What If Vegans Are Wrong?

» April 8th, 2014

I have a friend and colleague—and a vegetarian— who is editing a book in which he invited philosophers to argue that it’s ethically justifiable, at least in some circumstances, to eat animals. My friend is not inclined to necessarily agree with these assessments, but he’s secure enough in his own beliefs to accept genuine challenges to his suppositions. I admire this willingness to expose his own flank to attack, if for no other reason than doing so has the potential to leave one even more secure in his position than when he started. Ethical vegans should take note.  (I’ll review the book here when it lands.)

Many comments to my recent vegan pillars piece—offline and on—criticized it on the grounds that it somehow threatened the vegan cause. How dare you suggest there’s something shaky about veganism! The implication here was that any attempt to highlight conceptual weaknesses or even identify unique challenges that vegans faced was an insidious form of betrayal. That stance might work for the activist, but not the intellectual. Doubt inspired by honest reflection hardly provides anti-vegans with ammunition to use against us. Plus, if we continue to see this matter as an us v. them war, we’ll end up having great appeal to ourselves alone. What’s the point of that?

Veganism is not a cult. It’s an ideal to which we do our best to follow. Necessarily, by nature of existence, we’ll fail, but if we proceed in ignorance of our failures we’ll never appeal to masses of thoughtful and pragmatic people who have the means to live life without unnecessarily and intentionally harming animals. The fact that some people do not have that means is yet another hard reality of ethical veganism that, as activists, we’re too eager to obscure rather than directly confront. There are a lot of cheerleaders for veganism out there. I enjoy their cheers. But that’s not what this blog is about. The Pitchfork aims to make you uncomfortable, however momentarily.

And so I’ll be spending a good chunk of time, as well as dedicating some meatier Pitchfork columns, to thinking out loud about how I (and others) might be convinced to eat animals. I don’t want to eat animals. I seriously doubt I’m ever going to eat animals. But I very much do want to systematically consider the oyster, consider roadkill, consider insects, consider the Inuit, consider other topics that you suggest. And so on. I want to consider the remote possibility that I’m wrong.  Because that just seems right.


34 Responses to What If Vegans Are Wrong?

  1. What’s to consider? I’d do it if I needed to. Since I don’t need to, I won’t. It costs me nothing to give oysters and insects the benefit of the doubt, so I do.

    • James says:

      That’s fine, and I agree, but this is precisely the kind of solipsism I’m hoping to avoid–after all, there are cultures that rely on insects as a form of sustenance. How do we square our convictions, or even our pragmatism, with those cultures and their habits?

    • Rhys says:

      In what sense does veganism give insects “the benefit of the doubt”? Eating no animal products isn’t the same as abolishing pesticides and avoiding other ways of harming insects.

      • unethical_vegan says:

        definitions of veganism are not monolithic. i’ve always interpreted the vegan society “singer clause” as allowing consumption of animal products if it’s not *practical* to avoid them. and i personally consider it impractical for vegans to claim that consuming non-sentient animals, such as, oysters, sea squirts, or sessile mussels contributes to exploitation or cruelty. in fact, sea squirt sashimi is almost certainly more vegan than the bowl of cereal and soy milk i just ate (in terms of aggregate suffering).

        insects are another matter. i would go to great lengths to not harm a jumping spider but feel little guilt about my nightly bed mite slaughter (unlike sessile bivalves bed mites have a cns connected to peripheral sensory neurons).

    • Taylor says:

      Some of my indoor plants are infested with scale insects. If I exterminate those insects, am I a mass murderer? I hear that ladybugs are one solution: they feast on the scale and I remain morally pure by dumping my depravity onto the ladybugs. But am I not then like someone who has hired a bunch of serial killers to accomplish an evil goal?

      It would seem that either I’m a monster or some animals just don’t have much moral significance as individuals.

  2. havocados says:

    Absolutely agreed.

    If we, as a movement, ever hope to succesfully dismantle speciesism, we will find ourselves in a constant uphill battle of nuanced issues that might not ever occur to the average vegan.

    As veganism (actual veganism, not dieting) approaches the mainstream, this issues will only swell and beg for relief like an oozing boil on skin. (gross, sorry)

    In my opinion, the only acceptable scenario to do anything regardless of morality, is quite simply self-preservation. Since the vast majority of us won’t find ourselves in such a pickle, ever, I find no moral inconsistency with having to slaughter and eat a wild boar on that oh so infamous hypothetical island us vegans keep getting stranded on.

    With self-preservation, all bets are off. This is how certain vegans, with life-threatening conditions for animal tested medication, remain vegan, at least in my opinion. Or people battling eating disorders can’t immediately embrace the seemingly restrictive act of going vegan. Or the nuanced political issues of food deserts and accessibility to food.

    The biggest challenges for veganism lie ahead, as do our most clever forms of advocacy. The immense paradigm shift will only bring with it social growing pains of equal or greater intensity.

    • unethical_vegan says:

      don’t assume that all vegans are anti-speciesist. i’m a welfarist vegan who is opposed to universal animal rights. for example, i believe that granting a small number of animal species the same rights (or similar rights) as human beings is more important than saving domesticated chickens. i also think that it would be unethical to grant the vast majority of animals legal “personhood”.

  3. Laura says:

    I sometimes consider I may be wrong about the whole vegan thing, then footage from animal farms and slaughterhouses confirms unequivocally that I never want to participate in that again; nor go back to the obesity, chronic constipation, hemorrhoids, high blood pressure, and severe depression. Something about animal eating brought out the self-effacing glutton in me, which only got me more attention from those vociferous “Go to Jenny Craig!” types. Well I didn’t go to Jenny Craig, I went vegan, and that fixed my weight & health (and conscience) problems. I know veganism isn’t a cure-all and that meat eaters don’t all suffer what I did; just telling my experience.
    I believe one can be overly objective and intellectual; it’s great up to a point, but after that it can become elitist and alienating to “lesser” others (i.e. me), just like the holier than though “us vs. them” vegan types.

    • James says:

      I hear you. But again, notice how–like Humane Hominid–your response was to see the matter through your own eyes alone. Of course, to an extent, that’s unavoidable. My hope is to expand my mind around veganism without being elitist, over-intellectualizing, or seeming out of touch. All of these, as you suggest, are legitimate pitfalls.

      • Laura says:

        More importantly, I can see the matter through the animals’ eyes, as I’m sure you do too. It hurts, unbearably. Seeing people loudly, rudely, cruelly, fighting against veganism, scaring people away from it, tries the patience more than anything else can. I see where vegan anger comes from, where they want to fight fire with fire… I try to avoid going that route while treating people pretty much as they treat me but nowhere near as cruelly, to try to leave an opening for them to come around. But it’s continually shocking how hateful people can be in defending meat eating, and how vegans are expected to be like extremely tolerant saints in return. With the recent, ridiculous Graz “vegetarian study” being taken seriously by the utterly thoughtless, internet forums are rife with vicious sarcasm against vegans. Very sad situation.

        • James says:

          Of course it’s a very sad situation. And, yes, all ethical vegans see the matter through the eyes of animals as best we can. But I would suggest thinking in historical time. Doing so allows you to see your “work” as an activist–work that often feels futile–as part of a larger process about which you cannot fully understand in the larger scope of time. Believe in your cause, and articulate your beliefs with honesty, and you plants seeds. Who knows what they’ll grow into? And who knows if you as an individual will be around to see the result? I try not to see the worth of my work in immediate results.

          • Laura says:

            Thank you for that…the larger scope of time. Planting seeds is what I’m online for, so often feeling that those seeds are sown on astroturf or something, but never giving up. Your site here is definitely a great asset to us all.

          • Benny Malone says:

            This TED Talk was good for putting animal rights within a larger context of expansion of the moral sphere. http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_and_rebecca_newberger_goldstein_the_long_reach_of_reason

            Sam Harris too touches on it in The Moral Landscape using the well being of sentient creatures as the morally relevant criteria.

            Great thinkers have described this general arc of history that Pinker and Goldstein discuss ;

            Darwin – ”As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races. If, indeed, such men are separated from him by great differences in appearance or habits, experience unfortunately shews us how long it is before we look at them as our fellow-creatures. Sympathy beyond the confines of man, that is humanity to the lower animals, seems to be one of the latest moral acquisitions. It is apparently unfelt by savages, except towards their pets. How little the old Romans knew of it is shewn by their abhorrent gladiatorial exhibitions. The very idea of humanity, as far as I could observe, was new to most of the Gauchos of the Pampas. This virtue, one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they are extended to all sentient beings. As soon as this virtue is honoured and practised by some few men, it spreads through instruction and example to the young, and eventually through public opinion.”

            Einstein – ”A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”

            Schweitzer -“Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.”

            Any philosophy or science welcomes constructive criticism or falsifiability to arrive at truth. Science disproves science and we should welcome the best arguments to strengthen our own and assimilate any considerations into the model. There is ‘no growth without comfort’.

            In terms of the ‘Shaky Foundations’ I think the idea of self referential paradoxes like Cantor’s and Russell’s, especially when arguing in ‘grey areas’ at the intersection of where to draw the line at necessary/unnecessary, avoidable/unavoidable and where there is sentience/non-sentience, are relevant. The self-referential part is using an isolated criteria like ‘less harm’ and finding examples like eating road-kill or other circumstances where it may cause less harm than a vegan buying from a supermarket. But to be fair the hunter-gatherer needs to be compared to the ‘gatherer’, both in ideal circumstances. We don’t move from paradoxes at foundations to discredit the situations where there are no paradoxes in circumstances for most people. This would be like not using ‘everyday’ arithmetic because of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems. The following links show the ideas I come across most in debates and discussions apart from what you might call the ‘Vegan FAQs which tend to be practical objections. It is a type of Nirvana fallacy and attempt at equivocation. If a fault can be found anywhere in veganism or it can be shown it is not achievable 100% people use this as an excuse to abandon the whole enterprise. They don’t live as closely to the ideal as they could but instead go in the opposite direction away from a parsimonious principle like Occam’s razor.




  4. Mountain says:

    In my ideal world– let’s call it salvegan (salvage + vegan)– people would eat animals, but neither you nor any other existing vegan would stop being vegan. In fact, the more people convert to veganism, the less the rest of us would need to reduce our consumption of animal products.

    In a salvegan world, crops would only be grown for humans– no animal feed. But consider food waste. Not just food people actually waste, but all the plant material people just don’t eat. The branches pruned from fruit trees. The leaves of cauliflower. The cores of apples. The seeds of melons. Add to that the green waste from landscaping & tree care. And land that can’t be cultivated, either because of soil, water, or steepness.

    By raising animals without harm with these resources (which is very doable for chickens, ducks, and goats; probably doable for pigs and cows), we can produce enough calories to feed a nation of 300 million while killing even fewer sentient animals than strict veganism alone. Currently, we kill well over 10 billion animals every year. Giving up poultry would get us into the neighborhood of 1 billion each year. Strict veganism would get us down to around 600 million per year. Salveganism would get us under 500 million per year.

    • Rhys says:

      Have you read Meat: A Benign Extravagance? Simon Fairlie pretty much advocates what you’re talking about here. Instead of salvegan, he calls it the “default livestock” model. There are a few differences, but the basic idea is the same.

      • Mountain says:

        I’ve read a little bit of it. I thought of mentioning it by name, since I think serious ethical vegans would benefit from reading it. I think neither his term nor my term roll off the tongue. Fukuoka’s “do-nothing farming” (which is closely related to what I’m trying to describe) is an awesome term, but I don’t think it explains the concept to anyone who isn’t already aware of it. So, I’m still in search of a good way to describe how I farm, and how I’d like to see much of the world to farm.

        I like the term “laissez-faire” farming, since the focus is on letting systems work, rather than brute-forcing things with tilling and fertilizer and so on, but I think “laissez-faire” has a negative connotation for too many people. Nevermind that “laissez-faire” and “laissez les bons temps rouler” are the same basic concept expressed in different styles.

    • unethical_vegan says:

      “By raising animals without harm with these resources”

      Could you please elaborate because I don’t buy this at all. In a mostly vegan world I think meat consumption would increasingly become more expensive (e.g. a rare luxury for the veganish flexitarian).

  5. The project is interesting. But I’d be curious to hear what sorts of reasons/motivations have lead your colleague to pursue this book deal.

    Personally, I’d be somewhat on the fence about it. While I don’t have any fears that the case for veganism would be weakened, or that it would really hurt the cause, I wonder what it gains, and how it does anything to help animals. Figuring out how much lattitude and intellectual respect to give views I think are fundamentally and deeply wrong, while living in a culture and society that is thoroughly saturated in the view that animals are ours to use, is a difficult problem. If I were living during a time when slavery was near universally accepted, or the subjugation of women was universally held, would I want to promote the opinions of those who wanted to defend this view? Those are the sorts of analogies I often turn to.

    Anyways, I’m not saying that there aren’t legitimate reasons for pursuing this sort of project. I’m just curious what they are.

  6. I’m really glad to hear about this new addition to your blog, James. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in my time as a Geography major is the wisdom that real-world phenomena are so deeply rooted in context that any blanket statements must be analyzed with serious scrutiny. As such, I don’t think veganism applies to every context. However, I’m wary of those who use this very argument to justify their unwillingness to go vegan in a context where the lifestyle does apply.

    Thank you for this, James.

  7. Ellen K says:

    At risk of being both simplistic and inflaming more criticism, maybe it isn’t a question of being right or wrong, but of simply acknowledging that there are indeed grey areas, permissible /understandable exceptions in extreme circumstances, and situations without clear answers. Such lack of bright lines needn’t and indeed doesn’t undermine veganism. Willingness to recognize such areas is a hallmark of honesty and strength. One doesn’t want to be in any sort of fundamentalist camp (usually – always? — based in primitive fear and insecurity).

    I write as a philosophically abolitionist vegan but not a practically absolutist one, if that makes sense (I consciously kill, say, ticks and mosquitoes in self-defense, and recognize that my very existence necessarily inflicts or is complicit in harm –inadvertently eaten aphids hiding in kale crevices, just for starters).

    And I don’t see Watson’s definition as absolutist anyway: “seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practical – all forms of exploitation….” One can envision any number of scenarios in which eating insects, oysters, or frozen bodies of fellow plane crash victims may be – if not unequivocally ethical by some standards – pragmatically defensible. But such examples posed as challenges are usually just distractions and excuses for people to continue making clearly violent choices.

    Recognition of such scenarios or marginal hypotheses doesn’t refute the core of veganism, the pillars of which are solid. Whether bugs eaten by a starving human or scavenging carrion is ok are questions whose answers—whatever they may be – shouldn’t distract from what is not in dispute: that fully sentient birds, fish and mammals are needlessly suffering and dying for no good practical or ethical reason. Well, unless your ethical stance is that only human animals count, and anyone else is an insensate, spiritless machine, but most reject that assumption.

    Can the intellectual be satisfied with agnosticism or lack of clear answers at the moment, given our limited knowledge of other life forms? And proceed confidently nonetheless to advancing the main agenda, namely getting the masses to realize that calves and chicks count?

    • unethical_vegan says:

      “seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practical – all forms of exploitation”

      this clause was inserted the year after “animal liberation” was published.

  8. Karen Harris says:

    I am confused as to why you find this line of inquiry worth pursuing. There are so many people on the planet who eat meat, many who have all kinds of philosophical reasons for doing so, and many more who do not give it a thought. As a vegan, I believe it is my job is to get people to think about the human/animal relationship differently, and to suggest why it is wrong to harm animals for our pleasure. I do not think vegans have to search for reasons to justify eating meat – what a pointless pursuit. The clearest thinking, and yes, unequivocal, on these issues in my opinion comes from Gary Francione. He is not afraid to say that some things are just wrong – eating animals being one of them.

    • Mountain says:

      Is it wrong to eat animals? Or to kill them?

      If you provide chicken feed to chickens, you have killed the field animals who were killed to produce the grain, even though you haven’t eaten the chickens, and the chickens didn’t actually eat the bodies of the dead field animals.

      If a farmer shoots a feral pig he caught rampaging through his zucchini fields, he’s harmed the pig, even if he leaves it in the field rather than eating it. Meanwhile, if an omnivore (human or otherwise) comes along and eats the shot pig, the omni has done the pig no harm, even though he has consumed his body.

      The harm is in the killing, not in the eating. In our current food system, the two are tightly bound, but it need not be so. And of course, there are all kinds of non-food ways in which we harm and kill animals.

    • James says:

      Excellent, and a great reason for all of us too keep reading Gary Francione!

      • Mountain says:

        Maybe my question to Karen wasn’t clear, so let me ask you, James: is it wrong to eat animals? Or is it wrong to kill them?

        I get that eating an animal is usually wrong because it usually causes an animal to be killed. But is there any other reason it’s wrong? If so, it isn’t clear to me.

        • Laura says:

          @Mountain: Please google: animals in factory farms images
          …and tell me if you’re clear about that.
          I get your point about eating the naturally deceased, but am not interested in it, find it rather sickening, besides being undoable by 7 billion people and counting. And I don’t trust people to leave animals alone and wait for them to die; besides, if they’re going to eat them, the least people should do is make their natural (old-age) deaths more painless and peaceful, and morphine would contaminate the meat, wouldn’t it? And don’t people prefer the young and “tender” as opposed to old and “dry/stringy”? No, I don’t trust people with that natural death thing. If starving to death I’d eat the dead (well cooked!) if nothing else available, but I’m thriving on fruits, veggies, nuts/seeds, beans, and grains, so consuming dead bodies isn’t an issue.
          You know who you should be trying to convince of your diet solution? Go to McDonalds, Carl’s Jr., all the rest, and talk to some blustering bacon-cheese-double-patty burger fans. Have you tried that, even in online forums? Vegans are not the problem, we’re the main part of the solution.

          • Mountain says:


            1. You know perfectly well how I feel about factory farms, so there’s no point in trying to tag me with that. Under salveganism (or salvage-ism, or whatever you want to call it), there would be no animal feed. Without animal feed, animals must be free to feed themselves.

            2. No one is asking you to eat animal products. In a world where animal products are produced without harm, there would be substantially less meat and dairy (though possibly more eggs)– so the more vegans there are, the less non-vegans will have to cut back.

            3. That said, I don’t understand being sickened by deceased animal bodies any more than I understand being sickened by deceased plant bodies. I don’t think animals are sickening. I think animals being harmed and killed is sickening.

            4. Finally, I don’t go to fast food forums because I look for places where real discussion happens. I’m more interested in the solutions than in the problems. So I have these conversations with (some) vegans, (some) foodies, (some) paleos, (some) organic farmers, and (some) permaculturists. Even in those subgroups, many are not interested in these discussions. So I take the discussions where they happen.

          • Laura says:

            I’m sickened by the thought of EATING the dead bodies, not the dead bodies themselves. I feel sorrow for any pain they suffered, and curiosity about where their souls went to…not hunger for their flesh…earthworms can do far more good with that dead flesh than I ever could, and that makes for very rich soil.

            Eating a dead body would be an act of desperation for me now, not a desire.

            In this salvage-ism, are the animals free to leave the property and stay away, to go live and die nature, or are they confined? If they’re confined, not free to go but only free to find food for themselves, how can people be trusted not to kill them when it becomes inconvenient to wait for them to die? I don’t trust most people, rightfully so. Do you?

            And I still think people prefer young and tender over old meat, so salvage “farms” would revert back to concentration camp slaughter farms, would they not? Unless most people were vegan, that is. Thus, back to square one: Vegans are the main part of the solution.

          • Mountain says:

            In the world I’m describing, animals would be free to go wherever they want, including leaving the farm. I’ll put you in charge of dealing with any neighbors who get upset about animals trespassing on their land.

            As for the chickens on our farm, they’re more free than the chickens at United Poultry Concerns or the animals at Farm Sanctuary. We’ve had chickens on the roof of our house, on the roof of their shed, and 15 feet up in a tree, so I don’t think our 6-foot fence is stopping anyone who wants to leave.

          • Mountain says:

            “how can people be trusted not to kill them when it becomes inconvenient to wait for them to die?”

            The same way people can be trusted to be vegan: persuasion. In your ideal world, people have to be trusted to be vegan; in my ideal world, people have to be trusted to allow animals to live out their full lives. That’s probably why neither of our ideal worlds is likely to actually happen.

            But, my ideal asks for a smaller sacrifice from consumers. And it provides better economic incentives to farmers. And it kills fewer animals per calorie. And I’m already doing it on my handful of acres. Hopefully, I can get to a few hundred, or even a few thousand, acres in my lifetime. And maybe I can convince enough farmers to copy my approach (which is extremely similar to Masanobu Fukuoka’s, whom James has written about on this blog) to add several thousand more acres to this approach. Every acre saves lives.

          • Laura says:

            If you would just acknowledge the vitalness of most people going vegan to allow for your sort of hands-off-natural-death animal farming, then I wouldn’t have such a problem with you. You continually seem to want to be “better than” vegans and to try to convince people that eating of dead bodies is necessary for human health. New vegans are born every day either by real birth or having the light go on in their heads and seeing they no longer want to participate in the torture and suffering and bloody killing. Sadistic brutes are no more likely to embrace your type of farming than they are to embrace veganism. But decent people are another story; the more of them that go vegan, the more feasible your type of farming is.

          • Mountain says:

            How’s this for an acknowledgement? It isn’t vital, in that it isn’t strictly necessary, but it sure is beneficial.

            Here’s another acknowledgement: as far as I can see, going vegan is the biggest single thing someone can do to diminish animal suffering. So anyone who wants to make one change, and think no more about it, should go vegan. There are paths made up of multiple steps that can do more to diminish animal suffering, but that’s a more complicated process.

            I don’t try to convince people that meat is necessary to human health: it isn’t. I do, however, point out flaws when people claim it is harmful to human health.

            Finally, I’m not trying to be “better than” vegans. I’m saving the lives of animals, and establishing a framework to convince others–even brutes– to do the same. The ethics of my approach should persuade those who care about ethics, and its profitability should persuade brutes who only care about that. An animal whose life is saved is unlikely to care whether it was saved for base or noble reasons.

  9. I think it’s always good to question. Yourself, your beliefs (and if what you believe can’t withstand scrutiny, then perhaps your beliefs aren’t strong enough), and even leaders in the movement who are absolutely sure of themselves and their positions. Because black or white thinking, and believing yourself to be 100% right about anything, scares me a bit. There are always gray areas, extenuating circumstances, context, and intention.

    Having said that, I truly believe that killing animals in almost all situations is wrong, and that veganism is the best framework for reducing and stopping needless animal death. But if someone could unequivocally show me that veganism isn’t the best system for achieving that, I would hope that I would be open enough to listen.

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