J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Some reasonably happy looking cows.

How Meat-Eaters Should Relate to Vegans

Some reasonably happy looking cows.

Some reasonably happy looking cows.

As regular readers know I’m a fan of Steve Pavlina’s blog. I disagree with him on many points, but he’s an ethical, purpose-driven human being with a clear writing style, and I find many of his posts to be thought-provoking.

His most recent series of posts was inspired by the nationwide discussion of misogyny triggered by the Isla Vista shootings and the shooter’s insane manifesto. Steve wrote about how this triggered feelings for him in regards to what he calls “meat culture” (not just eating meat, but the cruelty to animals involved in factory farming processes). To Steve, misogynistic attitudes towards women are little different than the attitudes that enable us to mistreat animals. To Steve, it’s all objectification. He loves and respects women, but he also loves and respects animals, and he can’t reconcile how some people can so fiercely advocate for women’s rights yet ignore animal rights. His tweets sums it up:

My first reaction was to disagree. Because of our bigger brains and highly developed neocortex, human beings have a different degree of conscious awareness than animals; we have a wider emotional spectrum and a greater capacity for suffering. Killing (or raping or enslaving) a person is not the same as killing a sardine.

But then I immediately thought of exceptions to my own argument. Having worked with Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins, I don’t believe humans are significantly more conscious-aware than cetaceans. Yes, we have a greater capacity for abstract reasoning, but I doubt we have a wider emotional range or greater emotional sensitivity (perhaps less; dolphins are highly empathetic and altruistic). I don’t think dolphins or whales should be eaten, hunted, or kept in captivity for the purpose of entertaining us. Cetaceans are “people with fins” and should have legal rights within human societies.

Human brain on the left, dolphin brain on the right.

Human brain on the left, dolphin brain on the right.

Cows and pigs are also sensitive mammals who are capable of suffering, and should be not be mistreated. Fish — I’m not really sure how much they think or feel — but the fact remains that we should treat all ocean life and marine habitats with respect if we want to survive as a species.

With this is mind, I decided to reexamine my own ethical stance toward meat-eating. It’s something I’ve considered before, but maybe it was time to revisit the topic. I watched the video in Steve’s “meat culture” post (linked above) and found the images disturbing (even though it’s not the first time I’ve seen videos like that). Maybe it was time for my own thinking and behavior to evolve?

Like most thoughtful meat-eaters, I justify/rationalize meat-eating in the following ways:

  1. Meat-eating is traditional; there are no completely vegan traditional cultural cuisines.
  2. We are evolutionarily adapted to be omnivorous.
  3. Raising animals for food is not necessarily more environmentally destructive than mass-produced crops like corn, soy, and wheat (especially in cases where integrated polyculture is used).

These reasons still make sense to me. At the same time, reducing cruelty towards animals also makes sense. I don’t want to be part of the cruelty inflicted on animals by factory farming. I also don’t want to be part of the cruelty inflicted by animals by mass farming (millions of animals lose their natural habitats because of corn, soy, and wheat farming).

On the other hand, I’m a human being who needs to eat. I take up space in this world. Even if I eat only fruit and nuts, some animal is going to die (orchards destroy natural habitats too). There is no way to be ethically pure. Everything is on a spectrum.

So how should I relate to vegans? Especially to vegans who are critical of meat-eaters for ethical reasons?

From a place of shared compassion.

Vegans are right to be concerned with animal welfare. We should all be concerned with treating our fellow creatures humanely. If human progress exists at all, it takes the form of expanding the circle of empathy.

Even if you think vegans are misguided (in terms of their ethical stance and/or the supposed health benefits of veganism), you should still support and embrace their impulse to be kind and respectful towards other animals, and do the same yourself. Why wouldn’t you want to do this?

Meat-eaters can look to traditional cultures for an alternative to the callous disconnection that factory farming encourages. Tread lightly. Respect the animal. Eat the entire animal and don’t waste anything. Don’t eat more than you need to to thrive. Respect and protect the animal’s natural habitat and ecosystem.

At the moment, I buy cage-free eggs, pastured/grass-fed meats, and organic dairy products. Some of these foods come from small farms, others no doubt come from large factory farms. You can’t always trust the label on the package either; some terms mean nothing (like “natural”) and in other cases there is outright false labeling and fraud. Unless you visit the farm or raise the animal in your own backyard, you can’t be sure how it was treated.

Ideally I’d like to raise my own chickens (it’s legal to raise chickens in Oakland, and many of my friends and neighbors do so). I even briefly considered acquiring a goat, milking it, and trying to make cheese. Then I read an article along the lines of “The 49 Things You Need To Do To Keep Your Goats Healthy” and thought better of it. There’s something to be said for division of labor and efficiency — I’ll be buying my goat cheese at the store and leaving the goat care to the goat care experts.

Here are the concrete, non-labor intensive things that meat-eaters can do to reduce cruelty towards animals, conserve natural habitats, and ultimately protect the human food supply:

So that’s where I stand at the moment. I intend to continue to strive towards a diet and lifestyle that is both enjoyable but also has a low ecological impact and a minimum amount of cruelty towards animals. My own ideal is not veganism, but rather decentralized, distributed food production, reduced use of fossil fuels and artificial fertilizer, more intelligent and efficient land use (all forms of polyculture), and a worldview that values all forms of life.

As I’ve written before, the “diet wars” are largely a battle of straw men. For example, paleo diet advocates and vegans, both being concerned about what they eat and where their food comes from, have more in common with each other than they do with mainstream culture that embraces packaged Frankenfoods and deplorable, wasteful, cruel farming practices.

I’ll leave you with this video from Steven Pinker re: the expanding circle of empathy. What are you own thoughts? Please share below, but remember to be respectful of people who don’t share your exact beliefs. Your own beliefs might change over time!

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18 Comments

  1. Eileen

    I had health issues when I was vegetarian; when I suffered from vertigo, a doctor suggested I look into more fat heavy diets and eat more animal products. I took his advice and feel tons better.

    I, too, had this discussion with myself and came to the same conclusion: that eating animals was part of the experience of human existence. That being said, we have no right to mistreat animals, nor raise them on factory farms with no feeling towards the animals while they are alive. We also eat way too much animal products. Native Americans give respect and honor the animals they eat and use ALL of the animal saying if you kill an animal, have enough respect for it to eat all of it. The parts of the animal I don’t eat, my dog does. With this mindset I finally came
    to peace with myself over animal consumption.

    With regards to showing respect for vegans-I suggest they do the same thing – to show respect for those who choose to eat animals and participate in the education of the
    public about sustainable, humane, respectful raising of animals.

  2. We only disagree on the issue of the cage free label. Cage free warehouses are terrible in the US.

    Anything we can do to keep money away from people who capitalize on our compassion to sell factory farmed chickens at an increased price are probably worse than those not actively misdirecting you.

    • Any alternatives to suggest for California buyers who want to buy humanely treated chicken/eggs? Is raising your own the only option (besides veganism or just not eating chicken and eggs)?

      • Its a complex issue. If enough people stop buying products we know are terrible, it creates space for products that are ethical. I have no experience in Oakland, but both Portland and Arcata have good, affordable options for eggs.

        If you find a source in Oakland, you should write about them.

  3. Lots of pastured egg options as it turns out — you can even shop online and buy local:

    https://www.goodeggs.com/sfbay/?category=dairy

  4. daniel g

    Point number 3 on your justification list seems completely dependent on the word “necessarily.” Raising animals for food is more environmentally destructive than mass-produced crops like corn, soy, and wheat. The land required (including for growing their feed), the water required, and the CO2 output are all multiples higher pound for pound of food yield. There is no necessarily about this. Keep in mind that a significant percentage of the mass-produced crops are grown to feed farmed animals. The resources (land, water, fertilizer, etc.) required for animals’ feed need to be included on the meat ledger, not the vegetarian.

    I do appreciate the notion of supporting and encouraging vegetarians even if one is an omnivore. I have been teased and taunted even by my own family regarding my vegetarian diet choice, and it’s baffling to me. A huge reason for my choice, besides not wanting to participate in the cruelty to animals, is to have less an environmental impact for future generations to suffer the consequences of. This seems obviously altruistic since I do not even have children of my own. Point being, even if one chooses to eat meat don’t discourage a vegetarian making the altruistic choice.

    It is important to note that I would never suggest or recommend someone adopt a purely vegetarian diet if it were to cause harm to their health. It is known that some bodies do require meat to be healthy. That said, most omnivores eat more meat than required to maintain good health.

    In your statement, “I intend to continue to strive towards a diet and lifestyle that is both enjoyable but also has a low ecological impact and a minimum amount of cruelty towards animals,” I find the use of the word “enjoyable” in conjunction with “(a minimum of) cruelty to animals” somewhat disturbing. The word “healthy” would be much more palatable. (Pun intended).

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment Dan. I’m still not convinced that tilling soil and adding fertilizer on mass quantities of land is less environmentally destructive than pasturing sheep, goats, and cows in high precipitation environments. Pastured animals can co-exist with voles, mice, rabbits, burrowing owls, and other wild field animals. Also, I’d be curious to know what the calories per acre yield is when comparing intensive polyculture like Joel Salatin’s farm with conventional grain and legume production (the latter has a reputation for being high-yield compared to organic production — see Mother Jones link below), but how does it stack up against year-round use of wind-protected land where animal waste is being used as fertilizer?

      http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2012/05/organic-vs-conventional-agriculture-nature

      Here’s an article that gets into a more nuanced view of animal food production:
      http://www.marksdailyapple.com/can-we-feed-the-world-on-the-primal-blueprint-diet-part-2/

      Here’s an article about reversing desertification in Africa via cattle grazing:
      http://challenge.bfi.org/ideaindex/projects/2010/operation-hope

      Human beings have co-existed with domesticated animals for tens of thousands of years, and while factory-farming is a clear perversion of this relationship, I’m not convinced that vegetarianism is the only or even the best way to reduce environmental impact. As the Operation Hope project demonstrates, total water use can be a misleading metric. If cattle grazing ultimately leads to more trees and higher quality soil (including better retention of rainwater), then raising grass-fed/pastured cattle for meat and milk may not be as environmentally destructive as we have been led to believe.

      Sorry to hear that your family is hard on you about vegetarianism. When I was a vegetarian I was lucky to have support for that dietary choice — part of growing up in Berkeley maybe!

  5. Because of your blog I researched the slaughter of animals and wrote a piece on it. The pictures disturbed me. Give it a read and let me know what you think. I use to eat a lot of meat but now avoid it. I do eat salmon, fish and tuna but is that really meat or not?

    • elle

      You can research by-catch. Harvesting with wide nets and trawls catches other marine life, including cetaceans (dolphins).
      “According to a report released Thursday by the environmental group Oceana, commercial fishermen in the U.S. annually throw overboard as much as 2 billion pounds of so-called bycatch, much of which is edible fish equivalent to at least a half-billion seafood meals. Incredibly, much of this waste includes some of the most valuable — and delectable — seafood species in the world, like bluefin tuna, swordfish and Pacific halibut.

      The report, compiled from data from the National Marine Fisheries Service, a federal agency, singles out the nine most wasteful fisheries in the U.S., who were responsible for 340 million pounds of bycatch in 2011. The “dirtiest” fisheries include the Gulf of Mexico shrimp trawling industry; the California set gillnet fishery, which targets halibut and white sea bass; and the longline fishery for red snapper and grouper. Gillnetted Pacific swordfish, Atlantic swordfish caught on longlines, and cod, haddock, monkfish and flounder caught by North Atlantic trawlers also come from fisheries on the list.”
      http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/03/21/292094853/why-500-million-u-s-seafood-meals-get-dumped-in-the-sea

      • One day there will be no free fish in the oceans. Just ranches of fish raised like cows in giant pits of water, biologically and gene arranged by chemicals. And we will eat this and it will affect us in ways of deformity of our DNA.

  6. elle

    Just some observations as a former “insider” food buyer. Firstly, in most states “cage-free” is just as bad as battery, but there is “access” to fresh air–which fits all the legal requirements. This”access” I learned (from the largest producer of eggs in my state) means there is a small window 20 feet up the wall about 2 foot by 2 foot. If the chicken wants to they have “access” (even though most factory chickens are unable to fly). Secondly, after Niman Ranch unceremoniously relieved founder Bill Niman of his ownership, Bill Niman has been quoted saying, he would never eat any of the meat from Niman cooperative, because of their current practices. Niman is a cooperative of farmers that was strictly supervised under Bill Niman’s tenure. And lastly, in order to make any reasonable difference you must be educated–and very well educated at that. That “pasture-raised beef” that is so popular? Well the FDA regulates the slaughter of that as well, meaning that those cattle also face some of the same state & federally approved slaughterhouses/slaughter methods as their less lucky CAFO brethren. I think there is a huge veil over many portions of even the new emerging “natural/sustainable” food markets, that not many people are aware of. Education is the key to empathy.

  7. L.

    I used to really like Steve Pavlina’s blog, and he definitely has a lot of interesting things to say. But he is writing more and more about veganism lately, and it’s clear to me that he’s getting stuck more and more in the cultish core of the vegan community, or that he’s becoming more vocal about this side of his thinking. I used to like this aspect of him because I was vegan, but now I dislike it. If veganism works for him, more power to him. But to tell you the truth, of all the things I like about SP, empathy is actually NOT one of the things that stands out. Not because I think empathy is unimportant or that he’s unempathetic, but he just doesn’t strike me as a particularly highly empathetic person. When he talks about veganism in terms of compassion, it sounds a bit condescending. Although empathy and compassion are synonyms, they have slightly different meanings and significantly different connotations…. “compassion” has more of a condescending connotation than empathy, which is why vegans use it. Compassion for many vegans, although essentially a good thing, is a little too “power over” in terms of its way of relating to others (human and animal). SP’s vegan compassion, the way he writes about it, strikes me just a little bit as, “look at me, I’m such a caring person, and non-vegans aren’t. I feel so good about what a great person I am because veganism is great and veganism is a part of my identity (ego). I am vegan, and I have a great relationship with animals via dietary restrictions, therefore I am morally superior to non-vegans.”

    I used to be vegan, for 5 years, and was part of that vegan cult-like mentality for 2 years. So I totally get where he is coming from. None of what he says about veganism is new to me. It’s boring. Even his crazy idea that vegans should only date other vegans is not new to me. Yawn. I’m *almost* surprised to see him advocating that OTHERS adopt his own relationship preferences.

    Caring about animals is very important, but you simply cannot reduce “compassion” to a set of “thou shalt not eat” commandments and notions of (capitalistic) purity and consumerism. The sad thing is that he wrote early on to condemn religion as a thing, and now he is almost part of a cult. I don’t consider veganism a cult, but there is a passionate core of vegan activists that is mildly cult-like. It checks off most of the items on the cult checklist, but they are pretty mild as far as cults go. Veganism is a set of dietary restrictions – it requires doing nothing except avoiding certain foods – it is about inaction, veganism is passive activism (what an oxymoron). Yet, those in this cultish core of the vegan community make veganism into an identity and an ideology wherein they can police each other, making it hard to 1) express any doubts about veganism, 2) do anything (or, more importantly, admit to doing anything) allowing others to question your purity as a vegan. And vegans hate ex-vegans more than anyone – they find ex-vegans completely baffling because the cultish ones define veganism as “if you ever stop being vegan, you never were one in the first place.” It’s the No True Scotsman fallacy. It took me three years after I gave up that ideology, to publicly declare I was no longer vegan. Simply because it had gotten so wrapped up in my identity.

    There are also many people who cannot thrive on a vegan diet, some who can’t even survive. But those vegangelicals will reject any argument whatsoever against veganism – they are simply not capable of admitting that they have any doubts about veganism. This prevents them from examining with a truly open mind. This inability to stay open to reality also, ironically, blocks empathy toward other people. Empathy is about listening. See, my problem with most (if not all) personal growth gurus is that they really don’t stand out for their listening skills. That’s one of their greatest weaknesses, as a group. They’re not here to listen, they’re here to tell you that your life should be better and how to improve it. They’re supposed to have all the answers, they are perfectionists, so some of them like SP really adore the idea of purity. And the truth is, they don’t have all the answers. They’re not morally superior. A lot of them are greedy money hoarders, and most of them are between a little to moderately condescending.

    Veganism is a set of dietary restrictions, it does NOT equal empathy, it is simply a strategy by which one can practice empathy (and isn’t inherently related to empathy at all). Most vegans are not much better at listening compassionately to other humans than anyone else, if at all. When I was a vegan activist, I actually felt really alienated from other people, because I saw them as doing something so morally unacceptable, I saw myself as somehow ethically superior to all non-vegans. This way of viewing the world actually stressed me out. I know someone from the vegan cult mentality is going to come here and be like, “That’s just you. *I* am not condescending as you were. I accept all my non-vegan friends…. I just happen to also try to convert all of them, respectfully, to veganism.” To anyone who is about to say that in response, I’m sorry, but if you are caught in that mentality, you are not that different from how I was. And a lot of your friends probably secretly think you are intimidating or condescending, for good reason. You may be a very compassionate person. That doesn’t prevent you from also being condescending in certain ways.

    In the same way that Steve Pavlina argues that he has heard all the anti-vegan arguments and has zero interest in them, I have heard all the vegan arguments and am profoundly bored by them. But I have heard all the pro-vegan arguments because I passionately, devotedly, desperately wanted to believe all (well, most) of them, for 2 years. I actually had doubts the whole time, but my passion was driven in part by my need to quell these doubts.

    While I do believe that Steve is a compassionate person, I don’t think he is a particularly great model of empathy, especially for someone whose job is teaching others personal growth. I live in Washington, D.C., where I’m surrounded by activists and students and people working in politics, and a lot of really smart, highly educated people. This city is a magnet for Ivy League graduates. Mostly political leftists. And I believe I am surrounded by so many highly empathetic people who devote their lives to improving this world. I could easily name 1000 people who strike me as more empathetic than Steve Pavlina, very few of whom are vegan. So “absolutely not” is what I say to SP’s idea that he is somehow morally more advanced than all non-vegans.

    Yes, the state of animal farming is an emergency, and it’s utterly horrifying, depressing, and traumatizing that almost no one is trying to do anything about it. I mean, factory farming is like the apocalypse. So I understand the extreme reaction that is veganism and the modern vegan community. But this idea that everyone should be 100% pure vegan is a deluded fantasy. Let’s fight factory farming together, and try to reduce general meat/dairy/egg consumption, and promote respect for animals. The promotion of veganism is a distraction that makes it hard for those who aren’t vegan to contribute to improving the situation. I’m not blaming vegans for the problem, they are no more to blame than anyone else…. however, I am saying that distracting from practical solutions is NOT good for animals overall.

  8. NJ

    Meat consumption is a prime driver of chronic disease, animal farming is destroying the environment and finally (although it may sound crazy) killing animals if we don’t need to is unethical.

    As a man who’s graduated from pescetarian to an almost vegan diet over the last 15 years I’ve grappled with this debate. Through time one counter-argument after the next has been exposed as illogical or just propaganda.

    These debates can be lengthy. So I’ll depart with the following references for the open-minded:

    Diet:

    https://www.youtube.com/user/NutritionFactsOrg

    Exposing Paleo Propaganda:

    https://www.youtube.com/user/PrimitiveNutrition

    Environmental Considerations:

    http://www.Cowspiracy.com/

    Ethics:

    As JD has written. Paleo or Vegan, at least there’s a growing consensus towards natural foods and animal welfare. That’s progress.

  9. Simon James

    Interesting blog post. To address your rationalisations from a vegans perspective

    “1. Meat-eating is traditional; there are no completely vegan traditional cultural cuisines.”

    That is true but why should that matter? Every single culture has had some culturally accepted biases against some people. That could be baises against people that have disabilities, or of different genders, or of a different race. So if using an argument from tradition is not appropriate with regard to these behaviours, why should it be acceptable to use that argument with regard to eating animal products?

    “2.We are evolutionarily adapted to be omnivorous.”

    Again, that is true. We have evolved to be able to eat animals. But that again does not address why that means we should do things just because we evolved to do them. One might say we have evolved to get angry if someone insults us, and indeed evolved a capacity to act on that impulse with violence, but that does not mean we should act on impulse. We also evolved to have as many children as we could, but should we do so now given the overpopulation crisis?

    And we should also consider what evolution is. All it is a process of selection for characteristics that promote reproductive success under certain environmental situations. As environmental conditions change though, so characteristics that where once an advantage, can become a disadvantage. For us, we evolved to eat meat when resources were limited. Eating meat provided important nutrients. Now though the environment has changed. We are instead presented with a situation where we have access to a wide range of vegan foods.

    Additionally, we have also evolved other abilities, such the ability to make rational ethical choices. We have such a developed theory of mind, that we can imagine the suffering animals experience, and we can take that into account when making ethical choices. Indeed its this ability to be rational and have such behavioural flexibility that has allowed humans to be so successful, moving from living in tribes to modern civilisations. So which one of our evolved capacities should we follow?

    “3.Raising animals for food is not necessarily more environmentally destructive than mass-produced crops like corn, soy, and wheat (especially in cases where integrated polyculture is used).”

    That is true, but all we need to do is reduce our environmental impact down to sustainable levels, but what we should remember is that the consequences of climate change are huge, with potentially 500,000 deaths a year estimated to be caused by climate change by 2050 (Spingmann et al 2016 Global and regional health effects of future food production under climate change: a modelling study). The impact of agriculture is also huge, by 2050 it alone has been estimated to potentially use up nearly *all* of our carbon emissions budget if we are limit to climate change to 2oC, with most of that coming from meat. As the following study says

    “While it is theoretically possible to decarbonise energy supply, such complete reductions are unattainable in the livestock part of the agricultural sector. Although there are many mitigation options in agriculture, our study indicates that a decrease in overall agriculture related emissions can only be achieved by employing demand-side reductions. The agriculture-related emissions in our business-as-usual scenario (CT1) alone almost reach the full 2°C target emissions allowance in 2050 (21 ± 3 GtCO2e y-1).

    From our analysis shown on Figure 1, it is clear that if the demand for inefficient pathways of food supply (i.e. livestock products)disproportionally increases, the whole system becomes not only larger, but also less efficient.”

    Bajželj B, et al. 2014 Importance of food-demand management for climate mitigation

    Don’t get me wrong, the harms to the environment could also be addressed by completely changing the way animals are farmed. But this will take concerted action by governments, when it seems to me very little action is being taken. You could choose to buy pasture fed meat, but even that is not in itself enough to guarantee a positive effect on the environment as in many studies pasture fed animals actually have a higher GHG footprint than feedlot fed. https://www.leopold.iastate.edu/files/page/files/Comparative-Life-Cycle-Environmental-Impacts-of-Three-Beef-Production-Strategies.pdf

    By going vegan on the other hand one could cut dietary GHG emissions tomorrow by 70%, and use just half of the cropland of a high meat diet.

    http://www.pnas.org/content/113/15/4146.full

    http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2016/160419/ncomms11382/full/ncomms11382.html

    Regarding some of your advice to meat eaters, as a vegan here is my perspective. The problem with chickens is that even the none caged chickens organic high welfare ones can have horrible lives. For example 40% of supermarket chickens have hockburns, where the ammonia in the bird droppings they stand in causes chemical burns on their feet. Furthermore because they are small, it takes more lives to be killed for a defined amount of animal flesh, and even the best methods of killing animals with stunning them before killing, have failure rates so they are not properly stunned. So from an animal welfare point of view, I would say avoid chicken. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00071660500181149

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