July 25, 2004
Eat More Beef!Posted by shonk at 12:21 AM in Science | TrackBack
Having been brought up as a vegetarian,1 I think I can safely say that I’ve been exposed to the gamut of reactions that people have to vegetarianism, from the radical vegan perspective to the radical carnivore perspective. As an ex-vegetarian, I can also say that I’ve never heard a moral argument for vegetarianism that rang particularly true.
Maybe I should back up a little bit and give a little bit more of my own history. My parents have been vegetarians for my entire life and, in fact, since sometime in the mid-1970s (with the caveat noted in the footnote). They aren’t what I’m going to call “ethical vegetarians”; rather, their dietary choices were guided in large part, I suspect, by reading too much Paul Ehrlich, specifically his argument that people who cared about the environment and humanity should become vegetarians. This argument is based on the simple reality that producing edible meat consumes more resources than producing edible plant-based foods (there’s a statistic to the effect that it takes 7 pounds of grain to produce one pound of edible beef). Since Ehrlich thought we were facing an ecological and humanitarian catastrophe in the form of a “population bomb,” he thought the only way to avoid mass starvation in the years to come was a switch to a vegetarian diet. Now, one could counter this argument with the fact that most grains and other crops consumed by livestock are extremely-low grade and not at all suitable for human consumption and that much of the land on which these low-grade crops are grown is incapable of producing human-edible food, but there’s still at least a kernel of validity in Ehrlich’s argument (of course, every single one of Ehrlich’s predictions regarding mass starvation, resource depletion and the like have failed to come to pass [just ask Julian Simon], but it’s undeniable that meat-production is more resource-intensive and that this may become important someday).
Having been raised by vegetarians, my opportunities for eating meat were generally pretty limited: school cafeterias and restaurants being the only real outlets. Despite some experimentation with McDonald’s happy meals and barely-digestible cafeteria chicken-fried steak, I pretty quickly settled into the family tradition of not eating meat. Of course I realized that this was unusual in the broader social context, but it felt normal. Not eating meat made for some awkward moments in high school and college, but by and large it wasn’t a big deal.
In fact, the only particularly annoying aspect of this lifestyle was the constant need to answer the question: “You don’t eat meat? Man, that’s so weird. Why?” A perfectly reasonable and perhaps even interesting question for the questioner to ask, but answering the same question again and again, especially when meeting new people, can get frustrating. This goes doubly when one’s answer is as boring as mine was: “Because it’s how I was raised”.
Of course, the conversation rarely ended there, since there had to be a reason for my being raised as such, so I got used to giving the explanation for why my parents are vegetarians: resource conservation, 7 pounds of grain for 1 pound of beef, etc. What was always most interesting to me was that most people I talked to had never heard this particular rationale behind not eating meat. In this day and age, most people, if they don’t know vegetarians personally, at least are familiar with the idea and know the standard justifications for it (this wasn’t always the case: in 19th century England vegetarianism was quite radical and was known for a while as “Pythagoreanism” before the vegetarians started marketing themselves a little better), but in my experience the Ehrlichian justification is still relatively rare.
The most common argument for vegetarianism is, of course, the one based on the notion that animals have a right not to be killed for human consumption. The animal rights approach of the ethical vegetarians is one that I’ve never identified with and I’ve always been quick to distance myself from that particular ideology (usually to the relief of those who asked me why I was a vegetarian). To me, it simply doesn’t make sense to argue that animals have rights equivalent to those of people, that there is a moral imperative not to kill them (I’m arguing here outside the context of religious beliefs; obviously, to the Hindu, there is a reasonable moral reason for not killing animals). Certainly it is aesthetically distasteful for animals to suffer unnecessarily, but such considerations don’t rise to the level of having moral force.
The most reasonable argument that I’ve heard for vegetarianism is the argument from marginal cases. As summarized in David Graham’s response to Tibor Machan’s “Why Animal Rights Don’t Exist”, terms are defined as follows:
So-called “marginal cases” are humans who lack the ability to reason or be held accountable for their actions but who are still considered part of the moral community and have a right not to be killed or made to suffer except in self-defense.
Examples are given of infants, the terminally senile, people with brain damage, the congenitally retarded, etc. In each instance the “marginal case” is, in terms of cognitive ability and moral development, essentially on the level of animals. Since such people are considered to have the right not to be killed, the argument goes, the same ought to be held for animals as well. Now, I think the inclusion of infants and the terminally senile on this list of “marginal cases” is disingenuous, but it’s certainly true that some humans are born with no more cognitive ability or moral sense than the average cow and that most people would think killing such a person for food is wrong, so the argument bears consideration.
Graham is also correct to point out that opponents of vegetarianism and animal rights typically ignore or gloss over this argument, and Machan’s attempt to deal with it is unsatisfying for precisely the reasons he mentions. However, as I persistent skeptic of absolute moral systems, I find Graham’s argument unconvincing as well. In my view, it seems doubtful that rights derive from an absolute morality; more and more I become convinced that rights derive from social agreements and interactions. People have the right not to be killed not because there’s a rule that says so written into the fabric of the universe, but because they agree not to kill others (which explains why I have no objection, in theory, to the death penalty, though I am against all implementations of the death penalty into practice). From this perspective, it’s clear that animals don’t have any particular rights, as they feel no particular qualms about killing whatever suits them (as with all general statements, there are exceptions: the family dog, for example, typically doesn’t attack the family and, not surprisingly, most families don’t eat their dogs).
That’s all well and good, but I seem to be tossing out the baby with the bathwater (literally). After all, the “marginal cases” that Graham mentions are no more capable than the average cow of agreeing not to harm others in any meaningful sense, so why can’t we eat babies or harvest the brain-damaged for their organs? In short, the basic answer is because the guardians of “marginal cases” protect their interests (and also, significantly, assume their responsibilities). If you insist on reducing everything to a property relationship, you could view “marginal cases” as the property of their guardians, making the killing of a “marginal case” wrong in the same way that stealing a car or burning down someone’s house is wrong. In a sense this is quite accurate, but I think it’s a bit misleading (as well as being too cold-hearted to be readily acceptable). A better way to view the situation might be as a sort of proxy relationship. The guardian assumes the responsibilities of the marginal case (that is to say, the guardian accepts responsibility for ensuring that the “marginal case” doesn’t injure or kill others) and, as a result, we accord the same rights to the “marginal case” as we do to a normal person.
Within this context, it’s easy to see the parallel to other animals. Wildlife preserves and pets are both examples of instances in which people assume a guardianship of certain animals, assuming the responsibility for ensuring that the animals in question don’t attack others or damage their property and, in return, everybody else agrees not to kill the protected animals. Even those who don’t think animals have any rights at all cannot coherently condone poaching on a private animal preserve or climbing over the neighbor’s fence to kill his pet dog. The point I’m trying to make is this: with all rights come responsibilities and if you’re going to argue for animal rights on the basis of “marginal cases”, then you need to assume the responsibilities that come with those rights in the same way that guardians of those same “marginal cases” assume their responsibilities.
Even if you don’t find all of the foregoing convincing, I want to proceed to one additional point: that ethical vegetarianism and veganism are usually (though not necessarily) very contradictory. Whenever I get into a discussion with a particularly fierce animal rights activist, I like to bring up (or link to, in the case of an online discussion) Maddox’s guiltless grill argument:
Well here’s something that not many vegetarians know (or care to acknowledge): every year millions of animals are killed by wheat and soy bean combines during harvesting season ( source ). Oh yeah, go on and on for hours about how all of us meat eaters are going to hell for having a steak, but conveniently ignore the fact that each year millions of mice, rabbits, snakes, skunks, possums, squirrels, gophers and rats are ruthlessly murdered as a direct result of YOUR dieting habits.
And the response to the usual rejoinder is obvious:
The defense “at least we’re not killing intentionally” is bullshit anyway. How is it not intentional if you KNOW that millions of animals die every year in combines during harvest? You expect me to believe that you somehow unintentionally pay money to buy products that support farmers that use combines to harvest their fields? Even if it was somehow unintentional, so what? That suddenly makes you innocent? I guess we should let drunk drivers off the hook too since they don’t kill intentionally either, right? There’s no way out of this one. The only option left for you dipshits is to buy some land, plant and pick your own crops. Impractical? Yeah, well, so is your stupid diet.
The point being that the majority of vegans (the ones that are honest with themselves, anyway) know their diet will cause the suffering and death of animals and that their decision not to embrace a lifestyle that would actually prevent that same suffering and death (i.e. planting their own crops and harvesting them in such a way as to prevent “collateral damage”) is based on practical, rather than moral, reasons. At this point, the justification for ethical vegetarianism devolves to consequentialism (“At least we’re causing less death and suffering than you nasty meat-eaters”), which I find deliciously ironic.
Maddox, of course, has his own response to this argument:
So what exactly constitutes as “prevention” of animal suffering? The moral vegetarians (not the ones who do it for religious or health reasons) love to chant “we’re trying to limit the suffering.” What the hell does that mean? If you eat wheat or soy, you’re not limiting anything. Unless you plant, grow and pick your own crops, you’re not doing everything you can to “limit” the suffering. You know deep down that you could help limit a whole lot more suffering, but you’ve chosen not to. You’ve chosen not to because your lifestyle is too convenient, and you’d have to give up too much, but nevermind that—you have a conscience to feel good about, and you can’t let a little thing like millions of violent deaths of field animals get in the way of your moral trip.
Which I think is a perfectly reasonable response, but in perusing the footnotes of his original argument, I came across a link to an article entitled “Least Harm Principle suggests that Humans should eat beef not vegan,” which takes the notion propounded by certain vegans that “we must choose the food products that, overall, cause the least harm to the least number of animals” and tries to determine what a person who subscribes to it should eat. The calculations aren’t particularly precise, but they suggest that a diet high in foraging ruminants like cows, calves, sheep and lambs would, if universally adopted, save hundreds of millions of animal lives when compared to universal adoption of a vegan diet.
This is predicated on the assumption that those ruminants would be foraging (i.e. no cattle feedlots, veal crates, etc.) and, as I said, the statistics used are overly simplified (e.g. there’s no justification given for the assumption that doubling ruminant consumption would replace poultry consumption), but the basic methodology seems relatively sound. What’s fascinatingly counter-intuitive is, of course, the conclusion: consistent application of the principles used by most vegans to justify their diet suggests that we should eat more beef and fewer grains.
Of course, as detailed above, I don’t buy the moral justification for veganism to begin with, but I can’t say I don’t enjoy the irony.
1 Strictly speaking, actually, I wasn’t a vegetarian, as we occasionally ate some fish. I mention this because “real” vegetarians and vegans would declaim me as a “former vegetarian,” but to the majority of humanity, someone who doesn’t eat animal flesh other than fish about once a month is pretty damned vegetarian.