Most of us have a desire to make the world a better place–or, at the least, to depart from it without making things worse. So we donate to charity, volunteer, and do our best to avoid casting the first stone. But there’s something else that most of us could do, yet don’t–and the reasons provided to justify the hesitation just don’t hold water.
You don’t need me to tell you the vast majority of vegans are liberals. The left tends to sacralize nature, for better or worse, and although most conservatives in the United States acknowledge the reality of climate change and think something should be done about it, the increasingly polarized landscape prevents the enactment of meaningful legislation on any politicized issue — not just climate change — lest such cooperation count as a “win” for one side and a “loss” for the other.
Of course, we shouldn’t base our beliefs or behaviors on what others may think. So I ask you to set aside any stereotypes you may have regarding vegans — who for the most part are not the smelly, dreadlocked, weak, anti-science, bleeding-hearts we are often made out to be — and consider veganism on its merits.
What I refer to as the “bulletproof” case for veganism goes like this:
- Livestock animals are capable of feeling pain and suffering;
- Livestock animals experience pain and suffering as a result of the conditions of factory farms — where upwards of 95% of meat and animal products in the U.S. are produced;
- Reducing demand for meat and animal products will reduce the number of livestock raised in such horrid conditions.
Most people accept these claims. There is no question among biologists that many animals — including cows, pigs, chickens and fish — possess the neurobiological substrates required to experience pain. Behavioral studies on numerous species have shown that these animals have immediate, aversive reactions to painful stimuli and avoid that stimuli in future trials.
That the conditions on factory farms are atrocious is similarly uncontroversial. Battery cages, where upwards of 84% of egg-laying hens are kept — often multiple in one cage — are so small that they cannot spread their wings; gestation crates are not large enough for a sow to turn around; male calves are stripped from their dairy cow mothers, often within just hours of birth, to prevent the calf (who will be turned into veal) from drinking the milk, producing howls from the mother one doesn’t soon forget; disease runs rampant on farms, so much so that many livestock are given antibiotics on a preventive basis, leading inevitably to stronger, more resilient diseases, in a biological arms race; and debeaking and tail docking, sans anesthesia, prevent stressed animals from harming one another — a practice that would be wholly unnecessary if the conditions weren’t so awful. These are just a sample of the industry standards that cause significant suffering to farm animals.
To many vegans and non-vegans alike, it’s self-evident that reducing the number of animals raised on factory farms — who will die an early and unnatural death — is the right thing to do. Yet just a tiny fraction of the population is vegetarian or vegan. Why is this?
I suspect many people hesitate to go vegan (or even vegetarian) due to erroneous notions of what a vegan must think and believe in order to follow such a lifestyle. Some of these — like the red herring that humans are actually herbivorous — are perpetuated by some vegans themselves. But many were foisted upon us. Allow me to sort out this mess by explaining some common thoughts and beliefs you needn’t abandon by virtue of going vegan.
Humans Are Superior
This depends on what your definition of superior is. Numerous species are larger, faster, and stronger than we are. But there’s little doubt that we are smarter and, at least according to us, that counts for a lot. So be it: we are the superior species.
But what really follows from this? We cannot conclude that we are thereby justified in killing and eating animals any more than we can conclude that the sports team that wins the championship is permitted to murder all the other team’s players. It’s great to be number one, but might one aspect of that superiority be in the moral domain, in that we know right from wrong and can align our actions accordingly?
Eating Meat is Natural
“Natural” is not a synonym for “good.” There are many behaviors — murder of our fellow humans not in self-defense comes to mind — that are equal parts natural and immoral. As John Stuart Mill so eloquently put it in On Nature (1874):
Either it is right that we should kill because nature kills; torture because nature tortures; ruin and devastate because nature does the like; or we ought not to consider at all what nature does, but what it is good to do.
It may well be true that humans are naturally omnivorous. Certainly, at some point in history, our ancestors began to eat meat. Our digestive systems have evolved — at least partly — to accommodate this source of nutrition. Perhaps some tribes were vegetarians. The truth is it doesn’t matter much. Every reputable dietetic organization across the globe understands that a well-planned vegan diet is perfectly healthy; there are no magical meat nutrients one will become deficient in. Even if you’re a bodybuilder or powerlifter, plant-based protein can get the job done — just ask World Record-holder and strongman Patrik Baboumian.
Not Everyone Can Go Vegan
This is correct — veganism isn’t a realistic lifestyle for some people. This may be due to financial limitations, health reasons, or something else. But it’s unlikely that you fall under these exemptions. Not everyone can go vegan, sure, but we all should do what we can within reason. The fact that not everyone can go vegan is all too often used as a get-out-of-jail-free card; people seem to think because some other people can’t go vegan, one has no moral obligation to do so themselves, even when the lifestyle change presents minimal difficulties.
Vegans Are Annoying
You’ve probably seen the videos of vegans marching into grocery stores and restaurants shouting about how meat is murder. I find many vegans to be annoying myself, so I understand that people do not wish to associate with them. But it’s important to consider whether we are sometimes too quick to label vegans as obnoxious — did they truly do something bothersome, or was that a pang of guilt that arose upon being reminded that vegans exist? Equally important is whether there is a bias against the vegans that aren’t in your face about it; people are far less likely to become aware of our existence. Indeed, most vegans I’ve met are not of the confrontational sort, eager to bring up our lifestyle choice to others. You wouldn’t figure out that we don’t eat meat, dairy or eggs unless you joined us for dinner.
Moreover, many people are annoying in general, but an annoying vegan’s behavior is more likely to be attributed to their veganism, contributing to the stereotype that we’re all chomping at the bit to agitate the non-vegans around us.
In any case, you don’t even have to describe yourself as a vegan if you’re squeamish about associating with the stereotype. “Sentientists” are people who grant species of animals degrees of moral consideration based on their ability to suffer; it makes little sense, after all, to believe killing a starfish and a cow to be equally immoral. Some sentientists consume bivalves such as oysters, which are unlikely to have any conscious experience whatsoever. This is an alternative to the strict no animal product stipulation that comes with the traditional definition of veganism, comes across as less of a purity-seeking religious movement, and is grounded in science. It’s also a bulwark against accusations that one cares about animals more than humans, since the latter are on the far right of the sentience spectrum.
So you can describe yourself as a sentientist, not a vegan, but you’ll still have some explaining to do.
Meat Tastes Good
For whatever reason, people tend to think vegans don’t eat meat and other animal products because we simply don’t like the taste. In reality, many of us acknowledge that pleasure (in this case, taste) is no justification for immoral acts, and made the decision to adjust our lifestyle accordingly. On the other hand, we also know that conventional meat is rather disgusting insofar as it’s full of feces and bacteria; effectively-vegan “clean meat” — meat grown from cultured cells harvested from an animal that need not be harmed, due to arrive on store shelves soon — promises to handle the ethics and contamination concerns associated with meat.
It should also be noted that much of what makes meat tasty is what’s put on it: seasonings, spices and sauces that are frequently vegan or, at the very least, can be made vegan. There are many plant-based meats out there already — and not just soy-based ones — to try them on.
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All of this may become moot with the seeming inevitability of cheap and widely available animal products (like clean meat) created without the use of animals — assuming that the public will take to these more ethical, cleaner, less environmentally destructive alternatives. However, in case such a world doesn’t come to pass, allow me to debunk some frequent canards deployed against veganism.
Plants feel pain; everyone would starve in a vegan world; and harvesting crops kills more animals.
These are among the most common claims that come up in any discussion about veganism. The reality is that a significant majority of crops grown in the United States are fed to livestock, and the conversion — from plant calories into meat calories — is very poor. In fact, without livestock, the crops we use to feed them could feed approximately ten times the number of mouths. Plants, lacking a central nervous system and brain required to process experience, cannot feel pain. But even if they could, veganism would still be the more ethical choice for the same reason that we’d have significantly more food to go around without livestock.
Regrettably, no one is deathless. Mice and other small mammals often die during harvest. This is unfortunate but unavoidable. But once again, a vegan diet is sustained with fewer plants; an omnivorous diet, on the other hand, is a double whammy — it requires more plants to feed livestock, and more plants means more small mammal deaths and, of course, the slaughter of cows, pigs and chickens for meat.
Livestock will take over the Earth or go extinct.
What to do with livestock animals if the world goes vegan is a legitimate concern, but few options, if any, would be worse than continuing to breed and kill billions of them each year in perpetuity. First and foremost, the world will not go vegan overnight. If it ever happens, our transition to veganism will happen slowly, causing fewer animals to be bred and raised on farms. Animal sanctuaries could step in to rescue some livestock from farms that suddenly shut down. Some could be let out into the wild with little chance of causing significant disruption to the ecosystem. And, if need be, remaining livestock could be slaughtered; the meat could be eaten as a Last Supper of sorts, turned into pet food, or something along those lines. We are a creative species, and I have no doubt that people far more intelligent than me will come up with viable strategies for mitigating the negative impact of potentially millions of animals rendered suddenly homeless.
I only buy free-range meat and animal products.
I’ve invented a heuristic that I find particularly useful: If it’s wrong to do to a human, it’s also wrong to do to an animal. As with all heuristics, there may be exceptions, but it usually gets the job done. Free-range meat and animal products — insofar as they’re actually as advertised — are improvements compared to the way livestock are typically raised. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, the animal is killed after just a fraction of its natural lifespan no matter the farm’s certification. We speak up when humans or pets are treated that way, why not do the same when it happens to a cow?
Free-range may be an improvement over conventional methods, but to make such a comparison is often to forget about the option behind door number three: don’t buy it. On top of that, the “free-range” label is more complicated than most people think, and often times it’s an all but meaningless term.
Perhaps most importantly, free-range farming cannot scale feed the meat-eating world. Instead, these are luxuries that depend upon the majority of people continuing to eat the conventional stuff — like first-class seats on an airplane. Much of the cold brutality that occurs on factory farms is necessary so long as consumers continue to have a hunger for meat and animal products. (For other common questions and arguments related to veganism, see our FAQs About Veganism and How to Win an Argument About Veganism pages.)
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When the smoke clears, all that remains is the bulletproof case for veganism: farm animals can suffer, they do suffer on factory farms, and we should reduce that suffering by boycotting animal agriculture. You need not adopt any additional tenets or beliefs nor must you abandon basic common sense.
Vegan advocacy based on reason and science is the goal of The Reasoned Vegan. We work to dispel myths and misconceptions that non-vegans hold about veganism and promote effective, evidence-based vegan advocacy.
Although liberals are more likely to go vegan, no one of any political stripe enjoys animal suffering. It’s time for animals to be depoliticized.
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