Sorry Natalie, Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right

The New York Times recently ran a piece by Natalie Angier called “Sorry Vegans, Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too“. It was categorized under the “Science” section, with the further distinction of “basics“. In other words, the author wants to let us know that making an ethical argument to curtail the science-fiction and horror-movie-like indignities and atrocities that animals endure in exchange for a plant-based diet is flawed because plants want to live – and duh, that’s just basic science.

“…plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a hog aspires to being peppercorn-studded in my Christmas clay pot.”

That may be true, if it’s aspirations we’re talking about. And following this line of logic, we may as well throw in that lightning does not aspire to illuminate a bulb, a mountain does not aspire to be a car-frame, an island does not aspire to be a tourist destination, and a child does not aspire to get heart disease.

Can you imagine if Angier said “plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a woman aspires to be raped”? It is consistent with this line of logic where no one is safe, and one wrong justifies another. When I was four, I learned that two wrongs don’t make a right. Eating plants doesn’t make eating animals okay (if eating plants were even an equal “wrong” as Angier suggests). The optimal inner-dialogue she wants us to have upon reading her article goes something like this: “well, if plants are that hell-bent on surviving, what’s the point of trying to spare animals when clearly they are just as deserving of consideration – and we have to eat something, so we may as well just eat what we want because it’s such a big gray area“.

“It’s a small daily tragedy that we animals must kill to stay alive. Plants are the ethical autotrophs here, the ones that wrest their meals from the sun. Don’t expect them to boast: they’re too busy fighting to survive.”

http://www.anorak.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/vegetable-fear-225x300.jpgSo let’s humor Angier, even though plants are lacking a brain, and even though we know that while someone who is brain-dead (a vegetable), though bio-chemical reactions still persist, does not respond to bodily injury that would typically cause the type of pain most animal advocates seek to alleviate. Let’s say that plants can suffer in a similar way as do people and animals. Let’s just say that ripping a carrot out of the dirt is along the lines of forcibly impregnating (raping?) dairy cows, then tearing the baby away (which is met by hours and days of a howling, distraught mother), sentencing the calf to a veal crate (where he can not even turn around or lie down) and stealing the milk for ourselves. Does the former justify the latter? I don’t want to live in Angier’s world where potentially causing pain justifies certainly causing pain. Mustn’t that also justify inflicting pain upon people? This is a messy, messy road to go down.

I wonder if Natalie Angier is aware of what farmed animals eat? I also wonder if she knows what the ratio of plant-based animal feed converted to meat and dairy is. Or how much land is used to meet the demands of producing animal products? If she did know these things, and she were a vehement “plants’ rights activist” she would still be making the most ethical choice by going vegan because the most plants would be spared, instead of being converted into animal protein and graze-land at a losing ratio.

How about some clarity? Most animal advocates are talking about actively avoiding http://faculty.cua.edu/pennington/KrakowLectures/Law508/bentham.jpgcausing incredible amounts of suffering, ecological devastation, and health and social problems in relation to using animals for food, clothing, research, and entertainment. This can result in legislation, direct action, grassroots activism, lifestyle changes, and other advocacy with the aim of alleviating preventable suffering, decreasing environmental impact, and improving health and human welfare. Natalie needs a lesson in “basics”, herself. Far from the recent, trendy food discourse she invokes exists the response to her confusion, as laid out by philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1789. “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

To frame the moral dilemma in “Killing animals for human food and finery” as being about aspirations is to fail in understanding the agenda of many animal activists. The intention of many vegans I know is not moral purity – yet this consistent misconceptionplantbrain isn’t responded to as clearly by animal advocates as it should. It is more often a social justice issue involving individual animals who actively dissent by vocalizing and struggling to escape sources of pain and suffering, defending their young, mourning the death of and separation from family and friends, maintaining a preference for complex and communicative social structures, and seeking out comfort when faced with pain.

Like many critics who consider animal advocates self-righteous cow-huggers, and whose first response to finding out that someone is vegan is typically “well, what’s your belt made out of?“, the author of this article exemplifies this misconception about the purpose of veganism. Is it political? Yes. Is it about moral puritanism? Not usually. Nor is it about preventing death. Of course plants strive to live, but everything living eventually dies. It is about preventing preventable suffering. It is about not choosing the duck or the lamb because they have brains and bodies that register suffering in a way with which we can empathize.

Angier blabs, as if her audience were the confessional:

“I still eat fish and poultry, however and pour eggnog in my coffee. My dietary decisions are arbitrary and inconsistent, and when friends ask why I’m willing to try the duck but not the lamb, I don’t have a good answer.”

If the title itself didn’t make it obvious enough that the purpose of the article was to rationalize her whimsical diet and piss off vegetarians who live in the “moral penthouse”, as Angier refers to it, then the content itself does the job. Angier neither offers insight into her inability to exert self-control in face of cheese and duck, nor does her artless and callow argument to consider the will-to-live of vegetation on same playing field as the suffering endured by animals with consciousness, brains, and nervous systems have any defensible logic. It is riddled with the anthropomorphizing of plants (something of which animal advocates are commonly accused), and it is creepily reminiscent of the joke website VRMM.

Senseless torture

“Just because we humans can’t hear them doesn’t mean plants don’t howl.”

Is it valid to point out that plants fight, cooperate, and evolve to optimize survival, like any other living organism? Sure. Plants, fungi, bacteria, and all living organisms are amazing, complex, and have spent billions of years evolving into performing delicate and not-so-delicate dances with everything around them. Whether homeostasis is the Earth’s aspiration (as proposed by James Lovelock‘s Gaia Hypothesis) or the destruction of everything is the Earth’s Aspiration (as proposed by Peter Ward‘s Medea Hypothesis), or if the Earth or universe even has aspirations are not the issues at hand when we talk about veganism or animal advocacy.

Angier claims “This is not meant as a trite argument“, yet her purpose in writing the article seems as trite as rationalizing her own, flimsy food choices.

Written by joshuakatcher

Joshua Katcher is an adjunct professor of fashion at Parsons The New School. His research focuses on sustainability and ethics in fashion production. He started The Discerning Brute in 2008 as a resource for men who want to make intelligent decisions concerning their lifestyles. With a focus on “fashion, food & etiquette for the ethically handsome man”, The Discerning Brute produces expert, essential content and boldly takes a stand. Brave GentleMan, the integrated, eCommerce brother-site of The Discerning Brute was launched in 2011 and features “principled attire” and “smart supplies” handpicked for informed indulgence.
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  • Kandybling

    Living things that feel pain (i.e., being eaten) actually evolved to avoid it, whereas living things that don’t have nervous systems evolved to be eaten so that they could spread their seed farther when the living thing with a nervous system craps it out. 

    • http://www.thediscerningbrute.com Joshua Katcher

      Wonderfully stated.

  • Anonymous

    Do you mean to tell me that the New York Times actually expected this article to be taken seriously? Angier sounds like a kindergartener.

  • Julie

    You are the man!

    I won’t bother repeating what everyone else is saying about that lame article.

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  • Michelle C. English

    Thank you for this!!! That woman is a vapid waste of space.

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  • Elise

    Thank you for posting this response. I agree with you completely, she is using her article as an vehicle to rationalize her own dietary choices. It’s unfortunate the NYT would publish an article so far from journalism.

  • http://www.twitter.com/greenoldman Gian Fajardo

    “Want to eat more ethically? It may be more complicated than just giving up meat.

    Comments are no longer being accepted.”

    She couldn’t take it anymore, so she opted for the easiest way out. What an amazing example of baseless journalism…

    Very smart, classy and articulate response to that, Joshua.

  • http://www.HERE.am Dan

    Oh, and of course, eating animals entails the destruction of many more times the plant matter than would be destroyed by those who simply eat plants directly.

  • http://www.HERE.am Dan

    Hey there, thanks for this piece. I also would like to point you to a response I wrote on HERE.am:

    http://here.am/post/295623710/flora-v-fauna

    One important misstep I’m seeing is the concession that plants “strive to live” in the way that animals do. This is not at all the case. Saying we know that plants “strive” because they release chemicals when being nibbled is like saying computers “strive” because they turn on when we press the power button. An ethically paramount difference between a computer and an animal is that the animal receives stimuli and processes these through a consciousness that allows for felt pain, pleasure, etc. and a genuine will, which must form the basis of any genuine aspiration or striving. Plants have no such apparatus and therefore can only “strive” in the way a computer “strives” to be turned on.

    Naturally, none of us use the word that way — unless we are trying to write link bait via defense of absurd propositions [ahem, NY Times].

  • Allie

    I wish you had hit on the main point “Natalie, you don’t even believe what you wrote.”

  • Angie

    Your article/argument is just as flawed as you claim Angier’s to be.

    The fact that you “empathize” with an animal more so than a plant is completely irrelevant and little more than a self placating tactic. The basic life force runs through all living things and death is the end of that. Period.

    Joseph Campbell says the basic human dilemma is that we have to kill to live. Humans are the ones who assign the hierarchy of animal over plant and Additionally, to cease eating meat and become a vegetarian species would be just as destructive to this planet as the opposite. Justification and defense of vegetarianism at this level is no different than any other religious fundamentalism.

    The key is balance.

    • http://www.thediscerningbrute.com joshuakatcher

      Balance‘? For whom, and in relation to what, exactly?
      I love when people say things like “everything in moderation” and “the key is balance” because balance and moderation are entirely arbitrary, and thus meaningless. It sounds like you are rationalizing and attempting to shove an environmental, social, and political movement into the category of ‘fundamentalist religion’ because it makes it easy to brush off.
      That fact that you think empathy towards other animals based on their ability to suffer is somehow flawed because it is irrelevant on a universal scale, is beyond my comprehension. You may as well say that “nothing really matters” and we can enter the realm of nihilism.
      I know I am not alone in saying that if I saw any person being tortured and an apple being plucked, there is something deep down in my evolutionary genetics that prioritizes wanting to care for and help the person. Unless you are a sociopath, this is part of being human. Helping. Empathizing. There are also parts of being human that are not so pretty, but leveling the playing field for all on the basis that “The basic life force runs through all living things” sounds like a broad generalization-cum-justification.
      I’d also love to hear your explanation of how large numbers of people going veg would be just as destructive to the planet (considering that vast amounts of resources would be saved, we’d have cleaner water, more land, more food, better health, and dramatically reduce the single greatest cause of global warming).

    • Vegan Rabbit

      The key is balance?  Everything in moderation?

      So does that mean that rape in moderation is okay?  Is torture and cruelty in moderation okay?  By your logic, it would seem so.

      Do you shout at your neighbors that they are murderers for decapitating the grass as they mow their lawn?  Do you cry when the apple is plucked from the tree because you think that it’s going to miss its ‘mother’?  If so, then you should stop eating EVERYTHING – both meat and plants.  Did you know that the animals you eat are HERBIVORES and eat large quantities of plants???  It takes a lot of plants to grow an animal big enough to slaughter.  It’s not efficient at all.  We vegans know that we can’t achieve absolute purity, but we do what we can – and we do a hell of a lot more for both animals AND plants than you do as someone who eats both.

  • Jordan

    I love your article. Well put.

    As far as the “carrots are murder” mess…

    I have come across this kind of thinking before. However, there is a glaring logical hole in this argument.

    Let’s pretend for a moment that plants feel pain and suffering to the same extent as a dog, cow or person. That carrots cry themselves to sleep when they are lonely. That potatoes get anxious.

    Even if that were true- what do cows, chickens, and any other farmed animal consume?

    They eat plants.

    Therefore, the eating of animals causes an exponential increase in the amount of pain and suffering directed at plants. To eat a chicken or other farmed animal you will cause the destruction of the countless plants necessary to give the animal the energy necessary to not only grow, but to heat itself, moo, and move.

    The simple fact is- that eating less animals has the end result of decreasing the pain and suffering directed at the world of the flora. By a factor of 100.

    Be nice to plants, don’t eat animals.

  • http://root.timothyponce.com timothy

    great response. it’s so frustrating to see those offense-is-the-best-defense-against-vegetarians articles hit big outlets like the NY times where they quickly rise to the ‘most popular’ list.

    you really ought to take an excerpt from your post and write a letter to the editor. it might get published.

  • http://www.YourHolisticAgent.com Candy@YourHolisticAgent.com

    Saw this on GirlieGirl Army & am re-posting my response here. So happy I found this site-can’t wait to direct the newly-vegan hubby to it! Might I post your article on my blog, VeganBride.com, as well? Thx! :) Candy

    WELL DONE JOSHUA!! I agree w/you wholeheartedly!! After more than a decade of receiving odd & argumentative objections to my vegan lifestyle including arguments such as this, I STILL scratch my head when confronted w/this line of thinking! Clearly our lifestyle choice is about choosing the LEAST AMOUNT OF HARM possible. Clearly there are negative environmental, social & physical impacts imposed on all by the unthinkably inhumane factory farming system. However in addition, it blows my mind that someone such as said author fails to realize the fact that eating a diet complete with a healthy array of vegetables is NECESSARY & vital to our survival! Our bodies are not designed to thrive sans the nutrients and especially complex carbohydrates (broken down into energy which our BRAIN runs on!) found in vegetables. Not to mention that animal meat is teaming w/saturated fat & cholesterol but totally devoid of fiber… & missing many of the phytonutrients, vitamins & antioxidants found readily in plant foods that help our bodies to combat disease! Clearly plants & vegetables are our natural food!! Clearly we perform the least harm by partaking of them & clearly no vegan or animal rights activist I know of would ever cause more harm in consuming one than is necessary! No vegan would chop down a cherry tree to eat a cherry. We don’t alter the natural life cycle of, torture, abuse, & maim an orange!
    Obviously, this argument could go on for days. However yours was so well thought & worded that not much needs to be added to it!
    Thanks & I hope that you continue to be greatly blessed for your work & your compassion!
    :) Candy at Vegan Bride & Your Holistic Agent :)

  • http://www.boldnative.com Denis Hennelly

    When the opposition resorts to absurdity, you know you’re making ground. I can’t believe the NYT put this in the Science section.

  • Melissa Brooklyn

    The main difference between eating plants v. eating animals is that plants replenish themselves. You can pick 40 apples off a tree and next fall there will be more in the orchard from the same tree. The actual tree isn’t being harmed. In actuality, pruning plants nourishes them by keeping the roots healthy.

  • http://randyhate.com randyhate

    you sir, are a star.

    i can not tell you how many times i deleted this from my inbox yesterday, mainly because i kept having to hit delete and just stopped counting.

    rationalization is not your friend.

  • http://www.ascentofscandal.com/ Ari Solomon

    Ditto Jason. Anyone who has been taught 7th grade biology would instantly see the flaws in her argument. Plants are alive, there is no question, but they lack a brain and central nervous system which means (according to modern science) that they can’t experience pain. To even hint that eating a brussel sprout is the same as roasting a pig is preposterous and stupid as shit.

    This piece was obviously written by an excuse-itarian who would rather keep her head in the sand. The whole “but what about plants’ feelings” argument is completely disingenuous.

  • jennifer

    As a vegetarian scientist, the appearance of that article in the NYT science section was beyond maddening. I get that the times might want to show “balanced” coverage of the recent increase in the coverage of vegetarian diets (thanks alicia and jonathan!), but don’t put BS like this in the SCIENCE section! What a disgrace. Thanks for putting together such a great response.

  • Abraham

    Awesome piece! It’s hard to explain it to people (the ones that go “you know, plants are living beings too”), especially when they are only trying to criticize our choices.

  • http://www.jasonrayonline.com Jason

    THANK YOU for this blog entry! I read her article yesterday and almost commented at the NYT, but because she’s so off-base, I had a hard time coming up with anything to say that wasn’t attacking HER rather than her “arguments” (if you can call them that). You did so beautifully. This is a great piece as always!