To answer the question of “What should I eat for dinner?” you must first answer, “What does it mean to suffer?” (This is a joke. Answer it after you eat dinner. You’ll need brain fuel.)
Like most people, I require calories to live. I’m lucky to be part of a powerful culture that has a vast infrastructure set up to sate this. However, this infrastructure also includes billions and billions of animals purposefully kept in situations where, if you were watching an edgy action movie and saw the villains doing these things to a dog, you’d think, “Yikes, we get that they’re evil, they didn’t need to do that.” I’ve put a lot of thought into how to proceed from here.
Some principles that outline the dilemma:
1. Suffering is bad.
(I care about other things too, but this is the biggest. I’ll debate the ethics of preserving heritage livestock breeds or bringing beings into existence just to kill them down the line, once we stop amputating body parts without anesthesia. There’s some really interesting nuance in what it means to own a sentient being, even a family pet, for instance, but — hey, is that a baby lamb? Where are you going with that knife? Get back here!)
2. Any plausible diet in my current society will entail some suffering and some death.
(We can and should reduce this — see Principle 1 — but there’s no perfect score. If nothing else, animals live in my crops and die during harvesting and processing. Brian Tomasik points out that a couple of copepods — microscopic water arthropods — are killed in each liter of purified tap water. It’s the invertebrates’ planet. We’re just also here.)
3. I’m a person with limited means, energy, and knowledge, and I’m strongly in favor of my own survival and flourishing.
(Theoretically, with years of dedication and study, I could be satisfied that no part of my diet is killing or hurting any animal. I’m not going to do that. It’s unrealistic to expect that of anyone. I care about other things more. I hope most of the good in my life will come from work other than my diet.)
I don’t necessarily mean this as a manifesto. You might look at the question of suffering differently from me. You might have different dietary needs. I make some compromises that you might not have to. But for now, this is where I stand and why.
Here are some questions researchers ask to study pain in animals: Does its nervous system, especially parts that fire when the animal is injured or damaged, look like the human nervous system? (Do human analgesics change its behavior?) If the animal is injured, does it act differently overall? If a small part of the animal is injured, will it treat that part differently — groom it or avoid use of it or be especially sensitive to touch there? Can the animal learn things? Can it learn associations in ways that probably aren’t evolved?
There are different kinds of learning. A creature might react to chemical traces of predators or damage signals from its fellow conspecifics by becoming more cautious and willing to take defensive actions. We could call this a kind of learning from its environment, but a very straightforward one — it could be a preprogrammed if-then statement. Plants do forms of this. But if the same creature can learn in the face of other arbitrary stimuli that don’t have the same meaning in its natural environment — the color red, a certain chemical added to food, a sound — that suggests something more generalized. Broad input processed in the pursuit of a goal — perhaps something like a desire.
Go even a step further. Can the animal learn to take actions that were not evolutionarily conscribed? Can it make trade-offs between rewards and harms? At that point, a generalized evolutionary response to harm is doing something similar to an animal to what it does to me — it makes us want to avoid it. Call it an incentive to avoid damage, a sense that “something is wrong.” Neurons are costly compared to other cell types; without the ability to learn, there’s no reason to have that system. At that point, to me, postulating an experience of “suffering” starts to answer questions rather than cause them. In the murky terrain of consciousness and minds very different from my own, this is where I draw the line.
Unfortunately, we humans have not tried to answer these questions for a lot of animal species. Mice? Yes. Fish? Of the kinds we’ve studied, yes. But numerically, vertebrates are a minority of earth life. Especially understudied are the smaller animals that comprise most of animal life: copepods, springtails, nematodes, arrow worms. Fortunately, people don’t go out of their way to grow and consume springtails or arrow worms, so we can sidestep them for this analysis.
What people have studied — not a lot, but some — are familiar cultivated invertebrates like shrimp or bees. This evidence implies some fairly nuanced learning and differentiation based on negative stimulus — prawns tend their injuries, less so when given novocaine. Honeybees learn complicated spatial maps and make judgment calls about resources, and when they’ve escaped from simulated predator attacks, they get warier and pessimistic. Which is to say, the answers to the questions above, about sentience, are mostly yes. As far as I know, all the fish species anyone has bothered to look at are similar in this regard. That’s enough cognition to make me think there’s probably something going on in there, and to take all vertebrates and familiar invertebrates literally off the table. Surely it’s best to be careful.
Now that we’ve established any capacity for suffering, the question is: How much?
We have “ability to learn” as a starting point for the scale. But above that things start to get weird. I feel pretty strongly that an ant is less morally important than a cow. Do I think it is half as important? A tenth? A millionth? Here I falter — a million is so much. A million ants still weigh less than a cow, but have many more brain cells. Does that mean anything?
What am I even measuring at that point? How sure am I that “capacity for suffering” scales alongside cognition? I’m a self-important animal with a penchant for existentialism, and my literal worst nightmares are about being chased by something that wants to kill me. That has to be the number one shrimp nightmare scenario too. What if “intensity of suffering” is directly correlated with that incentive to escape death? What if a mouse gets exactly as scared running from a cat as I would running from a murderer? A human suffering intensely at least has a conception of time and severity and even, at worst, death — the comfort that “it will be over some day.” I’m not sure any other animal has that last one. There’s no reason it would evolve.
All this to say: I’m confused. This argument about animals having equal moral importance doesn’t sound right, but I don’t have a good counterargument either. I’m definitely biased by the ominous other side of that equation: that if killing an ant is as bad as killing a cow, everything starts to get a lot more horrible. Brian Tomasik has done some calculations related to this, e.g., investigating the total impact on animal lives from raising and feeding a beef cow, as well as for cropland. I invite the reader to investigate further.
In the meantime, here are some edible animals I’m pretty sure aren’t sentient: oysters, saltwater mussels, jellyfish.
Adult oysters or mussels are sessile, meaning that their mobile larvae settle into one place and live stuck there for the rest of their lives. The choices afforded to these animals are few. Their nerves are centralized but not to the extent of full brains. They probably have fewer total neurons than, say, an ant. And a hearty mussel or oyster is much, much larger than an ant. That’s a lot of meat per brain. That’s pretty good eating!
Other clams or scallops aren’t immobile; they swim or dig — and then now that they have the option to escape certain death, we circle back to: Where does suffering begin? So I steer clear. But I’d still rather eat a scallop than a cricket.
Jellyfish are even simpler animals, the earliest drafts of mobile animals, nervous systems minimal and not remotely centralized. They’re big in East Asian cuisines.
Given all of the above, it will not surprise you to learn that I am, aside from the stray oyster or jellyfish, a vegetarian.
What About Animals That Aren’t from Factory Farms?
I could talk about happy food animals. I could tell you about the summer I bought eggs from my boss, who had twenty chickens in his backyard, or the day I spent on a friend’s small commercial fishing boat in Alaska, where they hauled hooked salmon up to the surface within minutes and killed them quickly — not awesome, but you could do a whole lot worse. I don’t want to pick a fight here. These people care about animal well-being; largely, we are on the same side.
But they’re in the minority.
Polls find that most people don’t support factory farms. Everyone likes the idea of treating animals well. Still, 99% of farmed animals live in factory farms. I can talk about grass-fed beef or cage-free chickens but that’s very few of the farmed animals. Buy them carefully or don’t buy them; look, that’s great. But let’s not get distracted from the 99%.
Humane husbandry is sometimes offered as a selling point or a compromise. Now, call it the by-product of an alternative liberal arts college education or call it common sense, but I don’t trust corporations. More accurately, I trust them to maximize their own profits, and that’s it. Factory farms are like that because they are extraordinarily cost-efficient. If they can lie to me or misrepresent themselves to me to upcharge me on eggs, I expect they will.
What to do? I could find a new guy with twenty chickens. I could find a farm where I can go look at the chickens and verify that they aren’t in tiny cages and can do chicken business. But mostly, because I’m on a budget, and because none of my neighbors have twenty chickens, I buy tofu.
And how about wild animals? Compassionate hunting might be fine, but numerically, the wild animals eaten in greatest quantities are fish and shrimp. There are no legal mandates anywhere on earth that food fish or shrimp be killed in a minimally painful way. Often, they asphyxiate after being hauled into boats. It can take hours. Tofu is cheap. So are beans.
“Ethical cannibalism” is the idea that — wait, I’m kidding, come back. I’ve talked about everything from battery cages to zooplankton. What about the actual humans who produce the food? Well, I care about them too. I try to keep up with boycotts, to buy slavery-free chocolate, etc. But Principle 3 applies: My energy and time is finite. I focus on animals for three reasons:
1: There are many more animals involved, and the things that happen to those animals are worse than the things happening to humans. If there’s some industry where humans are regularly subject to surgery without anesthesia or kept in cages or for that matter selectively bred as workers, please let me know.
2: Other people are on this — organizing boycotts, working on political improvements for migrant laborers, etc. Fish or shrimp have fewer advocates.
3: Agency. I don’t mean to imply that everyone in awful working conditions “can just leave if they want” — it’s not that simple. But disenfranchised people still have voices and can report on their own state of being. A person can choose to opt into some suffering in lieu of a different outcome or for a benefit later, even on the scale of years. Nonhuman animals can’t do either of these. If these systems regularly mistreat the humans who operate them, do you trust them with billions of animals?
I try moderately hard to avoid eggs and mildly to avoid milk. Some context: There are egg-laying and meat chickens. Similarly, cows are bred in separate lineages for milk and meat. A milk cow makes a lot of milk during its life, but a beef cow only makes beef once — by opting for milk instead, you’re still contributing economically to a cow’s life and death on a farm, but you are contributing less.
But these categories aren’t clear-cut: Male chicks whose sisters are destined as egg-laying chickens are ground and sold as animal feed; old dairy cows and laying chickens are sold as low-quality meat. The unfortunate truth is that dairy funds the beef industry, and eggs fund the chicken meat industry. Say what you will about the current agricultural system, but it’s pretty good at using the entire animal.
Your standard battery hen lays one egg a day for most of the year — put differently, a single egg represents one to two days of battery hen life. That’s a heavy price. When I bend on this, it’s often because of gifted food (I rarely look a gift baked good in the mouth) or an abiding love of diner cuisine. This isn’t very principled of me. I mention it only because it is the truth, and because if you aren’t always principled either, well, you’re not alone.
Dairy is my more defensible compromise. It’s better for two reasons.
First, while an egg is a chicken’s entire daily output, a glass of milk is less than 1% of a U.S. dairy cow’s average daily output. (Incorporating the interchange between dairy and beef, as described above, the outlook becomes worse, but not a lot worse.) Even the worst conditions for dairy cows seem better than the worst conditions for chickens.
Second, I’ve tried going full vegan. I stopped. I sometimes have trouble eating enough food, and often a bit of cheese is cheaper and easier and more tempting than anything else. Hopefully, once I’m better-funded or my tastes change, I’ll revisit this compromise and will be approximately at peace with my diet. Until then, I’ll be buying soy milk alongside cheddar cheese, and then I will eat dinner.
(The actually principled compromise would be to sometimes eat beef but vehemently avoid eggs…but that’s tough too, because vegetarianism is a well-known label that usefully explains most of my dietary preferences. “In short, I’m a vegetarian; in long, there’s this article in Asterisk Magazine…”)
As a rule, vegans avoid honey. I don’t — not because I’m convinced bees don’t suffer or that beekeeping is definitely good for bees, but the rest of my or anyone’s plant-based diet subsidizes honeybee agriculture. In the U.S., honeybee keepers make 30% of their profits from honey and 70% from renting them out for pollinating dozens of crop species. May as well get something sweet from it.
Less-Expected Animal Products
I care less about trace additives in processed foods than major components, but not zero. On one hand, there might be less than 1% of these in any given product. On the other hand, humanity may not have nailed vegan cheeses yet, but we absolutely have dyes or gelling agents or what have you that aren’t made from animals. I tried gelatin-free gummy worms last month! They were fine! Get it together, Haribo!
Gelatin is made from bones. You knew that, right? Did you know that confectioner’s glaze/resinous glaze/food glaze/shellac is made from the secretions of the shellac beetle? It’s in candy as well as wood glazes, pharmaceuticals, wax for fresh fruits, and various other products. It’s not clear that the harvesting process is terribly harmful. Beetles are mostly not killed during it, and they’re not domesticated — but they are cultivated, in the billions, so I am concerned.
In the face of my own ignorance, I’m falling back on suspicion and the fact that most people underrate insect suffering to decide: I don’t like it! Prove to me that you’re doing right by these insects, shellac industry. I don’t usually double-check products for this, because I hadn’t realized how common it was until right now. Uh-oh. I think I’ll start.
But again, they put this stuff on apples. I don’t think I can avoid it entirely. Compromise is a bitter game. But unless you grow literally everything you eat, you are playing.
A Note on Joy
Now that I’ve made myself sound like the most obnoxious dinner guest of all time, allow me to defend myself. Yes, I think about this very often. Yes, it’s as exhausting as it sounds — unless you find research papers about shrimp interesting, as I do, in which case, it’s exhausting peppered with points of intrigue.
But the thing is: I love food. I cook and bake. You’ll notice my policies are dotted with exceptions for gifts or dinners out. For me, that’s where love is: providing for other people, in sharing meals and being fed. This love is why I put so much thought into what I eat. How could I not?
Anyway, to show that caring and compromise is not so joyless, I offer this, my go-to, the easiest cake I know how to make. It’s adapted from the 1997 edition of The Joy of Cooking.
The Only Chocolate Cake
Grease a 9-inch square cake pan. Mix 1 1/2 cups flour, 1 cup sugar, 6 tablespoons cocoa powder, 1 teaspoon baking soda, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. In another bowl, stir 1 cup water, 1/4 cup vegetable oil, 1 tablespoon vinegar, and 2 teaspoons vanilla. Combine and mix until it’s homogeneous, but no longer. Pour into pan. Bake at 350°F for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick stabbed into the middle of the cake comes out clean.
Let it sit for 10 minutes and turn it out of the pan. Once the cake is totally cool, frost it, or for dinner party panache, use a mesh strainer to dust confectioner’s sugar or cocoa powder over the top. Enjoy!