ScienceSkepticism

Vegans, Skeptics, and Biotruths

On last week’s episode of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Steve Novella and I briefly discussed a few of the various ethical arguments surrounding veganism and vegetarianism. I’m technically a pescetarian (I very occasionally eat fish, but no other meats), but I’ve been vegetarian, and sympathize greatly with vegans. I support anyone who wants to safely change their diet in a way that reduces their impact on the environment and the amount of harm caused to animals, whether that person is going vegan, cutting out red meat, or even only buying ethically sourced (such as free-range) meat.

I’ll try to briefly sum up our discussion for those who haven’t listened: Steve eats meat and sees nothing ethically wrong with humanely slaughtering animals and eating them, since that is how nature has progressed up to this point. I pointed out that many people (myself included) don’t think it’s possible to humanely kill something that does not want or need to be killed. I said that most vegans and vegetarians don’t begrudge someone eating meat if it’s their only option, like someone living in poverty and/or without access to good health resources.

After the recording, it occurred to me that an example may have been helpful to illustrate my point about whether or not it is ethical to kill a creature, even humanely. Our co-host Jay Novella has a beloved dog. Were he to put him to sleep tomorrow in the most painless way possible, and then to cook and eat him, very few of us would categorize that as “humane,” even if we’ve never met Jay or his dog. The dog wouldn’t know what was happening or have any knowledge of his impending death, and his life lived thus far would have been incredibly comfortable compared to his relatives in the wild, yet still most of us would probably wonder why Jay would do such a thing to an innocent creature, when his fridge is already stocked with food.

Feeling revulsion at the killing and eating of a person’s family pet and none at the same act when it concerns a pig on a farm is just human nature. None of us have perfectly consistent morals and we all draw our lines somewhere. The vegans and vegetarians I know care just as much about a pig on a farm as a dog in a house, and I happen to share that view.

While I’m writing this, I may as well try to wrap up any other misunderstandings someone may have taken from the SGU segment. With that in mind, I’ll use this email I just received via the Skepchick contact form:

Comment: I listened with frustration to your discussion on SGU podcast about supposed fallacious thinking in those arguing with vegans. A few thoughts:

1. Humans are biologically omnivorous. This is attested to by our dentition, the set up of our GIT system and palaeoanthropology. True, modern humans no doubt each too much meat and we would do well do cut down our individual consumption. However, without artificial supplementation, a strict vegan diet can lead to iron and B12 deficiency – this is clear evidence that our physiology is not set up for a purely vegan diet. Veganism is a philosophical lifestyle choice for plump middle class westerners and is acting against our biology.

2. I agree with Steve that it is entirely possible for liverstock animals to live out an idyllic free-range life (much longer and stress free than their wild counterparts) and be euthanaised in a relaxed, stress-free and painless manner. This could be done in a manner in which the animal would be “none the wiser”. I see no ethical issues with that.

3. If there is a “Fallacy of Anthropomorphic Thinking”, than clearly Rebecca was guilty of this fallacious thinking during your discussions when she objected to killing any animal that “didn’t want to die”. As Steve was politely trying to point out to Rebecca, livestock may have enough sentinence to be aware of their present conditions and perhaps even some limited memory of past events, but I seriously doubt a cow has enough sentience to have an existential crisis about its future in any way, including it’s impending demise, something limited only to higher primates. Rebecca’s argument is pure appeal to emotionalism (I’m pretty certain that’s a fallacy right there) based on anthropomorphic projection of human existential crises of mortality onto an animal that lives only in the present.

4. We haven’t even touched on what gold standard of ethics we are using when vegans argue that eating animals is “unethical”. Sounds to me just another example of emotivism.

5. Finally Rebecca was quoted as saying that she thought that it was immoral to bring a sentient being into the world and then cut it’s life short against it’s “will”. I wonder if Rebecca is consistent in her thinking here, such as – say – does she apply the same principal to elective termination of pregnancy?

Dr Roger Morris
Queensland, Australia

I’ll take each point in order.

1. Humans are biologically omnivorous. This is attested to by our dentition, the set up of our GIT system and palaeoanthropology. True, modern humans no doubt each too much meat and we would do well do cut down our individual consumption. However, without artificial supplementation, a strict vegan diet can lead to iron and B12 deficiency – this is clear evidence that our physiology is not set up for a purely vegan diet. Veganism is a philosophical lifestyle choice for plump middle class westerners and is acting against our biology.

This is an argument playfully known as a “biotruth” – a misunderstanding of biology used to underpin an argument. A strict vegan diet can lead to iron deficiency, but it’s certainly not very common. Iron is plentiful in beans and leafy vegetables, and though it’s more difficult to absorb than the iron in meats, it’s so plentiful that vegetarians and meat eaters are equally likely to be iron deficient, and vegans only slightly more so. The moral? Vegans should educate themselves on how to maintain a healthy diet.

B12 is found exclusively in meats and a few enriched foods like cereal and almond milk, so it is very important that vegans and some vegetarians take supplements or seek out those enriched foods to be sure they get their recommended value. The moral? Vegans and some vegetarians should educate themselves on how to maintain a healthy diet and have access to supplements and enriched foods.

Needing to pay a bit more attention to what we eat, and in the most extreme cases needing to take a supplement, does not mean that it is ethical to eat meat instead. Morris has made an appeal to nature: we do many things that our bodies didn’t necessarily evolve for, like flying planes and playing the violin and scuba diving. 10,000 years ago we could have said that humans didn’t evolve to drink milk, so drinking milk must be “wrong.” But some humans decided they really wanted that milk, and today some of us have evolved to drink it. Others drink it anyway and take pills to be able to process the milk. Taking pills to be able to drink milk does not mean that drinking the milk is “wrong,” despite what some vegans argue. And yes, I do find it humorous that Morris makes exactly the same fallacy as some vegans, here.

Calling veganism a lifestyle choice for “plump middle class westerners” is just an ad hom and I won’t address it. Instead, I’ll let fellow Skepchick writer Will address it:

Arguing with people over e-mails about podcasts is also a philosophical lifestyle choice for plump middle class westerners.

Moving on:

2. I agree with Steve that it is entirely possible for liverstock animals to live out an idyllic free-range life (much longer and stress free than their wild counterparts) and be euthanaised in a relaxed, stress-free and painless manner. This could be done in a manner in which the animal would be “none the wiser”. I see no ethical issues with that.

My example with Jay’s dog should pretty well answer this, though I’d like to mention that Surly Amy had this response:

By that guy’s logic I could go gas my neighbors and then eat them and it would be ok because humans are omnivores and the neighbors didn’t see it coming.
*purchases really big crock pot*

I’m guessing that Morris would argue that humans are a special class, either because we’re a part of the same species, or because humans are better than other species, or both. Again, this comes down to what Steve and I agreed to disagree about. It’s an ethical decision that each person must make for themselves: where do you draw your line? There are many people who don’t even draw the line at just “human.” There are those who eat other humans, and there are those who consider people of different races or genders or sexualities to be deserving of fewer rights, including the right to life. And on the other end of the spectrum, there are people who feel that other species deserve the right to life, like dogs and cats, or pigs and cows, or fish and fowl.

It’s a messy situation, in part because humans become less special with every passing day as we discover great apes that contemplate mortality, elephants that remember their enemies, and crows that count. Every day we discover new reasons to appreciate the right of animals to live if they don’t need to die.

3. If there is a “Fallacy of Anthropomorphic Thinking”, than clearly Rebecca was guilty of this fallacious thinking during your discussions when she objected to killing any animal that “didn’t want to die”. As Steve was politely trying to point out to Rebecca, livestock may have enough sentinence to be aware of their present conditions and perhaps even some limited memory of past events, but I seriously doubt a cow has enough sentience to have an existential crisis about its future in any way, including it’s impending demise, something limited only to higher primates. Rebecca’s argument is pure appeal to emotionalism (I’m pretty certain that’s a fallacy right there) based on anthropomorphic projection of human existential crises of mortality onto an animal that lives only in the present.

To be clear, no, there is no “Fallacy of Anthropomorphic Thinking,” nor is there an “appeal to emotionalism,” and making up logical fallacies does not an argument win. Morris points out (incompletely but correctly) that I object to the killing of an animal that didn’t want to die (it’s incomplete because I object to killing an animal that doesn’t want or need in some way to die, and that “need” is a tricky grey area that includes euthanasia and the old “Circle of Life,” amongst other things). He then says that no livestock could consider whether or not it wanted to die. Let’s look at this as though it were a logic problem:

1. Rebecca objects to killing an animal unless it wants to die.
2. Cows don’t understand death and thereby can’t want it.
3. Rebecca objects to killing cows.

My concern is not whether or not the cow experiences an existential crisis, though of course I am concerned by the very obvious stress that many animals undergo even when killed “humanely,” owing to their environment. My concern is that I am an atheist who does not hold humans as the only lifeform worth preserving. I think this is the only life that I get, and the only life my cats and those cows and that dog get to experience, so shouldn’t we try our best to make that life as good and long and happy and worthwhile as possible? If my cats were slaughtered and eaten by a human dying of starvation I could still call their end worthwhile in some way. If they were slaughtered and eaten by someone who chose their kebabs instead of the salad at a Golden Corral all-you-can-eat buffet, I’d call their end worthless. In either case I’d call their lives too short-lived because there could have been another dozen years that they brought me, my boyfriend, and each other endless joy and love.

If you’ve ever seen cows jumping for joy to be going out to the fields after being stuck inside all winter, you may understand that feeling a bit. It’s the understanding that these animals are individuals with thoughts and feelings and desires and a value greater than the taste of their flesh on a sesame seed bun.

If you don’t see that value, it doesn’t mean you’re making a logical fallacy. It means you have different values than me. That’s something Steve and I understood during our conversation, but not necessarily something that Morris seems to get.

4. We haven’t even touched on what gold standard of ethics we are using when vegans argue that eating animals is “unethical”. Sounds to me just another example of emotivism.

This makes absolutely no sense to me, but if any readers understand it and wish to respond, please do so in the comments! He may be starting from the assumption that emotivism is an unreasonable philosophy on the whole, which seems like something he should take up with David Hume, not me.

5. Finally Rebecca was quoted as saying that she thought that it was immoral to bring a sentient being into the world and then cut it’s life short against it’s “will”. I wonder if Rebecca is consistent in her thinking here, such as – say – does she apply the same principal to elective termination of pregnancy?

I absolutely am consistent. If you give birth to a baby, it is your ethical duty to be sure that baby is provided for as best as you are able. Similarly, if you prevent a woman from getting an abortion in a timely manner, when the fetus is still a part of the woman it inhabits and dependent upon her for sustenance and growth, you are also morally required to raise the resulting baby to adulthood.

So yes, I think it’s morally responsible to abort a fetus or embryo before it becomes a living, breathing, thinking life form if you cannot be responsible for that life form and reliably promise it a good and happy life. If you fail to get your dog sterilized and she accidentally gets pregnant, it is your ethical duty to either find good, happy homes for what will eventually be puppies or have a vet dispose of the embryos before they’re born. I believe that because we have the capability to think and plan and consider the feelings and experiences of others, and because we have the capability to overcome our bodies and our environment in novel ways when it suits us, we humans have a responsibility to give each other and other inhabitants of our planet as great a life as we reasonably can.

A reasonable person can disagree with me, and I think Steve Novella is a reasonable person. He understands that the discussion we had was not a scientific argument but a philosophical one. It’s not a time to vainly grasp for logical fallacies in an attempt to be right – it’s a time to listen to the other person, understand where they’re coming from, and at worst walk away agreeing to disagree and at best agreeing to continue mulling the matter over. That’s what good skepticism is.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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105 Comments

  1. March 12, 2014 at 12:40 pm —

    I love how you in the podcast just a few minutes prior all agreed that if you point out to somebody that they are wrong, they will still defend their current position and do it at great length, even if they might know that they are wrong.

    Also, for the record, I don’t get how a person — especially a skeptic — can ever defend eating animals.

    • March 12, 2014 at 1:40 pm —

      I’m a meat eating skeptic, and I’m happy to defend the logic of that. Which I would do in detail if I had the time, I don’t. The simple version of it is I don’t consider it wrong to kill animals provided they are killed out of necessity, that is to say for food. I dislike people who eat meat and also admit they would never be willing to kill and butcher an animal themselves, I have. And I accept the ethical, and emotional consequences of doing so. Its far from the worst thing a human being can do. Livestock are not endangered, and eating them doesn’t put the planet or civilization at risk.

      • March 12, 2014 at 4:39 pm —

        I think it’s necessary to point out here that “necessity” and “for food” are not equivalent, as Rebecca pointed out with her cats vs. cabbage example. As Rebecca also pointed out, when it actually is out of necessity, very few vegetarians/vegans have a problem with killing an animal. However I don’t consider “Mmm, a cheeseburger sounds good” to qualify as necessity. I’m also not sure how being willing to slaughter the animal yourself has bearing on anything more than your moral consistency. It doesn’t say anything as to whether an act is moral that you’re willing to do it yourself. “It is far from the worst thing a human can do.” similarly doesn’t strike me as a very good argument. There are a whole lot of things that are far from the worst thing a human could do that we don’t do, because they’re not moral. That’s basically the same argument as Dawkins used in his “Dear Muslima” letter. I understand that we can only do our best (and heaven knows I’m a shoddy vegetarian), but the fact that we can’t live up to all our morals 100% of the time doesn’t have any bearing on the validity of those morals.

        I think it’s fairly clear that eating animals does indeed put civilization and the planet at risk. Not only does the water and food consumption put human populations at risk, but the effect consuming meat has on the climate makes not eating meat one of the best things someone can do to reduce their carbon footprint. Then there’s pollution, antibiotic resistance, etc… Even eating meat “sustainably” is only really sustainable if a small portion of the human population were to eat that way.

        Anyway, I wish you did have time to explain more fully the logic of eating meat. I’ve never really gotten anything more than “It’s easier and it tastes good and I want it” once we’ve gone the rounds on how yes, some people do need animal products to survive.

        • March 12, 2014 at 8:05 pm —

          Here’s an argument for you:

          The huge majority of animals die when they are eaten alive by some other animal. Unless an animal is a top-level predator, its odds of dying a peaceful death of old age are extremely low. Only a small proportion of animals even manage to die of disease, as opposed to becoming snacks the moment the disease slows them down.

          It is sufficient for me to improve on that scenario to be acting in a moral way.

          There is a line of reasoning that if you do something that improves on general happiness, but you did =not= do the thing that would have =maximized= general happiness, then what you’ve done is immoral. That it is not enough to merely improve the world, you have to improve the world to the maximal amount in order to be acting morally.

          I do not subscribe to that line of thought. I don’t think I’m behaving immorally if I give someone $10 that I didn’t need, just because I could have given that person $100 instead. Both are moral; maybe one has a greater morality than the other, but it is not =immoral= for me to keep my extra $90 for myself.

          Obviously there is a difference between money and an animal’s life. But in this way they are similar: I look at the world and I see what this animal’s fate would probably be if I didn’t shoot it and eat it. Is my shooting it and eating it an improvement? Then what I am doing is moral, or at least not immoral. It is not necessary for me to maximize the animal’s life outcome by protecting it from predators and giving it trips to the vet in order to be acting morally.

          Note that this argument is completely separated from the method by which I procure my meal. This is only concerned with whether procuring a meal of animal meat is, independent of the method used, a moral act.

          • March 19, 2014 at 6:13 am

            Rebecca covered this in her point about “necessity.” For some animals, it is necessary to kill in order to survive; they do so with the tools that they have, which make their kills sloppy and inelegant compared to what humans can do with Temple Grandin animal handling and captive bolt stunners. The thing is, though, our tools also make it possible for us to get pretty much all of the nutrients we need from vegetable sources; we get protein and oils from nuts, minerals from seaweed, etc, and if they’re out of season where we live, we can import them. I personally have to take a multivitamin every other month or so, or I get pica in the form of ice craving… but popping a vitamin pill every other month isn’t a bad price for not killing an animal that I don’t *need* to kill.

            So, that last 5 minutes or so is much nicer if you’re human prey instead of animal prey… statistically, though, the time leading up to that last 5 minutes is pretty shockingly cruel if you’re being raised to be eaten by a human. I became a vegetarian after taking an “animal science 101” course that was meant to introduce pre-vet majors to livestock handling if they hadn’t grown up on a farm. I was pretty horrified by what was presented as standard practice (James Herriot it was not). I’m not sure quite what you mean by procurement (not method of killing, since you already addressed that… local vs. shipped?), but if you want to take your hierarchy of morality a step further to the ‘more moral’ side, you could start by only eating grass-fed beef and eggs from pastured chickens. It would go a really long way towards reducing the misery your dollars are paying for.

      • March 17, 2014 at 12:31 pm —

        While I agree that there’s something particularly noxious about people who eat meat who would never want to know what goes on in producing their meat, much less actually participate in that process, I don’t think that participating in the process is a makes the process moral.

        I also think it’s true that there are some people for whom eating meat is necessitated by environment or by medical conditions. Since I’m a speciesist to some extent, I support those people’s right to eat meat.

        But raising livestock absolutely does put the planet and civilization at risk. It contributes greatly to global warming, and it makes us all more at risk of the next pandemic flu.

  2. March 12, 2014 at 12:56 pm —

    When I listened to the podcast I was completely agreeing with Rebecca. Although I was glad Steve was able to be so reasonable and understand that it wasn’t a scientific argument, but a philosophical one. I’m not a vegetarian but I think morally I probably should be. As Bob/Jay (can remember which one) said one day hopefully science will solve this problem and we can grow our own meat and make this whole process of killing animals illegal.

    Great response to that guy.

  3. March 12, 2014 at 12:57 pm —

    Two points I’d like to make about Morris’ objections.

    “1. Humans are biologically omnivorous.”

    This is a descriptive claim about the way the world is. You cannot derive a normative claim, about the way the world *should* be, from a descriptive claim (Thanks, Hume!). Humans are biologically able to reproduce as early as eight or nine years old, it does not follow that they should do so. Morality is not determined by nature – or at least if Morris thinks that it is he owes some sort of argument, because that view struggles with seemingly fatal flaws – most strikingly crazy counter-examples to the principle, but also some tough metaphysical issues of how normativity arises from non-normative features of the world.

    “4. We haven’t even touched on what gold standard of ethics we are using when vegans argue that eating animals is “unethical”. Sounds to me just another example of emotivism.”

    The standard arguments against eating and using animals for human gain are either Kantian or Consequentialist in nature. According to the former there is a rule against unnecessarily harming any sentient creature (and of course ‘necessary’ will have to be unpacked) and more broadly there is a rule against treating any sentient creature as a mere means and not an end in itself. According to the latter, we are morally obligated to increase aggregate well-being of all sentient creatures, or to decrease suffering. Emotivism is not a very widely held belief, and the assumption that a defense of vegetarianism relies on emotivism in some way would need to be explained by the author, since it seem demonstrably false. (Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation is one of the canonical works on the topic and is pure, straightforward, consequentialism.

    This can be a touchy area. Most people cannot accept or do not want to see that they are doing something morally wrong. Of course, we are all failing morally in many ways all the time. Life is hard, it’s not always clear what is right, it’s easy to get confused or mislead, or to apply your moral convictions consistently. But in my opinion the burden of proof is on those who eat meat to explain why it is right, not the other way around, since it seems quite clearly a case of causing unnecessary suffering which is always wrong according to nearly all major ethical systems.

  4. March 12, 2014 at 1:40 pm —

    I’m not here to defend eating animals. I want to ask, though, if we collectively decide tomorrow that eating animals is unethical, what would happen to these animals that exist solely for their meat? (It’s a thought experiment, just run with me here.) We breed pigs for meat. We don’t milk them or shear them and any other uses for their body parts are incidental of their use as a food product. If we stop needing them for meat, what happens to this species? We can’t free domesticated animals that could cause wanton destruction on local ecosystems – that wouldn’t be moral. Do we let them die out? If so, how is that ethical? If it’s morally wrong to cause the extinction of other species despite our best intentions, how is it morally correct to deliberately allow a species that we created to just cease to be? Sure, we could still use chickens for eggs, cows for milk and sheep for wool, but that on its own might not be economically viable for the farmers, so what then?

    I just don’t know which is worse. So I eat meat.

    • March 12, 2014 at 2:01 pm —

      I think there’s a false dilemma here – either we let entire species die out or we continue to mass produce those species for food and products. Or at least that seems like the underlying premise of the thought experiment.

      It would definitely have environmental, economic, and social effects if we collectively decided to just shut down the entire industry in one day. That would be a bad choice, so I think the answer is that you slowly scale down in a fixed time period. We don’t eliminate the species, but we create/find safe spaces for reasonable numbers of the animals to dwell – ecological centers, petting zoos, no kill farms and sanctuaries, etc. Sometimes there is no purely ‘moral’ or ‘right’ answer, but we have to look at the available options and figure out which are the best, all things considered. It seems strange to continue to eat meat reasoning along the lines, “eating meat is actually harmful, but not-eating-meat could be potentially harmful as well, in some possible world where we allow all those species to die.” There has to be a better answer.

      • March 12, 2014 at 2:33 pm —

        I’m probably over-simplifying, but I think even if we gradually reduce our reliance on these creatures over hundreds of years, there still comes a point where it’s just not viable to keep them around anymore. You suggest “ecological centers, petting zoos, no kill farms and sanctuaries, etc.” which is possible, but these things are a luxury. (As is eating meat). Nature herself is not that kind. Can we be sure that there will be a point when these animals are just not worth keeping around anymore?
        I feel like this argument gets very narrow because we as hyper-aware individuals empathize with our livestock on an individual basis. But if the species ceases to exist, the individual never exists. I just want us to think about the bigger picture and what it means for these species to which we have a greater responsibility than most. Is it better to exist at all than to not exist? I agree that we should be humane in our practices when it comes to killing other living things. I think we should try to provide the best life possible to those living things that owe their existence to us. However, I don’t believe that this necessitates that we never end another life – we have to in order to continue our own lives. Bottom line, I don’t really see a distinction between eating a carrot and eating chicken.
        I’m probably not succeeding at being clear. Philosophy is really not my bag. I apologize.
        Dammit, Jim. I’m an ecologist not a philosopher!

        • March 12, 2014 at 7:06 pm —

          The working utility of horses in the U.S., Canada, and western Europe has declined to almost none, and their population has consequently been considerably reduced since the introduction of the automobile [citation needed], but they’re still around because people who are strong devotees like them and keep them more or less as glorified pets. Although horses are a bit different since we don’t typically eat horses, there would probably be a similar role for other livestock species — some people already keep pigs as pets. On the whole I have to think that a reduction in the population of livestock would be a very good thing for the numerous other species negatively impacted by them, considering the tremendous resources they consume and pollution they produce in the numbers that currently exist.

    • March 12, 2014 at 2:10 pm —

      Too, the production of non-lethal animal products such as wool necessitates culling otherwise-healthy animals from a herd (on working sheep farms male lambs as well as some female lambs are generally culled and their meat sold to increase profits). Sheep just make too many more sheep to be sustainable without culling. I imagine that similar tactics are required for milk farms. Perhaps there are scientific advancements that could be made to reduce the number of times an adult sheep or cow breeds in a lifetime and to encourage female offspring over male offspring, but now we’re getting into economics as well.

      • March 14, 2014 at 12:32 am —

        Non-meat animal products (both lethal and nonlethal) are an important part of the equation to consider, especially when you realise that most of the “vegan” alternatives (e.g. to wool, leather, etc) are typically petrochemicals.

    • March 13, 2014 at 1:22 pm —

      Ethics are not concerned with species or populations, they are concerned with individuals. Species don’t have rights, don’t feel pain, and don’t have desires. They are arbitrary groups of individuals.
      To say you eat pork chops in order to keep pigs from going extinct is bizarre.

    • March 19, 2014 at 6:19 am —

      There are feral pigs all over California, and they’re unlikely to die out any time soon. There are also truffle pigs in Europe who are raised for hunting fungi rather than for slaughter. What would happen to the pics currently in CAFOs is that they’d either be left to starve to death, or they’d be slaughtered en masse like what happens whenever there’s an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease. The Mississippi river would be an order of magnitude cleaner within a year, and the deadzone in the gulf might be reduced significantly.

  5. March 12, 2014 at 3:16 pm —

    Omnivore here. I think it’s silly when fellow omnis freak out about vegans taking supplements when factory farms add supplements to animal feed as regular practice.

  6. March 12, 2014 at 3:19 pm —

    Somehow when I listened to that discussion I knew some dumburger would write in with a stupid argument. If the kind Dr. Nonsense here had been listening and not simply hearing, he wouldn’t have felt the need to write that email. Practically every point was answered IN THE DISCUSSION BETWEEN REBECCA AND STEVE.

  7. March 12, 2014 at 3:40 pm —

    This post is very interesting, because to me it illustrates how little logical argument can affect deeply-held beliefs. I think both Dr Morris and Rebecca make sound arguments, though I happen to agree more with one of them because of my own principles regarding animals. I doubt either Dr Morris’s or Rebecca’s arguments could change my beliefs – what could (and has) changed my beliefs have been being surrounded by other people with particular lifestyles / principles.

  8. March 12, 2014 at 3:54 pm —

    I eat meat, but I know it isn’t really defensible especially in ethical terms.
    What I find interesting is that the further an animal is from our phylogenetic class, the less qualms people have to eating it. It is reasonable to say that fish may suffer while they are caught, and it isn’t unreasonable to speculate whether they experience fear. The same could be said of highly intelligent moluscs, I can understand not wanting to eat octopus, but what about clams and snails?
    Basically, I’m curious as to how many vegetarians want to avoid eating anything capable of suffering or animal-like as opposed to anything that is an animal full stop. I find it just as hard to believe some one would object to eating a sea sponge as some one wanting to eat a sea sponge.
    Also, would anyone object to increasing the amount of arthropods into the north american diet? Insects are arguable one of the most ethical sources of protein along with one of the healthiest.
    So is it about animals, ability to experience suffering, ethics? I know its different for everyone, but I’m curious non the less.

  9. March 12, 2014 at 3:55 pm —

    If animals were not grown for food, they would go extinct, just as the many animals that humans have hunted to extinction.

    If we look at this XKCD comic

    http://xkcd.com/1338/

    The biomass associated with cattle is very large, making cattle perhaps the most “successful” land mammal (depending on your definition of success).

    All animals that are ever born are going to die. Giving farm animals a relatively stress-free life is a heuristic of successful farming. Stressed animals are not as “productive”. “Stress” diverts resources into things other than edible biomass. It represents a “cost” to the farmer that stress-free animals don’t have.

    You especially want low stress immediately before slaughter because low stress maximizes the glycogen in muscle (stress causes that glycogen to be mobilized) which results in higher lactic acid content in muscle after slaughter.

  10. March 12, 2014 at 4:45 pm —

    My diet is more or less the same as Rebecca’s (though I probably eat more fish than it sounds like she does — I’m trying to cut back), but primarily for different reasons. For me it’s mainly about ecological impact, though issues of animal welfare are also important. So I’m sympathetic to Rebecca’s position, and think she makes a reasonable argument, but in the end I don’t really agree. (Though I also want to make it clear that the objections raised by the emailer she responded to are absurd for exactly the reasons Rebecca identified.) I do think this is a question of a values difference, and I believe Rebecca has, as usual, clearly identified what is probably the key issue at stake.

    That point is in this paragraph: “Feeling revulsion at the killing and eating of a person’s family pet and none at the same act when it concerns a pig on a farm is just human nature. None of us have perfectly consistent morals and we all draw our lines somewhere. The vegans and vegetarians I know care just as much about a pig on a farm as a dog in a house, and I happen to share that view.”

    My disagreement is with the idea that treating differently the killing and eating of the family dog versus a pig on a farm is inconsistent. I think that depends on the value system you are using. As I understand Rebecca’s argument, she is working from what I would informally term a rights-based value system according to which the reason killing an animal or person is wrong is because you are depriving the creature of its right to life, and within that system it would be inconsistent to grant a right to life to the family dog while denying it to the pig on a farm. However, not everyone understands the notion of rights in the same way. For me, I see rights as something which attach to humans by virtue of their capacity to be part of a moral community. Humans have a right to life because we can treat others as having a right to life; there is something almost contractual about the notion of rights, even though no action is required by humans to be part of the contract. Nonhuman animals, lacking the ability to reciprocate in this notion of rights, cannot uphold their side of the contract and thus cannot have rights.

    This does not mean that animals lack standing in moral considerations, however; far from it, because I don’t believe that rights are the sole essence of moral thinking. In addition to the notion of rights, there is also the notion of welfare, and a consideration of welfare is something we should attach to all beings which can experience pain and pleasure. For me, at least, though, because the notion of welfare is related to the experiences of a living being, while the suffering of an animal should concern us from a welfare perspective, its death might not. In my opinion, the consideration of rights and welfare explains why I would be prepared to, for example, euthanize one of my beloved cats were it to begin to suffer from a painful terminal illness even without knowing whether it “wants” to die, whereas I would not euthanize my beloved mother suffering from a terminal disease without knowing her wishes. (Just to make it clear, in practice I would not do this at all because it is illegal, although she’s made it clear she feels she should be able to choose to die should she begin to suffer from dementia or intolerable, incurable physical suffering, but the right to die is a whole different discussion.)

    A third notion that affects the ways I understand ethics is “care,” or something fundamentally based on the relationships between individuals. So for example, all people have equal rights, and all people deserve equal consideration of their welfare, but I have stronger duties to my friends and family than I do strangers, because of my emotional bonds with them. I think that this notion of “care” bridges the species gap as well, because unlike rights, many animals can clearly reciprocate an emotional bond. Rebecca wrote of the hypothetical killing and eating of Jay’s dog, “most of us would probably wonder why Jay would do such a thing to an innocent creature, when his fridge is already stocked with food.” I would recast this as, “Most of us would probably wonder why Jay would do such a thing to a creature with which he shared an emotional bond of love and trust.” In other words, killing and eating the family pet is worse than killing and eating livestock because it violates an emotional relationship. A clear thinking about the notion of care is somewhat new to me and I’m still working through its implications, but I think it explains a lot about many of our moral intuitions.

    Although I disagree with Rebecca, I respect her position and think her reasoning is good. However, I do take exception with one argument. She wrote, “There are those who eat other humans, and there are those who consider people of different races or genders or sexualities to be deserving of fewer rights, including the right to life. And on the other end of the spectrum, there are people who feel that other species deserve the right to life, like dogs and cats, or pigs and cows, or fish and fowl.” I feel that this argument is poisoning the well. For me at least, it’s hard not to read the subtext of this as “There are Nazis, and on the other end of the spectrum, vegans.” I see a clear moral boundary at humanity, and I don’t think there is a sound argument that for example, 1) racists also see a clear moral boundary at their race, and 2) we all agree racists are wrong about that, therefore 3) no clear moral boundaries. Racists are wrong because they dehumanize other humans. Attempting to “humanize” non-humans is also wrong. There are certain ways in which there is a clear continuum between humans and non-human animals, and I believe the notion of welfare is attached to this continuum. There are other ways in which there are clear discontinuities between humans and non-human animals, and I believe the notion of rights is attached to this dichotomy.

    In case it seems like I’m making a big fuss out of minor differences, when I actually think that Rebecca’s dietary choices are right in practice here, I should say I think it’s very important because the reasoning on display here informs other ethical decisions we might make, including animal research, where I might have much stronger disagreements.

    (I should also say that while I’m trying to make clear distinctions between terms like rights and welfare, I am not a philosopher of ethics and have little formal training there, so I may not be using these terms according to the technical practice of the field. If you are more knowledgeable about that than I am, I’d appreciate knowing the proper technical terminology.)

    • March 12, 2014 at 4:48 pm —

      Holy crap I did not realize how long that got. I’m sorry for the wall of text.

      • March 12, 2014 at 4:51 pm —

        I’m not. It was a great read. Thank you.

      • March 12, 2014 at 8:14 pm —

        Walls of text are not always wrong. This was really interesting and gave me some things to think about.

      • March 14, 2014 at 2:16 pm —

        Well worth the time to read. Thank you.

  11. March 12, 2014 at 5:05 pm —

    I like the comparison of dogs and pigs. Many shook their arms at Michael Vick for his treatment of dogs, but his treatment of dogs and most treatment of factory farm animals is hard to distinguish.

    I’m not sure how I feel about fish. I don’t think there is anything inherently immoral about eating animals, but looking at the effects of that, the devastation of fish stock is real and unreliable.

  12. March 12, 2014 at 5:26 pm —

    Pigs are the smartest farm animal, smarter than a horse or a dog.

  13. March 12, 2014 at 5:46 pm —

    “None of us have perfectly consistent morals and we all draw our lines somewhere. ”

    I like to think my morals are consistent and when I find they are not, to change them. I don’t think we should use that as a cop-out.

    It seems your whole argument rests on how we feel about our family pets, appealing to our love of furry, cuddly animals. Morally, I have no problem with you cooking and eating your dog or cat, just as I have no problem with cooking and eating a pig. If you wanted to try and breed cats for eating, I wouldn’t see anything wrong with that. But if you tried to eat my cats, then you would be violating my rights, because they are my cats. The same is true if you stole my cow or pig.

    Here on some inconsistencies I see in your stance:
    I am confused on why you feel that eating a fish is ok, but not a cow? Why do you feel it’s humane to kill and eat fish, but not cows? And what about all the animals that die during farming (small rodents, insects, birds, etc)? And do you use pest control inside your house, or just let the insects enjoy themselves? And why does plant life count less to you then animal life?

    • March 12, 2014 at 6:26 pm —

      “Morally, I have no problem with you cooking and eating your dog or cat, just as I have no problem with cooking and eating a pig. ”

      Then we disagree. Why is that a problem for you?

      “I am confused on why you feel that eating a fish is ok, but not a cow?”

      I feel that it is ok for me, right now, because I have no trouble killing a fish with my own bare hands and cooking it and eating it, most likely due to its low intelligence and other similar factors. I don’t think it’s the ideal, and I may cut it out of my diet again eventually.

      “Why do you feel it’s humane to kill and eat fish, but not cows?”

      I never said that.

      “And what about all the animals that die during farming (small rodents, insects, birds, etc)?”

      We should limit farming’s impact on the environment as much as reasonably possible.

      “And do you use pest control inside your house”

      No.

      “or just let the insects enjoy themselves?”

      Yes.

      “And why does plant life count less to you then animal life?”

      Plants’ complete lack of a nervous system, mostly. Like I said, the line needs to be drawn somewhere.

      • March 12, 2014 at 6:47 pm —

        Re: your comment about the low intelligence of fish possibly explaining your willingness to kill fish with your bare hands…I’ve never understood this sort of point. In fact, I think the less intelligence an animal has the more that animal likely suffers. I don’t have a lot of time to explain, and so I probably won’t very well, but here’s an attempt to say why I think this: greater intelligence makes it more likely an animal will have perspective on its suffering. It may make it aware that its suffering will end at some point. It may give it the ability to look beyond its suffering in hopes for a time when it will end. I don’t know if these capacities are available to cows and pigs, but I think they’re more likely available than they are in fish. For example, children suffer more than adults, I think, because adults have a better perspective on their suffering. It seems likely this is also true in animals with more intelligence. I’m not saying “eat the smartest animal you can find.” I’m just saying I don’t understand what low intelligence has to do with this issue.

        Now, I do agree if we’re talking about very, very low end of the scale when an animal has a CNS that is so primitive that it can’t experience any suffering…well that’s another issue. I honestly don’t know whether fish can suffer. But mere “suffering” doesn’t strike me as a particularly advance neurocognitive ability.

        • March 12, 2014 at 7:06 pm —

          Ha, maybe you didn’t explain very well because that all sounds as though you think pigs are smart enough to understand that the abhorrent conditions they live in before they die are for some greater purpose while a fish suffers some great existential crisis.

          Anyway, if you’re hoping to understand why I draw the line where I do, sorry, I’m just not really interested in holding a master class on it.

          • March 13, 2014 at 12:27 pm

            You could have just responded to what I wrote without rephrasing it into a ridiculous straw man that had nothing to do with anything I actually said or even ignored it, but no…I guess you felt the need to try to punish me for daring to disagree with you. Good job, Skepchick. It’s a good idea not to hold master classes when you ain’t no master.

          • March 17, 2014 at 12:44 pm

            Beartiger, I didn’t think Rebecca’s characterization of your response was ridiculous, but if it was, could you clarify how?

          • March 17, 2014 at 3:30 pm

            donboc, the guy is a troll. Don’t even bother.

      • March 12, 2014 at 7:32 pm —

        “Like I said, the line needs to be drawn somewhere.”

        EXACTLY! This one sentence is so important. Everyone is drawing the line somewhere, and there just are no objective criteria on where to draw that line.

        We can’t photosynthesize. To survive, we have to eat some kind of life. We can’t opt out of this dilemma. We’re all making some decision about what life is ethical to eat. From vegans to carnivores, we’re all drawing a line somewhere. And that line is always somewhat arbitrary. If we could all just admit that, this entire conversation would be so much more pleasant for everyone.

        • March 12, 2014 at 9:41 pm —

          But that raises the question of “Are ethics arbitrary.” If they are arbitrary, on what do we base our laws and protection of rights. If cows have rights, then we shouldn’t be eating them. If dogs have rights, then should we be owning them?

          You may not want to eat other animals just because they have central nervous systems, but I don’t think the ethics of the issue is arbitrary.

          Do we draw the line at fish or Soylent Green?

        • March 12, 2014 at 10:47 pm —

          Well, I don’t think that where the line gets drawn is always arbitrary, nor that there are no objective criteria that inform where where draw it. I have met a few people who say things like “I don’t eat beef because that would be wrong, but I chicken because I don’t like chickens.” This position certainly is arbitrary. But I don’t think that where Rebecca chooses to draw the line is arbitrary; at least as I understand it, it’s informed by objective criteria like the complexity of the animal’s nervous system (presumably as a proxy for the sophistication of its mind). My intuitions are informed by different objective criteria. These criteria are objective, just not universal. It’s an important difference, because if our moral decisions truly are arbitrary, there can be no reasoning about them. But if they have some objective components, even if which ones those should be, or how they are interpreted, are not universally agreed upon, then at least we can reason about them and have useful discussions about our disagreements.

        • March 13, 2014 at 1:38 pm —

          Great points; the lines we draw are arbitrary. Each of us makes these decisions based on personal ethics. I have noticed that the number of vegans and vegetarians I know has literally grown exponentially since I joined the skeptical community, though. I have often wondered (and debated) why that is the case.

      • March 12, 2014 at 9:27 pm —

        “Then we disagree. Why is that a problem for you?”

        Not a problem, I just thought this was a science blog interested in exploring ideas. If you are not interested in other’s opinions or in being consistent with yours, why is the comment section open?

    • March 12, 2014 at 6:34 pm —

      I am not answering for Rebecca, but for myself (even though the question was not addressed to me). The points made in your last paragraph are not necessarily inconsistencies.

      *why you feel that eating a fish is ok, but not a cow? Why do you feel it’s humane to kill and eat fish, but not cows?*
      answer: Some people draw the ethical line of which creatures deserve moral consideration based on the creatures perceived capacity for sentience, consciousness, or other cognitive abilities. This leads some people to grant moral consideration to creatures with a certain degree of neural complexity that is correlated with the relevant cognitive functions. Mammals tend to have more advanced neural structure, and cognitive abilities, than fish. So this might lead some people to quite consistently eat fish but not mammals – the moral line they draw is a function of neural sophistication. (My own opinion is if you are using neural sophistication and the corresponding likeliness of sentience in a species, you should absolutely abstain from fish. Also, fishing is destructive to entire biospheres that negatively impacts more sophisticated creatures than fish).

      And what about all the animals that die during farming (small rodents, insects, birds, etc)? And do you use pest control inside your house, or just let the insects enjoy themselves?
      Not sure what to say about this other than this: there are non-toxic ways to rid your home of insects or other unwanted creatures. Also, our actions don’t have to be completely consistent in order to be moral. Morality is not a binary system, you can try to tend towards less harm where possible realizing full well that there are many situations you cannot avoid harm.

      And why does plant life count less to you then animal life?
      Again – when we ask the question, “which objects in the universe deserve our moral consideration?” One strategy for answering is to say, “all and only creatures that are capable of feeling pain and pleasure (are sentient).” And if this is the line you draw, then neural sophistication is a good indicator of sentience, and plants lack the necessary neural sophistication to be sentient.

      The line of sentience also explains why an embryo may not warrant moral consideration (it is not sentient up until a later stage of pregnancy), while a human infant *is* sentient. Again, I’m not answering for Rebecca or anyone else, but these are common responses to your questions.

    • March 12, 2014 at 7:39 pm —

      “I think in some ways becoming an adult… means becoming the kind of hypocrite you can live with.” -Merlin Mann

      You can’t make your morals entirely consistent, Elton. It’s impossible. There will always be scenarios that force you to take inconsistent positions. Relax.

      • March 12, 2014 at 9:34 pm —

        Yea, I know most people are comfortable in that position as long as they feel they are mostly good or mostly moral compared to those around them. I have never been like that. I can’t relax, it’s boring ;-)

      • March 13, 2014 at 7:11 am —

        This is such an important point – thanks. People who think they are entirely morally consistent are fooling themselves, and those who try to achieve moral consistency are admirable unless what they’re really doing is spending their time trying to undermine someone else for not being as morally consistent as they believe themselves to be.

    • March 17, 2014 at 12:37 pm —

      How do you feel about Michael Vick’s treatment of his dogs?

      The meat industry treats millions of animals as badly every year as Vick treated a few dozen dogs, and no one does jail time for it.

  14. March 12, 2014 at 6:11 pm —

    You may want to re-word this sentence in light of the “secular argument on abortion” discussion ongoing on another thread: “I pointed out that many people (myself included) don’t think it’s possible to humanely kill something that does not want or need to be killed. “

  15. March 12, 2014 at 7:12 pm —

    I think the “eating Jay’s dog” analogy was great for a number of reasons. It begs the question of whether ones values are consistent, it gets people’s attention, and it raises the issue of animal treatment across the spectrum from pets to livestock. I’ve yet to find a value system that I wholly agree with regarding food, but I lean toward ethical treatment and environmental concerns over cows not wanting to die. I’ve never been able to agree with Singer’s consequentialism and the shortcomings it seems to have. However I do agree that assessing consequences is a responsible and important thing to do, and sometimes it’s not even that difficult. However it seems to me that often we have limited or poor information with which to make adequate judgments or no way of knowing what possible long term or unintended consequences may arise as a result of our actions. For consequentialism to work certain principals or value judgments need to be established before any notion of a good or bad consequence can even discussed and so often that seems to get wrapped up in culture, personal experience and emotions. And as for the cow not wanting to die, couldn’t it just as reasonably be asked if the cow wanted to exist at all? Probably not, and I’d have problems with eating any animal that could contemplate an existential question.

  16. March 12, 2014 at 7:19 pm —

    Thanks Rebecca for posting my email and stimulating further discussion. Just to very briefly reiterate a couple of my points.

    1. You make it sound like I was deliberately making up fallacies to try to bolster my argument. This is somewhat disingenuous. I fully realise there is no such fallacy as “The Fallacy of Anthropomorphic Thinking” hence my quoted sentence being “If there was such a thing as…”. However “Appeal to Emotion” IS a well accepted fallacy of argument and I think you did fall into this when you said “It is unethical to kill and eat something that doesn’t want to die” for the reasons I gave in the email. So I don’t accept your charge of imaginative misuse of fallacies.

    2. Regarding my suggestion that your ethical objection to eating meat is based on Emotivism, this is the definition of emotivism that I would be happy to accept:

    Emotivism: In metaethics, the view that moral judgments do not function as statements of fact but rather as expressions of the speaker’s or writer’s feelings. According to the emotivist, when we say “You acted wrongly in stealing that money,” we are not expressing any fact beyond that stated by “You stole that money.” It is, however, as if we had stated this fact with a special tone of abhorrence, for in saying that something is wrong, we are expressing our feelings of disapproval toward it. Emotivism was expounded by A. J. Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic (1936) and developed by Charles Stevenson in Ethics and Language (1945). (Encyclopaedia Britannica online).

    I think you illustrated this well with your example of the revulsion you might feel at the prospect of eating a colleague and his dog (“Boo” reaction). My comment about “gold standards” of right and wrong is reference to my observation that most people who claim that eating meat is “ethically wrong” tend also to be moral relativists in other areas. I find this selective use of categorical moral imperatives intriguing and inconsistent. This is analogous to Richard Dawkins claiming that there is no objective right and wrong in the universe, and then in the next breath denouncing religionists as “evil”. It is breath-taking in its inconsistency.

    3. Last point, this may well be waved away as a fallacious appeal to nature, but the fact that Vit B12 is required in artificial form in a pure vegan diet shows that the decision to be a pure vegan is one taken in spite of one’s evolved biology. This is analogous to Vit D deficiency in someone who makes a philosophical decision to live out their life in a cave. It is not living “in accordance with nature” as might suggest the ancient Stoics.

  17. March 12, 2014 at 7:53 pm —

    As someone who has been on and off again vegan (due to allergies and other medical conditions) I always find it funny that they never stop once to think of plants as being sentient organisms. Just because an animal writhes around in pain screaming we get a much more visceral emotional response..compared with plants…just because you can’t hear them scream or see their pain.doesn’t mean they’re not!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NeX6ST7rexs

    • March 12, 2014 at 8:00 pm —

      There’s no evidence plants are sentient. Responding to external stimuli does not equal sentience. Also, it would be a separate discussion and does not in any way justify eating animals.

      • March 12, 2014 at 8:24 pm —

        Well clearly you didn’t watch the video.

        • March 12, 2014 at 8:32 pm —

          I don’t have an hour to kill. I’m basing my judgements, not on a YouTube video, but on what the scientific community has concluded. Since plants lack a central nervous system, they don’t have sentience. We know quite a bit on how plants react to the environment, none of which makes reference to sentience or consciousness. I’m also a student of a prominent animal ethicist and we’ve discussed at length the (lack of) evidence for plant sentience (an anecdote, no doubt). Plus, my comment about it being irrelevant still stands.

          • March 12, 2014 at 9:22 pm

            “Since plants lack a central nervous system, they don’t have sentience.”

            Computers lack a central nervous system. All of AI and machine learning is officially a waste of time. If we encounter alien life without a nervous system, we can wipe them all out without even pondering whether or not they might be sentient.

            So many people have been wasting their time pondering what sentience might mean or how we define consciousness. roaddogg has it all figured out. What a deep thinker!

          • March 12, 2014 at 9:25 pm

            Oh! Wait. My bad. You’re the student of a prominent animal ethicist. My previous post might have accidentally implied you’re full of shit. Clearly, your expertise on this subject puts us all to shame.

  18. March 12, 2014 at 7:57 pm —

    Hi Rebecca,

    Great post! Focusing on the “gold standard of ethics” objection, I recommend checking out the work of Mylan Engel Jr, a Professor of Philosophy at Northern Illinois University. Engel takes a common sense approach, one not based on any normative theory, and simply argues that “. . . even those of you who are steadfastly committed to valuing humans over nonhumans are nevertheless committed to the immorality of eating meat, given your other beliefs.”

    Here are two of his papers. Both are excellent and I hope you read them.

    “The Mere Considerability of Animals”: http://www.niu.edu/phil/people/_pdf/Mere.pdf
    ““The Immorality of Eating Meat”: http://www.niu.edu/phil/people/_pdf/NoMeat.pdf

    • March 12, 2014 at 8:38 pm —

      Why should I listen to anything you say if you would not even take time to go over the information I provided? All I get from you is an appeal to authority “well I talked to this guy who’s smarter than me so I believe everything he said!”

      • March 12, 2014 at 8:44 pm —

        “Why should I listen to anything you say if you would not even take time to go over the information I provided? All I get from you is an appeal to authority “well I talked to this guy who’s smarter than me so I believe everything he said!””

        A YouTube video =/= solid evidence. Peer-reviewed research papers are. Documentaries are nice for getting out information, but they don’t make good scientific evidence. It’s contentious at best whether plants feel anything close to pain or pleasure. We know, though, that the animals raised and slaughtered for food do feel pain and pleasure.

        I conceded it was an anecdote but that is because I’m a Mathematics and Philosophy student, not an expert on plants. I defer to people (eg, my animal ethics professor) who have much more knowledge and experience in the field than I do.

        • March 12, 2014 at 8:57 pm —

          Never did I say it was solid evidence, it’s just one source of many that show scientists are trying to answer these questions and are making incredible discoveries regarding. The fact that you will not even take this information and in a true “skeptical” fashion research it to come to a proper conclusion and instead fall back on your appeal to authority because it’s a more comfortable choice lends me to believe that you are not an actual skeptic. Pay lip service. Actual Skeptics would take this information and then provide a viable source if there is one to refute the proposition.

          Yet all I get from you is I’m in math and philosophy and I know more than you do because my other teacher told me so. This is a lame argument. You want me to appeal to your authority because you had a couple discussions with your professor.

          • March 12, 2014 at 9:11 pm

            Okay, let me give you the long response.

            One of my areas of interest is animal ethics and since the topic of plant sentience comes up more often than it should when talking about human use of animals, I’ve done my share of research. All the research I’ve seen, and all the research others in the field have seen, leads to the conclusion plants are not sentient. Could there be a shift when new evidence is brought to light? No doubt, but as of yet, I have yet to see a shred of conclusive evidence that plants feel pain or pleasure in any measurable sense or feel pain or pleasure in the same way a pig or cow can. Interesting discoveries do not make for a very good case.

            Plant sentience is a distraction. It’s a contentious topic so easy play for those who won’t defend eating animals. Plant sentience has nothing to do with whether we should be eating animals. The topic of the post by Rebecca had to do with eating animals. Unless you can share with us a reason to believe eating animals is justified (except moving the topic to plants), all you’ve done is muddy the waters.

            And if you truly do care about plant sentience, you should instantly become a vegan. Per pound, we feed more plants to food animals than the animal produces edible flesh. If you were honest and thought plant sentience was relevant, the case for veganism would be even *stronger* given the amount of plants we feed to the animals we slaughter.

            As to the appeal to authority charge: we all appeal to authorities. We all have finite time and resources so must defer to people who know more. My professor knows more than I do and I trust him to be honest. Does such an appeal make for a compelling argument? No, but accusing me of committing a fallacy is disingenuous.

  19. March 12, 2014 at 8:29 pm —

    I would also like to add that you can thank our ancestors for eating meat and cooking said meat to allow you the ability to comprehend let alone ask such existential and moral questions as the fact that eating and cooking meat is contested as being the main reason why our brains evolved and grew so large.

    You see mammals and animals with predominantly vegan diets, they’re not exactly the brightest creatures..Maybe I can extrapolate this data into the human equation.

    • March 12, 2014 at 8:35 pm —

      Again would also like to add. Second most intelligent life-form on this planet? Dolphins. Considered Non-human persons.
      GUESS WHAT THEY EAT? ALGAE ?!!?!

    • March 12, 2014 at 8:37 pm —

      It wasn’t meat in and of itself that contributed to increased human cognitive abilities: it was calories. Animal flesh has more calories per ounce than some foods, but that doesn’t mean meat has some special “essence” that gave human ancestors the gusto to evolve specialized cognitive abilities. Even if switching to eating more animal flesh helped humans evolve our current cognitive capabilities, it would be absolutely irrelevant to the question of whether we’re justified in eating animals now.

      • March 12, 2014 at 8:43 pm —

        You apparently didn’t get my point. No where am I contesting that fact that we over-consume meat.
        How ever I am bringing up the fact that if we hadn’t..we most likely would not even be having these kind of conversations.

        • March 12, 2014 at 8:46 pm —

          “How ever I am bringing up the fact that if we hadn’t..we most likely would not even be having these kind of conversations.”

          That’s fine. It’s a good question on whether eating animals led to the calorie increase needed to evolve complex brains. But my point still stands: that fact has little bearing on whether we are morally justified to eat animals now in the year 2014. I’d say no.

          • March 12, 2014 at 9:01 pm

            Tell it to the dolphins.

      • March 12, 2014 at 9:28 pm —

        “It wasn’t meat in and of itself that contributed to increased human cognitive abilities: it was calories. ”

        You also solved the evolution of human intelligence? roaddogg is the master of all science!

    • March 12, 2014 at 9:03 pm —

      This “proto-humans ate meat and therefore developed brains” is a nice idea but probably not true. It’s much more likely that pre-human primates developed large brains in order to keep track of the complex social networks in their troupes. Some non-human primates like baboons not only know the social rank of everyone in their troupe, but also the social ranks of all their fellow baboons’ mothers. Chew on that a bit the next time someone disses on women for being gossipy and/or too concerned with their friends. Female non-human primates being concerned with their friends is probably the reason you have a huge brain.

      The notion that meat-eating is directly linked is countered with the example of my cat. The domestic cat is an obligate carnivore, as are all cats. While my cat is insanely cute, and she has the ability to make humans lose their minds around her, she is not a great thinker. Her ancestors all ate meat and nothing but meat for millions of years, but no novels have come out of her yet.

      • March 12, 2014 at 9:06 pm —

        nah the opposable thumbs and walking upright probably had a huge factor aswell.

        • March 12, 2014 at 9:11 pm —

          Also there are many studies regarding the increase in brain size correlating with the advent of cooking our food and our diet, which consisted of both plant and animal. I mean to have such an “idea” be published in Scientific American…yeah..probably not true..

          • March 12, 2014 at 9:13 pm

            Because correlation = causation, and it’s utterly impossible for the reverse to be true: that our larger, more complex brains, not evolved for the purpose of using fire, nevertheless had the side-but-important-effect of allowing us to use fire. Yes, that is so manifestly a flight of fancy.

        • March 12, 2014 at 9:11 pm —

          Tell it to the dolphins, dude.

          • March 12, 2014 at 9:26 pm

            I told it to your mom last night. ahaha lame joke..
            but in all seriousness folks.

            I guess I should just stop reading things published in science magazines and appeal to the authority of commenters on a pro-vegan blog. Everyone here seems to be an expert. What do I know.

          • March 12, 2014 at 9:29 pm

            You sure told me! I have been suitably taken behind the woodshed by your high YOUR MOM discourse.

          • March 12, 2014 at 9:33 pm

            High Five! ….. No? okay… :(

          • March 12, 2014 at 9:42 pm

            “What do I know.”

            About this? NOTHING! Nobody knows how human consciousness evolved. We don’t know when it evolved or where. We don’t know if neanderthals were sentient. We don’t even know what sentient MEANS! And none of this is relevant anyway, because all of your arguments are either based on the naturalistic fallacy or an argument from consequences.

            This has been the dumbest “scientific” argument I’ve ever seen on the internet, and I used to argue with 9/11 Truthers and creationists. All the facts have been bullshit and the logic has been terrible. DO BETTER!

          • March 12, 2014 at 9:50 pm

            I just base these statements off what science told me/
            And until science gets me my star trek replicators..I’ll keep eating meat because bacon is god damned delicious.

          • March 12, 2014 at 9:53 pm

            delpi_ote – While I agree that this discussion has been pretty sloppy I’m afraid you added to it with statement that

            We don’t know if neanderthals were sentient.

            They had art, they were sentient. I realize it may have been rhetorical but when complaining about the assumptions of those you are debating, far-flung rhetoric defeats the purpose.

          • March 12, 2014 at 9:55 pm

            Congrats johnnyrock! You win the Yummy Yummy Bacon Belt.

            putz.

          • March 12, 2014 at 9:59 pm

            Nice work dude, Ad Hom, very cool. Wish I could be just like you.. Waiting on the sidelines for cheap shots and insults!

          • March 12, 2014 at 10:05 pm

            @ mrmisconception

            As someone who has offered absolutely nothing informative or constructive to the conversation..you know other than nitpicking and insulting..I would have to contest that it is not I who is the “putz” here.

          • March 12, 2014 at 10:06 pm

            No johnnyrock, you don’t get it. Every time this subject comes up I wait to see how long it takes for two things to happen.
            1) Someone always comes in with the idea that eating meat = Nazis. Hasn’t happened just yet, I’m surprised.
            2) Some jackass always says “mmmm meat” or “bacon is yummy”.

            HAHAHAHA you are no doubt a real cutup and totally original until you aren’t, and there is no ad hominum because I am not judging you argument with that statement, just your character.

          • March 12, 2014 at 10:14 pm

            My argument though cryptic is this.. until science has provided me a way of eating meat without killing an animal I will continue to eat meat.

            You call me a putz..

            Seems like an ad hom to me bro! Maybe you should read what the definition of putz means…considering you’re not exactly adding anything like…AT ALL to the discussion. Cool talk bro.

          • March 12, 2014 at 10:21 pm

            I called you a putz because you brought up the “yummy bacon” comment for no reason. No judgement of your argument at all, just the shitty comment. Plus you said you were here to muddy the waters, basically calling yourself out as a troll. In this discussion “yummy bacon” is trollish behavior just as “you all are as bad as Nazis” would be. And yes I know what putz means, pretty apt for that behavior.

          • March 12, 2014 at 10:29 pm

            It had a reason..because I genuinely think bacon is delicious and until science can provide me the option of acquiring said bacon that tastes like real bacon but not harvested from the carcass of swine..I will continue to eat it. Might not be a viable reason for you. But for me it is good enough.

            The putz remark would have been more effective if “bacon is fucking delicious” was the very first comment I made..

          • March 12, 2014 at 10:33 pm

            OK, so the fact that you held back the “yummy bacon” comment makes it what? More palatable? Less dickish? We applaud your restraind.

            And it really doesn’t matter if your comment had a secondary purpose, I was commenting on its trollishness. Nothing more.

          • March 12, 2014 at 10:38 pm

            Yeah well I started going full troll after the “smarter than thou” comments started rolling on in. Like dude..you don’t have an hour to watch this information I posted but you have an hour to argue with me about how you know more than I do? Kinda silly..

          • March 12, 2014 at 11:07 pm

            So, delphi_ote didn’t want to watch your program; therefore, I get YOUR MOM level of discourse. That’s super reasonable, exactly what Kierkegaard might have done.

            I started watching your program, even though it’s not a valid form of argument to just refer someone to another person’s work and say “debate that thing over there!” If you believe the other person’s work to be correct, you support it yourself. However, I like plants and I treat my plants as though they were animals, so I started to watch it.

            It lost me when it said that size of genome = evolvedness; therefore rice, with a larger genome, is more evolved than humans. No. Every organism on this planet is exactly as “evolved” as every other organism. I have no idea why a person who seems pretty intelligent would claim otherwise. Even species like sharks and ferns and cockroaches, which “haven’t changed in millions of years” are actually highly evolved. This claim is especially disingenuous when you consider that many plants can and often do have many extra copies of genes, in a manner that animals cannot.

            Then I get to around minute 13 and it talks about how plants provide food for animals and “in exchange” they want pollination and seed dispersal. NO. This is not a beneficent exchange of services. Animals do not contract with plants to disperse seeds as long as the plants agree to provide food. And being beautiful is not “compensation” to a plant for a stationary mode of life.

            So now it has lost me twice and I’m done with it. I don’t know what you hoped to prove by posting it. The only thing you’ve proven is that you can post things that are without any sense.

          • March 12, 2014 at 11:15 pm

            Wasn’t exactly talking about you and the other dude is cool.

            Maybe you can provide sources to counter-point the science represented in the doc. Instead of your opinions.

          • March 12, 2014 at 11:26 pm

            “Wasn’t exactly talking about you and the other dude is cool.”

            Oh, so I got YOUR MOM for some other reason than the one you gave. Good to know.

            “Maybe you can provide sources to counter-point the science represented in the doc. Instead of your opinions.”

            How about you provide some sources to point the “science” first. In particular I’m interested in the terms of this contract between animals and plants. Did the plant and animal kingdoms form unions one day and bargain collectively? What were the terms of the exchange for flowering plants, which are typically eaten by different animals than they use for pollination, versus , say, grasses, which do not depend on animals for pollination at all? I’m looking for peer-reviewed literature. A paper in Nature would be awesome.

            If you can provide some sources for “size of genome equals level of evolvedness” that would also be great. Who has advanced this idea, and was that person alive anytime in the last 100 years?

          • March 12, 2014 at 11:42 pm

            hah you got the your mom comment due to you throwing the “Tell it to the dolphins, dude” remark which you so eloquently usurped from moi. The fact that you’re obsessing over the comment is kinda funny. Let it go bro!
            I never actually slept with your mom last night.

            There are a myriad of links I can provide for you. Alas will it actually be read or briefed over in sway of ones own opinions on the matter. A simple google search will provide you with all the information you want. However left to your own devices I’m sure you’ll selectively find that which already agrees with your standpoint. A skeptic when provided with new information must scrutinize and research. Agreed. How ever the onus is not on me to provide you with further proofs that Scientists are seriously researching this subject.

            Go and use the power of the internet.. it’s amazing! .

          • March 13, 2014 at 12:06 am

            I see. Well, since you think it’s my job to back up your assertions for you, I’m going to assert that you are an unusually literate potato. There’s evidence on Google, I promise. Scurry off now and find it, and then you can refute it (IF YOU CAN, but I know you won’t be able to do that). I’ll jump on researching your assertions for you while you’re researching mine, and get back to you as soon as you’ve found the evidence of your starchy goodness that, I assure you, is totally there.

          • March 13, 2014 at 12:11 am

            Sorry, I didn’t do that properly. The correct thing to do would be to point you at some third party’s website, where it will be asserted that you would make a great snack if you were crinkle-cut and deep-fried. That would be super authoritative, after all.

          • March 13, 2014 at 12:18 am

            well they say you are what you eat and I do love potatoes..Maybe it’s the Irish and Scottish in me… but no I’m not going to do all the work for you and hand it to you on a silver platter. Scientists are seriously researching the subject of plant Intelligence. I have provided one source to back that claim up. It’s up to you to do what you want with it, If you truly call your self a skeptic (if not then why are you on a site with it’s basic premise being skepticism) you will go out of your way to research plant intelligence. I’m am not however, going to waste my time providing you with everything you wish to know. There’s google for that.. use it.

          • March 13, 2014 at 6:36 am

            I’ll do that just as soon as you research your status as a tuber that completely lacks a neural net.

            Look, I can see you’re new to the Internet and/or the idea of actually talking about your … belief system with other people. I’ll just leave it here as an object lesson, a reminder to me to never try to engage intelligently with people like yourself, who are not at all willing to reciprocate with intelligent engagement. Because “this crazy thing is totally true and it’s your job to back me up” is not intelligent engagement no matter how much you might wish otherwise.

            This is something I already knew, but I had a lapse or something last night. I won’t do it again, to be sure.

          • March 13, 2014 at 7:42 pm

            “They had art, they were sentient.”

            You can define art and sentience AND detect them? AND you know artwork implies sentience? I suspect you don’t know those things, because lots of highly intelligent people are still arguing about them.

            Do dogs make art? Do chimpanzees? Can a 5 year old? Is a 5 year old sentient? Is a 3 year old?

            WE DON’T KNOW THE ANSWERS TO ANY OF THESE QUESTIONS YET!

  20. March 12, 2014 at 9:15 pm —

    My purpose is exactly that. To muddy the waters. Things are not so black and white eg, Animals are sentient. Plants are not.
    If you want to continue down that linear path of thinking be my guest.

  21. March 13, 2014 at 11:53 am —

    I wonder what impact increased availability of insect proteins will have on ethical vegetarianism. What views on eating insects are debated in the secret vegetarian underground?

  22. March 13, 2014 at 12:47 pm —

    Great discussion and Rebecca, I appreciate that you took the time to more fully explain your thoughts in writing. I am a meat-eater and studying and researching diet is what got me into scientific skepticism.

    I think it’s very important to understand that this is a philosophical discussion and I really dislike when people try to use science (biology, physiology, etc) to argue one way or the other, both vegans and paleo/westin price diet advocates make the same mistake. I think it’s also important to recognize socio-economic factors in diet and that vegetarianism/veganism in American society is often a privileged lifestyle choice. I don’t think though, that this means it is wrong or you should stop doing it. Rather, that there are a lot of people, working poor, that do not have the resources to really be able to make dietary choices. I also think it is worth considering cultural differences across the world. There are a lot of populations that have eaten and do primarily eat animal meats and live healthy lives. Really the only thing you can say about human biology and diet is that we’re incredibly adaptable.

    However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t diets that are better than others. But I firmly believe that it’s an individual decision and should be based on your own bio-chemistry (as much as that can be determined by blood-work, tests, etc) and philosophical worldviews, ethics, and culture .

    And to reply to Bjornar, I often see entomophagy missing from diet discussions. It’s also something that is lacking in diet research. Maybe because a lot of Americans and a few Europeans think it is gross? Here’s a great infographic about the kinds of insects that are eaten around the world: http://www.scmp.com/infographics/article/1238110/entomophagy-consumption-insects-food

  23. March 13, 2014 at 2:26 pm —

    Actually, anthropomorphism is recognized as a fallacy, but it’s usually referred to as pathetic fallacy, and it’s…mostly a literary device. (Though you can still find anthropomorphizing genes in evo psych thinking, or anthropomorphizing the motives of animals.)

    One issue with vitamin B12 pills is that the supplement industry has another face: Remember, DSHEA has allowed more alternative medicine than any other law in recent memory. And of course, the supplement industry connects directly to HIV denialism in South Africa. (Also, we need to remind people that vegan substitutes made with palm oil so common in supermarkets these days kill a lot more animals than the meat itself, including primates.)

    But my biggest quibbling point is this:

    “It’s an ethical decision that each person must make for themselves: where do you draw your line? There are many people who don’t even draw the line at just “human.” There are those who eat other humans, and there are those who consider people of different races or genders or sexualities to be deserving of fewer rights, including the right to life. And on the other end of the spectrum, there are people who feel that other species deserve the right to life, like dogs and cats, or pigs and cows, or fish and fowl.”

    Godwin much? Just saying. I mean, my ancestors ate a lot of meat, but found cannibalism abhorrent, and would probably feel the same way about Nazis. (I mean hell, Goebbels declared us to be Aryans, and our reaction was just to declare war on Germany.)

  24. March 13, 2014 at 2:52 pm —

    The “humane” meat argument is a dead end-if we say the method of killing is all that matters in a moral decision then in fairness it leaves the door open to say killing humans is ok as long as it is quick and painless. But let’s look back to classic moral vegetarianism–the kind supported by George B Shaw or Percy Shelley or Leonardo Da Vinci or going way back to antiquity-long before factory farms. They argued that unnecessary killing was unethical-immoral-they didnt waste much time on “cruelty” or killing methods. Thus the discussion on whether animals are thinking about the future or whatever is irrelevant.
    Humans do not need to eat meat and dairy. Been strict veg for over 20 years and I know there are others who have been longer. We can quibble about how humans started to eat meat but today’s reality is that humans cannot attack wild animals like a pig or a gazelle or probably a wild chicken without tools. Either traps or projectile weapons. Other animals may use tools but do not depend on them. Humans cannot do without them-even the Kalahari bushman needs a water bag and a spear. That tool making ability is also used by humans for gardening and doing TONS of homicide. If humans are natural predators then humans must be counted as their natural prey given what we see in history and the daily news. Homicide is natural. Whatever humans are, they are not true natural predators like a tiger or a lion. The only things they can eat without tools are insects and fruit, some vegetables etc.
    The entire ethical argument rests on one issue–the myth of human moral supremacy. Assumed to be a truth-when in fact it is biased personal opinion like a claim of religious or racial supremacy. Also called exceptionalism to disguise the bigotry connotation.
    Any trait, criteria, or attribute cited to confirm this alleged superiority, whether mind, intelligence, soul, creativity, Divine specialness, Evolutionary specialness, survival of the fittest, moral reciprocity, or an unspecified faculty X,-doesnt matter what you use– are as much subjective personal opinion as the importance given to skin colour or gender or a particular interpretation of scripture. Nature does not confirm this alleged superiority through natural phenomenon like weather, gravity, earthquakes etc and the constant routine natural exploitation of humans by other humans.

    If you claim humans can justify the systemic exploitation of nonhumans based on biased personal opinion then someone can justify the systemic exploitation of humans using biased personal opinion. If you want human rights you must accept nonhuman rights to close this loophole..
    Only humans can be shown to use laws in an effort to control their behavior thus they are the only ones obligated to follow them, nonhumans benefit without needing to reciprocate out of fairness and consistency, since punishing them for being unable to follow human laws when you know they cannot would be like punishing a blind man for not reading warning signs or an armless man for not grabbing a drowning swimmer. And they already follow our codes by not putting us in zoos, farms or labs. They are far more moderate with violence than we are.
    Moral perfection is impossible; you only do the best you can in any given situation. The failure to stop homicide or child abuse does not justify concentration camps, thus the failure to stop the accidental death of microbes or plants etc. does not justify vivisection labs or farms.
    That is the basic vegetarian-animal rights argument. Human moral supremacy cannot be shown to be fact-only biased opinion. It is all very simple. Cheers.

  25. March 14, 2014 at 7:11 am —

    I eat meat. I know this increases my carbon footprint and supports the heinous factory farm system. So I eat less meat, and buy from local farms that treat their livestock well and feed them locally grown crops.

    It’s still more harmful than not eating meat. With harm, for me, being excess water and crop use, associated higher CO2 emissions and the cow fart methane that’s an even more powerful greenhouse gas.

    Sigh. Some choices are hard! But denying negative consequences doesn’t make them go away.

    • March 14, 2014 at 11:46 am —

      I became a vegetarian nearly three decades ago. It was harder to do so then than it is now, believe me :)
      It is also less expensive to do so now, than it was 10-15 years ago, due to competition in the meat substitution market.
      When I took the plunge, I told myself it wasn’t necessarily permanent, and I could “cheat” any time I felt I wanted to. I never have :). But by leaving myself that “out”, I think it made it easier.

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