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The Ethical Arguments Against Ethical Veganism

By Piper Hoffman — February 25, 2013
Photo courtesy of Farm Sanctuary

Photo source: Farm Sanctuary

A vegan diet results in more animal deaths than an omnivorous one.

That is the ludicrous conclusion of a 2003 paper by Steven Davis published in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. A professor of animal science at Oregon State University, Davis based his argument on the theory that modern crop harvesting kills more animals than eating cows who grazed on pasture.

The animals who die for plant crops include mice, moles, rabbits, “and other creatures that are run over by tractors, or lose their habitat to make way for farming,” Davis contended.

This is just one of the many arguments that have been leveled against ethical veganism. Distinct from veganism motivated by health or environmental reasons, ethical veganism is premised on the belief that it is wrong to cause animals suffering and to take their lives. In this column, I want to review and refute two ethical arguments against veganism.

Ethical Objections to Veganism: Steven Davis

Davis argued that veganism causes the deaths of more animals than some kinds of meat eating because of the animals killed for crop land and during harvesting. Vegans should reduce their consumption of plants and eat more cows who grazed on pasture, he asserted; cows provide lots of protein and calories per head, and would therefore cause the deaths of fewer animals than plant harvesting does.

Unfortunately for Davis, his argument was based on thin air, because he didn’t know how many animals die to grow and harvest plants. “[A]ccurate numbers aren’t available comparing the number of animals of the field that are killed with these different cropping systems,” admits the author of the blog Let Them Eat Meat.

That isn’t the only problem with Davis’s paper, as others have observed. Animal Visuals summarized the two primary critiques (and offered a cool infographic disproving Davis’s thesis):

Gaverick Matheny identified a crucial error in Davis’s calculation: it assumed that equal amounts of land will produce equal amounts of food from crops or from animals on pasture. In fact, an amount of land will produce much more food when used to grow crops for direct human consumption than when used to raise cattle, provided it is suitable for growing crops. Once Matheny corrected the calculation, Davis’s argument made the case for, rather than against, a vegan diet, given an objective to cause the least amount of animal death. Davis’s argument was also criticized by Andy Lamey, who pointed out that the case that Davis makes for the numbers of animals being killed by harvesting activity is weak, as his numbers included animals who were killed by predators, and that the argument overlooks ways that humans can be harmed or killed by beef production but not vegetable production.

Many vegetarians made their objections directly to Davis, but as he told ABC News, even though they often disagreed with him, most of the emails he received were “quite decent” because vegetarians tend to be well-educated, sensitive, and thoughtful folks.

I have no point to make about that last paragraph; I just couldn’t resist sharing it.

Ethical Objections to Veganism: Jay Bost in The New York Times

The New York Times held an essay contest inviting readers “to make an argument” that eating meat is ethical. Winner Jay Bost began with the premise that “ethical” should be “defined as living in the most ecologically benign way.” The premise of ethical veganism, however, is that we should cause the least suffering possible (the utilitarian theory), or that we should not violate the rights other sentient beings have to their own lives (the rights theory). From the beginning, Bost is talking past ethical vegans by defining “ethical” differently.

Bost concludes that a meat eater must do three things to be ethical:

First, you accept the biological reality that death begets life on this planet and that all life (including us!) is really just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form. Second, you combine this realization with that cherished human trait of compassion and choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain and/or meat. And third, you give thanks.

His second requirement is appealing: ethical vegans are pretty much all about compassion, but, ultimately, it begs the question he is setting out to answer: Is there such a thing as ethically raised meat? And numbers one and three are awfully lame. We’re all solar energy? That could be used to justify anything. If we’re all (including us!) just solar energy, why not kill and eat ethically raised humans? Or eat the corpses of humans who die of natural causes? There are reasons for the taboos on cannibalism, such as the recognition of people’s inherent right to life and dignity. Ethical vegans argue that drawing a distinction between human animals, who get to keep this right, and non-human animals, who don’t, is not justifiable.

And then we have giving thanks. A nice sentiment, but it doesn’t help the cows slaughtered just a fraction into their life span. And who are we supposed to give thanks to, anyway? Let’s not drag God into this, or the debate will just get uglier. So are we thanking the spirit of the murdered animal? If such a thing exists, I imagine it snorting in indifference at this useless token that serves mostly (if not entirely) to salve the guilt of meat eaters.

The Beauty of Ethical Objections to Veganism

Sure, I don’t agree with critics of my beliefs. But I am thrilled that they are out there making their case, because they wouldn’t bother if they weren’t taking ethical veganism seriously. As Gandhi has often been attributed with saying, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Davis and Bost are proof that ethical vegans are that much closer to winning. Besides, fighting is a lot more fun than being ignored and laughed at ever was.

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(17) Readers Comments

  1. February 25, 2013 at 8:40 am

    I enjoyed this article and couldn't agree more that the issues surrounding ethical veganism are being taken seriously if people are going to such great lengths to refute them. I came to a similar conclusion when I wrote a blog post about vegan bashing in movies, TV shows & other forms of it's all good because people are hearing us even if they are ridiculing us. One of my commenters pointed out the same Gandhi quote. Great job!

  2. February 25, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    Personally I am not entirely sure that grass fed meat kills more animals than modern vegetable farming. However, grass fed meat is not modern farming, and just like traditional gardening, would not feed the world today and is a lot more costly. Modern animal farming (raising animals in factories and feeding them, for their entire shortened lifespan, monocrops like corn and soy) without a doubt kills more animals than any vegetable farming. This author (as many others) is clearly invested in coming up with a logical justification for a socially accepted behavior that he doesn't want to give up... but there isn't one. There are plenty of philosophical premises you could adopt that would justify eating meat; for example, that killing isn't wrong or that it's only wrong if the victim possesses certain characteristics. But none of them would lead to the conclusion that killing humans is always wrong, but it isn't wrong to consume animals even though we have no nutritional need for it. EVEN assuming that all plant farming always kills more animals than all animal farming... would we care if we were talking about humans? Lots of starving people could be fed if we cooked dead people instead of letting them rot away... but it's crazy to even mention that possibility. If we don't use that logic when we talk about human lives (i.e. "it's okay to treat one person as a tool to help another"), then why do we use that logic when we talk about animals' lives? People offer a lot of reasons, but none are logical.

  3. February 25, 2013 at 4:48 pm

    Eating vegan is also eating "in the most ecologically benign way." The industry of factory farmed animals pollutes land, water, and air; causes the destruction of the rainforests; causes obesity and diseases in the body ecology of people who eat animals; creates scarcity of food and water that could be fed to people but is fed to animals instead; and is the cause of at least 18 percent of global warming (by some estimates as much as 52 percent of global warming).

  4. Rosa Goldman
    February 25, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    Meat-eaters eat plants, too. And "meat animals" eat farmed plants as well. Finally, if one wants to insist on the fantasy of free-grazing "meat" that is wholly pastoral and requires no agriculture, most land that can support that could be used to feed humans, so in addition to the pastoral burden it forces an additional agricultural burden. Carnivores do not live by meat alone.

  5. February 27, 2013 at 10:58 pm

    Even if animals do die to harvest plants, still more are killed to support meat eating. Remember, 80% of the world's crops are used to feed livestock, so plants would need to be harvested anyway.

  6. August 15, 2013 at 5:26 pm

    Well said, well said. Of course the reason we require mechanical harvesting of crops is simply because there are too damn many humans on the planet! Where does it stop; ten billion, twenty billion? Like so many professor Davis doesn't examine his assumptions at all. For centuries people harvested their crops by hand and they could do it because there were not so many mouths to be fed. Thus the number of wildlife killed in the process would be minimal.

  7. owen lester
    July 27, 2014 at 2:19 am

    It always amuses me to see vegans happily sipping their "animal friendly" cups of coffee (with soy milk) in local cafes. Where do these people imagine that coffee comes from? or more to the point, what became of the tropical forests that once covered the vast areas of land now taken over for coffee and soy production? What became of the mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians that used to live in the forests? When the vegan goes home and flicks on a light switch does it ever occur to him/her that open-cut coal mines and hydro-electric power stations are ecological monstrosities that devastate natural environments and animal life? What about their computers, mobile phones, things made of timber, glass, plastic, cement etc. etc. etc., the petrol that they put in their cars? "Animal Friendly" products? Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! The truth is that there is hardly a single industrial product the production of which isn't predicated on the mass destruction of animal life. The Vegan who elevates his CONSUMER CHOICES to the level of so-called moral principle is just a typical illustration of what George Orwell meant when he wrote that "all humanitarians are hypocrites", namely people who reserve the right to be simultaneously the material beneficiaries and self-righteous moral critics of a destructive and exploitative economic system.

    • July 29, 2014 at 10:49 am

      I don't drink coffee. More to your point, of course it is impossible to be perfect. But the fact that we can't do everything doesn't excuse us from doing something. Vegans can't eliminate but do reduce animal suffering, which is better than people who do nothing.

      • owen lester
        August 9, 2014 at 2:24 am

        Hello Piper! "Vegans can't eliminate but do reduce animal suffering, which is better than people who do nothing." This is a mere assertion stated as a fact. My point is that vegans actually do absolutely NOTHING to reduce animal suffering. An illustration: take a look at a list of animals currently facing the prospect of extinction in this country (hundreds of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians). Now tell me how many of these species are actually being eaten or otherwise directly exploited by human beings? When was the last time you saw a restaurant with golden bell frogs on the menu or a fur shop selling potaroo pelt coats? I'm here making the possibly unjustified assumption that the "animal rights" vegan would agree that the annihilation of an entire species is a more serious matter than the killing of a single animal (genocide vs. murder). The factors involved in the destruction have little if anything to do with human dietary preferences. To say "I'm saving animals by not eating or wearing them" might sound plausible as a vague generality but is patently false when applied to any specific case. Even in the case of pigs, cows, chickens etc. I would ask the vegan to produce any data whatsoever to justify the assertion that the personal dietary idiosyncrasies of a minute proportion of the population have prolonged the lifespan of even a single farm animal. If the vegan fad ever became popular enough to have a measurable impact on meat and animal skin/fibre production its effect would probably be lower market prices and INCREASED production of these products. In a word veganism involves magical thinking and perhaps some ego-gratification for the vegan. It has nothing whatsoever to do with reduction of animal suffering.

        • August 15, 2014 at 11:49 am

          vegans do reduce suffering because there is less demand so less animals being born into factory farms or farm family that do brand their animals. plant based diet doesn't necessarily free or reduce suffering to every animal everywhere. for an individual cow, chicken, or pig that is already in a factory farm, someones decision at a supermarket isn't going to affect them, not sure why you are making people who care about others (vegans) to be horrible people. if much more people went vegan, why would there be increased production when demand would be way down? that makes no sense. ....while imperfect, going vegan is a great decision

  8. genevieve secunda
    August 15, 2014 at 12:46 am

    I agree with Owen Lester's comments. I would never eat an animal belonging to an endangered species but being myself a member of an animal species that has never at any period of its evolutionary history been anything other than omnivorous I reserve the right to act in accordance with my essential nature. In any case I dislike pigs and chickens in any place other than on a dinner plate. I had bacon and eggs for breakfast this morning ( oh my God you must think I'm a monster! and I don't friggin' care!)

  9. Midas_Skies
    August 30, 2014 at 3:13 pm

    Excuse me, Owen, Meat-eaters also drink coffee and use computers, mobile phones etc.

    • owen lester
      September 7, 2014 at 1:52 am

      Thanks Midas, but my point was simply that in the war being waged by human beings against nature and other animals,vegans and meat-eaters are fighting on the same side ie. the side of destruction. It's just that vegans are too smug, narcissistic and self-righteous to admit it. What is destroying animal (and plant) life on an unprecedented and exponentially increasing scale is the sum total of human "economic activity" (=environmental vandalism). This is the product of overpopulation (7,000,000,ooo + last time I looked) NOT human dietary preferences.

  10. Midas_Skies
    September 7, 2014 at 2:51 pm

    Owen, a lot of high-profile environmentalists are going vegan these days. Al Gore, George Monbiot to name just a couple. Here's a good article about the whole thing: -

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