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With Enemies Like These…

July 22nd, 2008 · 17 Comments

Normally I steer clear of vegevangelism, but surely it says something about the ethics of how we feed ourselves today that when someone actually does take it upon himself to defend modern factory farming, the result looks like this. Perhaps “defend” is putting it strongly: Wesley J. Smith’s strategy isn’t to offer any kind of affirmative justifications, but rather to build an organic, non-GMO straw man, woven from all the batshit craziest notions ever spouted by members of PETA.

Smith’s case is based on the earthshattering observation that animals are killed in the process of raising and harvesting crops, too.  One obvious response is that the killing pigs and cows seems morally more problematic than killing insects and rodents.  And indeed, Smith sees this response, but doesn’t actually have anything substantive to say in reply. He just points out that Ingrid Newkirk once said something nuts about how “a rat, is a fish, is a dog, is a boy.”

The other obvious response is that livestock also eat crops, that of course we cannot live without causing any animal deaths, and that the point is to avoid surplus suffering or unnecessary suffering. Here, too, Smith sees the obvious response, he just doesn’t want to deal with it, so he avers that this is not the “real issue” because “The argument made by animal-rights activists is that meat is murder, while veganism is supposedly cruelty-free.” Which is to say, Smith is too terrified of serious ethical questions to engage with anything weightier than a slogan.

We get one very feeble attempt to engage the utilitarian argument, by way of a passing reference to a paper arguing that more animals are killed on land used for crop cultivation than on grazing land. There are a number of rather glaring problems with this paper. For one, the underlying per-hectare death toll used to calculate the net difference in animals killed appears to be, in essence, a guess. Since that underlying number gets multiplied by a few hundred million over the course of the argument, it would be something of an epic understatement to say that the conclusion is apt to be tainted by any initial imprecision. The paper  operates on the utterly implausible Newkirk premise that a mouse and a lamb and a cow are all to be treated he same way. It also focuses on death rather than suffering, which is an important distinction for anyone who’s fundamentally concerned with cruelty: It is not of particular concern to me if field mice are being instantly killed in threshers.

But all these concerns are, believe it or not, secondary.  Smith himself actually brings up the most fatal problem with this argument, and either fails to notice or pretends not to. Earlier in the article, Smith quotes an ethicist as follows:

It takes 3 ¼ acres to feed an omnivore for a year; 20 vegans can be fed from that same space. Therefore, to the extent that there is harm caused to sentient beings by the production of plants, that harm is only multiplied by the omnivore.

I have no idea whether the 20-to-1 figure is right, but I’m pretty sure it’s on the right order of magnitude, and Smith never contests the idea. Which you’d think would be pretty significant, given that the methodology employed by the paper Smith cites depends on holding constant the amount of agricultural land in the United States and projecting the result under different mixes of land use. In other words, the calculation just ignores the fact that—as Smith has told us only moments earlier—an omnivorous diet requires vastly more land. This is like claiming a set of encyclopedias will take up less shelf space than a dictionary, because after all, each volume is thinner. At this point, our options are limited: We can assume Smith is so stupefyingly dim that, though he is apparently writing a book on this topic, he has not noticed this incredibly obvious problem with his argument. Alternatively, we can assume that Smith assumes his readers are stupefyingly dim, and has no qualms about making a transparently invalid argument if it might help him needle the hippies.

For all that, the chief fault of this piece is not dishonesty, or even stupidity; it is cowardice. At every opportunity, Smith flees from difficult questions or serious debate, preferring to instead bat around the nuttiest views of the most extreme animal rights activists. In other words, like any bully, he’s full of bravado when picking on the weakest targets. So just this once, I’ll make an exception to my general rule and actually advocate meat cultivation: Mr. Smith, grow a pair.

Tags: Moral Philosophy



17 responses so far ↓

  • 1 asg // Jul 22, 2008 at 11:04 am

    One interesting paper I read last year: Tyler Cowen’s Policing Nature”.

  • 2 Adam // Jul 22, 2008 at 11:06 am

    As a meat-eater myself (which is the necessary bit of throat-clearing with which one begins any conversation about the ethics of dietary choices), one thing has long been clear to me: “pro-meat” argumentation tends to be pretty dreadful. Generally, it’s the equivalent of sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears. For the most part, it’s simply not possible to get people to engage seriously with the ethical implications of meat-eating. I think one of the reasons we omnivores light into vegetarians with such unseemly gusto is that we realize, deep down, that we’re on shakier ground than we’d care to admit. (Contrary to stereotype, most veggies I know are not at all self-righteous, and certainly no more so as a group than self-described “carnivores.”)

    My own resolution to the tensions brought on by the issue is basically just to cop to hypocrisy. I’m not opposed to animal death but I do see a strong case for minimizing animal suffering, and it’s hard to square that ethical stance with my current consumption choices. When you layer over the environmental considerations, the picture is even worse.

    So, I try to do better, and in the meantime I also try not to tell myself pretty lies about how awesome our food productions system is.

  • 3 southpaw // Jul 22, 2008 at 12:10 pm

    I think Adam is right.

    One question I have when these debates get brought up: They all seem to proceed from the idea that any land used to, say, graze cattle could also be used to grow carrots or lettuce or something, and thus you get the 20-1 type numbers. I’m no expert on this stuff, but that seems like an overreach to me. The land conditions required to set up a productive farm are (as I understand them) much more restrictive than what you’d need for pastureland. So it seems like a better approach would be to focus on how much usable farmland is taken up by inefficient meat-raising rather than to argue against meat-raising anywhere and everywhere. But, again, I’m no expert and I’m a bit of a hypocrite.

  • 4 Jim Henley // Jul 22, 2008 at 1:45 pm

    I’ve read enough of Smith to conclude that he’s sincerely stupid, not cunningly dishonest. He makes a fairly good lower-bound for Singerian standards of utilitarianism: “we should treat sentient animals as well as we treat Smith,” would be a well-formed argument.

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // Jul 22, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    Hell, I really should be a vegan by my own lights, so I’ll join you in the hypocrite’s corner. For the moment, I try to stick with humanely raised dairy, though obviously I’ve no control over that when eating out.

    So I’m certainly sympathetic to the idea that we shouldn’t make it a binary question. Lots of people aren’t prepared to give up dairy or meat entirely. Fine. But lots of them are probably willing to act on the principle that eating less meat is better than more, and eating it from humanely raised sources is better than not.

    That said, there are a handful of advantages I can see to going whole hog. First, making a clean break contributes to a culture where it’s clear that significant numbers of people eschew meat as an ethical matter, rather than simply not indulging often as a matter of taste. And that probably makes it more likely that people will think of meat-eating, not as a default, but as an ethical decision they might want to give some thought to. It also creates pressure on commercial caterers, restaurants, etc. to have a vegetarian option if they’re confident that some significant number of people just *will not* eat the meat dish if that’s the only thing available. And it avoids the problem of Aunt Judy wondering whether you just hate her meatloaf–since after all you eat meat *sometimes*.

  • 6 Peter Orvetti // Jul 22, 2008 at 7:48 pm

    If I had the courage of my convictions, I would be a vegetarian by now. No judging of meat-eaters implied; it’s just that my own values have evolved toward a vegetarian perspective. But I’m too weak to give up eating tasty animals, and I feel like a schmuck about it. I quit drinking a decade ago, and you’d think that actual addiction would have been tougher than just a taste in cuisine…

  • 7 Jadagul // Jul 23, 2008 at 3:23 am

    To be fair, my meat-eating is entirely unhypocritical; I just place basically no moral value on animals or their welfare whatsoever. (technically, it’s probably more accurate to say that I place infinitesimal value on their welfare; less suffering is better than more ceteris paribus, but any amount of human welfare outweighs any amount of animal disutility). I sort of get the same feeling talking to vegetarians that I do talking to some egalitarians: “I understand that you think (animal welfare/the Gini coefficient) has moral salience, but I’m not really surewhy.”

    However, I used to be much more of an ass about this. Mainly when I was a high school debater; everyone involved thought we were incredibly smart and had all the answers. Which means that, unlike the average vegetarian, the average high-school-debater vegetarian thinks that his position is clearly obvious, and if you just understood what he’s about to tell you, you’d obviously convert to whatever his position was. (Of course, that could be true among high-school debaters; notoriously, one summer at debate camp one of my friends managed to convert about six out of fifteen people to vegetarianism in the course of a hour-long argument). But I became rather aggressive in response: “yes, I know I’m eating dead animals, your pointing that out won’t make me stop, leave me alone.” It took me a bit to adjust to the fact that not everyone was as preachy as they.

  • 8 southpaw // Jul 23, 2008 at 3:48 am

    I tend to think consequentialism is a false approach to ethics. But even granting that this debate should be simply about maximizing human utility, I don’t think there’s much of a meat-defending argument there. As Julian notes, we could grow a lot more food for a lot more humans if we used the land for other forms of agriculture. Far fewer humans would starve, presumably, if we did this. So it’s hard to see how an argument from human utility gets you to the current status quo.

  • 9 Josh M // Jul 23, 2008 at 8:43 am

    I’m always surprised by the fact that most people who eat meat seem to have some sort of suppressed guilt about it. I think this is partly because in the argument between omnivorism and vegetarianism – vegetarianism is always going to be a morally better choice than omnivorism even if you think (as I do) that it’s not morally obligatory. Eating meat doesn’t do any extra good for society over eating vegetables, whereas vegetarianism does in fact reduce animal suffering. That said, I’ve thought a lot about vegetarianism, and still come to the conclusion that eating meat is ok and not something to feel especially guilty about.

    To me my reasons for thinking eating meat is morally acceptable require an assumption that I think most meat-eaters would disagree with, but which I think is necessary to omnivorism being ethical: animals don’t feel pain in a morally relevant way. While it’s certainly true that animals, when treated poorly, register a sensation that is the same as pain in humans, I don’t think animals have the requisite awareness to lend a moral prohibition on imposing that sensation. The hypothetical I always imagine involves computers – clearly computers don’t feel pain in a morally relevant way, and this would be true even if they possessed a program that registered “pain” when they were treated poorly or otherwise deteriorated (e.g. when subjected to a virus or when their hard drive wore out). One could imagine increasingly elaborate “pain” mechanisms in computers which might register pain in increasingly sophisticated and complex ways, and which might manifest that pain by emitting the same signals with which animals and humans respond to pain. But even then, I think merely adding complexity doesn’t make the computer’s pain morally relevant. I think the point at which it is morally relevant is when it achieves a type of self-awareness that I believe humans possess and animals do not (this is also a controversial assumption that I think most meat-eaters wouldn’t agree with). That said, I can’t really enunciate why I think that what humans have counts as awareness and what pigs possess does not, but I have the intuition that the ability of humans to think in abstractions, to recognize themselves in the mirror, and to make long-term plans are differences in kind rather than degree. Obviously this justifications runs into difficult cases (like babies, coma patients and the mentally deficient), but my basic belief about those is that protecting them involves a penumbral extension of the concept of humanity that comes with the primary rights that go along with humans’ self-awareness. One thing worth pointing out here is that while there’s a lot of difficult cases as to whether animals have enough awareness to make mistreating them morally condemnable (e.g. chickens, pigs, cows etc.), I think some cases are pretty easy (oysters don’t feel pain; fish aren’t particularly mentally developed), and I’m kind of surprised that more people aren’t pescatarians.

    In terms of the sustainability argument for vegetarianism, I’ve never found it particularly compelling, since, to my mind, it applies equally to any other consumer good. I generally see the problem of starvation and malnutrition as demand-side rather than supply-side – there’s plenty of ability to extend food production if the economic demand existed (which it doesn’t due to poverty), so merely failing to eat meat would lower the price in the short-term but in the long-term merely lead to decreased cultivation.

  • 10 MDM // Jul 23, 2008 at 8:44 am

    Julian said:
    So I’m certainly sympathetic to the idea that we shouldn’t make it a binary question. Lots of people aren’t prepared to give up dairy or meat entirely. Fine. But lots of them are probably willing to act on the principle that eating less meat is better than more, and eating it from humanely raised sources is better than not.

    I was vegetarian for about 12 years and vegan for 3 on ethical and environmental grounds, so I get it and I was certainly willing to “go whole hog.” But in the end it was a nutritional disaster for me. I’ve gone back to poultry and fish and I’ve never felt better. I think ethicists pay too little attention to the nutritional angle on this debate–it is often assumed that humans simply have a taste for meat (like we have a taste for chocolate), but that a veg/vegan diet is nutritionally equivalent or even superior to an omnivorous one. I’ve come to believe this is false.(Though a well designed, whole foods veg diet is probably a lot better that the crap most people eat!)
    So, what to do? Even if you don’t think going veg is morally required (as I don’t), buy eco & humanely raised meat. this too creates a culture where animal welfare and enviro concerns are seen as important and economically supports a network of farms and businesses that are a positive alternative to the nightmare that is factory farming. Also, if you can skip the pork and beef entirely, you can still reduce your impact a good deal.

  • 11 MDM // Jul 23, 2008 at 8:53 am

    Oh, and that Smith article sucks.

  • 12 MDM // Jul 23, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    On the environmental impact of some different diets:

  • 13 Elaine Vigneault // Jul 27, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    Smith just flat out lied when he claimed “The animal-rights forces hold a weak intellectual hand.” Thank you for responding with such eloquent intelligence.

  • 14 Damon // Jul 29, 2008 at 12:06 am

    Aptly, I’m enjoying a tasty bit of beef as I type this.

    I have to agree that the anti-vegatarian/vegan angle is always much easier to deploy than a pro-carnivore stance. Years ago, I would debate this subject endlessly and actually employed some of the same unfortunate arguments (before I had really thought the issue through). These days, I think of meat (and eggs) as a luxury good that I do not particularly require but which I enjoy, and in so doing I attempt to take care when making choices about where this good comes from. Just as I wouldn’t want a good that causes undue suffering to a worker, I try to eschew meat products that cause undue suffering to animals (to the extent this is possible considering that the animal itself will of course die).

    Of course, with advancements in Vat-Grown Meat(tm) it’s probably only a matter of time before a lot of our low-grade meat consumption becomes perfectly guilt free. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_vitro_meat

    Ah, for the delicious, succulent days of cultured cheese steaks.

  • 15 Julian Elson // Jul 31, 2008 at 2:01 am

    I think of the National Review, as an institution, as being committed to depravity. Of course, I’m an American-style liberal, so I disagree with many other political views (including, to various degrees, conservatism, libertarianism, socialism, etc), and I often disagree on moral terms. However, while I disagree with much of the content of, say, the Weekly Standard or Commentary (or, to a lesser extent, even Reason), I don’t think of them as being committed to moral depravity as magazines, whereas whenever I read the National Review, it strikes me that they simply seem to be the intellectual (sorta) vanguard of the Forces of Darkness. If I believed that Satan himself (or one of his agents) walked the Earth in disguise, and that he had set up various fronts to corrupt humanity, I wouldn’t think that the National Review was one of them — because it’s too obvious, and I’d expect him to show more subtlety.

    Okay, that bit of unhinged weirdness out of the way… I think I’ll just say, for those who think that they morally ought to go veg, but can’t, well, if you’ve already tried it and it didn’t work out for you, then fair enough, but if you haven’t, give it a try: don’t commit yourself to being veg*an forever from some date forward — just say you’ll try it for a week, see whether it works out for you, and if it does, turn it into two weeks, then three weeks, etc. It might be less difficult than you anticipate. I, for one, was surprised by how easy I found it. Anticipating making a lifelong commitment to nevar evar eating meat again may be a lot scarier than just not eating it. Your mileage may vary, of course.

    BTW, in my view, think that the best approach to defending meat-eating or attacking veg*anism is personal stigmatization and mockery of vegetarians. Ceding that this is a topic to be discussed rationally is the first step toward defeat — better to turn being veg*an into something unquestionably uncool, like being a Star Trek fan, Disco enthusiast, or devoutly religious. This doesn’t work as well over the internet as it does in person. In person, though, I think establishing that vegs are dorky, pale, loser perma-virgins could be an effective approach, particularly when dealing with the young and insecure.

  • 16 Julian Sanchez // Jul 31, 2008 at 9:29 am

    I’d think in person that one would crash into the shoals of reality pretty quickly. They might do marginally better with that whole “anti-cool cool” schtick conservatives sometimes try to play, casting veg as some sort of silly fad.

  • 17 Tracy // Aug 24, 2008 at 12:39 pm

    Love your post!