Archive for the ‘A Thousand Words’ Category
Loyal readers: I’m on the verge of launching The Daily Pitchfork, a website dedicated to promoting accuracy and context in the field of animal journalism. What follows are some tentative standards that we’re asking journalists to consider when they write about animals in the mainstream media. Please provide feedback, suggestions, and critiques. Also, if you are interested in doing volunteer work for The Daily Pitchfork please send me a note (email@example.com).
The Daily Pitchfork’s Basic Standards For Animal Journalism (DRAFT):
1) Many animals are the sentient subjects of a life. They experience pleasure and pain. Journalists writing about these animals must—if only implicitly—acknowledge the reality of their consciousness. When they do so through the perspective of animal advocates, they must use the proper terminology to describe the advocate (not everyone is an “animal rights activist”).
2) Many animals—particularly farm animals—are the products of extensive genetic manipulation. Failure to recognize animals’ genetic situation fosters basic misunderstandings about their behavior. Journalists writing about these animals are obligated to frame their lives in the relevant genetic histories, noting when appropriate how that history shapes an animal’s behavior.
3) The animals we eat and wear have to be slaughtered for these purposes. The nature of this process varies from backyard butchery to industrialized slaughter. Journalists writing about the life cycle of farm animals have an obligation to note the reality of slaughter, provide some insight into what it entails, and, when appropriate, illuminate the discomfort consumers and animals might have with the slaughtering process.
4) The industrialization of animal agriculture has been, and continues to be, exposed for its unacceptable environmental and ethical practices. At the same time, journalists have increasingly turned their attention to non-industrial (small, local, humane) alternatives. Writers must evaluate the environmental and ethical nature of these alternatives on their own terms rather than in comparison to the industrial models. They must do so, moreover, with the support of peer reviewed research rather than farmers’ claims to “sustainability” or “humaneness.”
5) Animals have perspectives on their own lives. They cannot, however, articulate them for us the way other oppressed groups can. Journalists nonetheless have a duty to consider those perspectives. Doing so does not require anyone to adopt “an animal rights” position, but only to make a charitable effort—drawing on the work of animal ethology when possible—to give a voice to the voiceless.
In the past week—in personal discussions and in the Twittersphere— I’ve heard three claims about killing animals that I’d like to address and, I hope, challenge. There’s nothing unusual in these objections—in fact they’re all pretty trite—but that’s all the better reason to deal with them forthrightly.
The first came on a run with friend who conveyed a story about her cousin thinking it was justifiable, and even required, for humans to cull invasive species. The specific animal in question, as is often the case in Texas, is the feral hog. These aggressive creatures wreak havoc on agricultural acreage and eastern woodlands across the Lone Star state. Those who hunt hogs often do so under the guise of conservation. They are, they insist, serving the public good by keeping the ecosystem in check. My first reaction to this justification is that humans have historically proven incapable of replicating the largely hidden complexity of nature and, as a result, any attempt to restore the “natural” balance is a fool’s errand marked by hubris. But my real objection comes down to something quite different: the proper relationship between resource consumption and punishment.
Here’s how I see it: it’s commonplace for certain sentient creatures to consume a disproportionate share of available resources. When I say sentient creatures I am of course including humans. It is often noted that the elderly and infirm consume an overwhelming majority of medical care resources. They are, in this respect, a sort of invasive species in the health care system. Their intention is hardly to be this way, but circumstances usually beyond their control have placed them in a resource-hogging position. Anyone who assumes that sentience is a baseline for moral consideration would, if I’m right here, have to accept the justifiable and intentionally administered death of the elderly and infirm (in hospitals) if they were also going to accept the intentional death of invasive animals as a just move. I’m not saying invasive species aren’t a pain in the ass. I’m just saying that certain groups of humans, usually by no choice of their own, are also a pain in the ass. Sometimes we need to call on compassion, if not respect for basic rights (and I realize this can get complicated vis-à-vis land rights), to help us back off and deal.
The second claim came from a tweet sent by Andrew Gunther. After he posted a celebratory pic of himself with colleagues who had devised a bunch of animal welfare standards, I asked: ”How do you justify caring for animal welfare and then killing the animal?” The back and forth went on for a bit and then Gunther dropped this little rhetorical gem: “Death is not a welfare issue. Quality of life is a welfare issue.” Wha??!! After I picked my jaw off the floor, I wondered: are we this delusional in our logic? Or, as agribusiness does so well, have we started to sway to the rhythm of our own slogans?
Let’s clarify. Gunther is saying—and I do wish he was alone, but he’s not—that while sentience obligates moral consideration, that moral consideration does not have to be be consistent. In other words, if you treat an animal well you are dutifully fulfilling a moral obligation but, when you want to eat the animal, you can toss duty and moral consideration out the barn door and send the poor beast to an untimely and callous death. Needless to say, this inconsistency renders the moral obligation meaningless and, in turn, Gunter’s supposed welfare concerns arbitrary. Gunther says death is “not a welfare issue.” He could not be more wrong. Death is THE ultimate welfare issue. If you kill a creature intentionally and unnecessarily, after all, you are denying his ability to enjoy the very welfare scheme that Gunther otherwise advocates as essential to an animal’s life. Point being, if sentience is a baseline for moral obligation (and Gunther’s interest in welfare per se proves his adherence to this premise), then it would be okay to treat any dependent creature well—your kids, your pets, your elderly parents—but then kill them when it struck your perverted fancy. Because, you know, death is not a welfare issue.
The final bee in my bonnet came in an essay by the English fox-hunting philosopher Roger Scruton. We read it in my “Eating Animals in America” class at Texas State (which I teach with the philosopher Bob Fischer). Scruton, who works with a fairly loose usage of virtue ethics, argues that if we did not eat farm animals they would not be here to enjoy the lives that they deserve to enjoy (assuming, as he does, they are raised on pasture). Scruton is no Gunther. He’s a deeply thoughtful philosopher. This claim, as such, is thus trickier than it sounds to refute. I boil the issue down to this question: when humans control the genetic fate of “a being that is the subject of a life” (Regan) does that control confer on humans permission to use that being as a means to an unnecessary (and violent) end? If yes, then wouldn’t a dog breeder be justified in killing dogs when it served a perceived interest to do so? Or a parent kill his kids when they pissed him off? Neither beings would have come into existence without the human choice to bring them into existence.
So why is it any different with farm animals?
As I continue the often uncomfortable process of subjecting my beliefs about eating animals to systematic scrutiny, I find myself seeing aspects of animal activism in a new, and not always flattering, light. Lately, for example, I have found myself getting frustrated with the overly simplistic claims that serve to justify the vegan way of life. Please note that I have zero moral tolerance for raising animals to consume them when other options are available. That said, I’m realizing that many vegan justifications are just as thoughtlessly reductive as are the carnivorous claims that vegans find so dimwitted: “we were meant to eat meat,” “we’re at the top of the food chain,” “it is the animals purpose to be food,” and so on. And we don’t want that.
So when I read something like (and I’m choosing a random example of late), “Our relationship with other animals should be one of awe and reverence, not one of use,” I think, well that’s nice. But then when I really think about it on a deeper level, I realize that this is an aphorism that obscures a far more complicated reality. First, on what grounds do I have an obligation to look at other creatures with awe and reverence? What if the animal does not behave in a way deserving of these reactions? Should I revere my awe-inspiring dog for rifling though my trash? To do so would actually be to objectify them by denying them any form of free will, to release them from any consequence of their actions, with automatic awe and reverence freezing these creatures into a romanticized category not unlike a classic painting or novel. Awe and respect too easily becomes mindless glorification.
Likewise, the question of use is far more complicated than the aphorism suggests. Of course, the intended meaning is to not use animals by yoking them to a plow or churning them into a burger—but that’s exploitation, a form of use. But use per se is unavoidable. We use each other—humans and humans, animals and animals, animals and humans—all the time. To remove ourselves from the matrix of use, for the evident purpose of experiencing disengaged awe and reverence, is to exonerate ourselves from the very hard work of developing genuine relationships with animals, ones that demand us to deal with a range of differences and similarities—a matrix of uses— to find common ground on a set of relationship “rules.” If you live with a companion animal, you know how hard this could be. I use my pets; they use me. To sever that bond is, once again, to objectify animals.
I’ll stop, but maybe you get my point. If you think it’s wrong to exploit animals, you have an obligation to make those thoughts known and appreciated. But when we do so through sloganeering rather than on the basis of common sense, moral clarity, and logical consistence, our chances of having an impact on broad cultural change is significantly reduced. We’re just firing very loud blanks in a war of words.
Beginning tomorrow, and lasting through August 20, the city of Denver will promote the gratuitous slaughter of animals who were raised with love. On Sunday you can get bison; Monday “sheep is the star”; Tuesday is pig night; Wednesday it’s cow. Every meal will be served at a restaurant that prides itself on morally commmodfying sentient animals who farmers respected while they lived, before selling their bodies for cash. The event is called “Hoofin It” and “farm to table” is the mantra. As The Denver Post reports, “a different hooved animal will be showcased every evening.” Cost of the showcase: $60.
Now, critics of animal agriculture, as well as animal advocates, have become all too familiar with these sort of Orwellian stunts. Essentially, what these events do is obscure systematic suffering under the false guise of humanity in order to serve a range of financial interests and a popular taste for animal flesh. It’s insulting, really. We’re especially accustomed to the oxymoronic–not to mention moronic—sponsorships of these moral carnivals: ethical butchers, humane animal farmers, compassionate carnivores, and the like. It thus may come as a surprise that the sponsor of “Hoofin It” is . . . . The Humane Society of the United States.
As you might imagine, there’s been outrage over this. Why would an organization that works so diligently to reduce the consumption of meat promote the consummation of meat? One letter I received from a Colorado critic of the event explained, “Needless to say, the vegan community in Colorado is quite upset with HSUS’ sponsorship of this event and has notified HSUS of their concern.” Here is what HSUS wrote by way of an explanation:
My thoughts on this response too are many to articulate, and none of them are in sympathy. But in a nutshell it’s safe to say that there’s a fundamental difference between encouraging more humane methods of animal agriculture and throwing a party to celebrate animal slaughter. There’s simply no hoofin it around HSUS’s craven capitulation to compromise on this event. Shame.
(HSUS’s response came from Sarah Barnett. You can reach her here: Sarah Barnett <firstname.lastname@example.org>)
The British psychotherapist Adam Phillips writes movingly about the relationship between frustration and satisfaction. Frustrations are inevitable and they instinctively seek satisfaction. But not all our sought for satisfactions are equally healthy or effective.
In fact, the source of most human angst is that the vast majority of our chosen satisfactions are off the rails. Way off the rails. Most of them may in fact be preconditions for addiction. We become frustrated, we overshoot the satisfaction bullseye, seeking a solution in behaviors that feel good in the moment but leave us damaged in the long run.
We all have addictions, whether we are aware of them or not. Some addictions are low grade—such as watching too much TV, running too many miles, drinking too much coffee, playing too many video games, worrying too much, not worrying enough, Facebook. Others are debilitating–everyone with an uncle knows about those. Somewhere on this continuum of addictive behaviors lies the craving to eat animals.
This idea came to me this afternoon, while swimming. I was in a city pool, a fairly run down one, and I was swimming laps and feeling residual anxiety about having to change in the tiny “locker room” where a lot of underprivileged people shower, do drugs, and even have sex. As I was contemplating the admittedly minor frustration of my clothing change in a grungy changing area a huge waft of meat smoke from a nearby grill came over the pool.
And suddenly . . . . I felt better.
The smell overwhelmed me, evoking the safety of childhood and, I suppose, the satisfaction of a deeply comfortable flavor. On another level it may also have satisfied a less obvious desire to dominate another being, to manipulate the genetics of a critter to make my life more focused on satisfaction. As the “locker room” anxiety receded under the influence of a grilled animal flesh, the thought came to me that eating meat was an addiction—a culturally approved addiction. It seems perfectly safe to hypothesize that killing sentient beings when we don’t have to might very well be a pathology.
As I say, it’s only a thought. But it seems reasonable to interpret eating animals—which we once did for survival but (for most of us) no longer have to—as a particular kind of all-too-easy response to our very real sufferings and struggles. And, as indicated, there’s virtually no psychoanalytic check on this behavior, no cultural message that indicates how our response is out of whack with the anxiety it seeks to alleviate. As with so many of our pathologies, the impulse to pursue them may have once helped us survive. But we mature and outgrow them, once we recognize them for what they are. Addictions.
I’ve been doing some historical research lately. One of the rewards that comes from investigating the details of 18th-century agriculture is that an unexpected discovery can cast doubt on common assumptions about the way agriculture works today (or is supposed to work). One of the more tenacious beliefs common in contemporary agriculture is the idea that the best way to keep soil healthy is to graze animals on it. Defenders of rotational grazing insist they’re farming the way nature intended us to farm, and the way farmers have been doing it for centuries. It was thus more than a little gratifying to stumble upon the following account, published in Maryland in March of 1789, by a sheep farmer, who was not so convinced of this received wisdom:
So far as dung improves soil, it ought to be allowed for; and this is for all dung applied from winter littering or summer folding; but how far, if at all, it is to be prized, when slowly dropt about in pasturing, is a question. Beasts constantly ramming the soil of a pasture into a close compact state, until it more than is commonly apprehended. That the foot of the beast does more damage to soil than his dung so dispersed and exposed to exaltation does good, is probable from several instances related by serious good people of clover fields having been divided, and the one half pastured on, all the summer, the other mown twice and both sown at the same time with wheat on one plowing, when the mown gave considerably the best crops of wheat. Let us suppose a lay of grass has been left unpastured, and even uncut, for three years; another like field at the same time is pastured close as is usual during the same three years; now let the farmer walk into these and observe how mellow, light, and lively the one is,–how firm the other. Whish of these will he prefer for a crop of grain? . . .It them may be suspected that pasturing doth not improve the soil; that on the whole it even injures it.
It really makes you wonder in what other ways we’ve twisted the agrarian past to fulfill today’s utopian visions, or at least on what sources what we’ve based our contemporary ideas.
If you care about honeybees, you probably know about colony collapse disorder (CCD). The disappearance of the world’s greatest living pollinators evokes an especially uneasy kind of ecological discomfort. After all, honeybee pollination brings us much of our food.
It would therefore seem especially critical—if only in a self-interested way— to understand the causes of honeybee collapse. And quickly. A wide range and combination of circumstances have been proposed over the years as factors contributing to the disorder. So diverse are the causal possibilities that the complexity of this problem has become legion to entomologists worldwide. It’s therefore not at all surprising that what’s missing from the CCD debate is a smoking gun. THE answer.
But if you read Mother Jones (May 23), you’d be forgiven for thinking that the ever elusive smoking gun was, at long last, discovered.”Did Scientists Just Solve the Bee Collapse Mystery,?” ran the headline. It’s a thoroughly Mother Jones-ish tactic. Strongly suggests a clear answer to a multifaceted problem—that smoking gun—but stay aware that the issue is really a lot more complex than the article will make it seem. Then add a question mark to cover everyone’s ass while still allowing the reader to feel the satisfaction of a clear and singular answer, not to mention righteous outrage at the dastardly menaces behind this ecological tragedy.
This is good guys/bad guys journalism.
The MJ article breezily relies on a single study, one that happens to have a Harvard imprimatur on it (along with that of a beekeeping association) to argue that the “key driver” of colony collapse disorder has once and for all been identified: a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids. The study identifying neonicontinoids as the cause of CCD is praised by MJ for its clarity (The experiment couldn’t have been simpler”), it’s brilliance (“What makes the new Harvard study remarkable . . .”), and it’s conclusiveness (“the CCD mystery has been solved.”) The author of the MJ article, Tom Philpott, effectively blames CCD on Bayer, the manufacturer of the pesticides in question.
But then, as always happens with MJ’s coverage of agriculture—coverage driven first and foremost by an inveterate hatred of industrial structures (Bayer in this case)—the other shoe drops with a thud. It happens a lot at MJ. I’ve noted as much in the past with respect to GMOs and an eventually retracted French study on rats. In the CCD case, the backlash against the “Harvard study” fingering neoniotinoids was unusually swift. The more you learn about the study used to play the role of the smoking gun, the harder it is to believe that it was given so much weight in a major magazine to explain one of the most mysterious ecological phenomenon on earth.
The best critique of the “Harvard study” that MJ placed on a pedestal is here. Suspicions begin with the journal in which the paper was published—an obscure Italian publication called The Bulletin of Insectology. Critics note that the study’s author Chensheng Lu, “ has had trouble getting his work on honeybees past peer review in many US journals.” The study’s sample included only 18 honeybee colonies, all located in central Massachusetts. The researcher “had exposed his bees to an unrealistically high dose of pesticides,” a level that bayer itself agrees would be lethal for bees. ”This study is a total distraction,” said an entomologist at the University of Maryland. “It’s not surprising that those bees died — those doses weren’t field realistic. The only surprise was that the bees didn’t all die right away.”
But a distraction is what Philpott and MJ are all about. They will shamelessly deploy the flimsiest science to bash industrial agriculture. Which is sad because industrial agriculture is so thoroughly flawed on its own terms, and its flaws are so readily obvious, that nobody should have to rely on questionable science to expose those problems. I’m all for sticking it to Big Ag—which is why I advocate for veganism—but let’s not resort to deception to do it. Follow the money, for sure. But follow the science as well.
Just as we experience outrage when Big Agriculture’s deep pockets lobby for subsidies and deregulation, so we should react when a bunch of great writers lend their literary talents to a fast-food company with a history of greenwashing.
That’s now happening with Jonathan Safran Foer and the team of writers he has “curated” to further thicken Chipotle’s rhetorical soup. Like Big Ag’s iron triangle, this relationship reeks of self-interest and faux populism. Simply put, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
So far the reviews of this initiative are rotten, as they should be. But what’s problematic is not that the writing—all done on cups and bags—isn’t insultingly bad, but that this project happened in the first place.
That an impressive slew of cultural critics and deep thinkers—ranging from Toni Morrison to Steven Pinker—didn’t think better about cheapening their talents by using them to promote a food franchise bodes poorly for the state of intelligent public discourse. It’s like all those cool kids in high school, the best looking ones with the nicest clothes and fanciest cars, who were so collectively enthralled with their clique that were unable to see how ridiculous they looked to the rest of us.
Beyond the embarrassment of this literary-burrito association, though, is the goofy reasoning behind it. Here’s Foer’s quote in Vanity Fair: “I mean, I wouldn’t have done it if it was for another company like a McDonald’s, but what interested me is 800,000 Americans of extremely diverse backgrounds having access to good writing. A lot of those people don’t have access to libraries, or bookstores. Something felt very democratic and good about this.”
Sure. All those Chipotle goers, denied access to a library or a bookstore, will now be able to read the thoughts of our nation’s most creative thinkers on the outside of trash—very democratic, very good. But, by this logic, why not just place your wordy pearls of wisdom on a McDonald’s bag? Or just a bathroom wall? That would be democratic. And eliminate this outbreak of literary food poisoning for good.
*Two notes. First, I’m so baffled by this initiative that my residual paranoia compels me to say that I think this could be a hoax. Just saying. Second, I have this piece today in Slate.
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?
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.