By James McWilliams
Tune in with what’s happening with veganic agriculture today and you’ll discover something critical at work: intentionality. Indeed, the intention to not kill animals for food is driving innovation, and that innovation is intended to reduce and perhaps one day even eliminate the unintentional critter killing that marks so much plant-based agriculture today.
In a clever little contrarian article from 2003, Steven L. Davis, in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, argues that vegans seeking to cause the least harm to sentient animals would be better off eating large herbivores than plants.
His case hinges on the verifiable fact that industrial plant production, with its brute force machinery, systematically kills—as he calculates it—more sentient vermin than would be killed if we simply fattened ruminants on pasture and ate them instead. It’s the kind of argument that makes a vegan choke on his granola because, alas, if it’s correct, then our most sacred behavioral adaptation to compassionate living is, well, dead wrong.
But the ethical vegan need not worry too much over Davis’ hypothesis.
Let’s go ahead and grant that Davis’ calculations are correct (I seriously doubt they are, though, as mechanization in modern agriculture is heaviest when it comes to growing row crops that we feed to animals) and let’s go ahead and concede that, even if we grew only plants for people on a medium scale, we’d still kill untold numbers of innocent critters using current methods of agricultural production.
Ceding these points, an important fact remains: intention matters. In Davis’ plan we are intentionally structuring food production to kill sentient creatures. In the vegan’s utopia, the killing of sentient creatures is an unintended consequence of a system designed to not kill animals for food. Davis all too quickly dismisses this distinction. He writes, “it seems to be the harm done to the animal is the same–dead is dead.” In other words, intention is irrelevant.
It is here, in my opinion, where the argument crumbles. What he fails to enter into his calculation is that intentionality—even if the intentions are not borne out the way we might hope at this moment in time—is a critical moral guide to future behavior. The historian knows full well that agriculture is hardly a static endeavor. It’s marked by rapid and sometimes radical and sometimes greatly beneficial change. A calculation that denies intention altogether and relies on a back of the napkin sketch based on current agriculture practices alone myopically suggests that the evolution of agriculture is over. That’s illogical.
Tune in with what’s happening with veganic agriculture today and you’ll discover something critical at work: intentionality. Indeed, the intention to not kill animals for food is driving innovation, and that innovation is intended to reduce and perhaps one day even eliminate the unintentional critter killing that marks so much plant-based agriculture today. Take away the intention, as Davis does, cede to the seeming necessity of killing, as Davis also does, and you deny human progress rooted in moral consistency and compassion, qualities that will not only benefit animals in the long run, but humans as well.