Mice: The Omnivores’ Newest Red Herring

The “mice argument” has been getting some traction lately, including here at eatingplants.org. By the “mice argument” I mean the claim that growing plants causes the death of untold millions of animals, such as mice.

There’s no denying that it’s true: rodents and other creatures are systematically exterminated–both actively and passively–to clear space for and protect monoculturally produced crops. It’s also true that many of these plants are eaten by unsuspecting vegans who skip through the daisies under the blissful impression that their diets are “cruelty free.”

Less clear, though, is how this unfortunate reality of agricultural life–the fact that animals routinely die when humans grow plants–provides a legitimate ethical justification for animal-based agriculture. In other words, how does the death of animals in plant-based agriculture make growing and harvesting plants ethically equivalent to raising and killing animals?

An effective response begins with the idea of intentionality. An animal-based agricultural system is explicitly designed to exploit, kill, and commodify obviously sentient animals. Harm to these animals is pervasive and–key point here–directly intentional. You cannot have animal agriculture without inflicting the unneeded suffering and intentional killing of animals whose lives have intrinsic value. No getting around that one.

A plant based system, by contrast, is designed to exploit soil, air, and water to grow and harvest plants. This is its raison d’etre. Tragically, most of the plant matter produced these days becomes stock for animal feed. However, with crops grown for people to eat (a sad rarity), the primary intention is decidedly not to exploit, kill, and commodify animals (even if that happens). It is, instead, to produce plants–forms of nutrient rich life that are not sentient, do not suffer, and have no conscious individual interest in staying alive.

When animal suffering happens in this latter system, it’s only indirectly intentional. It is not intrinsic to the act of growing plants for food. Moreover, killing animal in plant-based agriculture doesn’t require ongoing animal exploitation or commodification–only extermination, much of it inadvertent. If growers didn’t pragmatically have to kill animals when they grew plants, they wouldn’t. These deaths thus are, for all intents and purposes, casualties of agriculture, casualties of eating.

That said, these deaths must be taken very seriously. Because in doing so we get to draw another crucial distinction between plant and animal-based agriculture. Working assiduously to eliminate all animal suffering in plant-based agriculture–to whatever extent we succeed–affirms the noble goal of not only reducing animal suffering, but of highlighting the fact that this noble goal necessarily belongs to plant systems alone. Animal-based systems, after all, cannot by definition aim to eliminate the practice of killing animals.  That would be like a potato chip company working to abolish potatoes.

Put differently, plant-based agriculture would thrive if the killing of animals were reduced to the point of elimination. Animal based agriculture, by contrast, would disappear if the killing of animals were reduced to the point of elimination. To me, the argument ends here.

Please note that none of what I’m saying is pie-in-the-sky. From integrated pest management to growing more plants indoors to vertical farms to crop diversification to eco-farming, modern agriculture is pioneering numerous ways to diminish the killing of animals in plant-based systems. Methods of achieving this noble goal are readily available. But not, once again, in animal agriculture.

There’s more that could be said about this argument, but for now I think the bottom line is clear: killing animals is an unfortunate by-product of the necessary endeavor of growing plants for food–an endeavor in which killing can be dramatically reduced and someday even eliminated. But killing is an absolute requirement when it comes to growing animals for food, an endeavor that (with rare exceptions)happens to be unnecessary. To call these systems ethically equivalent makes no sense.

Thus I’m totally unpersuaded by “the mice argument.”






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About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

28 Responses to Mice: The Omnivores’ Newest Red Herring

  1. technology could also be developed with censors and other things that would be sensitive to animals etc.

  2. Provoked says:

    Thank you so much for addressing this issue as I just made a comment on another of your posts linking to a “red herring” essay.

    For me it’s clear – There’s the accidental harm done while procuring a food that is vital for life. Then there’s the deliberate killing for a food that is excessive. One is excusable. The other unacceptable.
    It’s like equating an intentional murder with an accidental fatality due to a car accident. The key is intent.

    Finally, the reason why I hold so much hope in urban farming and greenhouse systems is that this would eliminate nearly all casualties in harvesting our food. A closed system could be the solution against “pests” and weather – But they’ve done everything backwards! They’ve put freedom loving nonhumans in warehouses and left the prize nourishment in the elements!

    Agreed! Let’s not hurt the mice either – There’s got to be a better way!

  3. Anne B says:

    Thanks for this! I love what you’ve written about intention. For some reason, I actually find more omnivores bringing up the possibility of plant sentience as justification for meat eating than bringing up mice and other “pest” casualties.

  4. CQ says:

    So glad you wrote about the dear mice today, James. I’ve been pondering this question myself, ever since Mountain made the statement about monoculture grain crops here: http://eatingplantsdotorg.wordpress.com/2012/04/26/letter-to-the-new-york-times-the-ethics-of-the-ethicist

    I felt like should be something beyond the intentionality argument, and even beyond, or different from, vertical farming, greenhouses, etc.

    So I went on a search. Found someone fascinating who is working with other farmers to grow grains differently — in what you could call a vegan way. Wrote to her. Heard back. She’s preparing a longer explanation of this polyculture system, modeled after a prairie, and will be sharing it with you and your followers soon. :-)

    • Mountain says:

      Curious to hear more about this. Skeptical, of course, since an important component of the prairie system was the presence of meat-eating predators, necessitating herd behavior by the herbivores of the prairie.

      The farming I’m doing is more akin to a forest or jungle system, in which scavenging omnivores (thus far chickens, but I hope to add pigs within a few years) turn the waste products of the forest into new soil, and keep insect populations under control.

      • CQ says:

        Glad you’re curious. I hope she’ll follow through on her promise to explain at length in the next week or so.

        What feeds me is the conviction that as individuals listen and watch for more creative, intelligent solutions that enable mankind to do the least harm, we all advance in every way, including morally.

        I don’t want to be responsible for harming a single creature, incidentally/unintentionally/accidentally/unwittingly — or otherwise. :-)

  5. Tim says:

    Very well explained, this point is one the meat/dairy lobbyists forget consistently. Unintentional loss of life is accidental, intentional taking of a life against the will of another is violence. If they truly give a damn about mice and insects, then we certainly admire their concern, and urge them to cease their support of the intentional violence first and foremost, as that is most easily and immediately achieved, and then work steadily from there. Growing, and gently hand-harvesting as much produce as possible in our own yards is a huge step toward reducing the accidental loss of life, and strongly encouraged whenever possible.

    • Mountain says:

      How can the killing of mice & birds & insects be considered unintentional when the grain farmers intend to perform the actions that kill these animals? When the suffering & death resulting from these intended actions are expected & predictable?

      If I dump toxic pollutants into the river, knowing that they will kill the people downriver, are the deaths somehow unintentional? No. It doesn’t matter what my motive was. Whether I wanted the people dead, or just wanted the toxic pollutants off my property– either way, the killings were intentional.

      It would be great if we could do large-scale grain farming that didn’t kill animals, but that goal is a long way off, if not altogether impossible. For now, we should start by not raising grain for animals.

  6. Edith says:

    One thing that always strikes me as funny about this argument (and I’ve heard it many times) is that it seems to be framed as though we’re talking about people who eat only plants vs. people who eat only meat, while in fact people who eat meat eat plants as well. Nobody, not even the most dedicated carnivore, eats only meat! So really, we’re all responsible for the mice. People who eat meat and plants are responsible for the deaths of the animals they’re eating as well as mice; people who eat only plants are only responsible for the mice.

    • Jean-Philippe Royer says:

      And don’t forget that the meat that the carnivores eat was once an animal who fed on grains for at least a couple of months. These grains had to be first cultivated while mices strolled in the field…

  7. Jean-Philippe Royer says:

    Thanks James. Me and Valéry came to the same conclusion after a long discussion while driving back to Montreal last winter. It’s good to know that the « unintended casualties » rejoinder also makes sense for other people. Cheers from Montreal!

  8. brian lindberg says:

    When I was a young man (many decades ago..), I was a student of Gandhian philosophy at UCSB, and an organic gardener. As a gardener, I had a problem with gophers, and a moral dilemma in the killing of them. A teacher of mine at that time, Raghavan Iyer, helped me to understand that in the sphere of action, one must comprehend the necessity of his particular role. Gandhi’s understanding of this concept derived largely from his study of the Baghavad Gita.

    The bottom line on this is that we need to eat something, but we don’t need to eat animals. In order to successfully raise plant food for our sustenance, we occasionally need to remove competitors (for me, that is gophers and ground squirrels). Whenever a technique of exclusion is sufficient, I am pleased with that….live and let live. If that is not possible, I recycle their bodies, respectfully, with the least necessary suffering, and with acknowledgement of my own moment of death. Death is stressful for any organism, even plants….what we are striving to do is to act for the greatest good of the whole, to live with full responsibility, in every daily context, and to fulfill our role in the unfolding evolution of this universe.

    One might say that the mouse argument is truly vapid (besides, it’s the gophers who are really taking it on the chin out there).

  9. C says:

    I’m not sure intentionality is an entirely adequate response to this point. If we take the most extreme case, we are contrasting killing very few large sentient creatures (cows), or hunting wild animals, with killing more small sentient creatures (mice, voles, etc). If we know that killing is unavoidable, presumably we ought to make a choice to minimize the killing (think trolley problem). Further, the problem is especially poignant for any moral position that rejects killing animals for food on the basis a minimizing harm principle. It may be that pastured meat comes close to minimizing the difference in body count with plant based diets (though I’m skeptical that this is possible).

    Focusing on intentions effectively changes this to an issue of moral virtue. Given a difficult choice we can feel better (or are better people) about the choice not to eat meat because we didn’t really target the civilians with our missile-strike, they were collateral damage.

    I think a stronger reply is needed. First, http://www.animalvisuals.org/projects/data/1mc The evidence for much of this is a speculative and new research occasionally gets published on this, but assuming something like these numbers, the argument can remain one of consequences. Eating plants minimizes harm. Even eating dairy (not eggs!) is much more easily defended in terms of consequences than meat. Given a choice between causing significantly more death and suffering than less death and suffering, moral decency requires that we minimize harm to the degree we can. In some cases the choice might be minimal (1 mil calories of veg causes perhaps 1 more death than 1 mil calories of grains, or perhaps the comparison between dairy and plant based ~1 deaths/per mil), but in other cases eating meat or eggs is obviously a morally obscene choice.

    • Ellie Maldonado says:

      I’m not convinced killing field animals must remain unavoidable. There have got to be alternatives. How about enclosing the field with a tall wire mesh that’s also placed deep in the ground? In that way, animals couldn’t enter on the ground or below it. Maybe we vegans will have to start our own co-operatives.

      • C says:

        That may well be true–though there is also concern about spreading disease and other unintended consequences of agriculture. And I think it would be good if some folks tried to push the goal-posts for cruelty-free agriculture, but I think the moral difference between minimal impact and maximal impact is crucial and the omnivore is typically using this argument to suggest “we’re all in the same boat.” There are at least two replies to this. The first is in terms of virtue/intention and the second in terms of actual impact.

  10. C says:

    One last thought. Perhaps the moral difference lies in “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” roles of killing in a practice. Killing mice is extrinsically related to harvest, slaughter is (in the cases we are interested in) intrinsically related to production of meat. Of course, one might use the same distinction to defend lacto-vegetarianism from vegan critiques. There is no essential killing of animals in harvesting and there is no essential killing of animals in milk-production. Though again collateral damage examples suggest that this distinction can’t do all of the work it needs to do.

    • Jean-Philippe Royer says:

      « there is no essential killing of animals in milk-production » …

      The calves for whom the milk is produced are taken away from their mother, and then killed so humans can have milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, etc.

      « When you consume dairy products, you support the forced insemination of cows to keep them pregnant and lactating as much as possible. Within about 24 hours of being born, calves are separated from their mothers, traumatizing both the cows and their offspring.The calves will be slaughtered for veal at around 3–18 weeks of age, used to replace their mothers for dairy production, or simply killed shortly after birth.

      This process is repeated over about 5 years, or 3–4 lactations, during which it is common for cows to develop osteoporosis, as most of their calcium goes into producing up to ten times the natural amount of milk. It is also common for them to suffer painful mastitis in the udders. Once their milk production declines and the cows are “spent,” they are trucked off to be slaughtered for consumption. Many of them are pregnant at the time of slaughter. » (BVA)

      The normal life length of a cow is 15 to 25 years. Exploited cows live 3 to 5 years. This is not natural death. This is slaughter.

      • Ellie Maldonado says:

        I’ve met people who are actually proud of eating “humane” meat. I think we need to stop talking about factory farms.

        This is from Peaceful Prairie Santuary:

      • Jean-Philippe Royer says:

        You’re right. But in the case of milk, the killing of male calves applies also to « human » exploitation, don’t you think? So the « You’re still killing them » argument works for both, right?

      • C says:

        OK, my point is only that that practice is not essential to production of dairy. Already dairy farmers use technology to reduce the number of male calves (centrifuging bull-sperm separates XX and XY chromosamal gametes since one of the two is lighter!). The production of male calves is avoidable. Thus, the killing of male calves is “extrinsic” to the production of milk. Similarly with the cows themselves. It may be that our need to maximize profits will make it desirable to kill “spent cows” but there is nothing intrinsic to the production of milk that requires this–it is a moral decision. One could equally imagine factoring in the costs of “retiring” one’s herd to live natural old-age and then euthanizing them when or if it is in their best interest to no longer live.

        Certainly there are other grounds to reject dairy (how dairy cows are treated (at least in factory farms) and their shortened “natural” lifespans (assuming this is wrong), but the concern as I understood it in the argument above is with killing, its relationships to intentions and its quantity. My point is merely that the difference in “collateral deaths” per million calories between a diet of dairy and plants is close to the same as that between an all grain and a fruit and grain diet.

        I’ll go further to say that I suspect that when we are talking about 1.5 or 2.5 or 4.5 deaths/million calories through farming that it seems not unlikely that there is a significant margin of error that might make these indistinguishable from one another, though easily distinguished from cow, pig, and chicken meat.

      • Jean-Philippe Royer says:

        Thanks for the answer C. Now, I understand your point better. I also understand that you insist in thinking the problem in a consequentialist framework. I prefer to approach this issue in terms of rights. I believe non human animals have basic rights because they have interests. 1- An interest in not suffering, 2- an interest in persisting in their existence (not to be killed), and 3- an interest not to be used (to be free – without domination). From my point of view, « their shortened “natural” lifespans » is wrong because it results from 2 and/or 3 being overriden. Having said that, I think that from this point on, we will disagree mainly for metaethical reasons (consequentialists vs deontological moral framework).

      • C says:

        This is perhaps true and if animals have rights not to be treated as means to human benefits then the lack of killing is beside the point (slavery is wrong independently of whether it ends in murder). But, I’m not convinced that keeping domesticated animals for human benefits under truly humane conditions is wrong, so if cows are exploited for their milk, then it is because of some other underlying wrong (the conditions under which they are typically kept and their disposal when their productivity declines).

        I think, however, that the mouse argument should be responded to in terms of consequences. I don’t find that there is that much innocence to be found in the intentions response to the mouse argument. If you choose a practice that indirectly violates the right to life of many field mice rather than directly violating the right to life of some other domesticated animals, I’m not sure that intentions matter much. Degree of suffering seems to matter when we are talking about forced choices between two forms of right’s violation (assuming your rights perspective)–trolley problems for example.

      • Jean-Philippe Royer says:

        You’re right, I am commited to the abolition of the « companion/domesticated non human animals » instituion because of 3. I don’t think 1 and 2 are beside the point because of 3. I think they are the three necessary premises in an argument for the abolition of all (non human) animal exploitation. They work « together ».

        For me, the starting point is indeed « we are talking about forced choices between two forms of right’s violation ». For you, it is two forms of practice that leads to different « degree of suffering ». I think that my reasons to stick to the rights perspective are as good as yours to choose the consequentialist one. From my point of view, like James, I also have to introduce the distinction between intentional/unintentional action because my argument also rely on the « by-products » status of the mices’ death. But I would not qualify this approach as « virtuous ». I make a clear distinction between virtue ethics and deotological ethics (deontic constraints (norms) on rational deliberations). You don’t have to be virtuous, you only need to follow the rules.

        For me, I would go as far to say that quantity does not matter much. From the subjective point of view of the sentient being, death is death. You cannot « aggregate » deaths or amount of suffering. Both situations are tragic indeed. But one of them is a necessary by-product of the fact that I’m trying to survive (trying to avoid death) and the other is intentional killing (murder). Like James said, « to call these systems ethically equivalent makes no sense ».

        The reason I don’t endorse a consequentialist perspective is that, to do so, you have to go all the way. Like Robert Nozick said, you cannot have deontologism for humans (right protection) and consequentialism for non humans (degree of suffering). A true utilitarian/consequentialist would have to advocate for the abolition of human rights, unless he endorses rule utilitarianism. But then, this would also be valid for (non human) animals (otherwise it is speciest). Then we’re back at the start: rights for all humans and non humans.

        So, I advocate a pragmatic, antispeciest approach: humans have rights (this a fact), there is not ethical reason to limit these rights to them, so by virtue of the equality principle (same interests, same rights), non human animals should have basic rights like humans (three above). Ergo, abolition of all non human exploitation.

    • C says:

      If you eat 1 million calories of grains you likely have killed 1+ sentient creatures, this presumably is a violation of those beings rights. Surely that you might not have known that before consuming the 1 million calories matters for assessing your blameworthiness. But, I can’t see how the killing of that animal is any less wrong than the killing of any other innocent being with a right to life (so a 1 million calorie buck by a hunter). Sure in the agricultural instance there is causal mediation and so perhaps some sense of detachment from the wrong, and we might even feel “less culpable” since we feel that we didn’t intend the death.

      This is classic trolley problem. We might argue that “killing as a foreseen but unintended consequence” for attaining a morally good goal is different than “killing, simpliciter,” allows us to morally differentiate the two right’s violations. This may be so for evaluating an agent, their moral character, or their “willing.”

      Now let’s imagine that the number of deaths from agriculture are equal to or even greater than the number of deaths to produce beef through pasteuring? Does intention matter still? Would we say that it is still preferable or more defensible to eat the plant based diet? Do intentions matter in this case? It seems to me that it would be worse to choose the 1 million of calories from plant sources. Why? Because it would be worse to cause the death of many sentient creatures (violate their rights) than to cause the death of fewer (violate their rights) under constrained conditions. (Of course, as is pointed out above, we likely can reduce the number of collateral casualties through reforming agriculture, but lets imagine that it still results in more collateral deaths for the sake of argument).

      It seems to me that if the intention-defense is the relevant distinction here, it would suggest that we should eat plants even if it were to involve greater, unintended, rights violations. So, I would conclude that while intentionality is helpful in assessing blameworthiness, it is the degree or quantity of deaths that is really doing the work here.

      Thanks for letting me think through this question out loud here.

      • Jean-Philippe Royer says:

        In this highly hypothetical situation, I agree with what you said. I think this would be the right thing to do. Thank you for this interesting discussion.

      • Jean-Philippe Royer says:

        « It seems to me that if the intention-defense is the relevant distinction here, it would suggest that we should eat plants even if it were to involve greater, unintended, rights violations. »

        I think this is what we do regarding practices that have fatal side-effects on human beings (e.g. building highways).

        Being antispeciest is to treat non human animals the same way we treat humans in reality. In the trolley problem, the consequentialist says he would push the fat man (to avoid more deaths). That is what s/he SAYS hypotheticaly. But chances are that is not what s/he would DO. In reality, the consequentialist would respect the fat man’s right to life, even at the cost of more death. This is how we act among humans right now and I don’t think it’s going to change soon.

        So, that’s why I was mentionning Nozick. Why do we allow ourselves to treat non human animals differently? Why do we make IN REALITY the reverse decision (killing the « fat cow » to save more mices)? Why are we IN REALITY deontologist with humans and consequensialists with non humans? Antispeciesm would recquire that we treat both the same way.

        Consequentialism is counterintuitive. We don’t live our lives according to it (at least not often). We do respect rights of individuals at great cost (like the fat man’s). Rational action is not only instrumental, it is also « deonticly » constrained.

        I know this does not fully answer your point. But my point is one of pragmatic urgency (we need to be antispeciest now). But I took time to spell it out because I think their is something suspicious in the fact that our action are « deonticly » constrained when they impact on humans, but that those deontic constraints disappear when it comes to non human animals, and all we are left with is cold instrumental reasonning.

  11. Bix says:

    Hi there, Mr. McWilliams. I have read and enjoyed your book, Just Food, and I enjoy your blog here. I side with most of your arguments. I’d like to add to this discussion something I found out about a few years ago: the USDA’s bird-cull program known as Bye-Bye Blackbird:

    “The USDA’s role in the South Dakota bird deaths puts a focus on a little-known government bird-control program that began in the 1960s under the name of Bye Bye Blackbird, which eventually became part of the USDA and was housed in the late ’60s at a NASA facility.”
    - Bye Bye Blackbird: USDA Acknowledges A Hand In One Mass Bird Death, Christian Science Monitor, 20 January 2011

    I researched that South Dakota bird die-off where hundreds of starlings were found dead on the streets in South Dakota. The USDA admitted to poisoning the birds intentionally:

    “They used a bait laced with the poison DRC-1339. The USDA says the birds ate the bait then flew back to Yankton and died.”
    - Hundreds Of Yankton, South Dakota Birds Poisoned By USDA

    This all led me to a USDA document that lists millions of animal killings, in the name of farm/ranch protection. It wasn’t just Bye Bye Blackbird, but Bye Bye bats, bears, beavers, skunks, squirrels, pigs, and millions of other birds.

    Here’s the USDA’s pdf file that lists the deaths, most of them intentional, of 4,120,291 animals in 2009, 1.3 million starlings alone:

    USDA: Animals Taken by Wildlife Services – FY 2009

    Regarding this mouse argument … as you said, “most of the plant matter produced these days becomes stock for animal feed.” So eating animals also means, indirectly, eating plants, which in turn means killing mice. So, if the mice argument applies to both camps, how can it be used as a criticism of just one camp?

  12. CQ says:

    As we know, in courts of law, intention is taken into account. Manslaughter is a lesser charge than first-degree or second-degree or capital murder, because the perpetrator, in the eyes of the law, did not mean to kill the deceased; the crime was, according to the court’s decision (jury or judge), an accident.

    That said, one cannot have too many drunk-driving accidents that kill or maim others, or even wreck vehicles or other non-sentient “property,” without there being increasingly severe consequences. (I think that one drunk driver, whether he/she causes an accident or not, is one too many.)

    Now that I have learned that animals are killed indirectly in farming, I’m naturally concerned. When I didn’t know, I could do nothing about it. It’s up to me to seek out the products of farmers who either do the least harm and/or look for agricultural systems that do virtually no harm (such as the one I mentioned above, details of which are forthcoming).

    No one here has mentioned the oft-repeated phrase, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Though I understand what James is saying, it would seem there’s a good reason the phrase is an axiom. It may not apply to most of us vegans at present, who are genuinely trying to do our highest sense of right by every single animal. But one day, when ways to not harm/kill animals in raising plant crops are made more widely available, it will apply. I hope, for everyone’s sake, that day comes sooner rather than later.

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