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.
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):
- Moral Vegetarians
- Political Vegetarians
- Nutritional Vegetarians
- 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.