The Vegan Dialogues


More comments from my article from the on the psychology of factory farming. I’ve included some representative responses from among the hundreds I received. My purpose here is to remind vegan advocates of the challeneges we face as we try to bring a genuine vegan dialogue into mainstream discussions.  The point is NOT to gang up on and mock the counterarguments presented below, but rather to use them as helpful guidelines to honing our own educational srtategies. Needless to say, the barriers we face are immense, but step one seems to be recogizing those barriers for what they are. Titles are mine.

The article: []



I can’t help but think that the author’s outlook is itself a product of the nineteenth century in which some sections of society were able to live away from animals for the first time and thus were able to romanticize and anthropmorphize them in an unprecedented was. It is absurd to talk about the “interests”of animals or a “sense of identity” when there is no real self consciousness.

The really revolutionary change in the ninetieth century was not in our orientation to other animals but in out orientation to other human beings. The extension of the concepts developed in the Enlightenment to the masses made the distinction between animals and humanity sharper than ever. This is not a bad thing. This is not to say that wanton cruelty to animals is okay but the reason it is not okay has nothing to do with the animals. It has to do with the way that sort of behavior is pointless and degrading to people.

It seems to me that the ability to feed so many people so efficiently is miraculous. If we are concerned about the moral weight of animal husbandry I suspect it comes from a disenchantment with people. We are more likely to be portrayed as destroyers of nature than the inventors of nature itself. Without humanity there is no meaning, no compassion, no self concsiousness. Our starting point should be the needs of people, the need for food and the human need to be compassionate. Animals are just incidental.


But We Give them Life!

Well, the moral weight of animal husbandry isn’t as obvious as all that, nor has it changed in any obvious way. People have always killed for meat, it’s not as if in the good old days, back when you slept with your pigs, you didn’t later eat them. The personhood, if you please, of animals has always been apparent, to some more than to others. The modern farmer would not weep and say “Oh my god, you are people too!” to a chicken as he cut off its head, if he got to know his chickens more intimately. So no, the point of factory farming isn’t to make killing bearable – that’s just some bad spinoff treatment of the holocaust. Farmers are ok with killing, whether it’s 20 hogs or 20,000, and the rest of us are fine with it too. Few of us are uncomfortable with eating meat, and it’s no secret where it comes from.

The moral quandry of the practice of meat eating lies in this: if we didn’t eat them, they wouldn’t have lives at all. “Better never to live at all, than to live a short, well-fed life in amongst a herd of your own kind” is a judgement call you need a certain amount of arrogance to make on behalf of another. 

It’s a zero-sum moral equation. In the abstract, Farmer Bill could fairly congratulate himself for having created so many lives, albeit by striking a bargain about how long those lives would last. 



I’m not aware of the unimaginable cruelty of the lives of cattle. For the most part they grow up on range, which is a pretty pleasant experience, and at the feedlot they stand around eating amidst a large herd. Then they have a grim experience, dying – less so, if  Temple Grandin designed the facilities. It’s worth focusing on the fact that dying is never a ton of fun, and certainly not as if animals in the wild retire to pleasant cottages on the lake before dying peacefully in their sleep. So I”m just not connecting to the writer’s free-associational moral theorizing  in regards to “Bill”. 


Red in Tooth and Claw

Ah – I see the vegans have invaded the discussion. Fact is, we as a species have been omniverous for a very long time. So are a bunch of other species. Some are even carnivores (gasp!!).  The vegan argument essentially turns upon fluffy bunny morality, and is entirely devoid of any merit. As I said, a lot of species are omniverous, from the pigs metioned in the article, to some of our primate cousins (baboons often frequent discarded prey from bigger predators).  No this unfortunate argument miss the central thrust of the article, which turn on the psychology of the matter, namley that the disconnect that factory farming introduces is unfortunate. I would even venture to say that it has paradoxically led, not on only to the over-indulgence in inferior-quality meat, but also in the growth of the vegan-mindset, among people who, disconnected from nature, and her death-brings life circle, fall for fluffy bunny arguments.

 [Note: please see my post on this topic:

Plants Feel Pain, Too!

I know this is probably an exercise in futility, being that I’ve posted this on this guys articles before and got less than enlightening responses, but how come with all the knowledge we have of plant physiology which shows us that plants feel pain, try to defend themselves and communicate with each other even to strategize such defenses, how come it’s not seen as some horrifying immoral thing when we farm loads of corn, tomatoes, brussel sprouts, etc? It seems much more of an aesthetic issue, in that people like this guy identify with the cute animals face and not with the faceless corn or pickle.  This would mean it’s not exactly about rights or morality, but what people can identify with and what makes them uncomfortable.  That’s my two cents anyway.


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.

2 Responses to The Vegan Dialogues

  1. Keith Akers says:

    Thank you for paying attention to these issues.

    It is important to answer these arguments. Some of them have already been answered numerous times, others are more recent. It’s important to understand, too, that sometimes the real problem is more psychological or financial rather than intellectual. The belief is too much of a threat to our identity or to the business we’re in. We are fighting an argument, but we are also fighting other things. In this connection Melanie Joy’s book is very interesting. HOWEVER, the most important thing is to actually be able to take the arguments of our opponents seriously and answer them on their terms.

    The “Speciesism” argument is also argued in “Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers.” It makes the vegetarian / vegan point of view an artifact of romanticism. This avoids the question, “is this point of view valid?” It also avoids vegetarianism in Plato, early Christianity, Buddhism, Sufi mystics, Hinduism, and elsewhere. In fact, vegetarianism is widespread across many divergent ancient cultures.

    The “But we give them life!” argument makes a different, rather philosophical point, which Peter Singer struggles with in “Animal Liberation” (2nd edition, p. 228). Singer’s rhetorical question is, would we deliberately conceive a child who, upon being born, would have some sort of genetic defect which would make their life short and miserable?

    The “Self-Delusion” argument is, well, delusional, and revolves around the empirical question of how much cattle suffer. It’s interesting that the form of agriculture which is least objectionable morally (cattle grazing) is the most destructive environmentally, suggesting that we cannot have it both ways.

    Peter Singer, you, and others have already answered the “Red in Tooth and Claw” argument. The function of this argument is to show that (some) animals do it, so we can do it, but begs the question of what kind of animal we are.

    The “Plants Feel Pain, Too!” argument has often been answered. The simplest response is that, even if true, you will kill more plants by eating animals than by eating the plants directly.

    Educational strategies have a psychological, emotional, and intellectual component. But in the long run, as a minority view, the intellectual component is the basis of them all. Without some “real-world” basis, we are not grounded in our position with “real-world” people. Getting the smart people on our side probably is not sufficient, but is necessary, for our cause.

  2. Pingback: News for September 9, 2011 : From A to Vegan

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