In Defense of Vegetarians

Why do they need defense?  From whom?  Well, this Newsweek writer thinks vegetarians are sanctimonious and they sneak corn-dogs when nobody's looking.  From the other side, vegetarians are attacked by vegans for not giving up dairy and eggs as well as meat.  To add to a vegetarian's woes, some of the famous ones are reverting to meat-eating.  I was not at all happy to read that Mollie Katzen, author of my very favorite vegetarian cookbook, has a recipe for beef stew in her newest cookbook.  (I recently looked at the three books of hers I own and realized she was probably never an animal-concerned vegetarian to begin with.  Oh. Well.)

Since I take the vegan perspective most seriously, of all these perspectives, I'm just going to defend vegetarians from attacks that could come from that direction. Note:  just could. I think lots of vegans are sane people who aren't looking to attack anybody.

So--let's start with vegetarianism in a traditional, idyllic world.  You live in a village in the Swiss alps, where the views of the mountain tops are as pretty as can be.  Your cow Bessie lives happily in your field while her domestic partner pulls a plow. There are hens and roosters in your yard.  By milking Bessie and taking eggs from the hens, you are able to enjoy the delicious vegetarian food in Mollie's cookbooks.  Is there a moral problem there?

Tom Regan is the philosopher who put "yes" on the map in his 1983 book The Case for Animal Rights.  Regan says that even in the idyllic scenario, you'd be violating the basic rights of an animal to be treated with respect.  By using these animals as resources (getting work from the bull and and resources from the cow and chickens), you are treating them as means, obviously without their consent.

I'm on board with the notion that animals should be treated with respect, whether or not we add "rights" talk to the mix.  However, I don't share Regan's sense that the animals on Idyllic Swiss Farm are treated disrespectfully.  So I don't in fact think there's a problem there.  Vegetarianism is all that's required of anyone in that setting, and not veganism.  Which goes to show: there's no absolute or universal prohibition against using animals for food or other purposes.

But now jump to your own real situation.  Sad to say, you probably don't have a view of the alps out your window. You don't have a cow in your yard or any chickens.  The animals that produce your eggs and milk are in fact treated with disrespect.  This is glaringly true if they come from factory farms, but still true if they come from "improved" factory farms or even humane farms (which are never as idyllic as Idyllic Swiss Farm).  Barring any special circumstances, you will stop eating eggs and milk if you are in the finest moral fettle.

The thing is, most of us are not in the finest moral fettle.  We recycle, but not everything.  We see that driving and flying produces carbon emissions, but at most we cut back. We don't stop.  We can see that buying luxuries for ourselves is vastly worse than contributing to Oxfam and thereby saving lives, but we still buy some luxuries.  Most of us are not, in short, moral saints.  So when we decide how to behave, we think in terms of priorities.  You recycle the big stuff, but not every scrap of plastic.  You get a smaller car, but not no car.

So the question (for us sinners) is whether a vegetarian diet is based on a rational set of priorities.  And...guess what?...it is.  Just think about eating chicken vs. eggs. If you eat chicken all year, the cost in chicken lives is 25-50.  All those chickens will have endured what chickens go through to wind up on our plates--which is a lot if they were ordinary factory farmed chickens, though less, if they weren't. If you eat eggs all year, roughly one laying hen went through those same things, plus one male chick was killed (since the males have no economic value).  That makes it a very rational choice to give up chicken first before eggs.

If you think through the costs to animals and the environment of beef vs. milk, you will come to the same conclusion. Ideally, we should give up both.  If you're not up to that, then your first priority should be giving up beef.

Even when people desperately want to change their diets for the sake of their own health and appearance, they very often don't succeed.  It's even harder when the issue is not your own well being, but the treatment of other creatures.  I think vegetarianism is a rational half-way house for people not ready to go completely vegan. It's a choice that stems from knowledge about animal products, not from ignorance.

Then again, is it really important to choose a rational half-way house as opposed to just some half-way house?   Be a vegan before 6 pm, says Mark Bittman.  Even Gary Francione approves of Vegan Mondays!  I think vegetarianism makes much more sense than these possibilities, but I'm all for any way of cutting back on using animals for food.   All of these options reduce the number of animals being mistreated, and that simply has to be good.


Unknown said...

Here is one argument against the prudential vegetarian alternative (and why it doesn't actually work). (I am calling it the prudential alternative because it relates to the balancing of personal and moral reasons).
Think of the analogy with giving up smoking or giving up drinking alcohol. For those who smoke or drink heavily it is certainly better that they cut back. But cutting back is not enough (in most instances). What is more, attempts to cut back often fail because there is no clear dividing line between a little and too much, and the temptation is too great when you are still drinking or smoking. There is no safe amount to drink for an alcoholic except none at all.

In the same way, it might be argued that those who believe that animal welfare is important and accept that animals suffer in the process of food production (except in the idyllic alps scenario) would be better to make an abrupt break with their past. They would be more likely to be able to stop eating animal products and stick to it if they took the full step to being vegan.

This argument might work in favour of going vegetarian rather than being vegan for part of the day or part of the week and eating whatever you like for the rest. I suspect the analogy has some traction there. But I don't think it works for being vegetarian rather than vegan.

The reason that I don't think that this argument works is that (in my experience) very few vegans make the shift in one step from omnivorism to veganism. It would be interesting to see whether there is any empirical evidence on the subject. But my suspicion is that step-wise change is more likely to be adopted and more likely to lead to lasting dietary change.

Wayne said...

To make the analogy work, you need to replace the smoking with something else, that represents less harm (in this case to yourself instead of an animal)than smoking.

So I'm a smoker, and I want to quit, but I can't quit... So I choose to give up smoking but instead I start chewing snuff or better yet smoking herbal cigarettes. Isn't smoking herbal cigarettes better than smoking tobacco ciagrettes?

Jean Kazez said...

I'm just saying that vegetarianism is a rational, non-arbitrary half-way house from the standpoint of what's good for animals. It's true there's another set of questions about which dietary rules are followable and which aren't.

I don't know that arbitrary rules (vegan Mondays, vegan before 6) are really followable. If I'm a guest at someone's house, am I really going to tell them I won't eat the pot roast because it's Monday or it's before 6? I don't think so.

Plus, eating pot roast on Sunday makes you want some more on Monday. If you have a vegetarian diet, you pretty much just stop wanting pot roast. The diet is varied enough that there are plenty of other things to want, so one does not feel deprived.

By the way--we are trying to have more vegan dinners and enjoying Veganomicon. Southerwestern Corn Pudding is good!

Wayne said...

I don't think Vegan mondays is a bad idea... Its how I started to become a vegetarian. I'd have meat free days.... Then more meat free days..... Then the meat day....

Sure there will be problems to it, and just like any diet, you might have to accommodate and then return to it.

I'd suspect that's why Francione approves of Vegan Mondays... It makes us realize how easy it is to be vegans.

Jean Kazez said...

OK, if Vegan Mondays is just a way to get started and "practice" and one doesn't aspire to follow the rule consistently, then it might be a very good way to get started.

When I became a vegetarian it was all at once...and an interesting mixture of satisfying, fun, and difficult.

s. wallerstein said...

Another argument in favor of vegetarianism in contrast to veganism is that we live in community, among people who generally eat meat and eggs and cheese and milk and that being a pure vegan cuts one off from so many shared occasions with others, while one can always order one's pizza with just cheese, so to speak. Not only is isolation from others bad for one's psychic well-being, but also it makes it impossible to sustain that constant dialogue with the rest of humanity, which is so essential to a good life for both one and for others. The vegans often write as if the suffering of animals were the only ethical issue facing us: it is just one of many, and without community (and community generally signifies shared bread and at times cheese), we cannot face those pressing issues, including, ironically, factory farming.

Jean Kazez said...

Over the holiday while visiting relatives (and reading Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals) I wondered what it would be like to be a vegan guest of omnivores. I should think it would involve an incessant discussion of what you can't eat, and what adjustments must be made, etc. etc. Maybe somebody else can address this, as I'm just speculating.

Faust said...

My sister in law is has been intermittently vegan. When she is full vegan, she literally brings all her food around with her so she can eat in a satisfying way. So she would set up her own separate cooking station.

s. wallerstein said...

The breakdown of community, the lack of a shared social world, anomie, appears to be one of the chief problems we face. Do we really want to live in a society where each lives in his own mini-kitchen preparing purer than thou meals, buying ever more special foods, tuning into special vegan websites on their own personal Google phone? In any case, it will be a wonderful new market for capitalism to expand into. Then I suppose that they can begin to build vegan gated "communities".

Jean Kazez said...

Vegan apps? Sounds fun. Maybe we need to hear from more vegans to know how they deal with visiting their relatives. Some of these people are nice and good natured and probably devise nice and good natured solutions. I imagine others are looking for ways to be at odds with the world, and make the biggest possible battle out of these things.

rtk said...

With so many fad diets, such as Atkins, weight loss, vegan, a dinner for 8 friends must be a bit flexible. Easy enough if the style is a la French vertical menu. A small entree, fish course, meat course accompanied by substantial veggies, salad, then cheese, dessert, fruit and nuts. No problem. When I'm invited out I'm usually asked for my special requirements. Tedious for the cook. Whatever my grandmother served me is best, better than what the food industries would pass off as necessary. If the guest is not happy about what's on other people's plates, he should stay home. Otherwise I see no problem. Take what you want and leave the rest is a good policy. Proselytizing is not.

Jean Kazez said...

Question--who has dinners for eight anymore? Maybe I'm just not getting invited.

Meat + fish all in one meal. Is that really necessary?

rtk said...

JK asks Meat + fish all in one meal. Is that really necessary?
Sure. How about veggies and fruit all in one meal?
This isn't American stuff, a pound steak, enough food to fill a box to take home for a couple extra feedings. It's French. An ounce of something and two ounces of something else.
Modest eating, but not picky picky.

Alex Chernavsky said...

I think that involuntary servitude is inherently disrespectful. A gilded cage is still a cage.

But regardless of the above, your [Jean's] Swiss scenario is still problematic. The hens put in a great deal of effort to produce their eggs. Is it respectful for humans to remove those eggs from the hens? The cow won't produce milk unless she's been pregnant recently. Is it respectful to repeatedly impregnate her, prevent her calf from drinking the milk (by the way, what ultimately happens to all those calves?), and then use the milk for our own purposes? Getting back to the hens, if they're allowed to keep some of the eggs and hatch them, what happens to any male chicks? I doubt that they're allowed to live out their lives, even in the most idyllic Swiss villages.

And, let's suppose that one of the farm animals gets sick and requires veterinary attention. What happens if the estimated cost of veterinary care exceeds the economic value of the animal? Most farmers would just euthanize the animal.

In the Swiss example, the animals may APPEAR to be treated with respect, but it's only an illusion. When you look closely, the animals are still property, and they're not being respected.

With regard to the larger question of vegetarianism (that is, ovo-lacto-vegetarianism), I think that Jean is conflating two different questions:

1) Is it morally better to eat a smaller amount of animal products than a larger amount?

2) Is it in the best interests of the animals for activists to promote vegetarianism as an acceptable alternative to veganism?

The answer to the first question is "yes" (less suffering & death is, of course, always better than more suffering & death). But the second question is more subtle -- and the abolitionist position (which, to me, is as much of a slam-dunk as welfarism is to Jean) holds that the answer is a definite "no".

rtk said...

Alex: I found myself in surprising agreement with everything you said. Until. When I used to hunt I was surprised at the small territory each animal confined itself to and the amount of effort to protect that bit of land. The life span of a wild animal is short, but yes it’s made shorter by hunters who most often get the older and weaker ones. Hens wouldn’t last long enough to sit on many eggs, if any. I thought at the time that I would be doing my two bassets no favor by leaving them in the woods rather than bringing them back to the space that confines me as well as them. My current dog has a daily crisis, running around whining with a favored leather toy in his mouth, searching for a safe place to hide his treasure. Last night, I felt a bump under my pillow. His toy.
Certainly the cage or small field for temporary animals looks mean. But what if the animal died naturally? What if the human died prematurely, while it was still tender? My tank fish eat each other if one goes belly up, The idea of eating our own species is beyond revolting. Barbequed rib of child is difficult to type. Unthinkable. But that’s no argument.
Instincts. If we can’t even discuss eating humans, what else can we go on? My instinct is to live in a house, not a cave or tree, not use human milk to make cheese, not eat your bicep should you not wake up. Pass the lamb chop, please. It comes from a farm that I pass on my bike. And a bit of Brie. Also, local.

Alex Chernavsky said...

RTK: I'm not sure about your point, exactly. If you're arguing that it's better for domesticated animals to be raised in captivity than for them to be thrown out into the woods to fend for themselves, then perhaps you are right -- they're not well-suited to it. But what I'm advocating is for humans to stop breeding animals, period. The animals wouldn't live anywhere -- not on a farm, not in the woods.

On a related note, I recently finished reading an interesting book called, Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good, by Jonathan Balcombe. The author claims that people in general -- and hunters in particular -- tend to exaggerate the miseries that wild animals experience. Balcombe presents evidence that animals regularly experience positive emotions: "[the book] debunks the popular perception that life for most is a continuous, grim struggle for survival and the avoidance of pain. Instead it suggests that creatures from birds to baboons feel good thanks to play, sex, touch, food, anticipation, comfort, aesthetics, and more." It's well worth reading, though I'm surprised and disappointed that Balcombe ends the book on a welfarist note.

Jean Kazez said...

Alex, A bunch of points--

I am not a welfarist. I think it's disastrously unhelpful to try to use just two labels to categorize animal advocates. What is being lumped under "welfarist" is such a heterogeneous group of outlooks that it's pointless giving them all one name. You may as well use the word "non-abolitionist." In fact...let's do that. Then I can agree--I am a non-abolitionist.

I can see how Idyllic Swiss Farm could be viewed as disrespectful, but let's not push that interpretation by altering my description of it. There's no killing on Idyllic Farm--there are both hens and roosters, and Bessie's domestic partner is tilling the fields. The new calves go to other farms. The animals are viewed like pets and given the same veterinary care we give to our cats and dogs.

I am inclined to view Idyllic Swiss Farm as involving a "mutualism" in the biological sense (think aphids and ants). There's give and take--we take from the animals but also give to them. If the animals have the best lives possible for their species, it's not obvious anything disrespectful is going on.

I am not promoting vegetarianism as an acceptable alternative. I agree that ethically we should stop using animal products (most of us--barring unusual circumstances). However, I am asking how we should look at people who are not vegan, but vegetarian. Should we disapprove mightily?

No, I argued (you ignored my argument). I am suggesting they are like people who don't give most everything to charity and adopt a perfectly green lifestyle. If you think of "the ethical life" as a whole (instead of just focusing on the treatment of animals), I think you will see that we are all sinners (in an entirely non-religious sense).

Plus, I argued that as compromises go, vegetarianism makes sense. It's more reasonable than giving up just red meat, or being vegan until 6, or any other "compromise diet." As I pointed out, you save 25-50 chickens a year by not eating chicken, and just a few by not eating eggs.

Generally, I wish abolitionists would think more about "the ethical life" as a whole. If you think there's a "moral baseline" and vegetarians deserve disapproval, what do you think about yourself when you don't give maximally to charity or adopt a perfectly green life style? In those spheres, I bet you're the equivalent of a vegetarian.

You may not see the analogy, because at this point being vegan is easy for you, but that just shows a failure to stand in other people's shoes. For most people, giving up all animal products would be as hard as being 100% green or 100% altruistic. It's just a fact--there's no point in pretending otherwise. The good news is that makes vegans especially admirable--I'm happy to say that. I admire vegans, excepts the ones who are high and mighty and judgmental.

rtk said...

Alex, strange as it may seem, I'm not actually making a point. I wish I could, but I don't have any answers. I'm only thinking aloud and my main thought is that it doesn't seem to be a thinking matter. Thinking leads me to sometimes arbitrary, although logical, ends. Those ends can be very evil, such as eating spontaneously dead people. My sense of evil comes from instincts, not thinking. If looking at a cute little lamb and not wanting to eat were logical, maybe I could think my through this. But my instincts tell me otherwise. I wish what you wrote would serve as a good guide for me. But it doesn't. Unless you're talking about factory farming. Evil. Pure evil.

Jean Kazez said...

Alex, That book looks interesting...I will have to have a look. I am interested in the very basic question "what is the good life for an animal?" and what they feel (in the wild) is very pertinent.

Alex Chernavsky said...

Jean wrote: "There's no killing on Idyllic Farm--there are both hens and roosters, and Bessie's domestic partner is tilling the fields. The new calves go to other farms. The animals are viewed like pets and given the same veterinary care we give to our cats and dogs."

My mistake, then. I thought you were formulating an example that may actually exist in the real world. Your hypothetical scenario is so unlikely that, frankly, I don't see much relevance to the matter at hand.

I find the term "welfarist" to be a convenient short-hand label to apply to people who advocate better treatment of animals rather than an explicit end to animal exploitation. I understand that welfarists are a heterogeneous group (which group isn't?), but I still find the label to be useful, so I see no reason to stop using it. On the other hand, if you object strenuously to being called a welfarist, then I will refrain from doing so here. It's your blog, after all.

Jean wrote, "I am suggesting [vegetarians] are like people who don't give most everything to charity and adopt a perfectly green lifestyle."

I don't think that your analogy works. I believe that to advocate vegetarianism as any sort of defensible moral position is to act against the long-term interests of the animals (or, in your example, to embezzle money from a charity rather than contribute to it). If someone were to come to me and say, "Alex, I can either spend the next year doing nothing at all for the animals, or I can spend the next year urging everyone I know to become a vegetarian [or urge them to eat cage-free eggs, pasture-fed beef, etc.]", I would answer, "Please do nothing."

If you wanted to limit discussion only to those people who practice a "quiet" vegetarianism but don't advocate it to anyone else, then fine -- as I said before, less death is always better than more death. A serial killer who kills twice a year is better than one who kills four times a year. But your limited form of discussion is not a particularly interesting subject to me. I'm more interested in the most rational, most effective way for animal-advocates to behave. Specifically, I'm interested in the optimal way to help achieve the complete abolition of violence against and exploitation of sentient creatures.

To RTK: My arguments are not meant to appeal to anyone's instincts. I understand that the abolitionist position strikes many people as being counter-intuitive. But then again, many of the things we accept for granted (space travel, women's suffrage) were viewed at one time as bizarre if not ludicrous.

Jean Kazez said...


My Idyllic Farm does have some roots in the real world. What I was really thinking about was the Hindu tradition of vegetarianism, where males work in the fields and the females give milk (and cows are revered). I was also thinking about chicken raising in Hawaii, where roosters literally run around everywhere. It is not impossible that animal farming sometimes really does go on without killing and inflicting of pain,

The word "welfarism" applies to very conservative animal advocates like Temple Grandin. In my experience, people like her like the word and are happy to be associated with it. There is a huge stretch of animal ethics territory that separates Grandin-Land from Abolitionist-land. It is filled with people who want fundamental change for animals, but ALSO want better treatment. It's just polemical to label all these people "welfarists," as if there were no difference between Peter Singer and Ingrid Newkirk (on the one hand) and Temple Grandin (on the other). There is a huge difference, even if they will make common cause on some issues.

Again, I am not advocating vegetarianism, as if there were no reason to be a vegan. However, I think it's reasonable to say to people "do your best." For some, vegetarianism is their best, and it's a major contribution (as I've explained).

I think it's the height of irrationality for you to prefer activists to do nothing than to urge people do better with regard to animals, as opposed to urging vegan perfection. Again, I think you are not looking at "the ethical life" as a whole. It would be crazy to be against all advocacy for the environment and the poor that condoned the equivalent of vegetarianism. We have to condone giving and being green at sub-optimal levels, since that's all that most people will do. It's exactly the same when I condone vegetarianism... because it's the most that many people will do. (In fact, it's much more than they will do.)

I think we need to be careful how we condone compromises, making it clear that that's exactly what they are. We shouldn't say vegetarianism is enough, or meatless Mondays are enough...but I haven't said that. In fact, it's very clear I haven't said that.

I'm afraid I really think you have an unrealistic view about effective messages. For 10 years I've been watching students respond to the message that animals have basic rights like ours and we should never use them as resources. Students literally never find this convincing, as much as I do try to get them to take it seriously. If this were the only message the public heard about animals, I think animal advocates would have even less leverage than they do right now.

So--who's embezzling? Moderate advocates when they say "cut back, do better," or abolitionists who say "vegan only" and make comparisons between eating meat and slavery or rape? Obviously we have a difference of opinion.

Alex Chernavsky said...

I just read the Newsweek article that you referenced at the beginning of your blog post. It's hard for me to understand how someone can read the article and still think that anything short of vegan advocacy will do the animals any good. (Even the journalist seems to have grave reservations -- see the final paragraph of the article.)

As for your students' response, that's hardly a fair assessment. They are no doubt strongly influenced by their instructor's views and by the material that precedes their exposure to abolitionism.

Jean Kazez said...

Alex, I think people like Tom Regan and Francione and Steven Wise have a perspective that needs to be included in an animal rights class and taken seriously. Trust me, I make sure their ideas are not dismissed. Or don't trust me...it's still true!

As to the Newsweek article. Sure--we need more books that say there's fundamentally a problem with using animals as food. I say exactly that in my book. There are lots of ways to reason to that conclusion besides the abolitionist way. I have a different way. Just so you know--there's not a line in my book that says "go ahead and continue using animals for food, but just do it humanely."

Yet, when I say we shouldn't use animals for food, I also understand why we do, and why it's hard to stop, so I say it in a tolerant way. I suspect that's the right way to go if you want to be persuasive.

Jo Tyler said...

I understand your point about most people not being "in the finest moral fettle." But there is a big difference between not recycling, not giving to charities (another of your examples), contributing to global warming; and enslaving and killing another sentient being for your own pleasure. Or paying someone to do it for you.

If we fail to recycle a newspaper, no one is going to die as a direct result of our inconsistency. If we leave our car idling in the driveway, no one is going to have their digits cut off, or have their throats slit. I realize no one is perfect...but there are ethical situations that we would not consider to be areas for which "slacking off" would be seen as permissible.

We wouldn't say, just "do your best" to not leave a dog in a hot car, for example. (To keep the example in the nonhuman animal realm.) So, we shouldn't say, just "do your best" to avoid easily avoidable animal products. Animal products cause suffering...and I can't understand why anyone would knowingly choose to participate in that when so many alternatives are readily available.

Jean Kazez said...

I think you're failing to recognize the life and death impact of these other decisions. It's less obvious and direct but no less real.