesura, albeit mainly that of other species. We’ve trained ourselves to devour dairy, but evidently we can still only really handle it to a limited degree. In the 20th century, milk saw the single most extensive branding campaign ever launched in regards to a particular food group and has since had the image of nature’s perfect healthy food, a misconception that is still deeply entrenched in the public opinion and continuously reinforced by the advertising industry.
“If we didn’t milk cows, their udders would explode and they would die.”
Cows do suffer when we don’t milk them, but why? Could it be because we separate them from their offspring right after birth so we can have all that yummy milk to ourselves? Like all mammals, cows only produce milk around the time they give birth, which is why farmers have to artificially inseminate them on a regular basis to keep the milk flowing. The calves born from this procedure either become milk-producing units themselves or “veal.” Or could it be because we’ve overbred our domestic cows to the effect that they produce even more milk than would be necessary to feed a calve, thus sadistically equipping them with udders five times the natural size? Milk cows live very short lives as they are usually killed at a relatively young age when they are physically exhausted and no longer able to deliver like they used to, when they become unprofitable.
The situation is similarly unethical when it comes to egg-laying hens. Myriads of male chicks are gassed or otherwise exterminated because they are useless for the “production” of eggs. Only the female ones are “allowed” a short life-sapping existence as egg-producing units, overbred to lay up to ten times more eggs than any comparable wild bird would. Again, they are usually exhausted after only a few years, sometimes even just a few months, and end up as cheap chicken soup. Battery or free range, these things apply in either case. Long story short, as long as the industry regards animals as commodities, as biological machines, they will treat them as such, especially when they can be sure of our consent.
“Being vegan doesn’t really change anything.”
This statement is both true and false, depending on one’s definition of change. Will veganism do away with animal cruelty altogether, once and for all? Probably not—at least not any time soon. Will it stop the destruction of the planet? I have my doubts. But I can say that my decision to go vegan has certainly changed my life and my perception of many things that revolve around diet, consumerism and ethics quite profoundly, and I’m pretty sure most of my vegan friends feel the same way. To us, animals are no longer products, commodities or biological machines; to exploit them is unethical. To realize this is to realize that the illusion of normality under which we live may not necessarily be quite as desirable as advertised and that certain things can be changed and should be changed. In that sense, vegans and vegetarians have been instrumental in the rise of ethical consumerism. The brutal truth about the meat and dairy industry could no longer be ignored and to a certain degree consumer behavior has actually changed, at least with regards to certain walks of life. Many supermarket chains have introduced their own vegan product lines, and vegan-friendly health food shops have flourished. A few years ago, vegans were suddenly recognized as a lucrative target group on the fringes of consumerdom. Simultaneously, animal rights issues could no longer be swept under the rug as the growing number of vegetarians and vegans worldwide wouldn’t shut up about animal cruelty.
That’s not to say that much has changed on the structural level. Capitalism has absorbed the vegan agenda by targeting vegans as a new consumer group. Ethical consumerism, in that sense, is almost a contradiction in terms, as “ethical,” “organic,” “sustainable” and also “vegan” are merely new brands that create new consumer identities; they all mean but one thing: “profitable.” The slaughtering continues and dead corpses are still a cheap commodity and very easy to come by. Indeed, to expect the whole meat and dairy industry to suddenly collapse because more people now choose soya yoghurt instead of the dairy one right next to it on the same shelve at Tesco’s would be naïve. But does that make it a bad choice? Just because the same capitalist hegemony that encourages the preposterous slaughter of animals also sells us tofu, it doesn’t mean that the choices we make within this system of commodities and consumption don’t matter at all. The lack of some sort of vegan revolution that will overthrow capitalism as a whole is not really an argument against veganism; neither is it a good reason to dismiss veganism just because the number of animal lives you will actually save might seem negligible by comparison or because the reduction in CO2 emission a vegan lifestyle entails appears tiny in the grand scheme of things. Your contribution does matter after all. In Nazi Germany people found ways to boycott the regime and the war by minimizing their contribution to it, others would even hide Jewish families in their attics. These things didn’t end the war or the systematic extermination of Jewish people and opponents of the regime either, but they must have counted for something. I’m sure the survivors of the Nazis’ totalitarian madness were thankful for this kind of support. Being vegan doesn’t equal deserting capitalism but rather trying to be a voice of reason and sanity within a world that has gone mad; the more vegans there are, the greater the chance this voice will actually be heard. There is no doubt that the protection of animals is an issues that must also be addressed on the level of government for more far-reaching changes to happen, but at the end of the day, who is more likely to pass a bill that benefits animals in captivity, a vegan politician or one that has never even thought about animal rights?
“If you’re against factory farming, why don’t you just buy organic products or directly from a local farmer instead of refusing steadfastly to consume any animal products?”
There may be “happy” chickens or cows out there somewhere and I don’t deny that buying animal products from your local organic farmer is a step up from buying the cheap mass produced stuff you get in the supermarket; however, it seems highly unlikely that organic farms with very few animals that are granted a lot of space where they are basically free to do whatever they want until the bell tolls for them—this is not what “organic” or “species-appropriate” means, by the way; animal cruelty can happen virtually anywhere, and at the end of the day animals are still reduced to commodities even in more traditional farming environments—could ever provide the amount of animal products humans consume nowadays. The answer to the ecological disaster that is the meat and dairy industry and the unimaginable agony caused by it is still to simply eat less of that stuff.
To me the term “humane” loses all meaning when it occurs in combination with a word like “slaughter.” I think “humane meat” is actually a contradiction in terms. The bottom line is that the brutal reality of the meat and dairy industry, poultry, fish and eggs included, does not necessarily spare locally or organically farmed animals. That’s an illusion. That is not to say that some forms of animal husbandry can’t be less destructive or brutal than others. But do you know anybody, yourself included, who exclusively consumes animal products that are produced under the most ethical circumstances possible? Perhaps you make an effort to buy such products when you go grocery shopping—and that’s really something, don’t get me wrong—but what about eating out? Living in a big city, I find it much easier and more efficient not to consume any animal products whatsoever than to seek out the ones that are supposedly ethical, that are produced in an environment where animals are treated “fairly,” as they say.
“It’s natural for humans to eat meat, poultry, eggs and dairy; we have always done so.”
Life-threatening circumstances such as the Ice Age or droughts forced our prehistoric ancestors to adapt to a meat diet to survive these extreme conditions—which must have created tremendous problems, by the way, considering they weren’t adequately equipped to hunt wild animals or to eat and digest raw flesh. Albeit not entirely unrelated, the notion that animal-eating was the sole reason for the increasing intelligence of prehistoric men is questionable at best. Remember also that we’re talking about a time before homo sapiens even entered the arena, a time before the advent of agriculture. Dairy was added to our diet even more recently and only in certain parts of the world. More often than not, milk still overstrains our digestive system (lactose intolerance). Our situation today is obviously very different from what our distant ancestors experienced and can’t really be compared to previous periods of humanity, let alone Stone Age society. A lot has changed since then, so why should our diet be an exception? What other aspects of modern life do we model after primitive cavemen?
Ethically speaking, what difference does it make whether we’ve always done something or not? We’ve always raped, tortured and slaughtered each other, but would that hold as a moral justification for such barbaric behavior? So why should “our nature” exculpate other acts that engender moral objections? What if a rapist asked for pardon on the grounds that he only acted according to his nature? We’d be outraged and rightfully so. Eating animal flesh, eggs and dairy, no matter how long we’ve done it for, can still be unethical. Our concept of morality keeps changing anyway. Whereas it was considered perfectly ethical to burn heretics and witches alive in medieval times in Europe, we now shudder at such instances of grave moral misjudgement. In some parts of the Islamic world it’s still considered a morally sound act to kill one’s sister or daughter if she chooses to take control over her own sexuality. The point I’m trying to make here is: traditions don’t qualify as moral arguments.
As for the question whether or not humans are carnivorous creatures by nature, it is rather safe to conclude that arguments for a biological basis of this assumption are virtually non-existent. To my knowledge there are no flesh eating mammals on this planet that have proper grinding teeth like we do and jaws that can move from side to side like ours; but most herbivorous animals do. In the animal kingdom, our canines are a joke by any measure: they are useless as hunting instruments, if not for their shortness and bluntness, then for the fact that the human mouth would simply not be big enough to inflict deadly wounds on a bigger mammal, nor would our fingernails pass for claws. So there goes the argument that our pointy cuspids are an indication that we’re natural carnivores. Our close relatives, the gorillas, have fangs too and they are vegetarians—that’s except for the occasional ant or termite. We are also very slow by contrast with any predator alive or extinct. In all fairness, it should be said that our highly developed brain makes up for some of our physical shortcomings as hunters in that it allows us to craft and use tools, but it also enables us to think about the moral implications of our actions. Our intestines are long, much like those of typical herbivores, which allows food to pass through our bodies slowly so we get the maximum of nutrients from it. The pH-levels in our stomachs are similar to those of plant eaters, too. Real carnivores have short intestines because meat must be processed quickly, as it may contain harmful pathogens and parasites. The problem with dairy is that mature mammals usually lack the necessary enzymes for milk digestions. All things considered, the whole discussion about human diet is in the end about ethics, not biology. The question is not if we can eat meat and other animal products but if we should, and whether Cro Magnons ate a lot of meat or not is absolutely irrelevant in this regard.
“It takes a lot of effort to follow a wholefood vegan diet. I really don’t have the time and the energy to think about my diet this much.”
In what other moral context would convenience be an argument? I dare say, none. Making changes to your diet may be a bit challenging at first but once you have the knack of it, being a healthy vegan is really quite simple and far less time-consuming than you think. In any case, it seems like a good idea to me to think about what you put into your body, no matter how busy your schedule. After all, there’s something in it for you too: people who switch to a balanced vegan wholefood diet tend to feel more energized and more able to withstand stress—and less guilty.
“You need to take vitamin B12 supplements; if that’s not a clear indication that humans are not meant to be herbivores, then I don’t know what is.”
A balanced vegan diet should provide plenty of vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin). Many products that you can buy in pretty much any store these days, like different kinds of plant milk and cereal, for example, are fortified with B12. And yes, there are supplements available for a reasonable price, in case you want to make sure. Even though the amount of vitamin B12 we need is very small compared to other vitamins, vegans as well as omnivores shouldn’t take the risk of a vitamin B12 deficiency lightly as very low B12 intakes for extended periods of time can cause anaemia and damage to the nervous system. I find it hard to believe, by the way, that fortified foods only exist in order to cater to a relatively small group of vegans. Apparently, even omnivores sometimes struggle to get a sufficient amount of B12. In fact, vegans using adequate amounts of fortified foods or B12 supplements are much less likely to suffer from B12 deficiency than the typical meat eater, says the Vegan Society. It is important to understand, however, that no plant naturally produces vitamin B12 and neither do animals. The highest concentration of this essential vitamin typically occurs in the livers and intestines of animals. Some mammals, like cows or sheep, for instance, seem to be able to absorb a substantial amount of B12 from their own digestive system, where certain bacteria produce the vitamin by nature—that’s as long as they have a source of cobalt in their diet. Such animals are called foregut fermenters as the B12 is made before the food passes through the part of the intestine where the vitamin gets absorbed. Unfortunately for hindgut fermenters such as certain primates or rabbits, vitamin B12 is only produced after the food has passed this part of the intestine; they need to get it from their diet. This is of course just a very crude and simplified description of a rather complicated process. Some plant eaters seem to solve the B12 problem by eating their own excrements or “creepy-crawlies” like termites. B12-producing bacteria also live in the soil, which is why not too thoroughly washed vegetables straight from the garden are said to contain B12, but not to any reliable degree. What it boils down to is that all animals, humans included, get their B12 from bacteria. Whether we want to get that vital stuff directly from these micro-organisms—there is no such thing as “artificial” B12; supplements (tablets) and fortified foods are just as natural as any other source—or by a devious route—a heavily medicated pig that died kicking and screaming after a short miserable life in captivity, for instance—is in the end a purely ethical decision. Personally, I look at it like this: if there was a simple tablet with no side-effects whatsoever that we could take or a harmless substance that we could just add to our food that would prevent unnecessary animal suffering and ecological damage, wouldn’t it be rather immoral not to take it? I think that’s exactly how we should treat vitamin B12 supplements. If that’s “unnatural,” then what aspect of modern life isn’t? Living within the framework of modern civilization, it makes little sense to condemn something as unnatural on the grounds that in a different scenario we would have to get it by other means. If you conclude that in the wilderness a pure plant diet might not provide sufficient amounts of vitamin B12 for humans and therefore animals should generally be part of our diet even though we live in a completely different environment where a vegan diet can indeed supply us with everything we need, by the same logic, you would also have to reject all the other achievements of civilization such as housing, transport, medical care and clothing. Luckily, we’re not doomed to relive our distant ancestors’ lives; we get to live longer and catching the flue is not a death sentence anymore. It’s called progress. For once, let other creatures benefit from it as well.
“Animals kill other animals to survive, why should we be an exception?”
I always find it baffling when people compare themselves to beasts of prey. It seems obvious to me that we’re not. Biological shortcomings—we have neither proper fangs, nor claws, nor the correspondent digestive system—aside, it is safe to say that if we cut out all plant-based foods from our diet and ate only animals, we would not stay healthy for long, but we can quite easily go our whole lives without ever touching meat or dairy and feel perfectly fine. I don’t think the same can be said about any carnivoran in the animal kingdom. As a species, we’re lucky in that we don’t depend on one particular food source. We are omnivores in that we can eat all sorts of things in order to survive under extreme conditions, even other animals during hard times like an ice age or other humans after surviving a plane crash in some remote ice desert, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we should under normal circumstances. With the advent of agriculture, humanity evolved beyond hunter-gatherers and I believe we should acknowledge the fact that human evolution is an ongoing process that we have the privilege and the duty to actively participate in by making informed conscious choices.
“Animals are here to provide food for humans. If they weren’t, why would they be so nutritious and tasty?”
The problem with this statement is that it reverses cause and effect. I blame this confusion on the religiously infused anthropocentric world view many human cultures have developed in their childhoods out of lack of knowledge. And who can blame them? Almost nothing was known about the nature of the universe and our place in it in those days. In medieval times, for instance, even scholars used to think that everything in nature had a purpose; it had to as it was commonly believed that God had created man in his own image and nature so that man could live off of it. Even the existence of inedible weeds could be explained by a stretch of imagination: they were considered a useful means for farmers to improve their skills because they had to keep weeding them out. Their sole reason to exist, it was believed, was to provide a form of exercise. The same with fleas. Lazy women got fleas as a godly punishment; having to constantly scratch themselves when they weren’t working and thus being unable to enjoy being idle was supposed to teach them a lesson. This really is the same principle as expressed in the initial statement/question. Does it not make a difference that we now know about evolution, about natural selection, adaptation? Animals do not exist for a reason, let alone for the behoof of humans. To ask why they exist is an unscientific question to begin with, because there can clearly not be an answer to it. Why do mountains exist? We know how they came to be, but nothing can be said about why they exist—well, except that it’s definitely not because humans needed something to build castles on or skiing slopes. The grass, the bushes and the trees are not green because this color is especially restful and pleasant to our eyes—quite the reverse is true: we adapted to our environment. Likewise, our taste buds got used to the taste of animal flesh because we have been eating them for such a long time. At the very least, this explanation makes more sense than to say that God created animals according to our taste. Deists and creationists believe that the impressively coordinated complexity of the natural world can only have come into being by design; there must be a plan to all this because certain things appear too perfect to be the product of a string of mere coincidences. There’s a beautiful allegory to this sentiment involving a puddle on a street: if a puddle was an intelligent being it could arrive at the conclusion that it must have been designed by some form of intelligence because it fills its pothole so perfectly—that’s only until it figures out the truth about cause and effect and begins to understand its origin.
“Vegan food is too expensive.”
Vegetables are cheap. Rice is cheap. Pasta is cheap. Some vegan meat and cheese alternatives and other treats can indeed be pricey but they don’t have to be. In fact, plain tofu and soya milk are quite reasonably priced these days and seitan costs next to nothing if you make it from scratch; nutritional yeast is a relatively inexpensive and healthy basis for home-made vegan cheese. I would argue that meat and many other animal products are in fact too cheap. I’m appalled when I see how disrespectfully little the life of a pig or a cow is worth in today’s dumping price culture. It appears as if the strongest incentive to buy animal-based foods these days is their low price. It must be the huge number of units the big supermarket chains move that produces their profit. It seems only logical that this practice inevitably results in mass-produced low-quality products and an exponentially higher degree of animal suffering in factory farms, not to speak of all the ecological damage caused by it. Industrial mass production is a crucial factor in this sort of business procedure. High-quality products always come at a higher cost, but is food, the stuff we put into our bodies every day, the stuff we get our energy from, the stuff that makes us or breaks us, really the right place to be penny-pinching when we happily spend a fortune on alcohol, cigarettes and fancy telecommunication devices? Where do our priorities lie? I do realize that there are many folks, even in the West, who are basically at the mercy of the supermarket chains because their financial situation limits their range of options; they can only afford whatever is on offer within their price range. Whether these people get to eat healthy food that may even be ethically sourced or just cheap crap is therefore determined by whatever price policy the big chain stores pursue. In that sense, I think it really is the responibility of these companies to level the playing field and make healthy food and ethical products more affordable instead of price-dumping factory-farmed animal products.
“The social stigma that comes with being a vegan would be too much for me.”
Veganism seems exotic and weird to some people. But does that make the arguments that convinced you any less true? To stand behind a decision is only hard when you make it for the wrong reasons. Convictions should be something to be proud of, not ashamed. If you’re struggling, try to make friends with other vegans. There are more of us out there than you might think.
“It’s more reasonable to support organic meat and dairy farms than to reject animal products altogether. This way they have a better chance to compete with the big factory farms.”
There are a number of possible objections to this argument. It’s certainly not false to believe that organically farmed free-range meat is the lesser of two evils, if you will, but the fact that we can live a joyful and healthy life without eating any meat at all offers a third option with many advantages that a lot of people seem to deny or dismiss a priori. It’s not just A or B, there are other possibilities, too. If you don’t want to eat meat—there are many possible reasons to feel this way that the above statement doesn’t take into consideration—it doesn’t make any sense to differentiate between different forms of meat production. Organic animal products—organic does not necessarily mean less cruel or more ethical—are usually more expensive than the conventionally farmed ones. What this means is that we end up spending more money on animal products. I don’t think this way we take a convincing stand against animal exploitation. I would argue that the reason why so-called ethical meat even became a thing in the first place was because more and more people turned away from their animal-based diets in protest against the nuisances connected with animal husbandry, and the industry had to pay lip service to this trend. Hoping to avoid severe economical damage to the animal product industry as a whole, they introduced a “light” version of it that would make ethically conscious consumers feel good about eating animals again. Some took the bait, others didn’t. This would ensure that the group of people who felt they didn’t want to eat factory-farmed animal-based food anymore could be divided into smaller factions and would thus not reach critical mass. They were quarantined in different consumer identity groups and couldn’t pose a threat to the animal food industry anymore. The way I see it, the invention of eco-conscious free-range organic meat is in the end just another way of selling us dead flesh against our better judgement. I believe we can do better than that.
“I don’t believe animals are our equals and it’s nonsense to consider them as such; they have a smaller intellectual capacity.”
If this is true, shouldn’t it be our moral obligation to protect those who are at our mercy and not take advantage of them? That’s what our moral compass seems to tell us anyway—that is to say, at least with regards to human beings. Intellectually, severely mentally disabled people function well below the average level of human intelligence, but we feel contempt for the Nazis who considered their lives less valuable and subsequently “terminated” them by the thousands. Eugenics is widely considered barbaric today. What I’m trying to say is: intellect is not everything. What about emotion? What about the ability to suffer, to feel joy, love…? Most of the creatures we keep and kill for food are capable of pretty much the same spectrum of emotions we humans feel and they all die in fear and in pain before they end up on our plates. I think senseless cruelty should generally be avoided, regardless of the victims’ intelligence.
“There are still children dying in the 3rd World and you shed tears over stupid-ass animals?”
This reflects the widespread sentiment that we as a species have bigger fish to fry than to worry about the well-being of non-human animals. Why waste money on animal welfare when millions of people still starve to death every year? Why think about animal rights when human rights are still trampled under foot all over the world? Why help people in Africa when there’s homeless people on our streets? Wait a minute! Some will rightly find the latter statement a bit shocking as it differentiates between two groups of people, not species, but it seems to me that all of the above statements contain the same basic idea: why should we care about others when we have problems of our own? I think that’s generally a very insular way of looking at things. In my mind, human rights and animal rights are not at all mutually exclusive; they go hand in hand. It’s crucial to recognize different forms of injustice and oppression and so is the realization that they are very often inextricably intertwined with each other, especially under capitalism. The animal source foods industry is certainly a factor we must consider when discussing things like world hunger or climate change, for example.
There is, of course, absolutely no reason to believe that only people who don’t care about the well-being of animals can get involved in the struggle against human oppression and the unfair distribution of wealth. This would be a silly assumption but the initial argument quasi implies it. That’s to say that being in a position where we even get to make that decision—whether we want to be an omnivore, a vegetarian or a vegan—is indeed a privilege of the so-called First World, but there is a tremendous difference, I would argue, between positive actions that utilize privilege and actions that abuse or reinforce privilege. In other words, we get to choose and others don’t, so let’s choose wisely. There’s significant progress to be made in both regards, human rights and animal rights, and our silly class- or race-related self-consciousness (“white guilt” etc.) only gets in the way. To be further down the social hierarchy is not a prerequisite to make ethical decisions, to the contrary.
“Vegans always try to shove their views down people’s throats. It’s all just P.C. fascism!”
Walk down any bigger street in your home town. How many advertising panels and billboards for McDonald’s, Burger King and various meat and dairy products do you see? Right, shit loads. How many for vegan alternatives? Chances are, none. Animal products are all around us, constantly. Our learned perception of the world is permanently reinforced—with a clear business interest. Meat is succulent and tasty, not murder, and it’s “manly” to eat meat; buy it or miss out on your share of normality. Oh, and of course all farm animals lead unburdened lives somewhere in the Alps playfully interacting with their human oppressors…err…chaperones. All this is part of our capitalist programming. Through capitalism we’ve learned to see things not for what they are but for what they symbolize within the capitalist framework of consumption and commodities. A hamburger is a symbol. French cheese is a symbol. They seem to represent something more than their questionable nutritional value; they come with a bundle of cultural connotations about certain lifestyles etc. The animals that were forced to lead a short miserable existence in order to make these products disappear under the many layers of meaning we culturally attribute to these symbols. This is alienation par excellence. Our convenient detachment from the production process alienates us from these animals; in our minds, they become an abstract concept; their suffering loses all immediacy. Capitalism creates and reinforces these symbols to cover up the cruel reality behind them and, let’s face it, most of us happily play along with this charade. When we purchase a hamburger we buy a symbol, not the minced bodies of tortured living creatures. These symbols also function as pacifiers in a way. Not only do we wilfully forget all the pain and suffering that went into our “Happy Meal” over its symbolic power, we also fully embrace the pleasure and comfort we are supposed to derive from it. For example: after a particularly draining day at work, exhausted having spent the best part of your day with people we loath, doing something you don’t really enjoy, a “Happy Meal” just seems like the right thing to raise our morale again. I believe this kind of conduct only makes sense within the capitalist logic. When we look at it in a different light it’s actually quite ironic: we suffer under the strains of the capitalist economy and attempt to draw comfort from other aspects of it. We ignore the fact that the very same mechanisms of oppression are at work in both instances; just like human beings are reduced to employees and consumers, a cow becomes beef. That’s what capitalism inherently does; it turns creatures of flesh and blood into commodities, into capital. Solidarity should really be our first impulse here, but the belief that human and non-human animals are fundamentally different makes us blind to the things we actually share with one another. Animals are not exploited because they’re animals—humans are animals too—but they’re defined as animals because we take advantage of them. That’s the same basic concept that made slavery possible; by defining Africans as immature and primitive, as “black,”a powerful myth was construed that then served as a basic justification to enslave them. Cultural differences were seen as deficiencies in the light of eurocentrism.
We continuously buy into a world of symbols and myths without ever questioning them, and I would argue that by rejecting the sugar coated suffering we are offered in return for our own, we take a big step towards freeing ourselves from this kind of indoctrination that keeps us from pursuing actual happiness. Veganism does exactly that. It’ creates instances of literal thinking as opposed to symbolic thinking—it’s about calling a spade a spade, and it’s about solidarity with other animals that are, much like us, reduced to commodities under capitalism. By going vegan, we get a chance to rediscover our actual dietary needs as opposed to the myths we have quite literally been fed all our lives. This concept obviously also works in other contexts. The informed choices we make in our daily lives may not change the world around us instantly, but they do change our perception of it quite drastically, and that’s a start. When you walk past a McDonald’s billboard and you don’t see a tasty meal but maltreated animals, health risks and wasted resources, that’s an instance of successful de-programming. It’s no wonder that we vegans are often accused of shoving our views down people’s throats, given that we set out to dismantle some of our society’s most cherished and most comforting cultural symbols and expose them for what they are: symbolic myths. Within the realm of capitalist hegemony, i.e. our current mainstream culture, the implications of such unconventional life choices must indeed seem annoyingly inconvenient to certain people. But wouldn’t we all be better off if we got more involved in creating the culture we actually want than to merely consume and thus reinforce the one we’re being served—again, quite literally?
“The production process of vegan food is environmentally harmful and unhealthy.”
I can only speculate where this opinion comes from, but you do hear it occasionally. It’s like saying that you shouldn’t ride a bike because bikes are industrially produced and therefore cause pollution while driving a sports car. Some people also argue that vegan meat alternatives like tofu are processed to a higher degree than meat is, which is not entirely false, to be honest, but then—well, it’s not really true either; it only takes a few very simple steps to make tofu from soya beans—who really eats raw meat on a regular basis? Who drinks cow’s milk that hasn’t been pasteurized, not to speak of cheese and sausages? I think it’s fair to say that for the most part typical animal-based food is in fact extremely processed. From a nutritional point of view, we should definitely eat less processed and more raw food, but I don’t believe that red meat, poultry, eggs and milk are the most likely candidates for that sort of diet. In fact, eating unprocessed animal products can get quite risky sometimes (foul meat, salmonella, food poisoning), whereas most vegetables are even healthier when consumed raw and you can easily tell bad fruit and veg from fresh produce even with the naked eye. Furthermore, I would say that it’s reasonable to assume that a plant-based diet is generally more likely to contain a greater variety of fresh fruit and vegetables than an animal-based diet typically does.
“I don’t want to eat all that genetically modified soya; and what about the rainforests they cut down to make room for soya mono cultures? I’d rather have my steak.”
The specter of genetically modified soya has haunted us for decades. The problem is you will find soya in practically everything these days, not just typical soya products like tofu and soya milk. Due to their health food status, the soya-based products many vegans add to their diets as a supplementary source of plant protein are in fact least likely to contain genetically modified ingredients—at least according to the manufacturers. Many of these products also promise to be “ethically sourced” as the companies that make them are fully aware that customers who buy vegan health food tend to also care about things like sustainability and the environment. A huge portion—I dare say the lion share—of the genetically modified soya that is grown in the world today is used as animal feed. Being extremely nutritious and cheap, soya is widely regarded as perfect feed for cattle and other farm animals. It is my understanding that the regulations most Western countries have in regards to food don’t apply to animal feeding stuffs nor does anyone really seem to care where that stuff is grown and how it is produced. It’s therefore rather safe to say that it’s predominantly through the consumption of animal-based foods that we consume genetically modified produce and support rainforest deforestation and extensive mono cultures. Consider this: if only a tenth of the land is needed to produce a certain amount of plant protein as opposed to the same amount of animal protein, surely an increasing number of vegans would mean a drastic decrease in the total amount of acres that are used up for food production, not to speak of the thousands of liters of water that go into a single steak.
“If everybody went vegan all those farmers would lose their basis of existence; and what would become of all those animals? If we allowed them all to die of old age they’d outnumber us humans and it would be an ecological catastrophe.”
A scenario where the whole world suddenly stops consuming animals is not only extremely unlikely, it’s not what the vegan “movement” is pushing for either. However, to significantly reduce our dependence on animal products is irrefutably an ecological imperative that society must actively work towards and our approach to agriculture therefore must change, too. Just like reducing our dependence on fossil fuels has proven difficult because of the business interests that are tied to it, freeing humanity from the stranglehold of the meat and dairy industry will also be a slow process the end of which none of us are likely to see in our lifetimes. But does that make a more ideal world in which we do everything in our power to avoid unnecessary suffering and destruction any less desirable? Does it make the rejection of animal exploitation less reasonable, less sane? We humans have done our best to create an ecological catastrophe of biblical proportions and the meat and dairy industry sits right at the core of the problem. It pollutes and exploits the planet and it contributes to global warming like no other food industry. To say that the abolition of all this would entail an ecological disaster seems to have no basis in fact. It is really quite simple: the smaller our dependence on farm animals, the fewer of them we need to breed. Veganism is aimed at having an impact on the farm products market; it hopes to make the farming of animals less profitable and to encourage the emergence of viable alternatives. After all, demand is just as critical a business factor in agriculture as it is in any other line of production. That is not to say that consumer veganism alone will bring down the mighty animal products industry, but it can certainly undermine its powerful position in our society. Today, many farmers still rely on animal exploitation to make a living and some of them have done so for generations. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they should; the mere fact that animal husbandry is profitable doesn’t make it ethical. Again, slavery offers a good analogy here. Not too long ago, many large-scale farms and plantations in the Americas and some other parts of the so-called civilized world used people of color as slaves. Like farm animals today, slaves were regarded as commodities and could therefore be ruthlessly exploited. The slave “owners” would argue that without slaves they wouldn’t make any profits and would therefore oppose abolitionist ambitions. Their livelihoods, some would claim, depended on their right to keep slaves. As is the case with animal husbandry today, the right of one group to exploit another was considered more important—for obvious selfish reasons—than the right of the exploited to live in freedom. Back then, a lot of people feared that the economy as a whole could collapse if slavery was abolished. It didn’t. New means of agricultural production were found that weren’t premised on abducting and enslaving people from other continents. As more and more people began to view slavery as an utterly unethical practice, it simply had to end—that’s not to say the slave owners and their racist sympathizers went down without a fight. Given all the ethical objections raised against animal husbandry, I strongly believe that modern society should likewise aspire to abandon the exploitation of animals—the sooner, the better!
“But the Bible says…”
In this context, people who quote the Bible as a desperate last resort usually refer to the following passage from Genesis: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Leaving aside the fact that the Bible is in itself very contradictory and that its authors had a very limited understanding of the world, it is only fair to assume that if you rely on the “Word of God” in this instance, presumably because you believe in the moral authority of God and his best-selling book, you would also have to believe in the talking snake and that “God Almighty” created the universe in six days—a truly wearisome endeavor after which the big guy needed a one-day break—and then, roughly 3000 years later, sent his demigod son, a human being born of a virgin but somehow an incarnation of God himself, on a suicide mission to the Middle East, which was the only way he could forgive man, whom he had created in his own image but somewhat flawy, for his sins. Clearly, this is nonsense. But the crux here is that as a believer you don’t really get to pick and choose; to believe in certain parts of the Bible and dismiss others, that’s not how holy books work. The Bible, like the Quran, is sort of a moral package deal—that’s unless you admit that religion is man-made and religious scripture is not really the word of God, in which case religious doctrines compete in the same arena as any other school of thought out there. Can there really be any doubt that better books have been written on the subject of morality? Rape and child abuse are not even mentioned in the Ten Commandments, for instance. By the way, this is what God seems to think about homosexuals: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (Leviticus 20:13) Turns out “God hates fags” after all. All things considered, the Bible may not be such a good source to look for informed moral arguments.
“If we don’t kill/eat them, they’ll kill/eat us.”
Come on. Granted, there are animals that could theoretically kill us if they had to—not by choice, that is, but if they were really really starving, for instance, or in self-defence—but those are not the animals humans usually eat, are they? Just stay clear of lions and other big carnivores out in the wild and you’ll be just fine. Similar, supposedly witty arguments include such high points of human ingenuity as “If God didn’t want us to eat animals he wouldn’t have made them so tasty,” or“You’re eating my food’s food.” Just a short comment on the latter: neither do vegans eat grass nor would we ever touch the crap that is being fed to farm animals today. Different mammals, birds and fish ground to carcass meal doesn’t really qualify as vegan food, does it? To put that in context, the domestic cow is now among the biggest marine predators on the planet. Maybe it’s just me, but something doesn’t feel right about that.
“Don’t lecture me about meat-eating and the keeping of farm animals. My grandparents had a farm and I grew up watching pigs being slaughtered and we’d have fresh milk and eggs every day.”
Some people seem to believe that their peasant upbringing somehow invests them with the legitimization to completely ignore the ongoing discussion about ethics and morality in the context of animal husbandry. I don’t think it does. As far as my experience goes, people who say things like that just like to boast about how desensitized they are and how normal it is for them to witness or even carry out animal slaughter as if that could ever be an argument for it in a rational discussion. It’s an archaic display of toughness and hardness that only gets in the way of any productive critical analysis of the subject. Incidentally, the reality of modern agricultural production has very little in common with this “idyllic” idea of farming anyway.
“So what if we’re at the top of the food chain!”
Are we really? We humans have eradicated pretty much every predator on land that could seriously harm us and the oceans will soon follow. Where are the wolves and the bears that used to roam our forests? If we hadn’t destroyed their natural habitats and hunted them to extinction—mind you, not to eat them!—these graceful beasts could still pose a serious threat to humans: they wouldn’t think twice and fucking eat us. Biologically, we are clearly not at the top of the food chain simply because there are proper carnivorous creatures out there that, given a fair chance, could hunt us down and eat us with no sweat, but as we crowned ourselves the arbiters of the world we abandoned the natural order and changed it around according to our selfish needs. We are not even part of any natural food chain anymore, so how can we be on top of one? That said, it appears evident to me that there never was such a thing as the food chain anyway but rather food chains, plural. The food chain in the Atlantic ocean, for example, shows no overlaps with the one in Central Africa, except maybe that both feature animals that could easily kill and eat us if we got too close to them. The thought suggests itself that the food chain (singular) is just another anthropocentric concept invented by humans as it is simply a more plausible claim to be at the top of one such hierarchy than to claim sovereignty over multitudinous ecosystems some of which we don’t even fully understand yet.
“If you go vegan for ethical reasons you would also have to stop driving a car, quit shopping at supermarkets, avoid plastic and other environmentally harmful things, go to protests and rallies and not have children, because otherwise you’d be a short-sighted fucking hypocrite.”
However much sense some of the things listed here may make in the eyes of both vegan and non-vegan environmentalists, the statement as a whole is still not sound. No conclusive argument can be deduced from whether we do all of these things, half of them or none of them that would constitute a good reason to dismiss veganism. Veganism means precisely one thing: the refusal to consume animal products, be it for ethical reasons, health reasons or both. These reasons can be true or false, but they don’t actually depend on any other activities you may or may not be involved in—that is, unless such activities are indeed contradictory to the core principles of veganism; you can’t call yourself a vegan and eat meat or engage in blood sports, for instance—well, technically you could do the latter, it just doesn’t make much sense. Don’t get me wrong, there is some kind of logic behind the argument that being a vegan is intertwined with other aspects of leading a politically aware life, as veganism is at bottom merely a consumer choice within the framework of capitalism, a form of boycott that has its limits, and certainly not the panacea for all the wrongs caused by our species. However, it seems absurd to argue that changing your diet makes no sense unless you change every other aspect of your life as well. All the potential health benefits of the vegan diet aside, no one can seriously deny that its environmental impact is very slight compared to an animal-based diet. On average, a vegan’s carbon foot print is considerably smaller than that of a typical meat eater and that appears to be generally true regardless of other lifestyle factors. That’s not to say that going vegan automatically entitles you to claim moral high ground as there are many different angles from which to attack exploitative structures, and I believe they’re all worthy of our consideration.
“Being a radical anarchist, I work towards the downfall of civilization as such. This will eventually bring about the liberation of humans and animals. To waste time concerning myself with the effects of my diet would be counterproductive to my cause.”
(See also previous argument.) Where is the logic in supporting something you don’t agree with and obviously want gone? Political radicalism and alternative consumer behavior are by no means mutually exclusive; they are two sides of the same medal. However small the impact of your boycott, it is nonetheless highly illogical to finance your enemies. It’s one thing to criticize veganism as a domain of armchair environmentalists and bourgeois do-gooders, but you can still recognize its potential to attenuate the negative impact our species has on the world and quite literally save lives. Personally, I always find it particularly strange when former vegans suddenly go back to omnivorism, dismissing the boycott of certain products or companies as “mainstream” or “reformist” as they now believe in a more radical ideology that aspires to abolish traditional consumerism and the free market altogether. It just doesn’t seem to make much sense to go a step back in your political development and start from there when your ultimate goal implies that the step you now reverse was in fact a step in the right direction. To me this defies logic. By analogy, would it make any logical sense to start smoking while trying to bring down the tobacco industry? And even if you live in a squat and go out every night to smash the windows of corporate superstores or set police cars on fire during protests, that still doesn’t constitute a sound argument why you shouldn’t also (re-)consider veganism. The benefits of a vegan diet are still in place and it wouldn’t stop you from doing all those things, would it?
“Eating vegan meat substitutes and fake cheese is pathetic. You might as well keep eating the real thing, if you love it so much.”
Why is it that vegans often crave foods that resemble meat in taste and texture? That’s a fair question. First, here’s what it doesn’t mean: it doesn’t mean that a human diet without any such meat-like substances is unthinkable, nor does it mean that the vegan diet would lack anything essential if it didn’t contain meat or dairy substitutes, nor does it have anything to do with a suppressed appetite for dead flesh. There is actually a different question we could ask: why is it that people still insist on eating animal products when they know healthier cruelty-free alternatives exist and are available practically everywhere? Sure, they may not all taste exactly the same but I would argue that that’s a very small price to pay in view of all the potential benefits of a plant-based diet. When we talk about ethics and ecological/environmental concerns or our health, it shouldn’t matter what our food looks like; it’s how it affects the environment and the well-being of humans and animals that counts, which, in my mind, renders any discussion about the shape, taste and texture of food irrelevant in this context. Fake chicken legs with bamboo sticks for bones or mock fish fillets with sea weed for skin are a tongue-in-cheek way to say, look, we vegans don’t actually have to deny ourselves these treats—only in our case no animals were harmed. However, a balanced vegan diet doesn’t actually rely on that stuff. Other meat alternatives such as meat-free sausages, burgers or baloney don’t actually imitate the flesh of any particular animal but merely the convenient form in which processed meat typically occurs. Plain tofu and seitan are nothing but concentrated plant protein and bear no likeness to actual animal flesh. These gradations should be taken into account when we talk about meat and dairy substitutes, or, more accurately, alternatives. I can’t see anything wrong with processing plant protein similarly to animal protein; it doesn’t compromise the vegan philosophy in the least. Having said that, I do find some vegans’ obsession with food that resembles meat—the more closely, the better—rather baffling myself. For instance, some people use words like “realistic” and “accurate” to describe certain fake meat dishes. I don’t think that should be the goal, but if it helps them to stick to their diets, or if it wins people over, that’s fair enough. After all, we didn’t give up hamburgers because we hated the taste. Just like most other people, today’s vegans were brought up on animal products so it really shouldn’t surprise that we took a liking to certain flavors we learned to associate with animal-based foods rather early on in our lives. It’s the exploitative commodification of animals we reject, not any particular taste. Decades of conditioning can’t be undone overnight. I think the very fact that we find most of these flavors in vegan products says a lot about how much of the mouth-watering taste that we typically associate with non-vegan dishes is actually just a matter of seasoning. My personal experience is that going vegan opens more doors than it closes in terms of culinary enjoyment. The fine tuning of our taste buds improves and a world of forgotten pleasures presents itself in the shape of an abundance of tasty vegetables and fruit.
“What about freeganism? Eating animal products is okay as long as we don’t pay for them.”
Freegans don’t pay for food; they only eat what others throw away. There is an abundance of perfectly good food to be found in the dumpsters behind supermarkets—I speak from personal experience. As an anti-consumerist statement this makes perfect sense and the argument that eating animal products that exist outside the dynamics of the market doesn’t contribute to the exploitation of animals is sound. However, there are certain aspects of omnivorous freeganism I have a problem with. Animals are still reduced to food, for example. Consider this analogy: sexist images of women don’t suddenly become less sexist just because you look at them in a magazine that you found in the trash. Likewise, eating animal products out of a garbage bin is still an act of speciesism. The commodification of sentient beings is still in full play even outside the market. For sustainable changes to happen, a fundamental shift in our perception of non-human animals is therefore indispensable. Omnivorous freegans still look at animals as food and I would argue that this attitude is one of the main obstacles the animal rights movement is facing today.
To sum all this up in a few words, I think it’s safe to say that the following things are true:
There is no objective reason why anybody should consume animal products unless they live in an environment where plant-based alternatives are scarce or unaffordable. The same goes for people with certain health conditions that render it impossible to live off of vegetables and fruit.
Overall, the “production” of animal source foods entails more animal cruelty and ecological damage than a plant-based diet. That is not to say that the most ethical kind of animal husbandry imaginable is necessarily worse than the most destructive way to grow crops. However, let’s not forget that enormous amounts of crops are grown just to feed farm animals.
Metaphysical claims don’t qualify as arguments in a rational discussion.
The reduction of suffering in the world is desirable.
Veganism contributes to the reduction of suffering in the world.
The reduction of environmental destruction is desirable.
Veganism contributes to the reduction of environmental destruction.
As this is not a scientific paper, I chose to forgo formal citation. The internet should provide a sufficient tool to follow up on my claims. I highly recommend reading up on all the worrying effects that eating pork, beef, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy can have on our health and the environment as well as the many advantages of a plant-based diet in these respects. As with any harmful substance, due regard must be given to dosage when we talk about the health risks associated with animal products. I would also like to encourage everyone to listen to different opinions and make up their own minds. The “ivory tower way of looking at things” I criticize in one of the above arguments is something vegans should definitely beware of. All too easily we put ourselves up on a moral pedestal without considering how fundamentally different other people’s living conditions may actually be from ours. There is no point being judgmental. That is not to say we shouldn’t live by our convictions and let people know about them. Ultimately, veganism should be about informed life choices. I admit that some of the things stated here merely reflect my opinion, not hard facts, although I tried to keep those at a minimum. In no way is this piece meant to offend or ridicule omnivores, it simply aims to do away with some old-established myths and misconceptions and to dissect arguments against veganism that may seem water-proof at first appearance. When I draw parallels between the results of profound moral misjudgements in human history and the exploitation of animals, it is only on the structural level. What I’m not saying is “animal husbandry equals slavery” or “concentration camp equals abattoir,” let alone “chicken equals concentration camp detainee,” but I do take some of the similarities concerning systematics and causality into account and discuss the moral implications this may have. As for capitalism, I don’t assume the authority to explain exactly how it works in economical terms, but I do reserve the right to talk about it in this context as I believe that living under the capitalist system for 30-odd years has given me at least some basic expertise; it’s basic mechanisms are rather obvious, I would say. Just like despotism means the rule of a despot, capitalism means the rule of capital. Those who manage to accumulate the most capital hold the most power. Capital can be anything, from stocks to livestock. Anything can be turned into a commodity. Naturally, the needs of commoditized beings are secondary to their market value. The market itself seems to be no more predictable than a game of roulette. We are led to believe that our only chance to win in the capitalist casino is to play, but just like in a regular casino the house always comes out ahead. Admittedly, veganism as a form of consumer behavior is basically just an alternative way to play, but it can be so much more than that: it can make us more aware of things and it can be a point of social gathering that exists a bit further outside of the capitalist dynamics of oppression and exploitation than a great many others.