Language– in particular the ability to harness it’s power to tell stories—is arguably a phenomenon that makes us unique as humans. Whether or not this ability confers upon us special moral status is a topic of debate, but as as I see it, while the ability to forge narratives enriches life in an essential way, language also serves to undermine our humanity as much as deepen its worth.
Violence, for one, thrives on the distortion of language. When we harm others we account for it by twisting language to articulate a legitimate culture that excuses that harm. Consider the lexicon of hunting. Humans walk into “the wilderness,” sneak up on critters, and blow them away with high-powered machinery. The inequity of our actions, however, in no way prevents us from glorifying hunting as a noble endeavor—a culture— that meaningfully binds us to the natural world. Words allow us to create and celebrate that unreality.
To grasp how unreal reality can quickly become under the influence of language melded with a predilection for savagery, it helps to check in every now and then with the Texas Hunting Forum, where language renders violence the norm. Pour a stiff one, because here’s what’s happening:
Erich: “i’ve heard that you can castrate feral boars and then either raise them or turn them loose and that they will put on a lot more weight and will improve the quality of the meat. is this true? has anyone done it? any advice on how to do it? does it do any good to castrate one that is already an adult age animal? or does it have to be done when they are young. seems like it’d be a difficult task, but seems like there’s enough folks out there that do it. was just wondering if it was worth the hassle.”
Big Tuna: “yeah they call those barr hogs. When they are castrated they supposedly loose interest in mating and just eat so they get massive. Not sure about how it affects the meat. I guess you would have to use a tranquilizer to neuter them but not sure.”
Texaswolf: “It gets their mind of @ss and puts it on Grass…..I knew a guy on our old lease who would catch them and put a tight rubber band around their Nutz and they would eventualy fall off due to poor circulation…..????? Not sure because I never saw it done but at the time, it made sense…..”
elliscountyhog: “We cut 4 boars this weekend and yes it will cause them to grow faster and bigger with bigger tusk and most of all it shortens there home range up. Just make a small slice and pop em out and cut off then use cut and heal and they are good to go.”
dwayne2003: “This would turn the hog into a ‘barrow’ hog which is what pork producers do; it is best done at a young age if you are gonna feed them out for pork. Texas A&M is doing a study with boar hogs in the TDCJ hog farms to see if they can castrate mature boars and see if it will improve meat quality of those boars so they can then be slaughtered.”
ccbaseball: “haha sounds funny but then again point of getting rid of them is so they are destructive and dont compete with deer.cool info tho.”
CFR: “A common practice here in Florida is to trap them, cut them, and then let them loose. The result is a better quality meat, bigger hogs, and bigger teeth, as they do not fight as much and break them off.”
It goes on.. But if anything here is clear it’s that language is all too easily used to forge sick cultures of hatred under the guise of normal. People who speak this way about sentient beings who, for all their power, lack the ability to fight narratives with counter-narratives (and thus have no truck in our big verbal mud sling), should have their right to use their words severely curtailed. Their hatred and insensitivity is that blatant. It has no place in civilized society.
Like so much of our language, it’s hate speech. And I hate it.
The Food Movement—in its fervent quest to revive nonindustrial animal farming as a “humane” alternative to industrial agriculture—follows an increasingly tyrannical TED talk script to reach the mainstream. In instructing consumers to pay more to support animals who are killed after being loved, it accomplishes the very TED-like prerequisite of providing its audience an accessible way to have its virtue and eat it, too. Nobody walks away feeling that real risks must be taken, or that genuinely radical options should be entertained. Instead, they’re left with win-win expressions that have been nipped and tucked into the collective visage of mindless optimism.
Now, I’m no enemy of optimism. Keep hope alive; but keep it honest. The irony of TED is that its promotion of original thought is undercut by the format’s canned requirement that the message inspire without challenging. Rather than aiming to redefine the boundaries of contemporary thought, a successful TED moment life hacks the status quo to offer a “gee whiz” takeaway. It would violate the Tao of TED to piss and moan about the structural inequalities forged by conniving operatives who get off on abusing power. That would be a total bummer—especially for an audience who just paid thousands to hear that they can eat beef to save the planet.
The Food Movement, stuck in TED land, could do itself a big favor by bumming out a little bit. They’d certainly be more plausible. The situation with global food production is dire, animal agriculture is at the root of the world’s environmental crises, and these happy hipsters are off celebrating sustainable and humanely raised barbecue. Living well may be the best revenge, but if that revenge eliminates the ability for future generations to do the same, its time for someone to blow the whistle and deliver a less sanguine sermon.
Or at least significantly alter the boundaries of food discourse. This was the big idea I had in mind when I spoke this evening on a panel at NYU with Brighter Green’s Mia McDonald and Chris Schlottmann, an environmental studies professor at NYU. What if, instead of breaking down agricultural discussions into industrial and nonindustrial, big agriculture and local farms, we reframed the debate in terms of domesticated animals or no domesticated animals? What if we began to envision future agricultural systems that grew an unprecedented range of edible plants through a variety of methods (industrial, nonindustrial) without the use of animals as exploited resources?
What if, in other words, we left the world of TED and started to think truly radical agrarian thoughts?
An interesting piece in today’s Times’ business page, written by a Princeton economist, explores an idea that we rarely consider and may not want to: the fact that we routinely place monetary value on human life. The conventional default position is to get all righteous and say something like “all human life is sacred”; that all life is valuable in terms of intrinsic rather than monetary worth; that no dollar amount can represent it. But, as Uwe E. Reinhardt reminds us, commercial culture operates according to a less humane calculus.
Take insurance. He writes, “those who preside over private and public health insurance funds, Congress included, at some point have to ask themselves at what price they can afford to buy additional life years for people insured with those collectively financed funds, which are, after all, finite.”
And it’s not just in the realm of insurance that we seek to monetize human life. Every time we purchase a consumer good that has the potential to harm us we place ourselves on the right side of an equation calculated by strangers interested in hedging the cost of production at the expense of our welfare.
Tellingly, Reinhardt explains how the Ford Motor Company, in choosing to not move its Pinto’s gas tank to a safer spot at a cost of $11 per car, did so according to the economic rationale that every human life lost to the dangerously placed gas tank would be worth about $200,000. That’s not only a small fraction of what the CEO of Ford took in every year, but it places every Pinto driver who survived the experience in the infuriating position of having earned the company 200K for gambling with their lives (with pennies).
We might recoil at the fact that “some unknown person within Ford could blithely assume on behalf of all Pinto buyers that the value of avoiding a horrible death or injury from a burning Pinto was as low as the company had assumed,” but if you purchase or even use something as ubiquitous as a motor vehicle—or have a life insurance policy— you are participating in a system that decidedly does not see your life as sacred as your mother does.
It’s interesting to explore the implications of these unpleasant economic realities for animals. I’m perfectly comfortable arguing against the unnecessary consumption of animals on the grounds that it’s an easy way to avoid a lot of unnecessary suffering and, as a result, it’s a good idea not to eat them. To a very large extent, my gut reaction of disgust over what’s required to raise and kill and animals for food that could easily be replaced with plants undergirds my animal advocacy. That’s the simple part of it.
But when it comes to grappling with the more philosophical reasons for why this position is the epitome of truth and justice, matters become thornier. It would be lovely to say that all animals have intrinsic worth—worth that trumps any effort to place a monetary value on their lives—and leave it at that. It’s so lovely in fact that I have, on innumerable occasions, said it. But is it an idea that we can honestly live by where it all matters: in the ebb and flow of daily life?
Supporters of improved animal welfare believe we cannot. The Humane Society, the Slow Food Movement, the ASPCA, Joel Salatin and his zany acolytes—all of thee groups measure animal compassion by the dollar. Pressuring the producers of animal products to adopt more extensive and humane methods of production (and the two always go hand in hand), these influential organizations and individuals, consciously or not, reduce the lives of animals—as well as their treatment—to an economic calculus every bit as hard bitten as that used by the Ford Motor Company to keep the tank in explosive territory.
Now, I would love to consider myself above this kind of calculating logic. But, for one, I reluctantly support efforts to improve the lives of animals that will indeed become food. In doing so (as a means to make animal lives better as we push for an end to their consumption altogether), I also reluctantly support a reality that measures their happiness, and eventually their flesh, by the dollar and the pound. I’m not using a scale, but somebody is.
Even if I assumed a more extreme abolitionist position (which I once did), and fundamentally opposed any system of owning and commodifying animals, I’d still face a rash of challenges to my belief that animals cannot be reduced to an economic value. First, there would be the conundrum I’d confront of treating animals’ lives as having intrinsic, non-monetized worth while denying that same treatment to humans (as I have no inclination to drop out of commercial life).
Second, and more controversially, as the guardian/companion of several rescue animals I cannot say in good faith that I’d treat their medical problems with the same view of life’s worth as I would my children’s. At some point, I’d end up placing an economic value on my companion animal’s life. I would not, for example, liquidate all my assets to pay for medical treatment that would save the lives of Willie, George, Claus, Boy Cat, or Fluffy. I would, without a second thought, do that for the human members of my immediate family. By virtue of that admission, I do not believe that all animal life has intrinsic worth.
I feel a bit emotionally naked writing that last line, but there is, perhaps, no price to be placed on honesty.
The desire to eat meat often lands anti-industrial food crusaders in the sack with some strange bedfellows.
When a recent study—one that turned out to have severe problems—claimed that saturated fats didn’t correlate with heart disease, the foodie elite exalted the research as justification for eating “humane” animal products. Writing in the Times, Mark Bittman claimed “Butter is back, and when you’re looking for a few chunks of pork for a stew, you can resume searching for the best pieces — the ones with the most fat. Eventually, your friends will stop glaring at you as if you’re trying to kill them.” The general response by the sustainable food movement was very much in this celebratory vein.
That reaction was predictable. Less so was the way the saturated fat study became a cudgel to batter processed foods. Now, let me be perfectly clear: I’m not in favor of most processed foods. They’re the unhealthy result of an industrial food system that cranks out junk that makes us sick. Most of them, moreover, contain animal products. That said, I think it’s entirely misleading to use a study that makes specific claims about saturated fats (however imperfect) to make a sweeping condemnation of all processed foods. And so, in an article, I indicated as much.
The response to my piece, as I noted in yesterday’s post, was to label me a bona fide “defender of a highly profitable but dysfunctional industry.” That claim, from a defender of the humane meat industry and a Mother Jones writer, not only led me to choke on my chickpeas. It inspired me to investigate whom the conventional defenders of industrialized meat would side with on this recent saturated fat report. Maybe I had it all wrong. Maybe Big Agriculture really loved my Pacific Standard critique of the saturated fat study.
So I wondered: would Big Ag agree with an ethical vegan who wrote a column condemning the rush to embrace a flawed study that suggested it was alright to eat more cheeseburgers? Or would they side with the defenders of “humane” meat products who praised the study as a green light for refined carnivorous inclinations? My assumption was that the supports of Big Ag would side with those writers whose message best supported the interests of Big Ag.
Well, guess who Bittman and Mother Jones and the like went to bed with?
The study that Bittman praised in the Times was similarly promoted by none other than Beef Magazine, an industry rag that claimed, “Obviously the theme for today’s blog is beef health news, and there has been an overwhelming amount of positive news lately. It’s hard not to share it all. Keeping with the theme that animal fats and proteins are good for your health, researchers at Cambridge University have found that giving up fatty meat, cream and butter is unlikely to improve your health.”
Equally thrilled was The Dairy Spot—a go-to source for industrial dairy farmers in the Mid Atlantic. Readers of Bittman’s column would experienced a sense of deja-vu had they heard the dairy folks write, “This latest study is a challenge to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which call for consuming mostly low-fat dairy products. And not everyone is convinced by the new studies that question the link between saturated fat and heart disease.”
Not to be left out was the poultry industry. Big Chicken weighed in on the foodies’ favorite study, writing, “Now, the meta-analysis in the Annals of Internal Medicine gives further credence to the statement that current evidence suggests saturated fats have little to no effect on heart disease risk.”
So: our agri-intellectuals, those who swear that they are deeply anti-industrial food, happen to be in full agreement on the saturated fat study with the beef industry, the poultry industry, and the dairy industry. Oh, and Fox News and the Center for Consumer Freedom. As for my bedfellows, Big Ag left me alone, leaving me to go home with a bunch of tweeters and a few health websites.
So, you tell me: who is defending industrial agriculture here?
We all can’t stand industrial agriculture as we know it. So we try to make consumer choices to avoid its abuses. There are many ways to resist the machine, but—as I have repeatedly argued—the absolute most effective way to challenge agribusiness is to stop eating animal products and start eating an exclusive diet of whole plant-based foods. Although my crusade as a writer has been to improve the world for animals, I have always taken solace in the fact that we can eat in a way that helps animals while sticking it to industrial agriculture at the same time. I like that overlap.
The above remarks are exactly what I would have explained to Mother Jones‘ food/ag writer Tom Philpott had he contacted me before characterizing me as defender of the food industry in his most recent MJ piece. For those keeping score, when I wrote about Philpott for a Pacific Standard article, I took the time to correspond with him. But anyway, I’m sure readers of this blog will be surprised to learn that, according to TP, “McWilliams is playing his usual role: reasonable-sounding defender of a highly profitable but dysfunctional industry.”
The analysis certainly thrilled Mark Bittman, who tweeted it and thanked Philpott for his hard work. Interestingly, neither of these defenders of eating animal products—and thus defenders of eating the goods upon which industrial agriculture thrives—have taken the time to respond to my American Scholar essay, one that scares industrial food much more than all the support these writers offer to “humane” animal products from small farms that are doing little more than supporting the status quo at a higher price per pound.
In any case, consider me baffled.
Photo: Karl Thibodeaux and/or GreenSourceDFW.org
Rarely do I use the Pitchfork for promotional purposes, but this instance is different. My friend and unlikely vegan activist Big Bald Mike is writing one of the most honest and hard hitting vegan conversion narratives that I’ve ever read. The honestly and rawness of BBM’s story instills it with rare authenticity. Moved as I was by it, I offered to edit it. As Mike notes in his video below, he’s seeking time to write—he’s very short on cash—so that this book can find a publisher and reach an audience that very few of us could ever reach. Mike is a powerful, sincere, and rare voice for animals. He is the kindest of souls. Please, even if it’s only a $5 donation, consider helping fund his effort. Learn more here.
I have a friend and colleague—and a vegetarian— who is editing a book in which he invited philosophers to argue that it’s ethically justifiable, at least in some circumstances, to eat animals. My friend is not inclined to necessarily agree with these assessments, but he’s secure enough in his own beliefs to accept genuine challenges to his suppositions. I admire this willingness to expose his own flank to attack, if for no other reason than doing so has the potential to leave one even more secure in his position than when he started. Ethical vegans should take note. (I’ll review the book here when it lands.)
Many comments to my recent vegan pillars piece—offline and on—criticized it on the grounds that it somehow threatened the vegan cause. How dare you suggest there’s something shaky about veganism! The implication here was that any attempt to highlight conceptual weaknesses or even identify unique challenges that vegans faced was an insidious form of betrayal. That stance might work for the activist, but not the intellectual. Doubt inspired by honest reflection hardly provides anti-vegans with ammunition to use against us. Plus, if we continue to see this matter as an us v. them war, we’ll end up having great appeal to ourselves alone. What’s the point of that?
Veganism is not a cult. It’s an ideal to which we do our best to follow. Necessarily, by nature of existence, we’ll fail, but if we proceed in ignorance of our failures we’ll never appeal to masses of thoughtful and pragmatic people who have the means to live life without unnecessarily and intentionally harming animals. The fact that some people do not have that means is yet another hard reality of ethical veganism that, as activists, we’re too eager to obscure rather than directly confront. There are a lot of cheerleaders for veganism out there. I enjoy their cheers. But that’s not what this blog is about. The Pitchfork aims to make you uncomfortable, however momentarily.
And so I’ll be spending a good chunk of time, as well as dedicating some meatier Pitchfork columns, to thinking out loud about how I (and others) might be convinced to eat animals. I don’t want to eat animals. I seriously doubt I’m ever going to eat animals. But I very much do want to systematically consider the oyster, consider roadkill, consider insects, consider the Inuit, consider other topics that you suggest. And so on. I want to consider the remote possibility that I’m wrong. Because that just seems right.
Okay, cue up your outrage:
Now, take a deep breath: what do you do here? How do you react?
There are thinking and thoughtless ways to approach this image. The most thoughtful might actually be to shrug it off as a shallow and insulting marketing gimmick. But doing so misses an opportunity to explore what exactly makes American culture—especially the complicated culture of the American West—uniquely supportive of this kind of message. That’s a big topic, a great topic, a topic relevant to animal ethics. But it’s not what I’m going to explore at the moment. I simply want to note that a thoughtful response to this image might tend in that direction—the direction of thoughtfulness, the kind that illuminates the culture we want to change.
My real reason for including this image is to offer a case study on how not to react. This image came to me via a tweet from Gary Smith’s “The Thinking Vegan.” The twittery tag line was “what a horrible human being.” Inspired by such insight, Facebook readers smelled blood, launching into a tirade of invective that collectively made Palin look like Gandhi by comparison.
Here are what “thinking vegans” had to offer by way of intelligent analysis:
“Sarah Palin is a ignorant lying bloodthirsty murdering psycho in any language”; “I think she is but a stupid slut who did`n`t get enough love and care while growing up”; “Dumb bitch!”; “what a piece of effing shit”; “Fuk u her thats why your fukd n will die of some of cancer”; “I hate her”; ”Sarah Palin is an old Indian word for Cunt”; “She is an ignorant murdering bitch”; “Sarah Palin is an old Indian phrase meaning fuckwit!”; “Palin is an old Alaskan word for murderer coke whore…what a waste if oxygen this bitch is”; “Dumb as a rock that woman. Wanna throw up in her face”; “Ugly excuse for a human being.”
Ugh. And this from a Twitter profile that claims to have “a philosophical bent.”
Some of this was on The Thinking Vegan’s FB page, some on the page of the person whom The Thinking Vegan retweeted. Either way, there’s nothing thoughtful about this dump of anger. The Thinking Vegan should reconsider the impact of stoking cheap outrage. If anything, this kind of exposure alienates otherwise thoughtful and compassionate people who want to create a better world for animals. There are reasons that many potential vegans refuse to identify as vegan. And this example is one of them.
It might feel good to lash out, but what’s the benefit for animals?
Oliver Sacks has an important article out in the most recent New York Review of Books. In it, he explores the extensive literature—contemporary and historical—on the mental lives of plants and animals. The gist of his piece is that the plant and animal kingdoms, despite similarities on the cellular level, “evolved along two profoundly different paths.” This divergence culminated in “wholly different . . . modes of life.” The central implication of this divergence is that only animals ”learn, profit by experience, judge, act, and finally think.” Plants, in other words, are not intelligent—at least not in the way that would warrant our consideration of them as individual subjects with moral standing.
It’s worth delving a little deeper into the issue to grasp the bio-mechanical basis of this distinction. Sacks writes, “Plants depend largely on calcium ion channels, which suit their relatively slow lives perfectly. As Daniel Chamovitz argues in his book What a Plant Knows (2012), plants are capable of registering what we would call sights, sounds, tactile signals, and much more. Plants know what to do, and they ‘remember.’”
But don’t start caressing your rhododendrons just yet. As the piece’s most important paragraph explains: “The calcium ion channels that plants rely on do not support rapid or repetitive signaling between cells; once a plant action potential is generated, it cannot be repeated at a fast enough rate to allow, for example, the speed with which a worm ‘dashes…into its burrow.’ Speed requires ions and ion channels that can open and close in a matter of milliseconds, allowing hundreds of action potentials to be generated in a second. The magic ions, here, are sodium and potassium ions, which enabled the development of rapidly reacting muscle cells, nerve cells, and neuromodulation at synapses. These made possible organisms that could learn, profit by experience, judge, act, and finally think.”
In other words, they made animals possible. And, as Sacks’ worm reference suggests, the mental lives of these creatures happen to be far more complicated than many of us ever imagined. Having dismissed the notion that plants and animals share mental real estate, Sacks offers an elegant overview of the hidden state of being among murky animals ranging from insects to jellyfish to amoeba to cuttlefish. My favorite quote: “But if one allows that a dog may have consciousness of an individual and significant sort, one has to allow it for an octopus, too.” Go octopus.
If the information presented here undergirds the obvious, recall the rearguard efforts by writers of a certain persuasion who cherry-pick the evolutionary past to suggest that “plant intelligence” justifies the “humane” consumption of animals. Recently, Michael Pollan—it’s always Pollan!—wrote a New Yorker piece in which he took seriously “the possibility that plants are much more intelligent and much more like us than most people think—capable of cognition, communication, information processing, computation, learning, and memory.” The implication through it all was that plants have mental lives akin to animals. Thanks to Sacks for burying this mystical, pseudo-scientific suggestion in the same grave with rotting companions such as phrenology, eugenics, and the flying spaghetti monster.
Note: I wrote the following essay at the invitation of a prominent vegan activist for a book of essays this person was editing. A month after turning it in, I received a note from the editor asking if I’d be willing to change the essay substantially or if I had another essay I could submit. Well, no and no, I answered, before explaining how the essay met the volume’s stated theme. The editor wrote back and said that, on second thought, everything was cool and that they’d publish the essay. Two weeks later the publisher contacted me asking for changes on the grounds that vegans don’t believe this or that tenet of my essay and would object. The publisher also added that there would be “criticism” if my essay ran. So it was rejected. I thus ask for your honest input. Is this an essay you think vegans need to read or not? I ask the question with genuine open-mindedness.
Harming animals is a culturally ubiquitous act tacitly and not-so-tacitly accepted by virtually every human being on earth. The overwhelming majority of contemporary consumers unthinkingly contribute to animal suffering when they get dressed, eat food, apply cosmetics, and pursue basic forms of entertainment and recreation. Immense animal suffering, in short, is integral to a perfectly “civilized life.
Although unnecessary animal abuse practically defines modern life, we rarely see it. This is usually by choice. The suffering around us can be so extensive, it’s nature so viscerally brutal, that we have unconsciously but successfully limited our moral gaze to our fellow humans. And, even on that score, we’ve hardly set a model example of enlightenment and compassion.
But there’s a catch to this limited moral vision. A related concern has nagged humanity for centuries: what if, in our unknowing perpetuation of animal suffering, we might also be harming ourselves? This self-interested possibility has preoccupied thinkers from Aristotle to Kant to Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wisely wrote, “When a human kills an animal for food, he is neglecting his own hunger for justice.”
Could this be? Could our quest for the most delicious plate of barbeque be clipping the wings of our better angels? It is in the context of this age-old proposition—one that subversively connects the sacred and the profane–that this essay investigates the larger claim that ethical veganism can provide the key to a more just and equitable world.
. . . . . . .
One needn’t be a philosopher to offer an answer. Unhindered common sense dictates that extending toleration, empathy, and compassion to other species makes it extremely difficult for entrenched prejudices of tribalism to persist in human society. The heroic moral reach from the “in group” of humans to the “out group” of animals, if it took place in any meaningful way, would mark such a profound cross-cultural leap of empathy that the oxygen fueling human hatred would dissipate into insignificance.
The culmination of this process, at the very least, would be a more harmonious human relationship with humans and non-humans alike. For the idealistically inclined, you could even say that, with the onset of ethical veganism, we’d find ourselves on the path to World Peace. I’m not quite ready to go that far, but neither am I ready to rule out such a heady prospect.
Either way, it’s an inspiring hypothesis. And, despite the all-too-frequent venom spewed by ethical vegans against each other and non-vegans alike, I think it’s beyond safe to conclude that the idea is certainly an accurate one. Put it this way: I’d find it virtually impossible to argue that a mass embrace of ethical veganism would not lead to a more peaceful earthly existence.
So: just go vegan and save the world, right?
Well, not so fast. The premise here might be correct—that is, ending speciesism would help end prejudicial oppression of all sorts—but it doesn’t automatically follow that ethical veganism is, at this point in time, a readily achievable goal.
In my experience, many vegans don’t seem to appreciate this point. It’s never easy for an interest group to admit that its worldview isn’t ready for primetime. It’s difficult to recognize that an animating insight might lack traction in the court of public opinion. It’s never fun to confront the daunting reality that the pillars that support your ideals might need considerable strengthening.
But, for any social movement, it’s a necessary part of progress. Ethical vegans thus have a responsibility to administer a thorough and sober intellectual self-examination if we ever hope to present to a mainstream audience a coherent, simple, and achievable vision of peace predicated on the ethical treatment of sentient animals.
It’s with this goal in mind that this essay grapples with two substantial obstacles—call them ethical veganism’s shakiest pillars. It does so with an eye toward reaching a solid pragmatic consensus requisite to moving a cohesive message into a brighter future, one where the virtuous potential of ethical veganism has a fighting chance of being realistically realized.
One shaky pillar of ethical veganism is the problem of moral consistency. None of us can live our lives free of animal exploitation. If we eat only plants, we harm animals. If we drive a car, we harm animals. If we take the bus or subway, we harm animals. It’s a deeply unpleasant, and even metaphysically troubling, aspect of existence, but the fact remains: life is unavoidably imbricated with animal exploitation. Worse, there’s nothing we can do about it.
The inability to avoid harming animals can, if not handled tactfully, place ethical vegans in a bind. Take the seemingly morally benign act of driving a car. A skeptic of vegan ethics might note that driving leads to the mass slaughter of insects and, in some cases, kills larger animals such as squirrels, deer, and even dogs and cats.
One can, by way of retort, reasonably argue that driving a car is an act we cannot, for all intents and purposes, avoid. Likewise, the vegan can further point out that the vehicular death of animals is incidental to our need to propel ourselves through space—an unintended consequence of being mobile and modern and in a rush
But does this answer suffice?
Not completely. Just as human life is not fundamentally dependent on eating animals, survival is not fundamentally dependent on driving. Neither driving nor eating animals is a do-or-die scenario. It could therefore be asked in response to our “it’s incidental” defense: what makes driving any more or less a justifiable competing moral consideration (vis-à-vis killing animals) than sheer gustatory pleasure? Neither, after all, is required for humans to live. So, when it comes to justifying the harm of animals, why should driving have the moral edge over taste or tradition?
Taking this objection further, I can easily imagine a realistic scenario in which the choice to eat an animal becomes more central to one’s deeper sense of humanity than driving.
Consider a Hmong citizen sacrificing a pig as part of a traditional spiritual ritual and a New Yorker who works within walking distance of his dwelling space but drives to work anyway. Neither action—ritualistic slaughter or driving to work—is required to live life. But the competing moral consideration in the former situation (religion) is far more consequential than in the latter (driving).
So, this is a tough problem—a weak pillar. But I think it can be resolved in a way that purifies the connection between reducing oppression and ending speciesism.
That resolution begins by pondering a sad statistic: 33,561 humans died in car accidents in 2012. A ubiquitous action (driving) that we allow to justify the unintentional killing of animals also justifies the unintentional killing of humans. In this respect, the incidental nature of death, which applies to all sentient beings, allows the ethical vegan to escape the charge of speciesism.
There is, in the end, neither selective moral consideration nor intentional death at work when we drive. Despite its inevitable harm to animal life, driving thus remains acceptable vis-à-vis the prospect of animal death. The unintended consequences, however horrific, still apply to humans as well
By contrast, submit the other example–the religiously inspired sacrifice and consumption of animals– to the same test and everything falls apart. One might defend this practice by arguing not only from the perspective of tradition (a very weak move), but also from the platform of intention. Indeed, one might argue that an animal’s death is incidental to spiritual imperatives and, in that sense, no different than the death of animals being incidental to the need to drive the kids to soccer practice.
But, even so, the act does not pass the more critical test, the inclusion test. The inevitable harm done to animals does not equally apply to humans. Our species is spared ritualistic slaughter for spiritual fulfillment. The reason we are spared is the fact that we are human. And, therefore, no matter how deep the spiritualism at stake, the act of killing an animal for religious purposes is speciesist.
The beauty of this distinction is that is allows vegans to admit that we harm animals daily without being speciesist, thereby preserving the very quality that will help ensure a less oppressive world.
The next pillar is shakier, as is my proposed solution. It centers on the classic problem of where to draw the line when it comes to granting equal moral consideration to animals.
Ethical vegans routinely confront this question. We do so because it’s an excellent question. Regrettably, too many vegan advocates choose to dismiss it, or reach for unrealistic platitudes (“all animals should be treated with equal consideration”), rather than seek a workable stance (compromise) on the matter.
Fortunately, the billions of animals that we eat, wear, and exploit for research and entertainment are situated well above the line. For these creatures, the ethical implications of their intentional exploitation are conspicuously evident to anyone willing to look: it’s obviously wrong
Endowed with complex nervous systems, a conscious sense of self, and possibly even a theory of mind, these animals—pigs, cows, fowl, most fish, primates, rats, etc.—warrant our moral consideration and, in turn, our compassion. To cause intentional harm to these animals and deem such an act morally inconsequential is to accept the fiction that they are automatons. Aristotle and Descartes might have seen them in such terms. But Darwin rendered that view appropriately obsolete, if not ludicrous.
But what about animals that are less “complex”—that is, critters that do not seem to have comparatively sophisticated nervous systems or an obvious sense of self, much less a theory of mind or a comparatively long life-cycle? Although convenient, it’s intellectually inadequate to state that, “all animals deserve equal moral consideration” and leave matters at that. For one, as already shown, we cannot realistically live by such a maxim.
But more importantly, animal species differ in morally significant ways. These differences, in turn, warrant varying intensities of moral consideration. There’s a qualitative distinction between torturing primates in a lab and swatting a fly buzzing around the kitchen. This is not to say that we should swat the fly. We shouldn’t. But it’s to acknowledge that torturing (and killing) primates clearly has more severe moral consequence than killing the fly.
Failure to grant these differences leads one by the nose into the trap of “plant intelligence.” That is, if we cannot highlight morally relevant distinctions among animals, ethical vegans will have a hard time drawing morally relevant distinctions between plants and animals. And if we cannot draw that line, all bets are off. The vegan argument collapses.
Ethical vegans thus need to accept the position that it is never justifiable to unnecessarily harm life—plants or animals included. But it may be excusable. This distinction enables us to engage in the unintentional death of animals while still preserving the non-speciesism central to the idea of a more peaceful future.
Needless to say, the lines we draw cannot be determined on the basis of arbitrary basis of “cuteness” or familiarity. Instead, we must look to more substantial and less subjective indicators such as the length and quality of an animal’s natural life-cycle under optimal conditions (a couple of weeks for a mosquito, 80 years for an orca), the neurological basis of sentience, a theory of mind, and the nature of suffering for that animal. Only then can ethical vegans insure that increasing revelations of plant intelligence do not become a pretext (however disingenuously presented) for justifiably slaughtering a pig.
Fortunately, at least in terms of eliminating speciesism through lifestyle changes, the “drawing the line” issue rarely comes into play. By choosing to avoid animal products in general, we make substantial progress toward living according to enlightened values—values integral to creating a more just society.
By limiting our exploitation of animals to incidental circumstances in which the harm is excusable but not justifiable, we simultaneously acknowledge the presence of “the line” without clearly identifying it, all the while focusing our behavior on achievable and meaningful reductions in animal abuse.
It seems perfectly obvious that eliminating speciesism would help end other forms of prejudicial oppression. But it’s by no means obvious that such an axiom will, by sheer force of its exciting potential, break into a mainstream culture of carnism.
In order for this to happen, a daunting number of factors will have to fall into place. As they do, it is absolutely critical that the pillars supporting ethical veganism have as much intellectual integrity as we can possibly give them. Ensuring that unintended harm to animals avoids speciesism, and making critical distinctions between unjustifiable and excusable unintentional death, are challenges that are easy to avoid. But they are critical to our mission of seeking peace through the better treatment of animals.