Why I Don't Eat Faces: A Neuroethical Argument for Vegetarianism

A Neuroethical argument for vegetarianism
Excerpted with permission 
MSAC Philosophy Group
1100 N.Grand Avenue
Walnut, California 91789
909 594-5611 (4593)


A Personal Transformation

I was sixteen years old when I  consciously  decided to give
up eating meat.
I still vividly remember the night when I made the vow. I was laying
in bed looking out my window at the stars wondering about the
mystery of the universe and God. The only problem was that I
fall asleep. I had eaten too much junk food; that is,
too many cokes, too many "M & M's," and too many hamburgers.
It was right then, after feeling stuffed, plastic, and just plain
sick to my stomach, that I decided to transform my diet.  I said to myself,
"Dave, you have to stop eating like this--you are going to kill

I had read enough books in Indian philosophy,
particularly Yogananda's  Autobiography of a Yogi , to
know that vegetarianism was highly praised
as both a morally cleansing diet and a healthy one as well.
I never really did like the taste of meat all that much.
I often wonder if most of us do.
What I liked
were the condiments, spices, and bread, which surrounded
the meat.  Hamburgers tasted good to me because of the ketchup, the
mustard, the bun, the relish, the onions, and the atmosphere where
they were served (getting out of my mother's home cooked meals
was always an occasion for festivity and joy). Hot dogs were the
same: what made them good was the spice within the meat, the
mustard on it, and the bun which encased it.  In that context,
almost anything tastes good.
However, my switch to vegetarianism was mostly motivated because
of health reasons. I thought it might improve my wind for basketball
and surfing. It was only later that my main motivation would be
based on moral reasons.

At first I gave up eating meat entirely.
However, during the first few months I often broke down and ate fish and eggs.  About four
months after my diet change, though, my brother Joseph was
instrumental in permanently solidifying my vegetarian diet.
There was a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken (now coyly known as
KFC, most likely to hide the "fried" aspect) in the fridge.
I couldn't resist; I especially liked the skins, where,
coincidentally, most of the flavor of is, so I tore off a few
pieces, leaving the main fleshy part intact.
My brother came in later and saw what I had done to his chicken.
I can still hear his words in my head, "Good vegetarian 
you are. . . eating
the skins of dead chickens!"  His words had a great effect
on my mind.  I vowed never to eat any kind of meat again.
Since that awkward moment in the kitchen, I have never broken that vow. 

Thus, after about six months I was a full-fledged lacto
vegetarian. I ate vegetables, fruits, nuts, bread-stuffs, and the
like, but I did not partake of any kind of meat or the things which
contained meat by-products--a more difficult task at first than
it might seem. The list of foods which contain some type of meat
is amazing! 

Now, more than two decades later, I feel quite healthy and fit,
though I still suffer from occasional junk food binges (just can't
seem to give up coca-cola).  But, the real motivation behind my
switch to vegetarianism is no longer health but morals.
There is simply no good reason to eat meat, especially given our
access to fresh foods. It is my strong opinion that most people
who eat meat really do not think about what they are doing; rather,
our culture is such that we have a tendency to do things out of
habit, circumstance or peer pressure.  It's not quite "in" to
consciously choose to be a very small minority, even though
1/4 of the "other" world is abstaining from flesh.
But, I hold that if people are presented with the simple logic
behind vegetarianism most--if not all--would abstain from eating
meat. As Paul Brunton so rightly said in his  Notebooks :
"If there is any single cause for which I would go up and down
the land on a twentieth century crusade, it is that of the
meatless diet.
It may be a forlorn crusade, but all the same, it would be
a heart-warming one." 
The following essay is not part of a
crusade, but a deeply held conviction that non-violence in every
direction (including  ahimsa  towards animals) is the first
real sign of human compassion.


A Neuro-evolutionary Argument for Vegetarianism

Concerning the arguments for vegetarianism, it is no doubt a
controversial topic in this country and one which has tremendous
moral consequences. However, when the issue of suffering and pain
is raised we should keep in mind one fundamental question: how do we
as humans feel pain?

Given a purely materialistic response (and connecting to the
intriguing work of Patricia Churchland in her book,  Neurophilosophy ,
and Francis Crick's  The Astonishing Hypothesis ) it is fairly
obvious how we feel pain: we have a central nervous system which
governs what our bodies will feel and how they will react. Indeed, we
can modulate the amount of pain we feel by obstructing our nervous
we do this
by administering
certain drugs which alter our biochemistry as well as manipulating how our
brain interprets nerve impulses. In our day to day
world we are quite familiar with this: laughing gas, 
aspirin, prozac, ad infinitum. 
We also know that when our central nervous system shuts down (when
our focus point for consciousness and attention lacks the necessary
fuel to keep it either awake or aware), the possibility for pain can
be tremendously lessened.

All of us, to greater of lesser degrees, have experienced the wide
variances of pain. Thus 
as humans we have no overriding tendency to eat
other human beings, primarily, I would think, because we can
empathize with their "pain." Nobody seriously justifies eating
humans for taste (just can't help myself, uncle Bobby just looked
so delicious) because we know that it is not worth our palate to put
somebody through that kind of pain.

No doubt there are many other reasons why we don't eat humans, but
in most day to day interactions we just wouldn't tolerate it. Now
when it comes to animals we have been brought up not to empathize as
much with them, especially if we never see them get killed for our
dinner. But in certain cases we have a resistance to eating
animals, particularly if they show higher brain functions (dolphins
apes immediately come to mind). I would hazard to guess that most people don't want to eat "Flipper" for
lunch. This "resistance" to eating humans and to eating certain
highly evolved species (and I am using "highly" here to denote
complexity at the level of neural nets), I would suggest, is very
telling indeed.

I think it is a lead that we should follow up with more scrutiny. If
it is true that those species with central nervous systems are much
more likely to feel pain because of their sophisticated receptors
and inter-neuronal communicative powers, then it would seem easy
and wise to me that we should try to avoid eating them.
I don't say this because they have a soul (I am told that when I
dance that I surely don't have one), but because of their capacity
to "feel" pain. 

Hence, we don't eat humans because we know what it is like to be
human. We don't eat apes or dolphins because we "think" or "feel"
that they are more akin to us via their intelligence. But my
argument is this: if it is not necessary to eat things with central
nervous systems
in order to survive (and I am not
arguing about exceptional cases here, only those who have options),
then why do we persist in eating faces?

I venture to assume that most people would never eat a dog if they
really knew about its sophisticated neural components and how it
does in fact feel pain. Indeed, most of us wouldn't eat them for
other cultural reasons. 
But I think we are not being genuinely honest to our own sense of
pain and the like when we simply ignore the evolutionary complexity
which underlies various animals (and, in turn, their respective
nervous systems which modulate sensation) and say that
we can eat anything since it is morally acceptable.

I agree that vegetarianism is not a fact of nature.
If it were then we wouldn't be having this relative choice
For instance, we are not arguing about whether one should breathe
oxygen or not.
It is precisely when we have a choice that vegetarianism becomes a
moral issue.
We may not have an option about the fact of eating and drinking,
but we most certainly have a choice
about what kinds of foods we are going to eat.
My hunch is that if we examine how our bodies
evolved we will be much more sympathetic to those things which have
developed via natural selection and the like the ability to "feel"
pain via their central nervous systems.
Then we will be much more willing through our scientific understanding,
not necessarily our spiritual understanding, to let these creatures

Thus the vegetarian argument can be posed in a purely materialistic
perspective: Is it necessary to eat animals
to survive?
Or, is it possible to live a life eating things which do not have a
brain and which, by extension, do not have the
material complexity to centralize pain? 

I think the answer, again, is pretty simple: Yes. Thus, the
vegetarian argument does not necessarily need a spiritual injunction
at all. Indeed, I find the purely materialistic perspective to be
very persuasive since it grounds our discussion in what we know
about our own neuroanatomies and what we know about the physical
transmission of pain and its more sophisticated cousin--suffering.

Hence, we must ask ourselves a very pertinent question. If I can
live on this planet without causing severe pain to animals, then should I avoid
eating such creatures? 
If you don't buy the argument (we are not talking about religion or
spirituality here), then the question arises about a trans-human

Imagine, if you will, that there are beings in the universe
who are more intelligent than ourselves.  For argument's sake,
let us say that these beings (we'll call them transhumans) have a
superior intelligence over us which is roughly equivalent to our
intelligence over cows. These transhumans one day decide to visit
planet earth in search of new food sources (one is reminded here of
that famous  Twilight Zone  episode called "To Serve Man") and since humans are
an especially tasty delicacy, they decide to slaughter as many
humans as are needed to fill their wants. Now ask yourself a
question, don't these transhumans have as much a right in killing us
for food as we do in killing cows?  What logic can a meat-eater give
to these transhumans so that he/she could avoid being killed?

Let's complicate the scenario a bit, making it more realistic to our
relationship with cows.  Imagine also that these transhumans cannot
understand our speech, our language, our cries.  So, like our
misguided human philosopher, Descartes (who thought that animals
did not "suffer"), these transhumans believe
we are "stupid."
Thus, instead of empathizing with our pain, these transhumans
explain it away: "Oh, don't worry about these creatures, they 
have such a low level of consciousness that they can't feel pain the
way we do. Besides, remember that our Divinely inspired computer
programming book says that we--as transhumans--have dominion over all
the galaxies." 

Now, naturally, the question is how could we convince these
transhumans not to eat us. To be sure, we can simply say it is the
"law of nature" (whatever that may mean), but that's exactly what we
wouldn't do in a real case scenario. We can only hope for something
fairly extraordinary;  we can only hope that these trans-humans
would have a sophisticated understanding of neurophysiology and how
pain is felt by animals (we are also animals) with central nervous

Therefore, I am not suggesting that we are meant to be vegetarians
by some law or dictate of nature; we are, it seems to me, omnivores
if we are anything (keep in mind that there are people who have
bicycles and other strange things). But precisely because we can eat
almost anything makes the issue of vegetarianism all the more
pertinent--it is a choice.

Should we make choices on the basis of our tongue? Or should we make
choices based upon an evolving understanding of our own bodies and
how such complex structures receive pain? If we opt for the former,
we have no vision of anything beyond us or before us; if we opt for the
latter, we can at least say that we are worthy of being called an
intelligent species--animals who thought beyond their own self-interests.


An Emotional Manifesto for Compassion

The argument is a simple one: if someone came over to your house
and killed your wife or husband or mother or father or sister or
brother or a close friend and then decided to eat them (for graphic
detail let's say they wanted to put them on the barbecue), how would
you feel? How would you react? 

Now let's imagine if someone came over to your house and killed your
favorite pet animal--bowser, the dog, or won ton, the cat--and put
them in the microwave oven to eat.  What is your reaction now?

Okay, instead of killing another human being or an animal, if
someone came over to your house and took an apple out of your backyard
and ate it, how would you feel?

If you jot down your reactions on a piece of paper (do it now so
you can see the differences), you will notice a clear and drastic
between each circumstance. Why?

The answer is so self-evident to most people that the question of
"why?" never arises. Naturally, there is a qualitative
difference between human life and animal life, and, in turn, animal
life and plant life.  But what does not arise in most people's mind
is why? Why eat animals at all if there is absolutely no necessity to do
so?  Moreover, most humans, especially children raised on farms who
adopt animals such as cows and horses as friends, find the idea of
eating one's pet particularly abhorrent.  ["You mean to tell me we
are eating  Spot 
for dinner because we ran out of hamburger meat?"]
Yet, just because an animal does not have a "name" to it does not
mean it is designed to be killed and eaten. The logic
behind pets is convoluted and typical of an unthinking (one is
to say pre-rational) society. If the dog has a name don't eat it
if the cat is called "fluffy" it has special privileges, but if
the cow comes wrapped in a Big Mac Bun it is dinner.  

Regardless of the the overwhelming health and economic reasons in
favor of vegetarianism, the single most important reason to abstain
from eating meat is moral.
Our emotional reactions provide us with a glimpse into how we should
eat in a civilized society. You don't get terribly upset if Bob, the
next door neighbor, comes over and eats one of your bananas, but
you would get sickened if he ate your dog for lunch.  It is not
simply an issue over human attachment--there is no overriding
predisposition in humans to domesticate fruits as dear and warm
companions ("Yes, it is true, carrots are man's best friend")--but
the complexity principle underlying the evolution of life forms.
Higher forms of life, or those with sophisticated central nervous
systems, should not be eaten, particularly when there is
no compulsory need to do so. Nobody, except in rare
cases, needs to resort to eating animal flesh to survive. 
But despite the abundance of primary proteins found in plant life,
human beings (especially in the West and especially in the United
States) persist in slaughtering millions and millions of animals
(not to mention fish and other evolved life forms) for the sake of
money and the palate.  I personally find it both ironic and sad that
as humans we can denounce the horrors of the Holocaust (one of the
greatest crimes ever perpetuated by humans against humans) at
countless conferences, while at the same time enjoy eating a steak
while we discuss Auschwitz.  The blinders are everywhere and we
do not see past them.

Yet, what about the economy, the inconvenience, the nectar burger at
Bob's Big Boy?  Transformation . It comes down to individuals simply
transforming the way they look at animals and the way they look at
food. Let me give you a few grotesque examples which may  in
themselves  demonstrate how we blind ourselves to the facts.

1. There's a live cow outside your door right now. Go "french kiss"
with him/her. That is, suck the juices off the cow's moist tongue.
Do it for about ten minutes. Pretty sick, huh? Now most of my
if they are still with me on this, will find this to be a silly
analogy. [Come on, Lane, nobody would go kiss a cow.] But, ask
yourself, isn't it strange that we live in a society where it is
considered normal to "eat" cow tongue for dinner? See if you can
follow the logic of this one: "Sucking a living cow's tongue is
grotesque, but eating a dead one is a delicacy." 

2. Okay, you don't like cow's tongue and have never tried it.
How about putting your knife and fork into the "meaty" side of
the cow. That's right, go right up to the cow while it is
 still  alive
and stab out a chunk. Doesn't work? Why?
The cow runs away every time. This brings up a classic adage that
says a lot about what  kinds  of foods we should eat as
humans: "Don't eat things which cannot be eaten raw; and don't
eat things which run away from you."

3. Let's give the cow a rest for a moment. What about eating
other creatures, like fish, birds, chicken, or your pet rodent?
Now if you cannot eat a cow while it is alive (without risking
innumerable diseases and indigestion from running with your meal),
you are also going to have a tough time eating a turkey that's
trotting away from your knife. Do  you  really want to kill
these kinds of creatures for your lunch? ["Dinner time, sis,
let's butcher athena, the dog, she's been barking too much
in the morning anyway."] The indisputable fact is that most
of the meat we eat is disguised. It is no longer an animal who
enjoyed life just like you and me (albeit nameless), but a
covered-up, dressed-up, transfigured dead substance we call
We don't eat dead animals; we eat "steak," "ham," "tacos."
The cow didn't have a name when she was alive, but she
surely gets one when she is slaughtered: "Gee, that was an
filet mignon."
This brings up another cardinal principle about eating:
 Don't eat things that once had a mother .

Unthinking, unemotional, and unattached. Three conditions which
led to the extermination of the Jews in Nazi Germany. The
same three conditions which have led to the yearly annihilation
of billions of animals. A key difference between Nazis and
Meat-eaters is that the former didn't eat their prey, whereas
the latter relish it. 
Don't like the comparison? Think it is too harsh?
Think again, but this time imagine that you were born an animal,
not a human. Now try to explain to your captor that you are not
designed to be eaten. What language can you use, since you don't
possess any? What hand gestures can you invoke, since you don't
have dexterity in your fingers? Feel trapped, feel caught, feel
helpless? That's the bottom line; everything else is just heartless

Emotional arguments lack force, some philosophers argue,
since they do not rely on logic and reasoning. Moreover, emotional
pleas often tend to confuse and impart human feelings upon creatures
which lack them. This may or may not be true, but one thing is
certain: even if one's sympathetic pleas do not hold up in the
court of rationality more animals will be alive today if we
listen carefully, even if blindly, to the dictates of the human
heart. To be sure, the emotional argument will be assailed, will be
plundered, will be lost, but the animals we now eat so "reasonably"
will be still living. If I were to be the meal of a would-be
transhuman, I would only hope (no doubt, non-rationally) that it
would have a sense of compassion for those creatures less than
itself. The moral imperative behind vegetarianism is precisely this:
To imagine the pain of an animal and then to ask yourself one
straightforward question:
Do I need to kill it in order to live? And, if you do not need to
eat animals to live a good life, then ask yourself the following,
perhaps more pertinent, questions: Is slaughtering a cow, beheading a
chicken, or hooking a fish necessary? 
Is my palate the driving force behind my ethical values?
Do I really want to chew on a pig's butt? 
1. Shortly before that time I remember the last piece of fish I ate.
I was in La Jolla, surfing with my friends, when one of their
parents asked us to go to the Chart House for dinner.  The social
pressure was such (at least in my own head) that I succumbed
and ate some halibut.
But this incident was a good lesson for me early on about
the ins and outs of turning vegetarian.
First, to be strict on the diet is simply not a matter of 
discipline, it is a matter of moral consistency.
Second, peer pressure is no excuse for breaking a vow or succumbing
to the whims of other people's wishes.  Character is molded in such

2. A strict vegetarian has to avoid mostly junk food products and
fast-food chains. Donuts, cakes, some breads, most candy bars, rich
ice cream, etc., have eggs; Mexican food, including simple dishes
like rice, fast food french fries, and a large number of crackers
cookies have animal protein and fat. The difficulty for the vegetarian is
not avoiding the products, it is learning how to read extremely
small print and understanding that technical names often betray
their real origins (e.g., Vitamin D3 is usually derived from fish
liver oil).

3.  The Notebooks of Paul Brunton, Volume Four  (New York: Larson Publications,
1986), page 36. Brunton writes at length about the virtues of a
vegetarian diet; some of his passages are gems of wisdom, especially
in illustrating the cruelty of eating meat. As Brunton aptly points
out: "A meatless diet has practical advantages to offer nearly
everyone. But to idealists who are concerned with higher purposes it
has even more to offer.
On the moral issue alone it tends to lessen callousness to the
sufferings of others, men or animals, and to increase what
Schweitzer called "reverence for life." (Ibid., page 36).

4. I am purposely leaving out the word
suffering, since it involves too many assumptions which may dilute
the simplicity of this argument.

5. Please remember that we are
talking about our current situation and not necessarily hypothetical
instances of the past or future. This question is posed in the here
and now to those who have access to a wide variety of food stuffs.

6. Even in cases of extreme hunger, I personally wonder if we should
resort to eating flesh.  Perhaps Socrates' great dictum on how one
should live also pertains to how one should eat: "It is the quality
of life that counts, not the quantity."

7. I am sure that this analogy will be heavily criticized by a number of
readers as being a gross simplification. However, I don't think it
is: we love to talk about non-violence, a nuclear free world, save
the whales, New Age
peace, and point the finger at all the horrors human beings have
done in the name of country and religion. But right now, in our
 own  lives, we could help prevent the slaughter of literally
hundreds of animals by turning vegetarian. It is roughly estimated
that a meat-eater takes in his body about 100 plus animals in his lifetime
(give or take a few, depending on your appetite). Why not cut that
in half or eliminate it altogether? The burden of proof is not on
vegetarian, it is on the meat-eater. What  good ,  moral 
reasons are there to eat animals? 

8. Talking about justification, when I was composing this article on
computer, I left a copy of it inadvertently in the computer room.
Someone picked it up and read through it, making comments in the
margins.  I think his comments are interesting for many reasons,
not the least of which is his following assertion: "You've got problems!"
He goes on: "If you can compare these [extermination of the
and the slaughter of animals] you are the sick one. The difference
between man and animal is spiritual. God gave man a soul and
the Bible makes a clear distinction between animal and man
This does not mean that I disagree with vegetarianism; I just don't
like your arguments. By the way, I'm a Christian, my father a
game warden, and I love animals. As a matter of fact I enjoy the
company of most animals over most people, but I put a great deal
more value on human than animal life for many reasons. . .
I cannot but worry about your frame of mind when you make these
Needless to say, I think the nameless reader has misread the
intention of the article. To value animal life is not to dishonor human
life--quite the contrary. Rather, if we can learn to respect the
lives of creatures who lack the resources of human beings, I think
we will show all the more dignity to the human race.  And, as
we may finally become worthy of the title:  homo sapiens. 
Vegetarianism is merely the means, not the end, in a long process
towards moral living.

9. The tone of this article may turn off a number of readers.
First, it may sound as if I have somehow cornered the market
on truth. Second, it may wrongly suggest that vegetarianism is
the sum-total of morality. To correct these possible
misinterpretations, I should point out that man has a spectrum of
moral possibilities: ranging from the extreme example of a Jainist
monk, who will sweep the street before he walks so as not to
inadvertently kill any insects (and who will wear a face mask around
his mouth so that he will be constantly reminded not to say anything
which is not truthful and kind to his fellow human beings) to the
fundamentalist zealot who is willing to kill and be killed in the name of his/her
Naturally, non-violence is an ideal we should all strive for--be it
in the affairs of human relationship or of human to animal
Where we draw the line (e.g., I won't eat meat, but I will eat fish;
I won't eat fish, but I will eat eggs; I won't eat eggs, but I will
take milk products; I won't take milk, but I will use soap and other
animal related products; ad infinitum) is, of course, entirely a
personal matter. But the direction or aim of that choice is not.
As I once mentioned to my classes in Death and Dying, who would
you rather meet down a dark alley: a peaceful, extremely non-violent
Jain monk or a fundamentalist, extremist, militant Catholic from the
Spanish Inquisition upset with your heretical views?
Thus, we should  at least  be moving in the direction of
non-violence, whether or not it is possible for us at this stage of
the game to be a full fledged Gandhian. The first step on this
road, I would argue, is to stop eating animals.  The payoff is amazing:
better health, better attitude, and more friends in the wild


Not surprisingly, the only major objection I have with Crick's
book,  The Astonishing Hypothesis , is his section, albeit
brief, on animal testing. Writes Crick, "Even if new methods are
devised, so that much better neuroanatomy can be done on humans,
there are still many key experiments that can only be performed on
animals. Most of these experiments produce little if any pain, but
when they are over (in some cases they may last for months), it is
usually necessary to sacrifice the animal, again quite painlessly.
The animal rights movement is surely correct in insisting that
animals be treated humanely, and as a result of their efforts
animals in laboratories are now looked after somewhat better than
they were in the past. But it is sentimental to idealize animals.
The life of an animal in the wild, whether carnivore or herbivore,
is often brutal and short compared to its life in captivity. Nor is
it reasonable to claim that since both animals and humans are "part
of Nature" that they should be entitled to exactly equal treatment.
Does a gorilla really deserve a university education? It demeans our
unique human capabilities to insist that animals should be treated
precisely the same way as human beings. They should be certainly
handled humanely, but it shows a distorted sense of values to put
them on the same level as humans." Here Crick's reasoning is not
only fallacious (granting a gorilla entrance rights to the
University of California is one thing;  killing  him or her is
quite another), but ethnocentric to the extreme. If, as Crick
argues, we are nothing more than sophisticated neural chemistry,
then how many neurons does an animal need in order to have its life
not terminated for scientific research? One hundred thousand? One
million? Crick's argument is inane, especially when we consider that
our DNA code is almost identical (99%) to that of chimpanzees. Sorry about
that "cheetah," but you are one percent shy on the genetic test. Off to
the death camps for you! Our use of the word laboratory, from the
living perspective of the animal, is simply a euphemism for
incarceration, occasional torture, and death. I would love to see
how Crick would plead his case to a species (exo-biological in
origin, presumably) which had a more developed brain than
himself. He probably couldn't communicate to them, though, since
they most likely would not understand his "primitive" cry.  Poor
human, not enough neurons--off to the "laboratory" for him. 
Must it be stated so simply? Let's show compassion whenever and
wherever we can. Crick's claim that animal activists have misplaced
values because they don't want to eat animals or put them through a
series of stressful tests illustrates just how blinded we are by our
own species driven logic (or, drivel, depending upon your
To persist, like Crick does here, in justifying the
killing of animals seems so shortsighted and so egocentric,
especially when we now have the options in our day to day lives to
eat vegetarian food and be  more  healthy.
And why not come up with new and innovative ways to test our drugs
instead of resorting so quickly and so easily, as we do, with
hapless animals who have literally no choice over the issue?
We don't first perform studies and tests on human beings because we think that it is unethical; then, why not show a bit more empathy with those
animals which also have central nervous systems and which also have
the capacity to feel pain? True it may cause a little inconvenience
and it may cost more money, but wouldn't we want a transhuman species to
show us the same kind of consideration? 
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