Monday, July 3, 2023

An Open Letter to Peter Godfrey-Smith

An Open Letter to Peter Godfrey-Smith in response to his essay, “If Not Vegan, Then What?” (Aeon 10 February 2023) 

Dear Dr. Godfrey-Smith:


As an “experiment” you tried a “near-vegan” diet for one month and then stopped. Most vegans would probably say their transition was gradual and over a longer period of time. They’d also likely indicate how careful choices with some guidance were made about which foods to eat. You imagine an ethical person but one for whom a plant-based diet “does not work.” This conclusion fails to see the many vegan options for most people in developed and even in some developing countries. You look for a “defensible” compromise to veganism when we don’t see any. Ethical vegans make a willful choice and don’t experiment; if it’s a trial, one is bordering on a popular trend that is doomed to fail.


Near-vegan for you included eggs, butter, and fish oil – that prescription is not even close to a vegan diet. However, with willpower and changes to routines, you could have weaned yourself away from animal products gradually. Instantaneously proclaiming “near-vegan” promotes a misconception about ethical vegans who make a concerted effort to avoid whenever possible harming or eating animals or purchasing products tested on or containing animal ingredients. You say you wanted the eggs for protein without having considered other choices. Many beans and leafy plants are protein rich. Besides, most modern humans take in too much animal protein, which can be harmful. You say you opted for eggs from “free range” chickens, but as Alice Crary and Lori Gruen1 have noted, terms like free range, grass fed, cage free, etc. are more about marketing gimmicks and less about animal welfare. Eating “free range” or “cage free” products is an excuse conjured by corporate agriculture to make carnivores feel better; or, as you literally suggest, to justify killing and eating animals. While you mention ethics a few paragraphs into your essay, you indicate a move toward veganism because of motives regarding “animal welfare.” As you know, welfare issues for farmed animals are far different than advocating for their rights or liberation. At the same time, you claim that animal suffering is a primary concern, as if any farm-raised animal does not experience psychological or physical pain at the point of death and perhaps before then.


You go on to note how your experiment turned out to be an “illuminating failure.” How much light has been shed on which issues, even from reader comments on the Aeon site? You say the “regime” was too difficult, that you felt cold and “unsettled.” These were likely psychosomatic responses that even farm animals feel. You say that by the tenth day you added dairy into your diet and felt well. We consider that a dodge. Ten days? It seems that you tried to go vegan for mistaken reasons if you now justify eating animal flesh. While you do question your lack of perseverance, you nevertheless defend how you felt “unsettled.” In fairness, we’ve all been brainwashed from an early age to love our pets but to eat cows, pigs, sheep, fish, chickens, etc., so you were no doubt reckoning with an uncompromising and steely mindset. You obliquely admit that there might have been some psychological resistance on your part as you feared vulnerability to pathogens during Covid. Consider how Covid, and other such global pandemics, began in wet markets where live animals are slaughtered on demand, to say nothing of potential bacteria like salmonella, e-coli, and yersinia in meats.


Then, you seem to get to the heart of your essay and propose what you believe are three justifiable options for those concerned about animal welfare. 1. Eating “humanely farmed” meats, including beef. 2. Eating fish caught in the wild. 3. Eating conventionally-farmed dairy products.


You proceed to go into some detail about these three options, as if they are the only ones. For example, regarding number 1, you seem inclined to consume cows who live a “good life” and are killed by “specialist butchers” because the killing is “inevitable.” This pronouncement neglects how cows are forcibly impregnated to produce milk for humans, not for their babies sold as meat. Their lives are short and their demise is engineered by humans, not nature. Biology, not the human marketplace, makes cows lactate and hens lay eggs. Synthetic hormones are used to force cows to produce large quantities of milk for human use. Forced production results in infected udders that yield pus mixing into milk drunk by humans. Growth hormones are used to fatten cows and steer and thus ultimately ingested by humans. This artificial feeding chain is amplified by the use of antibiotics in the farming industry, which might account for increased resistance in humans. The calves are taken away almost immediately, to the distress of the cow. Male calves are literally starved so that they have tender, white flesh sold as veal. These are just a few examples of the paucity of “animal welfare” in the beef industry.


For number 2, you justify killing wild fish because, in your calculus, they’d die anyway. Would that justify killing and eating one’s pets? You claim that victims of commercial fishing don’t experience an “especially awful” death. Fish can suffer2, and kill methods include ice chilling, bleeding out, suffocation, CO2 stunning, etc. Worse, the vast number of what is called bykill trapped in commercial fishing nets is staggering and ranges from dolphins to turtles and even birds. Endangered species are also killed in these fishing nets. How, then, is this serving animal welfare? As for wild fishing, you say it’s part of human history in a “natural food web.” This is oversimplistic and ignores a few key points. First, going back in history to human settlements around the Mediterranean Sea, fishing would not have depleted resources, as is now the case. Second, deeper in history our hominin ancestors were likely geared to a plant-based diet4. Third, nowhere in your essay do you indicate that humans are omnivores. As one of our friends is fond of saying, “I’ll eat anything.” That means one can survive well from a diet rich in vegetables (root and green), legumes and beans, fruits, grains, seeds, nuts, tofu, tempeh, etc. You use the term “food web” to suggest that we must eat meat and dairy. That is untrue. Some animals (large cats, for instance) evolved as obligate carnivores. Humans, like our great ape cousins and even baboons, did not.


In terms of number 3, you admit serious welfare anxiety for cows on dairy farms, unless the farm is “humane.” Humanity is an outdated and anthropocentric notion. When you say “humane” you imply animals are used as a means for human ends (e.g., humanely killed). In the course of history up to the present, humans have not treated each other humanely, and they certainly do not routinely treat work or farm animals with the care and concern given to their children or pets. In a twist of logic, you suggest that the farmed cow should exist since it produces food we eat. Animal milk is produced for their offspring, not humans. This fact is evident by our lactose intolerance to cow’s milk.


You wonder, next, which of the three options is the most justifiable. In our opinion, none, and the only option is to choose ethical veganism. Worth noting is how most modern humans eat far more than needed and more often than necessary. You say about dairy offspring that their “bodies will be put to some use.” Male chicks are ground in wood chippers to become fertilizer. You find “humane” beef as more defensible and even as a “positive good.” Surely this is not good for the cow, and without citing the scientific literature readily available beef is the most deleterious to human health and the environment. A look at Our World in Data3 indicates how there is growing demand for meat worldwide, especially beef. Grains are produced in trillions of pounds and fed to farm animals when that food could be used for humans, to say nothing of the water waste and fossil fuel emissions from slaughterhouses, meatpacking facilities, and transport vehicles. Worse, those grains fed to farmed animals are wasted twofold since the animal uses the nutrients to grow body parts (e.g., beaks or horns) not farmed as human food. It’s not in the service of anyone’s welfare to feed and fatten animals who cycle calories that could feed those humans already malnourished. Which choice is more humane? Massive amounts of cattle cannot be “humanely” raised since forests are cleared to produce food for them. That’s poor land use for all forms of life and reduces rainforest biodiversity that cleanses and hydrates the air we breathe. The devastation to the climate is pervasive in the cattle feeding/ranching scenario, and one only needs to look at satellite images of the Amazon to see what we mean.


You justify eating cows by saying that because they exist, we can eat them. Farm animals, as any reader of Darwin5 knows, have been artificially bred and selected for certain traits. Many farm animals are, historically and evolutionarily speaking, recent developments. Sheep, for instance, must be sheared since we have bred them to have wooly fleece. Your argument reminds us of one by Nick Zangwill6: raise farm animals, assume they are happy, and then it’s okay to kill, butcher, and eat them. The “logic” is that for there to be happy cows and other animals they must be farmed and “humanely” killed as human food. The conclusion is that you are a beef eater, but you say that numbers 2 (fish) and 3 (dairy) are also defensible. Whether on a small or factory farm, animal bodies and offspring, as well as food they naturally produce for young, are all packaged for human profit by the pound. Selling animal body parts does not seem to be about welfare. No farm animal, unless she has been rescued and placed in a sanctuary, is considered as an individual; regrettably, that anthropocentric attitude comes across in your essay very strongly.


You conclude by asking that one should “calculate” what’s best, balancing opposites like utilitarianism and rights theory. Noted earlier, you leave out of the equation virtue ethics. As a prominent professor who has written extensively on animal minds and consciousness, you exercise immense influence your peers and legions of students in your classroom. What’s the message you’d like to communicate? Is it the distorted view about “animal welfare” that justifies meat eating and dairy consumption? Why publicize your failed and short-lived dietary experiment, which ends on a note of moral relativism (utilitarianism v. Kantianism, yes/no/maybe, it depends), while ignoring how the majority of vegans make an ethical choice not to support businesses that harm animals and not partake in exploiting animals as human food. This is not to say vegans are perfect. For one, animal products appear everywhere and are hard to avoid. More importantly, being vegan is an act of faith that’s always tested and requires constant attention as one strives toward an ethical goal.


- Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D. and Fredericka Jacks, Editors, Literary Veganism 




1. Crary, Alice and Lori Gruen. 2022. Animal Crisis. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

2. Chandroo, K.P., I.J.H Duncan, R.D Moccia. 2004. “Can Fish Suffer?: Perspectives on Sentience, Pain, Fear and Stress.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 86 (3–4): 225-250.

3. Our World in Data. 2017. Also, see, Ritchie, Hannah and Max Roser. 2019. “Meat and Dairy Production.” Our World in Data.

4. Tague, Gregory F. 2022. The Vegan Evolution. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

5. Darwin, Charles. 1859. On the Origin of Species. Joseph Carroll, ed. Ontario, CN: Broadview P. 2003.

6. Zangwill, Nick (2021) “Our Moral Duty to Eat Meat.” Journal of the American Philosophical Association.295-311. Doi: 10.1017/apa.2020.21. For a response to Zangwill, see: Tague, Gregory F. 2023. “Is There Moral Justification to Eat Meat?” The Ecological Citizen. 6 (1): epub-082. There’s a related video on this subject (15 minutes) here:

Copyright©2023 by Gregory F. Tague and Fredericka Jacks. All Rights Reserved.