The challenge of eating perfectly ethically

I am neither a vegan nor a vegetarian. But I think that vegans definitely have the higher moral ground when it comes to ethical behavior, followed closely by vegetarians since they include all animals in the circle of compassion. But for some reason, some people take aim at them, trying to find areas in which they are not ‘pure’ in their avoidance of animal suffering and using that to accuse them of hypocrisy.

Ethicist Peter Singer is often the target of such scrutiny. He is a strong supporter of the animal rights movement and has taken many other strong ethical stances such as arguing that just as much as we would be willing to give up something to benefit our own children, so should we be willing to do the same to benefit children elsewhere on the globe whom we do not even know. People sometimes accuse him of not being consistent because the logical conclusion of his argument would be for him to give pretty much all that he owns to the poor since there is always someone worse off. Although he does give up a lot more than most people, the fact that he does not wear rags and live on the streets is taken by some as a sign that he is not being true to his beliefs.

This is unfair. It is not that hard to find inconsistencies between broad ethical principles advocated by anyone and their actual behavior because modern life is complicated and involves many unavoidable compromises unless one goes completely off the grid and lives the life of a hermit. If we dig deep enough, we will find that all of us violate out stated ethical principles in some way.

For example philosopher Andrew Smith argues that vegetarianism is impossible because plants also ‘consume’ meat and thus even if we eat only plants, we are indirectly eating meat and are at least indirectly complicit in the suffering of sentient beings.

Plants acquire nutrients from the soil, which is composed, among other things, of decayed plant and animal remains. So even those who assume they subsist solely on a plant-based diet actually eat animal remains as well.

This is why it’s impossible to be a vegetarian.

For example, many vegetarians cite the sentience of animals as a reason to abstain from eating them. But there’s good reason to believe that plants are sentient, too. In other words, they’re acutely aware of and responsive to their surroundings, and they respond, in kind, to both pleasant and unpleasant experiences.

Smith is, as philosophers are wont to do, taking his argument to the logical conclusion. But his point is not that we should give up on being vegans or vegetarians since he himself is a vegan but that we should be aware of how complex is the web of life that we are part of.

This larger view may have influenced the couple Matthew and Terces Engelhart who owned some highly regarded vegan restaurants and had been vegetarians themselves for 40 years and vegans for over a dozen. They decided to start eating meat and explained their reasons in a blog post. They said it was not a frivolous decision but based on what they felt was a more comprehensive view of the ecosystem, but also mixed up in their rationale was some stuff about Jesus and it being part of god’s plan for the world. They received very harsh criticism from the vegan community, including the death threats that seem to be the inevitable part of any internet mob reaction, for what was seen as a betrayal of vegan values. Abandonment by one’s allies is often harder to take than the behavior of those who have always been hostile to one’s views.

I suspect that charges of hypocrisy aimed by non-vegetarians at vegans and vegetarians in general and people like Singer in particular is because, having gone much further than we have in trying to minimize the suffering of animals, they make us feel uncomfortable about our own lifestyle choices. But the choice should not be between absolute purity or total indifference to animal suffering. Surely we can concede that all of us lie on a continuum and that striving to minimize our complicity in the suffering of animals is a worthwhile goal even in the absence of achieving 100% success?

My own meager contribution to this effort has been to reduce my consumption of meat and to try and find alternatives to factory farm products. I recognize it is pretty low on the scale and I try to inch higher.


  1. janicot says

    I think I’m agreeing with the way I read your post.
    My wife and I have been vegetarians for 10-15 years now. We know that we are just 2 individuals of the more than 7-billion world population and we know that no contribution we make — including however many people we convince to join us — could be significant.
    That said. We feel better about ourselves living this lifestyle.
    These days we are staying with my father as his primary-care-givers and he has meat almost every meal. He isn’t capable these days of understanding what a vegetarian is. Emotionally I have more trouble discarding food than eating meat so I often eat what does not go onto his plate.
    I guess my point is that life has few black/white options — everyone makes their choices and accepts the consequences. It is pointless to judge people for absolute perceptions that mostly exist in your individual head anyway. Personally we feel better being less the part-of-the-problem even if we are too nihilistic(realistic?) to believe our position will turn out to matter to anyone.

  2. says

    I’m still a carnivore but I eat meat very sparingly, and I am extremely careful to never waste food. I feel that wasting food is a potentially more significant moral issue than the source of the food and how it was harvested.

    Let me be blunt: vegans often annoy me. I think the idea that food is a moral issue is stupid, whether you’re vegan or carnivore. So when I encounter the occasional vegan that is self-righteous or condescending, I am annoyed because I feel like if I engage them I’m going to have to wade through a lot of bad philosophy that’s just thrown up in self-justification. I see similar bad philosophy thrown up by carnivores, yadda yadda yadda and it’s mind-poppingly frustrating when someone decides to turn a pleasant meal into an opportunity to do some moral everest-summitting.

    I’m familiar with the accusation that carnivores who criticize vegans are doing it because they feel wounded by the implied critique. That’s one way of looking at it, I suppose but I think of it more as that I occasionally criticize vegans who have turned their eating disorder into a chance to feel smug, based on motivated reasoning. For one thing: I will never complain if someone puts vegetarian or vegan food in front of me -- I’ll eat it all. I feel it’s rude to place requirements on one’s host if one is a guest -- if I felt that I had to ask someone (well, for example) “please don’t feed me octopus” then I simply ought not to get myself in a situation where they may feed me anything at all. I adopted that approach from a friend who keeps kosher, and has similar issues. So I feel that food-conflict is generally pretty easy to avoid, which makes me unhappy with people who wish to impose their food-fad on me, whether their food-fad is halal, veganism, gluten-free, or whatever self-justifying nonsense people are full of this year.

  3. kestrel says

    I find myself agreeing with Marcus Ranum @#2. I’m like a coyote: I’ll eat pretty much anything as long as it’s not poisoned or on fire at the time. And glad to get it, too; I’ve been very hungry before. I am lucky enough to live on a farm and raise at least some of what I personally eat. I can of course not speak for others but our animals anyway live happy little lives. I’m not sure you can successfully raise them if you are out there torturing them.

    I think part of this is a first world problem. People will eat whatever they can get, if they are hungry enough. If you are so fortunate you can pick and choose what you eat, AWESOME! Good for you! I envy you. I have not always been so lucky. The only reason I’m still alive is because I’ve been willing to eat what is there instead of what I’d like to have. And this has included bugs. Etc.

  4. anat says

    The problem with all consequence-based moralities is how far downstream of our actions we look for consequences. Especially in situations like buying food in an industrialized economy. I know what ingredients go into my food (more or less), but I don’t know all that went into its production -- working conditions of the farm laborers, impact of the farming on the environment. And then there is the question of alternatives -- what the same resources could have been put to instead. Right now, I am mostly interested in environmental arguments, because with the still increasing human population we are headed towards some kind of crisis in this area (likely more than one). Exploring the biophysical option space for feeding the world without deforestation -- the authors find several scenarios that work, but clearly in those parts of the world where land is reasonably productive, the less use is made of animal products the less the need to rely on future increases in agricultural productivity to generate enough food for future population.

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    A Vegetarian Diet Might Not Be As Healthy As You Think

    The study, published in the scientific journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, found that over generations, a vegetarian diet can actually cause people to mutate (sadly, in a much less cool way than X-Men). Populations with a primarily vegetarian diet have a higher rate of a genetic mutation that allows them to convert plant nutrients into the fatty acids, like omega-6 and omega-3, which humans need for muscle growth and to keep our brains oiled.

    A different interpretation of the same study:
    Cornell study finds some people may be genetically programmed to be vegetarians

    But this new study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, shows that different people may need radically different ratios of the substances in their diet depending on their genes, and it supports the growing evidence against a one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition and for highly personalized advice.

  6. says

    And then there is the question of alternatives

    The only completely moral option* is to let humanity die out.

    That way, we are no longer damaging the planet or eating other living things. Reproducing is immoral because it guarantees future generations of humans that will eat living things, poop all over the place, play loud rock music, release C02, use iTunes etc. By choosing voluntary extinction humanity can instantly adopt the lowest-impact lifestyle that causes the least harm.

    Of course I think that’s a stupid idea. But when you start considering eating as a moral issue, you’re inevitably going to wind up with either motivated reasoning or absurd conclusions.

    (* I’m using moral language loosely, here. Personally, I remain unconvinced that morality is anything more than people’s opinions, so I guess you might say I am a moral nihilist or a moral pyrrhonian.)

  7. says

    I wrote:
    The only completely moral option* is to let humanity die out.

    By not eating, of course. No need to be violent about it. Just stop eating and die. It’s the right thing to do.

  8. Nick Gotts says

    I think the idea that food is a moral issue is stupid -- Marcus Ranum@2

    I think the idea that food is a moral issue is stupid, is stupid. Why shoud this particular aspect of life be exempt from moral considerations? You go on, in any case, to say:

    I will never complain if someone puts vegetarian or vegan food in front of me – I’ll eat it all. I feel it’s rude to place requirements on one’s host if one is a guest -- emphasis added

    Is rudeness not a moral issue? You also say:

    I occasionally criticize vegans who have turned their eating disorder into a chance to feel smug, based on motivated reasoning.

    This indicates a pretty unpleasant attitude both to vegans, and to people suffering from eating disorders. Grow up.

  9. Nick Gotts says

    I retract and apoplogise for the “Grow up” in #8. It was unfair to children.

  10. Jockaira says

    Cloned muscle tissue—good.
    Food assembly via chemosynthesis—good.
    Food assembly from algae, etc.—good.

    All these are absolutely necessary if humans continue irresponsible reproduction. Eating from other sources is simply insanity.

    Soylent Green doesn’t have to be people.

  11. flex says

    While I think cloned muscle tissue, with the textures we expect from meat, will occur, I’m somewhat surprised that all the focus I’ve read has been on this. We can clone muscle tissue right now, and it comes out with the consistency of a hot dog. So the researchers are trying to build scaffolding for the cells to grow on, introduce blood vessels, etc, to get the artificial meat to a consistency other than paste.

    While it’s wouldn’t be mush easier, because plant tissue is also pretty complex, why are they not looking at cloning plant products? (And maybe they are, but it doesn’t get reported. But I read the scientific literature and I’ve seen plenty of meat studies, but never a plant one. I may have missed it.) For one thing, many of the recipes we have for plant products involve reducing them to paste, so there is a step saved. But beyond that, think of the amount of land used for plant products, and the impact if we could, for example, extrude sheet plywood grown in the factory. Or cotton fibers without seeds, plants, or acres of land. Or paper products without hundreds of acres of dedicated woodlots. Or animal feed, at least until we find a way to make palatable artificial meat. So many of our the things we use are based on plant products, including, eventually, all petroleum-based items (plastics), that harnessing those cells may have as great, or even greater impact on our human footprint than artificial meat. My $0.02.

  12. anat says

    Can cloned muscle tissue as it can be made now be grown without the use of animal products? A major component in the growth of many standardly grown cell lines is serum, most commonly from fetal calves.

    Not sure what you mean by ‘cloning plant products’ -- many plants are clones, ie grow without cross fertilization from another individual. Do you mean something like apples without trees? Grain without stalks? Often the parts of the plants we don’t eat are necessary to produce the energy necessary for growing the edible parts -- converting solar energy into energy stored in organic compounds. We might be able to tweak the proportions but not get rid of it altogether (besides, we need the green parts of plants to recycle the CO2 waste we inevitably produce by living, so we do need an excess of inedible plant matter).

  13. says

    Nick Gotts@#8:
    Attempting to say someone is immature or childish is a poor substitute for having an argument. Actually, it’s no substitute at all. If someone should “grow up” their thoughts should be dismissed? Why? Attempting to say someone is being childish is trying to imply that they’re wrong, without having to actually refute them.

    Admittedly, that’s the same kind of well-poisoning I was doing when I said treating food as a moral issue is stupid (without offering arguments why I think it’s stupid) but I was doing that in order to avoid dragging out the usual unpacking of why morality is difficult to establish. I thought I waved a significant warning light in that direction with my reference to moral nihilism and pyrhhonian skepticism. Most importantly, I was clear that it was my opinion that arguing morality and food is stupid. Whereas your position that I need to grow up implies there is some kind of collectively accepted notion of what constitutes mature argument, which I have failed to meet. That’s sad, since it’s you that are the one who is failing to offer anything like a reasonable argument, and prefer to try labelling and demonizing what I clearly stated was an opinion.

    I clearly indicated in my comment #6 that I was using moral language loosely. The “using moral language” bit is a red flag that ought to have clued you in that I am not trying to defend a moral position. That’s because I am unconvinced that moral arguments are defensible at all -- but they are amusing to play with and I will occasionally use moral language in an attempt to highlight its absurdity (as I was doing at #6)

    Why shoud this particular aspect of life be exempt from moral considerations?

    I’m a moral nihilist. As I am unconvinced that morality is even something we can have coherent consideration about, of course I am unconvinced of the value of trying to apply vague and incoherent ideas of morality to how we eat. If you’re trying to convince me, you’re off to a very bad start.

    If you want to go and establish a moral system for us, defend it, and then apply it to eating, I’d be fascinated to watch, but it’d probably make this thread even worse than a thread about Israel featuring SteveOr. Especially if “grow up” is the only argument you care to bring to the table.

    Is rudeness not a moral issue?

    In my opinion, it’s merely a matter of opinion. I’d say that questions of what is or isn’t rude are more likely to be aesthetic than moral. But if you want to try to convince me that rudeness is a moral issue, perhaps our good host would start a thread for you to try that in, so you don’t junk this one up any further.

    This indicates a pretty unpleasant attitude both to vegans, and to people suffering from eating disorders.

    I already said it’s my opinion that veganism is stupid. So, gosh, yes, your observation that you find my opinion unpleasant is duly noted and filed under “small tragedy”

    As far as people with eating disorders; of course I feel bad for people who suffer from psychological problems -- especially neurochemical imbalances -- that make them obsessive/compulsive about food. But when the fetishizing of food is a matter of choice? Then it appears to me to be a question of that person’s aesthetics(*) and lifestyle choices. “Choosing to live like someone with an eating disorder” would have probably been a better way to phrase it. Consider my remark amended, if you will.

    (* They may convince themselves it’s a moral issue, but I don’t automatically agree with their reasoning)

  14. says

    Can cloned muscle tissue as it can be made now be grown without the use of animal products?

    Cloned muscle tissue is alive.

    If one were exploring whether eating living things is a moral issue, then it might be argued that creating new life-forms solely to kill and eat them might be a worse thing than eating existing life that, having reproduced itself on its own, is doomed to inevitably die. Let’s all cheer for the vultures!

  15. anat says

    Marcus, not eating something because it is or used to be alive makes no sense in my moral system. Raw vegetables are alive until one starts digesting them. But I care about the impact of my actions on beings that can evidently experience suffering, as I am interested in reducing the amount and degree of suffering I cause. If all that growing cloned muscle tissue does is move the suffering one degree away from the consumer, but still require raising cows in captivity and forcibly impregnating them at regular intervals and harvesting the calves I don’t see the improvement. OTOH if cloned muscle tissue can be grown entirely with compounds that do not require the suffering of animals in their production then there is a chance of progress.

  16. flex says

    @anat @13,

    I admit that calling it, “cloned plant probably” is probably ambiguous.

    What I mean is that we can currently grow meat in vats through cellular division, and the cells grown are muscle tissue. Which we, probably inappropriately, call meat. It tends to be more like muscle cell mush.

    Similarly, we should be able to grow plant tissue in vats, from cells of plants. And as a lot of the food preparation of plant tissues tend to lead to mush, like potatoes or mushy peas, I’m curious as to why there doesn’t seem to be any effort to do the same with, say, potatoes. Sure, we wouldn’t get the ability to roast, bake, saute, etc., potatoes as a whole, but why couldn’t we make vat grown mashed potatoes? Or rice pudding, or mushy peas, or taro, or creamed corn, or stewed tomatoes, etc…. There are a lot of vegetable products which we eat where the texture isn’t the most important thing.

    Then, even if the taste of the vat-grown plant cells isn’t to human liking, if it could be grown as animal feed. Cows generally eat a lot of grain and hay. If, instead of grain, there was high protein, vat-grown, food as well as a high-fiber vat-grown digestive aid, then a lot of the land dedicated to supporting animals can be used for other purposes. Much of the cornland could revert to prairie, without needed to change the dietary desires of a lot of humans, and without waiting for an artificial replacement. Yes, it’s a transitional stage, but it may be much more practical than trying to jump straight to artificial meat.

    Finally, to think beyond food for a moment. The necessary part of, say, a 2X4 isn’t the tree, it’s the heartwood made of organized cells within the tree. So, if you can generate the necessary conditions to replicate those cells, get them to organize in a flat plane, and create natural wood (even growth rings wouldn’t be too hard to manage), artificially, you eliminate a lot of the logging.

    The support structure for plants is not any less complex than for meat animals, but if the end result doesn’t need to meet the capricious requirements of human taste-buds the results may be acceptable sooner.

  17. anat says

    flex, where do the energy and atoms building your vat-grown-plant matter come from? There has to be photosynthesis or some equivalent thereof along the way. The most effective synthesizers of organic compounds are plants or algae. So I’m not sure what the benefit is?

  18. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus @14:

    I already said it’s my opinion that veganism is stupid.

    Super. It’s my opinion, as an omnivore, that people who say things like that are not to be taken seriously.

  19. flex says

    Anat, the benefit is the same for the artificial meat; reduction of byproducts and only getting the parts you want to use.

    Sure, photosynthesis would probably be used in some fashion, it’s a very efficient system. But currently, for example, when you make lumber, the bark of the tree is used for heating (or ground for mulch). The leaves are ground up, or burned, the smaller bits of wood are ground or burned, and there is a lot of sawdust generated which is also waste material. Burning the waste material releases carbon into the atmosphere. Composting it is better, but you are still changing the environment by cutting down the trees and composting the waste.

    Now imagine a factory which, using a cellular nutrient slurry and photosynthesis, continuously grows a 1 3/4 inch sheet of cells along one edge of the slurry, extrudes it from the machine, and then it is cut to the width you are making that day. No leaves, no bark, and the sawdust is reused in the slurry.

    Yes, you would need to add atoms and energy. But are you suggesting that there is a process of creating something which doesn’t use atoms and energy? Less overall atoms would be necessary than for a tree to grow, although it would not surprise me if more energy was required.

    The benefits are manifold, the two most important are greater efficiency in generating wood (from a material and processing perspective even if energy costs will be higher), and the ability to free up the forests which are currently scheduled for destruction.

    I’m not certain what your argument is.
    That we should continue to plant millions of acres of corn to feed livestock?
    That we should continue to cut down forests to meet the demand for lumber?

    I’m suggesting an alternative to doing the above without trying to make a cultural change.
    Cultural changes take generations to occur.
    I don’t think we need to wait for generations, and some people think we don’t have the time to wait for generations.

    I am not suggesting that technology will solve all our problems, but here is a technology which has potential to solve some problems and I believe it would be beneficial to explore it.

  20. moarscienceplz says

    If you take the position that it is unethical to kill animals for food, I think it places you in an untenable position. After you get all humans to stop eating meat, what’s next? Serving vegetable-protein steaks to all the lions in Africa? A hundred years ago, all the wolves in Yellowstone were killed off, and then the caribou began to destroy the environment. So the government is now engaged in restoring wolves to the park to terrorize and kill some of the caribou. So we have decided that some things (such as a balanced ecosystem) are worth more than long, carefree lives for caribou.
    Animals are not little people in fur coats. If we artifically keep them living until they are too arthritic to feed themselves, are we really doing them a favor? We can’t really ask them, but if I were a herd animal and I was given the choice to die of some of the many diseases of old age, or to be chased and devoured by a predator, or to get a bullet in the brain after I’d had a fair chance to reproduce, I’d take the bullet every time.
    I’m sure someone at this point wants to point out the horrible lives of factory farm animals, and I agree. But the solution, it seems to me, is to find a better way to take care of our food animals, NOT to get rid of them altogether.

  21. Holms says

    For example philosopher Andrew Smith argues that vegetarianism is impossible because plants also ‘consume’ meat and thus even if we eat only plants, we are indirectly eating meat and are at least indirectly complicit in the suffering of sentient beings.
    Smith is, as philosophers are wont to do, taking his argument to the logical conclusion.

    I’m not seeing how this can be taken as a logical conclusion of thinking about vegetarianism, given that the term is commonly understood to mean that meat is not directly consumed; an animal being consumed indirectly, at some point several degrees removed from the vegetarian person does not contradict their being a vegetarian. The idea you quote seems more like an excercise in being nitpicky.

  22. brucegee1962 says

    I think it’s perfectly possible to have a consistent, philosophical vegetarian or vegan moral system. It just can’t be a RIGID system.

    Here’s the moral principle that I try to live by: “It is unethical to cause suffering to another creature without a good reason.” So, with each decision, I just ask two questions: Does it cause suffering? And if so, does it make my life so much better that it justifies that suffering?

    Should I eat meat? No, because “It tastes yummy” isn’t really a sufficient reason to justify the suffering (factory farms, etc.) that it causes.

    What about if I was starving on a desert island? In that case, sure — if my life was at stake. For that matter, if I hadn’t promised my SO, I’d probably eat it when it was offered to me by a host — social reasons are still reasons.

    Doesn’t living in a house and driving a car cause suffering to the ecosystem? Yeah, but giving up meat is pretty easy. Living in a way that doesn’t harm any living being is really hard, probably impossible.

    What about meat grown in vats? No problem. No nervous system=no suffering. Ditto with plants — just because they react to their environment doesn’t mean I can really imagine them feeling pain or suffering.

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