The Moral Vegetarians

I’m pretty sure it was Roger Ebert, somewhere along the line, who taught me the principle that underlies this paraphrased statement:

Judge a film by what its makers intend to deliver, not by what you think it should deliver.

And so we’re back again with Lierre Keith and The Vegetarian Myth. My previous mentions & reviews have been here and here and here.

This time I wish to stay on particular point and just write about her chapter on “moral vegetarians.” The book is essentially four parts beyond the first chapter, where she explains her reasons for embarking on her punishment (if you’ve checked out some of the vegan boards, as I have):

  1. Moral Vegetarians
  2. Political Vegetarians
  3. Nutritional Vegetarians
  4. Manifesto (that’s not a derogatory usage of the word, per se)

Here’s why I mentioned Ebert: I don’t agree with Lierre’s moral code. I’ll get to that, but that’s a difference in philosophy and it doesn’t mean she didn’t make a consistent argument according to her premises — she absolutely does, and a devastating one. In the meantime, this chapter is really the essential meat of the book, as it should be. We are moral beings and morality informs our politics and our actions, including our nutritional choices and our idealism.

Lierre Keith certainly accomplishes what I believe she sets out to do: use the vegetarian moral code against vegetarians by exposing their ignorance. In page after page she describes beautifully the whole cycle of life, from microbe to human being, and how everything that lives has to eat, someone or thing has to die, and that everyone is just taking their turn. Even us. Eventually, we’re food for worms, bacteria and other crawlies. “We all take turns at the table,” says Keith.

And in taking our turn at the table — responsibly, respectfully, sustainably — far from inflicting harm to anything, we are actually playing a crucial role in this whole cycle that is life on the planet.

And here’s where I learned the most from this book: agriculture, in terms of raw destructive power, is the cat’s meow. Global warming? Ozone depletion? Pollution? Whatever you may think of those and other issues, Keith has news for you: they pale in comparison. She convincingly demonstrates that the practice of stripping land (she calls it “biotic cleansing”) to grow annual monocrops is far more destructive and devastating to ecosystems and, above all, topsoil — alive with trillions of microbes in a mere cubic yard.

And here’s a good thought for you environmental skeptics out there. Many systems, in particular climate, may be far too complex to be sure of what man’s contribution is, if any. On the other hand, there’s no doubt about what agriculture does to ecosystems. Moreover, so much of it now is devoted to the growing of corn, such that HFCS is in virtually everything. And it’s being fed to cows, an animal that is designed to eat cellulose. Paraphrasing Keith: Cows eat grass, bacteria eat the cellulose — multiplying into the trillions — and the cows eat the bacteria. Corn makes cows sick and it’s inhumane to feed it to them.

The trickle down havoc wreaked by agriculture is a pretty easy case to make (once you have information) and Keith makes it very well.

In the end, the “moral” vegetarian has nowhere to go. If indeed their moral code is not anthropocentric, as is mine, Keith has nailed them to the wall. If, indeed, all life is more or less morally equivalent in their eyes, then in seeking to do no harm by promoting agriculture, they have instead unleashed the most destructive harm imaginable, in far greater magnitude. But it doesn’t end there. There’s an economic and political side, too. By promoting big-agra, they have made it very difficult for ecosystem preserving, topsoil building, humane and sustainable local polyculture operations to exist.

So then, what if your moral code is anthropocentric, i.e., one that essentially regards humans (whether by design or evolution) as being qualitatively different in an essential way from the rest of the animals, such that we possess a certain natural dominion? Does that make Keith’s arguments invalid? I don’t think so.

Keith does try to convince the reader that animals are as morally important as we are with a number of examples of animal and even plant “behavior” that certainly looks like human behavior, including self-sacrifice for offspring, a herd, or even a grove of trees.

But I had this nagging essential question: could any of these animal or plant entities unilaterally, willfully opt out of behaving in accordance with their designed or evolved natures? See, humans can choose to live by their natures; they can choose to strive to live above their natures; they can sink far, far below their natures; they can blow their own brains out.

Humans, unlike other animals, have to willfully determine what values are necessary for survival and prosperity, and then they have to decide whether or not they are going to pursue them. They have a choice by nature. Other animals seem to simply “know” what values they require and automatically set about to acquire them. If their environment is sufficient, they thrive, and if not, they perish. They have no willful choice in the matter.

And since a prerequisite for morality is to have a choice in matters, I have to conclude that morality applies only to human beings, and that we are naturally moral beings, since it is our very nature that demands we chose. Moreover, that choice, by nature, implies the right to choose, by nature, and so I cannot accept the notion that animals have natural rights in the sense humans do.

Alas, though very important to me from an ethical and political standpoint, I am actually quite open to dealing with folks who by virtue of the values they have chosen to live by, wish to hold themselves to what they see as a higher standard. Accordingly, though I do not ascribe morality and rights to animals, I have never been cruel to one in my life, and never would. And anyone who does is my enemy.

In the end, Keith and I don’t share the same moral code, but we hold many of the same crucial values. Thanks to her book, I now have a couple of particularly important additional values to hold dear and promote than I had before.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More


  1. Name on September 21, 2009 at 18:57

    <nitpick>pail -> pale</nitpick>

  2. Aaron Blaisdell on September 21, 2009 at 19:26

    Very interesting post. I tend to disagree about how 'willful' our choice decisions actually are. I suspect many (all?) of the choices we make are the product of our choice architecture (nod to Epistemocrat, and I suspect some thanks to Dave Lull are in order) and past history. Example: I see the same sugar and frankenfat-filled vending machines on the UCLA campus as do the rest of the faculty, staff, and student body. I now refuse to buy from them because of the primal blueprint framework I've now adopted, but these machines are being used day-in, day-out. The mere fact of their existence in close proximity of a hungry community many members who have learned to forage for their contents leads to the frequent use of these machines. If we changed the choice architecture (removed the machines) choice behavior will change. And people will probably construct rationalizations for why they don't eat as many snickers or potato chips as do their friends at other campuses. My point is that I think the “free will” we purportedly use to explain our choices is more often than not a post-hoc rationalization of our behavior rather than a contributing cause of it (though the two become intertwined very quickly).

    • Richard Nikoley on September 22, 2009 at 09:08

      Well I've been saying for years now that I'm a materialist, save that I believe in free will.

      I think such belief is justified by the wide and increasing realm of human values. That is, values resolve or transcend the is/ought problem.

      And as far as free will goes, it suffices that we believe we have it. I don't think it's an important distinction whether we have actual free will, or software so complex as to simulate it.

      Too many human values (things people seek to gain / keep) to account for.

      • Aaron Blaisdell on September 22, 2009 at 09:42

        Oh, I completely agree. Free will is an extremely useful illusion, perhaps even critical to our moral agency.

  3. alfredcentauri on September 22, 2009 at 09:22

    “Moreover, that choice, by nature, implies the right to choose, by nature, and so I cannot accept the notion that animals have natural rights in the sense humans do.”

    You've nailed it, Richard. Here's the way I put it recently during a rather long e-mail debate on animal rights:

    “AFAIK, no other animals on this planet have the capacity to choose to live by reasoned principles.

    That is what sets humans apart and, AFAIK, there is no continuum. While some other animals may have a rudimentary capacity to reason, the human capacity to do so is so much greater that, by comparison, others are essentially zero.

    The day that a dolphin or a whale or chimp *chooses* to live by reason rather than instinct is the day that they get rights.”

    • Aaron Blaisdell on September 22, 2009 at 09:44

      Alfred, well put! I'll have to use this the next time I'm confronted by an animal rightsist-which in my line of work is quite often.

  4. PG1 on September 22, 2009 at 10:23

    Yeah right! Lack of capacity to choose by reasoned principles automatically leads to conclusion that they do NOT have any rights is one damn morally bankrupted reason by the “all reasoning” human being. Such an extremely useful illusion indeed!

    We do acknowledge rights in humans that lack a capacity of reasoning as inherent you know.
    I personally prefer to acknowledge the right of animals as a given.

    • Richard Nikoley on September 22, 2009 at 11:42


      Keep in mind that just because animals don't have natural rights doesn't mean that humans cannot value them as though they do, to some extent.

      I place high value on humane treatment of animals, enough so that I would consider anyone who treats them maliciously to be so in conflict with my values as to be tantamount to a moral enemy, even though I can't logically classify inhumane treatment of animals as a moral or rights violating issue.

      People put a lot of emphasis on morality and rights, but I think the world of values that do not necessarily equate to moral issues is a largely overlooked issue.

    • Alfred Centauri on September 22, 2009 at 12:56

      “I personally prefer to acknowledge the right of animals as a given.”

      PG1, here's a question for you: consider two identical worlds populated with the animals of today but without any humans. In one of these worlds, animals have rights. In the other world, they don't. What impact, if any, does this difference have on the animals in either world?

      • Richard Nikoley on September 22, 2009 at 13:44

        Good question which could also apply to the non-productive or dependent classes of society who are said to have rights to certain things like jobs, health care, welfare, and so on.

        Imagine two world populated by net consumers, no producers. In one world, everyone has a right to these things, in the other, they don't.

        What's the difference, without producers to take from to fulfill these “rights?”

  5. Thomas Stone on September 22, 2009 at 22:54

    Thought I'd add a tidbit that I've always found helpful when considering the ability to reason as an essential difference between the human species and all other animal species… I think this was from some lectures that Leonard Peikoff gave years ago, though it could have been another Objectivist. It was really just a short remark in a lecture, but one I thought both funny and insightful, so I'll expand a bit here:

    Dogs love bones: they chew on them, bury them, etc. However, no dog has ever or will ever develop a science of “bone-ology” to further investigate bones, the concept of bone-ness, or otherwise reflect on just why they love bones so much. Nor has or will any dog ever open a bone store to buy and sell bones with other dogs or any other animals.

  6. Sat, Oct 24th – CrossFit Ireland - Great People. Great Fitness. on October 23, 2009 at 16:05

    […] Moral Vegetarians – Free the Animal […]

  7. Brendan on October 27, 2009 at 21:33

    I’m sort of confused about this review. Does the book claim that being vegetarian is destructive because of land used to grow food rather than animals? I assume someone who wrote an entire book on the subject would know that animals have to be fed something, and in fact a large portion of our corn is grown specifically to feed to animals, so a vegetarian diet still has less of an impact.

    And I don’t really see how the whole circle-of-life part applies either. The way the world is doesn’t imply anything about how the world should be. In other words, the fact that everything eats everything else hardly means that we should.

    One more thing: Does anyone really consider all forms of life to be morally equal? I consider humans to be more important than anything else because we can “prove” that it matters to us, but I don’t see why animals should be completely discounted, especially when not eating them is beneficial to us as well.

  8. Richard Nikoley on October 28, 2009 at 11:50

    I’m sort of confused about this review. Does the book claim that being vegetarian is destructive because of land used to grow food rather than animals?

    It’s more detailed than that. What the book claims (I’m highly summarizing) is that clearing land for annual monocrops is highly destructive (she calls it “biotic cleansing”). It kills the soil, depletes the soil, salinizes the soil and many other things. Conversely, ruminants that graze on perennial grasses builds and fortifies topsoil, not only through manure, but by means of their flesh & blood when they die.

    In short, she shows what every conservationist ought to already know: if degradation of natural ecosystems is of concern, then the worst thing you can do is clear and farm the land. Grazing animals naturally — even for ultimate culling of meat — is far more friendly to these biosystems, and it’s highly sustainable, as she shows.

    Here’s a subsequent review you might find of interest, if you didn’t see it already.

  9. Vegan Trolls | Free The Animal on November 7, 2009 at 14:32

    […] The Moral Vegetarians […]

  10. Amaroq on November 10, 2009 at 21:46

    I think there’s one moral point that isn’t being made against vegans yet. That it’s good to eat animals because we need them to survive. And living is a good thing. Though that requires arguing with them over whether veganism is healthy for you or not.

    Just point out vitamin B12 to them. It can only be gotten naturally from animals. If you don’t get any B12, you experience psychosis, brain damage, and eventually death. We can synthesize B12 artificially, but it’s a bit different and isn’t as good as the real B12. If our body were meant to be vegan, being vegan wouldn’t be deadly to us.

    Insert whatever other pro-meat-eater arguments you may have. Especially that one about the paleo diet allowing your teeth to actually heal themselves of cavities. That’s pretty awesome right there.

    It’s a fact that meat is good for us. So the big moral question now is this: Who’s more important, us or the animals? To a human, a human being should come before an animal. This assumes animals you’ve never met and humans you’ve never met. You could put your pet dog above a bum on the street I suppose. You love the dog, you don’t the bum.

    The vegans basically want us to sacrifice ourselves to the animals. Whether they know it or not, that’s what they’re asking us to do. It comes down to a choice: us or them. Do we have a right to live or don’t we?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m an animal lover. But we gotta eat ’em to live. That’s all there is to it.

  11. Erica Stillwell on December 31, 2009 at 11:39

    Amaroq —

    This may be a little late in the game, but B12 actually comes from bacteria in the soil. Animals can’t produce it on their own. So, as grazing animals tend to get soil with their produce, they synthesize the B12 into their systems. Since humans are a lot more inclined to wash our veggies before eating (not to mention the various forms of pesticides and herbicides we put on food crops that kill off the bacteria), we don’t get it directly.

    So, basically, when people eat meat they are “supplementing” their B12 much as people who take it in vitamin form do (and to break it down even further, so are the animals that eat the bacteria).

    And yes, I’ve been a(n extremely healthy) vegetarian for 19 years.


  12. Natasha Chart on January 4, 2010 at 23:00

    Being allergic to gluten and soy, a remotely healthy vegetarianism isn’t really an option for me, let alone veganism. I’ve read Keith’s book, studied biology and agroecology at the undergrad level, and what she says makes every bit of sense. What frustrates me is that I run into the argument that it’s better for the planet all the time in environmental circles, and climate disruption is a very important issue to me. I worry that my allies are working against their interests, though it is fair, I think, to say that when all the meat you can get is factory farmed and grain fed, that it does badly impact the planet.

    Though I gather from your writings, Mr. Nikoley, that you think climate change is just another fundamentalist faith. Having been raised in a fairly extreme sect of fundamentalist Christianity, I understand the repugnance, it needs no excuse. I also imagine you get a lot of weird pushback from radical vegans, and I’ve gotten my share of that as well while writing about sustainable agriculture issues from a liberal perspective. But I’d like to suggest that climate change is an issue unlike either fundamentalist Christianity or radical vegan theology.

    While ecological systems are complex, there are things about them we can understand. One is that the blunt force trauma of increasing CO2 concentrations as much as we have, by digging up previously sequestered CO2 and burning a damn lot of it, has certain large-scale effects. One is the acidification of the oceans, which is contributing to the destruction of reef coral skeletons all over the world. One is the alteration in the amount of heat trapped from sunlight, an effect that’s been known for nearly 200 years.

    Humans have displaced or disturbed almost every ecosystem on the planet. Our impact is truly massive. Agriculture is certainly part of that, and a very large part, if not the original frame for what we’re doing in other aspects of civilization – burning complex things to make simpler things that hold less carbon in solid form.

    We’re destroying ecosystems, as Keith says, by simplifying them to the point where instead of sequestering carbon, they’re bleeding it out all over the place. There are ways we could manage land and ecosystems so that they fed us and well, so that they proliferated life and maintained a higher equilibrium ratio of solid:gaseous carbon. And I don’t believe that we either can or should do it without including animals in those ecosystems, but I’m frustrated in that while the industrial agricultural system wants them excluded for safety reasons that have largely to do with the poisonous diet of corn fed to cows*, environmentalists often want them excluded for reasons that hearken to the exact myths Keith shatters. No one pays attention to biology on either side.

    Just, it’s for that reason that we can affect the climate. The atmosphere is a byproduct of the sum of all living beings breathing and eating and dying, with a roughly even split of photosynthesis between land and sea. We’ve not only dug up and burned the buried products of past photosynthesis, but heavily altered natural patterns of photosynthesis and decreased the numbers of mouths photosynthetically fixed carbon goes through before being offgassed again.

    Anyway, I’d urge you if you haven’t to read 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann, and also Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, by William Cronon. Both books discuss the ways pre-industrial societies in some parts of the Americas had learned ways to manage the land and feed themselves without destroying the ability of their habitat to keep them healthy in the long term. Some of those ways indicated paths towards carbon neutrality, or even carbon negative sequestration.

    I think it’s a shame that humans finally figured out how to make our lives easy and it’s destroying us and our habitat. You see that in food, where the easy Twinkie and soda aren’t obviously destructive before you take their full accounting. But I believe that if we focused on the services that we wanted (healthy food, good jobs, abundant energy, insulation from inclement weather, good transportation) instead of the ways those services are delivered in our current economy, that we’re smart enough to come up with other ways to achieve our goals.

    In sum, I don’t want to give up meat, coffee or computers, and I believe that the suggestion we have to is either a false choice or a strawman. I don’t believe in an environmentalism that’s about the imposition of suffering, but about taking our best ideas from whatever era of human history and using them to live sustainably, humanely, healthfully, and above all, comfortably. I’m not a hairshirter, but I am well convinced that we’re in trouble climate-wise. The people I met at the Copenhagen climate conference were well convinced of it, and people dependent on the land in Africa and Asia are living it (and they’ll tell you all about it if you get a chance to ask.)

    So I’d ask you, please, to reconsider this issue.

    * As you may know, cow guts are supposed to have a nearly neutral pH on their natural, grass diets. Human guts have a highly acidic pH, so under normal conditions, the E. coli from cow guts should be virtually unable to survive in our stomach acids. When cows are fed corn, their stomachs turn acidic and their E. coli are more likely to survive our guts and make us sick. When cows stand in nasty paddocks full of each other’s waste, they all get each other’s germs. This is an insanely dangerous way to raise cows.

    • Richard Nikoley on January 5, 2010 at 15:01

      Yep, I know about the E. coli issue (Food Inc explains that well).

      Well, Lierr’s book certainly did convince me that factory farming is massively destructive and where I’m convinced then by all means.

      Climate, not so much and it is something I’ve followed rather closely for a long time. Here’s a skeptic’s website that is very measured and fair. He’s a former exec, Princeton & Harvard educated and knows his science.

      That said, I certainly agree that we oughtn’t be wasteful, unnecessarily destructive and should move in the direction of sustainability in all things.

      I appreciate your comment. It’s well written, well reasoned and reasonable.

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