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Andrew Smith, author of A Critique of the Moral Defense of Vegetarianism

I Mean It When I Say that We Can’t Be Vegetarians, But….

I’m used to receiving my fair share of criticism. As a philosopher, it comes with the territory. Those of us who write and teach philosophy for a living are trained to argue, nitpick, and scrutinize. Anything we say is fair game, which is just as it should be. Indeed, I take it as a genuine sign of respect when fellow philosophers take the time to rip into my work. It’s an indication that someone out there cares enough about what I have to say to carefully lay out why I’m wrong.

A small audience of diligent readers: for better or worse this is what I know. So I’m sure you can imagine my shock when two little articles about my new book went viral. A publicist at my home institution wrote the first, and I was floored when it got something like 20,000 Facebook shares. I penned the second, which has received—wait for it—over 1.5 million hits.

Even more shocking to me than this, though, has been the feedback I’ve received. Much of it, although certainly not all, has been negative. That’s okay, I expected negativity. I could tell the book would be fairly controversial as I was writing it. Heck, it even took me aback!

Here’s the thing. I mean it when I say that it’s a sign of respect, even a badge of honor, to receive lots of criticism for what one says. But what am I supposed to do about the litany of rebukes for things I haven’t said and never did say? This is what I was unprepared for. So permit me to take this opportunity to address a few of these misplaced criticisms. I’ll confine myself to those that seem to have the most currency. I’ll then conclude with a brief mea culpa.

Forests and Trees

In my book, I argue that it’s impossible to be a vegetarian. Since I’ve linked to the articles, in which I provide condensed versions of this argument, I won’t rehash it here. But it’s worth highlighting two common criticisms of it by people who’ve read one or both articles but who presumably haven’t (yet) read the book. 

First, I fail to take account of what’s perhaps the single most powerful reason that people adopt vegetarianism: the desire to avoid complicity in animal suffering. Second, even if plants are sentient, as I contend, it’s still better to be a vegetarian since vegetarians kill fewer sentient beings than non-vegetarians do.

For the record, I regard these as worthy criticisms. I’d be foolish not to address them in the book. But it seems to me that fixating on them has prevented my critics from seeing the forest for the trees.

There’s a single claim that I make in the book on which everything else depends: The landbase is primary; it’s needs and interests come first. This is because our health and wellbeing depends utterly on its health and wellbeing.

I mention this in both articles, but it’s largely been ignored. Perhaps this is because my critics simply assume that the health and wellbeing of whatever landbase they happen to inhabit is optimized so long as vegetarianism is universally adopted. But I’m afraid this isn’t true. At the very least, the story isn’t nearly so simple. Check out the wonderfully written but unfortunately titled book by Simon Fairlie, Meat: A Benign Extravagance, to see why. Here’s a quick primer. If we wish to eat sustainably, we should subsist on food that’s fit for production in our locale. In no locale is it sustainable to subsist via factory farming or conventional (high-concentration, pesticide and herbicide supported) agriculture. Some locales may be well suited to their human inhabitants being vegetarians. But not all are.

By all means, mitigate the suffering of the beings who we make our food. In the process, be cognizant of their sentience. All that I ask is that you get to know the place in which you live, learning its particular needs and interests in the process. Eat in ways that care for it, and it will be in the best position to care for you.

Cannibalism Schmannibalism

In the book, I describe eating as a transitive property. Here’s what I mean. We are who we eat. Our food is, too. So we are who our food eats in equal measure. We’re accustomed to acknowledging that we eat the plants who animals eat when we eat those animals. But we generally overlook that, in their own way, plants eat the remains of animals as well. So when we eat plants, we’re also eating the animals who they eat. This is the core idea that motivates my argument that we can’t be vegetarians.

But there’s a weird caveat here that a number of readers have picked up on. In the book, I refer to both biological transference and spiritual transference. Biological transference involves being part of a closed nutrient cycle; we’re all part of a single process of feeding and being fed upon. Spiritual transference involves veneration of the life-giving character of the little slice of Earth that we occupy. It’s especially powerful for those who inhabit the land of their ancestors. For such people, their food just is the embodiment of their ancestors. So they’re both physically and spiritually nourished by their abiding connection to their ancestral home.

Does my embrace of this idea entail that I endorse cannibalism? Some critics believe so, and I guess I shouldn't be surprised. It’s precisely the sort of misunderstanding that’s permitted people of settler cultures to denigrate indigenous peoples as “dirt worshippers” for centuries now.

Anyhow, here’s another article for you. In it, you can read my preface, which gives a sense of how I came to experience this sort of connection to an ancestor of mine in the process of writing the book.

Choosing Your Own Ejection Point

Did you notice the last word of the title of this piece? Here’s the payoff. My argument in the book proceeds in three steps. I actually invite readers to follow along with me only for as long as you desire (as if I have any control over this anyway). You’re more than welcome to accept my first step only or just the first two steps or, if you’re in it for the long haul, to continue with me through all three. 

Step one: I defend what I (laboriously) call an expansionary sentientist defense of vegetarianism. We should attribute equal moral standing to plants and animals alike, since they’re both sentient. But we can still embrace vegetarianism. We have good reason not to kill and eat animals and can countenance killing and eating plants. Yet how plants are cultivated and harvested for consumption must change if we are to treat them with the respect they are due as sentient beings.

Step two: Based on worries about lingering anthropocentrism (i.e., that we remain too focused on our own concerns or what serve us), I ultimately reject expansionary sentientism in favor of a care-sensitive ecological contextualist defense of vegetarianism. (Yes, I know, another horrible label.) I argue that vegetarianism may not be universally justifiable but that it is preferable in certain contexts—most notably including cities. And whether or not we practice vegetarianism, we must make every effort to be attuned to, responsible for, and responsive to the needs and interests of those whom we make our food.

Step three: Oops, this second defense doesn't work either. It’s actually not even a defense of vegetarianism. But that doesn't much matter anyway, because we can’t be vegetarians.

Okay, so you don’t buy step three. Fair enough. Maybe step two bothers you, too. I still maintain that anyone who’s a vegetarian at least in part out of concern for animal suffering has nothing to lose and much to gain by embracing step one.

Respecting the –ism

I was interviewed for a podcast a few weeks back. Afterwards, the host said something to me that struck quite a chord. Vegetarianism isn’t just a set of eating practices. It really is akin to a religion in the sense that it’s ritualistic in character and very much focused on the veneration of specific beings. 

I sort of got this when I was writing the book. I even devote a section of one chapter to toying with the idea that vegetarianism may work as a form of totemism. I know that this makes no sense out of context. My point is simply that the –ism in vegetarianism matters. The devotion that people have to the cause is quite palpable; it’s something I genuinely respect.

I’m not asking you vegetarians out there to give me the benefit of the doubt, though. Take what I have to say however you like. But please, please pay attention to my words. It does neither of us any good if you criticize me for what I don’t say.

Thanks for reading. 


* The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Palgrave Macmillan

About the author 

Andrew F. Smith is Assistant Professor of English and Philosophy at Drexel University, USA. His first book is The Deliberative Impulse: Motivating Discourse in Divided Societies (2011). He has published broadly on deliberative democracy, religion in the public sphere, biblical literalism, homelessness, and food deserts.