A philosophical argument for vegetarianism
In many moral debates there comes a point in which one of the rivals pulls out the rather dubious argument that this thing is ‘natural’ and therefore true and the other thing is ‘unnatural’ and therefore untrue. Perhaps not surprisingly, it seems quite easy to drag his opponent into this odd arena, as the idea of the ‘natural’ is somewhat alluring. ‘Natural’ implies some perfect order, which precedes and hence defies human thinking.
One of the stormiest debates that exploits to the max this argument by both sides is the meat-eaters and animal-consumers versus vegetarianism and veganism. The meat-eaters claim that eating meat and consuming animal products are ‘natural’, as this has been the habit of man since the dawn of humanity; man is a predator by nature and his anatomy proves that he is meant to chew and digest meat, and the fact that vegetarians and vegans find themselves compelled to look for nutritional substitutes and even supplementation (mainly vitamin B-12) is a sufficient evidence that meat is an all-provider.
On the other side of the dispute, those who refrain from eating meat and sometimes from all animal products argue that in the very first chapter of Genesis God prescribes a vegan diet (“Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat”) and accordingly, in the garden of Eden humans lived on a plant-based food. They go on pointing out that as chimpanzees are the closest to us we should follow in their footsteps and become vegans, and that in general many strong and large animals – such as cows, elephants and hippos – are a living proof that one can be powerful without leaning on flesh. There is nothing natural about eating meat, they proceed, since it is also the source of many ailments in western society, such as cancers, diabetes and heart diseases. The most natural thing, on the other hand, is to derive our foods directly from plants, just as most of our preys do.
This zealous attraction towards the ‘natural’ as the ultimate argument, that somehow sets everything right, is puzzling and in this essay I wish to delve into its validity and substantiality. First and foremost, let me just say that although I’m a devout vegan for more than ten years, my obviously impartial impression is that the one that should have the upper hand in this particular debate is the meat-eaters. I do believe that we have sufficient evidence that from time immemorial man has been a meat-eater, that his anatomy as well as his physiological needs require meat, and that he has thrived on animal products, perhaps even made his greatest leaps through their consumption. Therefore it seems indeed much more natural for humans to feed on flesh.
Nevertheless, accepting that it is more natural, I must add now – so what? How has ‘natural’ become a cherished value for both sides? How is ‘natural’ an argument at all? Is man’s existence in itself ‘natural’? Isn’t it that the very emergence of self-consciousness in man significantly cut off the link with ‘natural’ evolution on this planet? Most of man’s deeds seem to be nourished by the roots of ‘natural’ evolution, yet they have gone far beyond the capacities of any other creature around. From worshipping Gods to the development of technology, humans seem to have their two animal feet on the ground yet push forward toward uncharted territories of mind and idea. Even massacres and homicides, which their perpetrators are unjustifiably called by horrified observers ‘animals’ and ‘beasts’, are a most unnatural occurrence on the planet. Those who believe in the romantic idea of the ‘return to nature’ and despise technology also use cars for their mission, and cars are not driven by any known animal.
Obviously, the ‘natural’ argument on both sides is totally lacking in the most simplistic common sense. Indeed, we grew out of nature, and yet we have also transcended it. Man is nature overcoming itself, as Nietzsche put so brilliantly, so logically whatever is known to be ‘natural’ might even at times contradict the ‘evolutionary’, the more advanced or enhanced. Nature, for man, is nothing but a starting point of a far more creative, filled with possibilities process.
So since when has ‘natural’ turned into an advantage, a virtue? Nature is automatic urges, devoid of self-consciousness. Thus, how can ‘natural’ become enshrined as a value in itself? Logically speaking, this should have been regarded as an insult – that someone should think that whatever the prehistoric man used to do might serve in any way as a source of inspiration and emulation for us nowadays. As historian Yuval Noah Harari puts: “The debate over the ‘natural way of life’ of the Homo Sapiens completely misses the primary point. Ever since the linguistic revolution (that is, seventy thousands years ago – S.T.), there is no longer such a thing as ‘a natural way of life’. The only thing there is, is the different cultural choices out of an enormous range of possibilities”.
Accordingly, the very concept of the ‘natural’ as one that presupposes the existence of a fundamental order that cannot be changed opposes even the ‘laws’ of natural evolution itself. For man, ‘natural’ is no longer an option, since ‘natural’ necessarily implies ‘regression’. That is why arguing over the exact diet that prehistoric man or chimpanzees consume or still consume simply does not make sense. Arguments often heard in the vegan movement such as “We are the only creature in the world that consumes milk in his adult life” – which means it is not ‘natural’ to consume milk in adult life – are ridiculous, in light of the fact that we’re the only creature in the world that does so many other things. Actually, in the long run such arguments that attempt to back up the vegetarian and vegan movement, do so with sloppy innocence, but unintentionally put a spoke in their own wheel.
A much saner argument will move away altogether from the ‘natural’ sinking ship and will even go as far as proclaiming: it’s not ‘natural’ – it’s evolution! This is a brand new territory – that is, the future – so let us step into it carefully and gently.
Amusingly enough, the ‘natural’ argument bonds religious people and return-to-nature people – a hard-to-believe kind of bond, as religion seems to hold on to divine origin and the nature people are infatuated with their planetary origin. And yet, both are inflicted with the tendency of culture to use nature the way it wants to see it; meaning, the tendency of culture to project onto nature. Furthermore, both share the longing for ‘the great return’, and in that there is no essential difference between the two: they yearn to go back whereas for a long time now there’s nowhere to go back to.
We shall first turn our attention to the fascinating tie that connects religion and nature. While religion explicitly despises nature and proudly declares that man did not originate from nature, it uses it whenever it is found to be beneficial for its missionary purposes. Whatever is ‘natural’ is the ‘will of God’ – since God has created nature and humans, they are all endowed with the inherent perfection of divine order. We and nature are as we are because this is how God wanted us to be, so whenever we question the moral value of something we may briefly – but only briefly! – glance at nature.
This is the odd contradiction expressed by religious people the moment they desperately search for a very good reason why, for example, homosexuality should not be permitted in the house of God. Let’s see… wait, I got it! – it’s not natural; just take a look at nature or prehistoric societies and see how homosexuality is so rare, if any, in the untamed world, and this is because God did not intend us to be that way. Of course, the question that should be raised against such a hasty argument is: how can the rarity of individuals in nature demonstrating homosexuality implies that we, humans, shouldn’t transcend nature? Isn’t this what religion has always encouraged us to do? Almost needles to day, homosexuals are tempted into this debate, exclaiming with excitement whenever some specimen in nature proves to enjoy same-sex interactions.
Man is the only creature that has no ‘nature’ since he is capable of undergoing ceaseless development and ceaseless conscious self-creation. For example, now we know that it wasn’t God who expelled man from the Garden of Eden – the human did it all by himself, by initiating the agricultural revolution, the moment he started aiming at some new and more complex manifestation. Indeed, it was man’s choice to eat bread ‘in the sweat of thy face’.
What is ‘natural’ for man seems to persistently change from one era to another – does it mean that God’s will is changing along with it? For the most part, religion does tend to resist progress, based on the unfounded belief that whatever ‘was’ (be it the Garden of Eden or the time of the prophet) must have been the ‘golden era’, and thus the believer is doomed to the agonizing yearning to go back.
It used to be ‘natural’ (and correspondingly, ‘God’s will’) to die of pneumonia and other diseases; now it’s not. It used to be ‘natural’ and thus ‘God’s will’ to be born terribly hairy, only because there was nothing one could do about it – nowadays hairy people can become as smooth as a newborn. It used to be ‘God’s will’ to come into this world in a male body with the tormenting desire to be a woman, only because no technology existed to alter this ‘fact’, and now it’s possible to morph into a woman (and I bet that soon enough it will be even easier and with better results). And even the ultimate fact, that sustains the remaining power of religions over the minds of frightened men and women – that is, death as a natural and inevitable disintegration – might die away by the hands of some genius scientists, and in this way it would also become ‘unnatural’.
On the other side of the hope for great return, the advocates of the return-to-nature are likewise inflicted with the religious belief that a true paradise had existed here before the great evolutionary mishap occurred. This is romantic yet horribly distorted. Their dreams on returning to ‘nature’ presuppose that ‘nature’ equals the ‘simplicity’ and ‘calm’ of the pre-thought state. This is supported by the occasional experience of spending some time in nature and feeling great in this uncorrupted sphere. From the stoics of ancient Greece to the European romantic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, man has been always characterized by this frailty of judgment in regard to the natural world. Darwin’s violent evolution was supposed to discourage this tendency, by demonstrating the extent to which nature is far from being ‘simple’ or ‘peaceful’. Perceiving nature as the great reflector of the ‘inherently perfect and wholesome order’ is a short-sightedness caused by the wishful thinking of human thought – hoping to be relieved by some perfection that can overpower its own overwhelming complexity. Yet, when we deeply understand ‘nature’ we realize that in so many ways thought is the direct and, yes, natural, extension of ‘natural evolution’ itself, and not a deviation at all. Natural evolution, just like its humble servant ‘thought’, is not ‘order’ but rather a horrifyingly tireless movement of impulses and urges aiming at overcoming and overpowering each other.
The great German philosopher, Nietzsche, addressed directly the stoics in his ‘Beyond good and evil’, pointing precisely at this drawback:
“You desire to LIVE ‘according to Nature’? Oh, you noble Stoics, what fraud of words! Imagine to yourselves a being like Nature, boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain: imagine to yourselves INDIFFERENCE as a power—how COULD you live in accordance with such indifference? To live—is not that just endeavoring to be otherwise than this Nature? Is not living valuing, preferring, being unjust, being limited, endeavoring to be different? And granted that your imperative, ‘living according to Nature’, means actually the same as ‘living according to life’—how could you do DIFFERENTLY? Why should you make a principle out of what you yourselves are, and must be? In reality, however, it is quite otherwise with you: while you pretend to read with rapture the canon of your law in Nature, you want something quite the contrary, you extraordinary stage-players and self-deluders! In your pride you wish to dictate your morals and ideals to Nature, to Nature herself, and to incorporate them therein; you insist that it shall be Nature ‘according to the Stoa’, and would like everything to be made after your own image, as a vast, eternal glorification and generalism of Stoicism! With all your love for truth, you have forced yourselves so long, so persistently, and with such hypnotic rigidity to see Nature FALSELY, that is to say, Stoically, that you are no longer able to see it otherwise—and to crown all, some unfathomable superciliousness gives you the Bedlamite hope that BECAUSE you are able to tyrannize over yourselves—Stoicism is self-tyranny—Nature will also allow herself to be tyrannized over: is not the Stoic a PART of Nature?…”
The return-to-nature longing is an attraction towards pre-modern feelings and states of being, while completely overlooking the fact that in pre-modern societies people actually believed that thunders were the gods’ wrath! Sadly enough, a thorough and unbiased examination of pre-modern belief systems and ways of living does not support the notion that any pre-thought paradise ever existed on this unfortunate planet. The ‘untamed and uncorrupted truth’ is to be found neither in nature nor in tribal men and women. The fact something had existed before thought came into being does not make it more ‘real’ – ‘real’ as ‘peaceful’ or ‘beautiful’. Nature only seems harmonious, ‘natural’ people from the dawn of humanity are only pictured in the mind as united with nature.
The plain facts are rather painful: humans have never been deeply ‘connected’ to nature and a ‘natural’ man has never walked on this planet. Homo sapiens has been, from the day of his initial emergence, a violent and murderous creature, eaten up with unbridled will to power. Aside from its own kind, there had been nine other kinds of man known to current researchers, all of them were miraculously wiped out, which seems to be the handiwork of Homo sapiens. Twelve thousands years ago only Homo sapiens prevailed. He also partook in the extinction of an unimaginable number of the great animals of Australia and America, and the first wave of his spreading out across the world was one of the fastest and greatest ecological disasters in the entire history of the earth. Our ancestors, completely free from the bondage of complex ‘thought’, were by no means more attuned to nature than the modern industrialists. Actually, it is even possible to say that the industrialist, given the technological power he possesses, is more restrained compared with prehistoric man. Who knows if the ‘natural’ man, equipped with such powers, wouldn’t have devastated in no time the entire world!
Really, there is no ‘return to nature’, since nature is violence, and there is no return to ‘oneness with nature’, as man has always been in conflict with nature, forever aspiring to overpower it and to appropriate it. There is no return to nature just as there is no return to the ‘pure inner child’, an idea fostered by the New Age advocates (in actuality, for the most part children are not ‘childlike’ at all – they are quite violent in their demands, possessive, jealous, selfish and even sometimes cruel; just observe a two years old when he is denied something he wants or a bunch of children crowding around an unpopular boy or girl). But it only gets worse: there’s no return to anything, not to some ‘pre-prehistoric-advanced cultures’ (such as the myths of Atlantis and Lemuria), and not to some spiritual dimension from which we all sprang – we, white and perfect entities of the heavens. Even the ‘Buddha nature’ of Buddhism is not ‘natural’ at all, since there’s nothing less natural for us, human beings, than to be steeped in the perfect calm of no-desire.
The idea of ‘falling from grace’ is nothing but a fantasy constructed by thought as a reaction to the frightening forces of evolution. Life seems hard and demanding, as it has always been from time immemorial (though in many respects it does get better and better), and we tend to fantasize that once it wasn’t so, that everything took the wrong turn, that evolution is a wrong turn, as Jean Liedloff so vigorously argued in the ‘Continuum concept’. Through this fantasy of the ‘lost paradise’, evolution is presented as a mistake rather than as an opportunity. It is human being straying from the right path of perfect order (though the world began as a total mess and at least appears to greatly enjoy it). Accordingly, the concept of the ‘lost paradise’ never vanishes from the minds of men, only shape-shifts as one and only regressive dream. This can merrily take the form of some ‘natural nutrition’ that is inevitably ‘perfect’ – be it the raw food diet (according to which cooking is the great wrong turn, in spite of growing evidence that cooking played a major role in the development of our human brain) or the newfound ‘caveman diet’ which imagines that cavemen were actually the healthiest men ever.
The fantasy of the ‘lost paradise’ thrives on the unconscious wish to avoid the forces of evolution and to escape the violent world of conflicted powers. The real challenge, however, is to embrace the possibility inherent in development. The possibility of something that has never yet occurred can finally bestow on us the realization that we, nature and humans alike, have never had the pleasure of world peace and heaven on earth; there is no heaven except for the one we might create one day.
When it comes to man, the very concern whether this thing or another are ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ is simply irrelevant. It may not be natural at all to be a homosexual, a vegan or, more futuristically, an immortal, yet the more man complexifies, the more he becomes ‘unnatural’ in million other ways.
Indeed, man, apparently unlike animals, is nothing but a brimming potential. This is not a humanistic view at all, as it does not elevate human beingness in itself. To the contrary: it implies that man becomes worthy and valuable only if he transcends himself; man’s fulfillment is to be found only in his ability to overcome the current level of manhood itself. Humans, for instance, may not be ‘beautiful’ just as they are, like animals, plants and inanimate elements, but can become beautiful – even not ‘destined to become’, only ‘can become’ and nothing more.
As already suggested at the very beginning, in the ‘natural’ debate between vegetarians and meat-eaters, meat-eaters triumph over their bitter rivals pretty easily. However, that may not be such a great compliment, given the insight that ‘natural’ for man only implies a current stage that needs to be overcome (if man is to be man at all). In actuality, the ability to shatter biological and instinctual conventions or the ability to empathize with the suffering of others who do not belong to one’s familiar affiliations are evolution and certainly not ‘nature’. The ability to become a homosexual, to remove body hair and to overpower the killing instinct is one-hundred percent evolutionary. Truly, if nature could speak, it might have vehemently resisted too these new ‘cultural’ inclinations.
Being considerate to animals implies an inevitable development of the human emotional centers. It requires a far more inclusive emotional worldview, which recognizes the otherness of all other beings on this planet as well as the intrinsic connections between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Watching another species through an unfiltered heart, that realizes both oneness and otherness, is a tremendous leap of our emotional layers. And when that emotion comes into being, we are willing to overcome our own ‘nature’ (and ‘nature’ for man is really only a habit or an acquired tendency): to overpower our habit of being a predator, a habit acquired through millions of years of evolutionary pressures; to defeat the habit of perceiving animals as a potential source of energy and power; to defy our habitual attachment to the taste of meat and animal products and to gradually imbue our taste buds with a higher morality.
Evolution in this context is our potential ability to face the rest of the animal community and tell them: we used you for so long since we couldn’t handle otherwise, but from now on we no longer need to exploit you, as we have achieved such a vast scope of knowledge so as to be nourished by other means; we now stand on our two feet, and we know how to manage by ourselves; you are not needed anymore as a resource, as machines that only narrow minds could perceive for so long as lacking in emotional life – therefore you are free to be.
Yes, this is a new kind of man, but as we said, the meaning of being a human is to always overcome the former, lower kind of man. Perhaps it even involves some new mutation, as the anatomy itself should grow accustom to having no meat and animal products. Who knows, maybe even the body will learn to produce its own B-12 or learn how to forego it altogether! These are probably wild theories, but mutations do occur all the time. It is very likely that eating meat has led us to the development of such a magnificently complex brain, yet it’s also very likely that only vegetarianism or even veganism can lead us further, to uncharted territories that meat-eating Homo sapiens can never reach.
Thus, eating meat is more natural, but avoiding it is more evolutionary. Eating meat may be even healthier – and the absence of B-12 in vegan products may testify to that – and yet it is wonderfully possible nowadays to go vegan. Our evolving technology has made it possible. And if we have finally achieved this remarkable landmark in which we can remove animal exploitation from our food shelves, then we have an evolutionary choice that may shift our consciousness and elevate our emotional centers. In this great intersection we don’t have to let go of animal exploitation, and simultaneously we no longer need animals as a source of energy and nourishment. And when you don’t have to do something, only the aspiration towards a higher level of humanhood can make you choose compassion, which is the expansion of the heart to include another as your own self; the unfiltered knowing that it no longer makes sense that you should derive your pleasure and enjoyment from other creature’s suffering.
Vegetarianism and veganism are by far a more evolutionary nutrition, which is based not only on our newfound ability to actually drop animal products but also on a conscious choice to overcome and develop. Therefore, in my mind it seems that the vegetarian and vegan movements would be better off without the unfounded argument of the ‘natural’. It should move now to the fresh air of new evolutionary horizons, emphasizing the limitations of the current worldview. In this context, out of the many famous-people-quotations that adorn the vegetarian and vegan ideologies it seems like the most accurate ones are the most evolutionary ones, the ones that tie world change with the transcendence of the meat habit: “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances of survival for life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet” (Einstein); “As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields” (Tolstoy), and finally, Pythagoras: “For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love”.