How Do We Decide Which Animals are OK to Eat?


This is gonna be another contentious one. I don’t know why I keep doing these, I’m already pumping out 4 a day and still struggling to stay afloat. Which part of my brain thinks “Articles that may alienate whales for ideological reasons would be a good idea!” and how do I have it surgically removed?

I think it’s a topic worth discussing however. It’s not as clear cut as either unrepentant meat eaters or dedicated vegans would like to believe. I have no serious qualms with either, they’re both valid ways to live with arguments for and against. I’ll just be laying out my reasoning here for why I try not to eat anything with a brain that’s too complex.

Vegans and vegetarians draw a hard line between the plant and animal kingdoms. Everything on one side is okay to eat, everything on the other side is not. This perspective has a couple of problems with it. First, what about microorganisms? What about mushrooms, which are technically animals?

The vegan answer is that they are too simple. This is another way of saying they’re very dumb. They have only rudimentary awareness of their surroundings and as such it’s imagined they don’t suffer to the same extent as animals.

This would seem to validate a hierarchy of value, where the worth of individual lives is determined by their intelligence. Most vegans and vegetarians I know would recoil from the ugliness of this perspective even though it’s what they subscribe to, and how they justify eating plants but not animals.

They typically use words like “awareness” or “consciousness” instead of intelligence. I’m fine with that. But let’s not pretend those qualities do not correlate reliably with the size and complexity of brains. Meat eaters on the other hand will try to establish a hard line of demarcation between humans and all other animals based on “sentience”.

What is sentience, you ask? Why, it’s a standard for personhood invented by humans which (by huge coincidence, I assure you) only humans legally satisfy. There are ongoing arguments that many other species show some degree of sentience, such as dolphins, whales, elephants, pigs, crows and so on. But they remain legal to eat.

Isn’t the line that meat eaters draw between humans and all other animals just as arbitrary as the line that vegans and vegetarians draw between animals and plants? One privileges humans for arbitrary reasons, and the other privileges animals over plants for arbitrary reasons.

Do plants really have no awareness? What of research showing that forests exhibit emergent group intelligence due to chemical communication between the individual trees? What about plants which move, exhibiting obvious reactions to external stimuli? (venus fly traps and the like)

The exasperated members of both groups will then throw up their hands and say “well what are we supposed to eat then? Air?” Indeed, we’ve got to eat something. Probably the most ethically “clean” option would be fully synthetic foods compiled out of raw proteins, amino acids, minerals and so on like Soylent (though it does include oats).

That’s gonna be a hard sell. Most people don’t want to subsist on beige flavorless goop. As technology improves it may become possible to synthesize something more appetizing out of raw constituent molecules. No-kill meat is on the horizon, but even that involves killing the single cells the meat is comprised of as you digest them.

There is no way to live without killing, at least as of yet. No matter what anybody tells you, there is no perfect, absolutely ethically clean alternative. Such alternatives simply overlook where the killing occurs or deem it unimportant for arbitrary reasons.

Personally, I eat a pretty diverse range of foods. I avoid beef and pork just because of how complex cow and pig brains are. I know they feel fear, and it bothers me. Fish are stupid enough I am comfortable eating them. That’s how 100% of them die in the wild anyway, it’s just a question of whether it’s me that will eat them or a dolphin, shark or whatever.

Chicken is kind of borderline. They are very stupid and only dimly aware of the world. Turkeys even moreso. I have seen chickens express and seek out affection however, which tempers my view. I think a good solution might be to intentionally breed for smaller brains.

Dolphins, though? Would you eat a dolphin, knowing what they are intellectually capable of? Have you seen how intelligent chimps are? Would you eat a chimp? I wouldn’t. Too close to human for comfort. It’s not even guilt, I was born with an underdeveloped guilt gland I think.

I’m just weirded out by the concept of eating what is basically just a less advanced, smaller, hairier human. Or the aquatic equivalent. Or really, anything smart enough it can communicate with me in some rudimentary way, solve logic puzzles, and so on. Surely that’s an understandable position?

I mean for fuck’s sake, if we’re going to eat dolphins, apes and elephants, why stop there? What about especially dumb humans? If somebody is sufficiently mentally disabled, do they become okay to eat? Why should a dolphin with the intellect of a human toddler be fine to eat but a human in a brain dead, vegetative state isn’t?

Another oft-overlooked dimension of this topic is resource efficiency. Cattle are notoriously resource intensive in terms of the land required, and their water consumption. Mariculture and aquaculture are vastly more efficient in terms of the amount of meat you get versus how much energy and other resources you must put into the cultivation process.

My way isn’t necessarily right for everybody, and is arbitrary and based on my own feelings…but I admit that. There’s no point in shaming anybody for not making the same decisions because I am not privy to their feelings or moral reasoning.

I think the desire to cause as little suffering as possible is admirable, but it should come with critical self-examination. Is there really only one correct way to eat? Is there only one correct way to exist? If you can’t imagine any compelling arguments against your own convictions, probably it’s because you haven’t ever tried to.

I’d like to go vegan if only for efficiency reasons. I’ve been exposed in recent years to how good vegan food can be. What I discovered is that I don’t specifically crave meat. What I crave is the savory quality that meat has. But that can be replicated without any actual meat involved. Savory flavors are not exclusive to meat.

I had a really good vegan falafel gyro today for example. The falafel was a substitute for the lamb which usually goes in gyros. But it was very savory, to the point that I didn’t miss the lamb. There are also many foods where we typically have a choice of meats, and fish or shrimp is an option.

Fish tacos for example, or shrimp burritos. Fish burgers, fish and chips, and so on. There is the question of where the fish comes from, mercury levels and whether it was farmed in a sustainable way, but there are easily accessible guides online to which brands excel in that respect.

There are also easy to use apps on your phone which help you avoid irresponsible brands and buy only responsibly farmed seafood. Most restaurants which serve seafood offer some prominently displayed indication of where it comes from and how it’s certified.

I really suspect every American who currently eats a lot of beef and pork could switch to eating mostly chicken and fish, and they wouldn’t suffer any decrease in their quality of life. If they just didn’t have the option of anything but chicken, fish and vegan substitutes, they might grumble but would get over it quickly and enjoy their meals just as much.

That temporary grumbling would be a small price to pay for the tremendous, unfathomable gains that would be realized in terms of the efficiency of food production. Dramatically, immensely reduced water use in particular, reduced poisoning of waterways with pig and cow shit that runs off from farms, etc. etc.

There’s also the health factor. Look at the Japanese. How many of them are obese? Vanishingly few. They also live much longer on average than westerners. Why? Look at their diet. Lots of rice, fish, vegetables, tofu and so on. They have unhealthy options available to them, but usually sold right next to equally appealing healthy options. That isn’t the case in the US where, especially in poor areas, only unhealthy options are available.

I’m not here to tell you what to eat, wagging my finger and saying “shame on you” though because I am not convinced of my own conclusions to that degree. When it comes to what we eat, really all we have are our opinions and personal reasoning. I am not certain my way is better or worse than anybody else’s, but I can explain my reasons to anybody who cares to listen and they might be persuaded by it.

If anybody reading this hopes to influence the diet and other personal habits of strangers, coming at them with detailed reasoning will probably yield results more frequently than finger wagging, pearl clutching and moral admonition. The goal after all is a world with less suffering. So the important thing is persuading people to change their habits in a way that’s actually effective. Tribalist bickering is satisfying, but never changed anybody’s mind.

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