Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Loss of a Pet, Animal Rights, and Vegetarianism

Posted by Sherry Colb

Some time today, at this site, you will find my column for the week.  It describes and assesses the importance of a Vermont Supreme Court case in which the plaintiffs are asking for loss-of-companionship emotional-distress damages from a defendant who shot their dog to death.  I consider the claims of some within the animal protection movement that a victory for the plaintiffs would be a "gateway" victory for the status of animals.

In this post, I want to explore the meaning of a different sort of "gateway" that many proponents of animal welfare embrace:  vegetarianism.  Some people who oppose the slaughter and torture of animals within the food and clothing industries decide that instead of (or perhaps preliminary to) going vegan, they will go "lacto-ovo vegetarian" (which means a person who consumes plant-based food plus dairy and egg products).  As a matter of numbers, there are many more lacto-ovo vegetarians than there are vegans, and most vegans (including yours truly) were once lacto-ovo vegetarians.  My question here is why?

One answer is that people view vegetarianism as a compromise.  In his new book, Eating Animals, for example, Jonathan Saffran Foer provides compelling accounts of individual and statistical realities that make a strong case for veganism.  Yet he became a vegetarian rather than a vegan (despite saying on Ellen that if you truly care about animal cruelty, the first product you will give up consuming is eggs).  When asked why he is not a vegan on a vegan blog, he responded that he is transitioning to veganism.  Since he is not ready, for whatever reason, to give up all animal products, he will give up flesh for now and maybe give up dairy and eggs later.

Another answer I have heard is that what people most oppose is the killing of animals for food and clothing rather than the exploitation of animals.  Therefore, since flesh necessarily comes from an animal's death, it seems logical to give up eating animal flesh as a first step.

The problem with both of these answers is that the distinction between flesh, dairy, and eggs is illusory and false.  To produce milk requires a mammal to become pregnant.  In the dairy industry, cows are inseminated regularly on a "rape rack" (an industry term, not mine), after which they become pregnant and give birth to baby calves.  Half of the time, the calf is male, and male "dairy calves" are killed for veal (because raising them to "adulthood" is not economically worthwhile, given that their flesh is inferior to that of "beef" cows).  Once "dairy" cows are "spent," moreover, they are slaughtered and turned into hamburger meat.

Analogous to the dairy industry, the egg industry breeds "food" chickens and "egg-layer" chickens.  The latter, when male, are not worth the trip to the slaughterhouse to the farmer, so they are killed on the day they're hatched.  Male chicks typically die of suffocation after being discarded in plastic waste-bags or buried alive, or they die of mutilation after being thrown fully conscious into a wood-chipper.  The egg-laying hens often meet the same fate once they are "spent."

In other words, if one cares only about not funding slaughter, then the decision not to eat flesh but to continue eating dairy and eggs is morally no more sensible than a decision to eat only short cows but not tall cows.  If one were to write a book eloquently describing the horrific treatment and slaughter of animals, it would be laughable, of course, for the book to end with a statement that the author just could not contribute to all of that death and suffering anymore and would from now on consume only the flesh of short cows.  A compromise ordinarily must be at least coherent if it is to represent a meaningful step in a positive direction.

What if someone really wants to do something about animal suffering but feels unready to go vegan right away?  Is there really no compromise that is better than nothing?  Well, I did not say that.  I said that ovo-lacto vegetarianism is no better than nothing, because it causes as much death and possibly even more suffering than omnivorism, if one is consuming the same quantity of animal products but merely switching from including flesh to increasing dairy and eggs, as many lacto-ovo vegetarians do.

What is better than nothing?  Taking actual steps toward veganism by consuming fewer and fewer animal products over time.  If you ordinarily eat eggs and sausage for breakfast, eat something else -- vegan pancakes or vegan French toast or oatmeal or tofu scramble -- for breakfast.  With that meal, you have reduced what might be called your "torture and slaughter" footprint.  With a switch from eggs and sausage to eggs and cheese, by contrast, you have done nothing whatsoever for animals.

Gateways can be useful.  Reading a book about animal rights (like Gary Francione's Introduction to Animal Rights:  Your Child or the Dog?) can open one's eyes to the "moral schizophrenia" that afflicts human beings who defend the consumption of animal products while claiming to oppose unnecessary animal cruelty and killing.  Going vegan for a meal or two a day can represent positive steps on the road to going vegan.

But some gateways lead nowhere.  They are the moral equivalent of getting lost and getting comfortable in the place where one is lost.  Ovo-lacto vegetarianism is, unfortunately, a place where many people get lost.  And the proliferation of "vegetarian" products that contain milk protein and eggs is a testament to how very many people who sincerely want to "do something" for animals have gotten lost in just this way.

Is my own experience a counter-example?  After all, I was an ovo-lacto vegetarian, and now I am a vegan.  I don't think so.  I was also an omnivore for many years, but I do not view that as a "gateway" to veganism.  I view my vegetarian period as a distraction, during which I could pretend -- like so many ovo-lacto vegetarians do -- that I was doing my part.  I similarly do not experience my having been a lacto-ovo vegetarian as in any way facilitating my switch to veganism.  When I stopped eating flesh, I started eating a lot more dairy, including especially pizza.  I remained in that "lost" state for years before I finally stopped, and I found that within days of switching, I could not imagine what kept me a lacto-ovo vegetarian for so long.

Though it may sound counter-intuitive, I find that being a vegan is easier than being a lacto-ovo vegetarian was -- I do not experience "cravings" for animal products, as I in fact did experience as a lacto-ovo vegetarian (perhaps because consuming animal protein just makes you crave more animal protein).  And yes, I get plenty of protein (probably much more than I need).  It just doesn't come from a processing plant where people torture and stab sentient and screaming beings to death, one by one, day after day, to satisfy consumer demand.


Danny said...

FYI, the blurb for your FindLaw column refers to you as "FindLaw columnist and Rutgers law professor Sherry Colb."

I recently transitioned from vegetarian to vegan. Although I agree with you that the eating animals/using animals distinction is illogical, the distinction can be helpful for people who want to reduce the social fallout of ethical eating.

Because strict vegans are much more limited in the foods they will eat and the restaurants they will eat at, an immediate transition to veganism can be personally uncomfortable and produce a backlash from within one's social circle.

For example, for years I was the only vegetarian in my family. In the beginning, I usually cooked a few separate dishes for myself at family meals. Once we sat down, my family often put me on the defensive about not just being able to eat like everyone else. I don't know if I would have been strong enough to make that initial transition if I couldn't have had the kugel or the challah or the vegetarian matzo ball soup or so many other vegetarian things on a Friday night. But I fought small battles until I was a little more comfortable being different in that way, and until my family was a little more comfortable with me eating differently. Then, a few years down the road (and with the help a little prodding from others) I took the next (more morally justifiable) step...

Crystal said...

For me going vegetarian was really a step toward veganism. I didn't increase my dairy consumption by much and I rarely ate eggs. It took time to really understand and feel that eggs and dairy were as wrong as meat.

Paul Scott said...

I think many people who are now vegan were, at one point laco-ovo-vegetarians. Many, myself included, were laco-ovo-pisci-vegetarians. And before that, most were omnivores.

The chain of dietary choices is not uncommon. The moral value derived choice to move from one to the next, and ending a vegan, is not uncommon.

But correlation and causation are not the same. I know I went from omnivore->laco-ovo-pisci-vegetarian->laco-ovo-vegetarian->vegan and I know that at each transition I did so because I decided that my current diet was immoral. But the only difference to me between the above transition and the right choice - omnivore->vegan - was one of education and personal commitment.

The other steps cannot be viewed as important and necessary "transition states" though I think they are fairly viewed as correlated with the ultimate goal of veganism.

One need only confront the laco-ovo-vegetarian (as I was, in fact, once confronted by Gary Francione - and I wish he had pushed harder, I might have changed sooner) and listen to the responses. They are not dissimilar to the defensive responses of omnivores.

From my view, it is generally not worth the time to confront an omnivore about his or her food choices (for reasons apart from entertainment in the same way as you might confront a Christain about his or her beliefs). Confronting a laco-ovo-pisci-vegetarian, however, may prove productive. It is likely that if the person in question made this choice because of the immorality of torturing and killing animals for the personal pleasure involved in eating them, that this person is more likely to be receptive to arguments encouraging veganism. In this sense only, do I think of a laco-ovo-pisci-vegetarian and a laco-ovo-vegetarian as being "in transition." Inertia is a significant force and absent confrontation (from internal or external sources) these people are likely to remain in the state they are, rather than slowly transition.

Like Sherry said, though there may be some exceptions, the conversion from omnivore->laco-ovo-pisci-vegetarian or laco-ovo-vegetarian is also unlikely to be doing any good for animal welfare.

I think the other thing that belies these states as being transitions is the quantum nature of our dietary choices. Because these choices are being made for moral reasons, it is unlikely someone would decide "eating meat is morally wrong, therefor I will reduce the amount of meat I eat, until I can eventually taper it off to nothing."

That would be like deciding "I think killing is wrong, so this week I will only kill 4 people, and my goal will be to not be killing at all in 3 months." That is just not the sort of thing that happens with moral choices. They are very much an all or nothing sort of thing.

So a laco-ovo-pisci-vegetarian who has given up meat for moral reasons but continues to eat fish, eggs and dairy, is not a person who understands the moral consequences of eating fish, eggs and dairy but is none-the-less consuming them while pursuing a path to become vegan. They are a person who has decided that eating meet is immoral but that consuming fish, eggs and dairy are not. This is not a transition state in any reasonable sense of the word. Additional decisions will have to be made such that this person now believes that eating fish, eggs and dairy are also immoral. If those decisions are not made, then this person will remain in their current, non-vegan, state. Such a mechanism is not that of a transition.

Jean Kazez said...

I think you're not understanding the sense in which vegetarianism is a compromise. It's a compromise in exactly the way that giving 10% of your income to Amnesty International is a compromise between giving 50% and giving none. It's not like anyone thinks the compromise donation is all that's needed.

Likewise, vegetarians don't necessarily have any benighted ideas about how eating meat is bad, and eating eggs and dairy are fine. They are simply choosing to make a smaller sacrifice.

If vegetarians really were replacing meat with eggs and dairy, that would still mean a net decrease in animals harmed. Those products have much lower costs in animal death and suffering. For example, if you replace chicken in your diet with eggs for a year, you will wind up doing far less harm to animals. Over the course of a year, one chicken (plus a killed male) will provide you with one egg per day, while it will take killing about 50 chickens to eat chicken every day.

On the other hand, I think you're simply wrong to think vegetarians eat super egg and dairy intensive meals. I certainly don't.

All in all--this whole "vegans attacking vegetarians" thing is tiresome and silly. I don't see the top donors to Amnesty International attacking the lower level donors, even though preventing torture is an extremely important thing. Let's get over this nonsense about how the big donors on animal issues are entitled to dismiss the contributions of the smaller donors.

Paul Scott said...

"If vegetarians really were replacing meat with eggs and dairy, that would still mean a net decrease in animals harmed."

That is simply untrue. Which is why I (and I presume Sherry, but I'll let her reply for herself) are saying this is not a transition. Your post, as a lacto-ovo-vegitarian makes my point completely. You are satisfied that you have reached the proper moral balance in your food choices. You have done so on mistaken facts, but you are none-the-less comfortable where you are. You are not transitioning to veganism and won't unless you come to realize that your moral choices about being a lacto-ovo-vegitarian are no better than omnivores.

The one thing I would comment upon is your use of the word "sacrifice." I know I (and I suspect most other vegans) do not feel I am sacrificing at all. I think (as alluded to in Sherry's post) this is in part because a lacto-ovo-vegitarian diet is actually unsatisfying in a way that a vegan diet is not. But ignoring that, I would examine the word "sacrifice" in the context in which you are using it.

If someone enjoyed killing people, would you legitimately call it a "sacrifice" on the part of such a person to choose not to kill in order to live in our society? Maybe, but I don't think most people would view it in that light. To generally be thought of as "sacrificing" that which you are sacrificing should have legitimacy to it. I (and most vegans, I suspect) would put to you that your sacrifice of not eating meat is the equivalent of your sacrifice not to attend dog fights. Which is to say, not a sacrifice at all.

I also do not agree with your assertion that vegans fighting lacto-ovo-vegitarians on the morality of their diet is "tiresome and silly." There are substantial differences of opinion, both on the morality of diet and on the appropriateness of legislation (such as those that make dairy farms slightly less cruel) that for vegans the lacto-ovo-vegetarian approach is not significantly distinct from the position of an omnivore.

Jean Kazez said...

Paul, How strange for you to challenge what I said about meat being more killing and suffering intensive than milk or eggs, without discussing the evidence I presented to support it. Go back and look at what I said about chickens vs. eggs. There's not much there that's open to dispute.

As to how I'm supposedly satisfied that I've reached the proper balance, who said that? Look at the Amnesty International analogy again. I'm not satisfied that giving what I give is "enough" but I'm not ready to give more. That means I sometimes prioritize going to movies over preventing torture, which is wrong, but so be it. For most people being good is a work in progress.

If it involves no sacrifice for you to give up animal products, that's lovely. Why would you presume to know whether it's a sacrifice for anyone else?

Paul Scott said...

As I said, Jean, it is a sacrifice for you in the same way that it would be a sacrifice for someone who enjoyed killing humans to "give up" murder for the sake of living in society.

If you are not actually satisfied with your moral choice, then I really cannot understand why you are not a vegan. If I considered myself an evil person, I would certainly not choose to continue living in that way, especially when the alternatives are so completely easy.

Your donation example is simply non-sense. We are not discussing varying levels of generosity, we are discussing decreasing the amount of actual harm we do on a daily basis.

A despot that decides to torture 10% less is not somehow morally superior to one than tortures more often. Suggesting that we should somehow hold out as "good" someone who concedes the immorality of a non-vegan diet but is "less non-vegan" than someone else is, to me, absurd.

As to your chicken and egg "argument", I have simply seen no evidence presented by you. You make a bald assertion that:
one hen plus one killed male provides eggs for one person for a year. That is not evidence and it is also wrong.

The reality is:
1. Hens that start losing egg production are killed
2. at hatcheries, the males are all killed.
3. All hens are de-beaked, even on the very rare truly "cage-free" farms

All of this readily confirmed by investigating the references provided, among other places, here:

None of what you are saying or thinking on this issue is fact. You have bought into some misinformation to support your belief that by being a lacto-ovo-vegetarian you are actually doing good for animals, but sadly that is just not the case.

Blogger said...


Am I right in understanding you as saying that it is not better to do less bad than more bad? ("A despot that decides to torture 10% less is not somehow morally superior to one than tortures more often.") My view is that we all do bad stuff, but those who do less bad than others are indeed "morally superior." Do you contend that one can only be "morally superior" if one is completely free from sin? If so, is "morally superior" an empty set, save whatever religious views we may have about messiahs?

We can all probably agree that causing animal suffering is bad. Vegans do less harm than vegetarians. The empirical question is, Do vegetarians do less harm than omnivores? You and Sherry seem to say yes, and Jean says no.

I am an ovo-lacto vegetarian. If it can be shown that I really am causing no less harm than by being an omnivore, I may well choose to revert back to being an omnivore because I may not want to incur the costs of being a vegan.

I suppose I also disagree that abstaining from sinful behavior is by definition not a "sacrifice." As Jean suggests, it might be a sinful act of omission to not give more to charity, but donating more is indeed (in my view) a sacrifice.

Jean Kazez said...

Paul, My facts are right. If you eat one chicken per week, you kill 52 in a year. On the other hand, laying hens live about a year and lay about one egg per day. So eating eggs for a year involves the suffering and death of one chicken plus the male chick killed at the outset.

Those approximations are backed up at this Humane Society Website--

Based on these facts, it follows that if someone is only willing to give up chicken or eggs, the only rational choice is giving up chicken. There is a rationale, therefore, behind a vegetarian's choice.

It is also nonsense to say that a vegetarian does nothing for chickens if (a big if) she replaces the chicken in her diet with eggs. She makes a huge reduction in the number of animals who suffer and die for her meals.

If you think vegetarians do no good for animals, then you think those 52 saved chickens don't matter. I think they do matter. I think it would be good to also save the laying hen (and the "invisible male") involved in eating eggs. But it's not at all trivial to save 52 chickens.

As to whether I'm "good or evil" it's fair to say that these labels are context dependent--and apply based on how much someone's doing for a cause compared to everyone else. I'm going to take credit for the 52 chickens but I'm not expecting any awards for it.

As to your notion that my analogies are "nonsense" you are making much too big a distinction between killing and torturing and allowing those things to happen. It's not just "generous" to do something. We should all be doing much more.

In fact, even you should be doing more, including on animal problems. Just because you're a vegan, it doesn't follow that you have no obligation to do more to prevent all the killing and suffering of animals. Your diet has made a very small difference. But you will not spend every hour of every day on it. I'm not going to cajole you and call you evil for that.

Paul Scott said...

You are defining your harm to be only death. Your one hen + one male chick are not the equivalent in suffering as the 52 dead chickens. maybe it is more, maybe it is less, but you can't just add up the units that way because it ignores the harm in the torture of the animals' lives (on both sides of your equation).

If all you are concerned about is a counting exercise, then probably the best thing you could do would be to eat meat (but not eggs and dairy), but eat it in smaller amounts. That is, replace however many calories you consume each year in egg and dairy with an equivalent amount in whale flesh. Probably to do this you only need to kill one whale every decade or so. Heck, if we could replace all the current animal farming with Adult Blue Whale farming, then we could truly minimize the body count (especially if steroids and selective breading could do for the average size of a Blue Whale what it has done for the beef cow).

The head count reduction, however, would not bring your new dietary choice into some grand moral light worthy of praise.

As to your other point, I am sorry that you are unable to distinguish between complicity in acts of torture and failing to do more (by donating more time or more money to animal rights causes). It is sophistry, and I hope you are actually aware of it and are using it as a mechanism to defend your apparently unquenchable appetite for eggs and cow milk (which appetite is - collectively with all other ovo-lacto-vegetarians - responsible for the suffering of millions of kind, sentient beings each year. That sort of defense mechanism is something you also share with omnivores.

Jean Kazez said...

Paul, Sherry Colb made the claim that ovo-lacto vegetarians do nothing for animals because (she alleges--and I don't think it's true) they replace meat with eggs and milk. To decide whether such a replacement really would nullify a vegetarian's contribution, you have to look at numbers. There is simply no other way to evaluate her claim. I stand by my assertion that by replacing chicken with eggs, you kill about 52 fewer chickens. What is left is the one laying hen plus a male.

No, of course I'm not ignoring suffering. Yes, that hen will suffer. I have no idea why you think I'm denying that.

It makes sense to assess her claim in terms of chickens and eggs because those are normal parts of people's diets. We'd have to have a whole different conversation if the issue was eating whales.

As to my "sophistry"--not at all. It sounds like you've never studied ethics, so you're simply not familiar with the many well-known ethicists who say it's not just charity to prevent torture and death around the world, but an obligation. If that is the case, then we all have lots of unmet obligations--not just me, but you too.

unpopular vegan essays said...

First, I’d like to thank Sherry for an excellent blog entry on this topic.

As for the ethics question, I realize that utilitarians see it as an obligation to take positive action to prevent bad things from happening in the world. How they are able to calculate what to do next to maximize X (preference, pleasure, etc), I don’t know, and that’s one of the flaws of that approach.

Personally, I like to clean my own porch of obvious garbage, like contributing to the problem I desire to end (e.g. by consuming eggs and “dairy” milk), THEN look around to see how else I might help.

I wrote a short entry on my blog regarding the issue of attempting to solve a problem one is helping to create:

Finally, if I had a choice limited to live 100 consecutive lives of "broiler chickens" or 50 consecutive lives of "layer chickens", I would plead desperately to live the 100 consecutive lives of "broiler chickens" because they don't suffer anywhere near as much as "layers" do. I may even choose to live 200 lives of "broilers" to 50 lives of "layers".

unpopular vegan essays said...

Lest anyone think that I see value in adding up atrocity units to see if we’re justified in contributing to any of those units, I certainly don’t.

My point in bringing up the comparison of the lives of these innocent beings is that all of their lives are nothing but abject misery and terror, with the lives of "layers" being substantially worse. We would be far better off spending energy getting ourselves to stop consuming eggs instead of defending our decision or the decision of others to consume them.

Jean Kazez said...

Dan, We ought to assume someone who cares enough to be a vegetarian will choose cage-free eggs. In that case, the living conditions for each layer will be about what they are for the broilers.

I'd rather go through one life as a cage-free laying hen (all it takes to get a year's worth of eggs) than 52 much shorter lives as a broiler (what it takes to eat a chicken every week). Those 52 lives will begin painfully, with debeaking and end painfully as well. The total amount of time spent suffering will also be greater, even though the broilers live much shorter lives.

By the way, I'm not proposing that we think about animal ethics this way. Not at all. I'm just responding to the post's claim that being a vegetarian is no better than nothing in terms of consequences. A claim about consequences has to be assessed in terms of facts about consequences.

As to there being obligations to help way beyond your own porch...yes, utilitarians believe that's the case, but not just utilitarians. From many ethical perspectives it's reasonable to think that most of us do have many unmet obligations. For example, Peter Unger's book "Living High and Letting Die" is a nice non-utilitarian case in point.

unpopular vegan essays said...


Cage-free egg hens do have it significantly worse than broilers due to two conditions.

First, chickens breed for egg production are genetically designed to produce eggs at a much faster rate than wild chickens. Chickens in the wild eat most of their eggs, replenishing the nutrients lost in production. The result is that cage-free layers suffer from severe malnutrition in the last half of their lives. By the end of their lives, their bodies are so broken they are close to death anyway.

Second, cage-free hens generally go through forced molting where they are starved for up to 14 days of darkness, simulating winter-spring transition. Many are killed in the process, but the extra six months of increased production of the survivors makes it economically efficient to force molt.

I’m not claiming that there are no obligations beyond our own porch, albeit I don’t accept the utilitarian approach for determining what those obligations are. I’m stating that obvious problems on our own porch are our priority. We should clear them regarding an issue like animal exploitation before we advance to trying to clear problems associated with the issue beyond our porch.

First, go vegan; then encourage others to do the same. It really is that simple.

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