A Response to a Vegan Critic

In the comments section to my last post on vegetarianism, vlastimilvohanka posted some of his friend’s criticisms of my piece.  Three of the four were without philosophical content and so rather beside the point on a philosophy blog (but if you wish, you can find my response to them here).  The last one, however, was more philosophically substantive and, I believe, worth addressing:

4.  Even if the author did need dairy and eggs to survive, he makes a serious mistake when he reasons that if his diet supports industries that kill intelligent animals, he might as well go ahead and eat meat, thus supporting even more industries that kill animals. This would be like a general saying, “In order to defend ourselves, we must kill enemy combatants. But if we’re going to do that, we are no longer morally pure. We might as well go ahead and kill the women and children too.” The flaw in this reasoning should be obvious.

As I understand it – interpretation is required, unfortunately, since the author fails to make his reasoning explicit – the critique is dependent upon two different but closely linked claims. The first is that my claim “that the only morally consistent vegetarianism is veganism” is, in a word, wrong. There is room, on what I take to be my critic’s view, for the identification of a moral imperative for harm reduction with moral vegetarianism. The second is that from lacto-ovo vegetarianism’s failure to meet ethical purity standards, it does not follow that a vegetarian ought to abandon their vegetarianism for omnivory instead. It is these arguments that I will address here.

1.      Some Preliminary Statements and Definitions

I don’t suppose that it shall be necessary to define omnivory, while veganism is (or can be) defined simply as an avoidance of all animal products tout court. What stands in need of definition are ‘vegetarianism’ and its cognates. For the duration of this essay, by ‘vegetarian’ I shall be referring not to veganism (which is itself a variety of vegetarianism), but only to those diets that exclude flesh foods while accepting other animal products. On this definition, lacto-, ovo-, and lacto-ovo vegetarianism count, while pescetarianism – a diet that includes seafood but excludes all other flesh foods – does not (but, for some bizarre reason, is considered by many to be included under the vegetarian umbrella). Also, the mental distinction between vegetarianism as a dietary description and vegetarianism as a moral doctrine must be assiduously maintained – therefore, I shall be differentiating between the two as, respectively, ‘vegetarianism’ and ‘moral vegetarianism’ (the same goes for veganism and omnivory). This distinction is an important one to make, since a mere diet cannot be subject to claims of consistency or inconsistency, but a moral doctrine that prescribes a certain diet or set of specific dietary restrictions (e.g. abstention from pork products or the use of yeast in baking) most certainly can. Therefore, at risk of belabouring the point, I am confining myself to the discussion only of moral vegetarianism – the avoidance of flesh foods for reasons of personal distaste or the pursuit of expected health benefits resulting from their abandonment will not be under consideration here.  How, then, is moral vegetarianism to be defined?

As I understand it, the key doctrine of moral vegetarianism is that killing an animal is a wrong or, what is the same, impermissible act[1].  There are different routes used by vegetarian theorists to arrive at this point – for some it is axiomatic, for others it may be based upon animal consciousness or religious imperatives, and there are many more possible justifications for the doctrine – but that this is the crucial component of any moral vegetarianism cannot seriously be denied (the moral case for omnivory, for example, rests on the assumption, whether explicit or implicit, that killing an animal is not wrong simpliciter).  From this disavowal of killing, it is a short step to arguing against the permissibility of the consumption of meat, for obvious reasons.  What differentiates moral vegetarianism from moral veganism (which concurs with this line of argument so far) is that the former permits the use and consumption of animal products which are not harvested through killing (lacto-ovo vegetarianism), whereas the latter, for various reasons, does not.  Of course, I recognize that there is little chance that this (or any given) definition will command universal assent, but this particular account has, I believe, two particular virtues.  The first is that it is general enough and, I think, close enough to the doctrinal core of all moral vegetarianisms that it is a good enough proxy for any of them.  Second, is that this is the skeleton of the moral case for vegetarianism that I found compelling and, since the original essay was specifically about my reasons for and against adhering to a vegetarian diet, this is the appropriate definition to use.  Others may wish to argue for alternative core doctrines for moral vegetarianism, but they shall have to do so on their own time.

2.      My Basic Argument for Moral Inconsistency

The original argument I made was as follows.  If we turn our attention to dairy production, some of its realities become readily apparent.  Just as is the case for humans and other mammalian species, the milk given by dairy cows is intended for the nourishment of their offspring.  This means that in order to give milk dairy cows must be made and kept pregnant.  Like most mammalian species, the sex ratio for dairy cows is approximately 1:1 – for every female calf born, there is (statistically speaking) a male calf born.  The implication of this is that, as far as dairy production is concerned, just fewer than half of all calves are of no use (only a very small number of bulls is required to make and keep an army of dairy-cows pregnant).  Given that this is the case, something or other must be done with all these surplus males.  Even if a dairy-farmer wished to keep the males alive and well, the sheer (and growing) number of them would very quickly prove to be prohibitive[2] – ultimately, the solution is culling.  Much the same may be said for egg production.  With this fact in mind, the inconsistency of the moral case for a vegetarian diet is readily apparent.  Moral vegetarianism is premised upon the doctrine that the killing of animals is wrong, but dairy and egg production for the sake of human consumption necessitates the killing (of a very large number) of animals.  It is certainly not clear to me what meaningful difference exists between the killing of a cow so that one may eat steak and the killing of a cow so that one may drink milk or eat cheese – it seems a distinction without a difference.  For this reason, I suggest that a moral vegetarianism worth its salt actually cannot tolerate the adherence to a mere (lacto-ovo) vegetarian diet and must instead promote a vegan diet[3].  But even if this argument is right, there may be some means by which we might still reconcile moral vegetarianism to (dietary) vegetarianism, so the question is whether there is some other justification of vegetarianism that could be called a moral vegetarianism?

3.      The Inconsistency of Moral Vegetarianism as Harm Reduction

My critic’s example of the war-time general deciding to massacre civilians as a clear example of a moral wrong actually suggests a way to potentially save moral vegetarianism.  The implication of the example is, of course, that the general would be acting as morally as possible (given the circumstances) if he made all efforts to minimize the harms caused by his army.  Likewise, moral vegetarianism could be construed as the moral claim that killing animals for food is wrong and therefore, a minimization of harm (measured, in part, as number of animals killed) is imperative.  Unfortunately for moral vegetarians, this too is an inconsistent position, both for theoretical and practical reasons.

I first turn my attention toward the theoretical inconsistency of moral vegetarianism as harm reduction.  The main problem for this construal of moral vegetarianism is that it elides the distinction between what is wrong or impermissible and what is merely unfortunate or undesirable.  Generally, we think that if something is wrong, it simply ought not to be done, not that it ought to be done less frequently or to lesser extremes.  Take the example of torture – one thinks either that torture qua torture is wrong and ought not to be done, or that torture is acceptable under some certain set of circumstances (and provided the methods used are not disproportionate, etc.)[4].  Given this, it is difficult to see how a ‘moral vegetarianism’ that is equivalent to a harm reduction approach actually is a moral vegetarianism.  This is because even with the universal adoption of lacto-ovo vegetarianism by the population, it would still be the case that many animals will be killed to enable egg and dairy consumption.  Moral vegetarianism, however, takes it for granted that killing animals is impermissible.  ‘Moral vegetarian’ harm reduction must ultimately amount to the adoption of a vegan diet.  Otherwise, if instead ‘moral vegetarianism’ takes the position that such killing is merely unfortunate and worth minimizing, it is unclear what differentiates that position from a compassionate omnivory – especially in light of what is said below.

There is a very serious practical problem for the position that moral vegetarianism can be equivalent to harm reduction.  The problem is this – any harm reduction approach that is not vegan will necessarily demand the consumption of meat.  The reasoning is as follows.  All humans have a certain set of nutritional needs that must be satisfied in order to survive and to flourish.  If we are to allow the consumption of eggs and dairy products to meet some or all of those needs, there will necessarily be animals slaughtered.  Now we have a choice – we can either eat the slaughtered animals or not.  Obviously, if we are going to keep to a vegetarian diet we are not going to eat them.  Unfortunately, this will have the end result that more animals will be slaughtered than if we chose to eat the already dead ones.  This is because animal flesh is incontrovertibly a rich source of nutrition for human beings, a much richer source than either of eggs or dairy.  If we consumed the dead animals, we would much more quickly satisfy our nutritional needs than without doing so, but since we have chosen not to, we will have to make up the deficit through other means.  This most probably would mean more eggs and dairy, which means more producing animals, which means more animals slaughtered.

Of course, it will be argued that we could make up the difference elsewhere, through farming beans or somesuch – we could even use the slaughtered animals as fertilizer.  But this proposed solution fails.  One, it raises the question of why, if we are able to meet our nutritional needs without animal products (that is, on a vegan diet) and we are interested in minimizing harm, we would opt to consume eggs and dairy in the first place.  Second, it fails to account for the fact that with every step in the process, nutritional value is lost.  In the transition from slaughtered animal to fertilizer, we lose a lot of nutritional value, and so again for the transitions from fertilizer to plant food to processed plant food, etc.  Every bit of nutritional value lost at every point along the chain will eventually equal the nutritional value of a whole slaughtered animal, at which point that animal has been killed for no reason and harm is no longer at a minimum.  Third, it raises questions about for whose sake we are committed to our vegetarianism.  After all, it makes absolutely no difference to the dead animal what our intentions were when we killed it or what our plans are for its body once it is dead.  It begins to look suspiciously like we are avoiding eating the slaughtered animals not because we are actually committed to minimizing harm, but because we are squeamish about the implications of our failure (for whatever reason) to advocate veganism.

4.      From Inconsistency to Either Veganism or Omnivory

So, to briefly recap, moral vegetarianism is inconsistent in its advocacy of mere vegetarianism, because both egg and dairy production necessitate the killing of many animals, which stands in direct contradiction to the moral impermissibility of killing.  In order to avoid this inconsistency, moral vegetarianism must advocate vegan diets.  If moral vegetarianism is construed as harm reduction, however, it once again either collapses into veganism, or is inconsistent.  If it is inconsistent, it is because it willingly permits the slaughter of animals despite its own position that killing animals is impermissible.  Harm reduction plus the moral impermissibility of killing animals amounts to veganism, while harm reduction that admits the permissibility of killing animals is not meaningfully different from a compassionate omnivory.

What my critic accuses me of, and what I am eminently not guilty of, is having, at this point, decided that because my diet already causes some harm, then, for this reason alone, I “might as well go ahead and eat meat,” just as the general might as well go ahead and massacre the civilians[5].  This is so obviously stupid a thought, and so obviously not what took place (to quote myself: “[a]ll this led me to a reevaluation of what morality demanded of me as regards meat and meat-eating”) that it cannot have escaped his notice.  Indeed, his usage of “might as well” is intended to suggest the occurrence of a logical non sequitur where in fact there was none.  I say this because from the inconsistency of moral vegetarianism alone, omnivory clearly isn’t the only theoretical possibility – veganism is also an option (what isn’t an option, however, is to continue to eat eggs and dairy while imagining oneself some sort of morally superior being).  Having reached this point (and vegetarians who have read this essay will now be well on their way) one is faced with the stark reality of one’s diet.  Either killing to eat is wrong and should not be done at all, or it is not wrong to kill in order to eat.

Furthermore, if it is not wrong to kill in order to eat, it is hard to see any principled limiting factors on how often or how many animals one is permitted to eat (though numerous unprincipled factors will sway one’s judgement on this count).  For instance, if it is acceptable to swat one mosquito to save oneself from contracting a blood-borne disease, it is acceptable to swat any number of them – an endless addition of zeros still sums to zero.  And to return to his analogy of the war-time general, if it is acceptable to kill one enemy soldier in order to win a war, then it is acceptable to kill any number of enemy soldiers to win the war.  From this it does not follow that killing civilians is acceptable – this because killing civilians is an entirely different class of action from killing enemy combatants.  The real-world equivalent of his massacre analogy is if one were to make the leap from “killing animals to eat is morally permissible” to “killing animals for any reason whatsoever (e.g. fun, curiosity) is morally permissible.”  That would be a non sequitur, but it is certainly not what I have argued for.

Here, then, is the real crux of the issue – he and I have irreconcilable differences of opinion over the nutritional feasibility of veganism.  I think it can’t work and that to think the opposite is to be ignoring reality in favour of an ideology.  He obviously thinks me stupid (or evil, or deluded), else his critique wouldn’t have had the tone that it did[6, 7].  But if I am right about veganism being an inadequate diet for human flourishing (and the evidence in favour of veganism is less than overwhelming), then it can no more be wrong for a human being to consume animals for sustenance than it is for the wolf, barring some cosmic principle of morality that puts me and the wolf equally in the wrong.  If I am incorrect, however, then veganism is the only morally consistent position left (and vegans should be pleased about this).  The fact remains, however, that one either believes that killing animals in order to eat is wrong, or it isn’t.  I made my choice.



[1] Some moral vegetarianisms may build in exceptions to this doctrine, just as many moral theorists allow that killing a human in self-defence is permissible.  Tom Reagan, for instance, permits the killing and consumption of animal flesh in life-or-death situations.

[2] This is so for reasons of cost, but also for reasons of pure practicality.  Feeding and housing these animals would prove very difficult to do, requiring ever greater utilization of unmolested natural lands for farming (for feed) and for living-space for these animals.  Not to mention, bulls do not get along well.

[3] Perhaps, in some science fiction future wherein we have altered the genetic code of dairy cows such that the sex ratio is precisely set so as to avoid the need for culls, this will no longer be the case, but so long as dairy production remains what it is, veganism is the only morally consistent vegetarianism.

[4] This is not to say, of course, that if one believes something to be wrong he cannot argue for taking measures intended to effect a general reduction in its occurrence (for instance, making illegal the manufacture, sale, and possession of date rape drugs).  What it does mean, however, is that harm reduction is ultimately inappropriate for something that is wrong, especially when it is as susceptible to control as what we put in our mouths.

[5] I feel that I ought to point out just how absurd the posited moral equivalence between a militarily pointless massacre of civilians and the slaughtering of chickens to make soup really is.  I can’t imagine that anyone who isn’t a vegan would accept that these cases really are analogous.

[6] But then, the criticism wasn’t really directed at me (I only know of it because his friend reposted here) – it was really for the benefit of his fellow vegans.

[7] Update: He responds in the comment below that he did not intend to make this impression.  I think it appropriate to mention this and I have apologized for my cognitively structuring his comments in a negative way.

Why I Was, and No Longer Am, A Vegetarian

I spent six years as a lacto-ovo vegetarian, which is quite a bit of time, by my reckoning – at the time I went back to omnivory, I had been a vegetarian for just over a quarter of my then-current time on this planet.  So while that may seem a laughable amount of time to some, I certainly did better than most of those who explore vegetarianism for a month or two before finally giving in to their cravings for a cheeseburger (or bacon – it seems most people I’ve spoken with caved-in for one of those two).  My motivations for taking the vegetarian path were mixed, as I imagine most people’s are – although I wish I could say that they were entirely selfless and pure, it simply wasn’t the case.

Let’s start with the ‘selfless’ reasons first.  My vegetarianism was in part born of my newfound appreciation for the fact that animals are conscious entities that feel pain, fear, and the rest of these negative emotions, and that killing them in order to eat them really does cause them harm.  I actually had a moment at work one day when, for no discernible reason, without an environmental trigger, I suddenly ‘experienced’ myself as a pig having its throat slit.  Needless to say, this was a bit of a distressing experience and I went cold-turkey on meat after that (for six years I never ate a single piece of meat) – I no longer wanted to participate in that.

But then there were the ‘selfish’ reasons.  First and most important among these was my own fear of death.  In no small way, my vegetarianism was an attempt to strike a bargain with the universe to the effect that if I did not kill things in order to live, then maybe I would not have to die.  Of course this was futile and, if asked, I would certainly have disavowed this aim, but it was a big part of what was going on, only just beneath the surface.  Second, there were the health benefits that I encountered at the beginning (though they would give way to health problems).  I felt lighter and I had more energy, and no longer felt gross after meals.  Third, it gave me a massive sense of moral superiority over those who did eat meat (this is extremely common among vegetarians).  While I don’t believe that I ever got too sanctimonious (at least, I hope I didn’t), for the first four years I was definitely sure that virtually everyone around me had this basic issue totally wrong.

In time, however, I wound up going back to meat – I broke my flesh-fast with Salmon, one of my favourite foods prior to abandoning meat – for several other reasons.

First, my health was deteriorating.  [1]  Each year that went by, I was putting on more and more weight, and it wasn’t the under-the-skin, jiggly type of fat – rather, it was the hard-packing-around-the-organs type of fat, the sort that is associated with shorter life-spans and heart-disease.  And this while I was exercising more than I’ve ever done in my life (I was running approximately 40km/week at the time).  I was tired all the time, and I was really cranky when I hadn’t eaten recently – near the end I needed to eat about every three hours or I could no longer think.  In fact, I think I was in a pre-diabetes stage.  Also, my sex drive was so low it was in the basement (and I won’t say anything more about that).  My brain knew what it wanted though, ideology be damned (thank goodness for that too) – every time I had a meal I was dissatisfied because I wanted chewy, bloody steak.  I once saw a deer running around at work (I worked in a quarry at the time) and actually caught myself thinking “dinner!”

Second, I consciously realized that I was bargaining with death and that it wouldn’t work in any case.  Obviously, there is the fact that one cannot escape death.  But there was also the matter of the end of my ignorance about just what the dairy and egg industries implied (remember, I was lacto-ovo).  Essentially, you are still participating in a system that requires the death of animals if you are going to consume dairy or eggs.  Dairy cows would normally only produce milk for their offspring (obviously), so they had to be kept pregnant in order to produce milk for human consumption.  The sex-ratio of cows, however, is much like any other mammalian species: approximately 50/50.  What this means is that for every daughter a dairy-cow had, she would also (statistically speaking) have a son.  Daughters, of course, would grow up to give their own milk, but the sons could not.  Dairy farms not being animal sanctuaries (farmers have bills to pay, afterall), the males would have only one destination – the plate.  So all the males would be culled one way or another (veal or steak).  Much the same story can be told for egg operations.  When my ignorance about the process was lifted, I realized that in order to survive (I do not believe long-term veganism is appropriate for human flourishing – I think that’s an ideologically driven fantasy), I still required the death of intelligent beings.  If these animals were going to die so that I could have cheesy-omelettes, then I might as well eat meat too.  I was certainly no longer any more ethically pure than meat-eaters and refusing to eat meat because I didn’t like the killing would just have been prissiness on my part.

All this led me to a reevaluation of what morality demanded of me as regards meat and meat-eating.  I no longer believed in the healthfulness of long-term vegetarianism, especially veganism, but I knew that the only morally consistent vegetarianism is veganism.  But it occurred to me that perhaps I had this all wrong – certainly, eating meat is not a ‘nice’ thing to do, but maybe that didn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done at all.  I thought about the wolf: a natural carnivore, it needs flesh-food in order to survive and to flourish.  I thought about how we don’t think the wolf to be doing something morally wrong when it does what it has to do to survive and flourish.  We don’t blame the wolf or insist that it ought to be something other than it is because some transcendent moral principle demands it – we recognize that such criticisms just don’t apply.  If humans are not simply omnivores, but are obligate omnivores, then it is an error to ask us to avoid animal foods entirely.  I don’t believe that a morality that demands gross contortions of our given nature can actually be a morality worth adhering to.

So I have gone back to meat, but I eat meat with a vegetarian’s conscience.


[1] Now, self-assured vegetarians will at this juncture tell me that I was obviously doing it wrong, else I would have been able to keep going longer.  Maybe: but I don’t think so.  I read all the books, took all the supplements for B, D, and my Omega-3’s, combined my proteins, and so on.  I think that it genuinely wasn’t working for me.  I make no strong commitments on whether it can work for other people, but in honesty I have my doubts – humans are able to talk themselves out of believing their lying eyes about a lot of things, vegetarianism being no exception.