Month: February 2017

Bad Arguments Against Veganism

Apex predators kill their food so I should be able to do the same.

Just because something occurs in nature does not mean you ought to replicate that behaviour or that the behaviour in question is morally justified.

Plenty of apex predators kill and eat their young but I doubt you would advocate that we start doing that just because they do. There’s a big difference between a non-human animal and a human animal committing such acts because we have the capacity to think about well being, suffering, intentions and consequences while they do not to the same extent.

You can’t justify behaviours by finding examples of the ones you want to engage in occurring in nature because you’re effectively stating that whatever occurs naturally or in nature is justified. There are plenty of horribly unpleasant things which occur in nature which clearly would not be justified if we did them.

We don’t make moral judgements or develop ethical frameworks on the basis of what happens in nature in any other realm of moral or ethical philosophy. Nobody would dream of justifying rape on the basis that other species engage in it so it seems incredibly strange that people try to justify meat eating on that basis.

It’s natural to kill and eat animals.

Natural law is something that humans have invoked to defend questionable practices all through their history – although few of them have invoked it correctly. Natural law ethics effectively makes the claim that moral law can be derived from our human nature and we should not act against human nature. Many people however assume quite incorrectly that natural law ethics pertains to the distinction between what is natural and what is artificial. This is not the case and that becomes quite clear when you ask most people advocating that we do what comes naturally to us if they’ve ever flown in a plane.

You’re probably familiar with the moral teaching in catholic doctrine that you should not use the contraceptive pill. The doctrine makes the stipulation however that you may use the rhythm method. This doctrine is a direct product of natural law ethics. Many people believe the pill is something artificial – in that it is man made and not naturally occurring – whereas the rhythm method is natural. With this in mind they confuse the idea of natural law with this idea of discerning between doing things that are natural and abstaining from using something artificial. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the moral teaching. It is not at all about the distinction between what’s natural and what’s artificial. Essentially what the catholic moral teaching is really talking about is the idea is that we have a defined and distinct sexual nature defined by our reproductive organs and their purpose. As a result of this, we have a nature which is reproductive and we should never then act against that nature intentionally. The rhythm method is not a guarantee of pregnancy prevention as the pill is – you may be coordinating your efforts to avoid pregnancy but you aren’t preventing your organs from doing what they are meant to do. This is quite different from merely making a distinction between things that are natural or not and abstaining from those things which are not.

When we claim that eating meat is somehow natural then we need to ask ourselves if it is in our nature to kill and eat animals and we have to further ask if we should not override our nature and if not we must justify why we must not. On the question of whether it is in our nature to kill and eat animals I would propose that it is not. If it were we wouldn’t have an instinctive aversion to working in an abattoir or a factory farm. Furthermore, those who did work in such environments wouldn’t become desensitised to violence and be at higher risk of committing acts of violent crimes. This observation is borne out by the scientific literature which illustrates that communities in which slaughterhouses are a source of employment we see the rates of violent crimes increase – this includes crimes such as domestic violence, rape and child abuse. Butchers and abattoir workers are also more likely to suffer from anger, hostility and forms of mental illness. If killing and eating animals were natural this would not be the case. Furthermore, we’re ill adapted for eating meat, it increases our risks of heart disease and cancer – more on that later.

Killing and eating animals is unlikely to be natural, even if it was and we all accepted that it was we would still have all our work ahead of us in demonstrating that we should do those things which are natural simply because they are natural.

We’re top of the food chain.

You’re not at the top of the food chain, you’re in the middle of it [1] – also it’s more of a food web than a chain. In any case, even if you were at the top of the food chain that in itself wouldn’t justify eating meat. Might does not make right.

We evolved to eat meat.

We have evolved as an omnivorous species. We can eat all sorts of things in order to maximise our chances of survival. This does not mean you are mandated by any biological requirement to eat all sorts of things to maximise your chance of survival – especially in a modern society where food scarcity is not a problem and your survival is effectively guaranteed regardless of whether you eat meat or eat an entirely plant based diet.

We might have evolved to eat meat but we evolved no specific biological requirement that would mandate its inclusion as part of our diet. In any case this point is irrelevant because we also evolved to run long distances for the purposes of scavenging but I don’t see anybody in western society doing that or advocating that we start doing it because it’s what we evolved to do. You can’t just say, “we evolved to do it therefor we should do it.” This is pretty much just another appeal to nature.

I have canines though. 

This is basically just another version of the ‘we evolved to eat meat’ argument. See the above response for why appealing to evolutionary biology on matters of moral philosophy isn’t a very good idea.

It would be too hard to change my meat heavy diet.

If we care about being moral or having an ethical framework that enables us to consistently do good then the difficulty level of performing moral actions should not be a particularly large concern. Why settle for being ethical only when it’s easy or convenient? To be ethical when it isn’t easy and it isn’t convenient is a far greater accomplishment. Anybody can be ethical when it’s easy. It’s easy to not steal when you don’t have to but it’s hardly an accomplishment.

This argument can be used to justify almost anything, e.g., I’m a kleptomaniac, it would be too hard to stop stealing; I love cocaine too much to quit; I’m addicted to nicotine, it would be too hard to stop smoking; I’ve told racist jokes all my life, it would be too hard to stop now…etc.

On a final note, it isn’t hard. You literally just stop eating animals. It’s really easy.

What would happen to the animals if we stopped eating them? Do we set them all free?

This is really nothing more than an extension fallacy not entirely dissimilar from a straw man or an appeal to extremes. It attempts to make a reasonable argument – that we should stop eating animals – into an absurd and extreme one – that we should all stop eating animals immediately without thought for the consequences to the economy or the animals’ and our own welfare.

The ultimate goal of vegan advocacy would be achieving zero meat production but no reasonable person would demand we go from current meat production levels to zero over night.

Meat is the only thing for people to eat in the extreme climates, where no plants grow. 

Do you live in an extreme climate?

If your answer to that question is yes then I guess you have no choice but to kill in order to survive. This doesn’t really make the vegan position wrong. It just means sometimes people have to do what is necessary for their survival. I think killing humans is wrong but I can’t imagine any reasonable person would think killing in self defence is unjustified.

If your answer is no then this argument does not apply to you and you should probably spend less time thinking up hypothetical situations you will never find yourself in and more time thinking of ways you can try to help reduce suffering and death in the reality you actually inhabit.

If you were stranded on an island with nothing else to eat but an animal you would eat that animal.

I’m not sure I could bring myself to kill an animal unless it was threatening my life. In the event that I did kill and eat the animal my hypocrisy wouldn’t make the vegan position wrong.

I could smoke a 20 deck of cigarettes every day and I wouldn’t be wrong if I said that smoking is bad for you. My being a hypocrite with regards to smoking has no bearing on whether what I have to say about its health ramifications is true or not. Similarly a vegan who fails to uphold his values is not necessarily wrong about the superiority of the values he holds. We can take this to an even greater extreme and consider a person who eats meat, would that person be wrong if they said more people should be vegan to reduce the suffering of animals simply because they eat meat? No, what they said is true regardless of what they do.

This argument isn’t particularly compelling anyway since I’m not stranded on an island and probably never will be so I see little point entertaining the thought beyond the two sparse paragraphs above.

I like the taste of meat so I should be able to eat animals.

If I like the taste of humans can I eat them? If your answer to that question is yes then all I can say is that at least you’re consistent. If your answer is no then I would contest that taste alone cannot be the determining factor in whether we can or can not justify eating meat. You drew the line at humans so clearly taste alone is not all that matters here and cannot on its own act as a justification for eating meat.

I don’t like the taste of vegetables.

If you were stranded on an island with nothing but a cucumber though you’d eat that cucumber. Just saying.

If an animal lacks intelligence I should be able to eat it.

Let’s assume this is true and follow the logic through:

It is not morally wrong to eat an animal if it is not intelligent. Humans are animals. Not all humans are intelligent. It is not morally wrong to eat a human if that human is not intelligent.

Oh dear…

I guess intelligence alone can’t be used as a justification for whether we eat an animal or not. If you want to use intelligence as a deciding factor in whether we eat an animal or not but you draw the line at humans then intelligence alone cannot be used as a justification for eating animals.

Animals aren’t people; they don’t have rights. 

I imagine you would agree that humans deserve individual rights, legal and moral protection. If humans exclusively deserve such protections then they must deserve it on the basis of some distinctive, individually possessed and relevant trait that warrants this protection. This must be a trait which non-human animals do not possess. I can think of no such trait and I doubt you can either. There is at least one characteristic common to humans and animals that should inspire us to protect them, we all feel pain and we all can suffer. Non-human animals feel pain and emotional stress just as we do and you either support their feeling that pain and emotional stress for selfish reasons such as your enjoyment of a steak or you don’t. It’s really very simple.

You kill plants, how is that different?

They don’t have a central nervous systems or any ability to perceive pain. It’s pretty different.

Becoming vegan won’t make any difference to the animals.

This is little more than convenient nihilism that you wouldn’t apply to any other area of your life. Why bother giving to charity? Why bother voting in elections or engaging in peaceful protest? Why bother engaging in strike action? Why bother boycotting bakeries when they refuse to serve LGBT customers? Why bother buying fair trade products? Why bother saving water or switching the lights off at work? You’re only one person after all, you’ll never make a difference and we’re all going to die so we might as well embrace the bleakness of our existence and live as nihilists instead of engaging. If you’re not a sixteen year old you shouldn’t be deploying this argument, ever.

Supposing it doesn’t make any difference to the general welfare of animals – a conclusion I don’t accept since when I stopped eating meat a new omnivorous human didn’t spontaneously pop into existence to fill the gap in demand for meat – there are still plenty of reasons to become a vegan that pertain to human welfare. Such reasons include the increased risk of diseases such as cancer and heart disease associated with eating red meat and processed meat, the antibiotic crisis and environmental considerations.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) evaluated red meat and processed meat with respect to their potential for being carcinogenic following recommendations based on epidemiological studies. The risk was small but meat consumption is rapidly increasing in developed nations. Some health agencies had already recommended limiting intake of meat and these recommendations were based mostly on reducing the risk of other diseases such as heart disease. Processed meat was found to be demonstrably carcinogenic and red meat is probably carcinogenic according to the IARC [2]. This is not a unique finding. The IARC research was effectively a meta-analysis of a wealth of existing research. Furthermore Cancer Research UK, the National Health Service, the World Cancer Research Fund and others all agree with and accept this research. Not only this but the vegan diet is consistently demonstrated in scientific literature to reverse heart disease – one of the top killers in the US and UK. This is unique to a vegan diet. It can also prevent and reverse other killers like type II diabetes, hypertension and morbid obesity. With that in mind wouldn’t it make sense to make the vegan diet the default – if you care about human welfare – until meat based diets were demonstrated to come with comparable health benefits?

As if cancer and health risks weren’t enough of a human welfare issue we are also dealing with the terrifyingly real prospect that without action we may soon live in a world without effective antibiotics. The Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Margaret Chan, warned in 2011 of “a post-antibiotic era, in which many common infections will no longer have a cure and once again, kill unabated.” This is not something we want to experience. One of the main driving factors is antibiotic use in farming. A mass reduction on the use of antibiotics in farming is critical to human welfare.

In a literature review – commissioned by the British government – of published peer reviewed research articles, only 5% of a total of 139 academic papers argued that there was not a link between antibiotic consumption in animals and resistance in humans. This contrasts to the 72% of papers which found evidence of such a link between the two. [3,4]

The environmental impact of factory farming is also high but I’m not particularly interested in this argument – or even the arguments I just outlined – as I’m vegan for purely ethical reasons pertaining to animal welfare, so you’ll need to look elsewhere for an overview.

You can’t demonstrate that killing animals is objectively morally wrong.

You can’t demonstrate that rape is objectively morally wrong. Can I rape people now?

It’s my personal choice.

Personal choices tend to be rather inoffensive things. They tend to involve you and only you, hence their being called personal choices. When your choices support the killing of another living, thinking, feeling sentient being then it’s no longer a personal choice. It’s a death sentence. It’s a choice you’re making to support the ending of the life of another being. That doesn’t seem very personal to me.

Who are you to tell me what’s right and wrong? I bet you’ve done bad things.

Sure I have. My having done bad things in the past doesn’t prevent me from trying to do good things in the future. Is everyone who has ever done a bad thing precluded from talking about animal welfare? Will you only consider arguments for ethical veganism if it’s the Dali Llama delivering them? You can’t demonstrate an argument is false by attacking the person presenting it. The argument is true or false irrespective of whether the person presenting it is a good or bad person.

Where do we stop with animal rights, do we protect prey from predators?

I don’t think it’s prudent to think about whether or not we protect prey from predators considering we haven’t even got past the first hurdle of not stabbing sentient beings in the arteries and letting them bleed out or gassing their offspring en masse. In any case this argument is something akin to a slippery slope or appeal to extremes argument. It takes the reasonable argument that we should provide animals with basic rights and extends it to extreme position of providing them the right to be protected from natural predation, a right we don’t even have. It’s just patently absurd.

If we didn’t milk cows they would all die.

Often when people use this argument they seem to be under some strange illusion that cows magically lactate their entire adult lives and need constant milking. They don’t. Like all mammals cows only produce milk when they give birth.

In their natural environment – before selective breeding – they would have only produced approximately as much as their calf needed and when the calf was weaned the milk production would stop. Over time we have selectively bred cows to ensure they produce about eight gallons a day. Even when they are milked every day, the amount of milk they produce gradually decreases. They are impregnated every year to keep the milk production going. Most dairy cows go through this cycle of impregnation and milking about three or four times before they succumb to infertility, mastitis or some other disease, at which point they are sold for meat. It’s often easier and more cost effective to sell them for slaughter than it is to treat their illnesses or deal with their infertility. In light of this fact it’s rare to see dairy cattle surviving this process for longer than about five years. Their actual life expectancy is anywhere between twelve and twenty. Further to this cows who give birth have their calves taken from them quite early to prevent them bonding and becoming stressed when the calve is removed from them at a later date – how benevolent of us.

We have selectively bred them in such a way that dairy cows now need milked by us because their milk production is vastly greater than the requirements of the calf so even if we were to allow them to keep their calves – to do the milking for us – they would probably develop some form of infection without our help.

Does this mean I can keep buying milk and support the dairy industry? No. Assuming conservation and the well being of dairy cattle is your primary concern – which it obviously isn’t – you cannot possibly condone how the dairy industry operates. The only way to change the dairy industry is to stop buying milk.

To act as if the repeated impregnation of these animals, the kidnapping of their young and their premature slaughter  is all for their own good is, well, stupid. We don’t do it for species conservation and we don’t do it to ensure their well being. We do it because we like milk and it’s disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

If we were really interested in the well being of these animals and genuinely cared about their survival then the solution is not to continue on as we have done up to now. The solution would be to allow them to get pregnant naturally and aid the milking process – seeing as we’re responsible for the problem in the first place – while letting them enjoy full lives without slaughter. And no, before you get excited, I’m not suggesting we do this all at once without thought for the consequences (see ‘What would happen to the animals if we stopped eating them? Do we set them all free?’).

If we didn’t farm honey then bees would go extinct.

Bees are mostly going extinct – in the UK at least – as a result of habitat destruction, the use of pesticides, and the prevalence and spread of disease and pests. They are not going extinct because we failed to farm their honey enough.

Honey bees are specifically bred and culled to increase productivity and decrease aggression. This selective breeding increases susceptibility to disease and in fact the spill over of disease and pests between managed and wild bees is increasingly observed and considered to be a major threat to wild bees. Managed bees can potentially act as a disease reservoir to wild populations [6]. If you want to conserve a species there are considerably better ways to go about it than this haphazard mixture of conservation, cruelty and exploitation. Once again, we frequently conserve other species without exploiting them or mistreating them so there’s no reason we can’t do it with bees.

Hunting helps conservation.

Sure, sometimes it does. Congratulations, you found the shittiest possible solution to a problem that works sometimes in certain circumstances. Unfortunately better solutions exist, like not hunting animals and developing a better framework for more cost efficient and sustainable conservation.

Hunting helps conservation in the same way shitting in a bucket and throwing it in the street helps reduce your water bill. It’s a solution to a problem but it isn’t a good one.

If we stopped doing [abusive action] then [non-human animal] would go extinct. 

Often a species which is mistreated in some way for our benefit is proclaimed to be in danger of extinction or some dire circumstance that would impinge on its well being if we do not continue our mistreatment. Rhinos will all go extinct if we don’t hunt them; cows will die if we don’t milk them; bees will succumb to disease …etc.

The problem with this argument, when used as a counter to the vegan position is that there’s nothing in veganism that means I necessarily have to stop or try to stop every species going extinct. This ties back to a previous argument in which veganism was extended to an absurd position which apparently advocated that we extend animals the right to protection from natural predation (see ‘where do we stop with animal rights, do we protect prey from predators?’). Here veganism is being extended fallaciously to a position that we should extend to animals the right to never become extinct, which is another right that even we don’t have.

While I do agree we should engage in conservation efforts I don’t think conservation and exploitation should go hand in hand. We can conserve a species without mistreating them, we do it all the time. The only problem is that we’re selective about which species we conserve and which we mistreat on the basis of whether we can take something from them or not.

You can love animals and eat them.

Love is defined in many different ways and means many things to many people. It is a complex and difficult emotion to pin down. One thing most people would agree upon is that when you love another person you will necessarily have concern for their welfare. You cannot claim to have concern for the welfare of a being if you would have its life ended so that you might eat it. These are not compatible positions and can only be reconciled through elaborate mental gymnastics and compartmentalisation. You could avoid the problem all together by just not eating them.

I didn’t kill any animals by buying meat though.

Sure you didn’t and neither did I when I ate meat but nonetheless billions of animals die every year because their senseless murder is supported every time somebody buys meat.

References:

[1] Sylvain Bonhommeau, Laurent Dubroca, Olivier Le Pape, Julien Barde, David M. Kaplan, Emmanuel Chassot and Anne-Elise Nieblas, Eating up the world’s food web and the human trophic level, Available at: http://www.pnas.org/content/110/51/20617 (Accessed: 07/02/2017).

[2] I.A.R.C. IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat, Available at: https://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2015/pdfs/pr240_E.pdf (Accessed: 11/02/2017).

[3] Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, Antimicrobials in Agriculture and the Environment: Reducing Unnecessary use and waste, Available at: https://amr-review.org/sites/default/files/Antimicrobials%20in%20agriculture%20and%20the%20environment%20-%20Reducing%20unnecessary%20use%20and%20waste.pdf (Accessed: 11/02/2017).

[4] Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, Antimicrobial resistance – why the irresponsible use of antibiotics in agriculture must stop, Available at: https://www.ciwf.org.uk/media/7247793/antibiotics-alliance-40pp-report-2015.pdf (Accessed: 11/02/2017).

[5] Peter Singer Ethics, Available at: http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/1985—-.htm (Accessed: 01/01/2017).

[6] Tom D. Breeze, Stuart P.M. Roberts and Simon G. Potts, University of Reading, The Decline of England’s Bees, Available at: https://www.foe.co.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/beesreport.pdf (Accessed: 21/02/2017).

[7] Lyons DT, Freeman AE and Kuck AL. 1991. Genetics of health traits in Holstein cattle. Journal of Dairy Science 74 (3): 1092-100