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When is it OK for Vegans to Eat Animals?

When is it OK for Vegans to Eat Animals?

“It’s okay to eat fish
‘Cause they don’t have any feelings”

“Something in the way” Nirvana

Back in the early 1990s, when rock band Nirvana was at the threshold stage of their colossal, but short, career, this particular sentiment on the closing song of their hit album “Nevermind” had a certain resonance with the ethical grunge set. I recall, it was often intoned and repeated by fans, and those that just had a hunger for fish tacos who didn’t want to take the ethical hit of eating an animal with actual feelings. The factual basis of this claim, that fish are devoid of feelings, is shoddy science/research at best, but was faithfully perpetuated by hungry grunge acolytes looking to latch onto some sort of lazy epicurean philosophy.

I was reminded of this refrain when I stumbled upon Christopher Cox’s ethical musing on whether or not it was acceptable to eat oysters, particularly for vegans. I know what you are thinking, isn’t the dictionary definition of vegan being someone who refrains from consuming any animal product? Well, by definition yes, but Cox breaks down his personal vegan rationale to two distinct points: “Raising animals for food 1) destroys the planet and 2) causes those animals to suffer.” While this may not exactly define every vegan’s (or vegetarian’s) raison d’être, it does seem to provide a cursory perspective for a somewhat stringent lifestyle. So as these rules apply, the humble oyster gets a pass, and is therefore afforded a place on the vegan dinner table next to the marinated tempeh and grilled zucchini.

Oysters, unlike other factory-farmed animals like cows and pigs, actually thrive in the factory farm (or in this case aqua farm) setting. Oyster farms account for about 95% of all oyster production and have minimal environmental impact on the surrounding ecology. No forests are cleared for oysters, no fertilizer is needed, and no grain goes to waste to feed them—they have a diet of simple plankton. Actually, oyster farms are often utilized to clean up polluted waterways, as the oyster is essentially a natural-born filter well suited to the job of cleaning contaminated rivers and bays. Fundamentally, oysters and oyster farming is actually, to some extent, beneficial for the planet.

With this information, we can feel somewhat OK about our reasonably low carbon footprint when it comes to eating oysters, but this is only half the equation, as it doesn’t really address the pain and suffering component of eating a live animal. For anyone that has ever consumed a fresh oyster, the ritual resembles a sort of brutality that is comparatively rare in world of modern eating. First the live oyster is penetrated and bisected with a knife, then it is most often incapacitated and stunned by a spray of lemon juice and then quickly consumed by being slurped down the throat of the consumer in waiting. However, according to Cox, oysters don’t have a central nervous system, which makes them seemingly unable to experience pain in that humans or livestock do. Cox asserts, “Biologically, oysters are not in the plant kingdom, but when it comes to ethical eating, they are almost indistinguishable from plants.”

With this justification, are we to assume that the oyster should stand as the exception to the rule, as is evidenced by their apparent lack of typical animal traits (no face, no pain, no guilt)? Is this justification enough to forgo the rules of veganism/vegetarianism and take a life? Should eating ethically be a purity pissing contest, or should these dietary definitions be more malleable to embrace exceptions like the oyster?

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

165 comments

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3:03PM PST on Jan 12, 2014

The articles properly points out that oysters are used for cleaning up polluted waterways. So why anyone would want to eat the pollution collected by oysters is beyond belief except that sadly people are not conscious of what they eat and are unaware of the consequences.So till we learn about what our bodies need as food and eat correctly them we will always be customers (slaves) of the medical corporations by trying to stay alive and not on the real journey of why we are here.

2:54PM PST on Jan 12, 2014

Christ ate lamb and fish and never spoke of being vegetarian, he did say you are what you eat meaning if you ate poorly this would make you ill.

2:51PM PST on Jan 12, 2014

This nonsense about not eating animals because they are sentiant being ie have thoughts and feelings is flawed reasoning as plants also are sentient beings with thoughts and feelings. the animals and plants have a collective consciousness which makes them different from us as we have individual concousness. This is why animals and plants gladly serve us as food, its their way of evolving back to the One just like humans are trying to do but keep failing because they get tied up with nonsense such as this vegan versus meat eaters game which would disappear when people start to learn the truth of our existence we would switch from meat to vegetables in what we mainly eat and end up eating the perfect balance to ensure we are healthy so we can focus on our spiritual journey without being held back by sickness of the body and mind through poor diet.

7:09AM PST on Dec 31, 2013

WTH kinda question is that?! A vegan, by DEFINITION, is someone who doesn't EAT OR USE animals or animal products. Oysters are sentient beings, which makes them animals, which means vegans shouldn't eat them. Thanks.

11:33AM PDT on Oct 4, 2013

A noise annoys an oyster. ;-)

11:32AM PDT on Oct 4, 2013

Hmmm...Never?

4:11AM PDT on Oct 1, 2013

Since the founding principle of veganism precludes eating any animal product (or the use of any animal product as in the wearing of wool or other animal sourced hats, gloves or scarves) then no vegan can ethically consume or use such products.

One can't be an 'on again and off again' vegan as one is either vegan or one is not. It is not a matter of mere convenience as it is a lifestyle which encompasses far more than a particular diet. There's no such thing as a '95 percent vegan diet.' Even vegans taking part in studies on eating meat are abandoning their principles if the study involves eating an eight ounce steak. (One such article had covered this elsewhere on Care2). So, vegans cannot consume animal products. One vegan on Care2 maintained that she could eat eggs as she raised the hens as her pets with a lot of love. I pointed out that keeping hens in a caring way was laudable but eating those eggs couldn't be part and parcel of living a vegan lifestyle.

3:51AM PDT on Oct 1, 2013

Mandi R, in reference to your earlier comment, where you said: “I am not sure why you feel the need to post on every article containing the word "vegan" are you trying to simply be insultive and insensitive?” “Maybe you have a guilty conscience and wish you were vegan?”

Regarding the so-called ‘need’ to comment in articles with the word vegan, what is your point? I have an extensive interest in a wide variety of subject matters and I neither need nor require the permission of vegans or others to comment in any subject covered in Care2. Each article is open to any member to read and to comment upon. These topics often show up on the daily ‘front page’ where one can pick and choose where to go, also featured on the sidebar of recent comments in articles by other Care2 members. There is freedom of movement and speech in Care2 and no one need belong to a select group to comment on issues at hand or does the concept of free speech apply only to those who agree with your viewpoint?

3:51AM PDT on Oct 1, 2013

Of course there are other sites and even closed groups within Care2 itself where participation is limited to those who are either vegan only or of the same political stripe so that one need not be exposed to the irritation of someone with the audacity of having an opinion that is not of the same mindset. Mandi R, is this Care2 not Apartheid2, where we shall only comment on articles pertaining to our membership in certain groups. I’m not Catholic but have commented in articles discussing the Pope or the Catholic Church. Should I refrain from doing so since I’m not Catholic?

Some members are Atheists so where does that leave them? Since I’m not gay, following your line of thinking, does that now preclude me from making comments in issues regarding gay rights? As I am neither about to have a baby, nor do I require an abortion so then by your logic, should this now disqualify me from commenting in any articles on abortion and birth control?

3:50AM PDT on Oct 1, 2013

I’m not a Teabagger or Republi-can’t, so will this eliminate any possibility in me commenting on political issues referring to the right wing in the U.S? I’m not a member of AA nor do I have a drinking problem, have a drink once in a blue moon and don’t even get drunk, so are articles about AA now out of bounds? There’s quite the slug-fest going on in that thread. There’s no dog residing in my home so does that mean commenting on articles or the Daily Cute featuring dogs is now off limits as well?

I don’t own a gun or live in the U.S. so perhaps I should’t comment on the issue of gun control inside the U.S. One self-appointed Hall Monitor in one thread on George Zimmerman who shot Trayvon Martin went so far as to say that any Care2 member who isn’t American shouldn’t comment. The Mall Monitor then intoned to another member that since she wasn’t American her comment was ‘null and void’ and ‘of no import’.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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