Guest Contributor: Michael Boulton on Veganism

In January 2011, I adopted a strict vegan lifestyle, eliminating meat, fish, eggs, dairy, leather, and many other fairly everyday products from my life almost in a flash.

I would never have regarded myself as a ‘typical’ – or perhaps stereotypical – vegan: politically I’m liberal rather than radical or left wing. When I became vegan, I had little interest in environmental issues, and the thought of owning a pet I found fairly horrific. And when people showed me pictures or videos of animals doing ‘cute’ things, it was more ‘yawn’ than an ‘awww…’

Instead, I turned vegan for one very specific reason. Humans had no need to eat animals – sentient beings that didn’t want to die. Eating meat and fish purely for culinary pleasure seemed morally inexcusable.

Dairy and eggs were similarly wrong, because they required animals to be confined, and then killed once they were no longer of use.

Of course, there’s cruelty and suffering in the world, and the origins of almost anything that we purchase may be highly distasteful. But this was different: the vast majority of humans were complicit in what was effectively mass murder.

The Vegan Food Pyramid - see

This kind of motivation made sticking to what is a very restrictive diet – including ‘Tofu-key’ at Christmas – reasonably easy, even in a carnivorous, cheese-loving world.

But I brought my veganism to an end in November last year, not because of some irresistible craving for bacon but because I wasn’t so sure that a vegan diet is an appropriate one for the human population, or that it is the one hundred percent humane, ethical choice that it claims to be.

Although nutrition hadn’t factored in my decision to turn vegan, it did so in my decision to abandon it. The scientific consensus seems to be that a well-structured vegan diet will give you all the major nutrients that you need other than Vitamin B12, which you can get instead as a supplement or in B12-fortified foods. I’m still sure that the large majority of people can stay healthy with a vegan diet if they put the effort in – but that doesn’t mean that it’s optimal. By leaving out foods that humans have always eaten I was playing games with my health, trying to cheat my body into an unnatural way of existing. I never had any serious health problems as a vegan, but would a more rounded diet have been healthier both in the short and long term? I felt the answer was yes.

So the question became whether my health – and human health in general – is a sufficient justification for the death and suffering that eating animal products always to some degree entails. To answer this, I had to look at how far my basic beliefs might be based on guesswork. Do animals feel pain? Is it the same as our pain? Are animals ‘aware’ of their existence? Do they feel familial bonds?

I’m still of the opinion that pain is universal to the animal kingdom and that we have a responsibility to provide as natural and enjoyable a life as possible to animals that we domesticate – whether at home, in zoos, or on a farm. But the simple fact is that as a human being, I cannot comprehend what it is like to be a cow, a fish or a chicken. Asking myself and others to make genuine sacrifices based on hypothesising answers to these questions seemed, as a result, hard to justify.

I also found that being a ‘true’ vegan is impossible. To live in a city is to accept post-agricultural processes that are inherently destructive – loss of animal habitats, the killing of animals under the plough, the polluting of streams inhabited by marine life. Everything from my flat and the clothes I was wearing to my beloved bags of oats by necessity involved death.

Veganism seemed only to be possible because of all the modernizing, anti-vegan actions that came before it. So much so that continuing to be a vegan was in effect an endorsement of these actions.

I have great respect for vegans and vegetarians but for me, and perhaps others, turning vegan became too convenient a way to feel as though I was doing good without truly seeking to understand the issues involved.

So where do I go from here? What meat do I eat? What should I avoid? How strict should I be?

The answer is, I suspect, balance – and remembering that no matter how much thought or care I put into it, I can’t live up to my ideals. I try to eat humanely, and to think before I buy, but at the same time I recognise that the world is far too complex for grand, idealistic protests and constant agonising over what might be the perfect way to live…


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One comment

  • Chris
    May 26, 2013 - 9:29 pm | Permalink

    Reading Michael’s post on veganism, I was struck by how flimsy the grounds were on which he stopped being vegan and, it sounds, vegetarian. This isn’t meant as an attack on Michael, but the arguments he brings out are all too common and should be seen for what they are.

    Our diets are a manifestation of a variety of moral philosophies and cultural adoptions and adaptations. Discussion about veganism (and our diets more broadly) can unpack belief systems in an illuminating way. This post only scratches the surface, given that it is a rebuttal, but I hope that it invites thought in that direction.

    Michael’s post essentially makes two claims for his choice to stop being vegan. The first is that it may not be the ideal diet from a nutritional standpoint, and the second is that being a ‘true vegan’ is impossible because of modern life. I’d like to look at each of these in turn and then explore some of the broader implications of our diets.

    Michael provides no evidence that a vegan diet is sub-optimal. He simply says that he ‘feels’ that he would have been healthier with a more rounded diet. This is not a particularly contentious issue, and I won’t spend much time refuting it. Almost every major dietetic organisation in the world agrees that a well planned vegan diet is perfectly healthy from cradle to grave.

    However, this is fundamental to (and, in turn, justified by) an ethical argument that makes this health argument relevant. Michael argues that ‘as a human being, I cannot comprehend what it is like to be a cow, a fish or a chicken’. He then goes on to say that he doesn’t believe he can justify making sacrifices based on hypotheses about what it is like to be one of those animals. Where is the threshold of sacrifice that makes the killing of sentient being unacceptable? Where is the threshold of knowledge that reaches equilibrium with this threshold of sacrifice?

    Certainly we must hypothesise about certain aspects of the cognitive experience of animals, but there are also aspects about which we have a pretty good idea. Animals show signs of feeling familial and friendship bonds. Mother cows and their calves both make sounds of distress when separated. Pigs are highly intelligent animals that make bonds with humans and other animals alike, not to mention their own social hierarchies. Chickens have complex social structures and cultural knowledge that is passed from generation to generation.

    I hate to be that guy who brings out distressing videos when eating animals is discussed, and I don’t believe anecdotes necessarily prove arguments, but please watch this video and ask yourself whether this cow is feeling fear:

    And, on a happier note, does this piglet not possess many of the same attributes we would give to cats and dogs? (I’ll leave the argument about companion animals for another time).

    More importantly: if this were not the case, would the killing and eating of other species be justified? I would argue that it is not. Closeness to the self as a measure for inherent value of life is the crux of war and violence through the ages. We dehumanise an ‘other’ in order to do what we like to them. In many ways, Michael’s questioning of the ability of animals to feel human-like emotions is that same process. It is an intellectual act of differing that allows killing and torture. Of course, I don’t believe that this is intentional, but the process of ‘othering’ frequently is not.

    The second argument is more interesting, though I believe it comes from a very simple misunderstanding of ‘veganism’. Vegans don’t seek to remove all animal suffering from their lifestyles. They seek to do so insofar as is possible, at least according to the Vegan Society. Absolutely, modern life makes it impossible to live the life of a Jain. But I think it’s a fairly simple logical fallacy to dismiss a lifestyle of striving towards minimisation of suffering because the complete eradication is impossible.

    Despite Michael’s lack of interest in environmental issues, on a planet with 7 billion people, our diets are inherently tied up with our environment. Is veganism a categorical imperative? That is, is it sustainable in terms of human welfare if generalised? This is certainly a debate to be had, and I would argue that it is neither necessary nor sufficient for a ‘moral’ diet in terms of the categorical imperative, but that it is capable of being so when others are not.

    Let me explain: the moral underpinnings of the death and suffering of conscious animals do not extend to the environmental side of things. For example, some geographies are more suited to producing grass for ruminants and can provide a more efficient production of calories by supporting these animals. That being said, our global meat and dairy system very rarely takes advantage of these areas (not all grass-fed beef is from land that would best be suited for that purpose). Of course this all overlooks the question of whether our exploitation of natural resources should be entirely for the most efficient production of edible calories.

    And modern farming does cause deaths. Mice and rabbits die for our carrots and sweetcorn. Mass apiculture may be associated with the collapse of bee populations, and bees used for pollation in industrial agriculture are treated horrifically. And yet from a utilitarian perspective, far more death occurs to produce meat calories. This is largely because the animals have to eat. Over 90% of global soya production goes to livestock feed. Let that sink in. In the vast majority of cases, meat requires both the intensive agriculture and the death and suffering of the animals on your plate.

    But all of this disregards the countless impacts of meat and dairy production on our planetary boundaries. We’re all familiar with methane output from cows belching, but we need to consider CO2 equivalent impacts from land take for livestock and their supporting feed crops. The nitrogen cycle is far beyond its planetary boundary, and the phosphorus cycle is getting there. Meat production has direct impacts on both. And if you don’t value the lives of chickens, cows, fish, or pigs, maybe you value the lives of endangered primates? Much of the planet’s biodiversity loss is attributed to meat and feedstock production.

    If you care about people more than you care about animals, the above should be alarming. As Neil Adger argues, social resilience is bounded up with ecological resilience. As a species, we are destroying both for taste. The impacts of climate change, the disruption of the climate cycle, and even the price impact that meat production has on staple foods — all of these impact the poor disproportionately. They do and will continue to cause death and suffering of people as well as non-human animals. Even if we disregard the direct moral implications of killing animals, we should consider the impact we have on humans by raising them to be eaten.

    And as I said, veganism is not sufficient to overcome these challenges. I understand Michael when he says that, for him, ‘turning vegan became too convenient a way to feel as though I was doing good without truly seeking to understand the issues involved.’ I agree with the sentiment. The world is a complicated place. And being vegan on its own doesn’t guarantee achievement of desirable outcomes. But inability to meet ideals does not justify disposing of them altogether.

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