I encountered yet another book that claims to be the critique of a plant-based diet, but yet again perceived the same old arguments against it, I couldn’t help but give my two cents on the debate. There are five main, legitimate but not just reasons to refute a plant based diet:
- Domesticated species of livestock are not suitable to live in the wild any more.
- Plants have biochemical reactions to harmful stimuli.
- There is a viable way to grow in vitro meat.
- A fully vegan human culture would cause more death of animals.
- It privileges the living beings that resemble us.
These are the semi-valid arguments only, as I don’t want to consider the “meat is needed to stay healthy” and the “ancient humans needed to hunt because that challenge made our brains bigger” or the infamous “what about B12” kind of non-sense. There are plenty of resources on the Internet to answer two of them, while for the middle one you could have the ability to just solve a Sudoku puzzle but you certainly don’t need ancient ways to challenge yourself.
Before we start to analyze these serious arguments, let’s settle something down. The attitude to suffering should be qualitative, not quantitative. It’s not a race of corpse numbers, but a kind of applied empathy. If you consider it a problem from an economical perspective only, then you will never get the full picture. Given our current environment eating meat is simply theft, because your body doesn’t need it to function properly. Why would you take something you don’t need? For pleasure? That could be right, as countless people admit it that the whole debate is covered in arguments but after all they just want to enjoy their food.
It’s an ecological and economical problem that we shouldn’t be selfish all the time even if certain systems tell us otherwise, like how societies following the thoughts of Adam Smith consider infinite grow possible, suggesting we shall act accordingly. Our planet is inhabited by myriad forms of living beings, and we use each other as resources either we like it or not. There is a conceptual thought experiment, called the tragedy of the commons that is perfectly applicable to the Earth ecology itself. If everyone wants to use everything as much as they can, then common resources are depleted or ruined completely, driving the whole community into a losing situation. Nobody wins in the end.
Even veganism (the stricter, no-animal-product-at-all diet) is not usually an all inclusive practice, because it’s impossible to live entirely cruelty free and you can’t really choose the usage of your money either in our present communities. Let’s face it, whether you buy that ham in the store or not doesn’t change the fact that a pig already was slaughtered to present that current product. The act of eating it has no significance any more, you mainly vote and voice opinion by your money these days. But what if you may just send a postcard to someone? The postman that gets paid by the company who received your money may spend his salary at the local Burger King to grab a whopper. Does this make you responsible?
Let’s just say that there is a practical limit to our actions as vegetarians or vegans, because it’s not a way to eliminate suffering but a way to reduce it. This is a very misrepresented point, and need to be emphasized to those who listen. (Eliminating suffering would be possible by realizing the Four Noble Truths[*], but it’s not possible through diet only.)
In a summary, I think you can’t justify killing animals for their meat because the very same arguments will lead you to justify killing humans for whatever reason you may have. Even though this is probably a pretty harsh judgment for a lot of people, I still think that these four issues usually raised to refule a plant-based diet are worth considering and mentioned for very good reasons.
You may complain very rightly that I mix up or confuse veganism and vegetarianism, but it’s because in my own opinion they are almost identical in motivation. The main difference is the belief of ethical animal products, that vegans mostly deny to exist while vegetarians claim them to be possible to obtain. It is true that all animal products cause animal suffering in our modern industrialized setting and if you don’t eat meat but still wear leather or eat cheese then you support the same industry that you may claim to oppose but I view veganism as mostly a modern movement because personally I claim ethical animal products to exist like eggs or milk even though in the current era it is close to impossible to obtain such products. While both are concerned with the same ideals, I prefer to use them interchangeably in the following arguments.
The future of our livestock
Some mistakes are irreversible, and either you view human culture as a mistake or not, it certainly introduced irreversible changes to our planet. Homo Sapiens turned out not to be just yet another apex predator but something we don’t know any similar siblings of in the entire universe. Our actions still shape the future of the whole globe – now more than ever. The balance between plant species is shaped by our activity so much that Noah Harari even wrote that we may even think of agriculture as crops like wheat domesticating humans, not the other way around.
With the era of genetical engineering, the modification of our gene pool will be just as much irreversible of a change. Yet the whole situation that one day everyone stops eating meat and our livestock goes to live free seems more like a scene of a Disney movie than reality. It’s highly improbable and surely a very significant amount of them would die, probably all of them. This means reading from 2017 Janury figures 12.1 million cattles and 13.7 million hogs in Canada only.
The questions is that why would it concern either us or them if their whole fate is already decided anyway? If it’s a choice between death and death, then it seems to utilitarian people that the only logical solution is eating them all, but this view is really just the view of maintaining the status quo. There is no revolution without casualities because an economical change is always a change against something, in this case against the livestock system itself.
On a more serious note, it could be decided on case by case, but let’s face the facts early that most of the animals raised for food are in such a pathetic condition that they are barely self-sustainable, even. An ideal solution would be degradation of the livestock, this would probably cause the least amount of suffering – while to this problem there exists no solution without any deaths at all, we need to understand that for these animals this is an already lost battle, if we view them from an evolutionary perspective. We can patch up the wounds but can’t raise the dead.
Ever since we have amazing capabilities of computing power and thousands of technological tools it became fashionable again to talk about plant neurobiology, plant consciousness and how they are supposed to “feel” pain. Using these scientific theories in a debate about diet has a very clear propaganda though, basically equaling plant experience with animal experience.
Let’s be clear from the very beginning for those who still haven’t let it fully sink in: humans are animals. We are just confused monkeys trying to understand what the hell is happening to all of us. Apart from very significant changes in the neocortal region we are almost entirely identical to primates, and we have very good empirical evidence to support the view they have similar experience of the world as we do so. If you want to step onto a stricter path you can always deny the possibility of human consciousness even, but let’s leave these ideas to the philosophers of the mind and face our neighbours on earth.
If you are satisfied only with very well documented research, then it’s not extraordinary to claim that we need a functioning central nervous system for emotions, the experience of pain, and all the inner workings of our “souls” to “emerge” or at least to get experienced by us. The altered states like epilepsy, sleeping or fainting provide a very factual basis to assume the need for such a system to have similar experiences. In short: to feel something.
Point is that this central nervous system is the very thing that all plant life lack and what most probably makes a qualitative difference between reacting and feeling something. Even though there are very recent researches challenging our very notion of intelligence through using slime mold or algae for pathfinding and such, it’s more of a sign that we need to be more open minded abour our categories we use. If you get too open for possibilities though, your definitions will be useless – if you consider anything capable of reacting to the environment as conscious for example, then given wide enough interpretation of a reaction, literally everything could count conscious. What about viruses for example?
Having a biochemical reaction is no way proof that one would have a conscious experience such as pain. Proving such things are very very difficult though so you can never really be sure of others’ experiences but saying that both animals and plants feel pain so it’s ok to kill them both sounds unreasonable, especially considering that maintaining the livestock just to kill still means a higher need for plant resource.
As an addition, I read in the mentioned book that a cyclical view of your diet would be more appropiate, but there is a huge difference between killing something consciously and for example stepping on roaches accidentally or drinking larvae with water and such. A cyclical view of diet suggest that you can’t be fully vegetarian as your plant food “eats” the soil that contains the nutrition in the form of decomposing animal carcasses – so other than carnivorous plants it means already dead beings. Even though I asked a very similar question about the usage of your financial funds in the introductory section, I mention this idea here because it’s an oversimplification of both the decomposition process that involves already dead beings and the notion of “eating” something. It’s a common bias of humans to anthropomorphize a process or an object, because explaining how a plant feeds itself as eating is misleading at the very least, the missing volition is a crucial link in the chain to call something “eating” as in “human-like eating”. A plant eats just like a bacteria moves – both are fascinatingly complex on their own but calling a bacteria walking would be nonsense.
In vitro meat
Cultured, synthetic or in vitro meat is not science fiction but one of the main projects of a medicinal scientific field called cellular agriculture where you are capable of growing meat tissue out of cells in an artificial growing environment instead of a body.
While there is no suffering and death involved here, the environmental factor is still very questionable as meat itself is still an addition to our diets but not a fundamental part, as we are fully capable of producing our cells utilizing plant protein. Instead of livestock you could have the very precious space of our planet occupied by meat factories instead of slaughterhouses with their ranches.
There are so many other catastrophic global risks today should be taken seriously, that I view this option as mainly allocating resources in a wasteful way. Maybe I view it in the wrong way again, but this is yet another uneeded project of luxury instead of focusing on real issues, because I emphasize it again: you don’t need the flesh of other beings to surive, so why would you take it?
As we are actually at the start of a race to escape this planet before we completely destroy ourselves by overpopulation only, ecology and sustainable technology should be two immanently important aspects of our researches and a plant based diet provides a more feasible alternative than researching and founding yet another solution.
Vegetarian/Vegan Earth would cause more deaths
The last point on the list says that if you would want to have enough fields to grow crops and such, that would result in significantly more animal suffering than simply feeding them to people. The argument goes like this: if you increase the amount of fields you grow on, you need to defend more land against pests such as mice and bugs as they would feed on them as well. This is mainly a confusion or misinterpretation of the qualitative and quantitative difference as well, but also lacks a wider perspective of the problem. They deliberately ignore the fact that you need to feed your livestock, because it’s mainly an argument about how humans would consume more plant based foods than livestock does, essentially arguing that using animals is a more cost effective method to feed us. Such argument always points out to global trends, or in simpler terms they are about a hypothetical scenario where the whole planet and human industry turned vegan miraculously overnight.
The thing is that our livestock is not a stock of alpha predators either, just we don’t really count foxes or lions into the equation usually but if we would consider all kinds of competition with us such as flies and forest wolves then it worths considering how the list of endangered animals consist a significant ratio of predators such as bigger felines, big reptiles, canines and so on. We consciously hunted down the competition for our food and still do so up to present day, so projecting this problem onto a completely vegan or vegetarian culture is very misleading, suggesting that maintaining our vast livestock of animals has no such a cost. I don’t know exact numbers but it would be hard for me to imagine how both producing the crop for your livestock versus producing the crop only to feed us would lead to worse effects and more deaths.
Even if it would be somehow proved that keeping livestock provides a more sustainable environment (that is not the case), you would still miss out the empathy part of the whole story. If all is permittable for the greater good (that is usually considered to be the sustainability and survival of the human race but not the planet’s ecosystem), then it becomes self evident how the boundary between animals and humans are artificial and morally you are not very far away from euthanizing the weak or utilizing eugenics and such. It worths considering how space for contemporary science fiction is the water of adventure novels in the 19th century, and how vast our planet seemed to be up until the rapid transport methods possible by steam and then electricity. Most of our environmental problems are because of overpopulation, that is mainly a social problem that (you probably agree) should be solved in a humane way.
Presupposing a vertical hierarchy between different life forms.
A main advocate of this argument is Daniel Quinn, who maintains this perspective from a collectively ecological view, stating that it’s ethnocentrism to value some life forms over others based on their resemblence to human beings in sentience or experience.
At first this notion seems easy to dismiss but while we trying to do so, we can be easily more and more aware of how we make such a hierarchy between life forms. Based on the most current data, animals feels more (their experience resemble to our more) than plant life, and there is a bottom of the chain with bacteria that even if have any kind of experience it’s surely very alien to human-like feelings. A very troubling problem is how this attitude becomes a slippery slope of argument, namely how the line between animals and plants can be so thin that favorizing certain life on the basis of experience can be strange if we consider a few things. The very obvious example is unconscious humans or other beings in coma, but let’s turn to biology itself.
You may not remember the OpenWorm project from 2015, but it’s worth seeing how a mere one thousand of neurons can be accountable for relatively complex behavior of the Caenorhabditis elegans. There is still also the open question whether viruses are alive or not? We need to decide whether we truly base such a vertical hierarchy on resemblence or being conscious, and understand that whichever we choose, it means the same. Because being conscious in this argument means “being conscious the way humans are being conscious of something”. It’s nothing but a relation, and our ethnocentrism comes from favoring life that has the most similar relation to their environment. I don’t want to get into a really long and complex debate whether our experience is the only possible one because it’s a really tough epistemological debate, but let’s just accept that it’s not an all or nothing scenario but human-like relations versus alien-to-humans relations.
From Quinn’s view we are saving some species because we have dissimilar attitudes to something that behaves and probably feels the same way as us, but don’t consider how everything alive wants to be alive. This need, this very essence of life is left out of the equation. It’s a step back to the cartesian view of res cogitans, even if we include animals into the very same category than humans. In other terms, we may cause less physical suffering by eating plants only because this kind of suffering most probably requires a brain (functioning in a certain way), but we by no means do less harm to other living beings. This is the main reason Quinn says we should abolish the idea entirely that eating is causing harm. I must admit that I struggled with this question for a long time. On what basis could we justify such a hierarchy of resemblence?
One way is embracing this ethnocentrism by saying that only human-like experiences exist, that is a sane opinion but very difficult to philosophically defend. Another way is just looking at it like it was natural, like how we relate to our family more than strangers, but in this case you must accept that your stance is psychological, an emotional decision even if you base it on understanding. You can justify such a hierarchy between life forms by saying even if artificial, there is such a thing as a right to life and animals have more potential to keep up to your standards than plants, and humans have even morepotential to live up to such standards (like being moral, just, etc). Obvious problem is that it’s forcing a world view on a mostly naturalist debate and logically there is no difference between such a standard between generally accepted as positive values such as justness versus this standard being set as having red hair, or whatever else.
Anyhow, my answer to this question is mainly a religious one, so if you don’t like reading such it’s probably time to stop reading my already quite lengthy article altogether. As a buddhist, I never take suffering identical with bodily harm. Dukkha is mind made, and a very essence to existence itself. Where becoming is, dukkha appears as well. Such a hierarchy between life forms is mostly based on their potential to realize nibbana, the ultimate goal that sets apart ethical from unethical. While I understand and agree with the notion how it is most probable that a dying animal suffer more than a dying plant, for me it’s ultimately worse to kill animals because they have less avijja than plants (where one could imagine avijja as a shroud of ignorance). In buddhist cosmology planes or worlds are mostly separated by states of mind and not by spatial location, the animal realm is called Tiracchānayoni. Although we are animals too, we have a better chance for liberation because of mindful skills we can employ in “the human state”, the human realm.
What really matters for this vertical hierarchy is seeing how humans are in a special place of possessing “higher” (it’s best to interpret these terms in means related to nibbana) consciousness, to overcome pure insticts and practice the eightfold path. Animals have way less options to do so, but they are still capable of such mental cognition to “escape the flow of phenomena”. There is not enough space here to explain my chosen terms and such, but let it be said that plants are “beyond saving” from a buddhist perspective, while more complex life forms are capable of realizing dhamma.
Let’s also emphasize it again that you can’t be “fully” vegan or vegetarian in such an all-involving definition (eg. eliminating all animal suffering) but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t reduce it by a large portion via extracting a significant dietary choice we are culturally accustomed with. A plant based diet certainly can’t reverse a lot of environmental damage we have already done, as the first and last arguments clearly show but if we act at the very last moment on risks we have foreseen for centuries or thousands of years then it will be one hundred percent surely too late aready.