Rebuttals to Anti-Vegan Arguments

The concept of carnism holds that people (i.e. non-vegans) subscribe to the ideology that some animals, such as dogs and cats, are worthy of concern while others, namely farm animals, are not. Notably, this ideology is not based on any neurobiological facts regarding a species’ ability to suffer; instead, it is the fact that we consume these animals in the form of meat and animal products that drives our need to find justifications for downplaying their moral value. These justifications claim that consuming animals is natural, normal, necessary, and (sometimes) nice. The following rebuttals have been divided accordingly.

This page will be updated as we encounter more anti-vegan arguments.

 

Natural

Veganism is unnatural
We are supposed to eat meat
Animals eat other animals, so we should, too
We are justified in eating animals because humans are superior

Normal

There has never been a vegan society
Vegans are weak
Veganism is a mental illness

Necessary

Animal products contain nutrients not found elsewhere
Vegans can’t get enough protein
Vegans have to take a hundred supplements a day to stay healthy

Nice

Animals don’t feel pain
Vegans kill more animals through harvesting
It’s better for animals to live on farms than to go extinct

Other

Vegans are extreme
Not everyone can be vegan
Plants feel pain

 


Natural

Veganism is unnatural

Many things are unnatural. For example: the computer that you’re using right now, the glasses you may or may not wear, the shoes and socks on your feet, your refrigerator, and so on. We also avoid many “natural” behaviors that our ancestors exhibited and which other species in the animal kingdom engage in regularly, such as murder and theft. Just because something is natural does not alone make it permissible. You may think that diets are different, that we shouldn’t eat foods which our predecessors didn’t evolve to eat. That’s understandable. We should point out here that some vegans argue that humans are naturally herbivores; they are almost certainly incorrect, but they could be right. The fact is that what we are “meant” to eat is not at all settled science. What we do know, however, is that there are millions of vegans around the world who thrive without animal products, and every reputable dietetic association states that well-planned vegan diets can be healthy for everyone. So the question of whether or not veganism is “natural” is inconsequential; all diets are by necessity “unnatural” to one extent or another. A far more important question is whether veganism is an ethical imperative, which we believe to be the case. The appeal to nature — also known as the naturalistic fallacy — calls to mind the following quote from John Stuart Mill’s “On Nature”:

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.

 

We are supposed to eat meat

This is in large part the same as the argument above, but differs slightly in one important way. That we are “designed” or “supposed to” eat meat is a misunderstanding of evolution. First, the notion that we are “designed” in any way is suggestive of a belief in creationism. Most people accept the fact of evolution, so it’s not useful to rehash the absurdities of believing that a God created Earth and everything on it. Instead, it will be assumed that the claim is that evolution “designed” us to eat meat. It’s true that our ancestors began cooking and eating meat about one million years ago upon inventing fire. It’s also true that this newly discovered food item is commonly considered responsible for our subsequent development of ridiculously large brains. But what did our ancestors eat before this? They may have been vegetarians, but we don’t really know. One million years is a long time, but evolution is notoriously slow; although we undoubtedly adapted to obtain nutrients and calories from meat, we haven’t lost our ability to derive the same from plants. And even though we may have to acknowledge that meat helped make us smart, it wasn’t made possible by virtue of containing some special micronutrient. Meat was a way for us to consume a bunch of calories at once without expending the energy necessary to forage for berries. In other words, we grew large brains because we had a surplus of calories with no job to do. This energy was sequestered to the cortex. Despite the fact that some people claim to believe that we’ll go back to being stupid cavemen if we stop eating meat and animal products, the reality is that we have grocery stores and restaurants everywhere, so such a concern is unfounded.

 

Animals eat other animals, so we should, too

This is another appeal to nature. There are numerous things other animals do, including murder, that civilized people accept as wrong and do not do. Unlike other species, we have a moral sense. We can use this sense of morality to make ethical choices. Sure, the animal kingdom is amoral and cruel, but why not make the world a little bit better and a little more peaceful by doing the right thing whenever you can?

 

We are justified in eating animals because humans are superior

It’s true that humans are better at many things compared to other animals. For example, we humans have an ability to communicate via language that is simply not found in nature. We are without a doubt the smartest species out there. As mentioned above, however, we also have a sense of morality that other animals don’t have. If that is one thing that makes us superior, then subjecting animals such as cows, pigs, and chickens to the cruelty of factory farms ironically makes us less superior than we otherwise believe ourselves to be. It’s also important to note that many species of animals are better than us at many other things. We are not by any means the largest, fastest, strongest, cutest, prettiest, most graceful, or most peaceful animal out there. So it seems that deeming ourselves superior is self-serving: we define “superior” in a way that puts us on top by using sociality, cognitive ability, and sense of morality as the criteria. But even granting that we are the superior species — the “top of the food chain,” as many call it — it simply does not follow that it is permissible for us to kill all other species. If your favorite baseball team — say, the Red Sox — also happens to be objectively the best baseball team in the history of the sport, you don’t suddenly have the right to kill the Yankees’ shortstop. We can grant that humans are the superior species — or the species most capable of suffering, and therefore the one to which we should afford more moral consideration than all other species — without justifying killing and eating animals. Simply put, it’s a non sequitur.

 

Normal

There has never been a vegan society

This seems to be true, but it’s unclear what it has to do with the ethical imperative of veganism. This is often trotted out in an attempt to illustrate that a vegan society could not survive, but there is no reason to believe that to be the case, and the claim does not provide any evidence to that effect.

A vegan lifestyle may be abnormal — indeed, it appears that only about 1% of the population subscribes to it — but that is a claim separate and apart from whether it is the right thing to do. Moreover, we all do things that are abnormal. If you can’t think of something that you do which you believe other people you know are unlikely to also do, you simply aren’t thinking hard enough. We’re all pretty weird. Think about the people you look up to: famous actors, musicians, writers, artists, etc. They’re all really, really strange, for one by virtue of their fame, and another because they do all sorts of wacky things, some of which you know about and many of which you almost certainly don’t. Many vegans don’t know anybody else that doesn’t consume animal products. That sort of courage can serve to inspire others to do the same, as many vegans have come to find out. We all would like to be a source of inspiration for others. If you can see why a vegan lifestyle is an ethical imperative but are afraid to take the leap because you are afraid of seeming abnormal, then you are missing out on an opportunity to make the world a better place.

 

Vegans are weak

This is a stereotype that doesn’t have much basis in fact. It’s true that there are many vegans who can be described as “weak,” but that’s also the case with many omnivores. There has been no research that we are aware of that looks at, say, average muscle mass among vegans and non-vegans. However, because many vegans believe a plant-based diet is healthier, we are probably far more likely to take care of our body by working out regularly. It’s conceivable, therefore, that vegans could have on average more muscle mass than the average non-vegan. But again, the lack of research makes it hard to be certain about any of this. Even if vegans are more often “weak,” it is not by virtue of eating only plants. In fact, there are many extraordinarily strong vegans, such as Patrik Baboumian, who show that a plant-based diet is perfectly compatible with breaking world records in strongman competitions.

While not exactly a world record, one of the authors of The Reasoned Vegan — Evan Anderson, a six-year vegan — recently deadlifted 330 lbs; he does not apologize for the blatant brag.

 

Veganism is a mental illness

This isn’t really an argument, but more of an ad hominem attack. To believe that animals are worthy of moral concern is not a mental illness by any means. For the sake of presuming positive intent, however, we’ll interpret this claim as one that points to the seemingly higher-than-average rate of eating disorders, depression, and anxiety among vegans. This has been written about in greater detail elsewhere, however it is worth going over briefly. Veganism is likely used by some to mask an eating disorder, and rates of depression and anxiety are probably more common in vegans. However, it’s impossible to attribute this to veganism. It bears repeating: there is nothing about refusing to eat meat and other animal products that necessitates a mental illness of any sort. That some people with such afflictions may be more likely to go vegan should not reflect poorly on veganism; to argue that veganism causes any of these psychological conditions is rather preposterous and without merit. It is possible that something like depression is more likely to come about when one acknowledges the horrors of factory farming, the latter of which logically resulting in a decision to go vegan. In sum, this claim is meant to dismiss the ethical imperative of veganism by painting those who believe in it as deranged; it is not an argument, but an attack, and one that people resort to when they have nothing more sensible to say.

 

Necessary

Animal products contain nutrients not found elsewhere

This is false. Part of carnism — the ideology that serves to justify eating meat and other animal products — seems to be that such food items contain some magical molecules and nutrients that cannot be obtained without eating them. People frequently make this claim, but when asked to be more specific about the micro- or macronutrients they are referring to, back off somewhat, mentioning B12, Omega-3s, or “proteins” supposedly not found in plants. The reality is that all essential vitamins, including B12 and Omega-3s, can be obtained from vegan sources, and that all “proteins” — including “complete proteins” — can be found in plants. When this is pointed out, people commonly retreat to a softer claim, such as that the vitamins and “proteins” are more readily concentrated, more bioavailable, or more affordable in meat form. These concerns are marginal at best; supplementing a few vitamins and eating a variety of plants is remarkably simple. Any minor hassle that one may experience as a result does not remotely make killing and eating animals an ethical alternative.

 

Vegans can’t get enough protein

This is also a false claim. Protein deficiency is next to impossible absent a calorie deficiency. In other words, if you’re eating enough food, you’re getting enough protein, almost no matter what you are eating. People are remarkably ignorant about how much protein they actually need: for most, as little as 50 grams a day will suffice. It is quite notable how many people argue that vegans are deficient in protein without having an accurate understanding of how much protein one actually needs in a day. For people looking to build or maintain muscle, more than 50 grams is necessary, of course. This is still no problem for vegans; it’s not unheard of for us to consume in excess of 100 grams of protein before noon. Vegans can and do get enough protein, but if you have a misconception regarding how much protein is actually needed in order to function, you might believe otherwise.

 

Vegans have to take a hundred supplements a day to stay healthy

This is not true, though the claim is admittedly exaggerated for dramatic effect. While it’s important for vegans to take vitamins, the number — and how frequently they should be taken — is rather small. For one, B12 is a must. Another important one is Omega-3s (from algae). From there, individuals differ with what else they may require. Vegans with low iron levels should take a supplement as needed. Iodine may be important for vegans who don’t get it otherwise, though it is commonly added to table salt. Other than that, there aren’t really any supplements that vegans should take apart from those everyone should probably be taking anyway, such as vitamin D in the winter months and magnesium. Someone who practices abundant caution by taking all of these is consuming at most six supplements in a day — some (such as B12) don’t need to be taken on a daily basis. That is hardly unmanageable.

 

Nice

Animals don’t feel pain

This claim demonstrates a failure to understand basic biological facts. To make this claim is to assert that only humans are endowed with the ability to experience pain. This does not make evolutionary sense. Pain motivates creatures to avoid harm to increase their chances of passing on their genes. It stands to reason that species capable of moving — including cows, pigs, and chickens — would therefore be capable of suffering. It would not make sense, on the other hand, for plants — being unable to move as they are — to have the ability to feel pain. Indeed, the neurobiological substrates are in accordance with this. Plants don’t have brains, a necessary prerequisite for having any experience at all. And the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness states that the neurophysiological structures necessary for conscious experience — which includes the experience of pain — are present in numerous species, including those many of us eat.

 

Vegans kill more animals through harvesting

It’s true that small mammals, such as mice, are killed during the process of harvesting. This is unfortunate, and we’d like to live in a world where this isn’t the case. However, it is incorrect to claim that vegans kill more of anything, plants included. The reality is that most crops are fed to livestock, who are then turned into meat and animals products at a fraction of the calories (and water), which non-vegans then consume. There is necessarily energy lost in the process: cows, pigs, and chickens all have vital organs, nervous systems, and all sorts of other body functions that utilize the energy they obtain from food. Only some of that energy is converted into meat. As a result, someone who eats, say, 1,000 calories of meat has necessitated the harvest of 10,000 calories (in fact, probably more) in the form of crops. And because harvesting inevitably kills some number of small mammals, more harvesting — as is required by a non-vegan diet — causes more deaths.

 

It’s better for animals to live on farms than to go extinct

This is a tough argument to make. We can all imagine a life of pure pain and suffering — say, a baby born with a fatal disease that kills it within a week — that would be far worse than never existing at all. The question here is whether farm animals are in such a situation. Factory farms — which produce more than 99% of all meat and animal products — are horrendous institutions whose routine practices cause immense suffering. For example, it is standard practice for egg-laying hens to be kept indoors in battery cages, which are tiny enclosures where they cannot spread their wings. They are typically piled on top of one another. Dairy cows, who must be pregnant at all times in order to produce milk, have their calves taken from them, usually within hours of birth. Many of these cows are have their tails docked without anesthesia and are kept in cramped conditions where they are susceptible to disease. Sows, similarly kept in spaces where disease runs rampant, are placed in gestation crates that are so small they cannot turn around. It is hard to see how a life in a dirty environment where diseases are commonplace — and where one is subjected to painful treatment and cruel practices — is one that is worth living. If the alternative to living on a factory farm is extinction — and it’s not — then it is next to impossible to argue that the former is preferable.

 

Other

Vegans are extreme

This depends on one’s definition of extreme. Veganism seems extreme because it is abnormal. However, to vegans, killing and eating animals without necessity seems extreme. It’s a matter of perspective. But even if one grants that veganism fits the definition of “extreme,” this isn’t at all a refutation. It is, at best, an observation. And it’s one that often conveys a desire to avoid discussing veganism’s ethical imperative.

 

Not everyone can be vegan

It may well be true that there are health conditions where consuming meat or other animal products is a necessity, but we do not know of any. It also could be the case that, for the impoverished, following a well-planned vegan lifestyle is simply not practical. We will grant that both of these are true. However, we also believe that, to the extent that one can, one should avoid consuming meat and animal products. Furthermore, we have noticed that people often make this sort of argument to excuse their own non-veganism without claiming that they themselves fall into this category. For example, non-vegans sometime say that “not everyone can afford vegan food.” Again, we will grant that this is true. But the person who makes this claim often has the ability to afford vegan food, despite the reality that some other people can’t, and is using the fact that some other people can’t to justify unethical behavior.

It’s true that not everyone can be vegan. But almost every non-vegan can make an effort to consume less meat and animal products than they do, which is an improvement. A simple rule is this: to the extent that one can avoid meat and animal products (excluding cruelty-free items such as clean meat and roadkill), one should.

 

Plants feel pain

Another common claim that is easy to refute. People like to point to chemical reactions that occur in plants — “plants know they are being eaten!” — in order to dismiss veganism. There are multiple ways that this is incorrect. For one, the type of “behaviors” we see in plants are not all that different from what occurs in other non-conscious systems, such as an animal’s immune system. When a disease is detected, the immune system attacks. The development of antibodies allows the immune system to be prepared for future attacks. If we talked about the immune system the way non-vegans talk about plants supposedly being conscious creatures, we’d say “oh my god, the immune system is alive! White blood cells fight back when they sense an invader!” Obviously, our immune system is not a conscious system in and of itself, so this is self-evidently absurd.

It’s also incorrect to claim that plants feel pain since they do not have brains. Without a brain, there is no way to have a subjective experience of any sort. That includes the experience of pain.

It also does not make evolutionary sense for plants to experience pain. Pain is an indicator that a creature should avoid a stimulus. The point is that, by avoiding a painful stimulus, the creature will be more likely to produce (or continue to produce) genetic offspring. Plants, unlike animals, do not have a way to avoid a painful stimulus, what with being rooted rooted in the ground and all.

Finally, even if plants did feel pain, the ethical thing to do would still be to eat them directly. This is true for the same reason that plant-based diets use less resources and kill less animals due to harvesting: crops must be grown to feed livestock, and the number of calories they obtain from plants is converted into just a fraction of the calories in the form of meat. This means that non-vegan diets cause more plant “deaths” than vegan diets do — by a long shot.

It is telling that nobody who ever makes the argument about plants feeling pain advocates that we reduce the supposed suffering of plants. In fact, it’s clear that the point of making such a claim is to try to convince vegans that we are wasting our time by trying to help animals. Frankly, that is a goal that does not deserve our respect.

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