Life and death: a response to Lierre Keith’s animism

This is a response to Lierre Keith’s argument in The Vegetarian Myth, a poorly researched, fallacious and dishonestly argued anti-vegan screed. It was originally written for, a never-completed crowdsourced response to Keith’s book.


Inconsistent animist ethics
Keith defends her position with a confused animist-type ethics that veers unclearly and inconsistently between hylozoism (everything has life) and panpsychism (everything has a mind).

The former position – that everything can be said to have some kind of life – is relatively unproblematic. If we define life simply as an aggregation of organic matter such that said aggregation has the capacity to partipate in or respond to its environment in some manner, we can certainly accept, as most people do, that cows and carrots are both equally alive.

It is, however, Keith’s constant appeal to the latter position – that everything has a mind – that is fundamentally flawed.

Keith repeatedly claims throughout her book that plants are not just alive in the same way as animals, but that they have volition and are the subjects of some type of conscious experience, to the extent that seeds love their lives and apples ‘eat’. In other words, Keith – somewhat ironically, given that she levels the exact same charge against vegans – anthropomorphises all life.

Although most people would usually give strong panpsychist claims like this short shrift, what makes them so much more appealing in The Vegetarian Myth is that they are conflated with the less contentious claims that everything is alive.

Keith’s specific approach here is to present vivid, compelling illustrations of the majestic complexity of life and the ecosystems it forms part of. For instance:

“…a world where humans approach every creature—every rock, every raindrop, all our furred and feathered siblings—with humility, awe, and respect; the only world with a chance of surviving the abuse called civilization.” (11-12)

…and then slips her troubling panpsychist claims in by the back door; appeals to emotion and textbook cases of misleading vividness like:

“To believe in food that requires “No killing or theft from animal or plant” is to recognize that plants and animals love their lives, and their body parts, whether fibrous or muscular. But not their offspring? The argument fails right here. If we believe in their sentience, why not in the sentience of their babies?” (15)

…essentially equating eating fruit to killing babies, thus rendering veganism as ethically problematic (and thus as ethically unproblematic) as eating meat (or, indeed, killing babies. One shudders at the implications of extending Keith’s argument to other domains!)

At the core of this confusion between life and sentience is a fundamental blurring of metaphor, synecdoche and fact. Instead of accepting the metaphorical status of, for instance, the commonly accepted statement that some plants get really thirsty, Keith represents this statement as defining an actual physical characteristic that implies a high degree of plant sentience, thus making plants the recipients of the kinds of ethical considerations we would usually only afford non-animals by virtue of their degree of sentience.

This is a dangerous and misleading game  whereby Keith abuses our common cultural perceptions  – often described in romantic, metaphorical terms – of plant life.

Keith then goes further than this by confusing a reverence for life with an anthropomorphised reverence for individual instances for life. For example, whereas most people would accept that an ecosystem as a whole needs to be recognised as having great import, especially if it supports beings who are, unarguably, subjects of a life, and for the equally important reason that it represents a great deal of creative potential by virtue of its status as a complex system of diverse agents that generates the types of novelty key to the dynamic unfolding of life on Earth, Keith asserts that this moral worth inheres in any one of the actual instances of life that form part of an ecosystem and can be said to represent it.

More simply put, she shifts the relevant object of moral consideration (the ecosystem) via synecdoche (a synecdoche is where part of something can be said to stand in for the whole – referring to ‘my set of wheels’ instead of ‘my car’, for instance) in order to bolster her panpsychism argument.

Now, if Keith used solely panpsychic claims ,without appeal to hylozoism, there would be no problems with the consistency of her argument. However, it seems clear that she recognises the indefensible nature of naïve panpsychism and has thus purposefully muddied the waters by defining her ethics in a piecemeal, ad-hoc and inconsistent fashion.

(What is also notable here, at the very least for its inconsistency, is that she reverses the object of moral consideration back to the ecosystem or planet has a whole when she considers the ecological impact of agriculture and factory farming.)

Here are some other examples of panpsychic claims Keith makes (anthropomorphising language in bold):

“…for someone to live, someone else has to die.” (5 & 71)

“We automatically think of domestication as something we do to other species, but it makes just as much sense to think of it as something that certain plants and animals have done to us, a clever evolutionary strategy for advancing their own interests. The species that have spent the last ten thousand or so years figuring out how best to feed, heal, clothe, intoxi­cate, and otherwise delight us have made themselves some of nature’s greatest success stories.” – Michael Pollan, quoted by Keith (26)

“The first requirement for domestication is a plant willing to stretch its genome to fit a human need.” (30)

“Whether life on earth is one organism, and whether all of it is conscious, are ultimately spiritual questions. I don’t think the an­swers can be argued, only experienced. And I’ve had my experiences. I know what I believe. I’m not asking you to agree with me, only to observe. Squirrels bury acorns. Oak trees feed squirrels. Monarch but­terflies need asclepias, and not just for the sugar. Asclepias produce a specific chemical in their nectar that render monarchs toxic to their predators. Who is working for whom? Human relationships with chickens and pigs, rice and barley, are no different.” (30)

(Note the unfalsifiable appeal to personal experience and the explicit disallowing of argumentation in this last quote.)

The following quote is one of the strongest examples of the misleading vividness of Keith’s arguments:

“Since killing is the sacrilege in this moral system, he can’t acknowledge that in actuality he’s eating something alive. This, despite the fact that he sees plants as beings deserving his respect. “ (25)

(Note the shift between ‘respect’, ‘alive’ and ‘killing’. Here Keith makes a non-controversial claim that plants deserve respect as parts of dynamic, evolving ecosystems, then erroneously extends this claim by implying that because plants deserve respect it must be because they are ‘alive’ in some way which affords them ethical consideration and, furthermore, plants can be killed in a manner that is sacrilegous to vegans practicing non-cruelty; the clear implication residing in this dubious chain of faulty logic is that eating a plant is tantamount to murder!)

Interestingly, Keith actually does accept the notion of unique affordances occasionally:

“…all animals have their own specific abilities.” (79)

There is another serious problem with Keith’s poorly conceived animist ethics: even if you accept that everything from raindrops to rhubarbs to reindeer is alive, it does not follow that the way in which we engage each thing – the relational space formed by us and this ‘living’ Other – must be homogeneous. In fact, prominent modern animists like Graham Harvey (the author of Animism: Respecting the Living World) sometimes say quite the opposite: that the relationships we form with any other instance of life are informed by the unique properties of each that life. The possible ways in which we connect with or relate to a cabbage, for instance, do not entirely overlap with the possible ways in which we relate to a caribou, for the simple reason that a caribou exhibits different properties to a cabbage.

In the words of the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, caribous and cabbages have different affordances in relation to us, an affordance being, quite literally, what something can afford us. A painting in a gallery, for example, affords us a pleasurable aesthetic experience, or inspiration, whereas the tiled gallery floor affords us something to walk on and the gallery ticket affords us access to the space when these are participants in a larger relationship that includes an entrance hall and someone who collects tickets.

(Out of interest, Deleuze sometimes extends this thinking to make the claim that we only really understand things by virtue of their affordances – we know things only in the experience of some or all of the possible ways in which we can interact with them. In this reading, in stark contrast to Keith’s Lego-block ontology of always-interchangeable elements, acknowledging heterogeneity and practicing heterogeneous engagements with any specific life is fundamental.)

For Keith then, the awe-inspiring and productive heterogeneity of the natural world is reduced to a simple claim that everything eats and is eaten…she diminishes all possible affordances to food / sustenance.

“The grass and the grazers need each other as much as predators and prey. These are not one-way relationships, not arrangements of dominance and subordination. We aren’t exploiting each other by eat­ing. We are only taking turns.” (8)

This position, apart from offering us a highly impoverished account of the world and all its diverse forms of life, is also completely arbitrary: one could equally easily make the claim that the ‘one simple fact of life’ is that everything has some kind of sex in order to reproduce itself; that life on Earth is just ongoing Dionysian orgiastic excess, which we should, in order to remain faithful to this law, repeat as often and as widely as possible, without limiting our impulses (which are just as fundamental to our biology as our desire to eat, surely) based on arbitrary categories like age or consent. Everything affords everything else an opportunity for sex and reproduction. That’s it.

It should be clear that there are serious problems with such a distorted, reductionist claim, examples where it would clearly be morally wrong to intervene in this specific manner in the life of another being. Indeed, what matters here, as with what we choose to eat, is what any one of the other beings we wish to engage actually affords us. Which, if we are creatures capable of conceiving of and practicing ethics, must include consent.

Almost everyone shares the simple ethical notion that one should not unnecessarily intervene cruelly into the lives of non-consenting others; for most people this extends to human beings and to some animals in some instances; for animal rights activists it extends to all non-human animals that can be said to be the subjects of a life and possess the kinds of relevant capacities that impel us to grant humans moral consideration (sense of self, ability to suffer, will to live). It is only by making the notion of consent secondary to a flawed presentation of ‘natural law’ that flattens all life into one moral category that Keith is able to sidestep the pivotal issue of what should actually be considered by moral agents when deciding how to treat any specific instance of other life.

Keith also makes anthropocentric claims about consent:

“I’m not exploiting them. They’re happy, safe, warm, and fed. I’m the one who’s miserable. Chickens won’t even walk in snow, let alone haul supplies to me. That wet drip sliding down my spine was like a cold jab of reality. Chickens have gotten humans to work for them. In exchange, they take care of us, but not by bringing us water. By providing food—meat and eggs—and a whole constellation of other activities useful for farms. It’s a partnership, and one that worked out well for both parties until factory-farming. The genome of the jungle fowl took a chance on humans and it was a gamble that paid off. We have carried chickens all over the globe, extending their range beyond the wildest dreams of a broody jungle fowl mom, ready and willing to give all to her eggs.” (25-26)

Keith appeals, via Michael Pollan, to the limited way in which we divide the world into subject-object relationships:

“We need to take ourselves out of the subject position. We need to realize that we aren’t so special.“ (27)

Even if we do allow for a more expansive notion of subjecthood than is usually the case though, we’re still left with unique, specific subjectivities in all their glorious idiosyncrasy and with all their novel affordances.

Finally, Keith abuses feminist and anti-hierarchical discourse by implying  that any argument that different forms of life are worthy of different types of moral consideration is inherently hierarchical and patriarchal; that the ‘food chain’ is a circle, not a pyramid – she calls the latter ‘the Man as Apex myth’ (23) – and that veganism is a denial of fertility / life linked to patriarchy:

“Looked at through my vegan eyes, it was a possible end point of my desperate urge to refrain from killing. Why even kill plants when I didn’t have to kill at all? But looked at through my feminist, political eyes, I was uneasy about this project. Religions around the world engaged in ascetic practices like severe fasting, and what those religions had in common was patriarchy. Their He-God was removed from the earth, and holiness was achieved by denying the world, made of flesh. Women were temptations of sin, our bodies sources of shame instead of miracles. “To live without eating was, of course, to deny one’s need for mate­rial support or earthly connection,” writes Joan Jacobs Brumberg in Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa.89 The pagan in me rebelled against the idea of vilifying hunger, sex, bodies—life. Was there a way to starve without starving, to embrace life so fully I could live on air, light, energy, the cosmos? Anything besides dead things?” (62-63)

She also conflates veganism with asceticism (specifically starvation):

“I had firmly and forever left that world where starvation was the standard and politics a thin gruel of nourishment. “ (70)

There is a much simpler way to make the case against Keith’s ‘complete moral equivalence’ claim, by the way: imagine that her reasoning is a defence of cannibalism and then see if you still find her argument as compelling.