24 November 2009

From Today's New York Times

To the Editor:

Re “Animal, Vegetable, Miserable,” by Gary Steiner (Op-Ed, Nov. 22):

Mr. Steiner might feel less lonely as an ethical vegan—he says he has just five vegan friends—if he recognized that he has allies in mere vegetarians (like me), ethical omnivores and even carnivores. Some of us agree with his outlook, but just don’t have the fortitude to make every sacrifice he makes.

In fact, a whole lot of semi-vegans can do much more for animals than the tiny number of people who are willing to give up all animal products and scrupulously read labels. Farm animals also benefit from the humane farming movement, even if the animal welfare changes it effects are not all that we should hope and work for.

If the goal is not moral perfection for ourselves, but the maximum benefit for animals, half-measures ought to be encouraged and appreciated.

Go vegan, go vegetarian, go humane or just eat less meat. It’s all good advice from the point of view of doing better by animals.

Jean Kazez
Dallas, Nov. 22, 2009
The writer teaches philosophy at Southern Methodist University and is the author of the forthcoming “Animalkind: What We Owe to Animals.”

To the Editor:

Soon after I read Gary Steiner’s article, my wife asked me to kill a spider, which I did. This made me feel guilty. Spiders are living creatures, too; perhaps I should have gently caught it and carried it outdoors?

It is hard to imagine where a line can be drawn. We kill so many living creatures when we build a house, construct a road, drive down that road or just walk on a path. How far do we go in protecting them?

When we plant and harvest crops that vegans would find acceptable to eat, many animals are killed and their habitats are destroyed.

If we all decide to consider animals as precious as humans, the only logical place for us is back in the jungle. But even then if we were to survive we would have to kill some animals in self-defense.

Alexander Mauskop
New York, Nov. 22, 2009

To the Editor:

I am an ethical vegan. Gary Steiner perfectly articulates my feelings, and particularly my frustration, as so many around me obsess about the preparation of their turkeys.

When one “goes vegan,” what seems obvious to that person is ridiculed by a large part of society. Mr. Steiner illustrates the disconnect within our culture about eating animals and the righteousness with which people will defend that disconnect.

Alice Walker once said: “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.”

I hope that Mr. Steiner’s essay will result in people at least stopping for a moment, before carving the birds on their tables, and giving these ideas some serious critical thought.

Chris Taylor
Lawrence, Kan., Nov. 22, 2009

To the Editor:

Gary Steiner’s case for veganism founders on the facts. First, the human digestive system has evolved to accommodate an omnivorous diet, not a purely vegetable one.

Indeed, many paleoanthropologists maintain that the evolution of the large, energy-hungry human brains depended on a transition of our ancestors’ diets to include meat.

And vegans must tread a very narrow line to avoid all sorts of deficiency diseases, while omnivores have very broad latitude in diet, as a survey of world cuisines makes evident.

Second, our food animals have co-evolved with us. Cows, domestic sheep, chickens and many others would not survive if they were not raised for human consumption, protected from malnutrition, disease and predators.

Professor Steiner is entitled to his beliefs and his tofurkey; most of the rest of us will enjoy our turkey without guilt (but with vegetable stuffing).

Lawrence S. Lerner
Woodside, Calif., Nov. 22, 2009
The writer is professor emeritus at the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at California State University, Long Beach.

To the Editor:

Gary Steiner recognizes that many of us justify eating animals because we believe we are superior to them. Mr. Steiner rightly rejects this view as morally flawed.

Humans can acceptably consume animals precisely because we are not superior to them at all. Wolves eat sheep. Tuna eat mackerel. We are animals ourselves—and are no more (or less) than the animals we consume, or than the predators that would otherwise consume them.

If we are not justified in eating mackerel ourselves, are we not also morally obligated to stop the slaughter brought on by the tuna?

Such an obligation would make us the protectors of all species, and the destroyers of every ecosystem on earth.

L. David Peters
New York, Nov. 22, 2009

To the Editor:

As a vegetarian for 18 years, I have been confronted with the same questions that Gary Steiner faces from those challenging his dietary habits. I learned an effective response long ago that has benefited both my blood pressure and friendships.

I say with a big smile: “My vegetarianism is a personal choice that I usually don’t discuss in detail. I’m happy to eat with nonvegetarians.” And then I’m quiet.

That has pleasantly ended many potentially uncomfortable exchanges. Being vegetarian, as with being a member of a political party or a religious denomination, does not bestow license to convert others to one’s own way of thinking.

On my deathbed, I’ll be happy to have lived life as a vegetarian and also (I hope) comforted by many who were not alienated through heated discussions about my dietary choices.

Lisa Dinhofer
Frederick, Md., Nov. 22, 2009

To the Editor:

I will rise to the challenge Gary Steiner presents. He’s right: I don’t care deeply about the suffering of animals I eat, wear or otherwise benefit from. Suffering and injustice are inherent in life, and time is short.

Moreover, I find no way to shine a moral spotlight on one corner without letting shadows fall on another. I radically limit my conscious sphere of concern (just as Mr. Steiner must).

My moral boundaries may be rational or reflexive, expansive or selfish—who can judge?

I also recognize that alleviating suffering in one area may cause pain elsewhere. My mind and spirit are continually tested by outrages, from the countless dead innocents in current wars to the limited life prospects of my son’s first-grade classmates with drug dealers for parents.

Were I also to internalize the pain experienced by animals, I’d simply shut down. Whose lot could that possibly help?

Sandy Asirvatham
Baltimore, Md., Nov. 22, 2009

To the Editor:

I was shocked to read that Gary Steiner thinks his cat can’t appreciate Schubert’s late symphonies. It’s not the feline lack of musical discernment that I found disturbing (I don’t “get” Schubert’s symphonies either), but rather that Mr. Steiner owns a pet.

If he wishes to make no distinction between animal and human life and rights, how does he justify keeping an animal in what amounts to captivity?

And where does he draw the line between keeping a cow for milk and keeping a cat or dog for comfort or gratification?

Alice Desaulniers
Irvington, N.Y., Nov. 23, 2009

Note from KBJ: Every letter except the first (by an analytic philosopher with whom I attended graduate school) is confused. Several of them commit flagrant fallacies. Sometimes I despair over the quality of thought in this country. When even educated, intelligent people make elementary mistakes, there is no hope.