Would we eat E.T.?

Imagine that one of these years, we run into life on another planet. Not bacteria or some other tiny life-form, but say a kind of medium-sized mammal. Would we eat these creatures?

I’m not talking about you or me as individuals, or Elon Musk when he first sets foot on the planet in question, but about society in general. Would the cultural consensus be that these are creatures that we’re allowed to hunt or raise for food?

Much will depend on their exact nature and their qualitiesHow intelligent are they? To what extent are they similar to ourselves and to the animals we’re already eating? Let’s assume that in terms of intelligence, these extra-terrestrials are somewhat similar to pigs. In terms of physical aspects, they look completely alien (they may not have a head, or may have a weird number of limbs, a strange color and skin, or whatever), but they definitely look edible (meaty, let’s say). We’re also assuming we can’t communicate with them any more than we can with animals on this planet.

E.T. on the grill (www.alienbbq.org)
E.T. on the grill (www.alienbbq.org)

You may think that humankind is just about depraved enough to start factory farming these creatures. My guess, however, is that when we find this sort of life form on another planet, it would be much easier to grant these creatures the right not to be eaten than to grant it to pigs (or cows or chickens). Part of the reason could lie in some kind of curiosity and respect we’d have for them for being from another planet. But the more important reason is that we are not using these beings yet. Prohibiting ourselves from eating them wouldn’t really affect many people. Compare that to the attempt to give rights to farmed animals, of which we are eating over sixty billion specimens a year (not counting sea creatures). Both economically and individually, we are incredibly dependent on using animals right now.

One way to put this situation is: where we stand depends on where we sit. If we have a stake in killing and eating animals, changing our mind about them will be so much more difficult (we’re steakholders), than in the case of a newly discovered alien life form that is in many respects pretty similar to the animals we’re already eating.

This dependency on using animals needs to be tackled if we want to make any progress with changing people’s minds. That’s why developing alternatives, including clean meat, is so enormously important. When we will have decreased our use of animals, hearts and minds will be a lot more open to change. This applies to both the individual level and the societal level.

E.T., I think, is relatively safe. Now, let’s get back to Earth and take all the other animals out of the food chain.

PS Check out www.alienbbq.org, or read this interview with Dr Jared Piazza, in which he talks about a research study involving a thought experiment with an imaginary creature.


On veggie burgers and thought experiments

Several people commented how the answer to my thought experiment about the yummy veggie burger and the dreadful vegan burger was very obvious: they would recommend that our friend order the veggie burger.

However, to others, this doesn’t appear obvious at all. More than that, some people seem not to understand the value of thought experiments, or what I’m trying to do with them. I’ll use some examples of reactions on a Facebook group to give my view on a couple of things. I’m under no illusion that any of my responses will sway the people who wrote these things, but it may help others to recognize bad arguments when they see them.

So let’s analyse a couple of reactions and see what arguments are being used. I’ll keep the reactions anonymous, as it is not my intention to smear anyone, rather just to get some clarity (I love clarity, I wish there was more of it in my mind.)

I grouped reactions according to the kinds of arguments I see in them, but some reactions could be classified under more than one heading (sadly). I put my comments below each reaction.

Honest reactions (but which express, in my view, bad arguments)

These reactions are correct in the sense that they are to-the-point, and don’t try to change the premises of the thought experiment, are not ad hominem, and so on.

“My objective is not to promote vegan food, my objective is to promote the idea that using animal products is morally wrong. I cannot offer anything that contains animal products by pointing that it does not contain meat, it would be supporting the wrong idea that there is a moral difference between using meat and using other animal products. It is confusing for the nonvegan person and it is counterproductive for the animal rights movement.”

VS: If this person really doesn’t want to recommend anything that’s non-vegan because they believe it’s confusing and counterproductive, and this is his honest view of things, that’s perfectly fine by me. (Even though I don’t think this is a particularly strategic view, in the sense that I explained in the article).

“The idea that ends justifies means is one of the worst ideas in the history, it is not only counterproductive for nonhuman rights, it is counterproductive for all justice movements. It is not morally right to offer or promote a nonvegan burger, even with good intentions.”

VS: The same person abhors the idea of the end justifying the means, and I can understand that. But I would say it’s a moot saying, and I would quote Saul Alinsky in Rules for Radicals: “That perennial question, ‘Does the end justify the means?’ is meaningless as it stands; the real and only question regarding the ethics of means and ends is, and always has been, ‘Does this particular end justify this particular means?’

Questioning the assumptions in the thought experiment

Many people try to change the premise of the thought experiment. For instance, this person wonders why we need to assume the vegan burger is bad (as if there is no such thing in the universe):

“I would like to order the delicious vegan burger. Why does Tobias assume it’s the vegan one that tastes bad anyhow?”

VS: Ehm, that’s just the assumption that we posit, in order to have something to think about…? Of course vegan burgers are not necessarily bad. I don’t need to explain this one to you I assume.
A thought experiment is meant to create some clarity on one’s assumptions, on the values one finds important, on what one prioritizes. If you go along with the experiment, you can possibly discover interesting ideas. If you don’t want to, that’s fine, but don’t change the premise because then the experiment becomes meaningless.

Assuming bad intentions behind my thought experiments

Some people believe I develop these thought experiments to show we don’t have to be vegan, or that being vegan is bad, or whatever. I’ve even been called a troll because indeed these thought experiments may sound like the arguments from meat eaters who try to put us on the spot (which is why some call my thought experiments “gotchas”):

“All his thought experiments are designed to have non-veganism as the optimal outcome.”

“The game is rigged so the best outcome is buying or eating animal products for ‘long term’ gain. Why does he never offer vegan solutions to these problems? This is ridiculous.

VS: My intention is to show there is more to vegan advocacy than just following the vegan orthodoxy, and that results (also long time results) are at this point in time more important than rules. If you want to hear more on this, watch the first video here.

Lennaert [sic] acts like an industry shill.

VS: No comment.

Misrepresenting and misinterpreting my conclusions or recommendations

“I can’t stand to the nonstop nonsense they post on this terrible so-called vegan strategist blog. So according to this blog post, it’s a good vegan strategy to tell our nonvegan friends to eat a nonvegan burger to satisfy their palate pleasure. No, thank you.”

“Seems like he is always trying to undermine a vegan solution. Why does he want vegans to endorse eating or using animals? I’m astonished at vegans promoting this.”

“If vegans always compromise and order an option containing eggs/cheese, or don’t even bother to ask if an item is vegan for fear of making a fuss, then the availability of vegan options will remain poor. ”

I hope I don’t need to show you why these are simplifications and generalizations of my recommendations. I trust that if you read the text, you see that my point is not to never be consistent or demand vegan products (indeed I think opening our mouths and insisting on a vegan option is very important and fruitful). Neither do I want “vegans to endorse eating or using animals”.

Discrediting the person

This is the well known ad hominem or “poisoning the well” argument.

“Tobias is not a moral philosopher by any stretch of the imagination!”

“When will these people who refer to themselves as “vegan” stop referring to other animals as nothing more than recipe ingredients? The lack of respect shown toward other animals, and the message that “our movement is about food” is really depressing.”

This last one I find particularly pernicious and dishonest. It’s something we see a lot these days: the attempt (often while knowing better) to show how a person whose argument we don’t agree with, is not a good person, lacks respect, is a speciesist, etc.

Why the resistance?
The poor quality of most of these arguments, and some people’s inability to deal with the thought experiments, makes me suspect that they really have a problem accepting the logical outcome of the experiment: namely that it IS not always beneficial to stick to your moral philosophy and orthodoxy for the full hundred percent. People seem to want to avoid this in their eyes horrible conclusion at all costs. Maybe the idea that a moral system or a strategy should not always be followed to the letter is scary to some, because it takes away something that gave them security and structure? I’m just guessing.

Anyway, I don’t think that admitting that there maybe exceptions, that not everything is black and white… should be so horrible. I try to show that sometimes the easier way, is the more effective way. What’s so bad about that?

Finally, here’s an argument I can see no logical problems in 🙂

one does not.jpg

I might make my own version though, saying:

“One does not have a big impact on animals simply by becoming vegan.”


A yummy veggieburger or a dreadful vegan burger?

For those who dig them, here’s another thought experiment (you know I love those).

Suppose you’re out and about with an omnivorous friend. He’s very hungry and he wants to humor you and try something veg. The only restaurant in the area has two things on offer: a delicious vegetarian burger (you know it contains a bit of egg or cheese) and a very dry and tasteless vegan burger. Which one do you recommend he order? (Or a bit more difficult: Which one would you buy for him?)

veggie vs vegan

In an ideal world, of course, there’s great tasting vegan burgers everywhere, but going along with this thought experiment may help you discover or make explicit something about your values. I’m sure we agree that the vegan burger is in theory the more ethical choice. But does it follow that it is necessarily the best choice?

The experiences omnivores have with vegan food will have a very big impact on their thinking about vegan and animal rights issues. Those who have had only Bad Tofu Experiences will likely be much less open to going vegan, while those who know the joys of vegan dishes may realize that once they quit their omnivorous diet, they will have great alternatives.

So in this context, of course, it does not seem to be a good idea to suggest a bad product to a person, even though it’s vegan. A yummy experience with the veggie burger (which will look pretty plant-based to your friend anyway) will do much more to open his mind.

I remember speaking at a (non-animal rights related) seminar that took place in a hotel. I had eaten there the night before and I knew the vegan food was quite bad. But after the talk I gave on the problems of eating meat, the organizers asked the audience who would want to switch to a vegetarian meal that night. Almost everybody raised their hand, and I thought: “Noooooo! Not here!”

Take away one: Helping people have great vegan taste experiences is absolutely crucial. If we can’t serve them good vegan food, it might actually be better to let them eat a hamburger.

Take away two: Don’t think just about short-term impact, but also about the long term.


Would you eat meat for a lot of money?

The other day I asked strict vegetarians/vegans the following question on my Facebook wall: if you would receive 10.000 €, would you eat a steak? With almost 200 replies, it was one of the most liveliest discussions on my otherwise pretty lively wall.

As could be expected, a lot of replies were along the lines of “never! for no money in the world!” I could feel the pride and the confidence in those answers. No, of course they would not sell out! Of course these people wouldn’t betray their principles for money! Fortunately, pretty early in the discussion was an in my view more thoughtful reply: someone found it worth considering, since she could use the money to save animals.

That was also my view, and honestly, I wouldn’t hesitate. I’m not vegan for the sake of being vegan. My main reason to be vegan is to help animals and do my thing to make the world a better place in general, for all beings. If someone offers me a good amount of money to eat a steak (which is not the same as offering me money to kill an animal, which I wouldn’t do), I would take it. More than that: I would feel guilty if I didn’t. I would not want to put my own ideological or physical purity above the practical implications of accepting that sum.

I kept the amount offered purposely low, because I thought that for say one million euros the question would definitely be a no-brainer. But even then, apparently, many people wouldn’t have a bite. To be honest, I have difficulty understanding this attitude. I value pragmatism and actual change above anything else, and certainly above dogmatic principles. If this means that, as someone put it “there is something wrong with my veganism”, then so be it. I believe the vegan movement, like many other ideological movements, suffers from too much ideology and is in more need of pragmatism.

Does it make a difference whether people, or maybe a mass audience, would know about my “betrayal”? I think it does. If I would need to do this on TV, I would think harder, but I’d probably do it. I think that giving the message in itself that not all veg*ns are dogmatic and impractical ideologists is valuable in itself. Many veg*ns and animal rights activists would of course say that the audience would value consistency more. Maybe that is so, but I worry that the concern for coherence and consistency lives much more in their minds than in the omnivore’s, and that the premium we put on our exceptionless consistency turns more people off than it turns on.

It’s not that I can’t understand any counterarguments at all, but I haven’t come across one that I personally find valid. Feel free to try to change my mind with your comment… And please vote 🙂

Also read the follow up: Eating meat for money, the sequel.

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