Answers for carnivores

Into each vegan’s life, a little of this must, I guess, fall. Inevitably, people around a vegan insist that they cannot go vegan or seem oblivious to the ethical considerations of blithely eating animal flesh.

The first thing to understand is that humans evolved from primates who were mostly vegetarians. We are able to digest meat because we have evolved gut bacteria that do this work.[1] These gut bacteria, by the way, also produce “a little-studied chemical . . . after people eat red meat. It is quickly converted by the liver into yet another little-studied chemical called TMAO that gets into the blood and increases the risk of heart disease.” TMAO may be more dangerous than saturated fat or cholesterol.[2] But as a dietary requirement, there are an awful lot of vegans who are alive, healthy, and who prove that humans do not require animal products for good nutrition.

I generally do not argue from antiquity. Yes, I can point to those primates, but some believe that our brains really began to develop when we started eating meat.[3] And people can also argue based on the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic that it is “natural” for humans to eat meat.

And that may be so, but first, the earth’s carrying capacity for hunter-gatherers probably tops out at about 200 million people.[4] Second, meat is horribly destructive to the environment and a disastrous waste of resources, especially including water. On an increasingly resource-poor planet beset by climate change, we can feed a lot more people with plant-based food.[5]

Which is to say that our situation today is different even from that of humans in the Paleolithic. That seems self-evident, but this is what an argument from antiquity is all about: We’ve always done it, or we’ve done it for a long time, so we should continue to do it.[6] And so my response to those who claim that we should continue to eat meat on anything like this basis is that our situation has changed, drastically. We can no longer afford to do so.[7] And, as I noted above, we don’t have to.

That we can exercise a choice to eat meat is my preferred avenue of argument. The fact of that choice brings the question into the realm of ethics. The question here is, should we eat meat? From an environmental perspective, as I’ve just discussed, the answer here is clearly no. But an ethical perspective also brings in questions of moral autonomy and power relationships. The first of these, phrased as a question, is, should any non-human species be accorded the right to develop to their full potential and to determine their own path?[8] The second of these, again phrased as a question, is, whether our ability to exploit non-human species entitles us to do so.

I’ve been careful in how I phrase this, referring to non-human species, because the notion of speciesism, that is, the prejudice that assumes humans are superior to other species is problematic both for the assumption of superiority—I will return to this—and for the possibility of avoiding it. In truth, as I have argued, we cannot avoid some speciesism. Even the decision to eat plants is a decision to exploit those plants and the criteria for deciding to do so essentially boils down to, we have to eat something. Other arguments that vegans often present attempt to draw a line between sentient and non-sentient species, based, apparently on their ability to feel pain or to suffer. But trying to know what even another human feels is famously difficult. I know from my cat that I have a terrible time understanding her. I don’t really believe I can know whether another creature, even “lower” in cognitive development, actually suffers. So, unlike many vegans, I draw a line at self-defense (and defense of my cat), somewhere above insects, and I argue that for all our rhetorical acrobatics, we are inevitably speciesist, that we have to draw a line somewhere.[9]

But the notion of human superiority, that for example, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth,”[10] is often what lies behind the notion that humans are entitled to exploit animals. Dominion is a funny word: That a king has dominion over his subjects does not entitle him to eat them, and some, including traditionalist conservatives, interpret the Bible to suggest that humans have a responsibility of stewardship over the environment,[11] and it’s certainly possible to understand stewardship as applying to animals as well.

In a more secular vein, Louis Pojman, who opposes animal rights, points out that

Humans may protest that humans are on average far superior to animals, for we are rational. We can use deductive, abductive and inductive reasoning in ways that animals can’t. True enough. We do have that virtue, but the question is, why should that virtue count more than the virtues of various animals? The eagle values his visual acuity, and ability to soar through the air more than he does human rationality. The leopard values his fiery speed and ability to leap over bushes and branches in the hunt and scorns our need for weapons with which to kill game. We cannot match the monkey’s dexterity, swinging gymnastically from branch to branch, nor the squirrel’s tight-rope walking ability, nor the graceful play of the shark cutting a smooth knife-like path through the sea. We can’t digest grass or produce a quantity of milk that a cow gives; we can’t use ultrasonic waves like a bat to get around in the dark. The spider seems to enjoy spinning fine, complex webs which are beyond our power, and if genetic reproduction is the benchmark of evolutionary success, the cockroach has us beat hands down.

Stumbling, bumbling, clumsy, land-lubbers are we, whose main talent seems to be destroying the ecosystem, threatening animals, and self-servingly prizing ourselves as superior to all others — “homo sapiens” — “the wise ones” we label ourselves — no other creature approaches our arrogance.[12]

Pojman misses the point of ethics when he argues in effect that the human ability to do something entitles us to do it,[13] but he’s brilliant in dismissing the human claim to superiority. Fundamentally, the problem here is that any criteria we choose to declare ourselves superior are self-serving and therefore, to say the least, suspect.

And if we are not superior, then who are we to decide that we may do as we please simply because we can? We can’t even do this among ourselves, for to do so would infringe on the potential or the rights of others.[14] So the burden of proof shifts. How can we establish that we have any right whatsoever to take non-human lives or to infringe on non-human autonomy?

Here the line of self-defense or demonstrable necessity seems tenable. The claim that we may do so because we prefer to or because “meat tastes good” seems not.

  1. [1]Rob Dunn, “Human Ancestors Were Nearly All Vegetarians,” Scientific American, July 23, 2012,
  2. [2]Gina Kolata, “Culprit in Heart Disease Goes Beyond Meat’s Fat,” New York Times, April 7, 2013,
  3. [3]Update, February 9, 2015: This belief turns out to be incorrect: Humane Hominid [pseud.], “Why “Meat Made Us Smart” Is A Dumb Idea,” Discerning Brute, March 20, 2013,
  4. [4]Union of Concerned Scientists, “Population – Biodiversity Linkage,” August, 2000,
  5. [5]David Benfell, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization,” March 6, 2013,
  6. [6]Logical Fallacies, “Appeal to Antiquity / Tradition,” 2009,
  7. [7]David Benfell, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization,” March 6, 2013,
  8. [8]Martha C. Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2011).
  9. [9]David Benfell, “The inevitability of speciesism,” December 7, 2012,
  10. [10]Genesis 1:26, KJV.
  11. [11]Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, 7th ed. (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2001); Richard M. Weaver, Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of our Time (Louisiana State University, 1964; Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1995).
  12. [12]Louis Pojman, “Do Animal Rights Entail Moral Nihilism?” Public Affairs Quarterly 7, no. 2. (1993): 179-180.
  13. [13]Louis Pojman, “Do Animal Rights Entail Moral Nihilism?” Public Affairs Quarterly 7, no. 2. (1993): 165-185.
  14. [14]Martha C. Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2011).

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