I have finished reading some chapters of The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith. Keith was a vegan for twenty years, and the book is a convoluted combination of the story of the medical problems she experienced that she believes resulted from her veganism; a radical feminist pseudophilosophical narrative about what she sees as our unsustainable masculine spirituality; and an attempt at a scientific case against vegetarianism. This scientific case is meant to support the need for a new culture or spirituality in place of the masculine one that she blames for all the woes of mankind and the planet.

Keith is trying to argue for several things and she does state that she’s trying to argue for them. However, the structure of the arguments are permanently unclear, her arguments for the different things she wants to establish are mixed together, and it’s all punctuated by childish emotional appeals and patronising rhetorical questions and other annoying literary devices. If you’re an expert you might contend with some of the particular scientific claims she makes on various pages. But for my part, I can’t see how to begin to assess the book and figure out if she might be right because I think I’d basically have to rewrite it first. Never have I felt so keenly that a little education in analytic philosophy ought to be part of compulsory schooling, or at least every university degree course.

This all being said, reading the book has given me some new ideas about vegetarianism that I’d like to try to develop. I’ll first try to state Keith’s manifesto by way of background. Then I’ll outline my ideas.

Keith’s manifesto

The vegetarian believes that killing animals in order to eat is morally wrong, especially when we can live off fruit, vegetables and grains. However, these crops are annual rather than perennial: they die off and must be replanted each year. This means that they suck nutrients out of the ground that must be replenished. The classic way to do this is to rotate the use of fields between plowing them for crops and letting perennial plants grow on them for pasture for livestock. The livestock convert the locked-up protein in the perennial grasses to the nutrients that all plants need. They pass this back into the field in their manure. Then annual grains may be grown again. Unfortunately, this is not enough for the vegetarian’s dream of us all living off these annual crops. There are two reasons for this, the first of which Keith explains, and the second of which she only hints at.

Firstly, you can’t feed all of humanity this way. There isn’t enough land on the planet to have enough of these crop rotation schemes going to feed everyone. Since the mid-twentieth century when the human population began to skyrocket, we’ve been producing enough grain to feed everyone by making artificial fertilizer out of fossil fuels. This can be used to replenish the fields immediately, rather than waiting for cows to do it. Of course, this can’t go on forever since fossil fuels are a finite resource, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that science will come up with another way of fabricating the compounds of nitrogen and phosphorus that are needed. What it is unreasonable to assume is that the mass growing of grain with artificial fertiliser can avoid totally wrecking the surrounding ecosystems. Ecologies based on a variety of different species of perennial plants, perennial polycultures, are destroyed as water is diverted to irrigate fields. And the vast swathes of land required to feed the world are all turned into environments for growing only grain, which requires killing off all the other species who used to live there.

Secondly, it’s not clear that the sums add up for feeding a bunch of cows kept around purely for replenishing fields in a crop rotation. The vegetarian won’t kill them for meat, and can’t use them for very much milk because that requires breeding lots of calves to keep their mothers lactating, which means more mouths to feed.

The conclusion is that cruelty to the natural world, in the form of huge grain fields destroying other habitats (indeed, our own habitats) is a result of overpopulation, because it necessitates huge amounts of food that can’t be produced any other way. Overpopulation is a result of civilisation, which in Keith’s view cannot but be cruel. Masculinity sets up the power structures of civilisation and maintains this through a constant state of war, which requires soldiers, which requires impregnating lots of women whether they like it or not.

The alternative to this grim picture is dismantling centralised power and living in small local communities, off the kind of food that makes the most sense given the kind of land that community is in. In areas where annual grain crops are best suited, that is, where they grow without requiring massive changes to the ecosystem, a traditional crop rotation could take place, even though it would require eating some of the cows. Humans and animals like cows are not in competition for the same meal. When the vegetarian argues that bringing up a cow on a field of crops produces dramatically less calories for human consumption than making bread out of those crops, he assumes that the cow should be eating grain (as they do in factory farms). Rather, the cows should be eating grass or other plants in perennial polycultures.

All living things are busy producing food for others in one way or another. We humans have our time to die and when we do, we return various nutrients to the earth. The whole system of living things living together is a circle, and the vegetarian tries to break this by trying to step outside our role as predators. But such breaking out is unsustainable and shows a lack of humility towards the complexity of the ecosystems that evolution has set up. Such systems require killing within them. Just as cells in our body die off in order to keep the larger system going, individual animals and plants being killed is a necessary part of the way of living things. It’s just that since we’re dominant predators, our time to die isn’t decided by anything sentient.

Some ideas

My working position on normative ethics is some kind of Aristotelian non-reductive virtue ethics.[1] We might call actions right and wrong, but this is a secondary classification dependent on the primary moral question of what the virtuous person is, and therefore what she would do. What we have to figure out is what it is to be virtuous, not whether it’s right or wrong to kill an animal and eat it. It’ll be to at least some degree obvious to the virtuous person, with their highly developed moral vision,[2] whether or not she should keep cows and as part of that kill them to eat them. We’ve to figure out how to become the virtuous person.

This immediately yields up the thought that buying into the regime of factory farming by going out and buying meat in the supermarket is certainly not virtuous, because it means supporting the vice of cruelty. You’d be supporting a terribly cruel set of institutions by doing this, when you can instead choose to support the far less cruel institutions of mass crop farming, by engaging in vegetarian cooking.

However, consider my strict vegetarianism, which has me spending ten minutes at the start of every lunchtime at school picking out pieces of meat from my meal. I’m in no way failing to support the factory farming industry because they don’t care whether I actually eat the meat, but just whether my school buys it—the funds for which I contribute to by paying just as much lunch money as all the non-vegetarians around me.

The decisions I face here are a result of living in a civilisation based on a certain amount of cruelty and exploitation. Opting out entirely, setting up my own farm somewhere and living off sustainably off the same piece of land as Keith suggests, is not an option because living something approaching the virtuous life involves engaging with art, literature and academic study, all of which require some amount of civilisation, or if not, certainly require interacting with enough other humans, at present almost all of whom are living within this cruelty-based civilisation.

This means a whole bunch of compromises and trade-offs. It’s clear that one should choose easy vegetarian options that don’t compromise one’s ability to get on with living life, such as not cooking with meat when preparing one’s own meals, choosing the vegetarian option off the menu when it’s there and speaking out when it’s relevant to do so about the need to figure out how to move away from factory farming. It seems that one should not massively impose on friends who invite one over for a meal that they don’t use any chicken stock cubes, though asking that they buy one less steak and a few extra vegetables is okay. Living with other people requires respecting their conclusions about how civilisation should feed itself, by having a certain degree of humility about one’s own conclusions about virtue.

It’s not so clear about my school lunches. If I can set myself up such that making my own lunches and bringing them to school is not such a burden on my time that I am sacrificing personal growth for making these lunches, then making vegetarian lunches and bringing them to school is the way to avoid supporting cruelty. Certainly picking out the meat as I do has no value.[3]

There is then the question as to whether we have to accept the cutting short of animal’s lives because nature’s collective moral vision got it right, and the only way to live is with death. Science might yet allow us to climb out of the circle. Perhaps we can someday convert small amounts of abundant resources into food, and then we can live in our orbiting space rings without being involved in killing. If that just isn’t possible, and anyway until then, we might have to accept killing as part of the virtuous life which respects sustainability and the flourishing of the rest of nature, such as a vast forest. This is as much a project to be respected as someone’s flourishing that is expressed in their construction of a great machine.

Returning to my own case

The previous section is some ways in which we might try to fill out a vision of human life as dependent on a certain amount of painless killing, as a result of the virtues of humility and distaste for cruelty. As a vegetarian for just shy of nine years, I’ve got to consider my own case. I consume milk and eggs that depend on the factory farming process. I do this because I can’t flourish without the nutrients in those food sources, and it’s possible to drink milk and eat eggs without killing anything sentient, but at present it’s impossible to eat meat without doing so. This is based on my desire to avoid being inconsistent by being speciesist: under normal circumstances I wouldn’t cut short human lives in order to eat, so in order to be consistent I shouldn’t be willing to cut short the lives of other species just in order to eat.

However, I am coming to believe that this might be a very good example of rationalising away guilt for being part of this civilisation. I don’t have a problem with my friends eating meat but I am incredibly uncomfortable when I see them relishing it. I feel sick to the stomach and incapable of empathy and compassion when I see my family members relishing foix gras (which is impossible to produce without cruelty and therefore never okay). But I relish dairy products produced by the very same cruel system. My vegetarianism is then just clinging to an absolute rule about killing in order to avoid facing up to the cruelty I am, in fact, directly supporting.

Besides, there are arguments in favour of speciesism while there aren’t arguments against this huge inconsistency w.r.t. milk and eggs. We don’t kill humans because they’re really complicated and we can’t know when they should die, whereas it’s much clearer about cows on our farms.

I’m not quite ready to give up my vegetarianism just yet because I am worried that all this is just another rationalisation in the face of the huge pressure I am under to eat meat while I live here in Korea. It’s easy to construct stories about what might be getting in the way of living your full and virtuous life. I haven’t learnt how to drive because I think that it’s not okay to add another driver to the pool when we just can’t continue to use private transport over public transport as we do, given the state of the planet. But maybe not driving is stopping me from flourishing. I don’t think it is, but one could construct a story here. I feel as though dropping my vegetarianism when I’m not preparing food for myself would be opening a flood gate, making me then have to make a bunch of choices about what to eat when right now I require no willpower not to eat meat; it’s totally automatic. So I will let these ideas sit for a while. On the other hand, it’s hardly surprising that I should reject a lifestyle choice made before I started studying philosophy in the light of having studied it.


[1] My classic source of this kind of view: McDowell, John. 1979. “Virtue and Reason”. The Monist, vol. 62, no. 3.

[2] I get this little phrase from the title of a 1988 book by David McNaughton.

[3] Hursthouse comes to some similar conclusions though she puts more demands on her friends. N.B. she’s a reductionist virtue ethicist, unlike McDowell. Hursthouse, Rosalind. 2006. “Applying Virtue Ethics to Our Treatment of the Other Animals”. The Practice of Virtue (ed. Welchman, Jennifer). Hackett.