Responding to objections to the harm avoidance principle as applied to the non-human life of our planet

On two previous pages (The harm avoidance principle and Respecting the non-human life of our planet) I proposed a formulation of the harm avoidance principle, and listed various ethical ramifications of it as it applies to the non-human life of our planet. On this page, in no particular order, I list many (but not yet all) of the objections that I have encountered to both the principle and to its ramifications, and I offer my responses to those objections.

Objections to plant/animal rights in general

The argument: It is OK to eat meat and plants, and generally to fail to recognise animal and plant rights, because that's what most other people do, and because it's not a crime - in other words, because it is socially and/or legally sanctioned.

Response: This is essentially an argument from authority - the authority of legislators and cultural shapers - which is a known fallacy. Social and/or legal sanctions are no guarantees of moral justification; there simply is no necessary connection. Social and legal sanctions change over time; many are the past cases of such sanctions that we now recognise as morally unjustified, a couple of notable examples being slavery and the disenfranchisement of women. The same social and legal watersheds can and should be expected on the rights of non-humans as on slavery and disenfranchisement.

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The argument from lesser intelligence or "lower order"

The argument: Animals and plants, lacking our intelligence and cultural/technological sophistication, are lower order beings, and thus they do not have the same rights that we have, and thus it is OK to kill them for food or otherwise make use of them for our own purposes.

Response: The intelligence and sophistication of non-human life is generally grossly underestimated, as well as misjudged from an anthropocentric perspective. Judged in the contexts in which other beings exist, and their capacity to solve problems and interact in that context, non-human beings are highly intelligent. "Even" slime moulds can perform a "complex trade-off involving cost, transport efficiency, and fault tolerance", and "even" bacteria can communicate with one another.

In any case, sentience (awareness; capacity to feel), and not sapience (intelligence), qualifies life for the basic ethical consideration of the harm avoidance principle (whilst sapience affects more complex and often socially-bestowed rights such as right to education). We do not downgrade the rights to life and freedom from harm of humans who are intellectually inferior: why, then, the rights of non-human beings? They can feel, and thus are capable of both suffering and pleasure, which is the true measure of the rights to which they are entitled in this respect. Do we grant people the right to be free from torture because of their high intelligence? Of course not; we grant it because they can feel - so it is with the right of non-human beings to live free from harm, interference and slaughter.

Here, because it's very relevant to this argument, is a slightly edited version of my response in a comment in a thread on the Animal Liberation Victoria Facebook page to someone who told me: "you drew a fairly long bow to [...] claim that there is no legitimate reason to not afford animals the same rights as humans. This doesn't make sense, humans are a higher order species, I haven't seen many sheep building aircraft (or anything for that matter)".

If we're "higher order", then don't we have an obligation to protect "lower order" beings from harm rather than to exploit them? Does an older child prove his/her superiority by stealing the lunch money off "lower order" kids, or by defending them? What's the value in superiority if it's used selfishly rather than for the good of others?

You haven't seen many sheep building an aircraft, but I haven't seen many humans growing a fleece either. There aren't many birds who can do algebra, but how many humans can flap their wings and soar into the air? I don't know of an elephant who can program a computer, but nor do I know of any humans who can communicate unaided across several kilometres through subsonic ground communication.

Each species has unique skills and traits. Two of ours happen to be abstract cognition and symbolic communication. This doesn't make our lives any more valuable than any other creature. What makes a life valuable is how worth living it is, how much the being in question enjoys and values its own life, and there is every indication that non-human beings value and enjoy their lives just as much as we do.

If cognitive development were the measure of the value of a life, then wouldn't children be worth less than adults? Yet we don't devalue children, instead we value their innocence and simplicity. Why not the same for non-humans? If cognitive development were the measure of the value of a life, then wouldn't the cognitively disabled be worth less than other humans? Yet we do value them, not for their ability to comprehend quantum physics, but because they are living, loving and feeling. Why not for non-human beings too?

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The "animals are not sentient" argument

The argument: Animals are not sentient, and thus do not deserve or require ethical consideration.

Response: These days, it is a rare person who denies the sentience in the animal kingdom, and even science, for all of its caution, is well on the way to consensus on this matter: witness the Cambridge Declaration On Consciousness signed in July of 2012. But to respond more directly to this argument: if animals are not sentient, then why do they display every sign of it? They (those who can) cry out when in pain, play when happy, communicate, learn, love, and exhibit pretty much every evidence of sentience that we humans recognise in other humans. It takes some pretty convoluted, and, frankly, perverse rationalising to explain away that evidence.

The "lack of nervous system" (plants) argument

The argument: Lacking a nervous system, plants cannot possibly be sentient, and thus we are under no obligation to grant them rights.

Response: The central premise behind this argument - that a nervous system is required for consciousness - is both presumptive and prejudicial. Why would or should we accept that a nervous system is required for sentience? Lack of imagination? Humanity does not yet have a consensus or even mainstream candidate explanation for consciousness, so how could we possibly even know this? There is plenty of positive evidence for plant sentience, as indicated on the previous page. There is even proof of intelligent behaviour in slime moulds, which also lack a nervous system, as summarised in the paper Brainless behavior: A myxomycete chooses a balanced diet. It seems notable that the same failed argument against animal sentience is wielded against plant sentience - namely, it is argued that seemingly willful, apparently adroit behaviour is but an artefact of some biological determinism ("instinct" in the case of animals, "genes" or "breeding" in the case of plants) - and it seems inevitable that ultimately this argument with respect to plants will crumble in exactly the same way that it did with respect to animals; indeed, that process is well under way.

The "plants react, they don't respond" objection

The objection: In response to scientific and other evidence of the type presented on the previous page, it is sometimes objected, "Yes, but plants don't respond, they only react". This objection acknowledges the complex behaviour of plants but associates it with impersonal, deterministic forces rather than with sentience.

Response: Firstly, this is more presumption: it presumes an interpretation of the evidence that isn't supported by the evidence, and that one has to twist one's thinking to believe to be compatible with the evidence. Secondly, though, let's anyway take a starting position, for the sake of argument, that the evidence could be interpreted either way, and then try to assess which is most plausible. Now, we have "things" (in the generic sense of "those which are referenced by nouns") behaving in ways that are very like some of the ways we human, and other animal, things behave. We also know that these things are more like us than they are like "inanimate" things: they are living, biological organisms with a genome. It then makes most sense to interpret behaviour which we know in ourselves and other animals is associated with sentience as being associated with sentience when it occurs in other living beings - plants - too. The alternative interpretation is quite contorted: "This looks like the same behaviour which is a sign of sentience in other life but it is actually not a sign of sentience because I refuse to countenance the possibility that there are different pathways to sentience than brains of the type with which I'm familiar". Kind of prejudiced thinking, no? It's the same type of prejudiced thinking that the animal rights movement has to deal with. Finally, though, let's grant for the sake of argument that there is still some doubt. Even then, the possibility that plants are sentient remains strong enough that when it comes to the possibility that they can be harmed, they should get the benefit of the doubt. (A final note: this response does not reference the testimony from spiritual and cultural traditions which claim communication with plant spirits, but the sort of person who raises this objection is highly unlikely to be persuaded by that testimony anyway).

The "couldn't care less" position

The position: I don't accept your principle and your arguments, I don't care to be ethical as you define it, and I'm going to continue treating plants and animals as I see fit.

Response: Ultimately, an ethic of respect for non-human life needs to be incorporated into our legal and judicial systems, for the same reasons that an ethic of respect for human life has been, and such that those who defy the ethic are dealt with by those systems. Those of us who uphold the ethic will continue to progress social awareness to that point.

Personal objections to adopting a vegan-fruitarian diet or ceasing to farm animals and non-fruit-bearing plants

The argument from flavour

The argument: Meat is tasty, and/or non-fruit-like vegetables are tasty, and even: it is impossible for the arguer to give up meat or non-fruit-like vegetables because s/he would miss their flavour too much, therefore we ought to eat meat and/or non-fruit-like vegetables.

Response: Loss of flavour is in no way a worse harm than the loss of life entailed in obtaining that flavour. We would not so much as contemplate flavour as a reason to slaughter humans and eat their flesh, and for that same reason we ought not to grant it any weight against the ethical case for avoiding animal or plant flesh. Moreover, fruitarian diets are flavoursome in their own right: let your mouth water over such delights as juicy mangoes, sweet cherries, rich plums and delectable pineapples. Finally, many people, myself included, lose the taste for especially animal flesh once they stop eating it - nowadays my response to the smell of meat on a barbecue is more often than not a dry retch, whereas formerly, as a meat-eating child, I savoured it.

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The argument from eating disorder

The argument: The arguer suffers from an eating disorder like avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), such that their diet is already very limited, and to forgo animal products and foods derived from destruction or harm of plants would leave them with very little variety in their diet; or, the arguer is recovering from an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia, and feel that they would be in danger of relapse if they were to adopt a fruitarian diet which limits their range of choices.

Response: Regarding ARFID specifically: it is treatable. My first response then would be to suggest that the sufferer undergo that treatment. My second response would be to suggest that the sufferer actively seek out new meal possibilities by combing through vegan-fruitarian recipes, of which there are a wealth, and to seek to replace the lost meals with new (even if similarly restrictive) meals. Regarding limitation in general, this is an issue to some extent, but the important counter to this is that fruitarian diets, properly planned, can be very healthy and flavoursome. Surely this is the most important consideration, even for those recovering from a weight-shedding eating disorder - surely the key is to eat well-planned, healthy and flavoursome meals, rather than to maximise one's available ingredients (obviously, it helps to live with similarly-minded people who can assist and support in the planning and preparation of those meals).

All of that said: in the final balancing of the scales, a loss of dietary variety, despite that it might be more challenging for some, does not outweigh the loss of life required to avert that loss of dietary variety. Try to see it from the other side: imagine that a friend was eating a certain diet and felt that his/her diet lacked variety, and asked you whether you would give up your life so that s/he might have more variety in his/her diet. Would you feel at all that this would be a valid reason to give up your life? I doubt it. Why, then, would it be a good reason for another being to give up its life?

The mutual respect of views (aka "personal choice") argument

The argument: We should all respect one another's views. This argument is often phrased something like: "I don't tell you what to do, so don't tell me what to do - i.e. you have no right to tell me not to eat meat or plants". Underlying this argument are two premises, the first of which is often made explicit: (1) that choice of diet is a (merely) personal matter, and (2) that (merely) personal choices ought to be respected.

Response: Ironically, this argument is self-contradictory: in asserting that we ought not to tell one another what to do, it is... telling us what to do. Its fatal hypocrisy goes far further though: whilst "you" (standing in for the arguer) as a meat and plant eater might not tell "me" (standing in for the rights advocate) what to do, "you" do far worse to plants and animals, not stopping at telling them what to do (i.e. to die for "your" convenience), but forcing it upon them with violence. Whilst "I" use merely quiet words against "you", "you", through "your" slaughterhouse proxy, use bolts and sharp blades against others. "I" speak in defence; "you" act, through your purchases and proxies, in unprovoked aggression.

With respect to the first "personal choice" premise: does it really need to be pointed out that describing a choice as (merely) "personal" implies that it has no consequences - and especially no negative consequences - for others, and that this is quite obviously not true of eating meat and plants? If so, then: when a choice affects others to the extent of causing them death or even "just" suffering, it cannot honestly be described as (merely) "personal"; it is in that case a matter of interpersonal ethics. In this respect, the choice to eat meat and plants is no more "personal" than the choice to pay a hit-man for his services - both cause harm to others, and are thus (un)ethical, rather than personal, choices.

That said, I take no issue with the premise that (merely) personal choices ought to be respected, except to point out that this premise does not apply here.

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The argument from health (generic)

The argument: Fruitarian (or vegan) diets are in general unhealthy, or, it is too hard to be healthy in general on a fruitarian (or vegan) diet, so we should include plants, meat, dairy and eggs in our diets.

Response: This argument actually has it the wrong way around: there are, in fact, health benefits to vegan diets, and, more than likely, being a variant of a vegan diet, to fruitarian diets too. There is much compelling scientific evidence that vegan diets lessen the risk and effects of many diseases, including some of the most common fatal diseases, and even that they are capable of reversing some diseases, such as diabetes. I encourage you to do the research on this if you're sceptical - admittedly, there are those who dispute it, but then, virtually no position, no matter how well evidenced, is without detractors.

In any case, it is most certainly possible to construct nutritionally-complete fruitarian, and, even more certainly, vegan, diets, so the first part of this argument is most certainly false. In case you need more than just my word for it, consider that it is the position of the national dietetic associations of Australia, of the USA and of the UK that vegan diets are safe and healthy. With regard to fruitarian diets, the American Dietetic Association's position paper (see the previous link), whilst recognising the diet as a vegan variant, has nothing to say either way on its health, except that it might not be suitable for children - this seems to me to be tacit endorsement (for adults). As far as I know, the Dietitian's Association of Australian has no separate position on fruitarian diets as a subset of vegan diets, but it could be that I am simply ignorant here.

As for the second part of this argument, whilst it is probably true that it is somewhat harder to eat healthily on a fruitarian diet, in that it requires more planning, the ethical case for avoiding plants, meat, dairy, eggs and honey is far stronger than this objection: it's really not that hard to eat a healthy fruitarian diet. Again, if you are uncertain as to how to construct such a diet, I encourage you to enlist the aid of a dietitian.

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The argument from health (specific)

The argument: Following on from the generic argument from health, some people argue that fruitarian (or vegan) diets caused them specific health problems that they could not remedy without re-introducing animal products into their diet. The most common health complaint about veganism that I hear in this respect is that people have problems with their fingernails or toenails, from which they infer some sort of protein or mineral deficiency, and, for fruitarianism, it is poor dental health. I have also read though of people who claim other sorts of more serious problems, including such things as increased anxiety or lethargy, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and scleroderma, amongst a catalogue of others.

Response: First off, I want to emphasise that these complaints are not typical: typically, people either enjoy good health on fruitarian (or vegan) diets, or even declare that their health improved dramatically on such a diet. Nevertheless, these complaints do from time to time occur, so here is my response.

Because the range of complaints is so large, and because I am personally insufficiently knowledgeable medically and nutritionally to offer specific advice for any specific complaint anyway, I won't offer specific advice. My general advice would be to find a way to remedy the complaints without giving up an ethical diet, potentially by consulting a sympathetic doctor, potentially to run a few tests to pick up any deficiencies, and/or by consulting a sympathetic dietitian, and/or by doing some private research into the problem and potential solutions, and to try out those solutions. I would caution against assuming that cravings for animal products means that one's body requires animal products: we do not always crave the things that we need or even that are good for us; witness cravings for junk food and drugs.

As is often possible, though, this issue can be put in perspective by comparing it to the case of the sacrifice of human life. How would you view someone who told you that improvements to their health - whether those be as marginal as better nail health, or far more meaningful improvements such as reduced symptoms of anxiety, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis or scleroderma - were worth the price of another human's life? My guess is that you'd come to the conclusion that s/he was not quite the most considerate person, to put it mildly, and it is only speciesism [wikipedia] or at least severe lack of respect for non-human life that prevents the average person from having the exact same reaction to anyone saying the same thing with respect to another non-human being's life.

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The claim of athletic inadequacy

The claim: A vegan/fruitarian diet is inadequate for peak performance athletes, especially bodybuilders.

Response: There are many counter-examples to this claim. Starting with strength and bodybuilding: the personalities page of Vegan Bodybuilding showcases vegan bodybuilders, and the strength category of greatveganathletes features vegan strongmen, one of whom is Patrik Baboumian, a champion strongman who became vegetarian in 2005, and vegan in 2011, telling the audience after setting a world record in yoke walk by carrying a 550kg yoke at the 2013 Toronto Veg Fest: "This is a message to all those out there who think that you need animal products to be fit and strong. Almost two years after becoming vegan I am stronger than ever before and I am still improving day by day. Don't listen to those self proclaimed nutrition gurus and the supplement industry trying to tell you that you need meat, eggs and dairy to get enough protein. There are plenty of plant-based protein sources and your body is going to thank you for stopping feeding it with dead-food. Go vegan and feel the power!". Former Mr New Zealand Dusan Dudas won his third title as a full vegan in 2009.

The other categories on greatveganathletes are bodybuilders, cyclists, fighters, team sports, runners, and skill, and you don't need to go further than this site to put to rest the idea that vegan athletes are incapable of peak performance. To take a few more examples:

Leilani Munter, a vegan racing driver, set a female best placing record by qualifying in fourth place in 2004 in her first NASCAR speedway start. Her fourth place finish at Texas Motor Speedway in 2006 was the highest finish for a female driver in the history of the 1.5 mile speedway - and these are just two of her achievements. The vegan Mixed Martial Arts competitor, Mac Danzig, won the King Of The Cage Lightweight Championship in 2005 and successfully defended it four times; Carl Lewis, who was voted "Sportsman of the Century" by the International Olympic Committee, only improved his performance after going vegan, saying "my best year of track competition was the first year I ate a vegan diet". Laura Kline, a duathlon competitor from the USA, went vegetarian in 2001, and vegan in 2005, and has since won a number of titles, including short course duathlon world champion in 2012.

Endurance athletes aren't short-changed either: Vlad Ixel went vegan in 2012 and in June 2013 he won the 75km Kep ultramarathon in Perth, Australia by over 5 minutes, setting a course record.

The "beyond my budget" argument

The argument: A nutritionally-complete fruitarian diet is too expensive to afford, which is good enough reason not to adopt it.

Response: Whilst a nutritionally-complete fruitarian diet based primarily on sweet fruit is more expensive than most other diets, it should be affordable for most people if prioritised as highly as our respect for life (and personal health) entails it ought to be, however, if your fruitarian diet is based on beans, pulses and legumes, then it need not be expensive at all, and can in fact be much cheaper than a meat-based diet. If you own a property, you can improve the affordability of a fruitarian diet by planting fruit trees and/or berry bushes on your land, for a free, seasonal source of fruit, and, if you are part of a community which does likewise, then you can barter different fruits with your neighbours.

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Impersonal objections to adopting a vegan-fruitarian diet or ceasing to farm animals and non-fruit-bearing plants

The "animal deaths in plant agriculture" argument

The argument: The general argument is that animals are killed in plant agriculture anyway, so that animal death is unavoidable whether we eat fruit, plants or meat, and thus that meat-eating is justified. Various more specific arguments are based on the different mechanisms for animal deaths in plant agriculture, and some of them go further than the general argument, to argue that an omnivorous diet is even less harmful than a vegan diet. Below, I list each of the mechanisms/arguments of which I am aware, and then offer both a general response as well as specific responses to each mechanism/argument:

  1. In Australia, certain crops, in particular grains (and even more particularly wheat), cereals and legumes (e.g. soy), but also some vegetables, are subject to regular mice plagues, generally dealt with by poisoning the poor creatures in great numbers, such that the consumption of wheat per kilojoule entails more lost lives than the consumption of grass-fed beef. For a development of this mice poisoning argument, see Mike Archer on The Conversation, Ordering the vegetarian meal? There's more animal blood on your hands (according to my research, he gets the numbers wrong, and inappropriately calculates deaths with respect to protein content rather than caloric content, but correcting for these errors is not of itself enough to disqualify his argument).
  2. In the course of harvesting fields mechanically, many small animals, particularly mice and similar rodents, are killed either directly, or indirectly through exposure to predators, such that a diet including meat produced from foraging animals can involve less cruelty. For a development of this argument, see S.L. Davis's The least harm principle may require that humans consume a diet containing large herbivores, not a vegan diet.
  3. Pesticides used in plant agriculture kill insects.
  4. Plant agriculture relies heavily for soil fertilisation upon the manure of farmed animals.

Response: In general, it is true that most if not all of the items in the list currently affect foods that a fruitarian/vegan would source from mainstream grocery retailers. The key word in that sentence though is currently. None of the unethical farming practices involved is necessary, they are simply more convenient, more profitable and/or more entrenched. Ethical fruitarianism and veganism, whilst in part about personally avoiding (support for) unnecessary plant and animal exploitation, suffering and death, are also in part about changing attitudes and practices such that future plant and animal exploitation, suffering and death are avoided. As we succeed at this, the demand that fruitarian/vegan food be produced in ways that avoid the above unethical practices will increase, and alternative ethical methods of farming will increase. This will not be likely to occur, however, if potential fruitarians/vegans decide that, because plant agriculture is to a large extent currently dependent on animal suffering and death anyway, going fruitarian/vegan would make no difference, and that it is just as acceptable to consume animal products directly. If as a society we decide that it is OK to kill animals directly for food, then we are less likely to decide that it is not OK to kill animals indirectly for food. And there is a big difference between these two: the one - consuming animal products directly - cannot even in principle in the future avoid animal exploitation, suffering and death (unless one considers laboratory meat to be an animal product), whereas the other - consuming fruitarian/vegan produce - can. The one offers no hope whereas the other is full of hope. This seems to me to be a good reason not to grant weight to this argument in general: it is essentially defeatist and cynical. We need to be as concerned about the long-term consequences of, and possibilities afforded by, our actions, as by the immediate consequences, entanglements and implications of them, and avoiding meat even if the alternative still (for the moment) involves animal deaths seems to me to be the course of action with better long-term consequences.

Turning to the specific items in the list, especially as they apply at the present: I will examine the ways in which each item in the list presently affects the fruitarian diet recommended by this site, and to some extent some of the ways in which the future offers hope (numbers correspond to those above).

  1. The diet recommended by this site involves lesser or no need to support the poisoning of "pest" mice due to its recommendation to either exclude or limit the affected foods: particularly grains, cereals and legumes. This exclusion/limitation was developed as a direct response to Mike Archer's provocative article; more specifically, the direct refutation of his argument is that it is based on a false dichotomy - wheat or meat - whereas, in fact, neither are necessary in one's diet. Some people, though (myself included) may find it difficult to totally exclude these foods due to the nutritional role they play which it is hard to replace through pure fruit and nuts, and for those people, limitation rather than exclusion is recommended, with an eye on the general argument outlined above as well as the specific one in the next paragraph.

    Another possible response to this argument is based on the general response above: "For the moment, Australian grains, cereals and legumes might involve more animal deaths than Australian grass-fed beef, but whereas it is impossible to avoid animal deaths in farming cattle, it is possible to farm grains, cereals and legumes without mice poisoning, and so, rather than giving up these foods altogether and/or resuming/continuing consumption of grass-fed beef, we ought to continue to boycott beef, and to eat these foods whilst pressuring farmers to improve their farming practices ethically". The only problem I see with this response is that the best way of applying pressure is probably anyway through boycotting these foods whilst making clear the reason for the boycott - and this is the approach I've taken to the extent that I am not dependent on the nutritional content of these foods; I continue to eat them at reduced levels to the extent that I am.

    Some of the ways in which the killing of "pest" mice can be avoided in the future are currently workable; others are yet to be developed or depend on radical changes to farming methods. The 2000 paper, Impacts of house mice on crops in Australia - costs and damage by Peter R. Brown and Grant R. Singleton lists many of these methods in the table on page 54. They include:

    • Slash grasses and weeds along fencelines in early spring (resulting in a 30% reduction in mice).
    • Graze stubble immediately after harvest and at a high intensity (resulting in a 50% reduction in food).
    • Harvest as cleanly as practicable (set machinery to minimize losses).
    • Clean up concentrated spillage of grain.
    • Amongst others.

    Other more futuristic methods include immunocontraception, although this is not without its own ethical problems - interference with another being's reproductive functions.

    In a more socialist world, farmers could simply accept the loss of their crops without interfering with let alone killing mice at all, and not have to worry about struggling to survive due to economic losses because the needs of all are guaranteed to be met by the collective.

    Finally, perhaps the most compelling possibility is that large-scale, conventional agriculture be replaced by small-scale permaculture, where there would not be enough food on any given farm to support the population growth of mice to plague proportions.

  2. Whilst the diet recommended by this site does incorporate some mechanically-harvested foods, such as certain seeds and beans, the number of animals killed through the harvesting process even for those foods is still minimal compared to a flesh-eating diet, as elaborated in Gaverick Matheny's Least harm: a defense of vegetarianism from Steven Davis’s omnivorous proposal, and's Number of Animals Killed to Produce One Million Calories in Eight Food Categories. Certainly, if/when I find alternative sources for these foods that don't entail animal deaths, for example because they are harvested manually, then I will switch to them, and encourage others to do the same. Many of the food sources of a fruitarian diet, though, are harvested manually and are thus free from animal deaths due to harvesting: in particular, fruit and fruit-like vegetables.
  3. This either does not apply, or applies to a lesser extent, to organic foods, on which synthetic pesticides are prohibited - natural pesticides may in some cases be used in organic farming. This is a good reason (especially for vegans and fruitarians) to prefer and advocate for organic food, particularly that without any pesticides at all, and to pressure organic farmers to not use even natural pesticides.
  4. This seems to be true currently, however it need not be the case in the future: stock-free farming is possible and is already being practised. Unfortunately, stock-free farming is not currently very common, so, for the moment, most fruitarians/vegans cannot avoid the association of their food with animal exploitation. Here, the general argument above applies: the more widespread fruitarian/vegan ethics become, the more demand for the produce of stock-free farming will increase, the more stock-free farming will increase and, finally, the less plant agriculture will rely on the products of animal exploitation.

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The argument from purposeful breeding

The argument: We selectively breed animals and plants as livestock/food, and so that's what they ought to be treated as.

Response: To define and enforce a purpose for a being other than that which it defines for itself is to abridge its rightful sovereignty. Consider an analogy: in this hypothetical life, you have been cloned from an original proto-you by utilitarian scientists, to be used as a source of body parts for those in need of surgical transplants. You are one amongst several hundreds of such clones bred for this purpose. What might your response be were it put to you that it is of no consequence what you clones want, because, being bred for this purpose, that is what your purpose ought to be (i.e. to be killed as early in your lives as can be gained the maximal use from your body parts)? Surely, with all of the self-respect you could muster, you would object most forcefully: the further application, then, of objectivity (i.e. that others' lives and desires are objectively as important as our own) to such self-respect puts the lie to this argument.

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The first appeal to nature argument: evolution and the food chain

The argument: This first version of the "appeal to nature" argument justifies eating meat and plants by asserting that "we evolved to eat meat and to be predators", and/or "we evolved to be at the top of the foodchain".

Response: So what that we evolved in a certain way? We also evolved to be able to live healthily from a fruitarian diet, so the same principle on which this argument is based justifies the recommendation of this site. The fact that we have evolved a capacity in no way ordains that we ought to use it. We have evolved the capacity to rape one another - does that mean that rape is morally justified?

(And I am assuming for the sake of argument that in fact we did "evolve in that way", however that is a very questionable "fact").

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The second appeal to nature argument: killing animals for food is justified because other animals do it

The argument: This second version of the "appeal to nature" argument justifies eating meat and plants by asserting that such killing is natural: it is not wrong for a lion (or other animal) to kill for food and therefore it is not wrong for a human to kill for food.

Response: [This response is an edited version of a comment I made in a thread on the Animal Liberation Victoria Facebook page]. The sense of this argument is basically "If another animal kills other animals for food, then it is OK for humans to kill those animals for food too". Here are some of the many (some fatal) flaws with this argument:

  1. It has no rational basis. There's no good reason to accept it. So, some other beings perform some particular action - why would this justify any other being in performing that action too? You might have been asked by one of your parents or teachers as a child, in response to your succumbing to peer pressure, the question: "If Johnny jumped off a bridge, would you follow him?". A similar question illustrates the failure of this argument: "If Johnny pushed other children off a bridge, would that make it OK for you to do the same thing?", or, more to the point, "If Johnny killed a cow and ate it, would that make it OK for you to do the same thing?" Now imagine that Johnny is a lion. Would this make the question any easier to answer in the affirmative? If a lion kills a sheep, does that make it OK for you to do the same? What kind of ethic is this? "Whatever a lion does is OK for me to do too". Could anybody really subscribe to this as an ethic?
  2. It ignores context. Animals typically kill because they are carnivores, and have no choice. Humans, however, have the choice.
  3. It justifies cannibalism. Some animals quite happily kill and eat humans. By the reasoning of this argument, we as humans then are justified in killing and eating humans.
  4. It is typically argued inconsistently. Typically, the arguer's position is that animals are inferior to humans, in which case what s/he is really arguing is that humans ought to take moral guidance from inferior beings.

[The rest of this response is original to this page]. In general, this argument, as with all the "appeal to nature" arguments, suffers from a similar fatal flaw as the "social/legal sanction" argument: there is no necessary connection between what is natural and what is morally justified. Some people are born "natural" psychopaths; does that mean that their crimes are morally justified? This argument misses the whole point of morality: to regulate that which we might otherwise "naturally" do.

See also:

The third appeal to nature argument: the luck of the draw

The argument: Being killed, as either an animal or a human, for food or for anything else, is just bad luck. There is a chance that it will happen to any of us, and we all simply have to live with that chance.

Response: This argument fails for the same reason that all the "appeal to nature" arguments do: it implies that "the way it naturally is" (that we all just take our chances) is "the way it ought to be". But why ought it to be? If we are capable of averting death or harm, to ourselves or to others, then why ought we not to? Why ought we to just accept blind chance? Do we do this in any other area of our lives? It seems not: we perform all sorts of complex acts to reduce the risk of harm or even slight discomfort to ourselves and to those for whom we care. The harm avoidance principle simply requires, reasonably, that we extend that care to all beings. Moreover, it is not mere "bad luck" behind the slaughter of most animals and plants, but premeditated, self-serving aggression. Consider, too, the ramifications of accepting this argument: the very basis of our legal and justice systems would be swept away; no crime against any person could be prosecuted as it would not in fact be a "crime", merely "bad luck". Finally, this argument itself is self-serving, seeing that the odds are greatly in favour of the arguer and not those from whose deaths s/he profits - does it really seem likely that, were the odds against the arguer, s/he would make the same argument?

The unavoidability of killing argument

The argument: No matter what we eat, we are killing something, therefore, and since we must eat, it doesn't matter what we eat.

Response: Whilst in a sense it is true that all food is "killed", there are qualitative differences between the killing of animals and plants, and the "killing" of fruit, nuts, seeds and beans. In the case of animals and plants, the being is actively living; in the case of nuts, seeds and beans, it has merely the potential to live (it is dormant), and, in the case of fruit, it is specifically made by plants for us to eat, in exchange for promulgating its seeds. Fruit, then, is a wholly ethical food to eat, and, if you can survive with adequate nutrition on it without need for seeds, nuts and beans, then I encourage you to do so (ideally in consultation with a dietitian). Nuts, seeds and beans may be ethically permissible inasmuch as their lives are potential rather than realised, inasmuch as, depending on your sources, it might not be possible to construct a nutritionally-complete pure-fruit diet, and, finally, inasmuch as there is a surplus of them: there is not room enough on this planet for the germination and the living-out-of-a-natural-lifespan of every nut, seed and bean.

The arbitrary line argument

The argument: There are more and less ethical foods, but there is no "most" ethical food; we can always do better, and thus each person must consult his/her conscience as to where to draw the (arbitrary) line.

Response: This argument is very similar to the previous one, the unavoidability of killing argument, in that it denies that there is a wholly ethical food, whereas, in fact, there is: fruit, produced by plants to be eaten, and, to the extent described in the response to the previous argument, nuts, seeds and beans. Thus, the line is not arbitrary, it is drawn there.

In any case, let's assume we could do better still, just that it got progressively harder. Diet excluded, this is in fact the case: as the person who first raised this argument with me pointed out, short of building a suspended yurt, we cannot help but destroy vegetation in the course of building our homes, and there are few of us who would go to the extreme of avoiding this (even though it is not that difficult to build houses respectful of vegetation without suspending them above the ground: here is a - very affordable - home respectful of the grass formerly below it, which now grows upon its roof). Does the fact that we can do better mean that the line is arbitrary? I really don't think so. Here's why:

In a similar way, our treatment of our fellow human beings can, with increasing difficulty to ourselves, be increasingly improved: does that mean that the line we draw with respect to what it is ethically permissible to do to our fellow human beings is arbitrary? Hardly. As a society, we agree that murder and unnecessary violence to one another are unconditionally impermissible. That's the same ethical standard I'm proposing we apply to all living beings, and, for the same reasons and to the same extent as for humans, it is not arbitrary.

See also:

The "better a brief life than none" argument

The argument: A brief existence terminating in slaughter is better than no existence at all.

Response: An existence not terminating in slaughter is even better: it is possible to farm life forms that do not require slaughter, and given that we have that choice, we ought to take it. Animal life would continue to exist outside of farms, so it's not like any species diversity would be lost either.

Consider the logic of this argument, which is sometimes framed as follows: "If we didn't farm animals, then they wouldn't exist at all, so farming is ultimately good for animals even though it involves killing them". Notice the premise: that if one is responsible for bringing a life into existence that otherwise would not have existed, then one is justified in taking it out of existence. This premise is implied in that farming is both credited as being responsible for the existence of animals (seen as good for them), and at the same time, because of the credit acquired by the good of bringing the animals into existence, justified in taking away that existence.

Clearly, this premise is false: we would not accept that our parents, without whom we otherwise would not have existed, are justified in killing us due to the credit they acquired in conceiving and birthing us - especially if they did so for the express purpose of killing us - any more than we should accept that farmers are justified in killing animals merely because they provided the circumstances in which those animals would be birthed - especially given that they (farmers) raise animals for the express purpose of killing them.

There are also other good reasons to prefer not to farm (and slaughter) animal lives, such as the fact that bovine flatulence contributes to the warming of our planet, such as the gross cruelty of factory farming, such as the gross inefficiency of animal farming (at least three times as much food by calories would be gained by ceasing to farm animals globally as would be lost - for details see the conversion of inedible vegetation argument below), and such as the vast quantities of pollution (animal excrement and urine) generated by factory farms.

Too, in a fruitarian world, there is scope for animals to share the land with human food sources anyway: there is at least compatibility between animals and fruit trees, albeit that grazing animals might have to turn elsewhere than orchards for their meals.

The "net benefit to the animals" argument

The argument: Farmed animals and plants benefit more from our care and protection than they are harmed by the early termination of their lives, so long as their slaughter is humane.

Response: This argument is similar to the previous one, the "better a brief life than none" argument, in that both are premised on there being such a positive for the animals in being farmed that even from the animals' perspective the negative of being slaughtered is outweighed. As for the previous argument, however, there is a hidden premise in operation, this one only slightly different to that in the previous argument: that if we provide a being with a good life, then we are justified in taking away that life. This premise too can easily be seen to be false: we would not accept that our parents, merely because they provided us with a good life, are justified in killing us - especially if the primary reason they were providing us with a good life was for the purpose of later killing us - no more than we should accept that farmers are justified in killing animals merely because they (the farmers) provided the farmed animals with a good life (in general, the lives of farmed animals are in any case not good).

See also:

The overpopulation argument

The argument: If we didn't kill some of the farm animals, they'd overpopulate their environment and die of starvation, which is worse than being slaughtered humanely. This argument could also be known as the "natural surplus" argument.

Response: As in my previous response, to the the "net benefit" argument, one way of responding to this is to put humans in the place of animals. This is particularly apropos given that human beings are overpopulating the planet. How would you feel if it were government policy, in the course of avoiding overpopulation, to randomly slaughter people (and then use their bodies for food)? You would probably be outraged, wouldn't you? And yet, human overpopulation has far more wide-ranging negative consequences than those of the overpopulation of individual animal species, and in this sense such human slaughter could be more justified than animal slaughter.

Regardless, overpopulation, both human and animal, is a problem, so, here I offer three potential solutions to animal overpopulation:

  1. Firstly, to leave them to their own devices, to see whether natural bottom-up (food supply) regulation is sufficient.
  2. Secondly, should bottom-up regulation prove insufficient (surely, given a limited food supply, it would necessarily regulate the population, but we might observe and be concerned about excessive suffering in animals dying of starvation as the food supply shrinks relative to their numbers), to use contraceptives to regulate their birth rates and thus to control their numbers. There are already at least two contraceptives available for cattle (female cows in particular): MGA and LHRH Vaccine - I have not investigated whether these can be used on other domestic animals, or whether there are alternatives for other animals, but they demonstrate the feasibility of this approach. MGA is described here. It is an oral contraceptive, which makes administering it a matter of distributing it amongst a population's food supply - an easier method than individual physical administration. LHRH (along with other options) is described here [PDF] (this document also mentions MGA, and some of its risks in various animals, but it doesn't mention risks for cattle, so, presumably, any risks there, as mentioned in the previous link, are not known to exist, especially given its safe use over many years).
  3. Thirdly, as and where possible, we could do for animals what we already do for humans: provide food grown elsewhere for populations that cannot obtain enough locally for themselves. Surely, this is a compassionate response.

Finally, I suggest that, were we to stop farming animals non-native to Australia (or insert your country of residence if you are not Australian), we ought to do our best to see that they die out peacefully here as a species, for example by keeping males separate from females, so that the land might be returned to its native species, in particular, to the kangaroo.

The argument from extremism

The argument: Veganism and especially fruitarianism are extremist positions and thus should not be adopted.

Response: Would you describe a person who argued that there's no such thing as "humane" assault, and that all assaults ought to be outlawed, as "extreme"? How about a person who argued that all violations of human rights are unequivocally wrong - is that person "extreme"? And is it an "extreme" person who argues that even if slaves are well cared for, slavery is always wrong? Of course not: none of these people are "extreme", what they are is uncompromising, and very rightly so. It is no more "extreme" to argue that no abuses of animal rights are tolerable either. Uncompromising, yes; "extreme", no. We are correct not to compromise on matters of rights.

Seen correctly, the position that we should be free to kill farmed animals and plants for our convenience is the true extremism, going unrecognised as such only because it is the norm. Not only is it an extremism, but it is a violent extremism. Fruitarianism, by contrast, is peaceful. An "extremely" peaceful Earth would be an "extremely" pleasant place on which to live, don't you think?

The soil fertility argument

The argument: Without livestock, and in particular their manure, our soil cannot maintain its fertility.

Response: This argument is simply a furphy; stock-free farming is well-established. In any case, fruitarian farming doesn't require that animals be restricted from the land, just that they not be killed or mistreated on it.

The food and economic security arguments

The argument: In developing nations, animals are indispensable to both food resourcing and economic security. For an example of the argument, see Bruce McGregor's presentation in the Animals Should Be Off The Menu debate.

Response: This may for the moment be true, but: (1) it is not true of developed nations, in one of which (Australia), and for whose citizens, this site was created, and, (2) to the extent that it is true, we can and ought to support developing nations in progressing past their dependence on exploitation and cruelty.

See also:

The conversion of inedible vegetation argument

The argument: We live in an overpopulated world where both farmland and food are becoming scarce. We need the utmost productivity from our farmland, yet some of it is not suitable for crops, and is only suitable for grazing animals, which, effectively, convert inedible vegetation into edible food (meat), and save us from starvation. Thus, we ought to farm grazing animals.

Response: In fact, due to the reality that animals are often enough fed cereal in feedlots, more than enough food could be recouped by not farming animals at all than would be lost by the unavailability of the meat of animals farmed on otherwise unproductive land if we did cease all animal farming.

According to the July 2013 Crop Prospects and Food Situation report (see page 5) by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), in the 2013/2014 season, 843 million tonnes of cereal are projected to be used worldwide for livestock feed (out of the projected total 2,415 million tonnes of worldwide cereal production). Also according to the FAO (see Table 5.2: Livestock production by commodity: past and projected), total global production of meat by weight in 2015 is projected to be 300 million tonnes. In other words, globally, by weight we feed almost three times as much cereal to animals as we gain in meat from them. Ceasing to farm animals altogether would thus result in a net gain in food availability, regardless of any loss of productivity due to no longer grazing otherwise unproductive land. Note also that this is a weight for weight comparison, whereas caloric content by weight is on average greater for cereals than for meat, so the net gain in food availability, in terms of satisfying human energy requirements, from ceasing to farm animals would be even greater than the figures that I've quoted imply.

Now, whilst the net gain is in cereals, and whilst the ethical diet of this site avoids cereals due to (at least in Australia) the massive slaughter of mice during plagues, I would imagine (though I have no data to prove it) that enough of the land being used for that cereal production could be converted to production of foods recommended by this site as would maintain the net gain in food availability, and/or that humane methods could be developed to deal with mice plagues such that there would be no ethical dilemma in consuming cereals after all. In particular, it is worth noting that mature fruit trees are especially productive per unit area, more so than most if not all other food sources.

See also:

The "non-effect" argument

The argument: Going fruitarian/vegan/vegetarian has no effect, because the harm has already been done by the time the food reaches your plate; refusing to eat meat doesn't bring a slaughtered animal back to life.

Response: Well, it's a matter of supply and demand: as demand shrinks, so does supply in response. We are aiming for future effects, not historical ones.

See also:

Objections to ceasing to keep animals caged

The "care for unreleasable birds" argument

The argument: Birds born into captivity cannot be freed, and if a loving person does not accept care for them, then they might fall into abusive hands. Thus, it is reasonable for loving people to keep caged birds.

Response: Whilst the sentiments behind this argument are noble - it is motivated by a concern for the welfare of creatures in an unfortunate situation - there are some reasons why even if you are a loving person, you should not keep caged birds:

  1. Because participation is perpetuation. Participating in the practice of keeping birds caged, even when out of a desire to help them, serves to normalise that practice, even if unintentionally. Vegans (should) refuse to eat meat even when doing so will not serve the direct economic purpose of decreasing demand (e.g. because somebody else bought it and it was otherwise only going to go to waste) because to eat meat is to participate in, and thereby to normalise and perpetuate, an oppressive system. This is not exactly analogous to the case of caged birds, because there is no helping dead flesh, however the same principle of refusing to participate in an oppressive system applies. A better analogy is that of slavery: it is probably easier in the modern world to recognise the problems with the following argument: "My slaves were given to me freely, and I treat them with love; if I hadn't taken them on then they might instead have fallen into the hands of an abusive master". Now, it might be counter-argued: the analogy is flawed because whereas slaves could be freed, caged birds, due to their inability to survive in the wild, or because they are non-native to the country in which they are caged, can't. I am not convinced that this is really true though. At a minimum, caged birds can be given the freedom to come and go as they please (see the "freedom to come and go might be fatal" argument below), and it is probably often possible for them from there to be trained in the skills required to find food in the wild, particularly if they can be introduced to a flock of wild birds of their own species. This is analogous to setting slaves free. Is it easy? No, but if you're not willing to provide freedom, then you are only perpetuating injustice. As for birds being unreleasable due to being non-native: shouldn't freedom be the overriding concern? Is it fair to lock up humans because of the impact they might have on an environment to which they are non-native? Don't you find something suspect about that? If not, then at least recognise the possibility of offering "unreleasable" birds the freedom to come and go at will.
  2. Because it increases demand. By procuring or simply accepting for free caged birds, you are adding yourself as a consumer to the system, thus increasing demand, thus contributing to the increase of supply in response. Even if you received the birds for free, those are birds that are now no longer available to other consumers, who might now purchase in the system whereas they otherwise would have accepted the birds for free - and thus increased demand is signalled to breeders.
  3. Because it is not necessarily the best option for the birds. The best option for birds who cannot be released into the wild is to be homed in as large a sanctuary as possible. Where release is possible, then the best option is to release the birds in the way most likely to ensure their survival, perhaps involving a rehabilitation process. Sometimes, it is possible to house unreleasable birds in a sanctuary and to provide them with food whilst also allowing them the freedom to come and go (into the greater outdoors) as they please, in which case this is the best option. Are these, in any given instance of potential acquisition of a caged bird, hypothetical alternative scenarios? Sure, but so is the scenario behind this argument a hypothetical: that the birds might fall into abusive hands. Perhaps those who care about caged birds would better serve the birds' purposes by volunteering at sanctuaries - potentially expanding the capacity of those sanctuaries - than by keeping caged birds in their own homes. Then again, if the birds can be offered the freedom to come and go as they please, a home situation might be an equally best option for the birds after all.

The "freedom to come and go might be fatal" argument

The argument: Allowing home-caged birds the freedom to leave their cage at will for the greater outdoors and return at will might be fatal to the birds, given that they are not habituated to keeping watch for predators, and thus they should remain caged.

Response: In the linked video's comments, in response to someone raising this type of argument with him, YouTuber irishmatty01, who allows his zebra finches the freedom to come and go at will, says that in his experience the birds' natural instinct doesn't take long to come back. He says that while watching them outside for hours he noticed that when a bird of prey is around they all sound a simultaneous alarm, and some of them rush back in the window; others into the hedging. He also makes the good points that "freedom has no price", and that he'd "rather they have a free life even if it may be cut short by a hawk" - "at least the hawk then gets a meal". He asks us to imagine being in a cage for the rest of our lives, and says he'd rather die than suffer that fate. I think he's right. In the past, I've expressed similar sentiments through the maxim "risky freedom beats safe captivity"; irishmatt01 expresses it more strongly and passionately.

Objections to ceasing to mow lawns

The fire hazard argument

The argument: Long, dry grass is a fire hazard, and fires cause property damage, and human injuries and deaths, so we should at a minimum cut grass that has reached that stage.

Response: The damage to living organisms involved in slashing grass outweighs the damage to property, and human injuries and deaths, potentially involved in not slashing it. A look at the numbers involved in fire incidents in Australia gives an - admittedly incomplete - picture of this. According to Chapter 9 Fire and ambulance services, attachment tables, and DQI of the 2014 Report on Government Services, in the periods for which the latest numbers are available, nationally in Australia fire caused:

To convert these into the numbers we are actually interested in, we would need to know two things:

These figures are, not surprisingly, difficult to obtain. I wrote to the Tasmanian Fire Service, asking for if nothing else a guesstimate, and they responded that whilst the statistics are unavailable, and, indeed, unknowable, they could advise that "of the 95 fire-related fatalities in Tas from accidental causes since we commenced keeping records in 1992, none have been due to a failure to mow lawns" [emphasis mine]. It seems likely, then, that the first percentage - harm and damage currently caused by fires due to unmown lawns - is around zero.

As for the second - the expected increase if currently-mown lawns were left unmown - there simply is no data to know, however, as I am about to show, we would need orders of magnitude increases on the current figures for the risk to be significant, and increases of that size seem implausible: there are only limited numbers of homes subject to fire danger every year, and it seems that unless those numbers increase too, orders of magnitude increases in harm/damage by fires due to unmown lawns is not likely. Too, if we could expect an order of magnitude increase, then shouldn't we expect to have seen at least one or two deaths already due to unmown lawns? Instead, Tasmania has seen none since record-keeping began.

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the average size of the Australian household in 2011 was 2.6 people. From this, we can calculate the average amount of property damage, and human injury and death, that are currently incurred by the average household per year due to fire:

Those figures are very small: you can probably see now why I wrote that orders of magnitude increases are required to balance out the devastation caused by slashing at other living beings with blades - not just the harm caused to the living being that is the grass itself, but also the multiple direct - through the slasher's cords or mower's blades - and indirect - through habitat loss and food deprivation - deaths of, and harm to, creatures it supports, in particular insects, spiders, mice and other rodents.

There are, too, actions that can be taken to avert this hazard that don't involve slashing, such as ensuring that a garden hose that can reach the entire backyard is always available to wet down the lawn in the event of a nearby (bush)fire.

The "brown and dead" argument

The argument: It's already brown and thus dead - that's why it's a fire risk - and thus slashing causes no harm.

Response: Even "brown and dead" grass emits the tell-tale chemical signal of distress via scent when slashed. There is always a portion of the grass which remains green, especially in the underlayer, and even the brown grass is still connected to, and a part of, the rest of the grass; it is almost certainly not in the interests of the being as a whole to have parts removed from it, and it is impossible to say anyhow when or how many of those parts become or actually are dead. This argument, too, ignores insect and spider deaths caused by slashing.

The regrowth argument

The argument: Cut lawn grows back, so it is OK to cut it.

Response: The premise behind this argument - that the ability for a victim to regain something that was taken from it or destroyed justifies taking or destroying that something - is clearly false. If we held it to be true, then we would also have to hold that it is acceptable to:

The snake hazard argument

The argument: Long grass can hide snakes, whose venom can kill, and so we should mow our lawns to avoid this risk of death.

Response: The risk of death by snake bite is incredibly low; even if long grass increased this risk it would still be, as in the case of deaths by fire, so low as to not be worth worrying about - certainly it would not outweigh the harm done to lawn by slashing/mowing. Elaboration: current statistics on snake bite fatalities are difficult to find, but according to the review/analysis paper Snake-bites: appraisal of the global situation [PDF] by J.-P. Chippaux, the mortality rate for snake bites in Australia between 1992 and 1994 was 0.03 per 100,000 population annually. That's less than the traditionally understood "crazy odds" of one in a million: in fact, it's point three in a million. To put that in context, according to bobinoz, more people die from horse-riding and scuba-diving accidents than from snake bites.

Other resources

In my travels around the web, I sometimes come across other resources that rebut especially anti-vegan arguments. Here are some of those resources, references to which I have included in the "See also" sections of specific responses above:


Next: the fruitarian diet

The next page, A respectful diet: ethical botanical fruitarianism, describes the diet that I recommend for ethical reasons, and offers some tips on avoiding nutritional deficiencies.