The best argument against veganism

16 December 2021
By Josh Milburn

A few years ago, I was flicking through a book called The Moral Complexities of Eating Meat. It contains lots of great essays, but one title in particular caught my eye – Donald Bruckner’s ‘Strict Vegetarianism is Immoral’. I remember being sceptical. I’d read plenty of arguments saying that we don’t have to be vegan – most of them pretty terrible – but it’s hard to think of an argument saying that it’s wrong to be vegan.

Maybe (I remember thinking) it was going to forward a trite religious argument, saying that we denied ‘God’s bounty’ when we refused to kill animals for food? Maybe it was going to employ warped environmentalist logic, saying that refusing to kill and eat animals ‘alienated’ us from nature? It does neither. Bruckner’s argument is something different. It is something that, I think, might be the best argument against veganism I’ve read – and I’ve been working on the ethics of veganism, and a vegan, for years.

Bruckner starts with a straightforward case for veganism. Factory farming causes extensive, unnecessary harm to animals, and it’s wrong to knowingly cause or support that harm. Thus, we shouldn’t be buying meat from factory farms. (Similarly, I’d add, it’s wrong to buy meat from non-factory farms, to buy farmed milk and eggs, to buy wild-caught fish, and so on. Let’s put these aside.) But Bruckner’s ‘factory harm’ argument isn’t enough to prove that we should be vegan, as there are animal products that aren’t sourced from farms. Bruckner’s particular example is roadkill – that is, the ‘large, intact, fresh, and unspoiled [bodies of] animals such as deer, moose, and elk’ killed on the road. This is something that we could be collecting for food. (Though, to be clear, this isn’t an argument saying that we should be going out and trying to hit deer with our cars.

On the contrary, we should probably be doing much more to prevent roadkill.) While collecting roadkill might not be to the tastes of plenty of suburbanites, it’s something done worldwide, and whole subcultures have built up around the consumption of roadkill in (for example) parts of the United States and Australia. What’s the harm, asks Bruckner, of butchering a deer one finds by the side of the road? It will provide a lot of meat. We may as well eat it. At the very least, we would need an argument other than the factory harm argument to show that it’s wrong to do so. In picking up roadkill, you’re not supporting any harm-causing industry – or any industry, for that matter.

To this point in the argument, Bruckner has suggested that it’s permissible to not be vegan (at least, it’s compatible with the factory harm argument), as it’s permissible to eat roadkill. But there’s another step in his argument. The farming of vegetables, Bruckner observes, is itself an industry that causes extensive harm to animals. After all, to harvest crops, we need to use heavy machinery, which inadvertently kill animals – and that’s before we even get to the use of pesticides. Now, vegetable farming doesn’t cause anywhere near as much harm as the farming of animals, but that’s not the relevant comparison.

The relevant comparison is with the consumption of roadkill. We’re faced with a choice: Either we farm lots of vegetables (resulting in a moderate amount of animal harm) to eat a vegan diet, or we farm some vegetables (resulting in a small amount of animal harm) and eat some roadkill. Based on the factory harm argument, Bruckner says, the answer is clear. Just as we should not support one harm-causing industry (the meat industry) when an alternative (veganism) is available, so we shouldn’t support another harm-causing industry (vegetable farming) when an alternative (roadkill) is available.

When you start to think about it, the same kind of argument could be used to support lots of entirely (or relatively) harm-free animal products. And some of these foods might be useful for feeding large numbers in a way that roadkill probably isn’t. For example, I’ve seen this kind of argument used to defend eating oysters or insects; I’ve seen it used to defend eating animal products that would otherwise go to waste; and I myself have pointed towards it as a potential reason to support cellular agriculture.

Though the devil is always in the details (more on this in a second), and though I’m not always comfortable with the conclusions, I think these arguments have real potential. But I’ve also seen arguments like this used to defend practices that I’m pretty sure I object to, for the simple reason that they involve disrespecting animals’ rights. For example, some people use it to defend the hunting of large mammals; and, notoriously, the argument was also used by Steven Davis to defend the production of beef from grass-fed cattle. (As it happens, Davis’s numbers don’t seem to add up, but the calculations involved are far from easy.) But I’m not going to say anything more about the case for hunting or cattle farming here. I’m interested in the more complex cases – the cases of meat-eating that, I think, might be compatible with respecting animals’ rights.

To borrow a term from Andy Lamey’s Duty and the Beast, these, collectively, are ‘new omnivore’ arguments. In a forthcoming paper, I argue that what’s distinctive about new omnivore arguments is that they argue that we should eat animal products for the sake of existing animals. (Chris Bobier, my co-author, is editing a forthcoming scholarly collection entitled simply New Omnivorism, which will address many of the questions raised here.) 

New omnivore arguments thus differ from those arguments holding that we can eat animal products because animals don’t matter, or don’t matter that much. But they also differ from those arguments that say that it’s sometimes permissible (not required) to eat animal products, even though animals matter a great deal. (I’ve made that sort of argument) This is because new omnivore arguments say that we should be eating animal products.[1]

This all might sound a bit suspect. Is it really the case that, if we care about animals, we should be eating meat? Even when this is clarified – we’re talking about roadkill, or oysters, or those ham sandwiches left over at the end of a work meeting that otherwise would go in the bin – it might sound like a conclusion that should be resisted. As it happens, lots of people have presented arguments saying that these conclusions should be resisted, and these arguments are worth reviewing. But the arguments aren’t always simple. This is because we need to start making distinctions between the different kinds of animal products that a new omnivore case could support.

Take insects. The key objection to eating them is that they’re sentient – to simplify slightly, that they feel pain – and thus that farming them is little better than farming vertebrates. (Indeed, given how many insects it takes to create a meal, it may be much worse. More animals means more suffering and death.) Now, the simple fact is that we’re not sure if they are sentient, but maybe that shouldn’t stop us from being concerned about them.

Perhaps we should err on the side of caution, and say that, given that there’s a chance that these animals are sentient, we should treat them as if they are. And if, like me, you believe in animal rights, treating animals as sentient means not farming them. Now, that argument is a little quick for me. Why should all the erring be in the insects’ favour? Couldn’t we have some erring on the side of the farmers? Or, for that matter, on the side of the definitely sentient vertebrates killed in arable agriculture? (And let’s not forget that insects are killed in plant farming, too – even if we err on the side of insects, the case against insect farming isn’t settled)

But I definitely think that there’s something to the argument. We shouldn’t treat insect farming like vegetable farming. To be frank, though, I’m less sure about oysters, as their non-sentience seems fairly clear. Maybe we shouldn’t be opposed to farming them at all.

Or take meat that would otherwise go to waste, like roadkill, or those bin-bound ham sandwiches I mentioned earlier. Writing with Bob Fischer, I’ve argued that sometimes we have duties to respect the corpses of animals, and this sometimes means that it’s illegitimate to eat them. Specifically, I think we have a duty to respect the corpses of those animals who are members of our community – like domesticated animals, including farmed animals. Now, while this does give us a reason to not eat the ham sandwiches, it might be less useful against Bruckner, depending on precisely which animals are hit by cars, and precisely which animals are members of our community.

Cheryl Abbate, meanwhile, offers a detailed critique of Bruckner’s argument in favour of eating roadkill. Among other challenges, she argues that Bruckner is too quick to assume that animals are harmed by arable farming, and too quick to assume that eating roadkill is the best way to stop it from going to waste. Better, she says, to feed it to cats, or to our non-vegan neighbours – if they’ll have it. (Abbate, incidentally, is co-editing New Omnivorism, the book I mentioned earlier.)

Let’s take those discussions as indicative. I think these moral arguments are important and interesting. But I also think that there are a range of political dimensions to new omnivorism that have been relatively under-explored. In forthcoming work, I look to two of them.

In Just Fodder, a book about feeding animals that is forthcoming with McGill-Queen’s University Press, I explore the way that our arable farms are important food sources for lots of animals – namely, the mice, birds, and so on who live on and around them. Importantly, these are the same animals who are killed by arable farming practices, and so the same animals who play such a crucial part in new omnivore arguments. Perhaps, I suggest, we are thinking about new omnivorism wrong when we focus on which foods we should be eating. Perhaps, I suggest, what the new omnivore argument shows us is that we should be taking steps to limit the impact of arable agriculture. Specifically, I suggest that the new omnivore argument gives us a reason to favour indoor arable agriculture, especially vertical farming. In taking animal rights seriously, maybe we need to radically change arable agriculture.

In Food, Justice, and Animals, forthcoming with Oxford University Press, I argue that, in addition to thinking about morally proper diets, we need to think about ethically appropriate food systems. But what new omnivore arguments (among other arguments in food and animal ethics) suggest is that the food system of an animal-rights-respecting state might not be vegan. No, roadkill probably isn’t much good for feeding the world, even if it might be useful for feeding a few near-vegans. But maybe non-sentient invertebrates could form an important pillar of a rights-respecting food system. Maybe cellular agriculture could form an important pillar of a rights-respecting food system. Maybe plant-based meats could form an important pillar of a rights-respecting food system. And maybe these could be complemented by other sources of animal-based foods – like the eggs of well-treated backyard chickens whose rights are respected. Even if animals have rights, I argue, it’s possible that the supermarket of tomorrow should be stocked with much more than plant-based wholefoods.

So not only is Bruckner’s argument (and those like it) the best arguments I’ve seen against veganism, but I think they take animal rights in a strange new direction. Taking animal rights seriously, contrary to expectations, might mean moving away from some forms of arable agriculture, and it might even mean embracing some forms of animal agriculture. These conclusions, even if they make us a little uncomfortable, warrant conscientious exploration.

[1] Though this is a fairly technical point, new omnivore arguments also differ from those curious arguments we see occasionally (a recent example) that say that we should eat meat because without it, future animals who would live good lives wouldn’t exist. New omnivores aren’t making claims about potential future animals, they’re talking about actual animals – field mice, rabbits, moles… – who will benefit from our eating practices.