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Beyond the Circular Firing Squad: Pragmatist Dietary Ethics and Animals

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

If our treatment of those who are vulnerable and dependent may be taken as a test for our values, then there is, to paraphrase John Steinbeck, a failure that topples all our success exhibited by much of our treatment of vulnerable humans and animals. There are unavoidable implications of this for what consumers choose to eat. Yet there are many diets vying for primacy as “the best.” Let me highlight just two of these: an omnivorous diet based on grass-fed animal husbandry, and a vegan diet seeking to abolish animal agriculture. 

Polyface Farm owner Joel Salatin, dubbed the “high priest of grass,” promotes what he calls the gospel of perennial polyculture. As Wes Jackson has argued, grass-fed animal husbandry strives to mimic perennial natural cycles. It requires less tilling (hence less soil depletion) than exclusively vegetable-based agriculture and is well-adapted to colder climates. It is among the more promising agricultural hypotheses at work today, and it should be assessed in light of how well it directs agricultural and eating behaviors to solve widely shared problems. But alas, Salatin is no pragmatist. He wields the sword of righteousness, standing over a bloody field where the unfaithful have been vanquished. For example, from Salatin’s standpoint vegetarians are hypocrites, and the best that can be said of vegans is that at least they are not hypocrites. He argues that the right, natural diet must include meat. Indeed he believes vegans and vegetarians commit a sacrilege against nature by refusing to enter the cycle of eater and eaten. 

However, there is no basis for assuming a “best” diet in advance of the situations that require us to make dietary choices. There are multiple ways to pursue lives that are more ecologically and socially responsible in relation to food, and no diet exhaustively deals with all of the often-incompatible exigencies inherent in agriculture and eating. There is no such thing as the correct diet, nor any single right way to reason about dietary choices. There are, however, irresponsible dietary choices, and not solely for reasons of health. 

Salatin makes several underlying assumptions about moral life. He assumes there is a single right way to reason about moral matters, a single accurate way to conceive the human-nature relationship, and hence a right (omnivorous) diet. Journalist Michael Pollan generally supported Salatin’s view in his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, while distancing himself from Salatin’s libertarian-agrarian-Christian-conservative idiom. 

Ironically, this “single right way” assumption is shared by vegan abolitionists who argue that “meat is murder” and that animal agriculture is slavery and must be abolished. For the abolitionist, an animal’s sentience or subjectivity grants it rights comparable to the human rights Jefferson celebrated in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These rights trump any interest humans may have in killing, penning or experimenting on animals. Period. The analogy to human slavery highlights for abolitionists the dismal treatment customarily accorded to those we regard as property, emboldening their activism with absolute moral conviction. 

So Salatin and vegan abolitionists agree on a fundamental starting assumption about ethics. This basic agreement is what charges their polarization. A pragmatic approach to ethics rejects this shaky, albeit culturally dominant starting assumption. From the time of John Dewey a pragmatic approach to vexing ethical issues has been proposed as a realistic aim of education, even if it is not always a realistic aim for already-polarized situations. The practical result over time is that polarized positions can lose their winner-takes-all prescriptive force, thereby liberating their respective insights for accommodation in a broader-based, more intelligent inquiry. 

Let’s keep our eyes on the ball: help each other and the next generations to become more sensitive to the world about us, more perceptive and more responsible. The question is which agricultural methods and eating habits trend in this direction, and which do not. Many do not. Some do. There is room in this “some” for diets that rely more or less on animal agriculture.


Steve Fesmire Steve Fesmire (
Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies Green Mountain College, Poultney, VT (

View more posts by Steve Fesmire

1 comment on “Beyond the Circular Firing Squad: Pragmatist Dietary Ethics and Animals”

  1. Mary
    Posted Friday, September 13, 2013 at 10:21:17 AM

    Thanks for the post.

The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.