Friday, January 15, 2010

an open letter to natalie angier

(note: Natalie Angier is the author of “Sorry, Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too”, which recently appeared in the NYT)

Dear Ms. Angier,
As a lover of nature, I enjoyed your article. The natural world always seems to be far more complex – and far more beautiful – than we can ever really know. But as a longtime vegan, I had a lot of problems with it. For one thing, you present this information as worthy of ethical consideration without ever really stating why, or what this – if it’s so important – means in practical terms for ethical eating. I’m not being facetious. Obviously, I understand that you’re saying that plants are more sentient than we assume, and that this implies that they are worthy of our ethical consideration, since the sentience of the beings we eat is a major factor in ethical eating, for some, the biggest factor. But judging by the title and your hurry to not “cede the entire moral penthouse” to vegetarians and vegans, your article – at least in its practical impacts on ethics – is directed towards vegans only. Are ethics all or nothing? Should we either eat in a way that harms no one and no thing or not try at all? No, and this is not the view your article itself presents. Food choices are indeed complex, and there is no way to be a perfect eater.

Even in a world where plants were as sentient as animals, a plant-based diet would still be the most ethical. Animals don’t grow themselves. They eat plants, too. According to a Cornell University study (, every year, 41 million tons of plant protein are fed to livestock, resulting in only 7 million tons of animal protein for human consumption. The commonly accepted ratio is that it takes sixteen pounds of plants to create one pound of meat. If humans just ate plants directly in a vegan diet, far fewer sentient beings – no animals, and drastically fewer plants (bearing in mind that this is a hypothetical world where plants are entirely sentient) – would be killed overall. As you say, “It’s a small daily tragedy that we animals must kill to stay alive.” We both agree that while it would be ethically ideal to self-sustain, this simply isn’t possible. However, this is no excuse to throw in the towel entirely. Just because we have to eat does not mean we can’t eat ethically, and just because it’s not possible to do absolutely no harm to any other being does not mean we aren’t obligated to minimize that harm as much as is possible and practical.

And as much as these discoveries in plant sentience are new, fascinating, and meaningful, I don’t think – nor does your article explicitly clarify why – it has much of an impact on the ethics of eating. Plants may be more sentient than we had thought, but this does not erase fundamental distinctions between plants and animals. It’s obvious that eating a pig and eating a head of lettuce are not the same thing. Even if the lettuce is aware of its surroundings and responds to stimuli and wants to continue being alive, I still think we have a moral duty to eat it before the pig.

When you stick a hot poker in the head of lettuce it might change color or smell funny. When you stick a hot poker in a pig - or a human like you or me - she may also change color and smell, but she also screams, she hurts, she tries to get away. Animals - pigs, humans, cats, whatever - all have central nervous systems and feel pain in the same way. As an animal myself, I can understand what a pig or chicken or cow feels when she's hurt, and if someone tried to kill me, I'd understand that too. I wouldn't want anyone to kill and eat me (or get me pregnant and take my baby and milk away), so I'm not going to do that to anyone else, human or non. Even if a plant knows something is trying to eat or hurt it, I can't understand it, because I'm not a plant. This harkens back to what you write towards the beginning about pigs and their smiles. There’s no getting around that it’s disconcerting thinking of similarities like that between animals and us. That’s why we try not to think of the similarities, so that we will be able to eat them without feeling bad about it. A pig has the cognitive level of a three-year-old human ( What do you or I have in common with a plant (on a real, physiological level) that makes it worthy of our ethical consideration? If there is much, why does this trump the ethical concerns behind eating animals, with whom we do have much in common, especially considering that eating animals is, in a way, just eating even more plants?

Your article is and would be fascinating in itself, without the question of ethics. But the article’s ethical frame operates on a “gotcha!” – surprise, vegans, you actually are doing harm to living beings, too bad for you snobs – that simply isn’t true. As much as people like to assume all vegans are arrogant, holier-than-thou assholes, every vegan I know is fully aware that veganism isn’t perfect. I’m a vegan, and I know that mice and insects die when the plants I eat are harvested. I know that the medications I take were tested on animals. This doesn’t mean I’m not a vegan, nor that I’m not doing my best to live a life I think is ethical. There’s no need to say “Sorry” to me or any other vegan on this point, any more than there is need to assume that questions of ethics need only be addressed to us.


  1. Excellent post, Claire! I feel in addition that just because someone (human or non) is different from us, doesn't mean they aren't worthy of my ethical consideration. I've stopped being surprised, though, that so many fail to grasp the simple logic and math of how many plants die to create a much smaller amount of animal food - and it's not like the animal food is superior (it's often the other way around). Not everyone will be open to hearing what you have to say, but it has to be said anyways.

  2. OK with more reflection, I understand that most people are more sympathetic when they can have empathy. So it makes an impact how you showed that not only do other animals have nerve cells, but that it's a thing we have *in common* and so should be able to understand something of what they feel. Thanks for the article. Send it to the NYT!

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Lilah! I would much rather immediately assume that all beings are worthy of at least some amount of my ethical consideration (why on earth not?) but I think the similarity is a big factor for arguing ethical obligation. And I agree - a lot of people just don't stop to think that (non-human) animals have to eat something, too, and that that often means plants. That doesn't surprise me, what does is when people think that animals don't feel pain or that they somehow feel it in a different way than we do. I mean, come on, did you not take bio or anatomy or any science like that in high school? There's not the animal kingdom and the human kingdom. Just because we have differences doesn't mean we don't also have a lot in common. Imagine if people believed that animals don't see or smell - it's the same thing!