Keep the Caveman Out of the Debate on Veganism

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Though a great deal has been written about veganism recently, there is still room to add a few things. Many writings have criticized the aggressive approach, the extremism and the strong feelings of some vegans. But even if some vegans adopt unacceptable attitudes, the important question is whether the reasons for their stance are valid. Focusing the criticism on any other thing could lead to the conclusion that the critics have no answer to the reasons cited by vegans - that since they cannot tackle the main idea, they're attacking side issues.

But vegans’ claims are not free of side issues either. For example, two months ago, Orna Rinat published an article in which she described, very effectively, the suffering of cows and calves during their raising and slaughtering. Her article actually does not advocate veganism; rather, it opposes the cruelty to cattle. If it is truly impossible to raise cattle without the cruelty she described, that is a good reason to stop raising them. But what will someone who wants to eat shrimp, fish and even chicken do? Are these creatures trapped and raised in a manner that causes them suffering like that of the cows she described in her essay? It is doubtful whether Rinat’s descriptive abilities would stand her in good stead if she were to write about shrimp or chickens. From this standpoint, she belongs to an honored tradition: Russian literary master Leo Tolstoy wrote an essay on vegetarianism that contained a shocking description of cruelty to a bull being led to slaughter, but his strength failed him when he tried to describe the conditions of chickens. And if he failed, it's doubtful that anyone else could do it. So the feelings of identification that the suffering of cattle arouse within us is not a good reason to be vegan. It would be better for the vegans not to focus on it; if they do, they will sound like they have no effective reason to be vegan.

The suffering caused to cattle by the way they are raised is not a side issue at all. As I wrote above, it is a good reason to oppose cattle-raising. But if cattle can be raised and slaughtered without such suffering, then the suffering they undergo now is not a reason to go vegan. Rather, it is a reason to raise cattle more humanely.

We should also be precise about this: vegans do not save or prolong life. Instead, they prevent it. If they convince the public to stop eating meat from tomorrow on, cattle-raisers will not allow their cattle to live to old age. Instead, they will slaughter them as quickly as possible because raising them will involve a loss. The success of veganism will not lead to the raising of animals in better conditions either. If animals can be raised in good conditions and if we want that to happen, we must do it, but veganism is opposed to that.

Vegans are pessimistic when it comes to raising livestock, as if any sort of life we could give them would be inappropriate. But those who agree to use animals are free to consider more positive options for raising them. It is they, not the vegans, who can establish a standard for proper raising, a kind of humane kashrut certification, for example. It seems there could be support for such a standard: Many people keep on eating meat no matter what, but many of them would be happy if they could rely on some organization that could confirm the meat comes from animals that were raised decently.

I will conclude with the assertion that has been made many times in debates on this topic, usually against veganism. Our nutrition is often compared with the nutrition that existed during the Paleolithic Era, as if that should serve as our model. The thinking behind this assertion is that human beings developed over hundreds of thousands of years in a Paleolithic lifestyle, which is our “natural state,” so that what human beings ate at that time is the ideal nutrition for our bodies. But that is erroneous thinking. The hominids who survived the Paleolithic Era did so because they adapted to the environment more than other hominids did, not because that environment was more suitable for them than other environments. They were the most adapted to the environment, but that does not mean that the environment was the most suitable for them. It is likely that it was not so: Human life at that time was close to Hobbes’ description: “nasty, brutish and short.” The nutrition of early humans has as much to do with the effectiveness of modern nutrition as their use of flint has to do with the effectiveness of modern tools. If flint stones are not better than electric drills, why must we think any differently about ancient nutrition as compared with modern nutrition? Whether we support veganism or oppose it, as we debate what to eat and which tools to use for construction, we should leave the cavemen, with their grains and sticks, alone.

Animal rights activist and cofounder of PETA Ingrid Newkirk lies on a mock barbecue stand as a sign of protest in Mumbai, India, November 6, 2013.Credit: AP

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