In Defense of Mark Bittman

Dear Colleagues:

In Spring 2009, New York Times food writer Mark Bittman announced that:

All day long, he eats a vegan diet. But after about 6 p.m., anything goes.

And then, in July 2009, Bittman announced that in training for the New York City Marathon, he was advised that he needed more animal protein so he:

started eating a “concentrated protein,” usually tofu, a can of sardines, an egg thrown onto whatever else I’m eating, or something equally simple, right after six-miles-or-longer runs.

And today, Bittman informed us that he had taken yet another step away from veganism (which was not veganism anyway) because in making an “almost-vegan” grain dish for breakfast, he added:

fish sauce (non-vegan, but one teaspoon, and I swear it made the dish – though it would have been okay without it).

Now there are animal rights people who are pretty upset about this. How can Bittman claim to be a vegan when it seems that he isn’t at any point during the day—before or after 6 p.m.?

I am sorry but I must come to Bittman’s defense here.

Why can’t Bittman call himself a “vegan”? After all, there are plenty of non-vegan animal rights people who do.

Consider Peter Singer, who is considered by many as the “father of the animal rights movement.”

In Singer’s May 2006 interview in Mother Jones, he states:

[T]here’s a little bit of room for indulgence in all of our lives. I know some people who are vegan in their homes but if they’re going out to a fancy restaurant, they allow themselves the luxury of not being vegan that evening. I don’t see anything really wrong with that.

I don’t eat meat. I’ve been a vegetarian since 1971. I’ve gradually become increasingly vegan. I am largely vegan but I’m a flexible vegan. I don’t go to the supermarket and buy non-vegan stuff for myself. But when I’m traveling or going to other people’s places I will be quite happy to eat vegetarian rather than vegan.

He calls being a consistent vegan “fanatical” and states:

When I’m shopping for myself, it will be vegan. But when I’m traveling and it’s hard to get vegan food in some places or whatever, I’ll be vegetarian. I won’t eat eggs if they’re not free-range, but if they’re free-range, I will. I won’t order a dish that is full of cheese, but I won’t worry about, say, whether an Indian vegetable curry was cooked with ghee.

Indeed, Singer argues that there are times when we have a moral obligation not to be vegans:

So when you’re eating with someone at a restaurant, and you ordered something vegan but when it comes there’s a bit of grated cheese or something on it, sometimes vegans will make a big fuss and send it back and that might mean the food is wasted. And if you’re in company with people who are not vegan or not even vegetarian, I think that’s probably the wrong thing to do. It’d be better off just to eat it because people are going to think, ‘Oh my god, these vegans…’

Singer states:

It’s pretty difficult to be a conscientious omnivore and avoid all the ethical problems, but if you really were thorough-going in eating only animals that had had good lives, that could be a defensible ethical position.

He thinks that it is morally acceptable to indulge in the

luxury of free range eggs, or possibly even meat from animals who live good lives under conditions natural for their species, and are then humanely killed on the farm. (The Vegan, Autumn 2006.)

The bottom line is that veganism is just a way of reducing suffering. If you’re eating to reduce suffering, then you do not really need to worry much about the actual ingredients of what you are eating. Vegan Outreach states that the ethics of eating

is not an end in itself. It is not a dogma or religion, nor a list of forbidden ingredients or immutable laws—it is only a tool for opposing cruelty and reducing suffering.

This reflects Singer’s very explicit claim that it’s all just about suffering. He states that people assume:

that in Animal Liberation I said that killing animals is always wrong, and that was somehow the basis for vegetarianism or veganism. But if they go back and look at Animal Liberation they won’t find that argument.

According to no less an authority than Singer himself, veganism is not any sort of commitment not to eat or use animal products; it’s simply a means of reducing suffering, just as are cage-free eggs, larger crates, and bigger cages.

So if Bittman is cutting down on eating animal products and thereby reducing suffering, why can’t he enjoy the “luxury” of eating some animal products and avoid being “fanatical” as Singer advises and still call himself a vegan?

The answer, quite clearly, is that he can.

What is the difference between what Bittman is doing and the people that Singer describes as “vegan in their homes but if they’re going out to a fancy restaurant, they allow themselves the luxury of not being vegan that evening.”

There is no difference.

What is the difference between Bittman, and Singer, who will eat free-range eggs, ghee, etc?

There is no difference.

So it is simply not reasonable to criticize Bittman. He’s just following in the footsteps of the “animal rights” people.

Please let me say that I do not in any way question the sincerity of Peter Singer, Vegan Outreach, etc. I do, however, think that their views are terribly confused and I disagree with them on a fundamental level.

Gary L. Francione
© 2009 Gary L. Francione

NOTE: Several people have written to me and asked me why I am defending Mark Bittman because fish sauce is not vegan. I thought at first that these people were joking but I think that there may be some real confusion out there.

So let me clarify:

I am not saying that it is okay that Mark Bittman eats fish or any other animal product. My point was that Peter Singer, who many animal advocates regard as the source of all wisdom on animal ethics, is a “flexible” vegan who eats animal products, who talks about the “luxury” of eating meat and dairy, and who states that eating animal products is a permissible “indulgence.” My point was that if we do not object when Singer says that, we should not respond differently when Bittman says it. I do object to what Singer says (and am thereby branded as “divisive” because disagreement is not permitted). I was using irony here. I apologize sincerely if it caused any confusion.