. . . A Spiritual Argument Against Aggressive Moral Veganism
There are lots of different kinds of deaths, literal and metaphorical. They all weave into each other through cyclical and irregular patterns. Observing the Wheel of the Year is one of the most fundamental and commonly practiced observances of the cycle of life and death in modern paganism. It speaks to the solar-driven seasonal and biological cycles which affect almost all life on earth, creating our associations with spring and fertility, summer and growth, fall and decline, and winter and death.
It is the rare person who would deny that literal death is a natural part of life. All things are born, grow, live, decline, and eventually die. Even mountains, forests, seas, and human civilizations experience this cycle.
Even when biologically immortal animals avoid part of that cycle by refusing to die from old age, they all still eventually die from predation, disease, accident, and other environmental and circumstantial factors. All things die. Even the stars in the sky die… eventually.
Death is a natural part of life.
Death is also a natural part of living. Constantly.
All living organisms must consume something to continue living. Plants, for example, consume energy from the rays of the sun, but they also consume water and nutrients from their environments. Nutrients created or released into soil by the decomposition process are particularly useful to most plants. In fact, you can make brand new soil in about two weeks from composted organic matter – making most things older than dirt. You want to make a rose bush happy and vibrantly healthy? Give it blood, or, if you do your own slaughtering or hunting, bury lungs at its roots. Many fungi are an essential part of the decompositional process, and cannot exist except where something else has died.
Then we get to insects and animals, the vast majority of which have mouths or mouth parts, and predominantly consume other living beings in order to survive. Generally speaking, most animals are herbivores, omnivores, or carnivores, with further specializations like frugivores (fruit eaters), grazers (grass eaters), and browsers (weeds, bushes, trees, etc.). However, even herbivores will take advantage of easily available meat snacks. Deer, and even sheep and some cattle, have been filmed and documented eating small birds in particular. There are a few theories as to why they do this, but clearly they consider it a viable food source, even if it’s not their staple food source. Correspondingly, even most obligate carnivores, like wolves, will also eat plants in small quantities.
Human beings are biologically omnivorous, which means we are opportunistic eaters, taking advantage of anything and everything available which isn’t poisonous or indigestible (and even some indigestible items like bay leaves and lemongrass). We need a varied diet in order to obtain all the nutrients we need to be healthy, but what that varied diet includes is tremendously different from region to region and culture to culture. Humans also have historically survived just fine on diets restricted by religious edict, often with a side of moral justification.
I think it is probably safe to say that humans are the only species on the Earth which can and does apply moral reasoning to food choices. These reasons are not clean-cut (even when their adherents believe they are), and are usually religiously or culturally influenced. In Western society, there has in recent decades been an aggressive push for moral vegetarianism and moral veganism. The proselytizing and conversional nature of moral veganism is very different from religious dietary restrictions and special-needs diets which fall under the general umbrella of vegetarianism or veganism.
Why Moral Veganism Isn’t A Moral High Ground
Fair warning: I’m probably about to piss off a lot of moral vegans.
Moral veganism is a moral ground, but not a moral high ground. Moral high ground implies that the morals in question are an absolute truth, but in reality moral veganism has glaring moral flaws. It only appears impervious because so many moral vegans choose to ignore the glaring problems with their moral stance, or consider those problems inconsequential in the face of their priorities.
It is one thing to choose not to eat meat because you can’t bear the thought of being responsible for the death of an animal. It is something else entirely to claim that it is morally reprehensible for anyone to eat any animal products at all. It is inherently culturally insensitive, classist, and ableist to claim that all humans should be vegan, and those are some really big moral problems that should not be swept under the rug.
It is also incredibly short-sighted to imply that veganism is essential to achieving animal rights. There are many routes to animal rights and environmental restoration, most of which have to do with industrial regulation and animal welfare laws, and not a thing to do with what anyone eats. Many routes specifically include the responsible raising of food animals.
It is a distraction from the real problems to lay all the blame on the end consumers. It is the corporations and individuals raising animals who have control over how they are treated while they are alive, not the end consumer, and it is a bizarre form of victim blaming to lay that on our individual feet. If your actual goal is animal welfare, hold corporations responsible through strong regulations. If you’re not encouraging tangible progress for animal rights, you’re doing little more than engaging in morally superior ego-stroking.
There is arguable correlation between what we eat and what harms the environment, but no one diet is solely responsible or completely innocent. Eating meat can be done in an environmentally responsible way, and vegans are often the end consumer of products which contribute to environmental devastation. The mass farming of products like soybeans, along with cattle grazing, are a significant contributor to deforestation. Not to mention there are serious environmental problems with vegan “leather” (vinyl and pleather are petroleum products, environmentally problematic from drilling to manufacture to disposal). My point is, veganism can be environmentally responsible, but it is not inherently environmentally responsible. There are a lot more factors involved in environmentalism than simply what foods you do or do not choose to eat.
This isn’t to say that no one should be vegan or vegetarian. I’m not going to tell anyone else what they should or shouldn’t eat. That would make me one hell of a hypocrite, because insisting all other humans should or should not eat any particular diet is inherently culturally insensitive, classist, and ableist. Foods are very tied to culture, which is why native foods are often denied or eliminated as part of colonialization. Not all of us have the same resources and options for food purchase and preparation, especially in food deserts. No matter the diet, there will be humans who are physically incapable of thriving on it, at a minimum because of allergies.
Ableist problems with veganism are particularly glaring to me. Even if I found the moral arguments of veganism compelling, I would be incapable of living on a vegan diet. I have a chronic, invisible illness, and my treatment includes a medically restricted diet. I am also fully disabled, so my personal income is severely limited. Viable alternatives to meat which would give me the protein and amino acid intake I need are entirely outside my budget, especially since my digestive system cannot tolerate soy products or gluten.
Compounding the problem is the fact that most ready-to-eat vegan products contain a very high amount of processed carbs and sugars, which I am also medically restricted from eating. Because of my disability, I also cannot cook on a regular basis, which is essential to achieving a vegan diet that includes all necessary nutrients, especially if soy, wheat, and processed carbs are off the table. Even vegan cheese is forbidden, because casein, a protein found in cow’s milk which is hard for me to digest, is usually added as an ingredient.
Even if you want to dismiss the problematic ableist rhetoric in moral veganism, which implies that disabled people are inferior to fully capable humans, practical issues are a huge problem for many disabled people. When a vegan says that it is my moral duty to be vegan, no matter what, or I am a horrible person, they are quite literally telling me that I should stay sick, get worse, and die. How morally upright of them! Sure, they might make an exception for me if I fully explain all the details about my medical problems and dietary restrictions, but no one should have to justify their existence.
No Diet Escapes the Fact that Something Must Die for You to Live
One of the ideas that draws people to veganism and vegetarianism is the idea that by avoiding meat, you won’t be responsible for the death of another living creature. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard vegetarians or vegans say that they don’t understand how anyone can eat something that had eyes and could look at you. Certainly, cattle have particularly glorious eyelashes framing soulful eyes. I get it. I really do. It is a very valid personal choice, and it does carry with it an inherent positive morality.
If it makes you sick to eat meat, don’t eat it. I would feel sick if I tried to eat a dog or a cat, even though I eat other meats just fine, because I see cats and dogs as family members and friends. However, I would never tell someone else they shouldn’t eat it just because I won’t. Dog and cat meat are an important food source in many parts of the world, and can be a vital part of traditional foods. The existence of that food source is not for me to judge, even if I can and will judge people on their humane or inhumane treatment of the animals while they are alive.
I completely agree that taking a life carries moral consequence. A cow has as much right to life as a human does. I just don’t stop there. A tree also has as much right to life as a human. So does a mushroom, or a carrot. All life is sacred, regardless of form, regardless of whether or not it has soulful eyes to look at you with.
Unless you are solely eating items that are cast off or harvested from still-living plants or animals (fruit, nuts, milk, etc.), you are taking a life to survive. Every. Single. Day. Even leafy greens cause death unless you are able to harvest the leaves individually from your own garden, because often the entire plant is harvested and sold at once.
This sort of argument has been put forth by moral vegans many times before, usually in conjunction with the argument that plants feel pain, in an attempt to anthropomorphize plant-based food sources. It is normally dismissed because in most spiritual and religious practices, the life of a plant is considered inferior and inconsequential compared to animals, and especially humans. This is often true even in atheism, because plants are not cognitive creatures, and therefore don’t carry the same burden of humane treatment. The lack of blinking, soulful eyes makes it easier for us, as humans, to be dismissive of plants as living beings fully deserving of life.
I am an animist. I believe all things have a soul, be they living or inorganic. I believe that all things are morally deserving of life, and also deserve to live their lives to the fullest. That includes tiny algae, giant whales, livestock animals, birds, lizards, humans, and everything else. On a fundamental level, even bacteria deserve to live, although I’m all for using antibiotics to eliminate them when they cause harm.
Life, and nature, are messy, because life includes a whole lot of death. I don’t get mad at parasitic wasps for their treatment of orb spiders. I just feel sad for the spiders, because wasps don’t act with moral reasoning, and nature can be cruel. Humans do feel morality, so when humans do things that willfully harm other creatures, I get very, very mad. This is true whether someone is fighting dogs, or a giant corporation is cruelly factory-farming livestock for the sake of profit margins and corporate greed. I still eat factory-farmed meat because it is what is available and within my means, but that doesn’t make the practice OK, and I am of the opinion we need very strong regulations to ensure humane conditions.
Even if I were of the means, and was physically healthy, I still wouldn’t want to be vegan. I find it inescapable that plants have as much inherent moral value as animals, so I can’t give credence to the idea that it is morally superior to only eat plants. The only kind of diet I see which would avoid most of the immorality of killing would involve eating only that which does not require the death of a living being, or the living being is eaten only when it has naturally finished its life cycle. That means the diet would consist almost entirely of fruit, nuts, some vegetables, gourds, beans, leafy greens, unfertilized eggs, dairy, and blood.
It’s basically a modified vegetarian diet, where you have to be maddeningly paranoid about your food sourcing unless you are capable of growing all your own food and keeping your own chickens and dairy livestock. Even then, you’re likely to run into problems with foods only being available seasonally, and are at risk of not having enough variety of food items to stay physically healthy. Unless you have an incredibly unusual living situation, it’s simply not practical, and it still doesn’t avoid all death. If you want to be sure you have enough to eat, crops and livestock must be protected from disease, predation, and consumption by other living things, and the garden must be kept clear of invasive plants.
That means that for the human race, there is no such thing as a perfectly moral diet, free of death, cultural insensitivity, classism, and ableism. You can pick and choose which moral issues are most important to you, but different issues might be more important to someone else, and that is fine. It’s a mess, so each of us can only make the best of it we can.
If your moral issue is that you can’t handle the thought of killing or eating an animal, don’t eat animal flesh. If your moral issue is animal welfare, encourage changes in laws and regulations which would protect animals, regardless of what you choose to eat or not eat. If your moral compass tells you to be vegan, be vegan. But, be accepting that your best choices are not necessarily the same as someone else’s, and it is not some automatic moral failing for a different person to have different needs and priorities.
Seeking to reduce the amount of death that happens so you can live can be a worthwhile moral pursuit, but death will always happen. Dwelling entirely on that end result can lead to ignoring the value and the quality of the life while it happens. I don’t wish for a world where no one eats chicken. I wish for a world where the chicken has a wonderful quality of life while it is on this earth, and its end is quick and humane.
Make Room at Your Feast Table
Breaking bread is one of the most basic interactions humans have. When meeting new people, it is very common to share a meal, whether it is the start to a prospective romance, a dinner you’re hosting to introduce your friends to each other, or a state dinner with a foreign dignitary. Severe dietary restrictions, when applied in an absolutist way, have the potential to turn those meetings into disasters. Failing to provide vegan, vegetarian, halal, kosher, or medically or allergy sensitive options can literally mean someone at the table isn’t eating, othering them and excluding them from fully participating in the community ritual of feasting.
Refusing to provide broader options for those who don’t follow restricted diets can lead to disappointment and dissatisfaction, and can be seen as the actions of a rude host. Feasting is about family and community. It is about sharing and welcoming. It is not the time to try and impose your ideas of correct diet on anyone else. That’s not hospitable.
Don’t be a food gatekeeper. Allow other people their beloved traditional foods. Accept that there are all sorts of weird allergies out there which can make any diet impossible. Don’t assume another person is capable of meeting their dietary needs on your preferred diet. Don’t assume your moral priorities should be identical to anyone else’s. Morality is as messy as life is.
When someone tells you their dietary restrictions or needs, accept it, without requiring an explanation to ensure it is somehow valid enough for your taste. Set feasts that include options for everyone who is attending, even if your dietary priorities are different. If you are hosting a feast and can’t personally make options other people want or need, make sure someone else will be providing those options. Delegation is a valid solution.
Death is an inescapable consequence of human life. We live because other things die. For some people, that can be a very difficult thing to make peace with. If you take that death flippantly, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that since all things die, it doesn’t matter what we kill or how. If you focus too much on the gravity of that death, it can be paralyzing from remorse and regret. The trick for me is to accept, without prejudice, that death is inevitable and ever-present, and instead place my emphasis on wanting quality of life for all, and giving gratitude for the sacrifices which allow my life and the lives of those around me to continue.
Giving thanks is an essential element of spiritual gratitude for the everyday sacrifices which allow life to continue. Whether you give thanks over your plate, in your garden, at your altar, in special ritual, in your kitchen, in your heart, or somewhere or somehow else entirely, it is important to have gratitude. Whether you focus your thanks on a single day of the year, at every sabat or esbat, at every ritual, every day, or multiple times a day, it is important the gratitude be sincere and respectful. It is very much a part of where we have been and where we are going.
When you give thanks for your food, whether you eat meat or not, be sure to give thanks for the lives that ended so yours could continue. Death is an unavoidable consequence of human life.