Thinking of Becoming a Vegetarian? Well You Can't
May 03, 2016 10:39AM
By Alex McKechnie
A new book by Andrew Smith, Ph.D., an assistant professor of philosophy in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences who specializes in environmental philosophy, makes the case that there isn’t a morally defensible argument for vegetarianism, and in fact, you can’t even actually be vegetarian. The book, A Critique of the Moral Defense of Vegetarianism, was released by Palgrave Macmillan this month.
Daniel Quinn, author of the award-winning philosophical novel Ishmael, said of the book: “This is one of the most important books I’ve read in the past two decades, and I think you’ll agree, whether you’re vegetarian, vegan or neither. It will change your mind in significant ways (it did mine), and you’ll enjoy the process, even if it means relinquishing some assumptions you once considered far too self-evident to be questioned.”
Himself a vegetarian—if he could be—for 25-plus years, Smith draws on the latest research in plant science, systems ecology, environmental philosophy and cultural anthropology to eliminate the distinction between vegetarians and omnivores.
He illustrates how the divisions we’ve constructed between plants and animals, and between omnivorism and vegetarianism, are emblematic of a way of thinking about ourselves and our eating practices that perpetuates an “ecocidal” worldview—one that destroys the natural environment.
For example, Smith explains that the linear way we currently view the food chain—the cow eats the grass, we eat the cow—is inaccurate. Instead, a cyclical view—the cow eats the grass, we eat the cow, the worms eat us, the grass eats the worms—is more accurate. In this sense, a person can’t be a vegetarian because even plants essentially eat animals.
“We are part of an extended food web,” he says. “We’re not at the top of a food hierarchy, because there is no top. Every living being eats and is eaten. And this is a good thing! The well-being of our planet, and our own well-being, depends on it.”
End Vegetable Cruelty
In the book, Smith also challenges the most common defense of vegetarianism—the “sentientist” argument—which claims that eating animals is cruel because they suffer. This defense assumes that plants, by contrast, do not suffer.
Smith, however, cites a great deal of empirical evidence to support that plants are sentient and can also suffer. “Plants have biochemical reactions to noxious stimuli that are very much like ours,” he says.
For example, Smith explains that plants thrive in diverse communities, but that conventional agriculture has created unnatural settings where plants live alone—corn with corn, wheat with wheat and so on. In these settings, plants are more susceptible to diseases, which farmers prevent by dousing them in pesticides that will keep them alive just long enough to harvest. This is harmful to the plants, to the land and to the people who consume them. If plants were allowed to live in diverse communities, claims Smith, they would be “happier” and healthier, and thus, so would we. “By treating them well, we treat ourselves and our world well,” he says.
Be Kind to Your Food
Smith argues that what matters more than whether we eat plants or animals is how we treat what—or who—will become our food. “The world would be better off if we could re-orient the way we think about plants, animals and our relationship with both,” he says. “Moreover, re-envisioning our relationship with our food is necessary for our species to survive and thrive.”
According to Smith, “The world would be made better—far better —if we could embrace that we are full-fledged members of the community of life: constituents of a closed-loop system from which we have borrowed, are now using and will one day return the fire of life that burns in us all.”
Alex McKechnie is a senior news officer at Drexel University who focuses on the humanities and social sciences, including psychology, law and education. For more information, visit newsblog.drexel.edu.