When people hear that you’re a vegan they often ask why. Most already know that eating animal products isn’t good for the environment or for their health and they’re aware of the horrors of factory farming, but they still wonder why this would be a reason to suddenly buy and eat different things. Almost everyone nowadays has grown up with the idea that eating meat is the norm. This ruling ideology is also known as carnism. If you’ve eaten meat, dairy, and eggs since you were a child, then it’s not very strange that you’ve never stopped to think about it and continued this habit throughout your life. However, a better question would be: Why do we eat meat?
Eating like a caveman
Nowadays, most people eat animals because they’ve spent their whole lives eating meat. Naturally, that’s not a reason to continue doing so, but many carnists say that eating meat is just natural because we’ve been doing it for thousands of years. There is some truth in that. While not everybody agrees on whether or not humans are omnivores (or on what the definition of omnivore actually is), it remains a fact that people aren’t strict vegans from a biological perspective. Our ancestors had a bigger chance of survival if they ate everything that was edible. However, it’s no longer necessary to live like that.
The fact that cavemen ate meat is no reason for us to continue eating meat as we do, since cavemen consumed nowhere near as much meat as the average Western person today. Research has shown that hunters and gatherers primarily lived from gathering plants and that animal products were just a small part of their diet. Studies of the bones of prehistoric humans even show that some groups of people lived without consuming any meat. So if you really want to live like our prehistoric ancestors, you can’t eat meat on a daily basis. It’s also interesting that most people want to eat meat ‘because cavemen did that’, but don’t want to follow the rest of a caveman’s diet (primarily plant-based and only unprocessed whole foods) or other aspects of a caveman’s life.
Besides, nowadays our lives are not comparable with those of cavemen. We haven’t hunted or gathered for thousands of years and now rely on agriculture. Since we switched to agriculture, humans have completely changed their way of life and their eating habits, which includes consuming much less meat. After turning to agriculture, the vast majority of the population didn’t eat meat, or at best only a few times a year. Most people were already happy if they could get enough to eat, let alone worrying about the luxury of eating meat! Until recently, there were so few cattle that it wouldn’t have been possible to regularly slaughter them for their flesh. For most of history, people mainly kept animals for products such as wool or eggs, only killing and eating them in unique circumstances such as famine, or when they could afford it, on very special occasions. Since the first human until now, it’s been extremely rare to eat meat every day, or even every week (unless you were the king). So if we would like to eat naturally, just like our ancestors, then we should eat at least 90% fewer animal products than the average Western person does today.
The benefits of the agricultural revolution
The agricultural revolution has produced quite contradictory results. On the one hand, it’s led to the domestication of animals which after thousands of years has developed into our modern-day factory farms. On the other hand, the agricultural revolution has created a completely new way of life that has led to our modern way of living, but it’s also created the opportunity for us to live without animal products and animal suffering. Thanks to the agricultural revolution, the production of plant-based foods has increased substantially, so much so that it’s no longer necessary to consume animal products in order to survive. That’s not only the case today, with supermarkets full of plant-based food; it’s been the case for thousands of years. Thanks to the agricultural revolution we not only have supermarkets filled with more food than we could possibly eat, but it’s granted us the choice to live without causing unnecessary suffering.
We don’t know what cavemen and the first farmers thought about eating meat, but since the invention of writing, we can see that there have always been people who were uncomfortable with both eating and using animals, and they wrote about it. Apparently, there’s something inherent to humans that we find it unethical to hurt or kill animals. Because of this, there have always been some people that were vegetarian or vegan in the last few thousand years. Of course, this wasn’t common, as most people were happy if they had anything to eat at all, but there were also groups of people who abstained from eating animal products for ethical reasons, from Buddhist monks to Greek and Roman philosophers. There are also scientists who think that humanity has always been uncomfortable with slaughtering animals and believe that is the reason why people invented ritual slaughter. As people couldn’t justify killing animals for themselves, the tradition of sacrifice arose that made slaughter necessary for the gods/God. If animals were killed for a higher purpose, it was necessary to kill them however unpleasant that was.
The reason that eating small amounts of animal products has been normal for most of history is that we needed the nutrients to survive. That’s not a reason to continue doing it. In times of famine, people also eat cats, dogs, and even other humans, but we don’t eat those animals or humans for fun when there is no famine. Today, there are so many vegetables and plant-based alternatives to animal products in the supermarket that you can live just as healthily or get even healthier nutrients if you adopt a plant-based diet. It’s only normal and human to want to prevent the killing of animals. Why would we not just follow our nature and only kill animals when our survival is at stake? We should be happy that thanks to the agricultural revolution, which has made everything in our modern society possible, we can now listen to our inherent compassion without risking our health or survival.
But am I not an omnivore? Or a lion?
Carnists generally like to compare themselves to lions. It’s hard to understand why, because as opposed to humans, lions aren’t omnivores. That a lion eats meat says nothing about what we should eat. An omnivore is an animal that can digest both plants and flesh, but it says little about what we should eat. A human can digest bananas, but if I choose not to eat bananas again, I can still continue living healthily without ever eating another banana. The same applies to meat and other animal products. We can digest it (though this takes considerable effort which often causes constipation), but that doesn’t mean we should eat it. Humans can get all the nutrients they need from plant-based sources and in many cases, these products are also much healthier. So biologically speaking, it’s not necessary to eat meat.
But they’re just animals
Some people say that it’s fine to eat meat because animals aren’t humans (even though humans are animals, but well…). Animals are different to us and can therefore be treated differently. Needless to say, animals don’t have to be treated the same as humans. I wouldn’t ask my cat to vote at the next election. But why is it OK to kill an animal just because it’s an animal? And why is it fine to kill a pig just to eat it, but not a dog?
It’s often said that it’s justified to eat certain animals because those animals aren’t intelligent. Only, we aren’t consistent with this view. Pigs, for example, are considerably smarter than dogs, but we still eat pigs and not dogs. We also don’t think it’s acceptable to eat or kill humans that aren’t intelligent. Severely mentally disabled people can be less intelligent than a pig or a cow, but nobody thinks that we should kill those people. The fact that animals are animals and aren’t as smart as some people is not a reason to kill them.
In general, most people agree that animal products are tasty. But is that a reason to cause animals to suffer and kill them? Maybe cats and dogs also taste nice, but nobody wants to kill their pet just because its flesh is tasty. Nor does anybody find it justified to kill people for a nice meal. Maybe someone would enjoy killing a fellow human-being, but that isn’t acceptable. Just that something is nice or pleasurable isn’t a reason to do it.
In the end, the only reason to eat meat is the fact that it’s a habit and habits require effort to be changed. Unfortunately (sorry carnists), there’s no rational reason to eat meat and it’s thus often based on nothing but a feeling: fear of change. Although that’s understandable, it’s irrational and not an excuse to do something that’s not only unethical but also bad for your health and the environment. Often, changing a bad habit can seem difficult and sometimes overwhelming, but once you make the decision to do it, it’s easier than you thought.
Harari, Yuval Noah (2015). Homo Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Vintage Publishing, London.
Joy, Melanie (2011). Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows – An Introduction to Carnism: The Belief System That Enables Us to Eat Some Animals and Not Others. Conari Press, San Francisco.
Morris, Desmond (1994). The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal. Vintage Publishing, London.
Singer, Peter (2009). Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement. HarperCollins Publishers, New York.