In response to my last post, several readers have pointed out the prevalence of animal products in everyday consumer goods, as well as our myriad indirect associations with animal exploitation. My response? Aside from “thank you,”
This reality you have duly highlighted, after all, only further supports the larger case that I’m making with the beef-fat-fuel example.*
And that case is this: given the ubiquity of animal products in the world around us, as well as the numerous ways in which our voluntary activities harm/kill animals, veganism as currently understood is less a clear moral baseline line than a circumscribed choice to avoid animal products in relatively easy and accessible contexts.
Of course, this is not to say that we shouldn’t avoid those animal products in those relatively easy situations, or that we shouldn’t strive to do so in the harder cases as well. It’s only to say that if we engage in actions such as driving or flying—things we could give up but won’t because it would seriously put a crimp in our life—we are, technically speaking, violating the spirit of vegan.
Now, one could say that the point here isn’t to be perfect but to do the best we can, always striving to be better, always recognizing the challenges posed by reality, always working toward the ideal. Well, amen to that!
But we have to recognize that this kind of approach to ameliorative social change closely associates veganism with religious belief, and that association makes it harder for vegan advocates to impose their agenda on others. (Plus, I think what vegans want—a recognition of the fundamental moral standing of sentient animals—-transcends religion.)
In any case, just to clarify: it seems as if some readers are under the impression that I’m looking for an excuse to throw off the gloves of morality, gleefully poke holes in veganism, and eat meat. Not so.
So not so.
I’m just asking questions about the term vegan itself, the term that we use to make sense of our moral regard for sentient animals, and question whether or not there is a better way to encapsulate the vegan ideology, a way that is more inclusive, less alienating, less cultish-seeming, and more tolerant of various personal processes.
That’s all that’s happening here.
*Which, in a basic way, is different than say leather seats on an airplane, or animal products in tires, in the sense that a plane is not reupholstered every time it takes off, and the tires on a bike are rarely changed, whereas fuel is an ongoing resource demand. I think this is a matter of degree with qualitative implications.
The fact that commercial airlines are preparing to use beef fat to help fuel aircraft is the kind of news that sends the eco-razzi into celebratory whirligigs.
It hardly matters that we’re looking at yet another meaningless example of “reduce, reuse, recycle” pomp to mask deeper problems that demand more systemic and radical solutions. It hardly matters that using beef fat (beef being one of the most ecologically damaging products on earth) to subsidize flying (flying being one of the most ecologically damaging services on earth) is like robbing Paul to pay Peter; at the end of the day it’s just another lovely, feel-good case of reducing waste, an act whose evidently inherent virtue makes the media go all loopy while obscuring the underlying, scolding question of why we rely so heavily on these goods and services (beef, flying) in the first place.
But that’s all high horse talk. Down in the streets vegans have a new and difficult question to ask themselves: will vegans fly in planes fueled by the animals we claim to do everything in our power not to exploit? I couldn’t help but notice an ominous dearth of commentary on this heavily covered media issue in the vegan blogosphere. Although I can certainly understand the reticence. The prospect of every major airline supplementing fossil fuel with beefy bio-diesel is a real one, and if that possibility comes to fruition, vegans face yet another case of a terribly convenient aspect of first-world life—flying—that, while hardly necessary to existence, is something we’ll most likely never give up. Vegans, in other words, will routinely participate in yet another activity that harms animals when, realistically albeit very inconveniently, they could avoid but won’t.
As a result, they will further gut the meaning of vegan from within.
In 2013-2014 I flew 35 times to locations where I preached (in part) the ecological virtues of not eating meat. Absurd, of course, that I was flying hither and yon to do this, but what if my mile-high experience had been powered by beef? Well, I’d have to be the first person to laugh my ass off at myself.
Readers, pipe up. What to do about beef-powered planes?
Fact: driving a car kills animals.
This killing is not necessarily intentional. But, because we know that killing insects, squirrels, chipmunks, deer, birds, and so on is inevitable, the killing cannot be called completely unintentional either. Driving is the collateral damage of getting from point A to point B, a reluctant form of animal sacrifice we allow in order to take journeys that add immensely to the quality of human life.
I have noted elsewhere that driving presents the vegan with a conundrum, and this proposition has been met considerable resistance. So allow me to think out loud on this.
I believe driving presents a conundrum because vegans aim to avoid exploiting animals whenever they possibly can. The decisions to not eat them, wear them, or exploit them for research or entertainment offer the most obvious ways of fulfilling this larger mission. Vegans I know do these things admirably well and, without doubt, they are making the world a better place for animals.
But the avoidance of eating, wearing, or exploiting animals for research or entertainment is veganism’s low hanging fruit. It’s relatively easy, or at least something most of us can realistically do right now and right away. The fact that only about 1-3 percent of Americans do it is sort of distressing, but still, it can be done with little preparation or alteration to one’s way of life.
But driving? For obvious reasons, driving is much, much harder to avoid. But let’s face it: it can be avoided. Many people, in fact, radically alter their lives to avoid driving. I can sit here and assure you that I will not do this. But, fact is, I could. Fact is, my consideration of animal welfare does not extend far enough for me to make that sacrifice. Any vegan who drives must, I would venture, have to agree with this difficult admission.
The common response to this conundrum has been to stretch the definition of veganism to include the idea of doing what’s “pragmatically possible.” Not eating animals is pragmatically possible, it is said. To stop driving is not.
This move, however, doesn’t really work, if for no other reason than the fact that “pragmatic” introduces a big gray area hiding a slippery slope. Giving up driving might not be pragmatic for you, but for the next person, giving up the chicken soup that grandma makes every Christmas Eve isn’t pragmatic, either. Being ostracized from your family over not eating a meal that is going to be made either way is not pragmatic. Pragmatism, in essence, is inherently relative. Nobody can place limits on what it is.
To the extent that driving forces vegans into a reliance on pragmatism, it forces us to acknowledge that, in reality, a less clear distinction separates the vegan from the non-vegan than is popularly thought. For example, a vegan who does not eat meat but drives every day will kill more animals than the non-vegan who never drives but eats grandma’s chicken once a year to preserve familial harmony.
That’s a tough thing to acknowledge. But we must. So, perhaps instead of thinking about the world as comprised of vegan and non-vegans, we might consider thinking about the world as full of people who exist on a continuum of causing harm to animals. The closer we move toward not harming animals, the better. But the fact is, even those who aim to radically reduce their impact on animal suffering—by not eating, wearing, or exploiting animals for entertainment and research—still harm animals through decisions that they can avoid but don’t.
Trying to cover up that reality with the label “vegan” may do nothing to help the animals we harm.
The phrase “animal rights” gets tossed around a lot these days. More often than not it’s mentioned in the context of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. But it really shouldn’t be—and those who reflect on the ethics of meat eating should understand why. Singer’s case against eating animals, influential as it is, never grants animals rights. It only acknowledges that sentient animals have morally significant interests and that, as a result, we should make decisions whereby the greatest good is achieved for the greatest number.
As I pointed out in my last column, the utilitarian calculus has two implications for meat eating. One, it makes eating meat sourced from agriculture pretty much a moral impossibility—the pleasure of taste can never outweigh the suffering of slaughter. Two, in its denial of inherent rights to animals, utilitarianism creates space for other forms of ethical meat consumption—so long as overall goodness is maximized (which, I argue, it can be).
Because of this latter loophole, “ethical vegans”—vegans who believe it’s always morally wrong to eat animals—often ditch Singer’s utilitarianism in favor of a rights-based approach to animal ethics. The defining text for this position is Tom Regan’s the Case for Animal Rights, an admirably readable and persuasive argument underscored by a key premise: Animals who are “the subject of a life” have intrinsic moral worth. That intrinsic moral worth grants to animals valid claims against being harmed. This includes, for starters, being killed and eaten for dinner by hungry humans.
Read more here.
In order for any movement to remain dynamic I think it’s critical to evaluate and constantly refine foundational principles. I do this with my own ideas all the time. My own work has tried recently to explore other ethical ways of eating than veganism. I’m doing this not to harass vegans, or insult anyone, but to create space for more people to eat in a way that reduces animal suffering. I’m exploring the idea that veganism as the sole approach to reducing animal suffering may be too limited.
Given that there are nominal forms of meat consumption—roadkill, freegan scavaging, insects, oysters—that may not cause intentional animal suffering and that, just as importantly, in no way directly supports animal domestication as we know it, I think it makes very good sense to promote these options as viable alternatives to chicken, beef, pork, and fish. The risk of being wrong on these options strikes me as worth it in light of the trade-off: more people choosing to avoid eating animals that we know for sure suffer.
This is the game I’m chasing of late, and this is why I’ve been publishing the pieces I’ve been publishing, both here and in the New York Times and Pacific Standard. When I floated these ideas here, I knew there would be resistance, and I knew I might even get cyberspacially psychoanalyzed (which, really, if you’ve never had it done to you, wow!), but I did not know how vehement and visceral the anger would be.
This blog has been around for a while, many years. I’ve worked very hard to cultivate a civil and intellectually open and even playful atmosphere, if only for self-interested reasons: when I latch onto new ideas I like to bounce them around, get respectful and honest feedback, take stock, think, and revise. When readers are charitable, open, judicious, and reasoned in their disagreements, this happens. When they aren’t, it doesn’t.
So, I’m politely and without rancor asking those who want to use this blog to level ad hominen attacks, or undertake unsolicited psychoanalysis, or assume the worst about those with whom they disagree, to refrain from posting comments. And if that’s too difficult, just unsubscribe. By contrast, I welcome and deeply appreciate comments that are critically reasoned* and charitable of each other’s motivations.
Can we do this? Yes we can.
*Emotional responses are not only welcome but necessary, as critical reasoning is ultimately an attempt to make sense of what we feel in our guts.
If you are a vegan, I have a modest proposal for you: Would you ever consider trying to make an ethical argument for eating animals? I mean, seriously try?
Most vegans I know would dismiss such a task out of hand, usually because it runs counter to a deeply ingrained belief system within which identities are intimately tied. But, uncomfortable as it might be, I think it’s an important exercise to undertake. Interrogating our creeds keeps us better attuned to guiding ideals. It keeps our thoughts alive and free from petrification. It challenges our ideals in a way that keeps us and the vegan movement intellectually honest and accommodating of unexplored non-vegan option that, alas, might turn out to be good for animals. Perhaps even better than veganism.
Let me tell you a true story. It’s one that makes this issue a personal one for me. Last year I was invited to contribute an essay (for free) to this volume. I worked rather hard on this essay, despite having a number of other competing (and paying) assignments to complete. In this essay, I noted that veganism, while a diet we should certainly pursue, had conceptual flaws that remained unresolved. I filed the piece. Bio and pic were requested. The essay is here.
And it is only here. It is not in the book. The publisher (Vegan Publishers) rejected it (the editor appalling asked me if “there’s another piece you’re working on” that might work better? Gah!). It rejected my piece not on the grounds of the essay being intellectually weak—no counter-critique was ever offered, despite repeated requests. Instead, the essay was rejected on the grounds that it was inconsistent with the book’s theme—which, if you read it, is an uncritical, painfully celebratory, endorsement of veganism. In any case, it was at this moment that I began to recognize the insidious anti-intellectualism at the core of the vegan movement.
Beyond my own outrage, here’s what was so monumentally stupid about the publisher’s decision: the only people currently reading this book (it’s about #900,000 on Amazon, so it’s not many) are committed vegans who are having their unexamined assumptions confirmed. How can the vegan movement reach beyond vegans? Here’s a tip: be self-critical. Highlight your weaknesses. Doing so is plausible, alleviates doubts of cultism, and it’s honest. Hence my opening question.
Okay, I’m done with the sour grapes, but a series I’m writing at Pacific Standard is doing what I asked at the start of this post. Here is installment #1: come back at me with everything you got.
I desperately want to be proven wrong.
Matt Ball’s speech at the National Animal Rights conference:
Welcome and thanks for coming.
If I say anything that seems like a criticism or judgment, it isn’t meant that way. I’ve made many mistakes in my life – mistakes that have actively hurt our efforts on behalf of animals. We are all fortunate there has been so much research of late that can guide our efforts to help animals as much as possible.
Is a vegan muffin a form of animal activism?
I ask this question because it seems that every other tweet that enters my cultivated Twittersphere is a celebratory shout-out for some new vegan food product. Vegan donuts! Vegan cookies! Vegan bean burgers at Wendy’s!!
How to interpret these products? Of course, they offer vegans more commercial options and, as we conventionally understand matters, having more commercial options is a good thing. Likewise, there’s always the possibility that a non-vegan will see the vegan option and think, “you know, I’ll have the more humane pancake today.”
But the idea that a deeper respect for animals will emerge from greater consumer choice seems like a flimsy prospect at best. I mean, the vast majority of natural food that currently exists is already vegan. Shouldn’t we be promoting the consumption of apples and carrots rather than vegan versions of crap food? Plus, isn’t there a danger here? What if your vegan muffin tastes like a hockey puck? You could be affirming more non-veganism than veganism.
That said, I’m thrilled by genuine vegan substitutes—rather than supplements—that enter the food system closer to the point of production. Think about what Josh Tetrick and Hampton Creek is doing. Rather than add a vegan product to a shelf already sagging with non-vegan options, he’s aiming (in part) to enter the ingredient stream at an earlier stage, ensuring that what makes it to the shelves did so because of cheaper vegan substitutes (pea plant eggs rather than real egg whites).
Vegans are so besieged by the carnivorous reality that suffuses daily life that we tend to overplay the meaning of vegan versions of products that, by their nature, are sort of inextricably linked with animal products or, again, are just crap. Honestly, a vegan muffin is, in the grand scheme of things, just another worthless pile of calories.
Don’t get me wrong. A mock tuna sandwich is a delightful thing when done right. And I love that I can choose a mock tuna sandwich under certain circumstances. But it’s still a mock, an approximation of what’s “real.” And while it’s fun to think we can co-opt authenticity and raise our vegan muffins skyward and call them, simply, muffins–veganism implied. But come on.
Why not just go with the apple?
Yesterday a reporter asked me why so many athletes who went vegan found themselves feeling weak and sick. It’s a narrative that, as a runner, I hear a lot. My first–and I think the most sensible–reaction is to explain that many vegans simply do it wrong. They replace calories once obtained from animal products with processed junk food rather than nutrient dense plants. And they feel like shit.
I tell them about my vegan friend Yetik, with whom I’m currently training for a 50-mile race that we’re doing at the end of September. At 80+ miles a week in hot/humid conditions, our physical and nutritional needs are especially intense. I’m adding a lot of legumes, peanut butter, root veggies, and quinoa to my diet–and feeling great. Yetik, though, was flagging for several weeks. But when I suggested adding some more B-12 and quinoa, and he did, he had a noticeable rebound and is feeling strong. Fact is, he’s a running demon.
But still, there are cases in which athletes eat a smart vegan diet and still feel like something is missing, that some level of energy has been lost. And it is also very likely true that a piece of lean meat or a bowl of yogurt would ameliorate the situation for that runner, even if the affect was more placebo than real. In these situations, I find myself less able to offer advice that will be realistically accepted.
Going vegan is a wonderfully pragmatic way to respond to the myriad ecological and ethical problems endemic to the American way of eating. Do it. But it’s also a radically counter-cultural thing to do. Those who make the transition, and see the benefits, as I have, are far more likely to embrace and stick with veganism than those who are asked to not only make a socially-ostracizing counter-cultural shift but, at the same time, suffer a physical consequence, however seemingly minor, as a result.
This scenario raises many interesting questions. To what extent is an individual obligated to sacrifice a personal sense of physical health in order to stick to the moral ideals of veganism? Is there a point at which an individual’s sense of physical well being becomes so compromised that the morality of eating meat changes, whereby eating a piece of lean salmon once a week becomes more justifiable than it would be for a non-compromised person?
I have no answers, but I’m in an inquisitive mood as I contemplate a return to daily blogging here at the Pitchfork. Looking forward to your thoughts.
Every diet is an aspiration to an ideal. Consequently, every diet is easy to criticize. Vegans aspire to avoid harming animals, but critics note that plant crops require the mass extermination of innumerable wild critters. Weight Watchers aspires to reduce body mass index with a calories-in/calories-out approach, but critics note that not all calories are equal. The macrobiotic diet aspires to balance the yin with the yang; critics note that they have absolutely no earthly idea what this might mean.
If every diet is open to criticism, the paleo diet—also called the “caveman diet”—is in a league of its own. The dietary practices of the Paleolithic period centered on hunted-and-gathered meat, seafood, fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. It excluded grains, legumes, dairy, and refined sugar. Paleo advocates argue that cavemen thrived on these foods, growing tall and avoiding the lifestyle diseases that plague “the moderns,” as some paleos prefer to call the rest of us. But critics deem the quest to replicate the pre-agrarian diet not only delusional—primarily because equivalent foods no longer exist—but also ignorant of human evolution. Recently, as a sort of nail in the coffin of the diet’s besieged reputation, a much-anticipated book on raising paleo babies was pulled at the last minute for lack of scientific evidence.
I’ve been critical of the paleo diet in the past, primarily because of its heavy reliance on meat consumption. But recently I wondered: What would happen if I examined the diet differently? That is, what if I examined its aspirations rather than its failure to achieve an ideal? What if I watched the diet at work in the hands of a master, a true believer, a genuine beneficiary of what’s too easy to dismiss as a fad?
To explore these questions I shelved my presuppositions and went to central Maine to visit Arthur Haines. Haines is an ethno-botanist and paleo advocate who runs the Delta Institute of Natural History, a program that organizes workshops on “neoaboriginal lifeways.” In an attempt to reach “everyone seeking an alternative to the current paradigm of living,” he instructs students on how eat an aboriginal diet, focusing on trapping, foraging, and hunting skills, as well as wild medicinal cures and the finer points of ancestral child rearing. For what it’s worth, Haines, who has developed a loyal YouTube following, is as sturdy as an ox, healthy as a horse, and has a gentle, understated presence.
But there’s nothing gentle or understated about what he eats for lunch. On the occasion of my visit, it’s a heap of pre-agrarian grub. Haines piles his plate with wild rice he recently harvested, gravy made from reduced bone broth, and venison shot and processed last autumn (before being canned for preservation). He leans over the table and eats with urgency. He scoops out seconds while his partner, Nicole Leavitt, and their 18-month-old daughter, Samara, work more deliberately through their first servings. Samara eats exactly what her parents eat—she always has (her parents chewed her meat for her before she teethed). Just as I was wondering to myself how Arthur and Nicole made it through Maine winters, in relative isolation, without so much as a warming drop of alcohol, Nicole plunked down a bottle of homemade mead on the table. Mead is a fermented honey drink that tastes something like Riesling. It was thus with a stomach full of wild rice and a head buzzing with mead that I finally saw what I came to see: Haines in action.
Read more here.