Responses to My Open Letter to My Fellow UUs

Norm Phelps

The responses to my Open Letter to My Fellow UUs have been about equally divided between supportive and critical. Excerpts from negative responses (stripped of any identifying information) are in italics, followed by my response.

We are part of the food chain. Life consumes life to survive. . . . Should wolves and hawks be judged as immoral for eating rabbits? This argument has so many flaws that I hardly know where to begin. First, it confounds “life” with “sentient life.” Human beings must consume insentient plant life to survive, but we do not have to consume animal life to survive and thrive.

Second, moral hierarchies always look moral from the top and immoral from the bottom. And authentic morality must give heavy weight to the view from the bottom. When someone boasts that “we are part of the food chain,” they are really saying, “We are at the top of the food chain.” Suppose that Earth were invaded by aliens from some distant planet who were as superior to us in technology and power as we are to cows, pigs, and chickens. And further suppose that they enjoyed eating our flesh as much as we enjoy eating hamburgers, bacon and fried chicken. Would anyone (other than the aliens) invoke the food chain to defend our being enslaved and slaughtered for the gustatory pleasure of the invaders? The food chain argument is simply the claim that “might makes right.” wearing a disguise.

Third, the argument assumes that the behavior of other animals should establish the standards for human behavior. Why? The various species of animals have very different patterns of behavior grounded in their anatomy and life-setting. Which should we follow? Or should we consider anything that any animal does acceptable behavior for human beings? Female scorpions and black widow spiders eat their mates. Does that mean we should condone mariticide? Members of several species, including chimpanzees (our closest evolutionary relative), sometimes eat their conspecifics. Does that make it acceptable for us to practice cannibalism? The writer has cherry-picked the animal behavior that s/he wants to indulge in and presented it as though it were a rational argument for eating meat, eggs, and dairy. It is not.

Hawks and wolves live according to the nature of hawks and wolves. Human beings live according to the nature of human beings. And part of that nature is compassionate concern for the wellbeing of others. It is that compassionate aspect of our nature that calls us to nourish ourselves as harmlessly as possible. Our anatomy and life setting enable us to choose whether to feed ourselves through cruelty or compassion—a choice that is not available to wolves and hawks. The evil that we do to the animals whose flesh, eggs, and milk we consume is voluntary evil, done for our own pleasure. It is not something that any of us should want to be associated with.

Finally, the argument from the food chain attempts to derive what is moral from what actually exists. But morality exists to improve what currently exists, not to mimic it. As English philosopher David Hume demonstrated almost 300 years ago, we cannot infer “ought” from “is.” Morality exists to make reality less cruel, not more so. Morality exists to reduce suffering and death, not increase them.

The notion that it is immoral for humans to eat a bird or mammal because they are sentient is just wrong. It is “just” wrong? Why is it wrong? The argument from the food chain (which the author also cited) attempts to bypass both the moral and environmental arguments against eating meat, eggs and dairy by trying to justify it on grounds that ignore morality.

Some of our bodies need animal proteins in order to be healthy. According to the latest scientific data, this is not true, or at most, is true only for a tiny minority of people who may suffer from a pathology. It is not a legitimate defense of animal products being eaten by the general public. It is, however, a widely-encountered excuse for continuing to eat foods that people enjoy. This is the abstract of an article published in the journal of the American Dietetic Association, the professional association of dietitians:

“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes. A vegetarian diet is defined as one that does not include meat (including fowl) or seafood, or products containing those foods. This article reviews the current data related to key nutrients for vegetarians including protein, n-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium, and vitamins D and B-12. A vegetarian diet can meet current recommendations for all of these nutrients. In some cases, supplements or fortified foods can provide useful amounts of important nutrients. An evidence-based review showed that vegetarian diets can be nutritionally adequate in pregnancy and result in positive maternal and infant health outcomes. The results of an evidence-based review showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians also appear to have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than nonvegetarians. Furthermore, vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates. Features of a vegetarian diet that may reduce risk of chronic disease include lower intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol and higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, soy products, fiber, and phytochemicals. The variability of dietary practices among vegetarians makes individual assessment of dietary adequacy essential. In addition to assessing dietary adequacy, food and nutrition professionals can also play key roles in educating vegetarians about sources of specific nutrients, food purchase and preparation, and dietary modifications to meet their needs.”

It is indeed a struggle to remain in right relationship with those who seek to shame us into making different food choices!  This response seeks to portray the poor, beleaguered flesh-eater as the innocent victim of harassment by politically correct vegan bullies. It is, in fact, an ad hominem argument posing as a protest against bullying. And by employing the verb “shame,” it tries to draw an analogy to “slut shaming,” thereby portraying vegans as self-righteous, puritanical moralists who are trying to unfairly and unjustly condemn people for personal behavior that is no one else’s business.  The sex lives of consenting adults are, in fact, of proper concern only to the small circle of those affected by them. Our appetite for meat, eggs, and dairy causes the enslavement and murder of 65 billion sentient beings every year. Seen this way, eating meat, eggs, and dairy is public rather than private behavior in precisely the same way that keeping human slaves, discriminating against racial and ethnic minorities, oppressing women and marginalizing gender nonconforming people is public rather than private behavior.

This claim that animal rights advocates are puritanical, moralistic bullies depends on framing the question as one of personal “food choices.” Deciding whether to have rice pilaf or boiled potatoes is a personal food choice. Deciding to participate in the enslavement and slaughter of sentient beings simply because we enjoy the taste of their flesh, eggs, and milk is a decision to commit acts of cruelty and killing that raise moral questions of the first magnitude—questions that are the business of everyone with a conscience. No one would frame the question of human cannibalism as one of personal “food choices.” And for exactly the same reason, we should not frame the question of eating animal flesh, eggs and milk as a matter of personal choice. We have no right to make choices—about food or anything else—that inflict suffering and death on innocent sentient beings. It is not about us, it is about the animals who suffer and die to satisfy our tastes.

And while I applaud efforts to minimize factory farms (fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains) and factory ranches (animals), my understanding is that world just can’t feed 7 billion people without some measure of industrialization in the food production sector. We cannot feed seven billion people (and climbing toward nine billion) without a high level of industrialization. But we can easily feed nine billion people without any animal agriculture whatsoever, industrial or free range. And we can feed them a healthier diet while reducing the stress on our fresh water supply, soil, oceans and climate. As Richard Oppenlander has persuasively shown in Food Choice and Sustainability: Why Buying Local, Eating Less Meat, and Taking Baby Steps Won’t Work, the survival of our planet as a comfortable, nurturing home depends on eliminating animal agriculture. Industrial vs. free range is irrelevant to resource depletion and climate change. The only significant variable in animal agriculture insofar as the health of our planet is concerned is the total number of animals raised, not the method by which they are raised. A thousand free-range pigs consume as many resources, create as much waste, and damage a great deal more land than a thousand factory-farmed pigs. The bedrock issue morally and ecologically is not factory farming vs. free range farming; it is animal agriculture vs. plant agriculture.

I see no perfect solution to the moral dilemmas inherent in meat/no meat in today’s world. There is a perfect solution and it is in plain sight. Stop eating meat, eggs, and dairy and shut down animal agriculture. This resolves the moral issue and contributes strongly to resolving the issues of climate change, resource depletion, and human hunger. The appearance of “moral dilemmas inherent in meat/no meat in today’s world” is an illusion created by the determination to continue eating meat, eggs, and dairy regardless of the consequences for animals, human beings, and the Earth. Abandon the commitment to eating animal products and the dilemmas vanish.


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