• April 18, 2014

Vegans and the Quest for Purity

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In the 1970s, first in an article in The New York Review of Books, and then in Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, the philosopher Peter Singer seeded the dark clouds of the debate over human versus animal consciousness and the morality of eating meat. Singer wrote his book, he said in the revised second edition in 1990, "for all of you who have changed your lives in order to bring Animal Liberation closer." Singer does not call himself a vegan, that is, a person who goes beyond mere vegetarianism to eschewing any and all products derived from animals. But more and more people do, and precipitation from the debate continues to this day in scholarly circles and beyond.

Since Singer's 1973 shot heard round the world, environmental and Darwinian sciences have become two of the leading intellectual formulations of 21st-century culture. Organic growing of vegetables and animals and Darwin-inspired evolutionary biology and neuroscience have produced conflicting thoughts about the killing and eating of animals. Although restaurants increasingly have vegetarian sections on their menus, the philosophic issue—whether all consciousness, human and animal, is equal—has hardly been resolved. And Singer himself, in the persona of the protagonist of a short story he wrote in a 1999 response to J.M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals, concluded: "The value that is lost when something is emptied depends on what was there when it was full, and there is more to human existence than there is to bat existence," a reference to the philosopher Thomas Nagel's famous article on the inaccessible subjectivity of any consciousness other than our own.

In "Animal, Vegetable, Miserable," an op-ed piece in The New York Times last fall, Gary Steiner, a philosophy professor at Bucknell University, made a miserably weak case for living the life of a vegan. He criticized meat-eaters as "a self-righteous bunch" and pilloried those who satisfy their consciences by abstaining from consuming all but humanely raised animals for fooling themselves. Our uses of animals, Steiner wrote, are "so institutionalized, so normalized, in our society that it is difficult to find the critical distance needed to see them as the horrors that they are: so many forms of subjection, servitude and—in the case of killing animals for human consumption and other purposes—outright murder."

Steiner provided samples of everyday products derived from animals, but a "complete" list would extend far beyond gelatin, leather shoes, and Band-Aids, into infinity. Reading the insightful letters that the Times ran in reply, I was struck more by what was missing in this controversy than what was actually said. The unspoken concept behind the debate over vegans is "biocentrism."

Nobody, including the sainted Aldo Leopold (for all his stellar virtues as a conservationist) can even in theory turn out to be anything other than an anthropocentrist. We care about the planet because we are made from its materials. The planet, c'est moi! That deludes some people into thinking they can be disinterestedly "biocentric," having the interests of the planet (and nonhuman animals) as much at heart as those of human beings. But because the so-called environment is the same substance as ourselves, our concern for it is just a disguised case of looking out for No. 1. Biocentrism is little more than a type of self-congratulating anthropocentrism. If we all perished from global warming, the planet would continue to exist quite well without us. But not vice versa.

Our survival came about through evolution, a process of drastic environmental changes in which periods of vast destruction eradicated most complex life forms. When life started again from the survivors in the new ecosystem, those most attuned ("adapted" is the word) to the new environment produced offspring that could survive. Those survivors could themselves be victimized by other predatory survivors in the struggle for resources in changing ecosystems. Refined as some of our moral sensibilities may now be, there's nothing we can do to outwit this fact: To be alive is to be a murderer. Or to be murdered.

Our own pet-loving tenderness for cats and dogs is not very different from the "anthropocentric" nurturing of animals in zoos that animal-rights activists revile as disrespectful of the rest of the creation. And since I have never met a cat that ate butternut squash or tomatoes, even the cats of vegetarians and vegans need to eat meat and fish (unless one can justify cruel deprivation as a form of moral consideration). Many people's respect for creation is very selective indeed, an example of what used to be called the Bambi Syndrome. Only animals beautiful and large enough to be registered by the senses of Homo sapiens figure in their tender concern. E.O. Wilson some time ago alerted us to the millions of microscopic life forms found in a square inch of earth he cut from a rainforest. Life is everywhere. I squash millions of micro-organisms with each step and wash down the drain unnoticed multitudes with each shower. Brushing my teeth kills innumerable bacteria (it's them or my gums!). With every swallow, I destroy some of the bacteria in my gut that keep me alive by helping to digest my food. But even larger creatures like cockroaches and rats, do they enter into the purview of animal-rights activists? And the HIV virus, the swine flu, tuberculosis? Do I want to eschew antibiotics and vaccines that help my life out of respect for theirs?

The grandstanding of vegans for carefully selected life forms, to serve their own sensitivities—through their meat- and dairy-free diets, their avoidance of leather and other animal products—doesn't produce much besides a sense of their own virtue. As they make their footprint smaller and smaller, will they soon be walking on their toes like ballet dancers? And if so, what is the step after that? Pure spirit (a euphemism for bodily death)? If our existence is the problem—which it is—then only nonexistence can cure it. The supreme biocentric act is not to discover yet one more animal product to abstain from. The supreme biocentric act is dying, returning the finite matter and energy you have appropriated for yourself and giving them back to the creatures you stole them from. And what makes them so pure? Are they shedding tears as they tear you and each other apart? The real "crime" is existence, not being or using animals.

My own diet is very high in plants and low in meat, and my carbon footprint is very small indeed, but mainly out of concern for my own health and the planet that keeps us alive. Beyond that, I'm an admirer of J.M. Coetzee, Michael Pollan, and Singer, and I well approve of their revulsion at the brutal treatment of animals raised for our consumption. I think vegetarianism is admirable. I would recommend it. Unlike vegans, who are enlisted in an open-ended but futile metaphysic of virtue and self-blamelessness that pretends to escape from the conditions of life itself, vegetarians have more limited goals and have marked out a manageable territory with fewer cosmic pretensions. They are concerned about their health. Or they don't want animals to be raised expressly to be tortured and killed—especially in factory farms and slaughterhouses—for their dinner plates. Or they don't want to ingest the dead bodies of fairly complex creatures, which is apt to make them feel queasy. No doubt they would prefer all animals (whatever that might include) to be treated humanely, but they are not prepared to stop wearing leather shoes or eating Jell-O. At least vegetarianism—though it can't resolve the moral dilemma of the savagery of our lives—is more or less possible in both theory and practice.

Veganism, while perhaps harmless enough, especially if you don't care about being part of society or alienating potential friends who may find you more trouble than you're worth, fails on both counts. Furthermore, there are critics who explain that farming vegetables involves the killing of huge numbers of animals with plows, pesticides, and herbicides. And anyone who has grown a large home vegetable garden knows what raccoons, possums, rabbits, mice, birds, and deer can do to the veggies. Without a war on animals, there would be no vegetables for the vegans.

Behind their beliefs is the hopeless longing for innocence. Except that there is no innocence. However delicate our moral sensibilities, it still remains that to be alive is to be a murderer. Tiptoeing through the tulips (we might be killing the bees inside) won't solve the problem. And since we are carnivores ("omnivores," if that makes you feel better) from the moment of conception, we emerge from the womb already "guilty." Even if our parents eschewed meat, to have been born at all we must have been eating our mother during gestation, and after birth we need her milk, which is just another dairy product from animals.

We're compromised from the start. Evolution favored meat-eating primates, enlarging their brains and enabling them to live in more and more complex and survivalist societies that today extend our life spans, provide genteel habitats, and produce philosophers who have the wherewithal to object to the very components of their own existence. Death is the only form of purification. Alive, we have no choice but to accept our complicity, because life is a product of death. Do as much as you can to minimize the damage, because the "environment" is us. But as long as we are among the living, we should stop pretending to virtues possible only for the dead.

Harold Fromm is a visiting scholar in English at the University of Arizona. He is author of The Nature of Being Human: From Environmentalism to Consciousness (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009) and co-editor, with Cheryll Glotfelty, of The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology (University Press of Georgia, 1996).


1. robtempio - July 06, 2010 at 10:26 am

Why the need to attack vegans? So what if they choose not to eat meat or animal products? It's their choice. My wife who is a vegan merely wants to minimize unnecessary suffering, insofar as is possible, by consuming a diet free of animal products. In a day and age where alternatives to a diet based on animal products is increasingly available and possible, what's wrong with that? And isn't the world a bit of a better place as a consquence of the efforts made by vegans to reduce animal suffering? Sure there are vegans who given veganism a bad name by seeming like a modern day teetotaling temperance movement, but equally suspect are those who feel the need to attack veganism. It strikes me as a form of bad faith all of its own. I often find that people accept the premise that we should minimize the suffering of animals, but then try to find all sorts of loopholes to excuse their failure to live up to a moral principle they just deemed worthy of upholding. They would rather do this than admit, like I do, their own moral weakness.

2. greeneyeshade - July 06, 2010 at 10:42 am

robtiempo, veganism as a whole isn't as innocent as you describe it. Those who push veganism aggressively--think Pita--do not practice it innocently the way your wife does. There is a philosophy behind those excesses and this article goes a long way toward pointing out the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of that movement.

A whole other line of argument can be made with respect to how anthropomorhic the whole argument about "animal suffering" is. There is no doubt that many animals have emotions and do suffer, but there is a huge difference between the self-conscious suffering that humans endure versus the largely unpremeditated suffering that an animal undergoes. 'Taint the same thing, McGee. Animals suffer but the self-conscious, premeditated suffering that humans endure is infinitely more painful.

3. thsheeler - July 06, 2010 at 11:01 am

While the author may raise some interesting questions about how vegans and vegetarians select their favored organisms, I'm struck by Mr. Fromm's apparent ignorance of vegans and veganism. Though you might have a point about "innocence," greeneyeshad, I'm having a hard time understanding how Fromm can paint with such a broad brush. Can someone with an academic interest in things like ethics and philosophy really propose such a static and monolithic definition of veganism? Citing "aggressiveness" or pointing out hypocricy is easy as Fromm's effortless tirade indicates. We're all inconsistent. In fact, there's something downright hypocritcal about a society that likes to buy and care for goldfish while it doesn't hesitate to scarf down trout or flounder. What's more difficult is understanding complexity of purpose. From my own limited experience (anecdotal, as I have travelled in some vegan circles), I will concede that there are some self-serving vegans, but I also know that there are vegans who do not blindly contend (or pretend?) that they are following some path of purity. In many ways, veganism can look a lot like Fromm's definition of vegetarianism--a movement that seeks to end NEEDLESS cycles of animal harvesting. (Truth be told, we don't actually have to slaughter a cow or alligator every time we need a new pair of shoes; moreover, I'm not sure what Fromm's attachment to Jell-O is, but it's not really all that necessary.) What's most surprising to me is Fromm's complete disregard for religion. Many people, including not a few Christians follow a vegan lifestyle out of respect, egads, for their "spiritual" health.

4. thsheeler - July 06, 2010 at 11:03 am

My apologies, I meant to write "greeneyeshadE."

5. jaanquidam - July 06, 2010 at 11:26 am

This is getting a little silly. This piece strikes me as an author attempting to justify his own beliefs by arguing that anyone to his right is insufficiently open-minded, while anyone to his left is a crazy radical. It's the same old story I've been hearing my whole life: it reads like the author's simply tearing down anyone who follows the logic of his own beliefs better than he does. To wit:
--"We're compromised from the start." I can think of no individual or organization that claims otherwise. Virtually every animal rights or vegan group I've heard of welcomes people regardless of diet, or how "compromised" they are.
--"Only animals beautiful and large enough to be registered by the senses of Homo sapiens figure in their tender concern." I don't know who he's talking about here, but it's a gross and false generalization, one that ignores that there are entire religions--Jains, for example--who for centuries has been living examples that the putative myopia described by the author belongs not to vegans, but the author himself. It's telling that he somehow overlooked centuries of Indian philosophy.
--in my experience, this has nothing to do with "a disguised case of looking out for No. 1" or about "grandstanding of vegans for carefully selected life forms," or about "a hopeless longing for innocence." It's about compassion, and learning to be more compassionate. I can think of no individual or organization who claimed to be perfect; they only claim to try to do better. And I've yet to meet a vegetarian who eats Jello or wears leather. Either the vegans that the author knows are actually obnoxious non-vegans, or he's making straw men.

robtempio: good points. I quite agree.

greeneyeshade: how is "veganism as a whole" not "as innocent as you describe it"? Who are the "those" you refer to?

6. mbelvadi - July 06, 2010 at 12:09 pm

#5, he's making straw men, and rather ridiculous ones. Somehow in the middle of his rant, he seems to have lost the idea that vegans avoid eating/killing animals (kingdom Animalia), and convinced himself that they claim to avoid eating/killing every form of life whatsoever, and thus are hypocrites for wanting to kill viruses. Umm, viruses aren't animals!

And to pick up one of #3's point, no genuine vegetarians, even lacto-ovo ones, eat Jello (gelatin), pretty much by definition (if you eat gelatin, you're eating a part of an animal that required killing it to obtain, which makes it no different morally than eating its muscle tissue). At least not in North America. I've heard that Europeans have a bizarre definition of the term "vegetarian" that could include eating chicken and fish. Maybe they eat Jello.

7. desdemona - July 06, 2010 at 02:20 pm

Jaanquidam eloquently addressed most of my points in comment #5, but I'd like to add that the fundamental flaw in the author's reasoning seems to be his (mis)understanding of the issue as a zero sum game. The human condition is by definition an imperfect one; that being the case, we are all morally, ethically, and philosophically compromised, making any Platonic ideal of "purity" unrealistic. However, to acknowledge the reality of our limitations is not necessarily to throw up our hands and despair of doing any good in the world, since we are incapable of fixing everything. What ever happened to "every little bit helps," or to the idea that every time we don't contribute to a problem, we have an opportunity to work toward its solution?

My partner and I are both vegan, as are many people of our acquaintance, and I have yet to encounter anyone who meet's Fromm's characterization. To quote robtempio in comment #1, most vegans "merely want to minimize unnecessary suffering, insofar as is possible, by consuming a diet free of animal products. In a day and age where alternatives to a diet based on animal products is increasingly available and possible, what's wrong with that? And isn't the world a bit of a better place as a consquence of the efforts made by vegans to reduce animal suffering?"

While there are certainly obnoxious, judgmental vegans out there (the frequently misguided shock tactics of PeTA spring to mind), to tar everyone who eschews animal products with the brush of extremism is analogous to considering every practicing Christian a member of a fundamentalist sect. Even given the existence of such people, I daresay they are fewer in number than the tetchy, defensive omnivores who feel such an apparent compulsion to justify their own lack of concern for the suffering of others by impugning the choices of those who do. If Mr Fromm feels so fundamentally compromised that he must view a bacon cheeseburger as a means to "stop pretending to virtues possible only for the dead," that is indeed his choice, and he has every right to make it. I would only ask that he accord the same respect to those of us who prefer to approach the matter from a more subtle - and, hopefully, compassionate - direction.

8. desdemona - July 06, 2010 at 02:23 pm

Oops - typo in paragraph two; obviously I meant "meets." (Blushes furiously, and virtually)

9. demedici - July 06, 2010 at 02:25 pm

Wow!! That is a pretty harsh intellectual attack on a group of people that don't deserve it. Granted, like Cartman on South Park, the idealism of "hippies" often irks me, but mainly because this idealism magnifies my own shortcomings. I myself eat a ton of meat, but I feel my body has been enslaved by the 99 cent menus of McDonalds and Wendys to do so. OF COURSE humans can't completely eradicate their impact on other organisms, but I applaud efforts to lessen such impact and decrease suffering. Humans have no respect for herd animals. They view them as commodities and not as living beings, the way slaveholders in the South viewed African-Americans. You can argue that the consciousness of a cow is not equal to that of a human, but my great-great-great-great grandfather in Alabama that owned hundreds of slaves would make the same argument against black Americans. It sounds like the writer is mad that if veganism catches on, he might have to throw away his leather shoe collection. You don't NEED leather shoes, and you don't need to slaughter cows to survive. Maybe they have a consciousness, maybe they don't, but when you are standing before the pearly gates and you have to answer for your sins, do you really want to take the risk?

10. demedici - July 06, 2010 at 02:40 pm


Don't know if I can post links on here, but the kid in the orange jumpsuit is my mental image of (Dr.?) Harold Fromm.

11. anonscribe - July 06, 2010 at 04:01 pm

Given that Fromm's article is clearly irrational and vitriolic, it's a wonder that The Chronicle published it. I suppose they need to keep readership up, and annoying their readers is the best way to go about that.

Judging by his lack of critical ability, I pity his students. An "is" does not imply an "ought." That nature often involves killing hasn't been a meaningful justification for humans killing living things in 10,000 years. We don't need to eat meat to live. In most cases, eating meat shortens lifespans and causes disease. "Evolution" isn't a replacement for, or paradigm of, moral thinking. Veganism is healthier, more environmentally sustainable, and more humane than meat-inclusive diets. For example, the field mice who are killed raising veggies are also killed raising corn for cows to eat before they're slaughtered and fed to obese Americans. This doesn't seem calorically efficient--why not just eat the corn and cut out the environmentally degrading effects of the industrial meat market? Industrial farming isn't great either, but it's the lesser of two evils (and can be improved more easily than meat production can).

Anyway, Fromm clearly doesn't care much about ethics, human life, or the environment, which is why he takes such pains to insult all three. Environmentalism is a kind of humanism--the quicker we realize that, the quicker we'll be able to feel better with the world we leave our grandchildren. I'm not perfect, but I don't use that fact to excuse myself from making moral decisions. I don't hate anyone who eats meat (you know, like my wife), and I support scientific animal testing when necessary, but to pretend that veganism and meat-eating are morally equivalent dietary choices is ridiculous. Veganism is about human life--it's about living a good life in compassion with other people and animals. It's about THINKING about the most personal and routine choices one makes with an eye toward the Good--not the Perfect.

But, luckily, most readers already think Dr. Fromm's argument is weak. I hope he keeps writing them. Few things will help veganism more than his kind of irrational vitriol.

12. stantoro - July 06, 2010 at 04:09 pm

Thanks to all for the excellent comments. Prof. Fromm's article contains such damning logical fallacies that it fails to hang together as a coherent argument. Asserting, without any evidence, that vegans believe in an unattainable purity, and then bringing his own evidence that there is no practically attainable purity, is not an argument. An underlying, and unspoken assumption in the piece is that being vegan is an extremely difficult thing to do, which as a vegan I know that it is not.

If the author's intent is to call out the tactics or logic of extremists or very preachy activists, then call them out and say why they're wrong. That is an argument. Do not paint an entire group of people as subscribing to an ideal you yourself have posited. That is not an argument. Everyone who thinks about food and tries to make a difference (whether cutting down on meat, locavore, organic food buyer, vegetarian, or vegan) is in fact making a difference. If Prof. Fromm's diet is high in plants and low in meat, and he cares about his carbon footprint, that's great, but why this severe and unjustified attack on vegans? As demedici astutely points out in #9, people often criticize the idealism because it calls attention to their own shortcomings. Maybe Prof. Fromm would like to eat even less meat but finds it difficult to do so. If so, I urge him to keep trying.

13. dstrya - July 06, 2010 at 04:54 pm

Dear Dr. Fromm: 1988 through 1992 called, and they want their fascile cranky pointless irrelevant straight-edge fanzine editorials back. xTHANKSx

14. hglaholt - July 06, 2010 at 05:02 pm

That was one of the most poorly argued articles on veganism that I have yet to see. First, Fromm's discussion of biocentrism is nearly illogical. If we are made from the same materials as the planet, why does that necessarily mean that we can ONLY care for ourselves (a form of 'self-congratulating anthropocentrism'). Why does this not mean that we can expand our attempts at sensitivity and understanding beyond the borders of our own bodies, towards other forms that those materials take? Second, to say that abstaining from animal products "doesn't produce much besides a sense of [vegans'] own virtue" is simply absurd. Since when are individual forms of protest and boycott ONLY aimed at the individual's virtue, producing no social goods? Were nineteenth century Quakers who boycotted sugar, dyes, and cotton produced by slaves merely "serving their own sensitivities" or were they making-- PERHAPS-- a larger ethical point about not wanting to be involved in the oppressive realities of how these goods are/were produced? How dare you criticize people that take personal stands against what they see as morally inexcusable in society. If "to be alive is to be a murderer," should we all just throw our hands up and go with it? Third, since when is "alienating potential friends" or being countercultural any reason WHATSOEVER for giving up one's ethical beliefs? Remember that many, many people argued that slavery was sanctioned by evolution, that it was "natural," and that any hope for a society without it was both impossible and ridiculous. Thankfully, those who campaigned against it didn't use your flawed logic. Instead, they went against the grain and refused to partake in a system that they deemed immoral. Where would we be now if they had worried about inconveniencing their friends?? Lastly, where is Fromm's evidence for his absurd charge that "behind [vegans'] beliefs is the hopeless longing for innocence." Excuse me? Did I miss something? Rule #1 in academia: don't pull psychoanalytical and/or philosophical conclusions out of your rear-end.

15. veganroadrunner - July 06, 2010 at 06:23 pm

This article is perhaps a better example of "a miserably weak case" than Steiner's. I'm surprised that a piece so poorly written and without research or evidence was published in The Chronicle.

16. greeneyeshade - July 06, 2010 at 06:31 pm

thsheeler - July 06, 2010 at 11:03 am said:

My apologies, I meant to write "greeneyeshadE."


No worries; I would certainly never eat green shad. :)

17. camcritt - July 06, 2010 at 07:11 pm

I agree with all the comments: this was a poorly reasoned, nearly unresearched article that casts needless aspersions. Vegans contribute to reducing brutality in the world--horrors, how dare they? By not drinking dairy or eating eggs, vegans avoid promoting an industry that keeps cows constantly pregnant (in order to maintain lactation; the resulting male calves are sold for veal), kills male chicks, or keeps hens in atrocious conditions (even if they are advertised as "free range"). Besides, there are any number of reasons to choose a vegan diet that have nothing to do with animal cruelty: how about being better for the environment or for personal health? How dare Fromm assume that (all?) vegans are "enlisted in an open-ended but futile metaphysic of virtue and self-blamelessness that pretends to escape from the conditions of life itself"? Please.

18. educationfrontlines - July 06, 2010 at 07:18 pm

As an editor of two journals and member of two additional science journal boards, I find Dr. Fromm's essay clear, well organized, and with reasoned concern for ethics, human life, and the environment.

In many responses, the use of "animal" begs definition. Sponges (in the "animal kingdom") lack nerve cells. As we move to more derived invertebrates, tapeworms and mosquitoes would probably solicit little of the sympathy expressed in the responses about animal suffering. When folks use the term "animals," the mental image is usually of vertebrates and more often just those with fur or feathers. By numbers and by biomass, such primitive animals predominate. To have compassion for tapeworms or mosquitoes is in conflict with having compassion for the humans who suffer from them. Pres. Carter's foundation is just now about to eliminate guinea worm as a human infection in Africa. As Dr. Fromm cites Singer: "...there is more to human existence than there is to bat existence"---or to tapeworm existence I will add.

Fromm also makes a clear transition from animals to "life is everywhere" when he talks about microorganisms. Yes, a virus is not an organism, independently "living" outside the host cell, but as he infers, our use of vaccinations would bring some of those genomes to an end as well. [Incidently, the human genome is made up of ~8% of viral DNA from human endogenous retroviruses...some ARE us!]

In some responses are far more egregious science errors. Here in Kansas, I can look out on the Flint Hills where the rock strata lay a few inches under the grass (no crops, no plowing). You can choose to eat the grass, the grasshoppers, or cattle. Foresaking the later (you can't digest the former) means that much less food in the world. As for meat causing disease, look at last year's CDC recalls of tomatoes, peppers, spinach, etc. I leave next week for China where I will see ever more rural people with a much improved diet---heavily due to more meat---compared to my first (annual) visit 20 years ago, and they are not foresaking plants to produce meat.

Fromm would not have to write this essay in the mid-1900s when one-third of Americans lived on a farm and children raised sheep or other animals, and had a rich understanding of wildlife and nature "red in tooth and claw."

Some may want to restructure society, but we should not contradict science/nature to do so.

John Richard Schrock

19. b_a_l - July 06, 2010 at 10:05 pm

Well, anonscribe (#11) hits the nail squarely on the head. I will only add a bit:

The eighth paragraph is a real low point in critical thought. I have no idea who Fromm is talking about here. No vegan I know maintains that existence itself is the problem, or that eating meat is "criminal." No vegan that I know claims to be holy or pure. And no vegan I know claims to be able to live without killing other life forms in various ways. This whole passage rings incredibly phony to me.

The main argument for veganism is based on some extremely well-documented environmental science, and some basic ethical intuitions. The term "animal" don't require precise definitions in order to operate within arguments on either side of the issue. (Even within academe, what discipline has fully defined all of its terms?) What veganism "produces" is not "virtue," but a drastic reduction in carbon emissions, in heart disease, in species extinction due to deforestation, and a huge reduction in animal suffering. At this point in the history of science, these ideas are almost incontestably true. It's telling somehow that Fromm doesn't take them up.

He glimpses the essential form of the argument as generally made today, when he acknowledges that veganism is merely about reducing the size of one's environmental footprint. But the hyperbole he then delves into produces only a caricature of his own position. Why does it have to be either ribeye every night or total self-immolation in an act of supreme purity? In other words, just because one can't run to the moon doesn't mean one shouldn't walk across the road. And "is" is not "ought." It's useful to consider the possible extremes of behavior as a practical matter, but Fromm's approach completely avoids the content of the environmental and ethical arguments by trying to shock the reader with a possibility he or she will probably recoil from. This provides ample psychological excuse for business-as-usual when it comes to food.

Sorry, but the "supreme biocentric act" is a rather unimpressive straw man. It doesn't even really burn, and the smoke from it only serves to cloud the logic of the issue. Not so coincidentally, that obfuscation seems deliberate somehow on the author's part...

There are some really good arguments for meat eating, and the Chronicle would do well to explore them, but I must say the argument for mother's milk as a necessary violation of veganism is possibly the dumbest thing I have ever read on this subject. In any other philosophical context this would be simply ironic. I guess for some any excuse will do. As prose and as argument, wow--we're a long way from David Hume. Where is the editor? I feel sorry for Fromm's students.

20. caltechalumni - July 06, 2010 at 11:47 pm

Academics are arguing in the Chronicle about minor inconsistencies in one professor's argument about a narrow topic of little or no relevance to the readership? How unusual.

Meanwhile, ordinary people around the world are making individual decisions about their daily behavior. There is no binary condition in which you either are or are not "correct" in what you choose to consume or wear. We each are free to make individual decisions about our habits, diets and behavior, and we do so along a continuum that allows each to find his own place of comfort. Some try to minimize their individual effect on their environment (and themselves) according to what they believe to be important and meaningful outcomes. Others have different priorities and beliefs, and so choose differently. Bickering here about a sideways rant by a single voice in an ivory tower doesn't seem to answer many questions that centrally affect many of us.

Move along folks. There was never anything here to see.

21. jaanquidam - July 07, 2010 at 12:54 am

Thank you all for the very interesting comments, and thank you desdemona (#7) for the compliment. :)

educationfrontlines (#18): IIUC, you're saying that nature puts humans in conflict with other living things. I can accept that, and I imagine most vegans can, but I don't see why compassion for tapeworms or mosquitos is in conflict with compassion for humans. Compassion is infinite, even if my ability to act on it is not. To assume otherwise, even on the basis of utilitarianism, is to impose an ontological framework on people that they themselves reject; indeed, that's why I (and others, it seems) object to Mr. Fromm's piece. To put it another way: the idea that there's more to human existence than there is to bat existence is, I suspect, patently false from the perspective of the bat. As for the idea that we shouldn't contradict nature: it seems to me that just about everything we do contradicts nature. Indeed, all that meat that the rural Chinese are eating is the result of negotiations between global financial institutions and governments. Their improved diets won't do much good if they make the planet uninhabitable, in which case we might end up wishing we'd paid more attention to the perspective of bats.

caltechalumni (#20): I've found this series of comments very interesting, not least of all because, as detailed in the comments above, the "inconsistencies" in the piece were not "minor," and the topic does not lack relevance. In fact, I really can't think of an issue more relevant to human survival than that of food, or of an issue more interesting than the nature of human nature. That, at least, is how I see it. But, since you clearly think this is all irrelevant and there's nothing to see here, my question for you is: why are you even here?

22. caltechalumni - July 07, 2010 at 01:57 am

Jaanquidam: I'm here because I'm a vegetarian and hoped to find insight from Fromm's article. I admit, I did gain some insight from the comments but the discussion (for me) ran out of steam quite early on.

23. bdr8y - July 07, 2010 at 06:02 am

It is funny how vegans, like relgious zealots, have never met a person of like faith who is a bit over the top in their efforts to carry out the gospel. It seems crazy always resides in the next philosophical town over.

24. rombiculus - July 07, 2010 at 07:05 am

What an absolute waste of time of an article.


25. raghuvansh1 - July 07, 2010 at 07:21 am

If we ban meat eating how can poor people get proteins who work as a manual labourer? What can we do increased got and chicken?I have no objection who is pure vegetarian but how can you prevent people not to eat meat?There is no proof that pure vegetarian live longer.I think writing this kind of tit bit is west of time

26. cmcclain - July 07, 2010 at 08:26 am

More interesting would be a discussion of the (per capita) carbon footprint of vegans vs nonvegans. Backpacker magazine published an article a few years ago which claimed that the total carbon footprint of a piece of gear using leather was less than that of a comparable piece of gear that used synthetic materials instead. It would indeed be quite intriguing to see a war brewing between vegans and environmentalists, but I doubt we'll see that anytime soon.

27. dsarma - July 07, 2010 at 08:49 am

Jains have worried about these issues for the past 2500 years. Nothing new.

28. spowell14 - July 07, 2010 at 09:12 am

The definitions of murder and killing are different. Murder is unjust killing.

29. pants_mccracky - July 07, 2010 at 09:53 am

This is an absolutely devastating critique...of the straw man that exists in the author's mind. Of course, it's typical of most articles written about vegans by omnivores -- self-serving and ignorant of the actual philosophy and goals of veganism. A failure on nearly every point.

Considering that over 90% of the world population eats animals, I'm constantly astounded to see so much hostility and defensiveness at the mere notion of an alternative way of living. Meat eaters: you may relax. Barring some kind of global eco-catastrophe, your way of life is under absolutely no threat within our lifetimes. Our entire society is built around satisfying your appetites.

I'm reminded of Douglas Adams' line about how humans nailed a man to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change. The compassion vegans feel for living beings poses absolutely no threat or inconvenience to your way of life. So why the defensiveness?

30. jab829 - July 07, 2010 at 09:57 am

I'm definitely one of those suspect people who "love animals" but eat meat. I can't justify it, but I don't lose a lot of sleep over it either. I've seen a pig slaughtered, and it was horrific; but I still eat pork products. Part of what's so awful about it is the machination of the process; if it were just me, the pig, and a spear, I doubt I would feel so conflicted. However, I'm a part of an industrialized society, and that's how an industrialized society kills pigs. If it were possible to set all the animals free to live their animal lives as nature intended, then I'd be all for it. But that ship has sailed. If people stop eating cows, then what happens to the cows? We've wrecked "the balance of nature," so we would have with the cows the same problem we've had with deer; with few natural predators, they destroy crops, overpopulate, and die of disease and/or starvation. Unless we're going to magically return to the days of dense forests (and other widespread natural habitats) and both predators and prey roaming free, then this "meat is murder" viewpoint only works if it's confined to a select few (admittedly strong-willed and conscientious) people. Thus, veganism/vegetarianism has to be an exclusive club to remain environmentally viable. Or maybe that's just what I tell myself when I wake to the silence of the pigs. . .

31. steleky - July 07, 2010 at 10:04 am

This is a discussion that can only take place in the self-indulgent society of industrialized countries. People elsewhere don't have the luxury of being vegans or vergetarians. In some cases they are part of a cultural/religous environemnt that may proscribe certain foods. Out side of that it is largely a struggle for subsistence.

32. wisensale - July 07, 2010 at 10:17 am

What is Professor Fromm afraid of?

33. superdude - July 07, 2010 at 10:45 am

I love animals! They're delicious.

34. beatitude - July 07, 2010 at 10:47 am

The diference between a mother's milk taken by a human infant as 'animal dairy' and cow's milk taken by that same infant is that the human mother gave her consent and the cow didn't. Now, one can argue that the cow is incapable of giving consent, but as of now, we don't actually know that. Until we do, then it sems to me we should err on the side of caution and leave the cow's mil;k for the cows.

35. elikatz - July 07, 2010 at 11:56 am

Really, this article is not so much an attack on vegans as it is an attack on the morally superior. Nowhere in the piece does Fromm make arguments against a nonmeat diet. In fact, he admits to eating very little meat himself for both health and environmental reasons.

So, are vegans so obnoxiously superior and in our faces that they need to be taken down by Fromm? No doubt some are. But let's be honest, there are so few vegans in this world that Fromm is aiming his venom at a truly harmless minority. With a MacDonald's on every corner and a population grotesquely overweight, I'm not sure what is accomplished by criticizing a handful of people who care about their waistlines and the treatment of animals.

36. aaronbeach - July 07, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Fromm's article is an insightful discussion of human/societies stance toward the brutality of existence and inparticular modern human existence. "robtempio" describes his wife's actions as "reducing animal suffering" - and it is this subject, of man's experience and stance toward the "suffering" or brutality of nature, which this article discusses.

My personal feeling is that modern society has an "ugly" or "violent" trend toward artificially mastering their own existence (the "purification"). Veganism is a classic example of how this trend plays out in post-modern consumerism, veiled with vague ethics, and supporting a growing industry. While I find the unnatural and violent nature of our food industry rather appalling - what I have observed of veganism has been that it is a continuation of this same process away from humans redeeming their nature toward an ideology of superiority veiled under artificial technologies and trends.

In contrast, those I know that raise, butcher, eat, and wear their animals are far more connected with and redeeming of human nature and continue the brutally beautiful (at times, just brutal) and necessary story that is humanity.

37. forestsheena - July 07, 2010 at 12:47 pm

I became a vegan as a result of my work as a cognitive ethologist and researcher into the evolution of consciousness.
Animals behave in ways that are best explained on the hypothesis that they hav an internal mental world of their own and manipulate it vicariously by 'thinking' in ways that are at least partly like the ways we do it.
"Special pleading is needed to maintain that similiarities in behavior co-exist with a lack of similiarity in conscious awareness," says Marion Stamp Davies, head of the Animal Research Group at Oxford (and formerly married to Richard Dawkins). "Complexity, thinking and minding about the world are present in nonhuman species.... The conclusion that they, too, are consciously aware is therefore compelling. The balance of evidence is that they are, and it seems positively unscientific to deny it."
If you are curious about a moral basis for veganism, you could start with Nobel Prize-winner Albert Schweitzer and his Reverence for Life philosophy, a philosophy which does not shrink from recognizing that life feeds on other life:
"One existence holds its own at the cost of another; one destroys another. Only in the thinking person has the will to live become consicous of other wills to live and desirous of solidarity with them. This solidarity, however, cannot completely be brought about, because humans are subject to the law of being obliged to live at the cost of other life and to incur again and again the guilt of destroying life.
"But as an ethical being a peson strives to escape whenever possible from this necessity...." ("Out of My Life and Thought".
One way to escape is veganism. Is empathy with other life such a hard concept to grasp? Does having power over other life forms give you permission to brutalize and kill them?
"Sympathy with animals--so often represented as sentimentality--is an obligation no thinking person can escape," wrote Schweitzer (ibid).
"We are afraid of shocking people if we let it be noticed how much we are moved by the suffering man brings to animals," Schweitzer wrote in "Kultur." We think that others may be more 'rational' than we, and accept as a matter of course the things we are appalled by [but] whenever we injure any kind of life, we must be certain that it is necessary. We must never go beyond the unavoidable, not even in apparently insignificant things....
"Reverence for Life brings a person to terms with reality. It forces a person to decide personally in every case how far he can remain ethical and how far he must yield to the necessity of harming life.
"We do not make moral progress by being instructed in compromises between the ethical and the necessary, but only by hearing ever more clearly the voice of the ethical, by being ruled ever more strongly by a longing to preserve life, and by withstanding ever more stubbornly the urgings of the cruel and the indifferent to destroy it.
"We must never become callous. The quiet conscience is an invention of the devil."
My conscience is not quiet. Apparently the author's is. I hope I never have to have any dealings with him. He makes such a wonderful stranger.

38. anonscribe - July 07, 2010 at 01:27 pm

31 - steleky - "People elsewhere don't have the luxury of being vegans or vergetarians."

you know, except for those billion people in india who are vegetarian.

39. seymour_glass - July 07, 2010 at 01:31 pm

Fromm is a little optimistic when he claims to be able to "squash millions of micro-organisms with each step." He might crush a few now and then, but moost bacteria are smaller than the gap between his shoe and the pavement, so they're not likely to suffer any harm.

40. superdude - July 07, 2010 at 01:33 pm

#38..."you know, except for those billion people in india who are vegetarian."

Yeah, especially with all those seafood, chicken, lamb, goat, etc. dishes. Oh, wait. #38 = fail

41. odonnemt - July 07, 2010 at 01:59 pm

This article reads like the work of a guilty vegetarian who suspects he ought to go vegan but doesn't want to make the commitment. Instead he writes an unprovoked screed against vegans based on a slippery slope argument that's a little silly: why stop at no leather and no eggs--you ought to walk on tiptoe so as to avoid smushing the bacteria! Well, no. Vegans--I am not one of them--are trying to cause as little animal suffering as possible. Bacteria do not suffer, but layer hens and cows skinned for leather do. As far as I'm concerned, this article swings at a straw man and misses.

42. ccchron - July 07, 2010 at 02:48 pm

to add to the number of false premises in this article: its attempt at alarmism seems wrong to me. Is it at all true that "more and more people" are becoming vegans? And that "restaurants increasingly have vegetarian sections on their menus"? Maybe as compared with several decades in the past, but I would like to see evidence that veganism is on the rise and that vegetarianism is increasingly catered to. Rather, meat-eating remains very strong in contemporary food culture, both high and low.

43. dank48 - July 07, 2010 at 03:00 pm

Dear Dr. Fromm:
Re: "1988 through 1992 called, and they want their fascile cranky pointless irrelevant straight-edge fanzine editorials back. xTHANKSx"

Congratulations on being attacked by someone who can't spell "facile."

For what it's worth, I think part of the larger problem is people seeing "purity" as a virtue. For example, as Carl Sandburg said, "The English language didn't get to be what it is today by being pure."

Heaven forbid that I live my life one way and you live your life another way, and unless I infringe on your rights or you on mine, we leave each other alone. It's so hard for so many people to face the fact that others do not need or want their advice on how to live.

44. 11191774 - July 07, 2010 at 04:07 pm

The carrot you ripped from the ground was just as alive as the cow the butcher just slaughtered. Unless you subsist on a diet of rocks, the argument is really just one of degrees.

45. nuthouseusa - July 07, 2010 at 04:56 pm

Eating organic, vegetarianism, along with other means of reducing one's carbon footprint, are unfortunately lifestyles one can take only if you can afford to. Which means we have far, far to go before it's sustainable.

46. greeneyeshade - July 07, 2010 at 05:38 pm

forestsheena: So Marion Davies thinks that nonhuman species are conscious like we are--that is to say, self conscious and capable of the epistemological process of knowing THAT they know?

47. fitzmartin - July 07, 2010 at 06:20 pm

I don't eat dead animals, and strive not to eat all animal products, not because of the killing -- which I believe is essential to life -- but because of the factory farms in which these animals and poultry are raised. These conditions are unspeakably inhumane, so because I have alternatives, I choose not to participate in that megabusiness of suffering.

48. srpinpgh - July 07, 2010 at 06:43 pm

"The supreme biocentric act is dying, returning the finite matter and energy you have appropriated for yourself and giving them back to the creatures you stole them from."

This is a supremely stupid sentence; I had no control over being conceived and born, therefore, I "appropriated" nothing to myself. After I was responsible for myself, and to myself, when I attained independence from my parents, then I can have been said to "appropriate" for myself.

49. beckcycle - July 07, 2010 at 07:03 pm

I've been vegan for 6 months. I broke down once and ate an egg. Fried. It tasted great. But I didn't feel like I'd finally eaten something special, I felt like I ate. In any case, it's occured to me that eating flesh might cause less suffering than eating eggs and milk. Suffering while alive being worse than death, a meat chicken lives for what, 6 weeks, and then dies. (Poor slaughterhouse practices and breeding genetic monsters aside for a moment). A layer hen endures 2 or so years of hell? Eggs, Milk, and Honey probably account for a more "slave" like condition of the animals who provide them, all thefts of reproductive activity. Meat, on the other hand, is a more naturally occuring product of life cycles, nature, etc. And human breastmilk as a use of dairy? Really? That's the worst argument I've heard yet. Just because something's hard to do doesn't make it wrong or a bad idea. This guy would have been a pain during the Revolutionary War. What, it's too hard to be free? Well, just give up then. It's more natural to be colonized anyhow.

50. ledzep - July 08, 2010 at 01:36 am

I think reading this "article" has made me more sympathetic to vegans, if only because such a poorly written screed decrying them made it into the Chronicle and was listed on A&L Daily. A dull prose style would be ok if the piece were compiling some new information or exhibiting some research or something of that nature. As a piece of pure opinion-spinning, it had better be well-written and clearly (not to say cogently) argued. What a dud. Editors, examine your consciences.

51. alisonca - July 08, 2010 at 03:11 am

This is the the weakest essay I've ever read on ALDaily. "GIving up meat is admirable. Giving up meat and eggs and dairy...that's taking it too far." Really?

I think vegans are more aware than omnivores that to be human is to be a murderer. They face it, own up to it, and they react. If anyone is longing for innocence, it's omnivores.

52. sgtpauper - July 08, 2010 at 03:14 am

Veganism is no escapism from the obligation "to live at the cost of other life and to incur again and again the guilt of destroying life". At the very best, it's an illusion of a virtue. I simply can't understand how anyone can take a moral standpoint for being a vegan. If it's for health, good for you. Live life for all I care, while us carnivores become vulnerable to colon cancer! But don't cite ethical grounds for not eating meat. Because, even if the author is simplifying here, human life does come at a staggering cost to many other life forms.
Interestingly though, some parts of the article have an uncanny resemblance to what I'd written in this post a year ago: http://sgtpauper.blogspot.com/2009/11/how-i-stopped-worrying.html

53. aricia2010 - July 08, 2010 at 03:15 am

Really? Why was this published? I thought the Chronicle had higher -some!- standards.

Let me just repeat the closing argument, for our collective amusement. "Even if our parents eschewed meat, to have been born at all we must have been eating our mother during gestation, and after birth we need her milk, which is just another dairy product from animals."

Really? REALLY?

For the University of Arizona's sake, I hope that Dr. Fromme's visit concludes shortly.

Vegetarians have made the admirable (but obvious and easy!) decision to eliminate substantial suffering in the world. Because veganism is not easy to sustain, it's successful pursuit is even more laudible.

54. aricia2010 - July 08, 2010 at 03:19 am

And, of course, I meant to type Dr. Fromm instead of Fromme. Apologies to Dr. Fromme, who, if he or she exists, is probably still laughing at this "essay."

55. rombiculus - July 08, 2010 at 06:22 am

For the author, there seems to be a clear distinction between "vegetarians", who are OK in his book,
and "vegans", who obviously follow the "official vegan handbook" to the letter, are all wrong, and annoying to boot.

I would hope that someone writing an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education would have enough experience in life to realize that people make decisions about their lifestlyes for different reasons, and that in any school of thought, there will be people who are able to take things with a "grain of salt" and others who are militant about their beliefs.

Mr. Fromm, whose argument lacks any sort of finesse, seems like the latter.
(note the double t's that you forsook, educationfrontlines):
Perhaps the reason militant vegans annoy him so much is that they remind him of himself.

56. krbaileyinterface - July 08, 2010 at 07:10 am

Hmmm . . . people holding a belief about which they are inconsistent, or in which there are inherent inconsistencies? Is this really anything new under the sun? I bet even Mr. Fromm is guilty of it in some form.

57. 11250382 - July 08, 2010 at 09:43 am

Who cares? It never ceases to amaze me how much time and energy is spent arguing about something like how and what people choose to eat. When I come across an overbearing vegan, I choose to just "let them go" and I expect them to do the same for me. Just leave people alone. This issue is not worth the time.

58. rickbayan - July 08, 2010 at 10:34 am

The point of Dr. Fromm's essay wasn't that veganism is bad (or even silly and self-righteous), but that it's an exercise in futility. Vegans think they're reforming the world by shunning animal products, and yet lions are still devouring zebras on the plains of East Africa. Robins are yanking worms out of the ground. Big fish are swallowing little fish. In other words, predation is an unalterable fact of life. For better or worse, there will always be carnivores -- and those who supply the meat.

59. kedves - July 08, 2010 at 11:49 am

As others have said here, where is the evidence that vegan practice is about the quest for purity rather than what it appears to be about--the quest to reduce one's personal part in inflicting suffering and death on fellow creatures?

The primary characteristics needed to practice vegan principles seem to be 1) caring and 2) mindfulness. I'm not a vegan or a vegetarian; this is an observation from outside those practices. If there is evidence that veganism is about a hopeless quest to *eliminate* non-human animals' suffering and death *in general* rather than to reduce it in immediate personal practice, that evidence is absent from this essay, which is riddled with unrelated and unsupported claims of fact. "Vegetarians" and "vegans" are uniform and distinct groups rather than being composed of individuals whose animal-use practices are varied and complex? It's hard to find non-leather shoes? Vegans are social outcasts? Egg and milk production is mostly humane, therefore non-problematic? In what country are these things true? (By the way, "Bambi syndrome" refers to anti-hunting attitudes, specifically toward deer-hunting, not to all charismatic megafauna or all animal uses.)

It is dishonest to assign meaning to people's symbolic action without taking their ideas about those meanings into account. Fromm should focus on literature rather than fashioning himself as a philosopher of nature-human issues. Ted Nugent argues more coherently .

60. prje8199 - July 08, 2010 at 11:54 am

I say devour all life as it will surely devour you. I accept that I am but a cog in a complex union of life, death, suffering, and assumed righteousness - food in an endless buffett of survival.

Since, however, I have a pretty good position in the "circle of life" I say - Bring on the bacon!

61. texan99 - July 08, 2010 at 11:55 am

"Why the need to attack vegans?" He's not attacking vegans, he's attacking woolly thinking. Why bother to do that? In the belief that clarity of thought can actually help make the world a better place. It might even prove a better tool than agonizing over the ethics of eating an oyster.

62. texan99 - July 08, 2010 at 12:03 pm

As for eating meat: I'm OK with killing animals, but I prefer not to sponsor their lasting torture. So I try to eat the meat of domesticated animals that were raised in something like a humane environment, including a diet that doesn't make them sick, right up to the moment of their swift death. You can be a carnivore and still dislike CAFOs. From his stated admiration of Michael Pollan, that appears to be Dr. Fromm's position as well.

63. govegan22 - July 08, 2010 at 02:59 pm

This piece is so inaccurate, I don't know where to begin.

First, vegans realize that simply to live day to day, we kill things. But the point of veganism is to prevent that as much as possible.

And what on earth is this guy talking about when he says we eat our mothers? In the uterus, we consume some of the food that she consumes, but we certainly aren't eating her. As for her breast milk, she willingly gave that to us. She wasn't raped (in most cases) and forced to give up her milk.

This writer needs to spend less time behind the walls of academia and more time with animal lovers.

64. greeneyeshade - July 08, 2010 at 05:21 pm

govegan22---are you saying that someone is raping cows, goats, and camels, etc. for their milk?

Perfidy!! There are laws against bestiality! Report those people at once!

65. princeton67 - July 08, 2010 at 08:37 pm

As soon as I saw "Singer's shot...heard around the world", I predicted, "Another philosophical debate from the lands the well-fed, who also have books, leisure, and literacy."

The World Health Organization estimates "1/3 well-fed, 1/3 under-fed, and 1/3 starving" (just google this phrase)

And I was correct. All those quoted, all the dilemmas, the entire article, completely ignore the four to five billion people who don't have enough food to have a choice. The only shots they hear are when they try to get meat for the family pot.

66. mbelvadi - July 08, 2010 at 08:55 pm

It's fascinating to read these protests about the starving people around the world as a defense of meat eating, when in fact most data shows that if we stopped feeding agriculturally grown grain to animals, and instead fed it directly to people (there's at least about a 10-to-1 loss of calories when sending it through animals for meat), we'd have far more than enough calories of food to feed everyone on the planet. Vegetarianism is very much consonant with, not in conflict with, the goals of improving life for the worst-off people in the world. This stereotype of all vegetarians as being like the worst of the pretentious Whole Foods Market shopping rich types (who I don't deny exist) only serves to encourage the selfishness of the meat eaters who are feeding precious grain crops to animals instead of people.

67. wildbluehugh - July 08, 2010 at 10:29 pm

My main beef with veganism is that it presupposes the human species *as a whole* can prosper on a diet free of animal products. Optimal human nutrition is first and foremost a scientific question, not an ethical question, and introducing veganism into the debate muddies the waters of what is still a brand new field of research. For example, you often see people quote The China Study as an example that veganism is healthy, unaware that the author of that book completely misrepresents the data to further his pre-existing ideology.

Veganism also presupposes that grain agriculture can stretch from now until infinity, completely ignoring its reliance on oil to plant, fertilize, harvest, process, and ship to vegans across the world. While factory farmed meat is an abomination to be sure, sustainable meat production requires no other inputs besides sunshine and a patch of grass. This is why organizations like Heifer International, which provides livestock to the third world poor, can drastically and immediately increase the nutrition available to a family - to do so with grain or vegetable farming requires a global infrastructure and intense, unsustainable farming practices.

This isn't even going into the questionable nutritional quality of a grain-based diet. Some day soon, hopefully, we will start to understand the extreme and dangerous ignorance behind the vegan refrain, "Let them eat grain!"

68. cosmos1138 - July 08, 2010 at 11:04 pm

WOW - all these comments are spoken like the rich little kids that Americans are - wake up boys and girls the rest of the world is eating ANYTHING they can get there hands on - if you think I'm fooling come on over to SE Asia and see - oops sorry I forgot your spoiled brats that sit and arm chair quarterback the world - American are the dumbest smart people on the planet - yes I include myself - we are so arrogant. Oh I don't even want to hear about how the meatless life style is so environmentally friendly - you gonna pay for the tons of fertilizer and high volume pumps? Right just keep whining its what we Americans do best.

69. sharat - July 08, 2010 at 11:17 pm

Born in India puts one into a vegetative state of sorts where Gandhi and his philosophy numbs your mind - albeit for all its finesse. The "Mahatma" shunned cow milk but took to goat milk - it took a helluva money for Gandhi to remain the Mahatma in 1940s, by Indian standards, and support such a lifestyle.

In Gandhi's Moral Basis of Vegetarianism, he suggests people pick vegetarianism not due to the physical benefits but the moral consequences. He advises: “Become moderate; err on the side of less, rather than on the side of more.” Eating sparingly and controlling appetite is what Indians are taught to follow from an early age. What this kind of austerity has bred is ethical callousness and inefficiency. Live within your means has translated into living by whatever means possible - and rarely worried about the quality of life being lived.

I would agree with Harold's case for considered vegetarianism and callous veganism.

70. doryphore - July 09, 2010 at 10:50 am

This essay is weak, in that the writer is unfamiliar with the basic animal rights/vegan principles that he tries to critique. Despite the sources he cites, his argument seems reactionary, and drawn more from shallow stereotypes than any real engagement with these ideas. Animal rights thinkers do indeed address "non-pretty" animals such as rats, and insects like cockroaches, as something as simple as a PETA bumper-sticker might tell you. Vegans and Vegetarians do know they cannot live without consuming, and consuming living matter. The issue is what to consume, and making that choice with the full knowledge of where that food comes from. As someone who fluctuates between vegan/vegetarian, I know that eating dairy, organic or not, is supporting a miserable factory-farm system, and eating organic free-range eggs does not mean the chickens producing those eggs have any quality of life. This essay reminds me of knee-jerk right wing assessments of the left -- to critique America is to hate America -- in this case, to acknowledge the pain of animals, to avoid causing harm, is to hate humans. There are also many beautiful traditions, like Jain Buddhism, that advocate non-harm. This essay just presents oversimplification of an issue, with a silly conclusion. It's a tepid argument for not thinking about where your cheese came from. It's depressing.

71. drfunz - July 09, 2010 at 11:04 am

And why is this article in the CHE??????

72. doryphore - July 09, 2010 at 11:22 am

#12 stantoro -- your comment is right on, thanks for that excellent assessment.

73. missveg - July 09, 2010 at 03:06 pm

Unlike Frohm, I will not speak on behalf of large movements of which I know nothing about. I am not a vegan because I'm on a "quest for purity" or am seeking to espouse my own virtue. I avoid meat, eggs, and dairy to minimize suffering. I'm not so foolish to believe it's even possible for human beings to eliminate suffering. Frohm would have done himself and the Chronicle's readership a great service by actually talking to a vegan before producing this baseless, illogical piece.

74. dwell_in_possibility - July 09, 2010 at 04:32 pm

While Mr. Fromm's central point seems to rest on an unsupported assertion about the motivations of an entire group of people--as Kedves writes, Fromm assigns "meanings to people's actions without taking their ideas about those meanings into account,"--many of his statements also imply an all or nothing ethical framework that is completely untenable.

Sure, "to be alive is to be a murderer." However, does this mean that any attempt to reduce the number of murders is irrational? Of course not. Such a statement seems to imply that only those who can be perfectly consistent ethical actors should bother with ethics. However, to endorse this position is to torpedo almost any ethical project from the start. For example, supppose we cannot save every starving person in the world. That fact, in and of itself, is not an argument against trying to save as many starving people as we can. And the same can be said with regards to preventing animal suffering--though I cant see any reason why eliminating human starvation wouldnt meet Fromm's standards for enlisting the "futile metaphysic of virtue," aiming at purity and blamelessness, that he assigns to vegans (especially if you've read Singer's "Famine, Affluence, and Morality).

Thankfully, other commentators, following Hume, have pointed out the flawed logic underlying Fromm's evolutionary arguments against veganism.

In response to #65. princeton67, issues concerning veganism and vegetarianism do not "ignore the four to five billion people who don't have enough food to have a choice." To give a simplistic example, approximately 40% of the world's grain is fed to animals. If more people were vegetarians, much of that grain could go to feeding those that dont have enough to eat.

As a vegetarian, I think #67. wildbluehugh makes the same mistake as Fromm by attributing motivations to an entire group of people. Are you so sure that some random vegan in North Carolina wants to impose his/her beliefs on those suffering from deprivation in the developing world? That they automatically assume that everyone everywhere should adopt their lifestyle? Or, is it possible that they are just trying to live the most ethical life they can, given their privlidged circumstances, while simultaneously acknowledging the fact that not everyone will be (or can be) vegan and that perhaps this makes their adoption of veganism even more imperative?

Similarly, regarding #68. cosmos1138, obviously one is in a privilged position to be able to even entertain concerns about vegetarianism and veganism. However, the proper use of privilege is to dismantle injustice and expand opportunity. By engaging in pratices that are environmentally sustainable, prevent needless suffering, and utlize resources in ethical manner, I would think that one concerned about the rest of the world would applaud vegetarianism and veganism.

75. cosmos1138 - July 09, 2010 at 06:44 pm

To # 74 - True Words - however I have seen the general good that our privileged position has led us. From Peace Corps to corporate raiders - I guess living outside the States in several 3rd Worlds has left me a little bitter about the American position globally. As a life long Buddhist who has lived in SE Asia I see those who do practice the meat free diet and those who love their animals and raise them, honor them and yes kill them so they may survive. Finally as 4-H veteran who's dad was a vet - the vegan idea of not using animal products is cruel - ever seen sheep trying to remove the heavy winter wool coat on a hot Ohio spring day? To say they are cruel when they sheer the sheep is like saying putting a heat stroke victim in the shade with plenty of water is torture. Anyway the point I wanted to make is the 3rd World has no choice - so unless Capt Kirk stops by with a replicator the world NEEDS to eat meat - those are facts... Simple and Plain.

76. physicsprof - July 09, 2010 at 07:45 pm

There is no easy death in nature. An animal will die suffering whatever is the end: from hunger, broken leg, infection, predator's teeth, wildfire, etc. If my aim is solid it will suffer the least from my bullet. Besides, hunting is good for staying fit and for learning things about animals. They taste good too.

77. blossom_kat - July 09, 2010 at 08:04 pm

I would like to applaude the Chronicle of Higher Education for publishing this article. Meat production is a topic that needs a wider forum. I am a vegan and a

78. blossom_kat - July 09, 2010 at 09:31 pm

CONTINUED- PETA (not Pita or PeTA) supporter. I am a vegan because I want to reduce in my small way animal suffering. From dogs skined alive in China whose fur is used to trim coats or the battery caged hens who live their short miserable life in an area no larger the an 8x10 piece of paper. However, regardless of my personal views industrial factory farm meat production is not sustainable. It enables those of us in the US to consume meat at an artificially low price. So let's talk about the costs. Huge vats of manure produced by the concentration of hundreds of thousands of animals in small confined spaces contributes to the degradation of land and water. This concentration also contributes to the rise of drug resistant diseases because the animals are pumped with antibiotics. Most of the water used and food grown in the US is fed to factory farm animals. Jobs in the meat industry are dangerous and low paying, and is kept alive by the exploitation of undocumentated workers. Industrialized farming is destroying the family farm and rural America. Please see "A Carnivore Nation's Dilemma" published in the Pew Charitable Trust's Fall 2008 Magazine for a thorough discussion of the issue. Mr. Fromm's arguments have been around for a very long time and have been debunked for just as long. His rants are so much blah, blah, blah. He also mentions that vegans consider only large and beautiful animals worhty of concern. Tell that to the fans of Animal Planet's Meerkat Manor or to the fans of the website Cute Overload which featured in a recent post a video of a turtle shaking it's booty. Ok, Ok they have to be small and cute.

79. pete411 - July 09, 2010 at 09:53 pm

Veganism is absolutely not a quest for purity! That statement and others such as human breast milk being an issue and meat playing a role in human evolution -- clearly shows that the author has not done his research. Yes at times in history man has needed to eat animals to survive and we evolved eating some meat. This simply doesn't matter for the here and now when we can eat a perfectly healthy diet without it. It's like saying that in our evolution more dominent men sexually forced themselves upon others or mudering others -- this doesn't make it ok to do today. Some argue we even have a primal drive to enslave and use others (as history repeatidly shows) -- but might doesn't make right. Thankfully we can choose to instead foster our moral faculties.

cosmos1138, I'd love for you to read a book entitled "The Great Compassion" if you really take ahimsa seriously. It points out how you can not in fact honor an animal by snuffing out it's life. The very fact that we have bred sheep to exist in the summer in Ohio is the problem. Additionally modern sheep have been bred to have excess skin for more surface area for more wool. The wool industry is in fact very cruel. http://www.veganpeace.com/animal_cruelty/wool.htm

Yes today in 3rd world countries many do not have a choice today. Most vegans I know don't have a problem with a 3rd world country eating their dogs, goats or chickens for survival -- if we were trapped on an deserted island -- you bet if all I had to eat I'd eat for survial as well, heck I might even eat you if it came to it. If the world took ahimsa seriously we could aid in these countries moving toward a plant based diet. The reality is that here and now the billions of animals killed every year for food are going to feed people who can easily choose an alternative.

80. cosmos1138 - July 09, 2010 at 10:22 pm

To #79 I am not sure if I would taste good : P ... I agree that the goal should be to reduce the "industrialized cruelty" no way do we need 2 or 4 pound burgers - that is insane! Over here we eat a little meat on the side with mostly rice and other veggies. I was fortunate enough to have Paul Ehrlich as one of my profs in the the 80s and I remember him saying that even then the world could only provide a diet similar to the poorer central American countries - mostly beans and rice with a small amount of meat once a week. Americans (this time I'm not including myself) have become huge overweight mindless drones - and the only time they REALLY shout is if their reality TV, fast food and gas hog SUVs are taken away - this is of course an unrealistic stereotype - but from where I stand not to far off the mark - I support not eating meat for the most simple reason of all.. WATER! I have seen various estimates but the fact that a non meat eater in the US use 30-40 gallons of potable water while the flesh consumer reaches upward of 300 to 500 says it all. All that water, energy to pump, clean and transport - the future is not about oil folks...its about clean potable water - try a day without it and you will see what I mean. SO - to end all this nonsense about meat eaters and non meat eaters - sorry guys although I love my pork and chicken the future does not look good for our way of life - yea sucks don't it : \

81. cosmos1138 - July 09, 2010 at 10:23 pm

That water figure is per day by the way ...WOW so much for so little.

82. genevieve82 - July 09, 2010 at 11:17 pm

i dont know where to start.

i guess i'll just say, WTF?? i've been vegan for 7 years, my husband for 11, and we have plenty of friends who dont even know we're vegan because its not a big deal. my shoes are synthetic pleather, my fridge is full of vegan food, i order my coffee black because i like it like that. our doctor checkups are normal, and we certainly dont have any trouble finding food to eat. hell, even taco bell has vegan food! the medical community supports vegan diets for all stages of life even childhood and pregnancy, so whats with the vegan bashing?

did the writer of this article get dumped by a vegan? there were too many ridiculous topics brought up to address them all.

i support free speech, but i admit i feel a bit confused and i would be offended if the writer of this article had said these things to my face. i dont consider other animals more important than humans...

i'm vegan for religious reasons (as i am a buddhist), and i dont care what anybody else eats or doesn't eat. My choices are none of anybody else's business.

i think we should respect one another just as we should respect other religions, and not try to bash each other's personal choices.

83. cool_motivator - July 10, 2010 at 12:42 pm

As a professor of English, Mr. Fromm should have been more mindful not to reduce veganism and vegetarianism to an extreme (and false) binary. We know those don't work anymore (they never did). Mr Fromm is correct in stating that "the 'environment' is us"; however, the assumption that vegans are not aware of this interconnectedness is plainly wrong. The goal, to my mind, of both vegetarianism and veganism is to not only reduce unnecessary suffering (read: factory farming) but also to engage the environment and the other organisms around us in positive interaction--not negative action against what most perceive as outside of the 'human' sphere of existance. Vegans and vegetarians raise awareness of the interconectedness of life, not the reverse. Mr. Fromm's extreme portrayal of vegans as self-righteous purists is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

84. davidphillips - July 10, 2010 at 05:31 pm

I find the article both making good points and pathetic at the same time. The latter because Mr Fromm is taking an oft-heard defeated, helpless stance that "since we can't completely eliminate all negative impact on animals, pure veganism is hopeless so I'm gonna keep eating my steak and drinking my milk". How convenient for him - and everyone else who makes such an argument - I'm sure. It's silly to not do all you reasonably can towards some goal that you find desirable just because the ultimate state of achieving that goal is impossible, if any incremental progress towards that goal is still beneficial. He says he still eats some meat (and assumedly dairy and eggs) while in the same breath saying "Do as much as you can to minimize the damage". So either he's a hypocrite or just incompetent.
I'll touch on some other points...

"We care about the planet because we are made from its materials. That deludes some people into thinking they can be disinterestedly "biocentric," having the interests of the planet (and nonhuman animals) as much at heart as those of human beings."

Typical rhetoric. "So you care about the life of some dumb animal more than [or equal to] a human eh?!" Nope. Not many of us would say that. But why the hell is there no option for a middle ground? You know, caring about non-human life and the environment at least a *somewhat* more than we currently do? "Deludes"...*facepalm*. Get off your high horse, Fromm.

"But because the so-called environment is the same substance as ourselves, our concern for it is just a disguised case of looking out for No. 1. Biocentrism is little more than a type of self-congratulating anthropocentrism."

I *sincerely* hope he's just referring to the environment itself, and not the animals it contains. Because otherwise apparently he doesn't realize it's possible to care about something that doesn't impact you.

"Our survival came about through evolution"

Uh oh, here comes the evolutionary carnivory argument.

"...Refined as some of our moral sensibilities may now be, there's nothing we can do to outwit this fact: To be alive is to be a murderer. Or to be murdered."

Aaand there we go (more explicit reference to evolutionary carnivory later). Still though, a stupid statement. Humans don't need to kill to survive, nor do many other animals. Being a murderer or murdered is such a glaringly false dichotomy here.

85. davidphillips - July 10, 2010 at 05:32 pm

"Our own pet-loving tenderness for cats and dogs is not very different from the "anthropocentric" nurturing of animals in zoos that animal-rights activists revile as disrespectful of the rest of the creation"

If he doesn't understand the difference between a *domesticated* house pet and a caged zoo animal, he's got some thinking to do. In some cases he may be right, but he makes a very generalized blanket statement unbecoming of a "scholar", IMO. The rest of that paragraph goes on to talk about how we are all - at some level - selective of the organisms we value or protect, even going so far as to ask if one should forego antibiotics to spare some deadly bacteria infecting them. Of course, his intention is to try to demonstrate how ridiculous such things are, and then to argumentatively settle comfortably back to his own chosen lifestyle which apparently makes little effort beyond the average citizen to do anything particularly helpful for animal suffering or the environment. Whatever helps him sleep at night.

86. davidphillips - July 10, 2010 at 05:41 pm

Wow. I have a lot more to say but apparently the chronicle's site is extremely buggy or they severely restrict how much a person can write, because it keeps giving me a "page not found" message when I try to post more. Anyway, needless to say the rest of my critique basically follows what I have already written. This is a biased and fallacy-riddled attack on something that disagrees with Fromm's current lifestyle. I expect better from a "scholar".

87. aldebaran - July 10, 2010 at 10:15 pm

It's very enjoyable to see the degree to which Fromm's article has struck a nerve among vegans, and it is most amusing to read endless self-righteous paragraphs explaining why vegans are not self-righteous. Keep the laughs coming, folks. With luck, Fromm's next article will be about the science of paleolithic nutrition, and we can then be treated to the spectacle of all you folks REALLY getting red in the face.

88. marka - July 11, 2010 at 01:38 am

Hmmm ... I agree with those that find this a provocative article, well worth writing & publishing here. Article struck me as aimed at the 'moral' or 'ethical' arguments for veganism -- and for me, the arguments struck at the heart of many vegans' arguments for veganism. As others have noted, if the argument is for one's own health - great: but that is not a moral or ethical argument. From my perspective, there are any number of false premises vegan moral/ethical advocates make, and this article dissects a number of them.

I'm reminded that Adolf Hitler was a vegetarian, but that didn't keep him from fomenting large-scale violence: there is no causal link between veganism/vegetarianism & morals/ethics. And many animal hoarders, who profess they are hoarding for the good of the animals, actually end up harming those very animals because they can't keep them alive, on a vegan diet or otherwise. Just because one claims to do it for others doesn't mean that it actually benefits others; and just because there is a theory that it might do good for others doesn't mean that it actually does. A recent related example is the false premise that shifting to biofuels will save us from exhausting fossil fuels & thereby improve our environment. Many more recent studies suggest just the opposite -- producing, harvesting, processing, and delivering biofuels may actually consume more fuel, create more pollution, and decrease absorbtion of pollution, with forests cut down to create biofuel. So much for good intentions - the road to hell is paved with them.

A prominent false premise is that animals/humans are worthy of protection, but other life forms aren't. Where one draws the line between what life forms are worthy of consideration is ultimately arbitrary, even within the 'animal' kingdom. There is certainly enough research out there about the possibility that plants are sentient also -- how plants react to one another, and apparently communicate with one another (chemically or otherwise).

Even if there were some moral/ethical theory about the superiority of veganism, the question remains whether - in the real world - veganism actually leads to a more humane, less violent, world.

If India is the example pushed by many, the example cuts against veganism -- India has been one of the most violent places on earth, with millions killed in ongoing violence between & among the various peoples there.

Food for thought: if I have my history correctly, the rise of large-scale warfare coincides with the rise of agriculture. When we were hunter/gatherers, we couldn't sustain the large-scale division of labor that allows for large-scale armies. Only agriculture allowed us to do so. Or to turn it around, we can only have large-scale warfare with large-scale agriculture. We have large-scale agriculture in India (and other places), and we have large-scale violence as well. So much for veganism resulting in less suffering.

89. mts23816 - July 11, 2010 at 02:53 am

Poorly written, poorly argued, ironically guilty of the charges it hurls at others, this is the worst essay I have ever read on the subject. It's not even as good as the PETA joke by sneerers: People Eating Tasty Animals. In fact, its only redeeming quality is that Fromm can admire moral vegetarianism. Hey, we all draw the line of what we choose to eat. Almost all of us choose not to eat other humans. Most of us can tell the difference between a cow and a carrot (not some of the comment makers, however, it seems)and we can choose whether to eat the latter and not the former. I abstain from eating animals because (1) this abstention is an easy way for me to take a small action to make the world a better place, (2) it is my protest against a world, and its cruelly imagined god(s), who apparently delight in inflicting suffering. Just because suffering is inevitable doesn't mean that we have to enjoy it, and we can consciously reduce it. Shaw jokes and Singer says seriously that vegetarianism is morally correct even if it is nutritionally deficient. Ha ha, lucky for us, veganism has been proven to be healthier individually and healthier for the planet as well as morally correct! Win - win for the good guys. And all you slave-owners can whine on and on about how your slaves are happy and don't have feelings like you do and don't have souls like you do and that you were commanded by God to mistreat them. And you can continue to mock those of us who hurt your precious feelings by saying that you are wrong. And boo-hoo accompanied by tiny air violins to you and to all bullies who start to cry and stamp their feet when they are called on their cruelty.

90. rbudd12 - July 11, 2010 at 10:55 am

Modern veganism is very similar to ancient Jainism in its sense of hopeless, but morally impressive, quest for purity. Extreme Jains would go around naked, so as not to catch insects in clothing and accidentally kill them. It's interesting to see that this sort of trend has only just arrived in the modern West, but has existed in the East for thousands of years.

91. einpa - July 18, 2010 at 10:35 am

I'd love to meet the vegan that pissed on Harold Fromm's parade and inspired this piece. I'd also love to meet Fromm! Based on his claim to know what lurks in the psyche of all vegans he must have extra sensory perception.

92. jumbotron16 - July 18, 2010 at 04:30 pm

Great article! And to all the vegans out there, may I respectfully suggest you read up on the potential long-term damage to your health caused by a strict vegan diet? If all you are reading is vegan websites, you are NOT well-informed. And after you have done some more reading, please consider owning a few hens, or finding a source of humane eggs, and adding eggs to your diet. No animals will be harmed (if that's your motivation for being a vegan) and your body will thank you. You may feel fine now (or not) but in the long run you are doing irreparable harm to your body.

93. organicivy - July 19, 2010 at 03:48 pm

Jumbotron16 - What evidence do you have for this view that health damage is caused by a vegan diet?

94. jumbotron16 - July 20, 2010 at 12:50 am

Ivy, I'm an avid reader on the subject of diet, and from what I gather, vegans who don't "cheat" at least a little bit are very likely to have health problems at some point. Here is a link to one article I read. I'm not vouching for the person who wrote this, but he doesn't seem to have any kind of anti-vegan agenda that I can see...take it with a grain of salt but there is plenty of other similar information out there.


Also he wants to hear from people who have been on a STRICT vegan diet for five years or more with no health problems...

95. einpa - July 21, 2010 at 11:52 pm

jumbo16 How does define "no health problems"? What citizen of the world, veg or omnivore has zero health problems over the course of five years?

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