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I’ll Just Have Water, Thanks


“Note to self: Stop. Doing. Anything.”

As a lover of all things “jerky” I find vegetarians and vegans impossibly difficult to understand. Lucky for me, there’s some sane people still out there who console my straying conscious back into the right.

In a particularly interesting article written a few days ago, science columnist Natalie Angier wrote about the viability of ethics-based veganism – a topic I’m sure we’re all familiar with given our own geographical location. In her article, Angier noted that vegans often argue the ethical way of consumption is choosing not to eat meat. In the opinion of Angier (and myself), the choice hits a few snags. Angier highlighted the more ridiculous points of the argument:

“Before we cede the entire moral penthouse to “committed vegetarians” and “strong ethical vegans,” we might consider that plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a hog aspires to being peppercorn-studded in my Christmas clay pot.”

The rest of Angier’s article is quite well-written, and focuses on the nature of plant evolution with regards to their efforts to, as she puts it, “Fight to survive”. Weighing heavy is newly developing research from those dastardly thwart-ers of public truth, scientists:

“Plants are not static or silly,” said Monika Hilker of the Institute of Biology at the Free University of Berlin. “They respond to tactile cues, they recognize different wavelengths of light, they listen to chemical signals, they can even talk” through chemical signals. Touch, sight, hearing, speech. “These are sensory modalities and abilities we normally think of as only being in animals,” Dr. Hilker said.”

“I’m amazed at how fast some of these things happen,” said Consuelo M. De Moraes of Pennsylvania State University. Dr. De Moraes and her colleagues did labeling experiments to clock a plant’s systemic response time and found that, in less than 20 minutes from the moment the caterpillar had begun feeding on its leaves, the plant had plucked carbon from the air and forged defensive compounds from scratch.”

Now, since Angier’s article was in the “Science” section, it doesn’t stand alone as an Op-Ed piece against the perils of veganism. But by framing the news about the research in her article around the subject of moral veganism, Angier effectively drowns out any voice in favor of “tofu over tilapia”. What should be pointed out is that an argument made against vegetarianism and/or veganism, in this case, can be constructed with respect to refuting the “morally superior” stance that many vegans use to place themselves on a pillar.

Of course, arguments can be made (well, I might add) against large-scale farming, processed food and the like. In fact, arguments can be made against eating animal products for entirely non-moral motivations as well – I know several people who are vegetarians simply because they do not like the texture of meat.

Unfortunately, all too-often we are clubbed over the head with the moral issue of consuming meat (much to the confusion of dentists). If we as humans are going to play the apologist to every other life form on the face of the planet, do the questions stop at, “Do fish have feelings?” or somewhere else down the line? As Angier points out, the news looks grim for vegans as indeed, “Brussels sprouts like to live, too.”

For vegans, it must be difficult having the weight of the lives of a million soy beans on their shoulders. I wish them all the best of luck with that.

Now, where’s my jerky?

  1. Shibbidy Bodaniels says:


  2. A few responses to responses:

    42: My view isn’t mainstream but that alone doesn’t make it flawed. If you think its flawed you really need to argue the case rather than just make such claims.

    C.T. Behemoth: I’m not saying that we shouldn’t eat pleasurable things in general! I’m just arguing that your desire to eat animals does not justify the killing of animals for your culinary purposes. On one side you have a creature with a mind and an interest in living and on the other a relatively insignificant culinary desire. I acknowledge that the creature’s interests don’t get equal weight to yours (not even close) but that still doesn’t justify your actions in this instance.

    All meat is currently produced by killing animals. One might attempt to argue that this is ok for some animals but not others (based on differences in their brains and nervous systems). I tend towards the belief that the cut off point is at the scale of insects. There may, in the future, be ways of producing meat that do not involve killing animals (in vitro meat for example). I would not argue that eating in vitro meat was wrong.

    Betz: You make two errors in your two responses. Firstly you employ a straw man argument. My proposed utilitarian rule of thumb would certainly allow people to eat plants as they have essentially no minds. It might even allow people to eat insects. It just wouldn’t allow people to eat the common cattle animals.

    You make another rather larger error. You assume that natural is the same as good. But as Hume so clearly pointed out “is is not the same as ought”. The food chain has nothing to do with morality (although it has pragmatic consequences for ecological management projects). Throughout the natural world rape and murder are successful niche genetic strategies. These are both natural and they are both terribly immoral.

    My argument is made in terms of eating meat for culinary pleasure. In this western world almost no one has a medical need for meat. There may be societies that depend on meat as a singular food source (and hence do genuinely need meat). My argument is not strong enough to say that someone should not eat meat if they genuinely need it. However, almost all of the world is in a position where farming animals decreases the ability to adequately feed the population (both in terms of calories and nutrition). So this point only applies to a few very particular ecological setups. Even in these cases the argument loses weight as soon as food trade becomes a significant factor.

  3. Betz says:

    Why do we as a species feel it necessary to forcibly insert “ethics” into conversations where there were none? Do you think a a lion undergoes these same kind of moral conundrums as he is stalking its prey across the Serengeti?

    Everyone grows up learning the principle of the food chain. The animals that are the biggest and most dangerous are the predators; they feed upon those plants and animals smaller than them, or that have no natural defenses against the creatures higher up on the chain. It’s trickle-down economics of food: everything gets to eat that which is “lower” on the chain (perhaps some weird correlation to Dawson’s “moral-worth” argument? Maybe …). This is perfectly natural; it is perhaps one of the most primitive and natural law on this earth, between all living things.

    By claiming that a species that has the natural ability to eat both plants and animals, but chooses to only eat plants as part of a moral argument, is a wholly “human”, and yet “un-natural” quality.

  4. C.T. Behemoth says:

    The focus should be on healthy eating, eating local and knowing what’s in the items you choose to ingest. There are moral arguments embedded in that given the way that mass meat is produced, but that does not mean that all meat should be viewed the same way. Arguing the morality of absolutely eating meat or not is just pedantic and tends to be interlaced with the holier-than-thou attitude. Lumping this ‘type of brain’ argument in makes no sense…especially considering that humans share much of the same brain structures as animals. That’s why we still do some pretty stupid shit.

  5. Betz says:

    Agreed … By your logic, we should all be eating rocks, as they have no moral value vs. plants, which have some moral value. (according to your own utilitarian-although-Im-not-claiming-to-be-utilitarian P.O.V). More “Stone Soup”, anyone?

    Apparently, “moral value” is the only thing worth considering when we are debating what to eat. Hang on one moment … let me just ask the starving people in Darfur if they share the same opinion.

  6. C.T. Behemoth says:

    No shit…along with no understanding of the human brain. Very boring.

    Culinary pleasure? So, we should only eat things that we don’t enjoy? Or should we just veil our enthusiasm for what contributes to our existence? Another fanTASTIC argument.

  7. 42 says:

    That’s definately an interesting, if not highly subjective and very flawed way of looking at the world.

  8. The concept of moral value I have in mind is the following:

    Something has moral value if it has interests that should be considered when making ethical decisions that effect it. A high degree of moral value means that you spend more time considering its interests.

    A rock has no moral value, a baby has very high moral value and animals have varying degrees of moral value.

    If you are a utilitarian then you might try to fix an exchange rate between human and pig (for example) moral value. I’m not a utilitarian though so I would not want to fix such a valuation. Never the less, as a rule of thumb the greater the size/complexity of an animal’s brain the more strongly we should weigh its interests. By this rule of thumb it is clear that plants have moral value very similar to a rock (i.e almost none).

    Animals and people have brains of differing complexities and size. Their minds also differ as a result. Consequently animals should be given a differing amount of moral value to people.

    In my view the interests of humans would almost always trump those of pigs, cows and chickens (for examples). However, in some extreme cases the interests of the animals under consideration are sufficiently strong to overcome trivial human interests. This is the case when we decide to slaughter animals merely for our culinary pleasure. The animal’s interest in living trumps your interest in eating it.

  9. 42 says:

    Would you care to explain the concept of “moral value”?

    Also, can you explain your response better?

    It sound to me like you are saying the reason a farm animal can’t be value solely by it’s economic value is because animals and humans both have minds and therefore the value of an animal’s life is equal to the value of human’s life.

    Since, obviously, an animal’s life is not equal to a human’s life, this is can’t possibly be what you meant.

  10. I’m talking about moral value not economic value. People have moral value because they have minds. As animals also have minds, animals must also have some moral value. Exactly how much weight you give to an animal’s interests is a difficult moral question. However, eating common cattle animals for pleasure can only be justified with a ridiculously tiny weight accorded to the value of that animal’s life.

  11. 42 says:

    Why does the willingness to kill an animal merely for one’s culinary pleasure imply attaching a low value to the lives of animal’s which are farmed for human consumption?

    Can’t a farm animal (pig, cow, etc.) be as highly valued for the economic products that result from its’ existence as an animal raised for some other purpose?

    For that matter, why does the life of a pig need to have a value placed on other than what it fetches per pound at auction?

  12. C.T. Behemoth says:

    Since when was this a comment thread for the NYTimes?

  13. Animals have nervous systems and hence minds.

    Plants do not have nervous systems and their reaction to stimulae is orders of magnitude less complex than even some insects. Plants have no minds worth speaking of.

    Ethical vegetarianism does not have to be based on an assumption of a moral equivalence between a human and a pigs life (for example). One would have to attach extraordinarily low value to a pigs life to justify killing it mearly for your culinary pleasure.

    You have done nothing to explain to your reader why you attach such a low value to the animals which we farm.

  14. C.T. Behemoth says:

    Curtis, you get bonus points for being contrarian, but this comment of yours is still a bit silly.

  15. David C. says:

    Okay, let’s say plants have a desire to live and feel pain on par with animals. Now, you can choose to eat a carrot or a pork chop. Question: What did the pig that became the pork chop eat? Even from your perspective, vegetarianism is still a more ethical choice as moving down the food chain inflicts the least pain.

  16. Curtis says:

    You get bonus points for being contrarian, but this article is still a bit silly.

    I’ve been on both sides of this debate at some point. When I was younger, I used to chide vegetarians and vegans for being hypocritical, citing the number of small rodents that are killed when wheat fields are tilled for bread and the like. I was the person that tried to “logic” people out of why vegetarianism was stupid, and who thumped my chest bragging about how much meat I was eating.

    Recently, though, I found myself refraining from eating beef or pork. Why? Because I wanted to live a healthier (read: less fat) lifestyle, and because there are concerns with how food (particularly from methane-emitting mammals like cows and pigs) is produced on a large scale. I still eat poultry and fish, and still find bacon and pasta dishes with ground beef in them tough to resist. Maybe I don’t fit into the “strict ethical” category of people that have stopped eating meat, but I have changed my behavior based on some of the same concerns.

    The article you linked to states something that most people already know, which is that all organisms are designed to try to survive (well, except maybe the fainting goat: Evolution is predicated on that idea, and anybody that knows anything about venus fly traps or pollination or sunflowers instinctively knows that plants do the same thing. The article says, essentially, that plants try have evolved to try to survive and reproduce in other ways besides the obvious one. Is that earth-shattering news to anyone?

    Still, you’re (willfully, I’m guessing) choosing to ignore or play down the fact that animals and plants are, in fact, vastly different forms of life. Heck, that’s why biologists have separated “animals” and “plants” into separate kingdoms since essentially the foundation of that science. Plants can chemically “react” to stimuli, but this article uses the ambiguity of the English language to conflate “reacting” with more complex actions like “planning” or “trying” or “defending”, which indicate conscious thought that plants don’t have.

    It seems a little silly to have to write a few hundred words explaining why plants and animals are vastly different organisms, but then again, it seems a little silly reading a blog post that tries to blur the line between them so as to make veganism seem hypocritical. Again, congratulations on being contrarian, but you’re not really being intellectually honest here.

    From Wikipedia: “All animals are also heterotrophs, meaning they must ingest other organisms for sustenance.” That includes humans. Some humans try their best to choose to ingest only organisms that aren’t motile out of a respect for that form of life, which is completely their choice, as is it their choice to define eating other animals as “unethical”. That distinction may seem somewhat arbitrary in the abstract (and much more understandable when it comes to eating animals with higher brain function like mammals), but it is a real distinction nonetheless.

  17. Michael M. says:

    I can’t say I’ve ever been clubbed over the head with the moral issue of consuming meat, but most of those I’ve encountered making smug-sounding references to some purported superiority of veganism do so on the basis of the way meat is produced, not on animal rights grounds. On that score, it’s odd she mentions Jonathan Safran Foer’s book. In the two interviews I’ve heard with him about this book, animal rights didn’t come up. He talked all about environmental impact, health, and so on. (But, I have not and am unlikely to read the book.)

    Anyway, good article. I definitely eat less meat than I used to, but mostly because I don’t much like cooking it. OTOH, I do make a conscious effort to avoid food explicitly associated with cruel or inhumane treatment of its source. There’s a difference between chopping the head off a free-range chicken and force-feeding ducks. And does a tree really care if its apple is consumed by humans or falls to the ground to make more trees? I mean, except in Oz?

  18. Evil Rocks says:

    Ten years from now, all those ethical vegetarians will feel silly when I’m munching down on delicious vat-grown BACON while they salivate unstoppably.

    Of course, if the synthetic meats never turn out, the delicious taste of BACON outweighs ANY moral complaints or ecological concerns about meat-generation.

  19. JMB says:

    “Food Inc” isn’t exactly some pro-vegetarian propaganda film, as your linking would indicate. It’s more of a general indictment of the way food is produced on a large scale (the corn industry is a central point of the movie). Obviously meat is a part of this, but it’s not “eating meat is immoral” rather more “eating meat produced in this way is unhealthy”.

    I’d bet the makers of the film would recommend eating free-range beef or something similar long before eating vegetables grown by some big agricultural company.

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