UNC and Me: My Recent Visit to the Famous Eats 101 Seminar


The plan for my talk last week at UNC-Chapel Hill was, in a word, elegant. I would ask the class: “how many of you believe that we should avoid inflicting unnecessary harm to sentient animals”? Every hand, of course, would bolt skyward. Next, I would ask “how many of you eat animals or animal-based products”? Most, if not all, hands would go north. Then I would seize the opportunity to highlight–with airtight logic of course–the inherent contradiction in saying yes to both questions. In my head, this lesson couldn’t have been better conceived.

Then class started. When I asked the first question (about avoiding unnecessary suffering) everything went haywire.  Only a couple of kids raised their hands. Others declared their allegiance with half-raised hands and nervous looks around the seminar room. Many kept their hands defiantly down and started peppering me with pre-law-inspired questions, including: “what you mean by ‘unnecessary’”? It was then that I threw my talking points to the wind: this was going to be a two hour head-to-head with seventeen very bright undergraduates.

By the end, I can say with confidence that my arguments for not eating animals remained solidly intact. Rarely, though, have they been hit with such penetrating ammunition. The most important thing I’d say about the wide-ranging discussion was that it was civil–exceedingly so. These students weren’t taking a food studies class–the famous EATS 101–in order to have their biases confirmed. Oh no. They aimed to rock the boat. It’s fair to say that everyone got a bit jostled.

The primary justification for challenging the “unnecessary” tenet was that the culinary arts are “necessary” to human happiness. This view was implicitly shared by the class’s instructor who, in addition to being a friend, is a great gourmand, former confidante of the late Julia Child, and a man in possession of a kitchen designed by the gods of cookery. Nevertheless, no matter how impressive the kitchen, no matter how meaningful the culinary arts, and no matter how tight the connection with JC, the idea that culinary artistry is necessary for human happiness is, philosophically speaking, untenable.

To assert that the culinary arts are “necessary” for human culture and happiness is arbitrary. I could just as easily say that it’s “necessary” for me to alleviate my pent up anger–thereby heightening my happiness–by punching people named Melody. The fact that an act of violence (killing an animal, punching Melody) creates pleasure (the sensation of taste, defusing anger) fails to morally justify the violence. Thus, the appeal to culinary “necessity” so passionately held by many of these students requires that adherents either a) pretend animals don’t suffer, or b) deem random and arbitrary human-on-human violence morally acceptable. In essence, a dead end.

Things became more complicated when students brought up tradition. The culinary arts have a rich tradition rooted in the intricate preparation of animal products. But does historical longevity legitimate unnecessary suffering? Does the fact that a behavior has been just fine forever make it any less arbitrary? The answer is no. History is replete with cases of completely normalized but totally arbitrary examples of long-lasting abuse. The enslavement of Africans, the oppression of women, the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment–all these practices were once considered so common as to be beyond question. It’s to the credit of advanced civilization that today we deem these acts as tantamount to barbarism. Tradition never trumps unnecessary suffering.

Then, just as tensions were rising, up came the topic of religion. An anthropology major asked about the centrality of animal sacrifice to far-flung religious rituals. What if a religion’s belief structure was rooted in the warm blood of a fat goat? What if the liver of a freshly issued calf was required for the salvation of the elect?

The temptation–or at least my temptation–is to immediately dismiss such scenarios as hobgoblins of the opiated. Political decency, however, warrants tolerance for matters of the spirit.  So, affirming my dedication to decency, I noted how incredibly talented humans were at imbuing symbolic meaning in the most varied and remote objects (growing up Catholic helps with this realization). I thereby concluded: until it can be materially verified that a potential acolyte is more likely to find salvation in goat blood rather than eggplant flesh, I’ll opt for the eggplant as the capricious currency of salvation.

The most challenging question actually came after class, while walking to dinner, and it came from a kid who had worked on a ranch and, I’ll admit, was really onto something. The gist of his question was this: if humans really do have an obligation to treat animals with equal moral consideration, then don’t we also have an obligation to prevent undomesticated omnivorous animals from attacking other undomesticated animals?

My gut response was to claim that the wilderness is wilderness, domestication is domestication, and leave it at that. Then something occurred to me: such an idea of “wilderness”–one that implies an environment devoid of human involvement–is flawed. After all (as this student was also quick to point out), humans have so dramatically transformed nature that one could make a case that a robin attacking a worm is, in a way, a sort of rigged scenario–both predator and prey live where they live because humans have transformed the environment to determine their respective niches, not to mention orientation to each other. All of which places me face to face with this unlikely question: must I prevent the robin, an omnivore, from eating the worm?

To be true to my stated goal of reducing animal suffering, I would–or so it would seem–have to answer yes. And that, of course, would be a devastating answer. For starters, it would highlight the impossibility, if not complete absurdity, of my foundational premise that we should reduce unnecessary animal suffering. It’s not necessary that I eat a pig to live; but it’s equally not necessary that a robin eat a worm to live. So, on what moral basis do I determine that preventing pig-suffering (by ending animal agriculture) is inherently more worthy than preventing worm-suffering (by intervening in the predator-prey relationship)? Failure to offer a satisfying answer to this problem pretty much compromises the vegan’s consistency.

The answer–which took me bit of wheel spinning to come up with–hinges on what I’ll call the principle of ecological uncertainty.  Ecological connectivity is so intricate, so complex, and so poorly understood in its entirety that humans (even ecologists) lack the ability to accurately predict the consequences of our meddling in it. If the human relationship with the global ecosystem is marked by anything definitive, it’s the law of unintended consequences. Thus, when we try to right the robin-worm relationship, we meddle in an ecosystem that, due to our inevitable ignorance of its inner workings, could easily respond with more rather than less suffering in the animal world. In short, we aren’t obligated to extend our moral consideration to undomesticated animals because we can never be sure that, in so intervening, we wouldn’t increase overall suffering.  With domesticated animals, there is never any doubt on this question. Our guiding approach to life–veganism–directly reduces unnecessary animal suffering. We live unburdened by fears of unintended consequences.

And that is why–no matter how potent the opposition–we need to keep listening to how others challenge veganism, take their ideas seriously, and continue, with ruthlessness and optimism, to promote what we know in our hearts and our minds to be right.


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.

5 Responses to UNC and Me: My Recent Visit to the Famous Eats 101 Seminar

  1. Provoked says:

    I like this! The law of unintended consequences – The robin and the worm scenario makes sense to me.

    Further – If life is harmed outside our influence – We cannot use that as a yardstick to deliberately harm within it. What happens in the fields or in the woods is not a guide as to what should happen within our own power to direct. Life is unfair enough – Do we make it any more so when we cause needless harm?

  2. CQ says:

    I’d like to respond to the question you posed: Do humans “… have an obligation to prevent undomesticated omnivorous animals from attacking other undomesticated animals?”

    I agree with you, James, about not meddling with the intricate web of life outside our doorstep. Humans have encroached upon and destroyed too much natural habitat and too many nonhuman inhabitants. Our efforts to “manage” and/or domesticate these born-to-be-free creatures leave much to be desired.

    Your principle of ecological uncertainty makes sense, given that our ignorance of nature’s inner workings often produces unintended consequences that harm rather than help animals.

    At the same time, I think there’s a higher, completely spiritual, harmonious law of certainty that, when appealed to, understood, and practiced by man, causes all members of all species to evolve over time until they reach their original nature — their true status — as nonpredators.

    Call this the Peaceable Kingdom Principle! It says that in proportion as each man ceases to think and act in predatory ways toward all other beings and increasingly thinks and acts with “little child”* humility, faithfulness, and affection, he sets the stage for the so-called “lesser” creatures to evolve mentally, morally, spiritually, even physically in the same direction.

    This gradual, species-wide move toward harmlessness would be made manifest in, among other things, a change in carnivores’ nutritional requirements from the biological need to live on another’s flesh to a herbivorous diet.

    No matter how simple his thoughts and his needs, no living being WANTS to kill others to dine on or to dominate over. Each of us, regardless of our species, desires to live at peace with one another. Call that the law of unconditional Love.

    * See Isaiah 11.

    *See Isaiah 11

    • CQ says:

      Ooops, duplicate asterisk. Well, if you read Isaiah 11 twice, you’ll find the same words. Maybe they’ll sink in more the second time ’round! 🙂

  3. Hi James,
    I so enjoy reading your blog. I am vegan and the question that people around me keep asking is what would happen to all the current farm animals if there were no factory farms? Where would they all go? Also, the whole “they wouldn’t even be alive, have a chance to live” argument. Although, if my life was like a factory farmed animal, I’d rather not have a life.
    What do you think?

    thanks, Dana

    • Dana,
      I get these questions all the time, too. My brief answers are, a) the scenario of immediate emancipation is so far-fetched that there’s no pragmatic need to contemplate a plan to provide sanctuary for billions of animals–that is, emancipation (not unlike slavery in the northern states) would (will!) almost certainly be gradual; and b) the principle of “I brought the animal into this world therefore I can kill it” has no room in a civilized society defined by moral principles because it is not a rationale we would ever apply to human life, thereby violating the imperative of equal moral consideration for animals. Let me know your thoughts, and thanks for reading my blog!

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