Friday, January 13, 2017

A few random comments about vegetarianism

I actually don't think vegetarianism is important. In fact, I think so-called factory farming is more important for human well-being than vegetarianism is for human ethics. I realize that this may be a surprising position to some. Also, I can have respect for Christians who believe that animals are always or routinely, much less legally, treated unethically in so-called "factory farming" (though I'm pretty certain they are wrong about that given the heavy regulation of the food-farming industry) if those Christians place a much higher priority on the truly civilization-urgent issues of our time, such as abortion and the homosexual-transgender agenda. What I have really no patience for are "millennial ethics priorities" that leave the marriage and/or abortion issues largely untouched and un-thought-through while spending oodles of time agonizing over and evangelizing for vegetarianism. (In passing, I've been influenced quite a bit by the work of Wesley J. Smith on these issues, but his blog posts are now difficult to search, so I'll just link this book, which I don't happen to own, that has a chapter or two on the subject.)

A few other thoughts I've written to various people lately that I thought I might as well throw into a blog post, which will be rather disorganized. This next comment is addressed to what strikes me as the incredibly silly, shallow argument that likens animal-product consumption to eating the brains of puppies deliberately bred in a horribly painful way to make them tasty. (Yes, there really is such an "argument" out there.) Or, in general, the "argument" that implies that we eat meat and/or animal products only out of lazy hedonism.
I want also to say quite openly that I would actually oppose even the voluntary cessation of all that is called "factory farming," because I consider the efficient production of large quantities of meat, dairy, eggs, etc., to be quite important to human nutrition given the population of both the developed world and the world as a whole. Animal products are not a luxury eaten by hedonistic, morally oblivious gluttons. They are an important part of a natural, omnivorous human diet that efficiently delivers necessary nutrients in a form likely actually to be eaten by large numbers of human beings. It is therefore important for them to be produced in such a quantity that these products are readily available and affordable.
A few more words about that: The idea that there is something low and unworthy about eating food that tastes good has a certain almost unhealthy asceticism about it, as though morally perfect beings would get all their nutrition in some tasteless, unenjoyable fashion or would eat only out of duty. The good taste of animal products, and their high concentrations of important nutrients such as protein, iron, and the essential B12 (which, no, is not found in seaweed!) come together to make it relatively easy for an omnivore to eat a diet containing enough of these nutrients. That's actually important to human flourishing. If you have to get absolutely essential nutrients by taking supplements (and vegans, especially, do have to obtain supplements or specially fortified food for their B12), then your diet is insufficiently nutritious and varied. You can do that if you choose, but there is no moral requirement for people in general to do that, and indeed it is unlikely that mankind as a whole is going to get the diet it needs in that way.

Another point: It really is difficult to have passion for everything at once, and especially for issues at different ends of the political spectrum. I don't want to say it's impossible, and I know a few exceptions, but by and large, the "millennial ethics" I discussed above are a natural result of the deliberate intention to focus on some issues (poverty, vegetarianism) as some kind of "corrective" to the "religious right." There are only so many hours in a day, and you only have so much capital to spend trying to convince your friends of things and intensely discussing things. If you're spending that capital evangelizing for vegetarianism or writing about it, I'm just going to say that it's plausible that you are spending a lot less time doing other things in the broadly political realm. So to some extent, yes, there is a zero-sum game going on, and there's a reason why one too often finds that the most passionate vegetarian Christians are wishy-washy (at least) on, say, the wrongness of homosexuality and the evil of homosexual "marriage." There was a great blog post by someone-or-other several years ago about this kind of thing: The blogger was told that it's possible to be "pro-life and" and then decided that practically speaking on the progressive Christian side it wasn't working out that way. If I ever find the link again I'll post it.

There is something quasi-religious about vegetarianism and even more about veganism. The old monks would fast for a fast day and feast for a feast day. Human beings find it satisfying to order their lives in an intentional way that feels significant on the intimate level of eating, sleeping, etc. Christianity, however, does not give detailed rules for these things, so we tend to invent them for ourselves as a practical matter. There's nothing wrong with that, but in my opinion it would be a more healthy Christianity to refrain from eating meat on Fridays in honor of Christ's crucifixion or to fast and pray than to refrain from eating meat on all days in honor of animals. It would be better to satisfy one's desire for detailed, religious order by praying the canonical hours than to examine the food one eats at every meal to try to assure oneself that the animals that produced it had a happy life (by anthropomorphic standards of "happy") and died a peaceful death.


Daniel Cathers said...


I've kind of gone the opposite route the last couple of years. I think that vegans have it all wrong and eating plants is probably the most harmful to plants, animals, and humans. That isn't to say that I have concluded it is unethical to eat plants. However, I find it an interesting point when arguing with vegans. Usually the argument is based on two premises: eating meat causes harm and we ought not do things that cause harm. Both might be false.

Alan Savory on pasturing:

Most non-communicable, chronic diseases are caused by hyperinsulinemia (aka a diet high in carbohydrate filled plants) [PDF warning]:

Fiber is likely a major factor in constipation and IBS:

You can check out this subreddit or ask me questions if you want more information:

Lydia McGrew said...

I'm into pretty ordinary diets of the kind that were called "balanced" back in the 1970s, but of course what I know is true is that animal-based fats got a bad rap for several decades on the basis of garbage research, and the mainstream community is starting to recognize that now. Meanwhile, high carbs got a pass for a long time as long as they were deemed low-fat.

A point that Wesley J. Smith makes to vegans is that food harvesting for grains kills a lot of field mice and other small critters. There really is no way for people to eat without killing something.

I also consider it relevant to consider that some of the conditions of "factory farming" have positive tradeoffs for the animals. For example, free range chickens get eaten by raccoons, foxes, etc., who aren't subject to humane slaughter rules!

Ben Carmack said...

Alex Avery's book "The Truth About Organic Foods" is a helpful corrective to a lot of the organic advertising you hear these days.

Power Child said...

Consider that plants probably have a crude kind of nervous system. The things we do to them in order to consume them are far worse than anything we do to animals. This by itself is not an argument that we should eat meat, but it does suggest that if we gave up meat because of what we inflict upon animals, then we should certainly give up eating plants--and then we'd be left with fruit that falls off trees and little else.

Lydia McGrew said...

Y'know, I'm not at all sure that's true. I think when we say "pain" we mean something rather specific, and there's reason to think that chickens can experience it and wheat stalks don't. Which is fine, and we can take that into account. But that doesn't at all mean that we should be trying to eat only free-range chickens and eggs, or that there should be only free-range chickens and eggs. Not remotely.

Lydia McGrew said...

In a discussion on Facebook someone linked a rather dull and pretentious paper by Christian philosopher Tom Crisp arguing that Jesus agrees with Peter Singer that we should be giving away to the poor so much of our income as to put ourselves and children at risk of starving. Liberally scattered with the phrase "shalom life." Anyway, since Peter Singer is also a big animal rights activist, it came to me that one man's ethical imperative is another man's "frill or extravagance." If you're buying more expensive free range eggs or meat or B12 supplements (because you're a vegan), shouldn't you be convicted about this unnecessary expenditure of money that could have been given to the poor?

lizette virissimo said...

Lydia my husband just introduced me to your blog. I am not a vegetarian and I also don't understand the humanitarian and animal rights reasons for vegetarianism. However some people choose vegetarianism as what they believe to be a healthier lifestyle. I know some cancer patients respond well to a diet free of meat. Also vitamin b12 is accesible through leafy greens, eggs and dairy products. Even as a paleo diet type of person myself I stay away from non kosher meat and am weary of meat that is not organic or is treated with countless antibiotics. Salmon and other fish have been found to carry toxins and lead. Preservatives are also an issue. Sometimes staying away from meat all together could seem like a safer choice unless they're coming straight from the farm.

Lydia McGrew said...

No, leafy greens do not contain Vitamin B12, except in the unusual case that they have been fertilized with human waste products and contain trace amounts because of human poop, which is a problem in and of itself. In general, *no* vegetable contains B12 qua vegetable.

Yes, eggs and dairy do, however, one gets it much more efficiently through meat. In any event, it is vegans who really have to worry about B12 deficiency and *must* take supplements. Must. Vegans eat no animal products, including eggs and dairy.

I'm so happy to eat my meat that has all its preservatives and stuff. It's keeping me very healthy, thanks. :-) Can't wait for that yummy hot dog for lunch tomorrow.

But have a great day even though we don't agree. The B12 thing and leafy greens is a sheer matter of scientific fact, though, not opinion.