A vegetarian philosopher questions his own eating practices

Illustration by James Heimer

Illustration by James Heimer

To Eat or Not to Eat Meat?

interview by Heather Shayne Blakeslee

Philosopher Andrew F. Smith wasn’t prepared for PETA and an army of committed fellow vegetarians to go on the attack when he released his last book, “A Critique of the Moral Defense of Vegetarianism.” But they did—and he’s still recovering. In the book, he reasons that in the closed loop of our ecosystem it’s impossible to even be a vegetarian: Our soil and plants are made up of the remains of formerly living beings. He also examines the idea that it’s immoral to kill sentient beings for food, and finds a rather large loophole: There is voluminous research to suggest that plants are sentient. “Once we set aside the obvious problems with factory farming,” he writes, “the case for vegetarianism is less cut and dry.” The book also explores the perils and limits of a food system—and economy—based on fossil fuels.

You wrote this book both as a vegetarian and as a philosopher, trying to understand a more academic/moral framework for vegetarianism.
AS: Philosophers and vegetarians alike don’t really have a sense of the experiences of plants, of the beings who we make our food. People think, “Well, plants are just these, sort of, inert beings. They’re alive, but they don’t have feelings, they don’t have any perceptions or experiences.” But… these things just aren’t true. I foundmore research than I can possibly digest in a lifetime that suggest plants are sentient, that they have many experiences that count as sentient in the way that we think of animals—human animals and nonhuman animals—as sentient.

We want to treat animals well. We don’t want to embrace factory farming. But there are better and worse ways to be a vegetarian. [Plants], too, suffer forms of wounding when raised through industrial process. So, a better way to be a vegetarian is to eat organically, eat locally, know your food better.

You look at the transient property of food in our ecosystem—essentially that grass eats animals and animals eat grass, and note that, due to our environment and food system, “We are junk food for the soil.”
AS: All of us, omnivores and purported omnivores and purported vegetarians alike, are “toxitarians,” as [a friend] put it. And I like that phrasing. All of us live in eddies and swells of chemicals and heavy metals. You and I both have had DDT in our bodies, even though DDT—incredibly harmful, incredibly carcinogenic—was banned some 40 years ago from use. So one of the key issues that I focus on in the book is tryingto think about ways to improve our relationships with the beings who we make our food through improving our relationships on which both our food and we depend, which is the land, or ecosystems. And if we’re to do that, it’s going to require a bit of cleanup—trying to do a better job of ridding ourselves and the beings who we make our food of exposure to these sorts of chemicals.

You argue that even if we go on identifying ourselves by whether plants or animals are the last strand in the web of life that leads to our mouths, we can still have a care-sensitive relationship with our food.
AS: I take three basic steps in the book, and I encourage my readers to stick with me until they find a step that they can’t embrace. The first step is to take more interest in plants and to consider the lives of plants. The second step is to develop what I call this care-based relationship with the beings who we make our food, which necessitates a sort of context-specific way of thinking about eating. Thinking about our relationship with our food in the same way that we think about our relationship with our neighbors—these neighbors being my next-door neighbors and the rowhouses next to me and the trees that are across the street from me. 

[That] requires having a level of interest in their lives and, again, the land base that we both depend on, that we generally restrict for animal life, or some of us only restrict to human life. The third step is to argue that we can’t be vegetarians—and there’s a bigger context even for that, that we can get into at another point if it comes up. And most readers don’t go there with me, and that’s perfectly fine.

You also explore some of the practical, sustainability-based framework around vegetarianism and omnivorism. How does the ever-growing human population play into those discussions?
AS: I’m so glad you asked this, because this is all too frequently overlooked when we’re talking about these issues. We eaters, we humans, often forget that we’re part of the equation, too, to the extent that there are more of us, we are going to cut into the amount of biomass that there is on Earth, whether it’s meat or whether it’s plant life. So, one question that I faced in this is, “What do we do about that?” We have an ever-increasing population. Vegetarians and vegans are correct that vegetarianism and veganism is better for feeding the growing world. There’s no doubt about that. There’s excellent research to suggest that.

One issue that I wish I would have been clear about, and it gets to this issue of population, [is] “energy dissent,” or the proposition that our ability to use fossil fuels, especially oil, is not something that we can sustain ad infinitum. It’s really difficult to get a sense of how much more oil we have that we can use to sustain the lifestyles that we have now. The latest research that I’ve seen is about 30 to 40 years. But no matter how long we have, no matter what that number is, energy dissent is going to happen, transitions to alternative fuels are going to happen. 

Getting to the population issue, here’s why this is important: You often hear the proposition of the idea that human population has exceeded the Earth’s carrying capacity—there are more people on Earth than this world can sustain. Well, that’s not true. It can’t be true. Exceeding carrying capacity isn’t possible. Carrying capacity is a limiting factor—for any population. There’s going to be less [human] population, and that also is going to necessitate returning to a focus on a local or bioregional level, since without as much oil around, we’re just not going to be able to sustain a global food network.

One of the conclusions that you come to is that embracing vegetarianism is not “unreasonable, nonsensical or crazy, even if it is morally indefensible and ontologically illusory.” You were worried a little bit that some of the arguments in the book might be used against people who had made the decision to be vegan or vegetarian. How much did you worry about that, and how much has it been used against those folks?
AS: Being a vegetarian or vegan, given current conditions, is not crazy, by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it makes perfect sense, given the way our food gets to us. And even under the best of circumstances, even under circumstances I would find ideal, the amount of meat that just about anyone would eat would greatly decrease. But, yeah, one thing that I found over and over and over again in the comments on the book was that they sort of corroborated a stark divide.  From the vegetarians and vegans, [there was] a real concern that I was giving support to the factory farm industry. And I got a lot of praise, not from industry supporters, but from people who are interested in the paleo diet… which is really sort of a grass-fed meat movement. That’s all fine and good, but often the larger point that I was trying to make in the book was missed, and I blame myself for that as much or more than I blame my readers.

What was that larger point that you want to be clear about?
AS: What matters the most for our own health and well-being is understanding how our food lives and dies and recognizing our deep connection to that food. Secondly: If not for us, at least for our children, and certainly our children’s children, they’re going to live in a world in which their eating will depend on being able to find foods relatively close to home. We have the luxury of being able to get foods from distant places. That’s going to change, and insofar as that changes, we need to create relationships with the land on which we live that sustain that land. One of the best ways to do that is to improve our relationship with the food that’s available here. So it’s a more environmentally focused argument than it is a “which diet is the best?” focus.

Andrew F. Smith is a professor of English and Philosophy at Drexel University and is the author of “A Critique of the Moral Defense of Vegetarianism.”