Thoughts about Veganism

There are several people who’s podcasts I admire and listen to regularly ( I even bung them a few quid via Patreon every now and then and so should you)

One of them is Stephen Knight, the Godless Spellchecker. On his latest podcast he “talks to Dr. Melanie Joy about ‘Carnism’. We cover the environmental and psychological impact of animal slaughter, the vegan movement, synthetic meat, myths about nutrition and much, much more!”  it was fascinating and I urge you to listen to it. It raised lots of thoughts and questions in my mind, and one big doubt. So here we go.

When you look at the definition at the top of the page it’s hard to see why anyone could be anything other than vegan. After all who is in favour of exploitation and cruelty? And yet most of us stubbornly remain meat eaters.

Melanie Joy thinks it is because of a whole ideological belief system which she calls “carnism”. I don’t really buy that meat-eating is an ideology but she makes some very valid points about how so many of us continue to eat meat and wear leather while claiming to be caring, compassionate and even animal lovers.

Along the way Melanie & Stephen effectively deal with some of the myths and stories us carnivores tell ourselves. Among them are what Melanie called the three “N”s IE. It is Nutritious, Natural, and Necessary to include meat in a balanced diet

[Edit 02/10/2017] On re-reading I think I mis-remembered and mis-represented the three N’s. They weren’t Nutritious, Natural and Necessary but Normal, Natural, and Necessary. I have re-written the next three paragraphs 

Normal: I think this is a weak part of Melanie’s argument she seems to think that people only treat meat-eating as normal because they are insulated from the brutal realities of what she calls an “atrocity” by the hidden ideology of carnism. In our society the brutal realities of the slaughterhouse are hidden away but this is a relatively new development and there are many societies where this isn’t so yet people still eat meat. On the other hand there are also many societies where vegetarianism is “normal”. My argument would be much simpler. Anything that 90% + of people do is, by definition, normal but, as with naturalness below. There are many “normal”s, and normal doesn’t equal good

Natural: I though they were less convincing here. All the evidence suggests that humans have always been opportunist feeders and have happily tucked into meat when it was available. I think that makes meat eating “natural”. I think they did hit this particular nail on the head later though, when they noted that natural isn’t necessarily good. Civilisation consists in no small part in resisting the urge to do what is “natural”

Necessary: This hinges on whether meat is required for a healthy, nutritious diet. It is perfectly possible to have a healthy fully nutritious vegetarian diet. Veganism requires a bit more care but can still be perfectly nutritious. The existence of many thousands of happy, healthy vegans demonstrates this.

The argument that meat-eating is bad for the environment is also pretty convincing. In pure energy, terms getting your calories from vegetables is much much more efficient than passing those vegetables through other animals first. It’s not quite as simple as that but the environmental case for at the very least reducing our meat consumption is pretty sound.

So having disposed of myths that veganism is unhealthy and shown that at least reducing our meat consumption is good for the environment we turn to the ethical issues.

I don’t think anyone can claim realistically that our methods of animal farming and slaughter are anything to be proud of. I think they could, and should, be dramatically improved but, in this discussion, that isn’t really the question is it. The question is does switching to veganism reduce or eliminate the suffering of farm animals?

The argument that “If we all became vegans overnight all those animals would be slaughtered immediately” was quickly dismissed in the podcast as a ridiculous hypothetical but I think that misses the point. whether it is overnight, in ten years, or in a hundred years, the endpoint is the same. and that endpoint is not farm animals that don’t suffer, it is the non-existence of farm animals. This is my big problem – the idea that veganism is a good thing for the animals as well as for the humans.

Farm animals are not pets, they are there to make money. If there is no money to be made they won’t be there. You could argue that their non-existence is in some ethical way “better” that their continued existence and continued suffering. I think that is a reasonable argument, I’m not sure I would support it but it is supportable.

During the podcast Melanie occasionally used our changing attitude to slavery as an analogy for our, hopefully, changing attitude to animal exploitation and suffering. Now calm down please don’t do the whole “how dare you compare X with Y” melt-down. She was using a perfectly reasonable analogy about changing attitudes. She wasn’t “comparing” farming to slavery – and neither am I. I am, however, going to extend the analogy though so, again, please don’t go into melt-down – it’s an analogy.

The elimination of slavery was unequivocally a good thing both for the slaves and the slave owners, but would it still have been a good thing if it had meant the genocide of the slaves themselves? In the end the ex-slave owners would be better people there would be less suffering in the world.

I suppose what my question boils down to is

The elimination of “exploitation and cruelty to animals” may well be good for humans but can it be considered good for the animals if it leads to their non-existence.

Comments welcomed – especially from Stephen and/or Melanie



The Godless Spellchecker podcast: EP#101 – DR. MELANIE JOY – CARNISM

Melanie Joys book: “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, And Wear Cows”

Beyond Carnism:

The Vegan Society:

[Edit / second thoughts about Veganism 03/10/2017]

Thanks to every who has commented. You have all made good points and I think they have helped me sharpen my thinking on this issue. I will try to summarise my thoughts now.

  • Veganism is a rational, practical, safe, and healthy way of living that is a reasonable response to our “industrial” treatment of animals which entails much unnecessary suffering
  • There are significant health & environmental benefits to a significant reduction in meat-eating.

However . . . .

  • It would be possible, though expensive, to eliminate most of the animal suffering involved in livestock farming. The lives of farm animals could be made “better” than the lives of most wild animals in the “natural world”.
  • I think my initial thought that Veganism is really for the benefit of humans is correct. Veganism does aim to reduce or eliminate the total amount of animal suffering, but only by reducing or eliminating the total number of animals.
  • While many vegans/vegetarians are well aware that the aim of their actions is the elimination of farm animals I still have a feeling that many others think that their action will improve the living conditions of farm animals – which it wont. I don’t think they are consciously aware that they are signing up to the extinction of sheep, cows, pigs, hens, horses etc. See this from the Vegan Society’s web site
  • I think the vegan ideology has a blind-spot when it comes the realities of life for wild animals and only really see the suffering caused by humans. They seem to have a rather romantic view of “the natural world” and think that the suffering of wild animals is somehow less painful than that of farm animals. See this from the Vegan Society’s web site

I think whether you consider the aims of veganism/vegetarianism to be morally right or wrong hinges on how you would answer this philosophical question

  • Is non-existence preferable to suffering?
    • To which the obvious answer is
  • That depends on how bad the suffering is

This question actually crops up more than you would expect. Obviously, in questions of euthanasia, suicide, and assisted dying but also when you have to decide if it is time to put-down your old dog or cat and even in the justification for certain types of abortion.

So, no definitive answers but I’ve learned a lot about the question.

Thanks for all your comments – keep them coming if you want to.

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9 Responses to Thoughts about Veganism

  1. dantheposter says:

    Very interesting points (I hadn’t actually considered that an end to the meat industry would lead to the death of animals). Although i do feel like you brushed over the nutrition aspect as afaik it’s very difficult to get vitamin b12 amongt other things from a vegan diet. It is however probably perfectly viable if not totally optimal. However my main point refers to the ending of suffering as i feel this is the crux of the issue. There are great examples of non-suffering, non-vegan farming. Eg Game hunters who target animals in areas of abundance where they aim to have a positive effect on the local ecology and free range chicken raised for eggs. I think the discussion requires more nuance than ‘black and white’ terms such as veganism. We should have more visibility with how are food is sourced and prepared and make choices that agree with our principles. Most people would not eat meat if they could visualise the reality.

    Apologies for the lack of cohesion in my prose, writing on my phone & sleepy!

    • Dave Watts says:

      Hi Dan, thanks for commenting.
      There is, as you say, huge variability in the degree of suffering of farm, and game, animals. Free range egg hens basically have a great life (though they will still be killed when they stop producing eggs) but battery food chickens live a short miserable existence. My point about veganism is that it doesn’t do anything to reduce the suffering of farm animals, it just reduces the numbers of farm animals that suffer. There are good reasons for being vegan or vegetarian, but reducing animal suffering isn’t one of them – because it doesn’t.
      Your point about visibility is a very good one. I think (hope) people would demand better treatment for animals if they were better informed.
      I think we could continue to eat meat and almost completely eliminate animal suffering. It would make meat much more expensive, but that might be a good thing.

      • Martin says:

        ‘Free range eggs basically have a great life’ – this may be true for a small number of hens who live in nice backyard pens, but for the majority of hens in commercial free-range facilities this simply isn’t the case. A Google search will return plenty of exposés and even just on Google Images this can easily be disproven. I would argue that free-range hens live only a marginally better life than battery hens, suffering from many of the same bodily deformities and close-quartered living.

        ‘Veganism doesn’t reduce animal suffering’ – surely fewer animals existing and suffering in their existence can be said to be a reduction in the overall amount of suffering, no? Furthermore, a rise in veganism has (arguably) driven an improvement in the living standards of farm animals, as the producers respond to changing attitudes and higher awareness of farm animal issues. Tenuous point I concede, but nonetheless logically follows that as more people consume plant-based alternatives, companies will respond to try and win them back.

        ‘I think we could continue to eat meat and almost completely eliminate animal suffering’ – the only way I can see this coming to fruition is if/when lab-grown meat becomes commercially available and affordable. The reality is that you will never know if your meat is completely ‘suffering-free’, with suffering potentially occurring at any stage of production (deformed body, separation from mother, travel to slaughterhouse, slaughterhouse itself etc). Additionally, meat being much more expensive would (as in the past) make it only available to the rich. After a lifetime of cheap meat, this could cause quite a bit of social unrest.

  2. Nicola says:

    My immediate thought is can non-existent animals suffer?

    Also, are there truly only two options? – either certain animals are farmed for food or their species goes extinct.

    If you view extinction as a form of suffering then the choice above seems obvious but the options are not necessarily so black and white. Perhaps some wild sheep and cows could live in the same way as mountain goats and deer. Does the addition of that option change anything?

    If a small area of land was set aside as a farm animal nature reserve to preserve the species would that change your view in any way?

    • Dave Watts says:

      Thanks for commenting Nicola,
      I think the survival in the wild of a few breeds of sheet or cows is something of a red-herring ( can a mammal be a herring ???) for two reasons.
      1. the vast majority would definitely, as you say, go extinct
      2. those that did manage to survive would not escape suffering. The lives of wild animals are generally short, brutal, full of suffering and end in a horrible death. So the animals would not be spared suffering, but the humans would be spared being responsible for it.

  3. Martin says:

    Animals that are currently used in farming have been selectively bred and engineered so significantly (and for such a long time) so as to be completely different from their original wild counterparts. They have no place within the ‘natural order’. Their only method of survival is to exist as food/food-producing objects. As far as I’m concerned, the extinction of such a species would certainly not be a disaster for either humans or for the animals. If there was some method of the animals existing in their previous form then I would be in favour of this, but this is highly unlikely, and therefore I’d argue that extinction would be the preferable option.

    • Dave Watts says:

      You are right about farm animals being unnatural (though it is a slippery concept) but eliminating them would only eliminate human-caused animal suffering.
      Wild animals generally do not live a good life. Animals in the “natural order” live lives that are brutal, short, full of suffering, and almost always end in a horrible painful death.
      Veganism would do nothing about that.
      My point is that veganism is primarily about humans not animals. – that isn’t necessarily a criticism

      • Martin says:

        I completely agree with you, but it seems like a bit of whataboutery. Animals suffering in the wild is mostly out of our hands, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reduce the suffering that we can influence.

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