An Omnivore’s Dilemma

I’m constantly amazed at the wide spectrum of people interested in the subjects profiled on this blog. Our readers run the gamut from leftists to libertarians, to Republicans, with a sprinkling of hunters, new moms, city dwellers, suburbanites, and more all united in the common goal of manifesting a better world.

Of course such a wide coalition isn’t always going to agree on everything. This week we heard from some animal rights activists amongst our readers who politely took issue with the fact that we keep chickens for eggs. I’ll keep my rebuttal short, hoping that we can stay focused on our common goals. With the animal rights folks I agree that current agribusiness livestock practices are appalling and I suspect most of our readers agree on this point. I don’t agree with animal rights activists on the nature of the relationship between domesticated animals and humans. I see a long historical, symbiotic, beneficial relationship cutting across almost all the peoples of the world (with some exceptions such as Hindus). Farmer Bryan Welch sums up my attitude far more eloquently than I can in an essay in Mother Earth News when he says, “I get a lot of laughs watching my animals figure out their lives and I get pretty sad when it’s time to kill them. I have a lot more death in my life than I did before. And, ironically, that’s part of the reason why I feel like I have a lot more life in my life. That’s why I farm.”

Even though I’m raising hens for eggs not meat (though I don’t have a problem with doing so), there are ethical questions involved in keeping backyard poultry. Is shipping chicks by mail humane? What to do with roosters? Would keeping hens on pasture be better than confined to a run? I believe these concerns are outweighed by the benefits of knowing where my food comes from, but others may disagree and I respect that.

Since I’ve been asked in the past, I’ll let everyone know that I’m a omnivore (though I don’t eat much meat, following Michael Pollan’s admonition, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”). Mrs. Homegrown is a “fishetarian”. And I’m interested in hearing our reader’s opinions on the ethicacy of keeping backyard livestock: please leave comments. I’ve also crafted a poll that you’ll find along the right side of this page to indicate your dietary practices which I’m curious about.

Leave a comment


  1. I too keep a tiny backyard flock, though mine are rotated on our “pasture,” or untreated lawn. I got my four layer hens at the “retirement age” of two years old from a larger scale farmer who had kept her hens in much larger though stationary runs. She needed to reduce her flock size. The way I look at it, my hens now enjoy the benefit of fresh green grass and weeds daily, in addition to the abundant fresh air and sunshine they’ve always had. Any time they have with me is pure bonus. If I hadn’t taken them, they’d have been chicken stock back in April.

    To the animal rights commenter, I would ask this: If it’s not right for me to be keeping these animals, then what should have become of my laying hens? Should they have been killed outright? If not, then someone, somewhere would have to be providing for their feed and protection. Should their eggs not be used to feed people? If not, then how should they be dealt with? These hens are from a breed that has been developed to produce eggs abundantly. If it is wrong for these animals to be kept at all, what is the “right” thing to do with all of the existing animals which are now dependent on humans for their feed, their protection, and in some cases even for their very reproductive processes? Are they to be turned into the wild to provide a grand lunch buffet to the few predators left on god’s not so green earth?

    I’d love answers to these questions. It’s always puzzled me how such “problems” are to be solved by those who object to keeping animals for any purpose other than pure companionship.

  2. It’s very intriguing how people feel about animals. Historically they are food sources. Certain religions find dogs filthy while others view them as family. Regardless, we are all free to voice our opinions. However, your freedom ends where mine begins. Your “companion” has no right to defecate in my garden or other areas on my property. Why must every park, grass area or front yard be a toilet for pets? I find it common sense to keep animals for a steady and reliable source of food for ones family. I cannot fathom why someone would feel that their dog must be embraced and loved by every person trying to enjoy the outdoors. If you don’t have the room, then don’t own a pet. Keeping a supposed pet in a small house/apartment with no yard, while you are at work all day, is the cruelest thing of all.

  3. Well, I have been eating vegan for about 12 years, but I do not think I qualify as an ‘animal rights person’. Like Erik I do my best to not criticize those who are working for a better world. Though I personally believe that it unethical to kill animals except in the most extreme cases. But the situation of chickens laying eggs in your own backyard is inherently better than factory-farmed eggs. There are gray areas and it is important to recognize that suffering is on a scale and all attempts to reduce it are important (yes, I do know that it is impossible to be ‘completely vegan’ and I am still causing suffering on some level).
    The quote from the farmer above is a little troublesome for me. Do you really have to cause death to have more life? I think there are plenty of examples to the contrary.

  4. To comment number two:
    ‘your freedom ends where mine begins’
    Let’s apply that to the animals that are ‘historically food sources’. Each is a living entity till someone comes along and takes their freedom away.

  5. I recently read and really love The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I’m now reading The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved.

    This year, my husband and I have really focused a lot more on what we eat. I’m a veggie loving omnivore and he’s a meat loving omnivore, but we both want to make our food choices better for us, the farmers, the local economy, the animals, and the environment. The choices aren’t always easy, but raising our own chickens was an easy choice for us — especially after we saw our neighbors were already doing the same.

    My husband made them a chicken coop palace and they seem very happy. We have four chicks right now, but since zoning laws only allow us to keep two, we’re going to give two to my mom-in-law as soon as we know we have two hens. She actually wants roosters since hers died and her neighbors have been complaining that they miss the crowing.

    If only more people would have roosters as pets we wouldn’t have such a problem!

  6. I recently read and really love The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I’m now reading The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved.

    This year, my husband and I have really focused a lot more on what we eat. I’m a veggie loving omnivore and he’s a meat loving omnivore, but we both want to make our food choices better for us, the farmers, the local economy, the animals, and the environment. The choices aren’t always easy, but raising our own chickens was an easy choice for us — especially after we saw our neighbors were already doing the same.

    My husband made them a chicken coop palace and they seem very happy. We have four chicks right now, but since zoning laws only allow us to keep two, we’re going to give two to my mom-in-law as soon as we know we have two hens. She actually wants roosters since hers died and her neighbors have been complaining that they miss the crowing.

    If only more people would have roosters as pets we wouldn’t have such a problem!

  7. I have ducks for eggs (though I live on a 16-acre farm in a very rural area). I have to say that poultry raised on small farms, where the birds are allowed to free-graze sometimes, or even if they’re kept cooped in a clean environment with appropriate space, have wonderful lives. My ducks will never be eaten (unless one of them gets too friendly with a coyote). They get to eat slugs, snails, worms, and whatever else they can pull out of the compost pile.

    Our ducks also provide us with endless hours of entertainment, and, of course, lots of wonderful duck eggs!

    Honestly, how can animal rights activists have issues with people keeping domesticated poultry? Most domestic chicken and duck breeds cannot fly – how would they survive in the wild? It just seems ridiculous to me that anyone would have a problem with it.

    And, finally, farm fresh eggs are like no other eggs anywhere. Our ducks’ eggs are MARVELOUS – large, delicious, and things of beauty. It fills me with happiness to go and retrieve them from our duck run. They fit so neatly in my palm…it’s like it was meant to be.

  8. I’ve kept chickens for eggs, as well as raised rabbits for meat. As a meat eater, I felt it was important to do some butchering and to honor the animals I ate.

    As far as the ethics are concerned, I’m not sure I understand why people eating animals is bad, but other animals eating animals is natural, and therefore OK. Of course there are issues with how animals are raised and their humane treatment – all the more reason to raise them yourself or pay attention to where your food comes from. And there’s plenty of ecological reasons to eat lower on the food chain. As long as they are treated with respect and killed humanely, I don’t see any ethical issue with eating animals.

  9. We are a family of omnivores. We are currently just starting out changing from the supermarket diet to a more self provided diet. I started raising chickens for eggs this Easter. City ordinances don’t state a limit on the number of chickens or their gender as long as they are caged, cooped or penned. Therefore our birds are confined to a pen and henhouse structure. I decided to raise our own chickens after seeing the conditions “factory” chickens endure. I wish we could pasture our birds here in he city but at least I know that I am giving my birds the best life that I can and they won’t be suffering like the birds in the factories. At present we still buy CAFO meat and poultry from the supermarket because our financial situation doesn’t put us in a place to afford the better stuff or order directly from a local farm. If I had the space and resources I would raise meat and dairy animals as well as eggs and my pitiful patch of tomatoes.

  10. I used to be a vegetarian, but now there is so much “happy meat” available where I live that I feel comfortable eating it as long as it is free range, grass fed, etc. It’s also a great way to support local farmers. It can be more expensive to buy this kind of meat, but I think that’s how it should be. That way we are encouraged to eat less of it.

    I wish I had space to keep chickens, but I’m in an apartment. Thanks for your interesting blog.

  11. I love that you call yourself a “fishetarian” — I say the same thing although i occasionally eat free-range meat. Good for you, great blog, thanks!!!

  12. I remember it being suggested (I think in Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, actually) that a big part of the cultural impetus for the animal rights movement comes from people never seeing the animals their food comes from. Certainly this is the cause of animal rights atrocities. (If anyone had to live next to a factory farm they wouldn’t ever eat meat produced there.) However, it works both ways.

    I was raised in the midwest, amongst hunters and farmers. A lot of people would say hunting makes me cruel. Certainly, there are cruel hunters. However, I think by and large people who live with animals have a chance to learn two important lessons.

    1) Animals are NOT people. There’s lots of fancy arguments for this, but look a goat in the eyes. You might see something – certainly they are alive – but it would not be the same as another persons eyes, or even something like a chimp. The relationship between people and domesticated animals cannot be reduced to something as simple as the relationship between two people.

    2) It is possible to treat an animal with respect, to see to it that it receives the proper care and living environment and is happy, and then humanely harvest some product of it’s body or kill it for food. Indeed, this is now a necessary part of those animals’ natures. Lest we forget, livestock without humans to care for, protect, and feed it would, in almost all cases, promptly starve and die a grisly, slow death. The only time humans had any chance of cutting off contact with the animal world was, oh, 10,000 years ago, before the first domesticated species. (My date might be off on that, my point remains.)

    If you really want to know whether responsible agriculture and management is vital to respecting the well being of domesticated species, ask the dairy cow that needs to be milked. She’ll tell you that the farmer is an important part of her happiness.

  13. I’m a vegan, but I do my best to make sure I’m actually reducing the suffering of animals rather than following dogma. In this instance, while Kara Davis puts forth some pitfalls of transportation to beware of, I side with the people who keep the livestock, so long as it’s just for the eggs. My problems with eggs and dairy, aside from factory farming, stem from turning a living thing with senses and awareness into an object for exploitation. If you’re raising the animals, spending time with them, and (in some instances) rescuing them, more power to you.

    In the comments, Zack mentioned that animals aren’t people, and technically that is true. But they do have brains, they do sense things, and that’s the only reasonable base requirement for identity, and dignity, I’ve yet been able to come up with. It’s the most universal, and the most compassionate, as far as I can tell.

    The case is made that knowing the animal before killing it, killing it more humanely, is noble. I disagree. It is, without a doubt, better than mindless, indulgent slaughter. But it is still killing. And unlike a vegetable or a fruit, you’re killing something that can see or hear or taste.

    I think if for whatever reason a person chooses to eat meat, it’s definitely preferable to raise your own livestock. It improves the quality of the animal’s life and deepens your awareness. But I think the best answer is still to raise them without killing them.

    Some other interesting issues were brought up in the comments. For instance, there’s an ethical dilemma about animals bred to be dependent on humans. Obviously, I don’t support their wholesale slaughter to undo what we have raised them for. But be honest with yourself – do you drink milk to save the cow’s life, or because you’re thirsty? Agricultural processes don’t try and help those animals, they try and help us, and that’s unethical.

  14. There is a real word for people who only eat fish. It’s “pescatarian.”

    We eat everything as long as I can find a local, humane, pastured source for the meat. We haven’t eaten pork in months because we haven’t found a source for happy pigs yet.

    Chickens for eggs are a part of our long-term plan; the garden is first. I really don’t think keeping chickens for eggs is any worse ethically than keeping a dog or a cat. You’re not taking anything from the bird; she willingly gives up the eggs. It’s not any more ethically suspect than taking your dog’s turds out of the yard.

  15. I don’t have a moral concern with killing or eating animals. The bigger concern, in my mind, is preventing humans from being exploited, hurt, or killed.

    However, I do think if you are able you should provide a good life for animals. Some things about the modern cattle and poultry industries scare me, so if my zoning laws allow it I might get some chickens for the back yard.

  16. Kudos to Edward. I am a vegan, as well, and share a very similar outlook with regard to these issues.

    When push comes to shove, nobody is eating eggs, drinking milk, and eating meat to somehow enrich the lives of the animals whence these products derived. So let’s not sugar-coat it.

    You WANT WANT WANT those tasty little eggs, and you’ll do anything it takes to get them in your stomachs, including coming up with humorously convoluted rationales for your actions.

    “Most domestic chicken and duck breeds cannot fly – how would they survive in the wild?” A better question is: how would they survive in your backyard! Why is it better for this animal to end up on your plate than to end up in a wolf’s jaws?

    An even better question is: how did it come to pass that these poor creatures lost their natural abilities of flight to begin with? Could it possibly have had anything to do with humans WANT WANT WANTING to eat their delicious eggs? When after centuries human exploitation, these birds can perform no other biological function save for popping eggs out onto our plates, your sharp-witted rationale for continuing the exploitation is, “but they can’t fly!”?? Can you even begin to understand how ridiculous such a statement is?

    Just stop flailing about for a moment and be honest! Your concern with these animals starts and ends with eating the products of their bodies. If they didn’t taste good you’d leave them to the wolves, and don’t you for a second try to deny it. All you who would choose to eat these products are simply perpetuating the self-rationalized, morally unjustifiable rapacity of humanity. Nothing more, nothing less.

  17. Virginia, hens are not indifferent towards having their eggs taken away. In fact, they go pretty ballistic when you try to do so. You shouldn’t speak of things of which you obviously know so little.

  18. I was just visiting a friend who has a small flock of very free-range chickens. Although she originally intended to raise them for eggs, several of the chicks matured into roosters. Being a soft-hearted person, she decided to just make the best of it and keep them.

    After a while it became apparent that some of the roosters had to go. They were attacking the hens and each other with “savage relish”, causing all manner of uproar and mayhem and injury. A few of them were so blatantly nasty that my friend confessed she felt a deep feeling of satisfaction in dispatching them, and ending the suffering of the rest of the flock under their rapacious depradations.

    While I was visiting she served me some delicious mean-rooster-soup!

  19. I’m vegan, my husband and daughter are not. We plan to keep chickens, for eggs for my husband and daughter. I’d prefer that we were all vegans, but that’s not their choice, and I’d rather they eat eggs raised by our own flock (or a neighbor’s, but we also look forward to having chickens as pets) than store-bought eggs of questionable provenance. I have some mixed feelings about keeping chickens, but it’s not a perfect world, and I plan for my flock to consist of rescued chickens.

    The term “happy meat” is hypocritical. It acknowledges that the quality of an animal’s life is important, but then ignores the fact that animals’ lives are cut drastically short for the sole purpose of human consumption. What animal would be “happy” about living one year instead of five or fifteen? What animal would be “happy” about being stunned into unconsciousness before being bled to death?

    Kate’s questions about what would become of animals if it’s not right for humans to tend them seems short-sighted. Major shifts in our culture would need to occur before it would become unacceptable to raise animals for meat. These shifts don’t happen overnight. We won’t wake up one day and say, “Eureka! Everyone abandon your flocks to the coyotes! Go vegan!”

    Existing animals would be cared for and bred less, and therefore there would be fewer of them. Many food-bred animals that never existed in nature in the first place would become extinct, which is probably for the best because they are grotesque distortions of nature, anyhow — pure invention of factory farm breeding. For example, turkeys have been bred to grow to such unnatural dimensions that they are no longer capable of breeding naturally; they all must be artificially inseminated in order to continue as a species. This poor breed of turkey was never meant to exist, and probably shouldn’t.

  20. Let me ask you a related and more important question which I think you skipped altogether: Is it ethical to bring a sentient being into existence for the sole purpose of consuming it?

    While I appreciate that you care about the quality of the lives of your animals, I find your reasoning rather self-serving. The telling phrase is when you call the relationship between humans and animals “symbiotic.”

    Symbiosis implies mutual benefit. In this case I suppose you mean that the benefit to the animal is that you feed, shelter and care for it. This is a strange benefit, as the animals would not even have been born if you did not act on your demand for it. Moreover, most domesticated breeds would simply die out if the demand for the animal’s meat and other byproducts would cease. The demand of an entire species — human — solely sustains entire breeds of dependent animals who are otherwise unable to survive, and this is a benefit?

    So your symbiosis is very strange and circular: the animal gives you it’s meat and other products, and you afford it an existence which it would not have required if you did not desire it’s meat and other products to begin with!

  21. If someone finds raising backyard chickens for eggs (or meat, for that matter) objectionable, that’s fine. I’m flabbergasted that anyone would try to foist this personal ethic on others.

    Do not try to justify or defend your actions to these people. It’s none of their business.

  22. Re: Mike

    He specifically asked for the opinions of his readers on the ethical issues with backyard farming. There’s no reason to be flabbergasted.

  23. I am vegan (don’t eat anything for an animal) yet I keep a back yard flock, and I live in the city.

    I work at an animal shelter and the hens can in to the shelter and into my life. I keep them cus I like them. They are pets first and for most. I give the eggs to family and friends who eat eggs, this way keeping them from supporting factory farm store bought eggs. I use the chicken poo for my garden.

    I see nothing wrong with keeping chickens, they are wonderful animals and deserve to be treated as such.

    Honestly as a vegan who doesn’t eat any animal I have more respect for a farmer or a hunter then I do the average person. I’ve always though, if you can not kill it, skin it and cook it then you should be eating it. And since I know i couldn’t kill and prepare any animals…I don’t eat any animals.

    But if I did eat animal I’d rather eat ones i knew lived a good life up until the day they became food.

  24. Just to respond to a comment made by an anonymous poster.

    Hens don’t care a straw about their eggs being taken away, unless they’ve gone into brood mode, which will only happen if a clutch of eggs (a dozen or so) has been accumulated, if then. Most breeds today have had their broodiness bred out of them, so that this behavior is exceedingly rare, which I feel is a shame. If my hens happened to buck the trend and wanted to sit on their unfertilized eggs, I’d let them rather than upset the broody hen. But it hasn’t happened in my tiny flock.

    You chide another commenter not to speak of what they don’t know about, but you’re doing exactly that. I retrieve eggs daily from my hens. They don’t even notice it, unless they happen to be standing right by the nesting box. There’s no question of them going “ballistic.” The only time I’ve seen behavior from a hen that would remotely merit that description is when I’m giving them a few slices of my homemade bread. Even then, I’d call it “excited consternation.”

    Keep some hens for a while and see their reactions for yourself. They display complete indifference to their eggs once laid.

  25. First of all I am a vegetarian for ethical reasons. Barring those extreme survival situations which every die hard “carnivore” loves to ask questions about, I cannot bring myself to kill an animal, therefore I do not feel right about eating one.

    That being said I have no problem with people who want eggs to keep their own chickens. In fact I think it is the preferable situation. If you want something from an animal, you should have to be willing to develop the required relationship, whatever form that may take. I learned a lesson a long time ago, people don’t want to be told what to do, or not do. Call it cynicism if you will, but I think its simply ineffective. Leading by example worked better for me. I think if people had to raise the livestock that they ate (meat, milk or eggs) then they would be much more grateful and more respectful of the animals.
    There will always be people who eat meat, dairy, eggs, etc, but if those people do so consciously of where their food comes from, then there is little argument one can make against it.

    The problem is not cruelty, it is indifference to cruelty. Only a few are cruel, it is the people indifferent to suffering who allow it to persist.

  26. More and more, I am unable to eat things that I have looked in the eye, but I have no problem with backyard birds…Here in Boston, the puritanical powers-that-be allow keeping small flocks of chickens in the city. A woman in my neighborhood has been frantically posting notices and contacting the media about her missing beloved hen, so I know these critters provide more than just sustenance – they are companions.
    My interest is city goats – did you know that – after a surely amusing fight with city hall – Seattle now allows backyard goats?! Of course, the challenges of space become amplified with goats, but think of it: eggs AND milk from the back yard! Too cool.
    Thanks for this site and the book – you are the coolest.

  27. From Wikipedia:

    “Under natural conditions most birds lay only until a clutch is complete, and they will then incubate all the eggs. Many domestic hens will also do this – and are then said to go broody.”

    Kate, do you think it is “natural” for humans to selectively breed chickens until they lose their most fundamental birthing instincts?

  28. I’m not capable of going back in time and unbreeding chickens to lose their broodiness. If you don’t want to raise chickens or eat eggs, then don’t. You can start paying reparations to the chickens human beings have rendered flightless and broodless. I am going to make a quiche.

  29. I keep a backyard flock and bought them mail order. I imagine being put in the box was more traumatic than the shipping. The p.o. folks were really kind and gentle.

    I got a “straight run” and really hope I can be OK with cutting the heads off. This is pretty new to me. Years ago (before any locavore idea was around and the internet was new) I decided that as long as I wasn’t a vegitarian, I would know who it was that fed my family and be gratful for their lives. Several moves sunk that living approach – but I’d like to revive it a bit.

    By the way the rooster in the picture would happily eat the farmer like he was a grasshopper.

  30. I like the idea of eating lower on the food chain, and am willing to consider a range of opinions on the issue of vegetarianism, but (to me) it is not as simple as some people believe.

    Humans can’t photosynthesize, so we need to take other life to live. Alan Watts wrote an interesting Buddhist essay called ‘Murder in the Kitchen’ which argued that all life is sentient, but that we recognize animal sentience because other animals are more similar to us. Are carnivorous cats less moral than omnivorous dogs or vegetarian people? Is there a moral component to plants that compete vigorously for light and nutrients (effectively killing their competitors)?


  31. This is a discussion about the ethics of farming.

    Given that, I find it interesting that people like Mike and Virginia get offended, use aggressive tones and insinuate that they are being preached to when in reality people are just engaging the topic.

    Not really sure what that’s about.

  32. “Kate, do you think it is “natural” for humans to selectively breed chickens until they lose their most fundamental birthing instincts?”

    No, I don’t. That’s why it’s called breeding. Just as it’s not natural for the descendants of wolves to herd and protect sheep, and yet that’s exactly what we have today. Should we kill off all the collies because their urge to protect sheep results only from selective breeding by humans? Is the very existence of the collie breed of dogs unethical because it’s unnatural? (And I could add here that almost none of the plant foods you consume today recognizably resemble their ancient ancestors. They, too, result from centuries of careful selective breeding and are therefore “unnatural” under your rubric.)

    Is it ethical for indigenous peoples to be dispossessed of their lands and for their descendants to be marginalized within the societies now dominated by the descendants of the interlopers? No, it’s not. But, assuming English is your native language, you, Anonymous, are almost certainly living on land that was stolen from some of those indigenous peoples by Europeans. Is that natural or ethical?

    My point here is that what is natural or unnatural is moot, and that if you’re going to argue ethics you must also be grounded in reality to have any relevance. Your existence is predicated on occupying land that was stolen from others. And like it or not, these animal breeds exist. If you feel that these realities are unethical, then please tell us what is the right thing to do about it. Are you willing to move back to some ancestral homeland you’ve never visited and renounce any property you’ve acquired in your current country of residence? Are we supposed to kill off all these “unnatural” breeds of cattle, dogs, poultry, etc? Feed them to predators? Or are we supposed to just maintain them without allowing (or aiding them) to reproduce themselves though the end of their natural lives, while their wool is burned, their eggs destroyed, and their milk dumped in rivers?

    Sure it would be great if we could wave a magic wand, or turn back time and get the pie in the sky world we’d all like. But that’s not going to happen. So please, propose a solution. An abstract philosophical argument that doesn’t give rise to real world applications for ethical problems isn’t worth much, in my opinion. If you have a serious solution to propose to any of these questions, I’m all ears. Unfortunately, this “discussion” only contributes to the general impression that animal rights activists have lofty and noble ideals, without the benefit of constructive suggestions for solving the problem as they see it.

  33. Jesse, I think you misinterpret my tone. Anonymous got aggressive about the subject and I attempted to lighten the mood.

    My take on the ethics of farming is that it’s possible to farm ethically as long as your personal ethical code accepts that human beings are part of the natural food chain. I’m ok with it.

    Death is a certainty for all creatures and in the balance, an animal’s life led as intended and a death as quick and painless as possible is much preferred to either the feral or industrial alternative.

  34. I like how you think, Kate. You could take the natural/unnatural argument further by pointing out that the crops people consume are farmed on land that used to be the habitat of wild (natural!) creatures who were displaced by the farmers seeking to grow enough to feed you.

  35. one aspect of this discussion that i find really interesting is that of scale – are our ethics based on individuals or species? viewed over time, domestic breeds have benefited greatly from human interaction. they enjoy a quality of life vastly better than that experienced by a wild animal. their basic needs are met, and their lives are not dominated by the constant struggle to survive. this is a symbiotic relationship – both species benefit. the breed is genetically successful, we get eggs and meat. on an individual level, which is where i hear many of the vegans’ arguments coming from, there is no such clear symbiosis. the chicken is bred, born, raised, and killed for my benefit. i, an individual sentient being, kill another individual sentient being. where is the benefit for the chicken? the benefit for the chicken is primarily at the species level. does that make it ethical? no answers here, just a thought.

  36. I’d recommend the animal rights and radical vegan folks read Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” There’s a great paragraph in there (don’t have it handy, or I’d quote it) where she responds to some of these folks by asking them how they feel about all those animals and other little critters that get “slaughtered” as part of the harvesting of all those tasty veggies.

    Kate’s comment reminded me of a cartoon from some years back. Picture of a white guy in a suit screaming that all those illegal immigrants should go back home. Then there’s the clearly Native American looking guy responding with “I’ll help you pack.”

    These kinds of debates are bound to get testy. But I don’t hear all these animal-rights-vegan folks screaming about the factory farming of corn for ethnanol – an activity which is causing some serious kinks in our food supply. Whether you like the current centrality of corn in our economy or not (ref. Ominivore’s Dilemma), it’s responsible for a lot of what Americans eat. But all that energy (no pun intended) is being shifted for Ethanol which doesn’t actually do anything to reduce our reliance on oil. OK, that was a bit of a non-sequetor, but my point is that here we have a number of folks who are raising animals in an (dare I say) ethical manner, and they’re getting brow-beaten by some folks who seem to be living in some fantasy world where human’s remove themselves from the food chain. Furthermore, there are plenty of places in this world where the raising of significant crops (as in enough to feed the local community even if they aren’t all vegans) in a sustainable way is impossible. Think semi desert areas like the Kalahari (to use an extreme example). Or even many places in New England, where the terrain is simply to rocky to have anything other than a kitchen garden (and partial reason why Vermont is famous for cheese). Do you want the residents of Arizona to import all their food? Or are we all supposed to live in some fertile Eden that simply doesn’t exist (and if it does, it certainly can’t support a 100% vegan population)?

    In other words, if we all become strict vegans, where’s all the food going to come from?

  37. Yes, he asked for opinions. I guess I’m amazed how some want to give their opinions on what other people should do, as opposed to explaining their own activities. I’m not trying to be “aggressive”.

    We could take this further, and ask how can Vegan A continue to live on this world knowing how 7 billion people are destroying the ecosystem. Even vegans are destroying the ecosystem. But it’s not my business if Vegan A wants to live and kill plants upon which to feed or suck sustenance.

  38. Re: Mark

    I think you will find that your debates can avoid being testy if you stop accusing your opponents of screaming wildly and stick to the subject instead of trying to attack what you believe is the rationale for veganism. Non-sequitor indeed.

    Re: Ben

    I’m not sure that you can say that there is a benefit at a species level. First, it’s arbitrary and human-centric to say that having it’s needs met regularly and on demand, without struggle, is a benefit to a species or an individual. A lion in a zoo definitely would disagree with you: what you view as a struggle for survival, some animals may experience as a sense of purposefulness (to whatever extent they can experience something like that.)

    The point is that you can’t say that just because you feed and shelter them, and that you might consider those things beneficial, that you are doing something beneficial for them. That was the same argument slaveholders used to justify slavery.

    Second, there is no justification provided by appealing to benefits at a higher level. I’m not saying what you are doing to your animals is cruel and terrible, I really think that your approach to taking a more active role in sustaining yourself and your family is great. I hope more people do it, and I say that as a vegetarian. I also raised chickens and other animals before giving up meat. (My observations of hens differs from what Kate says about chickens being indifferent to their eggs.(

    But saying that you acknowledge that you harm another being, then justifying that it’s okay because the species as a whole is raised is not a moral defense. Thankfully not, because many terrible things would otherwise be acceptable.

    I don’t think you need a moral defense or that there is any way to escape the fact that you are taking the lives of other beings to sustain yourself when you don’t need to. That’s just the reality of it and it doesn’t make you a worse person than a vegetarian or vegan. We’re both trying to minimize the suffering which is an important step to take. As Mark so ineloquently put it, I also create death and suffering in order to sustain myself.

    In my opinion, the people who pose a true threat are those who refuse to recognize that one creates suffering in order to survive. That’s a variant of what you said, being separated from the knowledge of where one’s food comes. Once you lack that knowledge, the food just comes from a meat factory.

    These things are good to think about.

  39. Jesse, I kind of thought the whole purpose in debates is to attack someone else’s rationale (without attacking the person). I’m a little troubled by the anthropomorphizing of the animals in question, but pulling slavery into the argument feels a lot like pulling the Nazi card. Which is where a lot of these kinds of debates end up (“because you engage in “X” behavior, then you’re no better than Hitler”)

    And maybe I was a tad ineloquent (sp?), but as the Buddha would say, “all life is suffering.” But where do you draw the line? Is killing bugs to save your crops OK? Since many religions across the globe believe that many plants have spirits in them, does that imply the plants are in fact sentient? Which would mean we can’t kill them either?

    Hey, you (not you specifically) wanna be a vegan, feel free, just don’t enforce that worldview on me. And if you start equating meat eaters with slaveholders, things will definitely heat up around here.

  40. Re: Mark

    Okay, you’re right that was a poor choice of words with the slaveholder point, however it wasn’t incorrect to say that slave owners used that same argument. I’m not calling anyone a Nazi or slave owner here though.

    But about the point of debate being to attack: maybe it is, but this isn’t a debate about Veganism. It’s about how ethical is it to raise farm animals.

    About killing other things, I totally acknowledge that I kill other things in order to survive too. I make an effort to minimize the suffering I create for other beings. The Buddha does say what you wrote, but he doesn’t continue to say “therefore, don’t try to stop it.” He said what he said in order to advise listeners that suffering cannot be averted.

    Finally, nobody is enforcing or attempting to enforce any viewpoint on you. Your feeling that your worldview is encroached upon when people share their opinions is probably a bigger factor in why you experience debate as a hostile action.

  41. jesse,
    not that it’s really relevant to the points being discussed, but i am a vegetarian as well. it’s more of a personal choice in my case than any large ethical issue. to address your point of zoo animals, that’s an entirely different matter. not on the individual level, admittedly. but to confine an animal which has evolved for a life in the wild is, for lack of a better word, unnatural. a domesticated breed’s purpose, in evolutionary terms, is to be domestic. its unique genetic gift which has allowed it to survive over generations, its biological niche, is its ability to serve the needs of humans. the same is true of wheat, of the apple, of the soybean, of the goat. these breeds are unnatural only we we ourselves are unnatural. the lion in the zoo is not in its natural habitat. the chicken on the farm very literally is. so, i see no species-scale ethical issue. as far as morals (which, let us remember, are not the same as ethics) are concerned, that is a more metaphysical, personal issue, as i see it. thank you for your thoughts.

  42. Patrick; i’m a native young Oregonian who has recently took flight from the nest and ventured out into the world. randomly one day i fell upon the idea of raising chickens as a pet. An abundant amount neighbors in NEP; (north East Portland) have chicken coops. at first i thought these people were crazy because of how dirty these birds are, but after stumbling upon this baby chick; at a local nursery, i feel in love. the baby chic had jumped into my hand after i reached into the cage that held a little over a dozen chics. it was a very bonding experience. i went to buy than was told that i need more than one otherwise the hen would get lonely and possible die if i didn’t get at lease another. so, i ended up buying 2 more chicks which where ugly.(in comparison) so i obtained the legal limit in city limits and became an urban farmer. so i made a deal with myself that the first one to act out of line would be eaten! that mentality changed, after the first couple of once the chics started to develop personalities. but it also gave me this epiphany, that in our culture we just eat with no connection to our food, no face, no personality.. everything is cut into nice beautiful fillets. no connection to the reality of where it comes from or how it is raised… so after this whole rant, i came to the conclusion that i’m a vegetarian, unless i raise my food and see that it had a good life, not one in confinement to a box. someday i will kill and eat one of the 3 chickens, but for now i’ll allow them to roam free and eat as the please. when that day comes to send my pet to the farm on the other side, it will be a sad day for me but most likely will be one of the most satisfying meals i will ever eat.
    peace: PDX Urban Movement

  43. Jesse,

    I can accept that you weren’t throwing down the Nazi gauntlet. But recognize that was a slippery slope. Slaveholders used that argument because they saw Africans as equal to livestock (e.g., tallying up slaves on the same form as cattle).

    As for this not being a debate about Vegans, that is true – and yet the way it’s played out there’s the vegan line and the omnivore line (with a few exceptions), so while it’s not a debate about veganism, it has become a debate with vegans critiquing omnivores and those who raise livestock from a vegan perspective. Which is what ends up getting debated. I think.

  44. Mark,

    I’m not sure where I fall on the vegan line/omnivore line, because I eat a strict vegan diet but my husband and daughter are omnivores, which I’m OK with. (See my above post about our plans to raise chickens, for eggs for my husband and daughter.)

    I suspect I’m fairly tolerant, and I recently finished reading Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” which I enjoyed very much. Sure, I wouldn’t slaughter (or eat) my own chickens or turkeys, but she writes thoughtfully about her willingness to do so, and her writing on gardening mesmerized me. A beautiful book!

    Anyway, my point: I remember reading Kingsolver’s point about how millions of critters have to die in order for us to eat vegetables, and to me it was another variation on a tired cliche that vegans hear too frequently. I remember thinking, “Oh cmon Barbara, you can do better than this.” We vegans even joke amongst ourselves about this cliche at times: “Oh no, if I eat this fruit, the fruit flies will die! Guess I’ll go kill a cow instead!” Har har, aren’t we a funny bunch.

    If “strict vegan” literally meant harming no living thing whatsoever, you’re right, we’d all starve for sure. And killing ourselves is not vegan! (Told you we’re hilarious.) A more realistic interpretation of strict vegan is avoiding the consumption of animal products (meat, eggs, dairy, leather, fur….) There is no way to eliminate death, but there is certainly a way to thrive without purposefully killing. (And fyi omnivores, the egg and dairy industries are inextricably linked to the meat industries — laying chickens and milk cows end up as meat in the end.)

    Obviously I don’t speak for all vegans, but this is my take on it.

  45. This whole thread proves it. American’s have too much free time, and it seems from the comments here that a lot of vegans waste most of their time on pointless exercises like this.

    This is not a debate on ethics, it’s just another form of masturbation.

    I extend the deepest and most sincere sympathy to the families of people who must live these nutters.

  46. I just want every non-vegan on this board to admit that they consume animal products because they WANT to, and they will not have their WANT denied. Admit that you consume without regard to your effects on the freedom of any other species, because you think that humans are superior and there is nothing wrong with controlling the lives of any species (other than humans, of course) you choose.

    Then, for those of you who keep your own animals, I want you to admit that you do it because you felt guilty about participating in the mass exploitation of animals, and decided to scale it back to an individual level where you could monitor the exploitation personally, while still fulfilling your undeniable, insatiable WANT.

    We are intelligent, rational beings. We are able to carefully consider every action we take. When we begin to say things like “that’s just the way it is,” we belie our inherent agency. You cannot get away with saying that things are how they are and that’s that. You can make your own decisions and initiate your own actions.

    The fact is, none of you here who eat meat and eggs and/or keep animals wouldn’t be here on this blog leaving comments if you didn’t feel the need to rationalize your actions to others, in order to seek some validation of actions that you, on some level, know to be morally dubious. Either own up to it and admit that you are fine with exploiting these animals and manipulating them to merely fulfill a preference of your taste, or admit to yourself that you are truly bothered by the moral implications of dictating the existence of other species, of confining and, in some cases, murdering animals for food when you could just as easily partake of a diet without such inherent injustice.

  47. It’s people like anonymous above who make it difficult to have veganism and vegetarianism considered seriously. Way to go, score one for the “Vegans are preachy assholes” team.

    Quick tip for you in the future: telling people what they think and why they are wrong is not an effective strategy for changing minds. However, it is a good way to help yourself feel superior to them.

    Just because you can easily drop meat-eating doesn’t mean everyone can or is even convinced that they should. Scolding them and calling them liars won’t get any more people to agree with you.

    BTW, I say this as a vegetarian.

  48. Two points I would like to touch upon. First, I am amazed that for (apparently many) people the solution to domestic animals is to let them die out. Nature cares for species, not for individuals.

    Second, I’d suggest that domestication is a conscious form of symbiosis, a completely natural evolutionary occurance. If humans and, say, cows have grown together to the point where they can’t live without my protection, feeding, and milking, and I benefit from their (yes, extremely yummy yummy good) milk, how is that a bad thing? I absolutely believe that this relationship has been bastardized in the last century or so, but by and large it has been beneficial to both man and the species he domesticates. Cow are freed from worry about predation and I am freed from worry about getting enough calcium in my diet.

    (A brief note, as well, about “cutting down an animal in it’s prime”: How many wild animals do you believe live long enough to die of natural causes? Nature doesn’t work that way.)

  49. jesse:

    while i agree with your outlook, i disagree that calm diplomacy is always the correct approach to discussion, regardless of subject. i am extremely passionate about the content under discussion, and get angry when people continually defend their defenseless actions with irrationality and ignorant speciesism.


    there are many problems with what you’re saying. firstly, as jesse has already touched upon, the idea of “a conscious form of symbiosis” is the rationality of the slave owner. you assume that it is “evolutionary” for a cow to be taken from nature and put into your backyard, safe from harm, when the opposite is actually true. you are dumbing down the species, limiting its genetic pool, breeding away its ability to operate independently of humans. this is not evolution, it is devolution, as well as biological exploitation.

    next, you suggest that, through this “evolutionary occurance,” you are freed from worry about getting enough calcium in your diet. however, there are many, many sources of non-dairy calcium (try googling it). the only reason you think that milk is the sole source of calcium in the universe is because you have been told this by the dairy industry since you were a child, and your parents since they were children. there is a biological reason so many people (95 percent of asian americans, 74 percent of native americans, 70 percent of african americans…) are lactose intolerant: milk is for babies. we are the only species that drinks milk after infanthood, and we are the only species that drinks the milk of another species. furthermore, milk adds significant amounts of cholesterol to the diet, contributing to cardiovascular disease (the leading cause of death in the united states). some forms of cancer and diabetes are linked to the consumption of dairy products. etc., etc., etc.

    further, you acknowledge the man’s relationship with cows has been “bastardized in the last century,” which i take to be a reference to the dairy industry, which keeps these poor animals in tiny cages, pumped up on hormones (which, of course, get passed on to you) their entirely lives to become constantly, painfully full of milk, only to be strapped to a machine every day and have it yanked out of them with optimal efficiency.

    so i say no. by and large, man’s relationship with cows has not been beneficial to both sides. i contend that it has been beneficial to neither, and that the only people that have, in fact, benefited from it are dairy farmers.

  50. From Wikipedia:

    “It is estimated that 75% of adult humans are lactose intolerant worldwide.”

  51. First, apologies if this is a double post:


    I freely admit that I want to eat eggs. Not this weird, insatiable, maniacal, all-caps, WANT! WANT! WANT! that you suggest. But I want to survive. I want to live. I do not have a backyard flock yet, but I mean to have one soon. I have also planted fruit trees and am working on a very large vegetable garden.

    I live in Hawaii. 90% of our food is imported. Raising chickens will be a good way to ensure that I have some sustenance if my extremely rainy locale does not create a good crop for a season or two. Especially if the container ships stop coming in or food becomes too expensive.

    Survival is its own moral imperative.

    We can not count on agribusiness in the future. I am trying my best to grow my own food to reduce dependence on the current system. I am doing quite well at buying only locally produced food. I would not think of asking you if you are doing the same.

    Also, I believe that plants have spirits and that when we dig up a carrot we dig up the little carrot-gnome spirit. I’m not being facetious. When I dig up the gnome, I try to honor it and thank it for its life. I’m sorry I have to kill it, but I want to live. I think the gnomes are pretty good-spirited about it all so long as they are thanked and praised and aren’t just thoughtlessly yanked out of their soil.

    Should you justify to me that you thoughtlessly kill the carrot gnome as if its life is somehow less than the chicken’s life? Or that you let others commit the murder for you? I don’t think you need to. That’s between you and the carrot.

    I have a vegan friend that tries to buy all organic. So she buys lots of high-miles stuff from the mainland since the Hawaii organic selection is limited. I keep my mouth shut because, as we head into whatever dark abyss lies ahead, her friendship means so much more to me than winning some point. In the end, none of this matters so much.


  52. Some interesting comments about this subject so far.

    I’m an alpaca farmer – these animals are raised for fleece, not meat ( at least in this country ( New Zealand) though it is different in Peru and Chile where they come from). One day while being accused of being an “exploiter” of animals and keeping them in unnatural conditions I finally snapped a little.

    “okay – you want these animals to live a natural life? Fine – come to my farm. You’ll need to kill at least eight animals immediately – they are well past the age they would be found alive in the wild. I have one near totally blind boy that I have raised as a pet – he’ll need to be killed as well. We’ll have to infect a large number with worms and parasites – I drench them so they are parasite free – the parasites slowly reduce their digestive efficiency and they then starve to death so you’ll have to kill a few adult animals to take that into account. One of my girls had a uterine prolapse that I got the vet in to fix, so you’d better kill her too. Oh, and a large percentage of females in the wild are sterile because of repeated forced matings by the males… we don’t allow that on the farm so bring a scalpel….”

    Natural does not necessarily mean better. With our animals I think a balance should be struck… a good situation is less exploitation and more a partnership – we’ll give you safety, food and health and in return we’d like your eggs. We’ll give you a stress free life, but it will not reach it’s potential maximum because we need you for meat.
    It can’t be a perfect partnership but I think it is our duty to make it closer to that theoretical point. That’s why I have chickens for eggs – with me it is closer to a partnership. They give me their eggs and I get my butt out to their coop rain or shine to let them out into the field – I bring them greens and pellets, make sure they are free from disease and predators – I try to give them a happy life. It’s not perfect but it’s a heck of a lot better than some anonymous egg from a battery farm chicken.

  53. >> I just want every non-vegan on this board to admit that they consume animal products because they WANT to, and they will not have their WANT denied.

    Need and want. Vitamin B12, carnitine, taurine, and a variety of other nutrients cannot be obtained in sufficient quantities from a natural diet completely free of animal products. N-3 fats from flax oil or purslane are not metabolically equivalent to N-3 fats from fish or grass fed beef.


  54. sheesh, this is the way it usually goes.

    And people wonder why I answer with “D. All of the above” when someone asks me why I don’t eat meat. I’m not being snide, I just find that unless its someone I know and trust to not take my answer personally, its not worth the inevitable argument. I used to be more open (read preachy) but now I’m what most would consider “one of the good ones” I only open my mouth on the subject to stuff in some lettuce. In the end you’ll win more sympathy for the cause by being a good example.

    Admittedly its kind of hard to demonstrate a good example in the context of an internet discussion

  55. I’ve really enjoyed hearing all of the different views on this subject.

    My husband and I just slaughtered our first chicken on Saturday, and I wrote an article about it:

    We currently keep chickens for eggs, and decided that if we eat meat we should be able to slaughter the animal ourselves. We believe in conscious eating- knowing where your food comes from, how it was raised/grown, and learning/making better choices each day.

    Food can be both a very spiritual and emotional topic. Just as you the world will never be one religion, you will never have all humans adopting the same philosophy for eating food. We respect everyone’s right to choose.

  56. >> anonymous said: Need and want. Vitamin B12, carnitine, taurine, and a variety of other nutrients cannot be obtained in sufficient quantities from a natural diet completely free of animal products.

    Please consult “The China Study” by by T. Colin Campbell et. al., or “The Food Revolution” by John Robbins, for accurate nutritional information regarding a balanced, plant-based diet. Vegans live longer than omnivores, btw. Clearly we’re not malnourished by default of being vegan. Additionally, many vegans, myself included, take a (vegan) daily multivitamin.

  57. I’m going to poke my head into the hornet’s nest, even though I’m not sure anybody is still here to read or argue with my comment… 🙂

    I am honestly confused by the argument made by the vegans here. I understand that vegans are most concerned with the decidedly inhumane and unethical practices of factory (industrial) farming, but if we could get our food, even animal products, using humane agrarian practices, wouldn’t that be preferable?

    I’m not sure what Vegans think human beings are or should be. Are they arguing for a return to times before the discovery (advent) of farming? A more indigenous lifestyle? Vegans benefit as much as omnivores from farming practices and even an indigenous life would involve the killing of animals for sustenance.

    The fact of the matter is that human beings are the top predators in a food chain that begins and ends with the soil. Thousands of years ago, some of us figured out a way to make it easier to get our food–through gardening (which became large-scale farming) and the domestication of animals.

    Don’t you think the wolf would domesticate the deer if he could figure out how to go about it? Why not?

  58. Zack said….”(A brief note, as well, about “cutting down an animal in it’s prime”: How many wild animals do you believe live long enough to die of natural causes? Nature doesn’t work that way.)”

    In nature being eaten by a predator is a natural cause of death.

    Anonymous said…

    “Admit that you consume without regard to your effects on the freedom of any other species, because you think that humans are superior and there is nothing wrong with controlling the lives of any species (other than humans, of course) you choose.”

    I am an omnivore but I am not the one thinking I am “superior” to animals. I AM an animal. So are you. Some animals evolved to be herbivores, some carnivores, some omnivores. Human creatures evolved to be omnivores. Whether fortunately or unfortunately human beings are trapped within human creatures. As creatures we are all imbued with the instincts to survive and reproduce. Our evolution into omnivores is part of what has allowed us to become beings that can even debate the issue.

    I do not consume other animals because of a “right” to consume them. Vegans have no more “right” to consume vegetation than I have to consume a chicken. I consume animals because it is the evolved nature of a human creature to consume other animals.

    We keep tending to think of biological evolution as a continuum from lesser to greater but it isn’t. It is just a change of state from one state to another. Our being able to think and debate does not give us anymore or less “right” to the consumption of any animal,vegetable or mineral.

    Some claim we are at the top of the food chain…tell that to a grizzly bear the next time you run into one in the woods.

    Now back to the farming question. Perhaps the Anonymous Quoted Vegan (to distinguish this person from any other Anonymous Vegans) does have a point in that by farming we are controlling the lives of other animals and that may be unethical or unnatural. I cannot argue that there is nothing wrong with controlling the lives of other species, but, farming anything is equally unethical or unnatural. All farming whether for vegetation or animals short circuits the hunter gatherer order of nature. To be able to take any moral high ground one would have to commit to a purely hunter gather life.

    All living things hunt,or gather, or scavenge to survive and thrive; even plants. Photosynthesis gathers the elements of solar energy, water, minerals and nutrients from the plants environment…..That includes nutrients from the decompostion of any animals that dies in the proximity of the plant. Some plants even consume animals or insects. Humans are part of a food oroborus.

  59. Once upon a time, more than 10 years ago, I was an animal rights person and vegetarian for 7 years (1 year entirely vegan). I also lived in a large city and had limited interaction with animals other than dogs, cats, and horses (and I believe that this is where too many animal rights have the same failing – they have limited or no interaction with animals that aren’t pets). I then moved to a fairly rural area and broadened my life experiences. And I broke with the tenants behind animal rights because I really believe they don’t apply to real life. Unless you are willing to become a hunter/gatherer living in a mud hut somewhere without benefit of electricity, cars, or any other modern convenience (in which case you wouldn’t be reading this blog), and you choose to not spawn any children (seeing that overpopulation of humans is the crux of many of our problems) you are a hypocrite on some level because *everything* people do (or use) affects an animal somewhere. (Heck, even your mud hut would probably kill a worm or two; at the very least, it would affect water bird habitat).

    Nowadays I’m an animal welfarist. I have no problem eating humanely raised and slaughtered meat. I have seen and experienced things that lead me to conclude that an animal really has no concept of death. They’re not keeping track of whether they live 5 days or 50 years, it’s all just another day to them. I absolutely do believe that animals can suffer and I try to make choices in life that elimate animal suffering. But a quick death via humane slaughter brings the suffering level down so close to zero that I’m OK with it. When someone’s pet dog grabs a chicken, I can assure you the chicken suffers much more at the mouth of the dog when compared to the quick death via a skilled abbatoir. Unfortunately, we live in a society where consumers must seek out animals raised and slaughtered humanely because you’re not getting that at the corner grocery store. And of course, you’re going to pay a premium because it costs the producer more the raise an animal to slaughter age in a humane way.

    I do have a concern that lay people raising backyard flocks could cause unintended suffering as they go through the learning process of how to keep these “new” animals. And, especially if they’re keeping food animals for economic rather than philosophical reasons, they may not care for the animal as would a person trying to raise animals for humane reasons. But, ultimately, I think the backyard chicken is better off than the CAFO chicken.


  60. @woolysheep: you’re absolutely correct! I should have said that human beings are “part of a food chain” rather than “at the top of one”.

    Old teachings are hard to shake, aren’t they?

  61. Re: Jen in CT

    I don’t know that there is a single argument which encompasses the rationale for all vegans, even on this comment board. But, what I have consistently said is that the rationale is to do the least harm.

    Admittedly it’s an arbitrary distinction, but humans feel (and have verified with some scientific evidence) that sentient beings have a capability to suffer and experience pain. Maybe Mark’s carrot gnomes also feel pain but those are theoretical entities whereas an actual animal actually suffers when you slaughter it.

    Where you get the idea that vegans want a return to indigenous life or insist on absolutely zero destruction of life, I’m not sure. In my experience, people who suggest that their opponents are so extreme have not taken the time to understand the other point of view. So you have actually spent time attacking a point of view nobody here is proposing.

    Basically, the argument for me is that if I can sustain myself without bloodshed, then that is preferable. That’s also my argument for why others should be also, but I don’t push it on anyone. That’s the difference between a person and a wolf, a person can make this sort of choice whereas we are pretty sure the wolf can’t. I’ve also said that I really hope more omnivores adopt the practice of raising their own food and buying local.

  62. Re: Veggie Gardener

    Simply because you can’t prevent impacting an animal’s life doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. “Hypocrisy” is a harsh way of putting it. Nobody who holds any position whatsoever can prevent engaging in hypocrisy because their actions can always be scrutinized to an extreme degree, as you have shown.

    I hope you can elaborate what you have learned that informs you that the tenets of animal rights are impractical. I think you may have fallen in with a rather extreme mindset if you concluded that you might have needed to live in a mud hut at some point.

    About the capability of animals to suffer, I think you are reducing suffering to be defined by the uncomfortable existences experienced in some factory farms. My neighbor raises cows, and I believe the cows who moo for days when their children are taken from them suffer. I think it’s a fact that animals experience a kind of suffering not necessarily stimulated by physical pain. Having raised animals and been on plenty of farms, my experience is that animals do have an ability to understand death and they have an appropriate fear of it.

    Check out this NYT column where the author reflects on his experience with animal suffering and their ability to perceive a threat:

  63. Butting in…

    jesse, Jen in CT *asked* whether vegans want an indigenous life, she didn’t just presume they do. But honestly, I think it’s a valid question because it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that the line can be drawn pretty far out from the center if people really take the “do the least harm” idea to heart. Taken to an extreme, the “least harm” argument could easily result in a human popluation of less than 1% of what it is today…

    Obviously, we all know that everyone’s line is arbitrary and based on everyone’s individual values. No one’s line is inherently better than someone else’s, it’s all in what we decide to believe.

  64. jesse,

    Obviously we disagree but I will point out that a threat and death are two different things. The geese in the NYT article you posted were responding to a threat. They probably could have been killed with much less stress than a 10 year old chasing them around a barn trying to catch them.

    I don’t consider a cow mooing (or horse neighing) for it’s offspring as suffering any more than I view the mother who is crying because her child has just left for college to be suffering. I draw my line differently than you. Neither is better.

    Have a nice day!

  65. @Jesse:

    I am just trying to understand what exactly it is vegans are trying to opt out of when they choose a diet consisting solely of plant matter. Is it merely that vegans object to any and all uses of animals by human beings or is there a broader statement you are trying to make?

    You say the aim is to do the least harm, but consider the industrial processes that bring you tofu and other products marketed to vegans. You would be hard-pressed to convince me that the consumption of tofu does less harm than the eggs collected from a small backyard flock of well-loved and cared for hens.

    Oh, but perhaps you make your own tofu? With heirloom soybeans from your own compost-fertilized, rain-watered garden? Well, that’s different then.

  66. No I don’t make my own tofu. What a ridiculous outright mockery, thanks for your opinions. However I’m not sure why you’re posting, are you trying to learn something or to convince me that you’re the winner? It seems to me the latter.

  67. “However I’m not sure why you’re posting, are you trying to learn something or to convince me that you’re the winner? It seems to me the latter.”

    Except that the same can be said of you jesse.

    Jen: “Is it merely that vegans object to any and all uses of animals by human beings.” Some of them do, expecially the ones who choose to not eat meat due to animal rights reasons. This is one of the reasons I broke with the PETA faction long ago – I owned horses that I rode for pleasure and some of the more extreme animal rightists definitely believe that doing so is exploitation of the horse. I’m pretty sure that my horses lived much better than horses in the wild; they certainly looked better than the wild horses I’ve seen… So they had to do some work to earn their keep; don’t we all??? I’m pretty sure my dog highly prefers getting fed regular meals rather than having to hunt down her own meals.

    I think you know that the concept of “least harm” is a pretty loosey-goosey concept (to use a technical term). All I know is that if the apocalypse comes and it comes down to me or the goat, the goat’s the goner. Would the vegan really chose to starve to death? I don’t know, some might…

    Oh my, I obviously have too much time on my hands today!

  68. @Jesse:

    Why is it so ridiculous to speculate that you might make your own tofu? It can be done.

    It doesn’t even look all that difficult, perhaps time consuming but not difficult.

    Your defensive reply does little to make your case for veganism or even to help me understand your position more clearly. Even if you were to simply say “I choose a vegan diet because I believe it is healthier for me,” I might disagree, but could at least accept your right to choose the food that works best for you. It seems to me that vegans tend to take the position that they are morally superior to those that chose a different way of eating. If you claim to be standing on the moral high ground, you really should be prepared to defend your position. Which is what, exactly? That a vegan diet is less harmful to animals? Considering the industrialization of agriculture, how is that less harmful than keeping a small flock of hens in the backyard for the express purpose of harvesting their eggs?

    The only real way to do the least harm in our consumption of sustenance is to eat locally and seasonally–the produce of plants AND animals–as human beings have always done until only recently.

    Oy, talk about too much time on my hands!!

  69. Re: Jen in CT

    If you read the history of this discussion you will see that I’ve stated my position many times and it does not involve any moral superiority. Were you interested in understanding, I would guess that you would have read these already.

    I think a plain-facts analysis of consumption would disagree with your assertion: by what analysis do you conclude that a vegan-local diet does more harm than an omnivore-local diet? Are animals harmed if I don’t eat them?

    Your posts are fraught with all sorts of negative assumptions about myself and vegans: here, that we ordinarily assume the moral high ground and that we contribute at inordinately to industrial agriculture. I have said already that I don’t consider myself superior and that I acknowledge the harm that still must be inflicted for me to eat.

    The only kind of comparison which will bear out your clearly anti-vegan bias is one that compares a vegan who buys processed products of large industrial operations sold in chain supermarkets, compared with the omnivore who eats only from his own backyard!

  70. Wow! I’m a little ashamed that I have spent the better part of an hour reading this blog thread. But it has been such an interesting smackdown!

    I think I have something to add that maybe hasn’t been said. I am an omnivore. I try to buy only animals that have been “humanely” farmed, that don’t deplete the oceans, that are in some way less bad for the world at large-when i am at the store.

    When i am at a taco truck, I get a carnitas taco. Why do I do it? Well, actually because that anonymous guy with the “WANT WANT WANT” crap is actually kind of right. They smell good. They are so tasty. I am not willing to give up certain ethnic foods that i consider to be the culinary gems of my city and I KNOW they aren’t buying their pork at Whole Foods. Does this make me feel bad? Yes it does. But obviously not bad enough to stop.

    Why? because I feel that on balance I am generally affecting change through most of my eating choices and buying habits.

    This is a pretty erudite little crowd on this site. And i do not exempt myself from the criticism I’m about to level at the whole crowd in general:

    The very vast majority of people on this earth, in this country, in your state and in your neighborhood do not give a fuck about the well being of animals. They absolutely do not care one bit that it is natural or unnatural for a pig to get antibiotics. Or how much space a chicken has to peck around. To the anonymous vegan with his insane level of self rightiousness:

    Walk into Food For Less on Western and Washington in Los Angeles and (even translated into Spanish) see if any of the struggling families of just that one neighborhood are more concerned with your aggressive preposterous idealism or the $.08 difference on the price of ham.

    The people who are raising not only their own chickens but the consciousness of the general public about the ethics and hazards of industrial farming are actually making a difference in the world. Reducing the actual pain and suffering of actual chickens. Not eliminating it, just reducing it.

    Consider what change you can make in the world. Is there more to this debate than just how you personally feel about yourself? Now, I realize in the larger scheme, every movement needs its radical marginalized fringe. (well maybe not needs, but kind of can’t help producing) But recognize that this argument is taking place so far to one side of the spectrum that it is a schismatic argument.

    If your desire is to actually have any effect on the lives of the billions of animals that lead miserable horrendous lives in factory farms, improve the farms. Because if guilty, over-priviledged, ever-educated white chicks like myself will still eat a taco…really imagine what you’re up against and make the taco kinder.


  71. Is it ethical for indigenous peoples to be dispossessed of their lands and for their descendants to be marginalized within the societies now dominated by the descendants of the interlopers? No, it’s not. But, assuming English is your native language, you, Anonymous, are almost certainly living on land that was stolen from some of those indigenous peoples by Europeans. Is that natural or ethical?
    Right on, Kate!
    I was watching one of those nature programs the other night (don’t remember which channel) that showed hyenas ripping apart a LIVE buffalo-type animal. It lay on the ground, occasionally bellowing in agony, as the hyenas tore apart its hindquarters.
    I’d bet if that buffalo could have chosen its death, it would have prefer a hunter’s bullet to the hideous way it really happened.

  72. If anyone spends the time to ferret out my two or three comments on this thread, he/she will see that I am vegan but not morally superior about it. I mean, I’m madly in love with my omnivore husband, and my 9-year-old daughter is also an omnivore, so I’ve got no business judging anyone reading this for eating meat.

    Having said this, I’d like to respond to an assumption made by several people here that humans are natural omnivores. Believe it or not, humans are anatomical herbivores who can tolerate an omnivorous diet, albeit with increased rate of disease as a result.

    I refer anyone interested to this link:
    for information on how humans are anatomically herbivores.

    In an above post I mentioned two well-written, well-documented books on the health benefits of eating a plant-based (e.g. vegan) diet: The China Study, and The Food Revolution. Before anyone argues again that humans “need” meat or animal products to survive or be optimally healthy, please inform yourself further. These books, as well as information provided by Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, are reputable sources on nutrition.

    Finally, I don’t recall much discussion here on the environmental benefits of veganism, perhaps because it’s not really the topic of this particular blog entry! However, a quick 2 cents about the environment, a plant-based diet, and eating locally: sure, if I ate only produce shipped to Oregon from South America, I’d probably be doing more environmental damage than a meat eater who ate only Oregon-raised cows and chickens. However, eating locally-raised cows and chickens is still many, many times more resource-intensive than eating a local plant-based diet. And, taking into consideration the fact that meat is not only unnecessary for health but detrimental to it, it pretty much takes the wind out of the “I only eat local meat” sails. Eating a local, vegan diet is best for my health and the environment. That pretty much rocks, no?

    Having said all this, I harbor no illusions that the world will go vegan overnight, if ever. I don’t judge my husband, my daughter, or anyone reading this for eating meat and dairy. Hell, I ate meat for decades; it was what I knew, until I knew better. But, now I choose not to, and I feel great.

  73. I am a vegetarian friendly husband of a Cheatin’ vegan since birth(sometimes ice cream, occasional pizza) and vege kids. I eat meat, usually at restaurants, and vegetarian at home. As a formal picky eater, I have grown to love vegetables of all varieties, thanks to my wife. Our son is a fabulous eater who astounds other parents in what he will eat (all kinds of vegies except onions and mushrooms). He of course loves cake and ice cream, but he is a kid! I personally also find Polan’s views match mine, though my wife has a “no killing” policy with all food. If we ever argue over it, it is mostly a hearty debate or pillow talk, both probably reflecting our own conditioning.
    I believe a closed cycle farm is a thing of beauty, the closest man has ever come to mimic “nature”, she doesn’t believe animals should be killed for food. The debate ranges between “Can vegetables feel?” to “What’s different between humans and cows?” We’ll probably never solve our differences, but we’ll always love each other.
    Raising my kids vegetarian makes me believe that we will set them up to make good food choices in the future. They may eat meat some day, but right now controlling or limiting the input of RBGH’s and hormones they don’t need feels like the right choice. Thanks for the space to voice my opinion.

  74. Where do the purists draw the line? I would have to take it that Mr.”things have brains so shouldn’t be slaughtered” (for food consumption) has never so much as swatted a mosquito; doesn’t spray for roaches, and preserves cobwebs! Bugs have “brains”! Bacteria “has a life”, so never had a flu shot, a vaccine, or washed with anti-bacterial soap, right?

  75. I adore dogs. I have one rescue and plan on obtaining countless more, all from shelters. Perhaps I will start my own no-kill shelter. For dogs, that is. I am a pescatarian, the mister is a vegetarian. He readily admits his vegetarianism is a product of sympathy for the world’s creatures, an inability to kill consciously, and of course a complete lack of appreciation for modern agri-business. Mine is the latter first and foremost, and a sympathy for mammals second. I am incapable of killing a cow therefore, no beef for me. Birds are a grey area. I like them, they’re interesting and remind me of the dinosaurs I study (geologist/paleontologist). But I love dogs. My current dog is on a premium kibble diet of duck, fish, and potato. Those ducks are not being kept and slaughtered humanly. That does not sit well with me or the mister. The dog doesn’t care. I’ve been going on an on about raising our own flocks (chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese, parrots, whatever. maybe not parrots.) for a long time. I originally planned on keeping the birds til they died and then boiling them and feeding them to the dogs (insert “oh, silly urbanites”) but upon further research, learned that chickens only produce eggs for about a year and can live for twelve. I am not turning my place into a Florida for the geezer chickens of the world. The obvious conclusion: once they stop producing, they get slaughtered and fed to the dogs. Even if we did not keep them for eggs or anything, I am still just as uncomfortable outsourcing my dogs’ food sources as I am my own. The mister, being sentimental as he is, is supportive if not a little nauseated at this whole “third-tier-food-web” at our abode. I must and will provide for my (rescued) dogs. Does that cast a whole new light on this whole topic? Maybe. And no, vegetarian dogs are not an option.

  76. As a vegan I am tired of meat eaters complaining that we are so self-righteous. If they’d only read books like Diet for a New America by John Robbins and Beyond Beef by Jeremy Rifkin, they’d realize that all we want is a better world for everybody, people, plants, animals and the environment at large. We are not trying to puff out our egos. On the contrary, we are very humble, proclaiming that we are humans are just one of the Creation, not the top of the Creation. We embrace the golden rule. Just as much as we wouldn’t want to be killed, we don’t kill others, whether people or animals. John Robbins, author of Diet for a New America, spoke with so much heart and compassion, it was really beautiful. Jeremy Rifkin presented a utopian view. People ask what would become of farm animals if we didn’t eat them. Well, if we stopped breeding them, we wouldn’t be overrun by them. I’d simply let them live out their natural lives without producing offspring and then the economy can turn to growing fruit trees. I knew of one cattle grower who realized he couldn’t make a good living out of cattle and switched to avocados and now is doing well. If I had to be an animal, I’d rather not be born than to live for the purpose of filling one’s stomach. As the famous song “Born Free,” said, “Life is only worth living when you are born free.” Remember the popular movie “Born Free,” about Elsa the lioness by Joy Adamson?

    Instead of condemning meat eaters, let us vegans be a good example and inspire people to emulate us and live a higher spiritual conciousness. We are all evolving and everyone has a lesson to learn. I am no better than you, I have my limitations as well, but I really feel good about trying to limit suffering and thread lightly on the earth. Bless you all.

  77. I hate not to leave that as the last post, but I would note that many vegans do not, in fact abstain from self-righteousness and are NOT humble, especially on internet comment boards. And though they consistently fail to see it, their self-righteousness works against them. I like your last paragraph. Maybe if more of the vegans I met were healthy, happy people, instead of the pale, bitter and angry types that I always seem to meet, veganism might seem more appealing. As it is, I fear that if I adopted the vegan lifestyle, I might turn into one of them.

  78. I’ll post back to the Vegan above. I’d like to address a couple of points.

    1. Vegans are not killing in order to live. I think that statement is wrong. Plants are living matter. Their systems may not afford the same sentience as animals but they are living system just like any animal.

    2. Animals living out natural lives includes breeding. That’s what makes it natural. Excluding certain functions in the name of stopping a species from proliferating is right in line with raising any living thing for the purpose of breeding and proliferation. It’s just a different end of the same spectrum. How is preventing proliferation being “born free”. Are plants not free, are they not as worthy of the same consideration as animals?

    The hypocrisy of vegans is astounding. That’s not an attack but an observation when the above points are proferred regarding life, freedom and the convenient compartmentalization of what garners life with its relationship to what we consume.

    We eat that we may live. Plants and animals are both life sustaining entities. It’s impossible to get around the notion that one must kill in order to survive. My advice is to get rid of the guilt and just eat a balanced diet.

  79. Ah Heather you must have thought yourself so clever when you discovered this! I am reminded of the former governor of Alaska’s “we eat, therefore we hunt!”

    Plants are life, that is a fact. Therefore, yes, one must kill a living thing in order to eat.

    But to claim that sentience is of no consequence when considering what one may or may not kill is a very cheap way to attempt to poke a hole in the argument from animal rights. Since you acknowledge that plants are not sentient

    I’ll skip that portion of the argument. Why does sentience matter? Because the primary motivation of veganism is to reduce suffering. The death of a being which does not suffer does not further that goal. Ending mass slaughter of cows and removing them from feedlots does.

    Near as we can tell, a tomato vine or an apple orchard does not exhibit dissatisfaction or yearn for its freedom, or even register an objection when its fruit is eaten. On the other hand, mammals express a distinct capability to posess self-interest. Cows object when their calves are taken from them. Chickens exhibit fear when they are stuffed into killing chutes upside down and have their throats slit. Pigs get bored to the point of canibalism when they are stuffed into areas too small for their needs. They squeal terribly when they are slaughtered.

    So to recap:

    * Plants must die to sustain a vegan diet.

    * Vegans attempt to reduce their contribution to the mass suffering of animals.

    * Near as we can tell, plants cannot suffer.

    * Not eating animals or their byproducts results in a diet which ideally requires zero suffering.

    * Rational beings such as humans require a reason for the infliction of suffering onto other beings, especially when an alternative exists.

    Finally, I think you have failed to address the question of why you think you have the right to kill a living thing. “Getting rid of guilt” is a euphemism for continuing to not think about it.

    The inescapable fact of meat eating is that it depends on animal suffering and it requires the dubious proposition that animals are legitimate subjects for human activities such as feeding, entertainment, and often waste too. One has to assert that they have no right to be free, or that if they do, then we have a right to override it for our reason.

    Try focusing on a legitimate defense of that fact instead of these insipid attacks. If our sin is hypocrisy, you have demonstrated that yours is ignorance and poor reasoning.

    An interesting thing which may have escaped you: being a hypocrite does not mean that one’s claim is wrong.

  80. It would be ideal if most people were able to grow at least some of their own food, either by having a vegetable garden, fruit-bearing trees, chickens etc. This would allow us to cut back considerably on the processed, factory farmed, hormone and antibiotic ladden, and genetically modified produce and animal products that we consume. Unfortunately, many of us have opted to embrace values and a way of living that makes the above impossible. For example, people are increasingly living in housing communities with homeowners’ associations and zero-lot lines, especially in places like South Florida. Zero-lot lines are developers’ way to maximize profits by minimizing the amount of land required to build homes, and associations are homeowners’ associations are a way to maximize “property values”. Notice a theme here? Money and self-interest. Unfortunately, however, it is difficult to have a food garden and fruit bearing trees, much less to raise animals, if you have no land around your home. Additionally, even if you have something of a backyard, homeowners’ associations do not permit people to raise their own animals. They even limit the number of companions animals that one can have. This, of course, benefits supermarkets and food corporations, because we have to continue to purchase all of our food from them and have very little control over quality. So, in order to protect our self-interest on one end, we’ve sacrificed our self-interest on the other end. For the sake of “property values”, we’ve allowed ourselves to be suckered into living in cookie-cutter homes, with little privacy and land, and have made ourselves completely dependent on the very same corporations, factory farms, etc. that turn around a get subsidized by our tax dollars.

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