In the post The Overhuman Diet, I describe what I eat and why I eat it. I mention that I eat a lot of protein and that a lot of that protein is animal protein. Dabbling in vegetarianism and knowing quite a few vegans, I’ve started reconsidering my opinions on food, trying to see if there is any new piece of information that might induce me to change my eating behavior. (note: this type of thinking, always reconsidering your own behavior, criticizing your patterns and being prepared to change – this is absolutely critical for an Overhuman). This is what I found.
NOTICE: This is going to be a long and somewhat complicated post. At times, it will seem that I’m splitting hairs. What I am doing is trying to get as pure an ethical image as possible. The big problem with ethics in eating is that it’s not as simple as omnivores want it to be and definitely not as simple as vegans want it to be.
You all remember that story about Cecil the lion and how he was killed by an American hunter?
Well, a couple of days later, Tim Shieff, a well-known vegan freerunner posted this on his Facebook:
Click for full size
Both his text and the comic itself make a good point from an ethical perspective: given that you can take everything you need from vegetables and their derivatives, it is unethical to kill animals – or is it as simple as that?
To be able to respond to this question, we must go way, way back into the domain of values, starting with life in general. So here goes:
Nothing is important of itself, everything is just matter and energy and we (conscious beings, who are, by the way, also only matter and energy) decide that some things are important. One of these things is life. Some conscious beings might decide that life isn’t important, and they wouldn’t be wrong. It would just be their decision, which is completely OK. Right. so far, so good.
If you’re one of the group that decided that life (like, generally) was important, things get sort of complicated for you. If you decided that life wasn’t important, alright, if you kill to eat (or pay to kill to eat), you know that you can also kill yourself? Or at least not care if somebody kills you – because you decided that life in general isn’t important.
So, let’s continue with those that believe that life is important – i.e. almost everybody in the world.
Life is generally important.
I am a life form.
Therefore, my life is important.
This is the train of reasoning that follows from the decision that life is generally important. If you believe this, then it also follows that sustaining your life is important, and the primary method humans utilize for sustaining their lives is food.
Food (calories, macro and micro nutrients) comes from two main sources: fruit/leaves/animal byproduct and killed life forms.
Fruit, leaves and animal byproduct
Fruit, leaves and some animal byproducts are the only foods that entail not killing directly, even though you can support killing if you buy certain fruits, so not even fruit is, by definition, kill-free. Take, for example, a tomato, which gets killed after it has given its yield in fruit, or, for an animal byproduct example, hens that get slaughtered after a certain age when they stop laying eggs “efficiently”. In general, eating fruit from fruit-bearing trees is often kill-free, especially if you eat organic fruit which doesn’t entail the use of chemicals which kill life forms. In that respect, pears, oranges, apples, grapes etc, are the only sources of food that are completely kill-free every time. If you are a human, eating exclusively a wide assortment of fruits can give you sufficient calories (immediate survival) but not enough micronutrients and even macronutrients (protein and fat) – meaning that long-term survival is not guaranteed because of illnesses that could arise from lack of nutrients. Some fruits will give you enough fat (for example an avocado) but if you eat only regional fruit, chances are that you are not able to get a very wide assortment of fruits. It follows that you must decide if you will buy fruit from a very faraway place (and still risk not to have all micronutrients covered) or you will add killed life to your diet.
What is helpful that some vegetables are kill-free and will help you with micronutrients. For example, you can harvest kale, cabbage, Swiss chard and other leafy greens by the leaf so as to not kill them. What is definitely impossible is to buy vegetables that have been harvested by the leaf, so here you must grow your own or assure some way of procuring leaf-harvested greens.
And again, animal byproducts come to the rescue: eggs and dairy. Most eggs and dairy are a result of industrial torture systems that get the most out of a chicken or a cow and then slaughter them. Even free range eggs often mean that, after the hen stops producing a regular quota of eggs, it gets slaughtered. You can, however, eat kill-free eggs or dairy: the same principle as with plants – don’t buy it in markets, grow your own or buy from somebody you know isn’t going to kill the animals.
At this stage, you must decide if your life is worth more than the life of other life forms. We have already established that your life is important, but who will you choose, yourself or a different life form? Time plays a special role here, and this you must also take into consideration, because you might choose a course of action that doesn’t instantly bring your health down, but that might do so over the course of some months or years. For example, if you decide to go completely kill-free and eat only fruit, but you eat only regional fruit, let’s say plums, apples, pears and grapes, this will, over time, cause significant health problems (correct me if I’m wrong here). Buying of exotic and faraway fruit also has several ethical problems tied: you need a lot of fossil fuels to get it to your habitat, and CO2 emissions from fossil fuels also cause death on a wider, global scale through global warming. It thereby follows that as a completely kill-free vegan, you should also not buy fruit from far away.
If your decision is that your life is important, but other life forms are more important, your diet is to consist exclusively of fruits/leaves that come from your region – and we do not include fruits or vegetables that, after being picked, have their original plant killed (zucchini, tomato, cucumber…) – and of leaves, eggs from free-range, not-killed-afterwards hens, and dairy from not-killed-afterwards cows and goats.
If your decision is that your life is important, and that it is more important than (at least some) other life forms, continue reading.
Killed life forms
Killed life forms are both plants and animals. If you eat bread – you support killing wheat. If you eat seitan – you support killing wheat. If you eat pasta – you support killing wheat. If you eat meat – you support killing animals.
Many vegans draw the line between animals and plants: the claim is that it’s ok to kill plants, but not animals. This reasoning is often based on the fact that plants do not experience pain. Indeed, it has not been proven that plants experience pain because they do not share the nervous system capable for pain. But on the other hand, there has been some research that points to the conclusion they might have analogous systems and actually be intelligent.
In any case, we do not know yet.
We may act on the assumption that plants don’t feel the same neurobiological phenomenon we describe as pain, but we also know that plants try to sustain their own lives. To be completely honest, we have to admit that the difference between killing a plant to eat it and killing a bug to eat it is not a big one. The difference between the two organisms is one of grade (of complexity, or genetic proximity to humans), not of category.
The only reason for this entire paragraph is to make clear one thought: If you don’t eat animals because of ethical reasons, you are actually not eating them because they seem close to you, and plants don’t. They’re one level lower on your empathy list.
The best part of it all? It’s actually ok, even though it is an elitist perspective. If you value your life more than the life of other organisms, you’re bound to certain moral choices, and genetic proximity is as good a reason as any.
Now, the real question is where do you draw the line? Where do you stop empathizing? When do you not care about killing a certain organism? Is it at nuts (tree embryos)? Is it at bugs? Is it at fish? Is it at birds? Is it at dogs, cats, cows and sheep? Is it at humans?
I’ve thought about this really long and hard, and came up with a complicated algorithm to ensure maximum ethical eating while preserving my own health. It goes something like this:
If you can, eat only kill-free. If not, add life forms from the lower empathy levels (wheat, nuts). If you’re still risking low health, add more killed life forms, but keep them on a low empathy level (i.e. it would be preferable to eat a fish instead of a chicken (because genetic proximity makes it easier to empathize with a chicken than with a fish) and preferable to eat a chicken instead of a cow). At some point, you will find the point where you stop valuing your life more – maybe it will happen with cows, maybe you’ll have to go all the way to humans, maybe not even then.
This is the only really good ethical algorithm for dietary choices that I know of. Take all your dietary choices, pull them through this algorithm, and you’re reasonably certain you’re eating ethically. Provided the fact that you in fact want to complicate things as much as I do. But the truth is rarely simple…
Technological innovations – a new perspective?
One way to eat meat without killing anyone is in-vitro meat. One day, when the technology advances sufficiently, it will be commercially available and widely consumed. Many object to growing meat in laboratories because it is “unnatural”, but this is the type of argument that would object to cars, computers, bicycles, electric power, bows and arrows, and fire. Just because humans created something with their brains instead of relying on what is immediately available doesn’t make it bad. I would gladly eat lab-grown meat, provided there aren’t any health side effects.
The reason for this post was mainly so that I clear my mind as regards ethics in eating. Not eating meat has always been clear to me from an environmentalist perspective, and not eating industrial meat has also always been clear to me from a health perspective. But I have always tended to ignore the ethical aspects of it and I never thought them through. Ethics tend to be a habit of learned behavior, not a result of conscious deliberation. In other words, most people (me, at least) will form their ethical standpoints on a combination of inert, learned behavior and a certain amount of natural empathy, instead of thinking and then making decisions. For most people, ethics are not conscious. For Overhumans, everything is conscious.
Thus the adage: “Never do anything unintentional.”