Monday, February 14, 2011

The Vegetarian Myth - More to Take Away Than I Expected

The Vegetarian Myth, Final Thoughts

I meant to write this a few months ago, but I have been busy with work and the holidays.  So here we go, into more depth into some of the insights and shortcomings of the Vegetarian Myth (being vegan I'm surprised I can even remember any of this stuff ... jk):

Note that this blog entry is not meant to address everything in the Vegetarian Myth (that should go without saying, but a lot of people like to jump on you for not saying EVERYTHING) ...

The truth is, I wasn't expecting to be challenged by this book at all when I got it out from the library. But it has helped me think about different aspects of the vegan position and challenged some of the ideas that I hold/held close to me.  Being challenged is a blessing, so I thank Lierre Kieth for this.

First of all, because the poor arguments are always the most fun to focus on, here are some points she should never have made or made differently:

1. She creates a straw man for the animal rights position ... saying that people base AR and veganism on not eating anything with a face or that suckles its young.  This is an act of logical cowardice to take on the weakest arguments rather than the strongest.  But more to the point, the faces, etc. misrepresents the case for AR.  It's stupid.  I would venture to guess that anyone who earnestly bases their decision to support animal rights on faces or teats, has not spent much time actually thinking out the integrity of that argument.  The fact is that sentience is the keystone of a coherent AR morality, not faces nor teats.

Maybe there are animal rights people who 'reason' along these lines, but I've never met a vegan who talks like this; more to the point, as I am sure such people exist, the 'relevancy of faces' position is not really worth anyone's consideration (we've already dallied on it for too long).  I once heard someone say that she doesn't eat anything with legs ... it's as awkward to hear as it is to consider logically.

There are other straw man arguments in the text; however, like I mentioned before this entry is not meant to be exhaustive.

2. Talking about plant sentience is interesting, but it's also arrogant.  The only way that we come to understand sentience first hand is through our experience; the way that we ascribe that experience to other beings (including humans) is through creating an inductive case that is founded in physiology, behaviour, empathy, neurological activity, and our interactions with those beings (as well as other factors).

On a side note: it's interesting that a lot of people think that empathy is not meaningful; however, it carries important weight: at a physical level empathy is brain activity that simulates the experience of another being, and creates a chemical 'in someone else's shoes' response.  Our brains are hard wired to know that there are other sentient beings in the world.  We inherently know when another being is sentient (now that is not meant to serve as evidence that plants are not sentient or that other beings are - don't get me wrong).  The point is that everyone knows that they can hurt a dog.  Although we subjectively experience empathy, overall it is an objective argument coming from an observation of our hard wiring.

Anyway, I am getting off track.  The main point is that observations about behaviour, combined with other inductive pillars make sentience in another being the best answer in determining the most basic aspect of another living being's inner life.  The case for plant sentience seems to be heavy on behaviour evidence and not much else.  But the inductive case for plant sentience, as it has been presented in this book and elsewhere can be summed up as: plants interact with the world (and react to it) in a way that we can observe; therefore, they are sentient.  This strikes me as terribly arrogant that one can assume that plants are sentient because we have a little bit of knowledge about them.  Finally, the argument for plant sentience, as it stands does not suggest that their sentience is the easiest explanation for their type of existence.

And no, it does not seem like a problem to be sentience-centric, or a sentietist.  That is discrimination that actually makes sense. I could write on that further at some other point, but it's too tangential to tackle here.

3. She resorts to ad hominems at times.  Now, this does not totally destory the points that her ad hominem arguments are meant to support; however, Kieth often wastes the chance to add meaningful support, also diminishing the political power of the book by creating offense and mind closing polarization through unnecessary cognitive dissonance.  Ad hominems like those about the woman with poor memory or the digs about John Robbins (and vegans retreating to John Robbins for comfort towards the end) appear to be added for a malicious rhetorical purpose (which is more adverse than benign), but they add up to create inductive weight against her position.  Talk about being emotionally imbalanced ... I kid! - That joke won't make any sense if you have not read the book and/or seen her speak.

Anyway, she is genuinely offensive at times, and I have no reason to believe that she could have intended otherwise.  At the end of the day it's slightly less rudimentary than name calling.

4. She uses plenty of anecdotal arguments.  The most relevant and inconsistent one, in my mind, is her appeal to your experience: the 'listen to your body' appeal.  Now this 'argument' was actually very persuasive to me at the time.  It just so happened that my stomach hurt while I was reading the book.  I think it was because I was eating like 8 tomatoes per day, because we had purchased a half crate that had fallen on the floor at the grocery store (which they were going to throw out).  Anyway, needless to say that my stomach pains resided ... either way, the listen to your body appeal is not logically persuasive.  In the end though this may have been her way of hedging her bets.  She does seem earnest, and I don't think she should be met with hostitility.

5. She constructs a metaphysical system that closes off the potential for meaningful criticism of her position.  We all do this at some point in our lives; we're likely doing it right now.  It is how beliefs are formed, but this practice is problematic when we start to explain everything based on a few important although partial observations.

Some examples of this are individuals explaining everything in the world in terms of gender, race, speciesism, or sexuality.  Some people are that one-minded, and they obviously miss the fact that there are many factors that contribute to any one problem.  This may seem like a strength for a theory, but as Karl Popper helps us understand, this all encompassing nature of a position, if it cannot be unverified, is a weakness not a strength.

Keith creates many generalizations from this founding principle.  For example, she said in an interview, after she was pied at the Anarchist bookfair, that it happened because the people were vegan and unstable.  Not only is such a claim pretentious; it is fallacious as well.  I do want to say at this point though, that the vegans who did this are an embarrassment to everyone, not just to vegans.  Lierre Keith is not any enemy.  She has fundamental points where she disagrees with vegans, but she is for revolution.  It is important to note the fact that this was the opposite of an act of compassion ...

I think it is of the utmost importance that we approach this book openly.  I've seen videos for example, that are predominantly ad hominems.  We have to take on the actual points, go back to the sources, and debunk them if there is any debunking that is worth doing.  We can never actually debunk anything in the Vegetarian Myth by attacking Lierre Keith.  And, we should not be doing this in the first place.

I promise this next point is the last one before a break.  This is a long damn post.  I applaud you if you have stuck with it this long.

6. The way she talks about evolution. This point is embarrassing to bring up in relation to anyone besides Michael Pollan.   I don't know if she just doesn't understand it fully, or if she got a little too drunk no Michael Pollan or what ... A simple knockdown point is that species don't evolve purposively.  Even humans don't evolve in a purposive manner as a collective, and our nervous system is the most evolved for this potential function.  Humans have artificially selected some species for continued reproduction; however, the proposition which both Pollan, and Lierre Keith through Pollan, make is that these species adapted us to their needs.

This is an embarrassing case of the historian's fallacy. Essentially their deal striking hypothesis of evolution argues that cows, chickens, and other domesticated animals AND plants projected into the future using us for their own adaptive ends. The claim that cows and plants can project decades into the future is profound indeed, and such a claim REQUIRES profound and persuasive evidence.  All that we receive in the stead of evidence in this misrepresentation of evolution is poetic fancy.  There is no logic or evidence for their case, only misread causes for effects that we can see.  Simply stating that an idea can possibly make sense tells us nothing about its real truth value.  They are different issues of epistemology.

Don't worry there are plenty more things to dive into about this book.  I'll save that for tomorrow though, or two months from now :P.  For any non-vegans out there, please do read this ... so as not to make an ass out of both of us: I do have some points to make on the other side.  As I mentioned earlier there are some tremendously important points she brings up.  I'll get to those later (and yes I already have them drafted).

All the best to anyone who read through all of this.  I hope it made your brain feel good.