Monday, January 24, 2011

Mailbag Monday: Vegetarianism

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.

Ben writes via e-mail:
Can you discuss the philosophical arguments on each side of the vegetarianism debate (meat eaters vs. non-meat eaters)? It's a subject that's interesting to me, I would enjoy seeing both sides laid out.
Sure thing, bro.

So first, no one seems to have a philosophical reason to eat meat. No one is taking a principled stand, thinking "Eating meat is the only way to save the planet, or the cows will fucking take over!" or waving signs that say, "GOD HATES PIGS" at PETA conferences. Meat eaters usually don't feel the need to justify themselves to vegetarians, since apparently a diet that includes meat is the natural state for humans: after all, our teeth are suited for both grinding plants and tearing flesh, and our digestive system has no problem dealing with a diet with lots of protein in it. Plus, we find it fucking delicious. How did that evolve unless meat is beneficial?

Of course, natural doesn't necessarily mean good; it's also our 'natural' state to live in caves and shit in holes. Indoor plumbing is both completely unnatural and totally fucking awesome. But it does seem to establish that eating meat is the default, and the burden of proof is on those who would have us act otherwise. They must provide compelling reasons why we should abandon meat. Maybe there are those reasons - why don't we poop outdoors anymore? Because it spreads disease and is generally unsanitary - but if there's no good reason to not eat meat, that's enough for meat eaters. The philosophical case for eating meat is simply the observation that bros love steak coupled with refutations of the arguments against bros loving steak.

It's important to keep in mind that "vegetarianism" is an umbrella term that covers a bunch of different diets - some vegetarians eat everything except meat; some don't eat meat or dairy; some don't eat meat, dairy, or eggs; some don't eat any animal products at all. Vegetarians have given a bunch of different reasons why we shouldn't eat meat, and there are a lot of subtleties. The most widespread and philosophical concerns, however, are grounded in animal rights.

So two key questions are: do animals have rights, and if so, do those rights forbid us from eating them?

Obviously we don't let dogs vote. Why? Well, one reason is that as much as bros love dogs, we know they're just not capable of understanding the political system. Dogs are loyal to bros, not ideologies. So they don't have a right to vote. But dogs definitely can feel pain, and so can cows, pigs, chicken, and just about any other source of meat. Peter Singer, a utilitarian thinker who teaches at Princeton, says that their pain is just as valid as ours - we're being speciesist (think 'racist', but with species) to ignore it. Humans have a special moral capacity, and as Uncle Ben taught us, with great power comes great responsibility. We have devised means of survival that don't entail killing animals, just like we've devised means of shelter that don't entail caves or outhouses. We're advanced enough that we don't need to eat meat, and we shouldn't kill animals needlessly. 

Meat eaters respond to this in a couple ways - first, most of them reject that animal pleasure and pain really are as valid as human pleasure and pain. For starters, we have no way to measure it. Sure, cats yelp when you step on their tails, but how much pain is that compared to, say, a bro breaking a leg? How many fried ants add up to a beheaded chicken? Humans can communicate about pain and rank it. All we have are animal reactions, and they tend to freak the fuck out at the slightest provocation. Besides, even if we could measure animal pain, are we sure it is just as valid? Humans can anticipate, plan for, work toward, and remember distinctly pain and pleasure. Its why bros look good all the time - there's always potential pleasure to be had. Most animals just feel it and then... that's it. Sensation gone. 

Animals bred for the specific purpose of being eaten present a special problem. If we breed a cow for the specific purpose of eating it, and it lives a comfortable and reasonably pleasurable life - enough pleasure to significantly outweigh the pain of a swift execution - and then its meat goes to create the pleasure of prime rib for some bros, doesn't that maximize pleasure way better that vegetarianism? Some vegetarians think it's wrong to create life with the express purpose of eventually killing it. Others question how painless a death we can really provide.

So a utilitarian says that animals do have a right not to have pain inflicted on them, and this might forbid us from eating them, depending on the subtleties of utilitarian theory and the treatment of animals. Of course, those are just utilitarian considerations. if you're not a utilitarian, they don't matter. 

Maybe animals have other rights, but it's hard to see what those would be or on what basis they exist. Certainly not a social contract, since animals can't themselves reason morally or respect rights; tigers, for example, have historically ignored the right of magicians not to have their goddamn faces eaten off. Some philosophers reject the idea of animal rights or obligations of humans to animals out of hand. If an animal can't reason, can't respect rights, can't articulate rights, can't exercise rights, then how the hell can it have rights? What does it mean to have rights you can't exercise at all, even in principle? Do I have a right to collect rocks from Mars? It's hard to say.

Maybe, even if they don't have rights, we just shouldn't be cruel to them. Kicking puppies seems wrong, doesn't it? Some vegetarians think that intuition points to something deeper, and it's just plain wrong to kill animals needlessly. Most meat eaters just aren't satisfied with this claim, and have different intuitions - animals eat other animals all the time, even when they don't need to. Grizzly bears work real hard for fresh fish, even though they could get by on roots and carcasses, and that doesn't seem wrong at all. In fact, it's kind of cool to watch. Bears are majestic fucking creatures.

It boils down to this: most vegetarians have moral reasons that compel them to abstain from meat. Meat eaters either don't find those reasons compelling enough, or they find ways to meet them without completely avoiding meat: if the concern is animal pain or cruelty, maybe we can just treat them better while they're alive, problem solved. Or maybe abstaining from meat altogether is the only moral choice.


More reading:
You can find a debate on animal rights between Judge Richard Posner and Peter Singer online here.

Peter Singer's Animal Liberation lays out the case for consideration of animal pain and pleasure.

Jean Kazez's Animalkind: What We Owe to Animals (Blackwell Public Philosophy Series) is a good survey of the literature on animal rights broadly.


  1. As a meat-eating bro, I would also like to make the argument that it is very arguable whether or not we have yet devised a way to "live" that does not involve eating meat or meat by-products.

    While any individual bro may be able to "survive" (as you put it) without meat, many dietitians and doctors will quickly tell you that there are significant costs to doing so. Many believe that a high protein diet not only allows the most bro-tastic athletic lifestyles that all bros aspire to, but also that the bro-man body generally works better with larger amounts of protein than vegetarians are often able to get.

  2. Huashengtuzi, It's true that many dietitians and doctors will quickly tell you that there are significant costs to an animal-free diet, but there are also many who will say otherwise. The point is, the "Health Issue" is controversial. You might be surprised to find out just how many of the anti-vegetarian claims concerning health are propagated by companies who have some stake in the animal industry, and are patently false.

    Anyway, in my own experience as a vegan athlete, I've had no issue with getting sufficient protein, I just get it from different sources than I used to. I've only been vegan for slightly less than a year, but I'm still healthy as ever, and I still remain among the biggest of the bros at the gym.

  3. Comepelling piece, but the main reasons behind my veganism are rooted in environmental reasons, not animal rights. I think it's a bigger issue than people realize, or are exposed too. Health was my other reason, being on a vegan diet I do have to pay way more attention to just how much of what I am getting in a day, but my energy is way higher, I find it easier to get out of bed in the morning, my stomach is rarely upset, and I feel all around fresher. It may be psychological, but it does exist.

  4. Meat is a God given commodity, humanity couldn't survive without it. Imagine Roman centurions eating soy burgers and fighting Gallic soldiers, game fucking over for Rome.

    Imagine Ottomans nailing people on stakes eating rice crisps. BANG, no more Ottomans.

  5. Also, best Captcha ever: Lacan

  6. "Meat is a God given commodity, humanity couldn't survive without it."
    that is utter bullshit.. people can perfectly survive on vegetarian diets. guys can even grow muscular with 6packs etc on strictly vegetarian diets.
    while i do agree that there are many obstacles one may face when attempting a vegetarian diet, if vegetarianism is argued for based on principles/morals then such practical issues DO NOT MATTER and we should seek towards a vegetarian society. or smth.

    though personally i don't believe in any moral reasoning for vegetarianism. so i still get to enjoy my sushi :)

  7. @guoshe fish are not animals? Is ok to steal eggs to our chicken bros?

    eating a vegetal is right? A three has rights?

    Is enviromentally ok to eat just vegetals? Facts?

    How do we tell the cheap bros "Do not eat meat shit! eat this delicious and way expensive vegetal"?


    This is philosophical argument, not an environmental, economical or even nutritional debate. It's about whether it's morally acceptable to kill and consume other living beings. Philosophy Bro pretty much states in the end to each Bro his own, just don't be a douche to animals while they are living.

  9. @Pang yo dawng, I heard you are right. The coherence question remains:

    What is the rulo to eat? I mean, begans can argue mammals are nice and feel pain. A shrimp does not fell a shit. From the moral standpoint, can I have a prawn cocktail in da club with the bros?

  10. One little nitpick: utilitarians cannot argue for rights. For a utilitarian a right can only exist as a useful fiction (there's utility in a society pretending that rights exist). Rights aren't nearly as "real" for utilitarians as they are for deontologists. This is the most obvious problem with Peter Singer's "Animal Liberation" -- he spends a great deal of time arguing for a utilitarian position on animal suffering, and then jumps right into the claim that animals should have rights. However it's still a very important book that every ethicist should read.

    Practicing Jainism requires one to be a vegetarian (and very nearly a vegan). This is a religion which has millions of adherents and it's been around for over 2500 years. The continued existence of these people seriously undermines your position.

  11. @skullgrid

    I think we actually have the same point here; that it is indeed controversial. The only thing that I was hoping to illustrate was that we should not take it for granted that we have "solved" the need to eat meat.

  12. @Pang

    I'd just like to point out that plants are also living creatures.

  13. And that that was a major problem for the Pythagoreans, who believed that all living creatures, plants included, had souls, and this was the source of their diet. Although, the plant thing was contested, and some interpreters think that only certain plants had souls. Pythagoras himself is known to have died in a field of corn because the guys chasing him down caught up to him when he realized the next field was one of beans, and he thought beans defo had souls. What a bro.

  14. The real problem here is the instinctive revultion most people feel at the idea of meat grown in vats, despite the fact that such meat would almost certainly be superior to meat grown on cows, pigs, and chickens.

    Grown in a sterile environment, with scientifically controlled nutrition, and no need for steroids or antibiotics to grow cheaply and efficiently, vat grown meat would almost certainly be superior to most meats on the market if people were willing to give it a chance.

    Of course, a transition to vat meat would arguable be a terrible thing for most of those species, since the majority of their habitat would likely be quickly reclaimed for playing golf on.

  15. I've read this 'very short introduction' on the subject:

    It really changed my meat-eating mind. I would also recommend:
    Being Good - Simon Blackburn
    The ethics of climate change - James Garvey

  16. As a vegetarian, my reasons are slightly different than what is mentioned above.

    One reason is that I find the factory farming system disgusting, and not just for moral reasons. Eating something pumped full of anti-biotics and forced to live packed in a giant windowless warehouse knee-deep in its own filth is a pretty gross thought. And that is the reality of most (certainly not all, there's free-range) meat on the market.

    Second, the environmental reasons mentioned earlier. It's a biological fact that energy gets lost up the food chain. Eating a cow is less efficient than eating the grain the cow eats. For every pound of cow meat, around 25 pounds of grain and a varying amount of fossil fuels are expended. At a time when many people are starving and the best science available says fossil fuels and deforestation are raising the global temperature to dangerous level, eating meat can be considered unethical because it contributes to both of those problems.

  17. "Most vegetarians have moral reasons that compel them to abstain from meat."

    I'd like to know what source this statement is based on.

    As a vegetarian who happens to know several other vegetarians, I would beg to differ with this point. Environmental and health reasons (I know, already discussed, and not the "philosophical point" of the article) top the list of reasons for my vegetarianism and those of most other vegetarians I know.

    Not saying that the philosophical argument is wrong or irrelevant, but this article makes it sound like all vegetarians are stupid people who put animals on the same level as humans. Not true.

  18. They've done surveys, haven't they? Be interesting to see what percent of vegetarians are in it for moral reasons. I know 12, including myself, and we are definitely in it for the moral issues.

  19. "...if the concern is animal pain or cruelty, maybe we can just treat them better while they're alive, problem solved."

    I think this is a cop-out. Just a way to avoid dealing with the real moral questions. Theoretically it sounds good but in the real world we treat the animals we use for food with horrendous and vicious cruelty, from birth to slaughter.

  20. It may be of interest to anyone questioning the health concerns of a vegetarian diet to read the latest American Dietetic Association report that explicitly states:

    "It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes"


    Furthermore, for the bro's hitting the gym concerned with a vegetarian diet being inadequate, look up the renown super-human Scott Jurek - A vegan ultra-marathon runner who's won more races than I could name.

  21. Despite the fact that this is a philosophical article, and the responses should pertain to that; I feel compelled to ask for an explanation of how vegetarianism is ecologically superior to other diets. Please explain, if you have the time or care to enlighten this humble internetter.

  22. @robowan: There are several parts to the ecological vegetarian argument. Skip to the end if you want the tl;dr. My arguments could use some in-between steps but I think this presents the basic idea well enough.

    Meat inefficiency argument:

    1. Animals are machines that convert vegetables into meat. They are not perfectly efficient -- some things aren't digested, some energy is expended to keep the animal alive. Experimentally speaking, meat is about 10-100x less efficient than eating vegetables directly (depending on the resource you're talking about -- calories or water).
    2. The vegetables that animals eat (generally things like soy) are grown on farms.
    3. Since the animals are not perfect meat machines, more farms are required than if humans just ate vegetables.
    4. Farms mess shit up (destruction of habitats, fertilizers doing shit to rivers and oceans, pesticides, other hippie reasons). More farms means more shit messed up.
    Therefore, eating animals causes shit to be messed up (worse than it would be without animal eating).

    Global warming argument:

    1. Cows produce methane (a greenhouse gas about 23x "worse" than carbon dioxide). This accounts for something like 14% of the greenhouse gas emission in the world.
    2. Cows only exist in such large numbers because people eat them.
    Therefore, eating cows is responsible for something like 14% of global warming.

    The argument for not eating fish is simpler:

    1. Overfishing is messing shit up.
    2. People eating fish is the cause of overfishing (by creating financial incentives).
    Therefore people eating fish is messing shit up.

    Common Counter-Arguments:

    Some assholes say, "But what about all of the rainforests and shit being cut down to make soy. Shouldn't we not eat tofu then?".

    The answer is that the vast majority of soy produced is fed to livestock. We wouldn't need nearly as much if we just ate it how it is instead of putting it into the meat-machine.

    There's another one that goes something like "Well what about the land that isn't useful for farming. Shouldn't we be using raising animals on it? You know, the kind that don't 'produce methane'."

    I think from an ecological perspective, most people would agree that this is reasonable, but my strawman-bro is overestimating how much of this land actually exists, and how many animals it could support. The thing is, land that's good for grazing is likely good for planting, and land that's not good for planting probably isn't good for grazing -- although it might support some animals, there's just not enough for our current level of meat consumption.

    tl;dr The ecological impact of eating meat is always lower than eating vegetables because the meat-producing animals have to eat vegetables. Also overfishing sucks and cows burp and fart a lot.

  23. It seems like the arguments against the vegetarian-argument confuse the terms "being-of-moral-consideration" and "able-to-make-moral- considerations." It is possible for an entity to be one and not the other, eg a human child or mentally damaged human is not able to make moral considerations but does deserve moral consideration. By moral consideration I mean that their rights/interests should be taken into consideration when an entity that is able to make moral considerations is making a moral decision. You should check-out/discuss the "argument from marginal cases."


    We should also take plant pain and suffering into consideration...
    take it the next step, and live off minerals, edible oils, and other synthetic foods

  25. I didn't take animal suffering seriously until I watched the _Earthlings_ documentary. I've been vegetarian ever since. That was 2.5 years ago.

    Check it out:

  26. Two of my three housemates are vegie and the other guy is the kind of asshole who doesn't even give a shit about humans unless he can get something from them, so I find myself wondering about this.

    I've decided that I don't care nearly as much about animal suffering as I do about the bigger picture, partly the cut-the-fucking-rainforest-down-to-feed-livestock thing and more importantly the oh-shit-we're-creating-antibiotic-resistant-diseases thing.

    My vegie housemates would fucking hate me for saying that I don't care about animal welfare, but shit, these are cows and pigs and shit, there are loads of them, fuck 'em. The reason why I am cutting down my meat consumption to once every few weeks (and decreasing) is that I am worried about the rainforest and antibiotics becoming useless.

  27. As a vegetarian of 5 years, I can say that my reasons for choosing this lifestyle have absolutely nothing to do with animal rights. I believe in the food chain and the cycle of life, but I certainly don't believe in exploitation of workers or the accumulation of wealth by a few meat processing companies at the hands of middle class Americans and immigrant laborers. Have you ever been to a meatpacking plant? Seriously, it hasn't changed since we had guys losing their arms giant vats of slog (The Jungle still applies)!

    I also choose veggie because I believe in living in solidarity with those across the world who cannot afford to eat meat 3x a day like the USDA tells us to. With the rise of global capitalism on the backs of billions of people who sustain themselves on beans, rice, millet, etc., I simply refuse to participate in a neocolonial system that ignores the damage we're doing across the world. Do you think everyone, if they had unlimited amounts of money, would be able to eat meat in the amounts that we do? Absolutely not--not physically possible. If we stopped using water to grow corn to stuff into cows mouths and let them roam around and mow on grass like they were born to do, then I'd actually EAT meat--and weird, so would millions of others who we would be able to feed with those resources that we've been expending on our appetite for (low quality) beef. We would simply be forced to eat it in moderation, rather than at every meal. Why? because you can't grow a healthy cow in a healthy environment in 150 days. One more way that good 'ole America is just using up the world's resources...

    And lastly, I'm not sure what some of these comments above are referring to about "debated" health benefits. ANYONE can be unhealthy, veggie or not. You want to eat french fries and cookies all day, help yourself. But among vegetarians and meat-eaters who have a balanced diet, veggies are healthier in the long run.