Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What to Tell Vegetarians: A response

A friend of mine pointed me to this blog post today, a response to people who advocate vegetarianism.  So I thought I'd post a friendly response to the points made in the post.  I'm not sure if the post reflects the blogger's views, or Harvey Ussery's position... I think it's Ussery's though, so I'll direct them at him.

The first part of the blog post is about the subject experience of killing animals.  I rarely bring this up, only because, well... its subjective.  Some people might be thrilled and invigorated by killing animals, others not so much.  But ultimately, this point is moot.  If something is immoral, its not because people enjoy it or do not enjoy it.  Clearly, people enjoy lots of immoral things, and don't enjoy things that are perfectly morally permissible (like going to the dentist, or cleaning the toilet).

So it's not whether or not someone has killed the food that they eat, but whether or not they can choose not to eat the food that they eat.  This is something we can all clearly do.  I don't take the "moral high ground" because I don't kill animals.  I take the "moral high ground" because I don't participate in activities that lead to the unnecessary suffering of animals (raising them in factory farmed conditions).

The next point is where Ussery is right on the money.  He writes:
Where you and I probably disagree most is this: While no one would claim that the wolf is being immoral when he catches and eats the rabbit, you probably assume that for me, a human being, eating meat is merely an option which I (selfishly) choose by preference—and I could just as easily satisfy my dietary needs with a strictly plant-based diet. Well, I do not see my eating of animals as merely optional. Based on extensive research on the matter, I believe that animal proteins, and especially high quality fats (and the fat-soluble vitamins they either contain or enhance), are essential for optimal health. Thus “kill and eat” is as imperative for me as for the wolf.

I think Ussery is making two points here.  First, that its okay for animals to eat other animals, so consequently I can eat animals as well.  Second, that eating animals are essential for optimal health. 

First:  Yes, animals do eat other animals, but this isn't a moral act because animals can't reason morally.  And even if they can reason morally, carnivorous animals MUST eat meat in order to survive, since they cannot derive all of their nutrients from plant sources by themselves.  Being held morally responsible for our actions implies that we can do otherwise.  In the case of animals, they can't do otherwise because their biology prevents them, and because they can't reason to the alternatives if they can do otherwise.

But probably more importantly, I don't think that we should determine our morality based on animals' actions.  Animals sometimes eat their young, rape, males of many species kill babies to encourage females to reproduce again with them, etc.. 

Second:  Animals are not required for optimal health of the human body.  There are 8 essential ammino acids that the body needs to survive (12 non-essential).  All of them can be found from plant sources.  But Ussery's argument isn't about survival...  Its about optimal health.  If vegetarians can't reach optimal health because of their diets, then we might have reasons to be omnivorous. 

Unfortunately, Ussery's argument fails on that level as well.  Brendan Brazier was featured not too long ago on Oprah.  He is a Triathlete, holds a couple of course records, and is a vegan.  I wouldn't go so far as to say that it is easy to be in optimal health, espescially as a vegetarian, but it is possible.  Besides, reaching optimal health is difficult for most people, even on a diet with meat included.

In fact, there is plenty of evidence that suggests eating meat prevents us from reaching optimal health.  Heart disease is the most common killer of Americans, and it is largely attributable to an excess intake of cholesterol which is not found in plants, only animal sources.  The American Society for Clinical Nutrition published an article in 2003, that indicated that vegetarians live significantly longer lives than non-vegetarians.
Ussery points out that as a backyard farmer, he treats his animals much more humanely than the factory farmers.  This I can agree with.  But since backyard farming is impractical for most people because of the time commitment, or because of laws or space availability, those that cannot raise their animals themselves must rely on mass producers to get their meat, which means that the lives of the animals, the point that Ussery wants to focus on, is probably a dismal one. 

Finally, Ussery turns the question back to the vegetarian:
...let me return your personal question with one for you: What is the percentage of the food on your table, year round, that you produce yourself, or that you buy face to face from producers you know personally, so you also know how that food was produced, and at what cost to living beings? My estimate is 85% for my own table. If you have not a clue where your vegetarian fare was produced, by whom, at what cost to other players in the local ecology, including economically oppressed humans—then do not dare presume a moral superiority based on the fact that I do indeed kill animals in my backyard, in the context of a way of food production which is most of all about regeneration, about healing, about ensuring an agricultural base “unto the seventh generation.
I confess, I don't know where most of my vegetables come from.  But where my food comes from doesn't make that much of a difference, ultimately speaking.  Sure there might be ecological costs with industrialized farming, but the fact is, its is almost infinitely easier to get environmentally responsible raised crops than humanely treated meat at the local grocery store. 

The heart of Ussery's question here is this:  Am I a perfectly moral person?  If I'm not then I can't proclaim that Ussery is a engaging in questionably moral behavior.  I'll admit, that I'm not a perfectly moral person.  But that doesn't mean that I can't point out other people's moral flaws.  And I would hope others would do the courtesy to me to point out my own moral short comings, so that I can attempt to correct them.

When it comes to food, we really only have two present choices, an omnivorous diet, or a vegetarian diet.  I think there are plenty of reasons for saying the vegetarian diet is the more ethically responsible, healthy diet than the omnivorous one.  Does that make a person a morally bad person for eating meat?  I don't think so, but I think we can be better people by not eating meat. 


  1. I do, I do get a thrill out of killing things! Now I feel really creepy. But it is amazing. We once caught a catfish on a fishing trip and three hours later when I cut it up to prepare it I realized it was still alive. When I gutted it the heart beat for five minutes in my hand. Life is just so brilliantly amazing, it is hard not to be in awe of it. It's horrific, but also amazing.

    Ethical consumerism in relation to meat bothers me. Fine, if you want to make that choice make it. I think it's great. But that doesn't mean people can just stop being vegetarians. Flesh is flesh whether it was raised in a test tube, a cardboard box, a sunny pasture, or a tiny unventilated cage.

  2. Actually, if its raised in a test tube, I wouldn't have a problem with it at all, since nothing had to suffer for it. Over on Jean Kazez's blog a while back, she was talking about breeding cows without brains... I think that would be great!

    In terms of the thrill of killing things, I think it depends on the context... I remember fishing, and it was thrilling to catch the fish, not so thrilling to gut the fish for me. But I did remember seeing things squish around inside the fish (the heart presumably) and thought that was really neat.

  3. Gary Douglas BuzzellDecember 10, 2009 at 5:47 PM

    "Bacon tastes good. Pork chops taste good." I prefer to live a full and satisfied life rather than a moral one. I do prefer to eat meat that is "organic", but if its the choice between not eating and consuming a burger of questionable origins, pass me the ketchup, its chow time.

  4. Gary- Megan Fox sure might be a treat too, and living a full and satisfying life I think might include having your way with her.

  5. I do not think there is an ultimate form of either a full and satisfying life or a moral one. Mick Jagger has wants and regrets as much as Ghandi stepped on bugs. What makes morality relevant is that Ghandi had a full and satisfying life while being as "good" as he could be. The pursuit of full and satisfying does not need to be immoral. I am not volunteering to immolate myself to prove this point, but I think being "good" provides as much satisfaction as violating certain celebrities.

  6. Gary Douglas BuzzellDecember 12, 2009 at 3:13 PM

    So you're saying that while there is no ultimate form of either a full and satisfying life or a moral one, what makes the moral one relevant is that it is "ultimately" objective, because you're pursuing good? What is good? We can argue the consequences of my action and my intentions until life has passed us by.
    I'll post below a link to a youtube video for the sardonic Tool song Disgustipated, in which "Reverend Maynard (James Keenan)" is carried in a dream by an angel of the Lord above a carrot field and hears the sounds of impending doom rising from the soil. The cries of the carrots, their consciousness soon to be snuffed out by the farmers. As the chorus repeats: "Life feeds on life..."

    I don't think Ghandi did have as full a life as he could have, though the influence and effect of his life (his greatness) was something that I admire. I'd rather achieve greatness in whatever form, even if I sin, than maintain mediocrity in order to follow a set of morals. It so happens that Ghandi may have been both great and moral; though he's a rare case, an exception due to the circumstance of his era (Zeitgeist). I'm not advocating anarchy, but personal ambition and development of the self without regards to anyone's set of rules, save one's own.

    Where does my desire come from? Do I eat meat simply because I was taught to by my parents/society? Is it my responsibility as a sentient being to identify with the suffering of other beings, pity them and do what is in my power to remove them from or reduce their suffering? Or, do I recognize myself as a creature of habit in a struggle for supremacy through The Will to Power? What would Nietzsche say about vegetarian or veganism? What do their wills, needs or desires matter compared to my own? Conversely, to argue in a pseudo-Singer perspective, if I do recognize others are suffering, and the responsibility to help them, how far should I go to alleviate them of their suffering? To the point that all sentient beings are in a state of equilibrium, a "happy" medium? How much less happy would I be if I gave up nearly all of my possessions and the satisfaction of my desires to balance the world? Would I still be immoral if I didn't do as much? What are the consequences of being in various degrees of immorality? Do I get a lesser punishment? Or, rather, do I reach a higher form of being in my next incarnation? A Hindu cow perhaps? One which does a lot less thinking and a lot more living.

  7. I don't want to get bogged down in a meta-ethical what is good argument. But I will respond to your Nietzsche points. I think you're in error to think that a moral life is a non-satisfying life. People put off their desires all the time, for greater gains in the future. Thats what Nietzsche called sublimating your will. Nietzsche recognized the paradox of hedonism, just like Plato and Epicurus.

    Nietzsche is a virtue ethicist. He's telling us to foster a certain kind of character, and that character is one of strength, not exercise of remorseless power. Slaves think of things in good or bad, Masters think of things as simply beneath them, which is to say that they've transcended them.

    I'm comfortable enough to say I've transcended animals... We're better than them, but that doesn't mean we do whatever we want to them. Nietzsche doesn't advocate a dictatorial Ubermensch. If he did, then there really shouldn't be much of a hubbub over Nietzsche's philosophy being used by the Nazi party... But there is, precisely because Nietzsche would never have advocated such a society.