Aethics – Veganism

Some of my best friends are vegan or vegetarian, the reason most of them are still my friends is that they lack the same kind of evangelical zeal which, unfortunately, many of their dietary kind are prone to. I hate clashing with them, but it still inevitably happens from time to time. Those clashes are usually over interpretations of data and statistics, but sometimes that strays into areas of ‘woo’ and even science (or practical) denialism.

My hope is that by setting out by (omnivorous) position here and presenting my objections to vegan arguments and bad science I can spare myself some of these arguments in the future or at least direct them to more useful, evidence based arguments.

Aethics is what I’m tentatively calling my own attempt at an objective (or at least only human-subjective) moral philosophy. The idea being that by incorporating ideas from Epicureanism and Utilitarianism you can come to a fact-based, rational and logical moral decision on difficult problems. There’s some important key components to this though:

Facts first: Any decision must be based on facts.

Provisional: An ‘aethical’ point of view accents that any decision made through it is provisional, not absolute.

Situational: Any moral or ethical decision depends on context. What is wrong in one instance may not be wrong in another. No decision is set or settled in its entirety.

Emotions & Feelings Have Value: People’s emotional pain should be taken into account and weighed up in a decision.

Strive for Objectivity: While emotions have value and meaning they should not guide the moral decisions.

The Environment

A chief argument in favour of veganism is the environmental impact of farming. It is supposed that you can raise a great deal more in the way of crops on land that would otherwise go to sustain animals. In theory this could free up land, increase the food surplus, drive down prices etc. Animal waste (poop and methane gas) can also harm the environment and there are issues around drug resistant bacteria given the over-use of antibiotics in agriculture.

On the face of it this is all true and these are great and practical arguments for veganism. Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple.

  1. Animals can be raised on land unsuitable for crops.
  2. Irresponsible farming practices (antibiotic use etc) is an argument against irresponsible farming practices, not for veganism.
  3. While slurry may be reduced, a vegetarian diet increases human flatulence and excrement, which would at least offset any gains by reducing animal husbandry in terms of both global warming and waste pressure.
  4. Plant-farming can exhaust the soil in a way animal farming cannot, requiring constant rotation and/or fertilisation of the soil. Fertilisation requires petrochemicals, industrial nitrates damage the environment nearly as much as animal slurry and – without a large source of animal fertiliser – there’s little in the way of alternatives. Using human poop would require intensive processing, due to the disease risk.
  5. More agriculture means larger, monocultivar fields, which are very vulnerable to pests and disease. This means either more GM crops (which I have no issue with) or more pest spraying, which again is more petrochemicals and industrial waste, further offsetting any supposed gains. Organic farming is only ~66% as efficient as industrial farming and other solutions such as mixed-cultivation simply don’t work on a civilisational scale and aren’t amenable to industrial harvesting and processing.

In short the much-vaunted environmental benefits attributed to forcing everyone into veganism do not consider the wider impact and the knock-on effects. While we do raise and consume too much meat and  altering that would be a good thing, eliminating meat production would not have an enormous and transformational effect on our environmental issues and could, conceivably, make aspects of them worse.

Health

Veganism supposedly carries with it some health benefits, but virtually every study I have read on this carries with it the same mistake. Vegans and vegetarians – people who are actively interested in and engaged in their diet – are compared with ‘average Joes’ – people who don’t. For a comparison to be valid, it would have to compare people who are equally as engaged and interested in their diets, just with some being omnivores and some being vegan/vegetarian. The very few studies on this grounds tend to show the omnivorous group having slightly better overall health and – in sport comparisons – performance.

So why might that be?

Put simply, humans are omnivores. We have teeth suited to both vegetation and animal tissue, we have a mid-length intestine, we have gut flora and digestive enzymes suitable for both meat and vegetable digestion. Our bodies rely on numerous micronutrients, fats and other things found in a mixed diet to operate with maximum efficiency and health. Some fats, in particular, are very important in early life while the nervous system is being ‘built’ and a vegan diet for young children may cause lasting harm and make them more susceptible to various problems with the nervous system.

To refer back to the first paragraph here, the problem is comparing like to like. Most people come to a vegan diet later on in life, ‘slip’ more than they like to admit and so minimise the negative impacts a vegan diet may have. This isn’t, of course, to say that we shouldn’t eat less meat – we should – just that people having irresponsible diets is not a good argument for veganism, but is a good diet for a balanced, healthy, omnivorous, diverse diet.

Health benefits come from being engaged with what you eat and a diverse omnivorous diet is healthier than a vegan one.

This can, of course, be offset with dietary supplements, but the need for such suggests either an underlying health problem or a dietary inadequacy and the increased production of dietary supplements would refer back to the environmentalism point, industrial production of such products is not so great for the environment.

Ethical Concerns

The environmental and health claims for veganism are, then, at least questionable or not as strong as they are claimed to be. What, then, of the ethical questions? What are the ethical questions? There’s really only one, that the raising of meat for consumption causes suffering to animals. This isn’t an easy question to tackle as it goes pretty deep into a whole bunch of muddy areas with no definitive answers.

Let’s qualify the statement a little.

‘Eating meat causes unnecessary suffering to animals’.

That’s a little better, since practically all ethical decisions require the weighing up of pros and cons. So the real question is whether more ‘good’ than ‘evil’ is done. The environmental question is up in the air, the health one is not. People are better off with an omnivorous diet… but how do we weight human health and need against that of animals?

There’s no absolute answer to this, but we have a natural inclination to favour our own species, our own friends and family. We are as ethically open-minded as our situation allows. If it came down to sacrificing a stranger over a friend most of us would do it, and would sacrifice a friend over family. If the bombs fell, most of us would resort to eating the family dog, however much we love it.

We do make exceptions for endangered species, but even if someone were to poach the last rhino, most people would baulk at killing them for doing so.

If this seems a little disjointed it’s because I’m trying to sketch out the boundaries of the situation.

  • Animals are not as concious or aware as humans (though this varies from creature to creature). They do not appear able to suffer in the same manner that humans do.
  • Inhuman and cruel farming practices are an argument against inhumane harming practices, not for veganism.
  • Can ‘food’, really be regarded as ‘unnecessary’?
  • How much of a health compromise to yourself or your children is acceptable to spare animals pain?

It seems to me that unnecessary cruelty (factory farming and poor slaughter practices) is an argument against itself, but not for veganism again. We should be wanting to minimise cruelty and pain but it’s perfectly reasonable for us to prioritise our own pleasure and health. Please, yes, meat is a pleasurable experience to eat for most people – another cue that our body needs and wants it.

The ethical side is clearly too broad and deep to adequately cover in a blog post as this last section is all over the place. The short version is that there are many good reasons to continue producing and eating meat, and the arguments against it are primarily against things like cruel farming practices, which can be eliminated without eliminating animal husbandry. Even the ethical argument is simply too subjective and personal to be more broadly applied.

Summary

Let’s return to the ‘aethics’ guidelines from earlier.

Facts first: Any decision must be based on facts.

Veganism is not the great saviour of the environment and not the best option for human health. Much in the way of farming practice is, however, unnecessarily cruel. Given we’re likely to farm insects soon it will be interesting to see whether current vegans are against that also (or vat-grown meat), and whether they avoid things like shellfish today, which have extremely minimal awareness or capacity for pain.

Provisional: An ‘aethical’ point of view accents that any decision made through it is provisional, not absolute.

As other options, such as the aforementioned vat-grown meat, become available the moral questions may shift. If we can have the meat without the animals, then it’s harder to justify any form of cruelty in farming whatsover (humane slaughter isn’t really cruel per se).

Situational: Any moral or ethical decision depends on context. What is wrong in one instance may not be wrong in another. No decision is set or settled in its entirety.

This whole discussion exists within the current structure where we have mixed agriculture, a lot of poor people who rely on cheap nutrition and have yet to develop, properly, alternatives such as insect farming, vat-grown meat or fully artificial substitutes from vegetable protein that both carry the same nutrition and the same experience.

Emotions & Feelings Have Value: People’s emotional pain should be taken into account and weighed up in a decision.

Pleasure also has value here, and an enjoyable diet is a boon to mental as well as physical health. People take great pleasure from their food and this must weigh into the equation just as animal suffering must.

Strive for Objectivity: While emotions have value and meaning they should not guide the moral decisions.

While not true of all, many vegans seem to have come to their position based on emotion, unable to stand the thought of eating a cute lamb or a smart pig. These are emotionally based decisions, not factually based.

Given all these factors, only the ethical argument holds any water and then only as a personal decision and an argument against poor farming practice, not for veganism in and of itself. As such I see no convincing arguments, whatsoever, against the farming and eating of meat. People’s conscience is their own look-out and there’s no real position from which to criticise anyone else, with these arenas of decision being so subjective.

As and when genuine alternatives appear the moral question will shift again, but until such material is affordable and available this is where I stand.

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