On eating plants

I thought I’d explain in this post a bit about what my tagline “eats plants” actually means. I have been reluctant to write about this here before because I don’t want to come across as judgemental of what other people eat. We each make the best decisions we can and so here I want to write about why I have made the decision that I have made. You might agree with me or disagree with me and that is fine. I hope that at the very least, it might make you think about something you hadn’t thought about before.

My reasons for mostly abstaining from animal products are primarily ethical and based on the philosophy of Peter Singer. I will try to summarise part of this philosophy here although he has written entire books about it and so what I will say only touches the surface. But it goes like this:

If we accept the basic principle of equality – that is equal consideration of interests for everyone – then it follows that this principle should apply to members outside our own species. This might sound strange at first but the idea behind equal consideration of interests is that we give equal concern to all members of humanity regardless of their sex, skin colour, intelligence or various other arbitrary characteristics because equality is not dependent on these characteristics. This implies that equality is also not dependent on the species to which we belong. 

Put simply, our concern for others should not depend on what others are like. It does not depend on their sex or race or level of intelligence. We cannot exploit a being because they belong to a different race and so we also cannot exploit a being simply because they belong to a different species. To do so would be a prejudice known as speciesism.

If species classification is not a good boundary then what is? What I think is more important than the species to which an organism belongs is their capacity for pain and suffering. And here I will quote Jeremy Bentham,

What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog, is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

The capacity for pain and suffering and also enjoyment of life is the prerequisite for any of us having interests at all. Peter Singer writes, “If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration.” This does not mean that all suffering is equal. In many cases an adult human is likely to suffer more than a dog because an adult human has the capacity to plan for the future and can anticipate pain and suffering. But it does mean that if it is wrong to inflict pain on an adult human then it is also wrong to inflict the same amount of pain on a dog.

I have not mentioned taking life here and that is because this is quite a complicated topic and so I will leave that for another post. I thought I would end with this interesting history lesson from the women’s rights movement. The English philosopher, Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote a book in 1792 called A vindication of the rights of women in which she argues for equality for women. A year later, Thomas Taylor wrote a parody of her book called A vindication of the rights of beasts in which he suggests that the same arguments used by Wollstonecraft to champion rights for women can similarly be applied to beasts which, according to Taylor, would be absurd.

47 thoughts on “On eating plants

  1. I heard a documentary on the radio about the slaughtering of pigs. They told that they are first put out of consciousness by gassing them with CO2 before they are killed and they claimed that in this way the pigs felt no anxiety, nor did they suffer.

    Reality is likely a bit less optimal. But if that story were true, would that change your opinion about eating meat?

    1. No, it wouldn’t. It’s a good thing to reduce suffering at time of death, but I’m more concerned about the animal’s life. Most of the animals we eat spend a life of misery in factory farms where they do suffer and where their interests are not taken into consideration at all. Whether or not it’s ok to take their life is different to whether they’ve had a good life, and most of the animals you buy in the supermarket did not.

      In this respect, I am more likely to eat game – wild animals hunted and killed for food – than I am a factory farmed animal.

      I did see a youtube video recently about an English man who eats roadkill. It was quite fascinating and I have no ethical objections to this at all, although I have to say it’s not something I would do. Yuk!

      1. For me the suffering during an animals life is also more important. If only because that is a much longer period. If you mainly care about suffering during the life time, would that not be mainly an argument for eating ecological meat, especially of Demeter quality. I would think those animals have a pretty good life, except maybe for chicken, for which the criteria seem insufficient to me.

        Following Graham, if we do not eat agricultural animals, they will go extinct. That would be a huge loss for the agricultural biodiversity. And if we do not use manure, we would need to use artificial fertiliser, which is not great for the environment and the soils.

      2. I don’t think the animals we eat today would go extinct if we all stopped eating them. There would be people who kept them as pets and some would become wild. But it’s also worth asking whether it matters if an animal goes extinct? The answer is not always yes.

        I agree that we get valuable fertiliser from animals. We could still have this. I don’t have any strong ethical objections to eggs from chickens provided the chickens get to live a reasonably good life. It’s how they are kept in tiny cages that I find objectionable. They are also killed quite young, as soon as the egg production drops off. I do occasionally eat eggs but always free range. Chook poo is a great fertiliser. I also love wool from sheep and sheep provide good fertiliser too.

      3. I agree with Victor. Here in the UK we don’t have any space left at all for animals to go wild and not many people have the resources or time to keep a farm animal as a pet – look at how prohibitively expensive keeping a horse is to most of the population.

        It’s unfortunate that animals are not treated better in their lifetime. I hardly ever eat meat, because ethically produced meat is so expensive. But to me, that’s the ideal. People accept that they need to eat less meat in order to afford meat that is produced with minimum cruelty. But in the real world, I think that sadly just isn’t going to catch on. 😦

      4. Thanks, Denise. I do have a lot of regard for ethically produced meat and I did, for a time, eat only this sort of meat before giving it up altogether.

        I do think that eating meat on the grounds that the animals would go extinct if we didn’t is a weak argument but I will touch on this in a subsequent post about taking life.

  2. If a species did not value freedom from pain and fear or did not value their lives then then that species would be extinct. In fact, considering the trials of their lives, they must value those lives highly.

    It does not mean we may criticise those who do not see things this way. If we expect respect for our point of view then we must give the same, which I think you have done, providing that a point of view is honest and is without ill intent. .

    By the same token, we do not have to explain or justify a benign attitude of personal choice. 🙂 P.S. I particularly like leeks.

    1. Yes, I agree that we need to respect other people’s points of view on this. When I first stopped eating animals I got quite a bit of criticism and it made me much more tolerant of other people’s eating preferences.

      1. “By the same token, we do not have to explain or justify a benign attitude of personal choice”.

        There was, and still is not, any right to criticise your choice.

        Violence is abhorent and I’ll punch anyone who says different. 😉

  3. Excellent, thought provoking post. I have huge respect for all creatures residing on our planet but sometimes despair for mankind.

    Thieves will be drawn to posts in security, thugs to positions with vulnerable people, paedophiles to jobs with children, sadists to factory farming and my mind refuses to go to the mindset of some people employed by abattoirs.

    Not one of us can change the world in isolation. This has to be the choice of the majority. Good luck with this. It won’t happen in my lifetime.

      1. Let’s hope so, Rachel.

        With more mouths to feed it seems an ever growing challenge, but who knows what evolution and science may bring in the future.

    1. “…sadists to factory farming and my mind refuses to go to the mindset of some people employed by abattoirs.”

      This comment is highly offensive. You have just accused many honest, caring and loving people, none of whom I think you have bothered to meet and talk to, of being sadists and you couldn’t be more wrong. This comment is just as offensive as saying those who are drawn to Islam are terrorists. Using the qualifier of “some” unfortunately doesn’t wash, especially when taken in the context of your initial comment about having respect for all creatures and despairing for mankind. You have also inadvertantly (perhaps) drawn comparisons between thieves, thugs, pedofiles and abattoir workers.

      I can only wonder how you might feel if I said this…..

      I care about insects, rare birds, and endangered mammals and despair for mankind. Just as narcissists care only about themselves and don’t care about any collateral damage their sociopathic tendencies cause, vegans and vegetarians will happily eat grains and legumes, mass-produced in monocultural landscapes, formally rainforests where many undiscovered species of insects, rare birds and critically endangered mammals lived only to de displaced or killed.

      My disclosure: I do not work in an abattoir, factory farm or with vulnerable people or children. I am an ecologist. I have undertaken research all over Australia in many pristine and endangered ecosystems with all manner of species of animal, plant and fungi. I have a loving family whom I love and care for very much. I am also an omnivore and like nothing better than hunting feral deer and rabbits for meat. I guess that makes me a sadist.

      1. I don’t think Mary was intending you to take her comment in this way. Sadists can be found in any field and I don’t think she was implying that all farmers are sadists. I think it is a true statement to say that “thugs will be drawn to posts in security”. It doesn’t meant that all people working in security are thugs.

        I did not want this post to become a judgement about what people choose to eat. That’s up to everyone to decide for themselves. These are just my reasons.

        I do want to pick you up on something though – where you say that vegan/vegetarians eat grains from mass produced landscapes. This is true but I’m not sure what you mean by it. Everyone eats stuff from mass produced landscapes. This is even more so for meat-eaters because so much of the grain we produce, which could be used to feed humans, goes into feeding animals for human consumption. It’s more efficient to feed the grain directly to humans. The case for vegetarianism from an environmental perspective and also in terms of climate change, is very strong.

      2. Rachel, I was merely offering an analogy to what she said but from the “other” side if you like. I am very non-judgmental about what people choose to eat or even their justification for it. Regardless of her intent in what she said, and I can read everything objectiviely, she did draw parallels between honest law abiding people and pedofiles. I am suggesting she choose her words more carefully because the way i read it, it was offensive….and implicitely judgmental.

        Now, on what I did say, I do agree with you that it would be simpler to just feed people grain than feed the animals grain for human consumption…no argument there, however, and there is no way around this, eating meat is what humans do, it is how we have evolved. Vegetarianism and veganism is a lifestyle choice, one to be applauded, but still a choice and it is one that fights against millions of years of evolution. At some point, choosing to forego natural instincts may well be the decision forced onto everyone, but until then, how do you feed everyone who wishes to eat meat? Take away farmedanimals and you will have what goes on in in many southeast Asian and South American countries where native animals are hunted almost to and indeed to extinction. Which is the lesser of two evils given you can’t really fight human nature?

      3. Here’s a reference for my comment about climate change and livestock. The Food and Agriculture administration produced a report some years ago – livestock’s long shadow – which said that livestock is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transport sector – that’s cars, trucks, planes, ships and trains.

      4. Ok, thanks for the clarification.

        The cultural aspect to what we eat is the biggest hurdle I agree. I am reminded of the Vikings who starved to death in Greenland because they refused to eat fish and instead wanted to continue eating cows which were really not suited to the climate. The inuit survived because they ate fish. I don’t have the answer to this problem but it may partly lie with synthetically produced meat.

      5. The difference between the vikings and the inuit is one of time. The latter had time to adapt as their migration was very slow whereas the vikings demise was truly cultural. I’ve become somewhat pesimistic about the future. We will eat less meat when the population crashes

  4. I’m a very guilty omnivore who’s trying to become vegetarian. I’ve fallen off the wagon a few times. I try to assuage my guilt by buying “humanely” raised local beef. Not really good enough. Your post has been hard going because I really do think people need to go vego or at least try to limit their meat intake and take care of the creatures they eat. God, that sounds awful! 😦

    1. Don’t be hard on yourself. I think humanely raised beef is a huge improvement over factory farmed stuff. If it’s any consolation, once you stop eating meat for a longish while you lose the taste for it. I gave up 10 years ago and really have no desire to eat the stuff

      1. That’s true Rachel. I have been a vegetarian for more than 20 years, and when I see meat I don’t think of it as food. This planet really cannot continue to support meat-eating. The meat-eating of the well-off nations is causing starvation for others.
        Nice thoughtful blog, Rachel.

      2. Thanks, Helen. I did accidentally take a bite of my husband’s pasty recently because I thought it was my vegetarian one. His contained chicken and it was disgusting!

  5. You touch a subject most people would not be brave enough to tinker with. I admire your courage. 🙂
    I respect you choice. You believe what you think is best for you. No one should dictate what you should eat or not.
    Personally, I have not thought of food this way before. Since we are in the Third World country, we eat what we can put on the table. But that does not necessarily mean, we eat everything. That said, we have a long way to go when it comes to really understanding food in terms of the more philosophical aspect.
    Some people refrain eating some food because they belong to a different religion. Others do so because they do not have the financial means to acquire them.
    In my case, I eat only when I am hungry. 🙂

    1. I don’t think anyone should have to starve in order to eat ethically. In this respect, there are people on the planet who have a good philosophical basis for eating animals. For example, the people living in the Afar region of Africa depend quite heavily on goats and camels for their very survival. Camels provide milk and goats provide meat. I don’t imagine for one minute that they should change their eating habits and still survive. But this is not the case for those of us who live in developed countries and who have access to plenty of food of all varieties.

      1. You have a point there. 🙂
        This issue touches more on business. Why? Corporations that process these foods have lots of employees. The companies buy from farmers. who needs the money for their children’s education and other expenses. If you calculate every person who benefits from this trade and consumption, it will be too large a number. That’s only the main characters in this drama. The chain reaction to the economy as a whole is wide ranging.
        The advocacy of eating only plants is laudable. Only on a personal basis can one follow such healthy alternative.
        Blessings,
        belsbror

  6. “My reasons for mostly abstaining from animal products are primarily ethical and based on the philosophy of Peter Singer. … We cannot exploit a being because they belong to a different race and so we also cannot exploit a being simply because they belong to a different species. To do so would be a prejudice known as speciesism.”

    If I play my role as an analytical scientist, a heartless monster without emotions and moral, my I conclude from the discussion that you actually do not agree with Peter Singer?

    You would not accept murder as long the victim had a good life.
    You would not accept murder for some ethnic groups.
    You would not accept that most other people murder.

    Thus being so tolerant about other people eating meat is speciesism, right?

    1. “A heartless monster without emotions and morals”?? I don’t think this is correct 🙂

      I’m not entirely sure what you mean in this comment but I think you’re saying that my tolerance of other people eating meat, given that I have ethical objections for myself, implies that I don’t entirely agree with those ethical objections. Does that sound right?

      Yes, I think you have a point. In my defence I will say that I am tolerant of other people eating meat because I also used to eat meat and so I understand that point of view. I think it is early days for the idea of speciesism too and because it is new and different most will just reject it as absurd. It takes time to change culture and I think things will be different 100 years from now.

      The other answer is that if I wasn’t tolerant of other people, I probably wouldn’t have any friends since no-one in my acquaintance feels the same way I do. I am the only member of my family who abstains from eating meat too.

  7. Peter singer is one of my heroes. When I read Wollstencraft in college many years ago, never heard about Vindication of the Rights of Beasts. Or maybe just don’t remember it. Lots of interesting thoughts here. I have justified continuing to eat fish becasue a fish is allowed to live the life of a fish — whereas a cow or pig is not allowed to live any kind of meaningful life. I think the time will come when I’ll have to give up fish as well.
    Looks like you also have some thoughtful readers.

    1. Hello Helen,
      Thanks for your comment. And yes, I think I do have lovely thoughtful readers.
      I do occasionally eat seafood. I don’t really have strong objections to eating shellfish which as far as I’m aware lack a central nervous system.

  8. I’m watching this now, Victor and it’s very good. I had to roll my eyes at one statement made in defence of eating animals which is that arguing against the eating of animals is a direct attack on the world’s poor who need nutrient rich foods that don’t decompose. Reminds me of the anti-AGW crowd who argue that climate change action will hurt the poor. He also argues that plants have faces.

    1. I must admit, the vegans were rhetorically very good. As a scientist I cringe when the evade discussing something to the end and start an emotional attack on another topic. Or when they attack factory farming, which gets you many emotional sympathy points, but provides arguments for more animal welfare and not for veganism.

      Then the vegans even cited The China Study. A purely observational study in China in which they found correlations between meat eating and chronic decease. However, they never checked the most obvious reason, that the richer groups had a more Western life style (smoking, less movement, stress) and also ate more meat. It is hard to get such confounding factors out, but they did not even try. Which is similar to the Watts et al. manuscript that did not check for the time of observation bias as confounding factor.

      The references to interventional studies were to ones where people with a horrible standard diet were put on a whole food vegan diet and often counciled in stopping with smoking and exercise. The interesting comparison would be two whole food diets, one with meat and one without. I would expect to differences on the short run and for some problems without meat on the long run because of missing fat-dissolved nutrients such as choline and vitamin A.

      It was nice hearing the debate. Up to know I had only read The China Study and wondered whether its sloppiness was an outlier. It seems that there is no solid evidence on either side. Thus the best advice seems to be to experiment and not to take all the well intentioned advice too seriously. I will base by decisions on how I feel.

      1. So the China study is crap is it? I don’t know much about it but I had heard of it. What about the Seventh Day Adventist studies? Do you know anything about those? Seventh Day Adventists are vegetarian for religious reasons and there have been quite a few long-term studies on their diet and incidence of disease and life expectancy. Wikipedia discusses it.

        The against side in this debate were just not very good. I think that’s the main reason they lost so spectacularly. I cringe when I hear arguments about plants being sentient creatures and that other animals eat animals therefore so can we. They’re just the same tired old arguments I’ve heard over and over again that really don’t advance their cause.

        Regardless of what the true health benefits of vegetarianism are if any, I firmly believe most Westerners eat far to much meat. Most people eat it everyday and this just isn’t necessary. If someone thinks they can’t live without eating meat, then why not eat it once a week or once a month or twice a year….

        I’ve not heard of choline and vitamin A deficiencies in non-meat-eaters before. I just looked up choline and it’s water soluble. I always thought the risk was of B12 deficiency and I’ve had my B12 tested a few times and it’s always fine. I drink soy milk which is fortified with B12, calcium, B2, D and E. I was iron deficient when I was pregnant but this is very common, even in women who eat a lot of meat, and it was easily solved with iron tablets.

      2. I would not formulate it that way, but that would be a good summary of The China Study. See also these posts by former vegan Denis Minger.

        Wikipedia does not give much information on how the Seventh Day Adventist studies were performed. Was it an observational study? This talk by Denise Minger suggests it was and thus has the usual problems with confounding factors.

        Yes, the meat eaters were not very good in this debate. I also cringed at some of their arguments and often only understood what they were hinting at because I know their line of argumentation. Chris Masterjohn blogs about his debating errors here:

        http://blog.cholesterol-and-health.com/2013/12/reflections-on-dont-eat-anything-with.html

        You are right about choline. In whole foods it is found a lot in liver and egg yolks, that is why I had wrongly guessed that is is fat-soluble. After being a vegetarian for about a decade, I have started eating meat again and especially ate a lot of liver. The last half a year that urge is gone. Thus I had assumed I had filled up my reserves again by now. Maybe it was something else as choline or maybe it is just a coincidence. I can say I feel much better than when I used to be vegetarian, but that would be an even crappier argument as The China Study, that could be for a whole range of reasons, many things have changed at the same time.

        I expect that you are right and that many people, especially woman, do fine with only little or no meat or even no animal products. At least I would hope that the rules for animal welfare were a lot stricter. Even the ecological ones are not always the way I would like them to be.

      3. Thanks for all those links. The Denis Minger ones were very good. She makes the point in her slideshow that vegetarians tend to make other healthy lifestyle choices, like exercising more, that give them an advantage in those observational studies. But don’t they take this into account?

        There have been quite a few studies about the Seventh Day Adventists but here’s a fairly recent one – http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1710093&resultClick=3 I have no idea whether it’s any good so your thoughts would be welcome.

        Chris Masterjohn’s blog post was very good too. He should have spent more time dismantling the China study because that was Gene’s whole argument. What he says about biochemical individuality I think is interesting. Certainly based on your experience and other similar experiences I have heard from other people there may be some truth to this.

        I stopped eating animal products about 10 years ago but I haven’t been militant about abstaining in that time. I do eat seafood from time to time and I also went through a period a couple of years ago when I ate a bit of beef. My iron levels were very low then. This is generally how I approach my diet now: I don’t fret if a bit a animal protein passes my lips but mostly I stick with plants. If insects become mainstream and available for purchase at the supermarket, I think I would happily include them in my diet too as I have no ethical objections to eating insects.

      4. Interesting study. It is at least a much better observational study as The China Study, they did try to correct for several confounding factors. It could be the study Denis Minger was referring to because it shows the best health outcomes for “vegetarians” that eat fish. Interesting is especially that it suggests that men benefit most from being a vegan and woman not at all (Table 4). From my personal experience, I had the feeling that woman handle vegetarian diets best.

        Still it is just an observational study. Such studies are interesting to generate hypothesis for more expensive interventional studies. You can correct for smoking, but if you see a correlation between eating meat and smokers, you have to expect that there are many more such relations and you do not have data on all possible relationships. I wonder for example whether these vegan man have more caring wives and eat more home cooked meals or whether they listen to their wives better and thus life longer.

        (If you would eat insects, you should have voted against the motion. 🙂 Insects have faces.)

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