On Veganism

After 5 years of veganism, I gave it up for a month in order to re-evaluate my ethical and personal standpoint with respect to it. I kept this blog during that time to discuss my concerns for and against the lifestyle, including discussions of animal rights, health, and culture. Since 2006 I have not returned to veganism.

An experiment

Mar 31, 2006

Tomorrow, I will begin 30 days of something new for me: not being vegan.

I have been a practicing vegan for 5 years, more than 20% of my life. As far as vegans go, I have been fairly strict - certainly there are people more draconian than I, but for the last 5 years I have only twice intentionally eaten cheese, and a handful of other times realized too late that a restaurant had served me something with a small amount of cheese or egg in it, and I ate it anyway, trying to pick around it. Other than that, animal products and I have been strangers.

So why am I suddenly giving it up, even if only for a month? My good modern liberal university professor parents raised me in a non-religous household, with morality dictated by golden rules and thought rather than theology and belief. They are probably quite instrumental in my strong concern for the environment and social justice. Still, dogma has always tasted foul to me, and this, in part, is why I now want to test my dogma of veganism.

There are a lot of reasons why people choose to be vegan: out of concern for the environment and one's ecological footprint, out of concern for animal welfare, out of concern for social justice, out of concern for health. Each of these things are noble causes, but the question remains – is veganism the most effective means of achieving these goals?

To me, veganism has become a habit - one that is comfortable, and easy to maintain. It is certainly easier to continue doing it than to plunge into now unfamiliar dietary (and potentially digestively rocky) territory, to fear that I will be perceived as weak or inconsistent, to confuse others with shifting demands. I have chosen a month-long experiment in the hopes that it will be long enough for me to overcome temporary effects of a change in diet, and to give fair trial to the way most of you live. I will be paying very close attention to my health, feelings, and tendencies in my relationship to food in the next month, to try to learn as much as I can about it.

Last Night

Mar 31, 2006

It is perhaps a fitting last vegan dinner before my experiment starts: I am at an electro-acoustic music conference in Oregon. As I am quite used to with this sort of thing, the caterers to the conference don't understand veganism - I was offered a choice of "vegetarian", "fish", or "meat". I opted for the vegetarian, which consisted of cheese-stuffed portabella mushrooms. So I skipped the main course, eating instead the sides of broccolini, wild rice, salad and olive bread (not at all a bad spread for this sort of thing).

My neighbor at the dinner, another student in my department, asked me why I wouldn't just eat the stuffed mushroom. After all, I had told her of my plans to go non-vegan for a month, starting tomorrow... why not just eat it anyway? Out of her concern, she and a couple others nearby offered me parts of their portions of broccolini; a charity I didn't want to need, but accepted.

Vegans are often asked why they don't just eat animal products that are already there, and that will just be thrown away otherwise. Indeed, a movement has grown around avoiding just this principle - the freegans. Why vegans choose to abstain even from freely available animal products lacks a simple answer.

For myself, it has often been a matter of principle: I don't eat animal products, so I won't eat animal products, it is that simple. It is very easy to lay down a strict rule you won't cross, and to stick by it. It is much more difficult to take the more subtle tack that you will only eat animal products in certain circumstances. Humans are fickle, and can often be persuaded by emotional weakness, hunger, etc. - and having a strict rule makes it much easier to survive these cases. Also, there is something of self-martyrdom to be had by going (slightly) hungry because the current circumstance won't support veganism. You call attention to yourself and to the person feeding you, and can thus use the opportunity to make a statement.

Of course, this is something which can just as easily frustrate your friends as the anonymous third parties. The most difficult aspect of veganism to me has been dealing with friends, relatives and friendly acquaintances who are trying to feed me. By asserting your veganism on them, you make yourself a special case that needs special treatment. As much as I have tried to avoid preaching or moralizing to anyone about veganism, by merely asserting the principle, you still make a statement - one which might place you, and veganism, in ill favor in the eyes of someone who is merely trying to be nice to you by feeding you. It is infinitely easier when it is anonymous... but does that make it any better?

The Rules

Apr 01, 2006

First day. People have asked me what I mean when I say non-vegan - what I will eat. When I decided to do this, I wasn't quite sure myself what I meant either, but it basically comes down to this:

I will not place any rules on my consumption of food, aside from common sense with respect to my health, and an intent to start slowly and ease myself into the more difficult to digest faire slowly.

But this has left me with an interesting question: there is currently very little non-vegan food that I find appealing or appetizing. For the first couple of years I was vegan, I still occasionally craved cheese (which has made me wonder if there isn't some truth to this). But by now, my attitude toward non-vegan foods is similar to that of my attitude to air fresheners and such - they may smell nice, but I don't tend to regard them as food. Thus when I went to eat breakfast this morning at the hotel breakfast bar, I had to make a conscious choice to put some cream cheese on a bagel. I didn't really want it, but I felt like I'd be cheating if I just ate the bagel dry or with jelly the way I normally would. The flavor was interesting, much more "cheesy" than I remember cream cheese ever being.

At lunch, when I ordered a sandwich at a deli, I found myself strongly desiring a vegan sandwich (hummus, avocado, eggplant... mmm...), but I felt that I ought to put something non-vegan on it. I opted for a yogurt-based dressing and a slice of monterey jack. The sandwich was decent, but the dairy just didn't seem right on it, it tasted a little strange and left a funny feeling in my stomach. I imagine that may change in time.

My attitude toward food choices in the past has always been that cravings are very important, they are your body's best way of telling you what you need. But the object of craving as it manifests in your mind is not necessarily important: if you crave cheese, it doesn't mean you need cheese. It means you need some protein or fat or something else that cheese contains. And if you figure out what vegan foods satisfy your craving for cheese, you will soon begin craving those vegan foods instead of the non-vegan variety. With careful attention to your cravings and making sure your diet is well balanced, this can keep you healthy.


Apr 03, 2006

Bertrand Russel:

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.

George Bush, I will assert, is not evil. By that I mean that I don't think he has any intention of destroying the world. I don't think he wants to hurt people. I think he genuinely thinks that he is doing the right thing. In fact, I think that everyone in general thinks they are doing the right thing. Our tendencies to think we are smarter than others and correct in our judgements is well documented, but I think that this hubris tends to stretch beyond the intellectual and social domain and into the moral domain as well. People think that their assessment of what is best is true, even as they make decisions that may hurt themselves and others.

The last couple of days have been frightening. Mealtime is a subject of some apprehension - initially attributable to fears of indigestion (which hasn't happened), but then out of a stronger deeper fear, one that I would have liked to claim wasn't there. I am afraid that dropping veganism takes away my moral high ground. I am dropping the most extreme (in its effects on those around me, at least) expression of my morality and joining the unwashed masses of meat eaters.

But so the question remains - how can we ever be sure that we are right? How do we know that a moral choice we make is the right one? How can we know that our political opinions in fact reflect what is best for the world? These are questions that have been batted around forever. Since the dawn of the enlightenment, philosophers have been trying and trying to prove that their morality is obligatory ("Normative", in the lingo) for all of us. DesCartes claimed that it was because God exists and He's perfect and wouldn't lie to us. Kant claimed that it was because there is a universal, transcendental "reason" that governs the whole universe, and any "reasonable" being will arrive at Kant's version of morality. Rawls claimed that the ultimate goal was to maximize the good of humanity.

Will Roby, the clear source of authority on matters of morality, offers this summary:

Look, there are two schools of ethics, a duality that replicates itself in every time from the Greeks to the current era. One we can call the utilitarian perspective: this view holds that it is the effect of one's actions that determine their moral value. The other stance we may call the Kantian viewpoint: this holds that it is the intent that decides whether an action is good or bad. Now, if you don't eat meat, you know that the actual effect of your refusal is insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and that the number of cows or pigs or whatever that suffer is not noticeably changed by your stance. But from a Kantian point of view, if you would not subject an animal to the sort of suffering that they go through under our current capitalist regime, then you should not support anything that even implies causing that sort of suffering.
Sooo... since these two schools of ethics are both seemingly true, and yet fundamentally irreconcileable... why not split the difference? Why not say, I'm doing my symbolic duty by not eating meat, but since I recognize that this makes no recognizable difference in the operations of the real world, I'm not going to deprive myself of dairy and eggs, which taste sooooo damn good and make me feel so goddamn fucking good.

From here the field of moral philosophy rapidly crumbles into back and forth arguments and nitpicking details with very little to say to advise you in actual decisions. Noone has yet managed to satisfactorily offer an account of why any moral system should be obligatory.

Lindsay McLeary:

The very concept of morality already supposes some sort of objective criteria for judging right and wrong. Otherwise what you have isn't morality...it's just FEELINGS. And `feelings', as I'm sure we can all agree, are just an evolutionary biproduct of the fight-or-flight response. They are a "vestigial tail", if you will. I'm sure that once our species leaps over the next evolutionary hurdle, we will find ourselves without these disgusting "feelings"; all of our actions will be decided on the basis of pure logic and twenty-sided dice. And on this day we will all castrate ourselves and become vegans.

So if we are left with just feelings - no objective criteria - how can we impose our views on others? How can we proselytize in good conscience? Even this moral claim, that one shouldn't preach, will likely fail under scrutiny. As right as I think I have made myself, I am no more right than anyone else. I feel like I need constant reevaluation, and a mind as open as I can possibly pry it to try to keep it from getting stale in there. Ego and hubris have a way of creeping in insidiously, as much as I would like to think otherwise.

Health and Veganism

Apr 04, 2006

Is the vegan diet healthier than alternatives? Many groups, including the (somewhat dubious) Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine, the Vegan Society, and many other vegan advocacy groups all make claims about the healthiness of veganism. They claim (and their claims are occasionally backed by weakly supporting studies) that veganism offers lower risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, digestive ailments, and a host of other diseases. They claim that you will be more energetic, happier, and more fulfilled on a vegan diet.

Why is it then that the majority of people don't see the benefits and go vegan or at least vegetarian, what with so much public advocacy? The fact is that most people who are convinced even mildly by the arguments do... but only for a short time. There are many more ex-vegetarians and ex-vegans than practicing ones.

Vegan diets are not "natural" diets. Humans have been omnivorous since humans have been humans. Beyond Vegetarianism, a tremendous resource on these sorts of things, offers a brief evolutionary history of human diets. Further evidence of the non-naturalness of veganism comes from what veganism lacks – no "natural" source of B12 (deficiency of which causes nerve damage, metabolism failure, and other fun problems), and only mediocre sources of calcium. Vegans are advised even by the advocacy groups to take supplements for B12, and to consume foods fortified with calcium.

But these are easily attainable things. Multivitamins make everyone healthier, vegan or no, and it can be good practice in general to take them, so why not just go vegan for all of its benefits and stick to a supplement regimen? After all, it is not at all necessary that our modern, enlightened diets be archaic; only that they be an improvement over the past. Humans inovate, and veganism could be the next step after fire, the wheel and antibiotics.

I expect that most people's flirtations with vegetarianism or veganism end unglamorously - a moment of weakness together with the scent of freshly cooked bacon, or a cheese sandwich, or just the difficulty of asserting your dogma in an inconvenient time. The momentum of habit and majority of years of omnivorousness replace the ideal quietly. For others, there may be slow suffering from a more subtle problem - failure to thrive, in which one continues to believe in the regimen of choice, but nagging health problems come up. I have spoken to many people in the past who have dropped vegetarianism or veganism on orders from their doctor; I expect if they had paid more attention to their health than their dogma, they may have figured it out on their own.

Of course, not everyone fails to thrive - there are the "lifers" in the vegan and vegetarian crowds. I think that I fit into this category in terms of health - despite my gaunt 160 pounds for my 6'4" frame which I have maintained steadily for about 8 years, my 5 years of veganism have left me very energetic, capable, and athletic, even. I find vegan food very satisfying, and do not have temptations or lapses. By contrast, I find dairy products to be unappealing. I wonder at times if the vegan diet might contribute to long term problems that will appear 20 or 30 years from now, but the fact is there isn't much evidence out there to convince me either way. It is perhaps more likely that heart disease or cholesterol problems should befall me in that time if I ate a diet high in animal fat. Of course, it should be noted that omnivorous diets are not limited to the standard american diet.

In short, veganism is almost certainly not right for everyone, and the "all or nothing" approach of many promoters of veganism or vegetarianism is not ideal either. We are not (for the most part) believers in Christian purity - why should our diets make pretense to it? Would the occasional "approved" (instead of guilty) consumption of lean meat or dairy in a primarily vegan diet destroy its ethical sanctity? There is a disturbingly religous quality, a strong "ism"ness, to veganism. Party lines should probably be challenged - I think less emphasis on purity and more emphasis on reality would be an improvement.

Animal Rights

Apr 05, 2006

I ate meat today. It was largely anti-climactic - I went to the store and purchased a very small amount of chicken, fried it, and ate it. The flavor was mediocre, despite an experienced meat cook helping me with the seasoning. He agreed that it was not exciting meat.

I thought a lot while chewing the strangely textured stuff about the animal behind it, the muscle, the feathers, the bone. But these thoughts were fleeting, I can easily see how one can just eat it and forget about it.

Did this animal suffer? Does it matter? When I was 17, I had a notion that animal rights were meaningless, because without self awareness, pain was nothing but a mechanical response like a rock tumbling down a hill. I used this to justify my consumption of meat. I realized very easily the hypocrisy in vegetarianism that avoids taking lives of animals but pays no mind to the conditions of factory dairy farms, but it took time for me to realize that this hypocrisy doesn't change the validity or non-validity of an argument for animal rights.

Much has been said about animal rights, many arguments waged on either side. People much more eloquent than I have spoken at length on the issue, arguing it subtly and effectively from multiple angles. I find myself still grappling with two primary questions, which are at the core of the issue:

  1. Is it true that humans should endeavor to reduce the suffering of living beings on earth?
  2. Is veganism an effective way to do this?

The first question is one I dispute less, but one which is still disputable. Some "farming" practices are obviously abhorent to me, but what about animals raised in reasonably good condition? People in this country are usually only aware of the notion of "factory farming" from the shock images of organizations like PETA. They regard the proponents of views as extremists, and conveniently ignore their arguments because of it. Most peoples' direct experiences of farms come in the form of educational farms that are not viable businesses without the support of schools, but which practice first-rate animal husbandry. Anyone who has driven by a meat packing plant and inhaled knows how far this is from the industrial production of meat. I'm not going to argue whether animal suffering should be avoided here; see the afore-linked Animal Rights FAQ for many an argument and counterargument in favor, or carnivegan for (admittedly much weaker) arguments against.

But suppose we agree that suffering should be reduced. How do we best go about doing it? Oren Leaffer pointed out this S.F. Chronicle editorial on the fuel consumption of meals. The gyst of it is that the energy consumption, fossil fuel usage, and waste that goes into the simple task of bringing even a vegan meal to the table is huge. Take this and the latest research on climate change which demonstrates the accelerating feedback loops of warming produced by melting permafrost (releasing huge amounts of trapped carbon) and arctic ice (creating light-absorbing water from light-reflecting snow) point to a coming disaster larger than any ever seen on earth. Evolutionary scientists these days point out 6 or 7 mass extinctions in the history of our planet, all of which were influenced by climate change (either directly or indirectly). It may be that a New Zealand apple will hurt more animals than a side of beef, if that beef was grown locally.

Likewise, are petroleum-based synthetic fabrics or soil-draining cotton fabrics any more sound ecologically than leather and wool? If we are really concerned with minimizing suffering and maximizing happiness, shouldn't we concentrate on these questions? How and where you drive a car may be more significant than any choice. Is there a difference between animal rights and ecological footprint?

Habitual Thought

Apr 10, 2006

It seems easy to jump to conclusions. Almost before I started this month's experiment, I had already predicted I would probably end up deciding to return to a primarily vegan diet with allowances for deviation for important social occasions, with a shift in priorities to consider local production of equal or greater weight than the veganism of a product. In the last week I have eaten meat 3 times - twice chicken, and once prawns in a thai style soup, and each time it is a chore. I have to will myself to chew the stuff and get it down, and afterwards each time I feel very low energy, almost depressed. Other new fourays include a milkshake, which left me with a mild stomach ache, but otherwise no problems, and some Annie's Mac & Cheese which was the first dairy product I really enjoyed.

I wonder how much of this difficulty has an emotional/psychological basis, and how much is just the physiology of digestion of meat or dairy. The psychological component of veganism is an odd intersection of potentially pathalogical ferver for a cause, borderline eating disorders, and even idealistic attachment that seems more like a religion than anything else. Many vegans seem to be hell-bent on promoting veganism, to the point of believing it will cure all dieseases. Certainly my relationship to animal products is more than just a lack of accustomization; I am much too frightened of them even now for it to just be nutritive.

Today I ate comfort food - oatmeal breakfast, (vegan) sandwich lunch, and for dinner kale, rice and beans, and miso soup. I added a small amount of local renet-free goat cheese to the rice and beans, which I actually enjoyed. It seemed much nicer than the cheddars and such which I had been tasting of late. Momentum seems to be moving me in a "vegan-lite" direction rather than a more run-of-the-mill omnivore direction. Perhaps despite my efforts to avoid such habitual snap judgments, I will end up there anyway.

UPDATE: The David Foster Wallace article deep linked from the "So Vegan it Hurts" article is really worth checking out - consider the lobster.


Apr 19, 2006

Who thinks about moral philosophy? Do you? If not, why not?

It seems that most people I ask about morality say something along the lines that they usually avoid thinking about that sort of thing, and that each person has their own morality, and that no one system is better than the other. Moral Relativism, however, seems to answer only the question of what other peoples' morality is - it does nothing to help you decide what you believe you should do or not do.

Science has been gradually eroding philosophy away since the enlightenment. Whereas Aristotle's "philosophy" included everything from physics to biology, few philosophers would dare venture into those areas anymore. Science has taken over almost every key area of philosophy - physics, ecology, sociology, political science, computational science, and psychology went long ago. Even traditional questions such as "what is consciousness?" have been taken over by cognitive science since the 1970's. These areas are no longer considered by philosophers because empirical science does a better job. So it becomes an obvious question - when will there be an empirical science of morality?

As much as it seems that ethics are in a separate category - that of something that simply cannot be handled by the brute experimental methodologies of empirical science - the track record is currently against it. Experimental methods do more to show how things really are than the logical propositions and analogies favored by philosophers. But moral philosophy is concerned with something fundamentally different - it is not a question of how things are, it is a question of how things should be. It is inherently loaded with human values from the outset. It seems that at best a science of morality could only describe what the outcomes would be if certain moral principles or systems are followed.

Stanley Sapon, author of veganvalues.org, argues that science has no place in ethics:

For valid answers to questions of science, address your questions to people whose way of knowing is through science. For meaningful answers to questions of ethics, spirit, conscience and human values, turn to people who follow other roads to knowledge.

In part two of the article, he provides an answer to where he thinks knowledge arises from:

There is yet a fourth dimension to knowledge - one that calls on still other human capacities. That fourth dimension is called "wisdom," and is something that takes place at the confluence of "facts," "feelings," "values" and "judgment."

But suppose we accept all of the vegan values - namely those of reverence of life, of belief in personal responsibility for action, of nonviolence. These are the goals of our moral system, these are the things we want our moral system to result in. The question is now how do we best achieve those goals? Is veganism really the best way to be reverent of life? Is it really a good expression of personal responsibility? It could be, for example, that well cared for animals providing dairy and eggs to a small local population does less to harm life than shipping a soy product across half the world. It could be that purist thinking and strict rules practiced by vegans turns others away from veganism, where a more relaxed attitude with less hubris would bring more people around to your values.

I propose that some smart scientists start to tackle ethics wholeheartedly - to try to figure out the efficacy of various moral systems. We need more than just intuition to figure out what actions would best fulfill our values.

I Love You, America

Apr 20, 2006

Tonight, I am a true blue American. Out back, charcoal in the grill, steaks frying up, like the real man that I am. In the kitchen, my girlfriend prepared the mashed potatoes and salad - like the woman she is.

Then, to the meal. Steak (from local Elk), potatoes, salad. I sat at the head of the table, and distributed the meat, my woman to my left. Ah, it is times like these that it feels great to be a man, great to be an American.

Now I just need to buy myself a car, as every American needs a car. And a TV. And watch some football. And drink some beer. Yeah.

end time

Apr 30, 2006

The last few hours of the month. I have eaten hamburgers, steak, cheese, drunk milk, eaten omelettes, animal products of all kinds. It has surprised me greatly how much animal products seem to invade just about every meal - milk or yogurt into breakfast, cheese or meat into lunch and dinner. It surprises me how much most people eat this stuff all the time.

I have found that I am not very smart about my food choices as a non-vegan. In the last 5 years, whenever I went hungrily into a convenience store, I would typically come out with some fayre like nuts or the typical overripe dole bananas or red delicious apples that they sometimes carry. But as a non-vegan, my hungry eyes turn straight to the sweets. A chocolate peanut butter square here, cadburry egg there... which I am unable to finish due to its overwhelming sugaryness. I purchased macaroni and cheese at a restaurant - a big mistake. Others informed me that they would never order restaurant mac & cheese - much too rich.

In general I think the month's food has been much less healthy than I've had in a long time. My digestion has held up admirably, only faltering slightly for an early milkshake. My digestive health has actually seemed to be slightly above normal. I get the impression that my fat intake has been much higher than normal, but this is just a hunch. I must admit to some fears of heading the way of middle age fatness were I to continue in an omnivorous diet, as much as I think such fears are probably unfounded. Still, the return of occasional cravings for cheese which I had been free of for years is quite unwanted.

I have read and learned much more than I ever had about the American Factory Farm. In the face of animal rights arguments and a desire for moral goodness, it seems to me that there is little I would like more than to jump right back into veganism, considering the month a worthy experiment that showed myself ready for more years of animal product freedom. But my original complaints about veganism haven't changed - especially that of imposing demands on other people. The month has been socially the easiest eating experience I've had in years. I was able to eat what friends were cooking; I was able to eat with my girlfriend's parents without having to broach food politics. I ate probably a larger variety of foods than I had in a couple of years.

I am less convinced than ever of the ecological impact arguments of veganism. If you consider what goes into our food: seeds into ground, metal from mines to build machines to till the ground, petroleum from Saudi Arabia to run the machines, fertilizers and water to help the plants grow, more machines to collect the plants, houses to house the workers, trucks to carry food to market, packing plants to put the packaging on, plastics for merchandise display racks, all the way to refrigeration in stores: the small step of rearing an animal on the grain rather than eating the grain seems insignificant in comparison to many of the rest. To claim that a foreign soy bean is significantly more efficient than a local cow seems bunk. I am more convinced than ever that the most important thing is that you use local, organic, and unpackaged products wherever possible, and this includes choosing meat over choosing processed vegatable products from far away.

Yet the point remains: there is a moment when the cow is slaughtered. There is a moment when the animal is killed. There is a moment when the animal is tortured. I have the ability to say, "not me". I have the ability to refuse to participate. And this refusal seems to mean something.

In short: I am still confused. I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know what I won't eat tomorrow.