August 13, 2007

The struggle to make vegetarianism the new normal

Wow.

In my wildest dreams I would have never imagined the kind of negative response I got to my vegetarian rant. My attempt to stir debate was set aflame on account of my tone, which as Martin Striz correctly noted, "psychologically primed [my] readers for a certain kind of response by framing the discourse in a disparaging tone to begin with."

Clearly, I misjudged the severity of this 'disparaging tone,' while my efforts to infuse humour and levity into the piece clearly failed; I obviously need to work on that.

But one thing I certainly learned from this exercise is that people are hypersensitive to rather forceful attacks on their dietary habits and their choice to eat meat. I clearly hit a soft-spot in a way that enraged a number of my readers. I even lost a number of regulars -- a consequence I find most fascinating. While I'm sure that many of these individuals were upset at my attitude and my over-the-top effort to proselytize, I have to think that the subject matter had a lot to do with it as well.

As I learned from writing this article, one cannot yet stand on a soapbox and make the declaration that eating meat is wrong without the fear of severe reprisal (particularly in the way that I did!). This exercise was a very clear reminder to me that vegetarianism is still very fringe, as is the broader effort to advocate for animal rights.

In other words, the debate hasn't yet been normalized in our society. Arguing for an end to livestock today would be tantamount to arguing for same-sex marriage in the 19th Century.

Now, I've pissed off my share of readers over the years. I'm a polemicist and I wear that label like a badge. I'm used to all the negative feedback and ad hominem attacks. In fact, I consider a polemical article a failure if I get very little response; it means I didn't say anything of import, I didn't push any buttons.

But this last article, jeez did I ever hit a nerve.

And over what?

Meat.

It wasn't like I was saying we should abandon democracy or throw away the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I wasn't suggesting that we bomb Iraq or that we should be forced to wear clown suits from now on.

Nope, it was about meat.

I told my readers in very blunt terms that the practice of eating meat is unethical and that they should consider converting to a vegetarian diet. That message earned me the most abuse of any post I have ever written about anything.

Meat.

Yes, I used a big stick approach, but that was very deliberate. It was an effort to get attention.

One commenter suggested that I should have written a very polite article in which I carefully made my points. Sure, I could have done that -- but no one would have read it. Instead, with my sensationalistic approach I brought thousands of people to the article.

Did I change any minds? Well, maybe -- I know that at least one couple has converted to vegetarianism on account of my article. But my intention to change minds was indirect; what I really wanted to do was pass on the message that eating meat is very uncool -- and I think that accounts for a lot of the anger.

The in-your-face nature of the post was intended to upset and cajole. I wanted meat eaters to know what I think of their habits. I wanted them to know that there are people in our society who look at their eating choices with disgust and disdain. This is a very serious issue -- about as serious as it gets because we are talking about the welfare of living, breathing creatures (not to mention the environment).

Another reason for all the negative feedback is that a significant portion of my readership could care less about animal rights. They visit my site to read about transhumanism, science, futuristic technologies, the search for extraterrestrial life, and so on. The sudden shift to animal welfare and vegetarianism must have certainly seemed like a huge disconnect and a real turn-off.

But there is good reason for this; much of my transhumanist methodology is derived from non-anthropocentric personhood ethics. At its very core transhumanism is about the acknowledgment of worthwhile and morally valuable personhood space outside of Homo sapiens -- whether it be the personhood of advanced humans or more 'primitive' non-human animals.

Consequently, this ties directly into my futurist activism; I want to help create a future in which animals do not have to suffer to the degree that they do today. Sure, technology can and will help to make that happen, but today we have to use common sense food choices.

Now, in regards to the accusation that I'm a 'bigot' or intolerant of meat eaters, that's an interesting point. Bigotry, I suppose, is relative. Let's imagine for a moment that I had written an article titled 'Racists are bad people,' or 'Homophobes are bad people.' Do you think I would have received the same kind of negative response? Hardly. Aside from a few anachronistic and unenlightened perspectives I'd get a slew of comments saying, 'right on, brother.'

But the fact that I didn't get these sorts of supportive comments, aside from a small minority, indicates to me that our transition to a mostly meat-free society is a process still in its infancy.

And yes, this is not just my vision for the future, it's also an imperative and a prediction.

The ultimate goal is an end to livestock and to make vegetarianism the new normal (eventually we'll have lab grown meat at our disposal, but until then vegetarianism is a good short-term fix). How do we achieve this goal? Well, we can continue to pussy-foot around the issues and act like everything is okay, or we can raise a stink much like I did. I don't tolerate racism, homophobia, religious prejudice and sexual discrimination, nor do I tolerate speciesist meat-eating culture.

Yes, I realize that this perspective will turn off many of my readers, but for that I make no apologies.

And I don't believe I'm out of line with these sorts of comparisons. I assign high-moral worth to non-human animals. They are not our property to do with as we please. This is a crucial social issue as millions upon millions of animals suffer needlessly every year.

In closing, to those of you were offended by my rude and belligerent tone, please accept my apologies. For those readers who were angered by my message itself, please ask yourself what it is you're getting so upset about and contrast that with what I'm so upset about.

I would like to see less animal suffering, improvements to human health and a reduction in environmental degradation.

You want to eat meat.

Does this not seem disproportionate to you?

56 comments:

Pablo Defendini said...

Hi, de-lurking here after following your blog for the past year or so. I read your original post, and as I'm a meat eater, I suppose I'm an object of your chagrin. But you know what? That's OK. Because amidst your 'big stick' invective were some pretty hard facts, and some pretty good logical arguments.

Besides, you have your convictions, and you stick to them, regarless of how prevalent they are in mainstream society. I admire that, and I admire the fact that you're willing to piss people off in order to get your message out there. In these days of PC, hand-holding, 'try not to offend anyone' sanitation, people seem to let their convictions play second fiddle to non-confrontational correctness. Glad to see you're not one of those people.

So let people bitch, let them leave your blog, let them get pissed off. If the situation is as you portray it, your message needs to get out there, regardless of how uncomfortable it will make some people.

Will I continue to eat meat after reading your post? Maybe, maybe not, but you've certainly given me some serious food for thought (no pun intended), and I intend to follow up with my own research into the subject. At the very least I've been thinking twice when making my culinary choices since I read your post a few days ago, and you've set me on the path to re-evaluating a daily habit that I've been taking for granted up to now.

George said...

Thanks, Pablo. Very appreciated.

Anonymous said...

where would you stand on the consumption of synthetically grown meat, that could (at some point in the future) provide "meat", grown in a lab that does not involve the killing of an animal to produce?

I'm talking cloned vats of animal tissue/muscle here, rather than meat substitutes like tofu.

of course this is all imaginary hypothesis, but I can forsee that it could be possible some day... would someone who's vegetarian due to ethical beliefs eat "meat" that didnt come from an animal? (but had the same constituent parts)


I'd also like to add I've only been reading your blog for a week, very good reading so far :)

George said...

Thanks for bringing that up. Yes, I'm totally onboard for lab grown meat, or even the engineering of animals without the capacity for sentience, emotions, pain, etc.

Here's a link:
The end of livestock

I've added this link to the article.

Anonymous said...

ah thanks for that, I missed that :)

I think perhaps growing tissue structures might be easier than engineering animals without the, "capacity for sentience" how does one even measure sentience these days anyway?

although I expect you've covered that before somewhere too!

George said...

No, I don't think I've covered that issue in any detail. I guess the simplest way would be to create a 'brainless' animal -- or just enough brain to conduct basic bodily functions. So long as there's no agent present to experience any kind of pain or emotional stress -- or even an agent to internalize and experience the environment -- I think we're okay.

x said...

(previously anonymous)

it'd probably be more ethically viable just to grow a chunk of muscle, although perhaps more difficult.

otherwise you may just develop a comatose animal that shows to reaction to pain, rather than one that experiences no pain. or end up endlessly debating the prerequisites of sentience etc, which could go on forever

x said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bw said...

It is surprising that as a futurist you would make such a large mistake of predicting what you want to happen with the range of possible things that will actually happen.

Although with the comment just noted and the feedback you have received it seems you are on the path to what will happen.

I think the factory grown meat from stem cells or some direct fabrication of nutrition is what will eventually happen as fairly dominant sources. However, this will be a long transition, which may not happen or could be substantially delayed if there is enough energy and resources available to cover the reduced efficiency of nutrition from meat.

Vegetarianism has been a niche lifestyle choice since ancient times.

I am aware of all the issues about meat and still eat and will continue to eat meat.

I do not think the "ethical issues" of animal rights and meat eating will gain mainstream traction unless other energy efficiency and health issues ended up driving change to a tipping point.

I think the dominant drivers will be energy and resource efficiency, which I do not see progressing past a shift to meat and food factories. end to livestock eventually possible, end to meat...just don't see it.

FrF said...

I assume that when George talks about meat he also includes fish as animals that shouldn't be killed and eaten.

As a quasi-vegetarian -- I eat meat and fish very seldom, probably not more than 3-4 times a year -- I wonder what George thinks about eating insects or other exotic animal-based diets...Not that I plan to eat insects (I've heard they're also very rich in protein) it's just a philosophical question :-)

George said...

BW: Ha, it's true that in this case my prediction is also something I want to see come to fruition. Personally, I don't see anything wrong with that; I'm an active rather than a passive futurist who is hoping to participate in a self-fulfilling prophecy :-)

George said...

frf: I actually consider both fish and insects to be outside of the personhood spectrum. They may both be experiential, but not to the point where I would assign a whole lot of moral worth to their lives. I've read accounts, for example, which suggest that fish cannot feel pain.

Snowden said...

Another meat-eater who, for the first time in a long time, had a serious think about it. Non-anthropocentric ethics are exactly the type of thing I come here to think about and it was a nice eye-opener to see that we don't need AI to start taking it seriously. We already have a whole continuum of intelligence to think about.

It brought up some interesting questions in my mind. Obviously plants have no intelligence, no suffering. What about fish and birds? Can we actually say something about that? Do we draw a line or two in the sand of brain complexity and give rights according to where you fall? Or is it a sliding scale? What kinds of middle ground should we have? And what about humans with undeveloped/underdeveloped brains? Do they get knocked down a peg? That you should measure someone/something's intelligence and grant rights based on that seems terrible, and yet what else is there for a non-anthropocentric ethics?

John Roach said...

"In closing, to those of you were offended by my rude and belligerent tone, please accept my apologies..."

Oh come one, we can do better than that. You took a rude and belligerent tone for a reason. Don't back down. Do that again and I'll stop reading.

I didn't agree with what you said (more accurately, I agreed with you on a purely theoretical level) but at least you put some thought and science behind a viewpoint that is usually expressed on bumper stickers.

Believe in your readers; we can think for ourselves. If some people leave, let them. There's more where they came from.

I was taught that you never point a gun at someone unless you intend to shoot. My advice to you is to never call someone a bitch unless you mean it.

In closing, keep up the good work.

n8o said...

You should know that piece made a difference to me, G.

I still have excuses, but they starting to seem pretty darn flimsy.

I'm not very well disciplined when it comes to diet, so I decided, instead of going cold - er, tofurkey? - I'd reduce the amount of meat I eat. I have plenty of support (my wife and many of my friends are veg/an).

I'm going there - slowly. My biggest remaining concern is that it's the practice of factory farming, and not my own personal consumption, that needs to stop. In that sense, it's only a collective effort that can make effective enough demands on the industry. That's why support is important.

I also used to think that I had a visceral need for it, that reflects the need to "listen to my body". But then again, I have a soft drink habit that feels pretty similar, and I wouldn't claim I need processed sugar and caffeine for my health. So I'm going to do an experiment, and find out.

Wish me luck. I'll need it. And thanks for being uncompromising, and even a little angry. It did help.

George said...

John and n8o: thanks, brothers. It's good to know that some people interpreted the article in the way I intended.

Explodicle said...

That post made a difference to me too... Not to say I'm an instant convert, but I've been thinking about it and have had some very tasty vegetarian meals since then.

Of course, how politely someone presents an argument seldom effects my evaluation of it anyways. :-P

David Hunter said...

Hi George

Just wanted to chime in, and say I know where you were coming from with your first post, and was quietly amused by the many self righteous responses you got. I've had those same painful conversations myself.

I enjoyed your first post, and this one as well. And given your moral commitments, your post seemed appropriate despite the terms you used.

There is a discussion of this sort of issue in the philosophy classroom over at In Socrates' Wake: http://insocrateswake.blogspot.com/2007/07/business-and-ethics-disconnect.html

The difficulty is that people are happy to talk ethics when it doesn't effect how they live presently... But as soon as it becomes personal, they tend to get put off.

Steve said...

What's your opinion with regard to cannibalism?

Anonymous said...

I'll just recommend the book China Study for those interested in the health side of a diet. Reading that got me into the road to being vegeterian.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/China_Study

Even if one does not care about the animal condition in meat growing, it is hardly rational to eat a diet that correlates strongly with many diseases.

Anonymous said...

I'm used to all the negative feedback and ad hominem attacks.

... says a guy who calls all meat-eaters "bad."

Is this all one big joke, or are you really that lacking in self-awareness?

Anonymous said...

How do we achieve this goal? Well, we can continue to pussy-foot around the issues and act like everything is okay, or we can raise a stink much like I did?

False trade-off.

Elvis Parsley said...

Part of the reason you got a fairly large response is that someone linked to your post from a Treehugger comment thread.

http://www.treehugger.com/files/2007/08/car_journalist.php

nyu2 said...

I don't really understand why people would get upset about it. Seems a little weird.

Your post did get me thinking about it, though. I suspect that after I do more research into how to actually live as a vegetarian, I'll switch to a completely meat-free diet.

John said...

George & Fellow SD Readers,

Bear with me, I have a number of comments that I'd like to share.

On Vegetarianism: I 100% agree with George's arguments. I think that if one is able to actually study the arguments for and against, it's abundantly clear that moving to a vegetarian diet is the correct moral choice, the only reasons to eat meat are that it tastes good and that it's still socially acceptable. These hardly justify all the negative aspects.
My story (30 second version). I've gone to veggie diet myself approx. 3 months ago, a short time after listening to a Podcast featuring Peter Singer, a well-known ethicist who wrote a book back in the seventies, Animal Liberation, he was really a pioneer in the animal rights movement. Listening to the Podcast and Peter's arguments it became clear to me at that time that eating meat was immoral. Similar to the comments of some other readers above, I didn't go cold turkey, I realized that as someone who really did like meat (I worked at McDonald's for 5 years for crying out loud! - till peeved at them for not having a veggie burger!), loved eating all kinds of meat, I needed to learn about my choices, but after about 2 months of gradually getting used to non-meat choices, I finally made the move. It honestly wasn't that hard and I'd strongly recommend it to anyone who is considering it. Give it a try, you can do it, it's not that hard.
On Why So Many Readers became so Angry: Cognitive Dissonance - People can't handle being told that they are bad. We hold a positive image of ourselves as moral, good people. If someone tells us something we're doing is bad, our initial reaction is to justify our own actions, tear down these new ideas, be angry and fight back because people are unable to accept that they are, in fact, doing something that is bad. Perhaps it was unfair of George to say these people were BAD people, perhaps a more fair statement would be that eating meat is an immoral action. Clearly most people who are eating meat are all BAD people. I don't think I was a BAD person when I was eating meat, I just hadn't really taken the time to think about it.

Some ideas on why we should be good to animals: As a futurist and singularitarian, I strongly believe that we will see entities within our lifetime that will exceed our intelligence exponentially. I would certainly hope that these new, non-biological intelligences would treat humanity with compassion and respect. If we look at how humanity treats those beings that are exponentially less intelligent than we are, then I think we're acting as pretty poor role models. An interesting, and related pop culture example/reference: I watched the Transformers movie with my kids a few months back, and watching it and thinking about it - how is it that we're able to differentiate between the decepticons and the autobots. Which ones are good, which ones are bad? Both were fighting one another, both were trying to gain access to this power cube thing. The key differentiator was that the autobots felt that the human race, while still far less advanced that their own, had potential, and their lives were special, and worth defending. I asked my kids how they perceived themselves? Were they like the autobots, did they feel it was worthwhile to protect species who were less advanced that they were, or like the decepticons who felt that 'inferior' life forms
could be justifyable killed? Could we justify the slaughter of billions of sentient beings each year because they taste good?
On Religion: George, you felt that telling people who eat meat that they're bad sparked controversy? Try telling people who believe in God that they're stupid, that'll really get them going! As an atheist, I feel that at the core of it, many theists believe in God and Religion because it makes them feel good, and it was the social norm - or how they were raised. This drives me nuts, because I expect people to think rationally about it and I think if you're able to do that and you look at the evidence, then Atheism, or at least Agnosticism are the more defensible positions. Thus, after hearing the reasons for vegetarianism, I couldn't use those same arguments (that eating meat made me feel good and it was socially accepted) to justify my diet, thus it had to go.
Anyhow, thanks for reading, hopefully this was some interesting food for thought... Cheers!

Franklin said...

The only cognitive dissonance is the self-involved belief that riding a phony moral high horse and declaring the vast majority of humanity as bad is somehow an effective tactic towards decreasing animal suffering and improving the environment.

Newsflash for George and all the other veggie newbies: these methods are old and tired and do not work. They only create backlash and reinforce stereotypes.

One day, hopefully you will mature sufficiently to realize that your way of being is far more important than the words you say and the "purity" of the beliefs you hold. You may also realize that demonizing others almost never serves the purpose of achieving lasting change.

Perhaps the most self-absorbed argument I constantly see made by veggies is that somehow people who eat animal products have some inner guilt and that they react so strongly because they're ashamed. No. That's not it. People react strongly when self-involved morons feel qualified to lecture humanity about how bad they are and how good the self-absorbed moron is.

Diet is such a naarow aspect of existence, yet somehow you all think it's the litmus test of morality. How juvenile.

Fucking Hitler was a vegetarian, for chrissakes. By your pathetic standards, that makes him better than 99% of humanity.

There's a lot more to life and the quality of a human life than what goes into one's mouth. And what comes out of it, in the form of vitriolic moralizing, often demonstrates the true character of a person.

John said...

Franklin: Thanks for your comments.
You're right that clearly what you eat it certainly not the biggest moral or ethical decision you make each day.

I don't think that was my point. Clearly all actions we take in a day that affect other people, or other sentient beings could be evaluated as moral or immoral.
I don't profess to be a perfect moral being, I'm nowhere close! nobody is, but if you do strive to be a moral person, then isn't it a useful exercise to evaluate your individual actions, and where you can make a better choice, to do so?

Each time you eat, you have a choice to make, and the point that George makes (and that I agree with) is that choosing to eat meat (certainly factory farmed meat anyway) is an immoral and unethical choice. I'd be really interested to hear sound arguments against this. Let's get past whether George should or shouldn't have called people a bitch, and stop accusing George and other vegetarians of riding a high horse, and get back to the main argument at hand, do you think it's Ok that we raise billions of sentient creatures in horrible, inhumane conditions and slaughter them because they taste good? Do you think that's actually acceptable?? Are the environmental concerns bunk?? Do you disagree with his actual arguments or do you think he just shouldn't make them?, I don't get it...?

nickptar said...

The difficulty is that people are happy to talk ethics when it doesn't effect how they live presently... But as soon as it becomes personal, they tend to get put off.

I found it interesting and annoying to see meat-eaters making, effectively, moral subjectivist or nihilist arguments (You can't push your personal ethical system on me! I'll eat meat if I want to!) that they probably would never consider under any other circumstance.

Franklin said...

You're right that clearly what you eat it certainly not the biggest moral or ethical decision you make each day.

It's not a matter of whether it's the biggest moral or ethical decision. I simply disagree with the sort of prejudice which involves labelling a vast swath of humanity as "bad" without any metric besides diet, and at that, with the very arbitrary line of animal flesh. For example, plenty of vegans will draw the line past that at any animal product and consider George to be "bad." That's the inherent problem with pretension to moralizing -- there's always going to be varying conceptions of morality and ethics out there, and there's always someone who's going to take it farther than you will. It also leaves open the door to being judged. None of this is actually effective in terms of the stated primary goal, which is reducing animal suffering.

I don't think that was my point. Clearly all actions we take in a day that affect other people, or other sentient beings could be evaluated as moral or immoral.

The presumption being that there's a universal morality applicable to everyone, and that specificity of each individual's life can be ignored. Oh, and that the determinent of existential moral value is whether one eats a chicken mcnugget once a year or not. These sorts of arguments provide zero room for gradations -- it's just a solitary, arbitrary line in the sand. And again -- the question of effectiveness is always pertinent. Does yelling at people and calling them nasty things, prejudicially, have a beneficial effect with respect to animal suffering, or does it have a negative effect? And why would it seem appropriate to cause mental suffering and conflict among human animals? Isn't the core issue about the creation of suffering? Now, it's just boiled down into a "means to an end" approach which, in my experience, never really works.

I don't profess to be a perfect moral being, I'm nowhere close! nobody is, but if you do strive to be a moral person, then isn't it a useful exercise to evaluate your individual actions, and where you can make a better choice, to do so?

Of course, but stating that "meat eaters are bad" (and the implied "vegetarians are good") is such an oversimplified rendition of reality as to be meaningless.

Each time you eat, you have a choice to make

Actually, no. Eating doesn't have to be a choice-making, thought-involved process. This is actually detrimental to health. Everything needs to eat, and it's the very nature of earthly existence that something needs to die for something else to keep on living. And plenty of people on this planet have very little ability to determine what they eat, or are simply just thankful to have any food whatsoever. Certainly up until the industrial age, food (and simply being able to be healthy) were blessing unto themselves. That we could in less than a couple centuries get to the point of demonizing something that was essential to our survival as a species is an effete kind of alienated concept.

and the point that George makes (and that I agree with) is that choosing to eat meat (certainly factory farmed meat anyway) is an immoral and unethical choice.

OK, now here's where distinctions matter. Factory farming is absolutely nothing like taking a fishing pole and going to a pond to catch a sunfish. Yet, in George's universe, the executives of some livestock multinational are morally equivalent to some indigenous person living a subsistence existence. They're also morally equivalent to the person who conscientiously and lovingly raises a small amount of livestock for their family and neighbors, treat and feed the animals well, and give them a quick and painless death. Yet somehow this is worse than some animal starving to death in the woods? Being torn apart by a predator? Getting run over by a pickup? Getting doused in an oil spill? Getting sucked into a jet engine? Being eaten alive on the savannah? This notion that we're somehow responsible for giving animals a pain-free existence is crazy. Suffering is inevitable. The degree to which we can lessen the suffering is what's important.

I'd be really interested to hear sound arguments against this. Let's get past whether George should or shouldn't have called people a bitch, and stop accusing George and other vegetarians of riding a high horse, and get back to the main argument at hand

Why should we get past that? It's actually quite essential. How one approaches a problem should be of great interest if one is actually interested in dealing with a problem. Calling people "bad" or "bitches" and riding a moral high horse is INEFFECTIVE. In fact, I'd argue it's counterproductive, meaning, in the end, more animal suffering will be created than in the absence of the petulent outburst, simply from all the people hardening their position and consuming more animal flesh (with zeal) just to assert their free will and spite the jerk who insulted them for no reason.

do you think it's Ok that we raise billions of sentient creatures in horrible, inhumane conditions and slaughter them because they taste good? Do you think that's actually acceptable??

Here again you are focusing on a subset of treatment (conventional industrial livestock production) and moving away from the general statement that eating flesh, no matter what, makes someone an immoral person. And the corollary, that not eating animal flesh, irregardless of other considerations, makes someone "not bad." Also, to boil it down to simple taste preferences is absurd. Plenty of people need animal meat to be healthy, because their health is completely messed up. Plenty of people need meat because there aren't ready, sustainable substitutes for it for the place in which they live. Plenty to people eat meat from animals that are raised humanely, live carefree, happy lives free of suffering, in full health. Those animals will die one day anyway, so I really have trouble understanding what's wrong with one second of death-causing in an otherwise wonderful life. Certainly no human life is that free from suffering, and certainly no domesticated animal would have that kind of life trying to live in the wild.

Are the environmental concerns bunk??

Of course not, but one can emphasize just as many horrible environmental consequences to industrial non-meat agriculture. The problem is industrialized treatment of life, whether it's sentient or not, and that includes the industrial treatment of human beings, along the lines of acting as if we're all automatons who can be characterized "good" or "bad" based on one arbitrary metric.

Do you disagree with his actual arguments or do you think he just shouldn't make them?, I don't get it...?

I think he stated it best that he wanted attention more than he wanted to be effective. George thinks that shouting is necessary to get attention. Well, I find that if you have a very unsound argument, that's probably a rational way to think. But if you focus on effectiveness, and accuracy, and a properly sophisticated treatment of a complex topic, then you'll arrive at better answers and better responses and in the end be more effective.

Just the assumption that you and George make about others not being vegetarian, when in fact some of us are, is what I really find funny. We just don't agree with how he's doing this, and cringe that he (like many others out there) works overtime to make people who care about animals and the environment look like angry lunatics.

There's no need to shout if the opinion is actually well-considered and acknowledges all the subtelties that simplistic moralizing never captures. Moralizing in and of itself, without the consent of the people being spoken to, is farcical. Moral authority is granted, not self-given.

nina said...

A: you should know that you can't express tone of voice virtually.
B: you should should know that carcass eaters are extremely defensive, due to their deep down knowing that what they do is awful.
C: How come no one holds people to perfect standards like they do vegetarians? Often, the meat-eaters argument is "you're not perfect so shut up". The decision to avoid animal products is not a difficult one, anyone can do it. you don't have to be a certain kind of person, you can still be you. You just have to be able to say "no". I guess there are a lot of people who don't know how to say no.

Franklin said...

A: you should know that you can't express tone of voice virtually.

Gee, I didn't know that repeatedly insulting people and calling them names required proper ascertainment of tone.

B: you should should know that carcass eaters are extremely defensive, due to their deep down knowing that what they do is awful.

I've already covered the falseness of that belief. Nice use of inflammatory terminology, btw. Very effective. Not.

So, would you like to have every one of your actions microanalyzed for their degree of "awfulness"? Shall I call you "bad" and a "bitch" if I conclude that some behavior of yours is immoral by my own morality? Will you then be likely to respect and listen to my viewpoint? Will you then be likely to accede to my viewpoint, or are you more likely to harden your own position?

C: How come no one holds people to perfect standards like they do vegetarians?

I don't recall any carnivore making a post calling vegetarians "bad" and "bitches" (among other things). When you play the morality card, it's natural for people to then respond by judging whether you're a hypocrite or not.

Often, the meat-eaters argument is "you're not perfect so shut up".

As contrasted with the lovely self-involved militant vegetarian argument is "you had a one chicken mcnugget this year, so you're evil and less moral than I am."

The decision to avoid animal products is not a difficult one, anyone can do it.

Patently false. Many people can, with a long learning curve and a good deal of assistance, and they would also need major modifications to their social life. The decision may be simple, but the implementation isn't.

you don't have to be a certain kind of person, you can still be you. You just have to be able to say "no". I guess there are a lot of people who don't know how to say no.

Really? You're able to say "no" to everything? No sugar? No caffeine? No tobacco? No drugs of any kind? No unkind comments? No prejudicial opinions? No TV? No movies? No automobiles? No planes? No trains? No air conditioning? No computer? No non-renewable electricity? No plastic? No non-local products?

Thanks for demonstrating many of my points for me.

Anonymous said...

The question is, would you be the person you are if you had not eaten meat for the prime growth years of your life? Neither better nor worse, but certainly different. It is not your position that is frustrating, I happen to mostly agree, it is your general lack of respect for a differing point of view. Especially one that made you, in part, who you are today.

I should hope that any super intelligent AI has enough humility and respect to look upon us humans, the un-enlightened by its standards, with patience instead of damnation. The Plato/Socratic Cave Allegory is repeated repeatedly; in this case by you because you were once a meat eating cave dweller.

Would an AI return to Socrates' cave to uplift us or would the compulsion that normally drives us to save our brethren be absent in it? Damnation or fraternity?

bw said...

George, you can of course choose to be an "active futurist", but I think you should consider examining the prioritization of problems. Where exactly are you ranking this issue of vegetarianism out of the current problems ? I, also as a futurist, would rank this far behind getting the energy and transportation infrastructure fixed. I would say the resulting air and water pollution from coal and fossil fuel usage and resulting climate issues results in far more animal and human deaths. I also view the energy and transportation infrastructure issues as things that are more fixable in the timescale of decades. I am active in promoting ideas for fixing the energy mix and transportation (more nuclear power, renewable, cleaning up coal and supporting the legislation in that regard). For your goal, the lower hanging fruit might be where adjustments are made to reduce ecosystem destruction which effects the mammals and birds that you are concerned about. It would also save people and fish and insects.

George said...

Sure bw, I buy your arguments. Except that the move to vegetarianism can be done in the here and now and have an impact on creatures living in the here and now. And we can work towards those goals you cited as vegetarians. :-)

Julian Morrison said...

Here's a thought: what happened to the horses? At the turn of the previous century, horses were ubiquitous. In the gap between 1940 and 1970, they all but disappeared from use. Nowadays, they're a rich brat's plaything. Where did they go? Where are the fields of safe, happy, retired horses and their offspring?

It's not a coincidence that the canned dog food industry was invented roundabout then.

Moral of the story: the only reason that cows are more common than rhinos, is that people farm cows. Nobody but a zoo-keeper pays to keep a useless animal alive.

A vegetarian world is one which doesn't have an animal rights problem - it has an extinction problem.

Ryan said...

I think a response post would be good. There are very good points against the claim that vegetarianism is the most ethical choice which were made in the comments.

For example, the fact that animals in the wild typically die at length in conditions of extreme suffering. Like, being eaten alive by a predator. Or an injury which immobilizes an animal, causing it to be left by its herd and it either starves or bleeds to death.

Animals raised as human food may not exist in ideal conditions, but they surely to not die such drawn out and brutal deaths. Thus, it would seem more logical to argue for the end of allowing animals to exist in the wild if the goal is to eliminate the most suffering.

Or the fact that animals are killed by equipment used during the harvesting and maintenance of farm fields.

Finally, your arguments for the health case are just not that strong. Extreme diets are fads and you can find books to support any of them. There are no magic bullets. There is no population of people living hugely longer than average by eating no meat. I feel most comfortable with a balanced diet, including some moderate amount of meat. Until there is hard, conclusive evidence that 'meat is bad' even in moderation, I don't think you will see a mass migration away from meat consumption.

Anonymous said...

I read the article objectively. I eat meat, I think he had some good points and I think I might try to do the vegitarian thing based on some of them, especially the thing about chickens beaks being trimmed. I realize it is a bad habit and I might fail in the long run to be a 100% vegitarian but I am certainly going to cut back. I believe that we really do need to start treating animals better. If for no other reason that we might find ourselves in a lower social status someday (advanced AI or aliens for example) and I think it would go a lot better for us if we could say how it is "wrong to treat a weaker species as a disposable thing to use and be arbitrarily killed, we (the human race) realized it a long time ago." It might save all of our lives some day. That reason does not hold as much weight if you say it while you eat a bucket of fried chicken.

Now I am going to play Spock: The really important thing I learned from the article was not anything to do with vegitarianism or meat eating. The really significant thing was how easy certain responders had their buttons pushed and seemed to be sent into a flaming rage based on someone else's opinion, even conceding how it was obviously meant to do just that. I certainly hope you guys that got mad and responded in anger realize you were manipulated from word one. It was kind of sad actually. Why did you get mad about it? If some guy was in a park giving the same argument George did, how he gave it, and you walked by, would you go over and kick his ass because you don't agree with his argument and his tone? Who controls you? Is it you, or is it everyone around you? No one has the power to make you mad until you give it to them. I would expect that anyone who honestly calls themself a transhumanist would be a bit more rational.

I also learned the true answer to the Fermi paradox--aliens look and smell like T-bone steaks.

George said...

Great comment. Thanks for that.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
John said...

Hi All,

Great comments BTW, this, I think, can be the best part about blogs, not just the initial ideas, but the break down, arguments, discussions that allow the ideas to become richer.

Franklin, I wanted to respond to a couple of your points, I think that we're agreeing on a lot of points, and we're just reading different meanings into George's initial post, please allow me to explain my position on this...

It's not a matter of whether it's the biggest moral or ethical decision. I simply disagree with the sort of prejudice which involves labelling a vast swath of humanity as "bad" without any metric besides diet, and at that, with the very arbitrary line of animal flesh.

Agree, 100%. Remember, I'm not George. I was already trying to state my position by getting away from the original post and start focusing on the ACTION of eating meat, in particular Factory-Farmed Meat and discussing whether that ACTION is a Moral or Immoral one. Certainly it's wrong to state that people who eat Meat are bad. It was, I think, a generalization designed to spark controversy.

Personally, I would phrase my position as as follows:

People who live in wealthy democracies and choose to eat factory-farmed meat must take responsibility for the unnecessary suffering and slaughter of billions of sentient beings. This action, I feel, is immoral.

How's that? I think it's fair to say that George's readership is mostly comprised of people living in wealthy democracies where there is sufficient disposable income to support the increase costs associated with choosing vegetarian alternatives to meat, and I think it's also fair to say that a very high % of the meat that is consumed, is from factory farms.

There are arguments that say free range or pastorally farmed animals live a much more pleasant life, I think that's a fair argument, but honestly, I don't think there are many people who exclusively eat this type of meat, and those that do, I would, personally, have much less of a problem with that. I also have no problem with someone living in a Country where eating a healthy vegetarian diet is extremely difficult or impossible. If I was stuck out on a island or something, and I had to kill animals to survive, I would do no with no moral or ethical dilemma, fortunately for me, that's not the case.

The presumption being that there's a universal morality applicable to everyone, and that specificity of each individual's life can be ignored.

There most certainly isn't a universal morality. But we're talking about the here and now. This year, in North America, Billions of Chickens, Pigs and Cows will be raised in Factory Farms, in horrible inhumane conditions, and subsequently slaughtered. Huge percentages of farmland will be allocated to grow grain for these cows alone, (something like 13 pounds of grain is required to produce 1 pound of beef) farmland that could instead be used to grow grains, fruits & vegetables for human consumption. People living here in North America have easy access to vegetarian choices and could healthily move to a vegetarian diet and eliminate this needless suffering of sentient beings. These creatures feel pain, they certainly appear to have some form of consciousness. We have the ability to do something about it. So in the hear and now, I can confidently say that it IS morally wrong for people to continue to eat Factory Farmed meat.

(My comment) Each time you eat, you have a choice to make

(Franklin's Reply) Actually, no. Eating doesn't have to be a choice-making, thought-involved process. This is actually detrimental to health. Everything needs to eat, and it's the very nature of earthly existence that something needs to die for something else to keep on living. And plenty of people on this planet have very little ability to determine what they eat, or are simply just thankful to have any food whatsoever. Certainly up until the industrial age, food (and simply being able to be healthy) were blessing unto themselves.

Ok, I have some major disagreements with this argument. Again, let's focus on the here and now and intended audience. You think it's detrimental for people to make a conscious choice about the food they eat? Huh? What, we should just eat based on our cravings?

Also, I'm not judging pre-industrial civilization here, I'm not judging those who can't readily make this change, I'm talking about people in wealthy democracies (to be clear, I hadn't clarified my own position on this, I'd be curious as to George's position on this, again - don't want to speak on his behalf).

That we could in less than a couple centuries get to the point of demonizing something that was essential to our survival as a species is an effete kind of alienated concept.

As a species we've moved beyond MANY practices that were at one time important to the survival of our species! There are hundreds of practices that in hindsight appear to be barbaric and have been abandoned. Hello, that's what progress is all about! Are you suggesting that we bring back slavery too? Because it was a successful method of generating wealth for the masters for hundreds of years?? Gimme a break.

OK, now here's where distinctions matter. Factory farming is absolutely nothing like taking a fishing pole and going to a pond to catch a sunfish. Yet, in George's universe, the executives of some livestock multinational are morally equivalent to some indigenous person living a subsistence existence.

Agreed. As mentioned previously, I see a clear and obvious distinction between these two things, I imagine George would as well.

This notion that we're somehow responsible for giving animals a pain-free existence is crazy. Suffering is inevitable. The degree to which we can lessen the suffering is what's important.

I don't feel we have a responsibility for giving animals a pain-free existence, but I do think we have a responsibility to avoid intentionally raising animals in absolutely horrible conditions. Look at how we treat pets in our society, compare this to how we treat factory-farmed animals. Seems to be a pretty glaring inconsistency here... I know people who've spent THOUSANDS of dollars on medicine and operations to keep an ailing pet alive, and yet, we eat meat all the time and think nothing of the animals that we're consuming. I don't feel a responsibility for giving ALL HUMANS a pain-free existence, but I'm not going to chain a person up in a small cage in my backyard and claim that's an action that's justifiable.

(My Comment) do you think it's Ok that we raise billions of sentient creatures in horrible, inhumane conditions and slaughter them because they taste good? Do you think that's actually acceptable??

(Franklins Reply)Here again you are focusing on a subset of treatment (conventional industrial livestock production) and moving away from the general statement that eating flesh, no matter what, makes someone an immoral person.

Again, that wasn't my point, and not something that I agree with. I'd be interested in your view on my revised statements. Anyhow that's all, perhaps we've come closer together on a few things, if not, fair play..

Franklin said...

As a species we've moved beyond MANY practices that were at one time important to the survival of our species! There are hundreds of practices that in hindsight appear to be barbaric and have been abandoned. Hello, that's what progress is all about! Are you suggesting that we bring back slavery too? Because it was a successful method of generating wealth for the masters for hundreds of years?? Gimme a break.

Just to respond to this, since I don't have much time right now.

That is a monumental strawman. Let me put this more plainly. If our ancestors hadn't eaten meat, you or I wouldn't exist. To equate the very thing that allowed us to exist (and still continues to enable the existence of millions of people) with slavery is to completely misunderstand what I said.

Show me one vegan culture out there. It's a conceptual, not a cultural, diet.

Anonymous said...

I realize it's probably quite late to respond to this post, but, I continue regardless.

I begin by saying that I came very, very close to responding to your [George's] first post. The response I had prepared was very angry and very defensive, as I am very much a meat-eater. In fact, my diet is almost 100% meat based. Despite this bias, I feel that the reasons and logic behind my diet are valid and worth stating.

Although I live in the United States (I believe John called it a Democracy, although, it is a Representative Republic; Quite different) I do not feel I actually have a choice in my diet. When one grows up well under the poverty line in a society such as this, you do not have a choice in diet if you want to remain healthy. Between rent, bills, and scrambling to pay for a college education with no support; my income is completely gone. The only reason I can even afford the little food I do consume is "robbing Peter to pay Paul". This sort of life, and I know I am far from alone in it, does not lend itself to buying the vitamins and fresh foods necessary for a healthy vegetarian diet.

When a difference of $5 in one's monthly budget can mean the difference between continuing your education or dropping out and being forced to return to the white ghettos of the South you have to be vigilant with your food purchases. I can buy enough meat to live on for well over a week for around $10. I also don't have to worry about any of it going bad as I freeze whatever I don't use immediately. No lost income. Fresh vegetables on the other hand cost much more for the same amount of food (near $20-$25) and they also go bad quite easily. Another major issue is the fact that I have to take off from work for an entire day in order to get to a grocery store since the public transportation system where I live is horrible and the process of getting to the store and back to my home with my purchases takes most of the day. I cannot afford to lose more than 1 day of work every few weeks.

Maybe when I've finished my college education and have gotten a decent job which allows me to join the middle class I will consider a dietary change, but, until that point my ability to pull myself out of the lower class overrides my concern for the quality of life for cows, pigs, and chickens.

I do not think this makes me a bad person.

Anonymous said...

Why are many people so vehemently opposed to vegetarianism?
You can reduce the essential message of a meat eater’s argument down to a simple question - why did you have to make me think about that?
It’s the same message at the root of all resistance to change, especially where power scales and egocentric practices/lifestyles are subject to equalization – slavery, sexism. In modernity, eating the bodies of conscious beings when the ability is there to do otherwise, is to put it mildly, ethically groundless and an asinine practice. But self interest (in this case a merely hedonistic self interest) is a powerful mechanism to overcome. It calls on our highest capacities to surmount – empathy, compassion, temperance, discipline, imagination. Why do people get angry when someone says eating meat is bad? Because deep down, they know it is. There is a reason we feel empathy, but just because it can be easy to ignore, doesn’t mean it should be.
Anger, as well as rationalist arguments against vegetarianism, is a self defense against empathy. It’s a way of avoiding introspection, self examination, contemplation, and responsibility. In essence, it keeps life easy.
To inject a bit of science - if a loss of empathy is the main qualification of a clinical psychopath, it is certainly unethical, even personally unhealthy, to follow or endorse a lifestyle that neglects or subjugates empathy on a regular basis.
Great site.
William S.

Michael Anissimov said...

Excellent post, the way people react when their meat-eating is questioned is often so ridiculous that it shows they themselves are questioning the morality of it.

John said...

To Mr. I eat nothing but frozen chicken because I can't afford to be a vegetarian. Perhaps check out this site, it offers a downloadable PDF on being Vegetarian on a low-budget, maybe that'll help you to find some other low-cost non-meat items that will give you sufficient nutrition.
http://www.lbveg.com/

bw said...

I like you George and Mike and I know other vegetarians. But for me, top of the food chain and loving it. If the Aliens come across the light years to eat us they must be a very stupid and wasteful interstellar species. To waste that amount of power to eat alien meat.

We will convert to generating food from efficient factories. Working to get that research accelerated would be the easiest and fastest way to a solution. You can also work to encourage more and better fish farming which already supplies over half of the worlds fish. You do not care about fish anyway. Fish substituting for cows, chickens, pigs seems something that is more possible.

Anonymous said...

John,

Thanks for the website, I had no idea there were so many places one could order such a wide variety of rices and beans from (linked to from that website). Also, some of the recipes look very interesting... I might give it a try, and, if it's viable I might stick with it.

m. s. said...

Just a thought about that:

Now, in regards to the accusation that I'm a 'bigot' or intolerant of meat eaters, that's an interesting point. Bigotry, I suppose, is relative. Let's imagine for a moment that I had written an article titled 'Racists are bad people,' or 'Homophobes are bad people.' Do you think I would have received the same kind of negative response? Hardly. Aside from a few anachronistic and unenlightened perspectives I'd get a slew of comments saying, 'right on, brother.'
[...]
I don't tolerate racism, homophobia, religious prejudice and sexual discrimination, nor do I tolerate speciesist meat-eating culture.


By "not tolerating" that, you're just as badly intolerant as racists, homophobics, religious bigots and the like.

I *do not like* all the things above (racism etc.), because (1)they're utterly wrong scientifically and/or logically (yes, that's my motive no.1, because it's the only objective one) and (2)I feel they lead to a worst world in which I don't want to live, nor I want my fellows to live (3)I don't like intolerance of any kind. But I have to tolerate that -it exists, and it is not going to go away.

Racists, homophobes etc. are just people like you and me. And most importantly, their opinions are as worthwile as yours and mine. No kidding. Where do you draw the line about "not tolerating"? Who are you (or me) to judge what can be said/tolerated and what not? On what basis?

Fact is, we just have to tolerate opinions and we have to protect freedom of speech. Note that tolerating does not mean playing nice or agreeing with or thinking they're on the same playground. It just means: tolerating. That is, not pursuing censorship and destruction of other opinions -no matter how horribly wrong they seem.

And yes -there are probably many racists, homophobes etc. that are overall good people, but probably (and IMHO wrongly) think that it's better for them and for the world to be a racist and homophobic etc. world.

As for your post: I'm a specist. Yes, that's my justification about being a meat eater. My line is the mirror test. So I won't eat apes, dolphins, elephants and the like. I do not want the killing of fully self-aware beings. As for non-self aware beings, I frankly don't care. They're biologic robots. I am a biologic robot too, but I am a self aware (and aware of the world) robot. I have a mind world. That's where the value of my life (and that of my fellows) comes from.

It's arbitrary? Yes. Not more arbitrary than yours -why must sufference be a moral line? do you have any logical justification about that?

Xander said...

Hi George, I found your blog back in January, and couldn't believe my good luck.
A transhuman, vegetarian, free-thinking, buddhist-leaning, chess-learning, Tool fan! I *knew* there must be another one out there somewhere.
I've been lurking on your blog ever since, and it remains one of the best I've found anywhere. It may even inspire me to resurrect my own technoprogressive blog at some point.

I wanted to let you know what a great job you're doing, and how much I enjoyed your vegetarian post and follow-up, and how much I can relate to the tide of responses that favors outrage over reason.
Keep it up, man!

Anonymous said...

I appreciated the arguments you made in your post on eating meat. However, the tone of your post was one of incredulous disdain and complete pomposity regarding your own beliefs. This is the same kind of attitude copped by the religious fanatics out there that are currently pushing to deny equal rights for homosexual couples, forcing women wrap themselves in black from head to toe in 120-degree heat, embarking on "missions" to eradicate and convert ancient cultures who have heard "the Word." It's typical human conceit; everyone thinks they've got it right and others should be convinced to think likewise. It's true, the industrial meat industry is a horror, but there are ways to raise livestock humanely for the purposes of human consumption. Besides, instead of worrying about what old Flossie is feeling when she's being turned into steaks, why don't we all figure out what to do about human suffering. There's plenty of it going on all the time.

George said...

Xander: Drop me an email some time.

Jason Farrell said...

Hey George,

Been long-time reader of your blog and just wanted to drop a (rare) note to say that if you REALLY want to sway some meat-eaters over to vegetarianism, then you should focus MUCH more attention on the short-term health, environmental, and energy downsides of meat than on how being a bleeding-heart "PETA freak" makes you a better person.

A much greater percentage of people -- myself included -- "selfishly" care more about living long enough on a sustainable pre-singularity planet than the *over-empathetic few* who feel smug caring more about the supposed rights of non-sentient, anthropomorphized animals.

I draw the line at chimpanzee meat, btw... unless I'm starving. :)

Bring on the cheaper lab meat,
Jason

Anonymous said...

How can you possibly believe that a person can be "over-empathetic"? It's like saying that somebody is over-compassionate, or over-loving? Is it not?
It dismisses a prevalent, and I might add – evolved, characteristic of the mind that informs this debate on a fundamental level.

Would any of the posters here agree that you can distinguish much that is unethical, or at least ethically questionable, by observing our empathic responses?
William S

Anonymous said...

Hey bud I'm a veg head and I COMPLETELY understand what you're talking about! Funny how all these supposed "environmentalists" are still chowing down on blood soaked animal flesh which costs a FORTUNE to produce for the same square hectare that you could grow a good healthy, nutritous crop on! Eating meat is POLITICAL folks! Has NOTHING to do with nutrition. Be green, not mean. Peace.

Brimful said...

You state you are a polemicist - so why not rant at religion instead, as it is more closer in subject to ethics than "meat-eating"!

Humans evolved as omnivores and can be classed as opportunistic feeders (that is to say we will eat anything to survive - including each other - remember the 1973 Andes aircrash?), so your choice to be a vegetarian is exactly that, a choice and a very convenient lifestyle one at that.

One of the commentators on your vegan rant stated that "life is sacred" - is this only sentient life or all life? If it's the latter then maybe all those vegan types should have a read of Roald Dahl's great short story: "The Sound Machine".

ps. I really loved your disparaging tone - it does wonders for stimulating debate, and although I will continue to be an omnivore, it is good to highlight the issues of livestock!

Spine said...

Don't know if you're still checking the comments on this thread, George, but I found your original post very useful. Your analyses of the various fallacies are excellent ammunition for anyone who finds himself in the position of needing to defend vegetarianism to an argumentative meat-eater.

On a personal note, I was a vegetarian/occasional dairy and seafood eater when a friend pointed me to your post. I realized I could and should make an even deeper ethical commitment, so I converted to full-on veganism. Couldn't be happier--or healthier. So thank you.