06/27/2012 04:01 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2012

What's Eating Vegans?

"I've never been so disgusted with the human race," said one commenter. What could he have been reacting to? A piece on slavery? The Crusades? Ongoing gerrymandering efforts in Texas?

No, it was a piece about pigs. My piece about the three pigs I'm raising in a large, wooded pen in my backyard and why I'm going to love them, kill them and eat them.

"Betrayal," it was called. "Treachery." I was creepy, disgusting and dishonest. Horrendous, cruel, and brutal.

What's with the vitriol?

Obviously, not all vegans are name-callers and not all name-callers are vegans. Some vegans and vegetarians weighed in with interesting thoughts and important questions. And some carnivores left sneering, taunting comments about just how delicious bacon is. Most of the viciousness, though, came from vegans defending their worldview.

Can we talk about it?

Seems to me there are three issues at stake: the well-being of people, planet and animals. And there are vegans out there who believe meat-eating is a bloody demonstration that you don't care about those things. But there are lots of non-vegans -- including me -- who agree that all three are critically important, but disagree that veganism is the optimal solution.

Take human health. No question that minimally processed plant foods are the foundation of healthful diet, but a diet might benefit by including animal products for B12 and fish for long-chain omega-3s (to take two examples; there are others). Isn't that something we can have a civil conversation about?

As for the planet, it would certainly be better off if we ate less meat, but if we raised fewer animals and fed them a diet composed partly of food that humans can't eat (like grass) or don't eat (like insects), in a more distributed system so their manure can fertilize soil and their grazing can manage pasture, our planet might very well be better off than it would with an all-plant system. It's hard to grow plants in the absence of animals. I think that's something reasonable people can discuss.

The animals themselves may be the sticking point. If you believe, as a first principle, that animals deserve people-like protection from things like enslavement and killing, that's a philosophical position that can't be argued with nutritional analysis or calories-per-acre data. But even there, we ought to be able to talk. I live with a barnyard's worth of animals, and they give every indication of enjoying life -- a life they get only because I'm willing to enslave and kill them.

For people, a death sentence is the worst thing we can imagine, but that's only because we know what it means. Animals don't understand that life is finite and death ends it, but they certainly know the pleasure of a dustbath or a wallow or a really good snack. Surely weighing the value of that life against the taking of it is something well-meaning, thoughtful people can do.

Vegans and conscientious carnivores shouldn't be enemies. We have a lot of the same concerns, and we can make common cause in opposing factory farming and putting alternatives -- quite literally -- on the table.

So can't we all just get along?