“Must-read” usually refers to a book that is of such high quality that any culture-loving person would and should enjoy it. But there exists another type of “must-read” book, one that takes on urgent issues of the day in a manner that propels the discourse forward and contributes significantly to their eventual resolution. Sherry F. Colb’s Mind if I Order the Cheeseburger (and Other Questions People Ask Vegans) falls into the latter category.
That is not to say that the book is not a wonderful piece of writing. It most assuredly is that. However, as Colb would be the first to acknowledge, the issue of animal brutalization is of such surpassing urgency that its importance far outweighs the medium of its transmission. Mind if I Order the Cheeseburger uses Colb’s personal journey to veganism and an easy, informal style to make the case for why foregoing consumption of animal products is not just a fringe lifestyle option but rather a compelling, attractive, and morally advantageous choice that lies within all of our reach. She accomplishes this by answering questions that vegans routinely get asked (beginning with the title of the book). One of the book’s great strengths lies in her good-natured, reasoned, and informative manner. Though Colb is a professor of law, the case she makes is not so much legal as ethical. Nonetheless, the rigor of her arguments and the linearity of their presentation display a fine legal mind at work.
Many of the questions that she takes on, including: “Isn’t it also cruel to consume plants,” “animals eat other animals—are lions immoral?” and “where do you get your protein?” are so often asked of vegans that it is easy to lose track of why people ask them and to treat them (both the question and the questioner) dismissively. Yet, Colb examines each question with patience and care. From the simple answer—that protein is so widely available that it is near impossible to not get enough (a diet consisting solely of potatoes would still provide ample protein)—to the complex, nuanced response, Colb remains reasonable and convincing. Addressing the lion question, Colb notes that humans do not need to eat animal products, as opposed to obligate carnivores like lions, and that humans have embraced an ethical system that discourages the deliberate, non-needful infliction of harm. Thus, humans and wild animals have different ways of living. So, while it is true, for example, that grizzlies are carnivorous, it is also true that male grizzlies often kill their young. Clearly, the latter behavior is not worthy of emulation. Consequently, looking to wild animals as role models will only lead one to better understand how to behave like a wild animal.
When answering the cruelty to plants question, Colb begins by discussing the idea of sentience and explaining that beings who possess a central nervous system (i.e. land and water animals) almost certainly feel pain, regardless of species. Meanwhile, plants, though possessing of evolutionary methods through which to respond to threat and stimulus, do not have consciousness or the ability to suffer. Thus, consuming plants differs from consuming animals in morally significant ways. This reasoning also works on an intuitive level, explaining why we recoil from violence against animals while uprooting a plant or mowing a lawn causes us no such pangs of horror.
While most of the questions Colb tackles in Mind if I Order the Cheeseburger” would neither surprise nor tongue-tie any vegan with inquisitive friends, her responses are so elegant and well constructed that even seasoned vegan-responders could benefit from her answers. For example, when pondering an ethical imperative not to harm other living beings without need, one might conclude that logical consistency would also require vegans to oppose abortion. While showing deep empathy for the opposing viewpoint, Colb demonstrates why this need not be so. She begins again with sentience—noting that vegans believe in safeguarding the lives of sentient beings and that though experts differ on exactly when fetuses become sentient, there is no scientific basis for asserting that it happens in the early stages of pregnancy. Consequently, it is not inconsistent to favor a woman’s right to choose whether to end an early-stage pregnancy while still advocating against the consumption of animals and animal products.
When discussing late-term abortion, Colb turns to analogy—brilliantly juxtaposing examples of various types of culpable and non-culpable behavior ranging from murder to donating a kidney, to show that the choice facing a pregnant woman is not simply whether or not to commit violence. It is rather a choice between causing harm and assuming significant personal risk and sacrifice. In other words, a woman facing an unwanted pregnancy can either commit violence or act as a Good Samaritan. It is true (as Colb acknowledges) that, unless the pregnant woman was herself the victim of sexual violence she bears some responsibility for the pregnancy. However, Colb notes that assuming the small risk of pregnancy (2.5% odds even from unprotected sex) is “quite different from voluntarily consenting to an intimately demanding and burdensome 40-week relationship with a developing fetus followed by labor and delivery.” Thus, “the woman who becomes pregnant . . . must choose between committing violence on the one hand, and playing the very demanding role of Good Samaritan, on the other.” The law rarely requires anyone to involuntarily assume the role of Good Samaritan (for example, no one may be forced to be an organ donor) and Colb argues that it is similarly inappropriate to require it of pregnant women. Her argument is brilliant in its linear simplicity and should be read by everyone on both sides of the choice issue who has ever felt the urge to treat this profound bioethical dilemma as a simple Manichean contrast.
To be sure, there are parts of the book with which one can cavil. For example, when Colb declares that vegans do not miss the taste of meat because their distaste for animal mistreatment is so strong and the vegan diet so varied, her words become unintentionally exclusionary. There are many vegans (like me) who do indeed miss the taste of meat but who simply do not consume it for ethical reasons. The abundance of “fake meats” for sale makes clear that many feel as I do.
In addition, Colb seems impatient and dismissive when making the argument that those who believe that incremental steps (i.e. bigger cages or less gruesome slaughter) perpetuate the problem of animal mistreatment rather than help to resolve it. She argues for the “abolitionist” paradigm—calling for no compromise in the pursuit of the end of animal exploitation and a wholesale adoption of veganism. There is much to be said for this argument, and she makes it well. But there is also much to be said for the counter-argument and, by giving the latter short shrift, she diminishes the power of her own position.
These, however, are small quarrels with a remarkable book. How we eat is integrally connected to who we are. Taking a principled stand in a way that does not alienate people of good faith who believe differently is a difficult and delicate task. It requires compassion, good faith, and balletic precision. Colb brings all of that to Mind if I Order the Cheeseburger. She has written a book that merits reading, sharing, and reading again.