In my inaugural post at FtB I opened the thread to continuing any previous threads from my old blog (though still within the rules set forth here), and one such ongoing question was the application of my moral philosophy to animals, and whether we morally ought to be vegetarians owing to compassion being in fact a moral virtue. I replied to Peter Hurford’s apt questions about that, noting why being a vegetarian merely out of compassion for animals is nonrational (it’s often just another kind of phobia based on false associations between animals and people), but Saint Gasoline interjected that though I may be right about that, there are other reasons to be a vegetarian. But the reasons he gave were just as nonrational. So I decided to blog about it. I’ll start by repeating my original reply.
[Note: In 2015 I revised this article by adding some qualifiers and replacing assertions of irrationality with nonrationality, to emphasize the difference between doing something illogical and doing something that is merely not motivated by reason, which could be sensible for yourself but does not automatically follow for anyone else.]
Why Compassion for Animals Does Not Necessitate Vegetarianism
Peter asked about the morality of factory farming. But “factory farming” tends to be misreported. When you investigate the actual conditions on most farms, especially those vending major industries like KFC or McDonalds, you find they are not as bad as PETA videos claim. They tend to mix ancient footage with recent (thus representing as current, conditions that have long since been abandoned), overstate the frequency of outlier events (e.g. accidents), and misrepresent farms in violation of existing laws or their own contracts with vendors (farms which then went out of business or underwent severe reforms after being exposed) as being the norm (that’s where a lot of their “horrific” video comes from: gotcha investigations of criminally negligent enterprises, not statistically common farm conditions—and I approve of this gotcha activity).
The industry is actually a lot smarter and cleaner than propagandists represent. In fact many of the conditions rights activists complain about are actually so bad for actual production efficiency and profit margin that no rational business would ever engage in them anyway, even if animals were vegetables. Of course stupid criminal mismanagement still occurs from time to time just as happens in any industry (think Enron or the Titanic), but at the very least that means we should support the enforcement of the laws we already have (instead of defunding the FDA like the Republicans keep gunning to do). And husbandry laws like California’s should be normalized nationwide, even deepened and improved (and even set as requirements for import, thus forcing other nations to comply as well, if they want to do business with us–although frankly we ought to do that for humans first…our foreign trade labor treaties are a bit anemic at present).
I also find that once you delete all the misrepresentations and outliers and then stick with actual, current, normal conditions, animal rights advocates often misconstrue what is “bad” for an animal, thinking animals are just like people and thus whatever we wouldn’t like they wouldn’t like, which is silly. Animals need a lot less than we do in order to be content and to experience normal stress levels or less (normal being the amount of occasional stress, highs and lows, that they would experience in the wild). Chickens, for example, are not miserable when in large crowded communities. There is a limit beyond which comfort declines (California state law, for example, now recognizes this), but their “personal boundary” space is a lot closer than it is for people, and often chickens voluntarily mass together for warmth and comfort. Thus seeing a hanger full of clucking chickens brushing against each other should not evoke tears. Animal quality of life has to be measured in terms of what is comfortable for that animal, and must recognize such facts as that animals aren’t aware of most things, and don’t aspire to be or do anything, and have no prospect of becoming anything, and thus should not be hastily anthropomorphized in these ways.
Accordingly I think being a vegetarian out of “compassion” is nonrational. Having compassion for animals is rational. But deducing vegetarianism from that is not. I mean that in the classic sense: it’s a non sequitur, and thus not a logically valid inference. It’s to treat animals like people, which they are not. I’ve looked and listened far and wide and there is just no logically valid argument that proceeds from “I ought to be compassionate” to “I ought to be a vegetarian.” Farming and eating animals is simply not evil, for the reason I stated: our own overall life satisfaction depends on being compassionate, and compassion compels us not to enjoy or want pointless torment to exist, no matter what or who is experiencing it. It would cause you pain, and thus diminish your life satisfaction, to realize you are being a cruel or wholly indifferent person. But destroying an animal humanely is not cruel. And it is not destroying a person. Again, an animal’s life is indifferent to when it dies, because it does not become anything and has no awareness of being something. Thus eating animals is fine as long as you aren’t torturing them (see my brief on this as the atheist correspondent for GodContention.com).
Vegetarians also seem nonrational to me in their acceptance of non-vegetarians. Either eating meat is not all that immoral, or everyone they know is a villain, horrifically consuming the flesh of concentration camp victims. And yet they befriend us. Strange. It’s as if we were all serial child molesters, while they refused to have sex with children because it’s wrong, but then come to laugh at our dinner parties, have sex with us, and help us move. Perhaps vegetarians think taking animal lives is no more awful than flouting traffic laws or being mean to street urchins, although that makes less sense of why they are so passionate about it. That’s not the rhetoric I hear. The strong drive many of them have to maintain their lifestyle seems attached to a belief that animal lives are “only slightly less valuable” than human lives and that killing them is a revoltingly awful thing to do. And that would make no sense of their tolerating us as if we were nothing more than casual traffic violators. If that’s the case, then it would seem vegetarians don’t really believe in their own convictions. They have a violent emotional reaction to the thought of eating animals that is out of proportion to any factual basis for it, which is what we would ordinarily call a delusion, as I explain in detail in my talk last year at Skepticon III. Although vegetarianism is certainly a milder delusion than conservative Christianity, since its negative social effects are minimal. But I suppose this depends on the actual reasons you choose this, and the intensity of your feelings about it. But often enough the conclusion seems unavoidable to me. Vegetarianism is just another phobia, one that has it’s own restaurants.
Why Concern for the Environment Does Not Necessitate Vegetarianism
It’s also not rational to be a vegetarian “to save the planet,” for the same reason it’s not rational to vote for third party candidates in U.S. presidential elections. It’s literally the most useless thing you can do to effect any change or prevent harm. As it happens, relying on local produce is worse for the environment. Factory farms are vastly more efficient. And there are, excuse me, but a fucking shitload of people on this planet to feed. We could not feed them without factory and industrial farming. But we’re here to talk about meat specifically…
Apart from its production meat is a highly efficient delivery vehicle for a panacea of nutrients and essential fats and proteins, likewise milk, eggs, yoghurt, lard, and cheese, while meat’s byproducts (the parts people don’t actually eat) are essential across the economy: from pet food for our carnivorous cats and dogs, to leather, wool, gelatine, glue, tallow, fatty acids used in the production of plastic and rubber, natural fertilizers (including urine and bone meal), and the ingredients in hundreds of other everyday products, from household detergents and medicines, to paint, carpet, and processed wood. We get 185 products in all just from your average pig. And the production of all these hundreds of materials is not quite as inefficient as opponents claim. In fact, since it’s an integral part of our overall recycling industry, abandoning meat production has consequences that negate most of the benefits supposed to be obtained by it (read Simon Fairlie, on whom I rely for much of the following, and Rob Lyons’ review thereof). Even its negatives can be offset with continually improving technologies if we would just care to apply them. In other words, the solution to such problems is to solve the fucking problem, instead of trying to abandon the industry altogether, which will never happen. To be rational is to be realistic, and work for changes that can actually occur. Like increasing the efficiency of an industry, which benefits everyone, business and environment alike. Game Theory, people. Learn it. Live it.
Arguments against meat production tend to be based on bad math and bad science, and confuse the wisdom of eating less meat (food supply diversity is essential to an economy and food supply stability as well as personal health), with the dogma of eating none. When we look at the actual math and facts everything changes. For what follows I’ll rely on Fairlie’s work as well as the excellent report on animal farming impact by WaterFootprint.org, and they have no pro-meat agenda, yet their data corroborates the world meat industry’s report on the Environmental Impact of Meat Production Systems, which likewise includes industry-independent data.
As just one example of bad math: much is made of how much water is used to make meat. Yet almost all of that is actually the water used to grow grain. The grain used to feed cattle, for instance, amounts to 98% of the water consumption involved in beef and dairy production (or more, depending on where we are geographically). And almost all of that is rain water (over 87%) which falls naturally and would have been wasted anyway were it not put to some use–and likely we’d always be putting it to some use (whether growing grain, generating electricity, manufacturing, drinking, showering) so there would be little net effect on water consumption if we abandoned the meat industry. We’d just use that water for something else. Or not use it at all. So even at its worst (and beef production is the worst) meat production is really only negligibly more water intensive than agriculture.
So the argument then shifts to why we waste all that grain, when we could just eat it. Well, first of all, we are converting that grain into more than just meat. When we compare “per ton of product” between cattle and grain, for instance, we’re not talking about just food; and not every item that comes off a cow has the same value or importance. Per ton of fertilizer cows produce? Per ton of bone meal cows produce? Per ton of tallow cows produce? Per ton of leather cows produce? Are these things the same value or even equatable to the food that cows produce, including meat, fat, milk, cheese, whey, and yoghurt? Secondly, most of the grain we feed cows (and other farmed animals), people couldn’t eat. It’s called roughage, a waste product. Over 80% of what even factory farmed animals eat is actually recycled waste product from the production of grain humans are already eating. Whenever you see stats like “22% of [U.S. grown wheat] is used for animal feed and residuals,” that word residuals means agrowaste fed to livestock–so this is not “22% of human edible wheat product” that’s going to animals, but 22% of the wheat product sold, whether humans could eat it or not. In fact most stats you’ll see for tonnage of crops parceled by use don’t distinguish residuals from edible quantity, thus badly skewing what a naive reader might think such numbers mean. Animal farming is not taking grain away from people, but making the grain people eat more efficient, by converting its waste product into more food. And hundreds of other products besides food.
Now, in order to recycle that waste, we do have to supplement it with some quality product as well. In effect some human edible grain must be “burned” to convert grain production waste into food (and corn is worldwide the most popular supplement used), so animal farming does “consume” grains that humans could have eaten instead, but by doing so it creates more food, and many other products. In other words, we are burning a little bit of grain to run these waste recycling-plants we call animals–just as we have to burn resources to recycle plastic, metal, or paper. When you do all the math for industrial cattle farming, for example, feed conversion efficiency for non-roughage grain input is better than 4:1 (4 kg non-waste input for every 1 kg usable output), which is not bad considering what you get for it (which is again, a lot more than just food–it’s also all those other animal products that grease our economy, literally and figuratively). For industrial dairy farming this efficiency is actually 1:4, i.e. we get 4 kgs of usable product for every 1 kg of usable product we put in. Which makes industrial dairy farming one of the smartest things we ever thought of (so it’s too bad I can’t digest dairy, but even I benefit from this industry, as dairy products are in things even I and many vegetarians eat, like bread). The numbers come out a little different if you compare food energy input and output (for dairy it’s close to 1:1; yet for beef it’s 1:0.65, which is better than 2:1, either way at near parity), but that’s not a wholly apt comparison because energy is not all you get out of food (you also get a whole array of nutrients) and food isn’t all you get out of animals. On balance, we do not appear to be wasting very much food on livestock. It looks like any other efficient system of manufacturing, into which we pour a selection of resources and out of which we get hundreds of usable products of comparable value.
Any other argument you hear ends up like that: start pulling at the threads of its specious math and facts, and it unravels.
For example, take the claim that “factory farming (specifically for meat) is one of the greatest contributors to global warming.” That’s simply not true. It’s based on an FAO report that has led websites and wonks to say things like that the “animal agriculture sector is responsible for 18%, or nearly one-fifth, of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, greater than the share contributed by the transportation sector,” but that’s hopelessly misleading. A third of that figure is based not on the farming, but on the clearing of forests to expand ranches in developing countries, which is a one-time cost and not an actual ongoing effect of the ranch, and is not terminal (forest clearing goes on a decline as countries doing it improve economically and begin to balance their resources–they are just going through the phase we went through a hundred years ago, claiming for industry land that was effectively fallow, and gradually learning to balance that process with national preserves and biodiversity). Nor is this a significant factor in first world animal farming (no one burned down a forest to feed you Iowa beef).
Another one third of that figure consists of fertilizer production and use, most of which actually gets used in the agriculture industry (and would thus simply be replaced with some other emissions-producing fertilizer), and what gets used for animal husbandry (e.g. fertilizing pastures) would still be used if the same land were used for crops (in fact crops are more fertilizer intensive), so this is not in fact anything we’d get back if we stopped animal farming. And when you subtract that element, too, now you end up with just 6% of manmade emissions coming from actual animal farming that would go away if we stopped. But that’s including inefficient animal husbandry in third world countries. How much of total manmade emissions comes from actual modernized industrial animal farming? Less than 2%. And this is all based on that same FAO data. And BTW these numbers reflect impact, not quantity, e.g. that “less than 2%” figure is taking into account that methane is a hundred times worse than carbon dioxide. Hmm. Funny how “less than 2%” becomes “18%” with just a little accounting chicanery. So if you are worried about cow farts boiling the earth away, worry not. You are ruining the environment just as much when you shower as when you eat a hamburger. In fact, if we set an average shower’s greenhouse impact at about 2 units, a hamburger rates about 3…while the impact for a serving of winter tomatoes is 50. That’s right, vegetarians. Perspective is a bitch.
Our factory farming system can be improved greatly, like any industry can (e.g. the amount of water consumed by electricity generation and manufacturing is far more alarming than what we use to produce animal products). Thus like any industry we ought to aim at improving it. But it’s nonrational to say “we should just get rid of it,” and doubly nonrational to think you’re ever going to get rid of it, and triply nonrational to think that a meaningless protest behavior (not eating meat) is ever going to make one whit of difference to anything. Just eat a healthy, affordable diet, that balances the pleasures of life with reasonable concern for your personal health and bank account, as well as the welfare of others, animals and people. People especially. Cabbage and berry pickers have a much shittier life than many a cow, yet vegetarians don’t refuse to eat cabbage and tomatoes because the labor that produces them is a tick above slavery. Those men and women need those jobs to live, so we don’t want to cut off their livelihood with boycotts anyway, but neither should we be indifferent to their plight and the need to improve their wages and treatment, even if that means paying more for a head of cabbage. To me this seems a vastly more important issue than how well cows have it.
And Vegetarianism Is Not “Healthier”
I’ve just gone over a few examples. But I have yet to see any rational reason to be a vegetarian, other than pure aesthetics (“I just like it” or “it makes me feel good”) or medical necessity (“I have heart disease”), which are idiosyncratic (i.e. not true for most people). Even basing it on anecdotes and testimonials (“I felt so much better after I went vegan!”) is nonrational, because that’s just another alternative medicine mumbo placebo. Just sincerely convince yourself that eating meat will have the same effect, and you’ll be saying “I feel so much better now that I went back to eating meat!” It’s no different from “I felt so much better after I started wearing magnets on my feet!” Sure. But that’s all in your head. Get control of your perception of reality and you can turn any lifestyle change into a source of improved mood. Until you regress back to your baseline. This is not a sound basis for recommending other people placebo themselves into vegetarianism.
“But it’s healthier!” is also false. Because the data do not consistently establish this. Every diet has pros and cons, the net effect of which is zero, when any healthy diet is compared. Thus the same mathematical and factual unraveling occurs for any claimed benefit you pull at the threads of. Eating less meat is good for your heart, for example, but not as much as is claimed, and even what is claimed is not very impressive. One study is often cited as establishing 24% fewer deaths from ischemic heart disease (but, notably, no differences whatever for any other cause of death). In fact that study only established a 95% chance that the differential was somewhere between 6% and 38%…pay close attention: that means the data do not confirm a benefit any greater than only 6% fewer deaths (it could be greater, but we don’t know). A 6% edge is effectively irrelevant. Even a 24% edge is not that significant. It means for every 10 meat eaters who die of ischemic heart disease, about 8 vegetarians will likewise. Not a huge improvement. Worse, heart disease is a default: because we have cured or can prevent or treat all other diseases so well, yet people must necessarily eventually die of something, and that something is commonly heart disease (and cancer next after that). Thus heart disease remains a top killer not because anything is causing more of it, but because we are living longer and dodging every other bullet. In that light, vegetarianism isn’t giving us any real advantage. We’re just going to die anyway, it will simply be of something else. Like non-ischemic heart disease, which is more common. And vegetarianism confers no benefit against that. Lo and behold, that’s what the study found: when all causes are considered, vegetarians die exactly as often as nonvegetarians do. No net benefit.
That same study also found that the difference between vegetarians and occasional meat eaters is so minimal as to be insignificant. The latter had 20% fewer deaths from ischemic heart disease (with roughly the same interval)–in other words, vegetarianism confers maybe a 4% advantage over reasonable meat consumption, which is so slight a difference it dissolves beneath the study’s own margin of error. Notably, pescetarians and lactoovovegetarians did even better, at 34% reduction in mortality for ischemic heart disease–with the same huge margin of error, but nevertheless, apparently eating fish, eggs and dairy products confers more than twice the advantage over vegetarianism than vegetarianism confers over reasonable meat eating. That this won’t move vegetarians to take up fish, eggs, and dairy is precisely why it doesn’t move rational meat eaters to give up meat. And well it shouldn’t. The difference is just too trivial to care about. Even at a real 24% edge (which, again, even this study did not actually confirm), attending to such small risk factors across your life would lead to endlessly bizarre behavior, since even things as trivial as what city you live in can have as much of an effect, which is to say, a difference of about 1 or 2 years life expectancy, which just isn’t significant enough a gain to burden yourself with eighty years of pleasure denial for.
To give you a point of comparison, while vegetarianism might give you a benefit of about 1.2 times lower mortality on one single illness, and yet still makes no difference to when you die beyond at most one or two years, not smoking definitely does give you a benefit of 10 times lower mortality rate on numerous diseases, and for some diseases it’s 20 times or more. That’s a huge change in life expectancy, amounting to 14 years on average, almost a whole decade and a half. Moreover, there are many debilitating diseases that to a disturbingly high frequency disproportionately plague a smoker for decades of their life before they die, hugely adding to their financial costs and lost quality of life. Like emphysema: my mother quit smoking in her thirties and twenty years later still came down with permanent emphysema and will live with that for several decades. And if you’ve ever seen someone afflicted with that, it’s not fun. Plus smoking causes numerous other illnesses and health problems. But to take emphysema as an example, your odds of getting it do not increase 1.06, 1.2, or 1.4 times if you smoke, but 5 to 10 times if you smoke. Thus smoking is vastly more irrational than vegetarianism (so vegetarians who smoke: you’re the biggest fools on the planet). Vegetarianism is at least merely an inconvenience, provided you maintain a healthy diet (merely eating vegetarian does not constitute a healthy diet; in fact vegetarians have to be even more informed and careful about managing their diet precisely because they are avoiding a primary delivery vehicle for many of the vitamins and nutrients humans normally need).
Notably, early studies showing improved health and lifespan for vegetarians, when controlled for smoking (because vegetarians tend not to be smokers), showed no remaining advantage to being a vegetarian. In other words, eat a reasonable diet of meat, fish, eggs, dairy, vegetables, nuts, and fruit. And don’t fucking smoke.