Vassar Vegans

» November 8th, 2013

Last night I spoke at Vassar, in the auditorium and Sanders Hall, and it was an all around excellent experience.  There’ always the fear that, at a school with less than 2,500 students, about 4 students will show up (for the record, it doesn’t matter–I give the same talk if there are 5 or 500, but still . . .it kind of does matter at the same time). Due to effective organization, active publicity, and the langniappe of vegan pizza, attendance was more like 52—most were, I think vegan or vegetarian. Several of them had excellent questions and, afterwards, many students–eating said vegan pizza made with rare expertise by Alessandra Seiter (who organized the whole deal and is bound to become a great and widely known voice for vegan issues)—were eager to get more involved in vegan activism and outreach.  Overall, a terrific event, at least from my perspective.

A couple of questions pushed me to make clarifications in my own mind, or at least clarification regarding how to articulate my position. One was a variation on the where to “draw the line”/”what about plants as a life form, too?” question. You feel yourself mature as a thinker and activist when, instead of instinctively scoffing at the question or getting annoyed by it, you take it seriously and answer the question with as much exactitude and clarity as possible. My response was to argue that, if we accept the premise that all life has equal moral worth in the framework of the biota’s overall health, then the most ethical act we could undertake would be to kill all the humans, starting with the wealthiest first. Given that, for most sane people, this is an obviously irrational proposition, the next task is to decide how to draw the line. That is, how to decide by what standard we will decide what forms of life lie within our circle of moral consideration. That standard, I suggested should be sentience, or the ability to experience suffering. From there, we can have our arguments–who is sentient and who is not?, when should exceptions be made and on what grounds?–but this seems to me as reasonable and achievable a way as I can think of to begin clarifying an issue that, if left vague, could really muddy the ethical waters for vegan activists. (And I don’t mean to suggest that I’m the person who thought of this idea, one that goes back to Jeremy Bentham, and maybe earlier.)

Second, a woman asked a pretty loaded question about the status of a human fetal vis-a-vis a chicken. She wondered how we could argue that it was wrong to kill a chicken but okay to terminate a pregnancy (or “kill a fetus” as she put it). “Suffering,” she said, “is suffering.” Of course many readers will be aware of this kind of question and, as with the first question, we cannot demean it. Suffering might be suffering, but the frame in which that suffering happens matters in a fundamental sense. In the chicken case, the frame includes no real competing consideration other than the fact that some humans think chickens taste good. A number of plant-based items could be substituted for the chicken, but the person has a hankering for chicken. That is, of course, hardly what we’d call a powerful competing moral consideration to the prospect of chicken suffering. But, with the pregnant woman, there is clearly a powerful competing moral consideration: the right to one’s own body. Sure, there might be an argument to be had over what “right to one’s body” might mean, but the fact remains that the establishment of a moral consideration beyond “I want chicken” in this case means that, alas, suffering cannot be considered in and of itself. But rather in the framework of competing consideration.

After the talk, a woman (vegan) told me that her family had moved to Oregon to live off the land and that, in their case, living off the land meant raising and eating turkeys,  goats, and pigs. Given that she had just heard a lecture about how nonindustrial farms experience severe welfare concerns of their own, she now wondered how she could approach her family and explain to them how what they’re doing might not be as right for the animals as they think. Tough one. I vaguely recalled  how Jonathan Safran Foer wrote movingly in Eating Animals about the dilemma posed by his grandmother’s traditional chicken dish, and the implications of not eating it during the holidays. I mentioned that. But otherwise I simply suggested that she observe what they do and, in light of her knowledge of how they react to criticism, decide on the best ways to highlight the fact that nonindustrial agriculture, although better for animals in the short term, is ultimately an ethically unacceptable way to treat critters we claim to genuinely care about.

Finally, a woman confessed her “urge” to eat animals, in addition to the sense of sadness and loss she fears she’d experience if she gave them up (this, too, came in a conversation after the talk). The “urge” question was the easier of the two: we urge a lot things that we do not–cannot–do. If somebody cuts me off in traffic and I want to get out of my car and, a la Jack Nicholson, smash their car, I don’t, because it’s uncivilized, and if we all reacted thusly we’d have anarchy. A few thoughts about sexual urges and you get the idea here. Now, the nostalgia concern should not taken lightly. Much of our identity is wrapped up in what we eat and there’s every reason to think that we can become sort of psychologically addicted to eating certain animal-based foods. I think perhaps the best way to work through that addiction is to consider veagnism not as a loss but as a clearing of the plate, so to speak, of old traditions in order to make room for a more diverse array of tasty new ones. Yes, I might have a little twinge of nostalgia for a greasy egg on toast after a long run, but the fact that I now eat bowls of porridge with a dozen superfoods in them and, as a result, feel much better, is pretty good compensation for that long lost egg.


PS: note the stunning sycamore/plane tree in the photo above


34 Responses to Vassar Vegans

  1. Rhys says:

    “What about plants?” is a fairly easy question for vegans to answer but hints at a question that is more difficult for vegans — “What about the wildlife we harm even when we don’t eat animal products?”

    You say that drawing the line at all life being equal means the most ethical act would be to kill all the humans to allow the less destructive lifeforms like plants to bloom. I might agree with that, but going by this logic, drawing the line at sentience instead doesn’t change anything: that too would require killing all the humans, even if the humans were vegan. With sentience as the standard, you wouldn’t be killing humans for the sake of non-sentient plants, but you would still need to kill them to allow all the less destructive sentient lifeforms to bloom without all our pollution, resource competition and habitat destruction harming and killing them.

    • James says:

      Could I ask you to elaborate/rephrase on the second graph? I *think* I see what you are saying, but I’m not sure, and I want to be.

      • Rhys says:

        You wrote:

        “if we accept the premise that all life has equal moral worth in the framework of the biota’s overall health, then the most ethical act we could undertake would be to kill all the humans, starting with the wealthiest first.”

        The presumption here is that humans are the organisms most destructive to other lifeforms on the planet, including non-sentient life. If we drew the line of moral consideration at all life, humans would have to go first (regardless of their diets) because we are the ones building cars and parking lots, causing global warming, growing plants only to kill and eat them, and so on. We manage and control and dominate much of the life on the planet, and maybe life in general would better thrive without us.

        [A hopefully not too confusing aside: Depending on your style of ethics, you may or may not add that humans are probably the only animals who can think about the fact that they are destroying life and feel bad about it, and are thus the only animals who can be considered guilty for destroying life -- which would mean that even if humans weren't quite the most destructive animals, we might still need to be the first to go, as punishment for our moral transgression. (A utilitarian is less likely to consider this, and anyway this is probably over-complicating the point. Feel free to ignore this aside.)]

        So that’s why humans have to go when we draw the line of moral consideration at all living things. You then made the argument that drawing the line at sentience, while still messy, resolves the need to get rid of all the humans first. If I understand your thinking here, what you’re saying is that we can’t help but destroy non-sentient life even as vegans (for one thing, we’d be eating plants), which would be unforgivable if all life has equal value. But if we instead draw the line at sentience, we can just not eat sentient beings, and are in the clear. But I don’t think that drawing the line at sentience changes as much as you think, because there are still all the ways we destroy sentient lifeforms without eating them (just as we can destroy non-sentient lifeforms without eating them.) If we are the animals most destructive to non sentient lifeforms, we’re also the animals most destructive to other sentient lifeforms too — whether we’re hunting or raising animals for food or not. If you’re interested, I wrote an article about some of the ways we hurt animals without eating them here:

        You could say, as a lot of vegans do, that the difference comes down to intent, and our desire to survive: when we eat meat we cause unnecessary harm, but when we destroy animal habitat we aren’t meaning to harm animals, and for whatever reason that destruction is “necessary”. But if you were going to use the intent argument, you could have used it to answer the “what about plants?” question by saying that even if all lifeforms had equal value, it would be necessary for us to consume them to survive, and is thus okay.

        But I don’t think appealing to intent makes sense in either case. Going back to all life having equal moral worth, what justification do we have to kill plants for our own benefit? Especially when we have to kill so many lifeforms to sustain even one human life? Yes, we are alive, but so are they, so no matter how good our intentions supposedly are, we should still off ourselves for being the most destructive of all the lifeforms. And this wouldn’t change with the line drawn at sentience instead. Our intentions don’t erase the power imbalance that allows all the suffering and death we cause to other animals, even without eating them. If all sentient life has equal value, how can we justify the massive amount of harms we do to animals even as vegans? Sure, we want to survive, but so do they. Should we get to survive at their expense just because we’re more powerful than them, and better at manipulating the environment than them?

        Did this help, or have I made it even more confusing?

        • Rhys says:

          A simpler way of saying it:

          If we draw the line of moral consideration at all life, including non-sentient life, you say that means humans have to go because earth’s non-human lifeforms are much better off without us.

          Following that logic, if we draw the line of moral consideration at sentient life, that also means humans have to go (no matter what we eat), because earth’s non-human sentient lifeforms are better off without us — even if we’re vegans.

        • James says:

          Thanks. been meaning to reply but will later.

          • Mountain says:

            I question the premise that there would be anything ethical about killing all humans, whether on the basis of harm to sentient beings or harm to all living organisms. What’s the evidence that the biota’s overall health would be any better with all of us suddenly gone? I haven’t seen one iota of evidence that it would benefit the biota.

  2. Carolle says:

    ‘Tis the season to “make room for a more diverse array of tasty new” traditions all while being kind to sentient beings. November through January is a great time to share with many a vegan lifestyle. One may have a hankering for the taste of something, but more so, I think, people have the desire to be around others they enjoy. The urges we can follow this season are to be kind and respectful – by treating others to tasty vegan meals.

  3. About the abortion question: if anyone ever asks me about that, I’ll refer them to Chapter 7 of Cornell law professor Sherry Colb’s new book Mind if I Order the Cheeseburger? And Other Questions People Ask Vegans.

    She first explores the similarities (and there are many) between consuming animal products and undergoing an abortion. Then she presents the differences—including why, in ethical terms, unwanted pregnancy is a situation unlike any other.

    Colb’s discussion is admirably thorough, her argument convincing. The best I’ve yet seen, for why it’s morally consistent to be both vegan and pro-choice.

    • Helen says:

      I just got her book and now can’t wait to get to the chapter! As someone who is both vegan and pro-choice I have thought about this issue in some length and while personally I don’t feel conflicted about it I have wondered how I would respond if someone were to confront me about this topic, I look forward to reading that chapter and feeling more prepared!

    • Mountain says:

      The chapter is well-written, and I was with her until she got to “The Pregnant Woman’s Unique Dilemma.” At that point, her argument falls apart.

      She correctly points out that if a woman has an abortion before the 20th week of the pregnancy, we can be fairly certain that the fetus has not yet achieved sentience. So whatever harm may come of the abortion, she is not inflicting harm upon a sentient being. Somewhere between the 20th and 24th week, a fetus achieves sentience, so if a woman has an abortion during this time period, there is a great deal of ethical ambiguity. She may be killing a sentient being, she may not be–and either way, she won’t know until afterward, and maybe not even then.

      After the 24th week, though, it’s pretty clear that an abortion kills a sentient being, something that clearly conflicts with ethical veganism. Colb attempts to eliminate this conflict by arguing that for a woman with an unwanted pregnancy, there is no third option– she either has to kill a sentient being, or suffer through an unwanted pregnancy. Of course, that’s not true. A woman with an unwanted pregnancy has the option of aborting before the 20th week. The remainder of Colb’s argument proceeds as though this is not the case.

      So, I think she does a great job laying out the ethical arguments, but it seems to me she brute-forces her way to the desired result, rather than following through on the full implication of the arguments.

      • First, I want to make sure you didn’t miss the part where she writes, “I acknowledge that someone could take a different position in the case of post-sentience abortions for reasons that are no less coherent and principled than my own.”

        Then, she sums up her point in the final paragraph: “Whether or not to permit post-sentience abortions therefore poses a difficult question. Whether to demand slaughter for products we do not need to live and thrive does not.”

        I guess what you’re arguing is that post-sentience abortions are never justified because women could always abort before the 20th week. But that assumes an unwanted pregnancy is unwanted from the start, which is not always the case. Here’s a HuffPo piece that explores this question a bit: Unfortunately, there are some pregnancies which do not become unwanted until after the 20th week (and the decision to abort at that point is a sad, gut-wrenching one). But you’re right that Colb’s chapter does not address this question of *why* someone would ever seek a late-term abortion.

        • Mountain says:

          I didn’t miss it. I’m not arguing that no post-24th-week abortions are justified, but that they are subject to the same standard as any other killing of a sentient being. Necessity and self-defense are usually considered acceptable reasons to kill a sentient being, so a pregnancy that threatens the life of a mother would qualify as an acceptable reason to kill the sentient fetus. But mere unwantedness or burden no longer would, no more than they would justify killing a pet you know longer wanted.

          • Roger that. You’re right that Colb’s chapter does not address the ethics of “mercy-killing” (which is evidently a reason some women choose to kill their fetus late in their pregnancy, as opposed to self-defense). Is “mercy-killing” ever considered an acceptable reason to kill a sentient being? Some say no, but many others say yes.

          • Mountain says:

            Is this “mercy-killing” a response to finding out their child has Downs’ syndrome, or some other major developmental disability? As an empirical matter, I’m not sure people with Downs’ syndrome subjectively experience more suffering than developmentally normal people. Objectively, life is more difficult for them, but I haven’t seen anything that suggests their subjective experience is any worse.

          • Well, you can have a look at Waldman’s 2009 article yourself (the one I linked to, above)—he relates a few anecdotes, offers some old data on reasons given for late-term abortions, and regrets that there’s not more good *current* data on this.

          • Mountain says:

            The anecdotes in the article were interesting– if the baby is guaranteed to die within minutes of being born, it seems like abortion is ethically sound, and may even reduce the suffering of the baby.

            Doesn’t provide any useful information about the bigger picture, but it sounds like it’s the only info we have.

  4. John T. Maher says:

    I was very happy to read the posit in your comment about killing all humans but disagree that this is an irrational act. Life would certainly be better on earth for all, including any surviving humans. Bacteria may already be onto this strategy. So can we agree, arguendo, on killing off just great many humans? Sentience merely sounds like a good argument for the standard, but what about agency? Not necessarily a subset of sentience. All of this renders your argument speciesist but there is nothing inherently wrong or dishonest about that. Should not part of humanity be the responsibility to regulate its own population levels? Biopolitics thinks so but it is inherently fascistic. On the other hand the oppressed critters do not care if human-human instrumental relations are fascist or not.

    The abortion/killing dilemma above has been addressed in other and more creative and meaningful ways by Proffs. Roslyn Hursthouse and Karen Barad. It is not necessarily about suffering although that is one way to conceptualize it. The Gestand or frame is much bigger as JMC points out. In any frame ragarding killing animals Foer’s contribution is vastly overrated and romanticized as a bit of folksy charm.

    Civilization itself is wrong and it would have been more honest to smash the exemplar driver above. It may not have been worth it, though but that is an entirely different point.

    Love coming upon words such as langniappe which enrich the language and experience of the reader. Way to prose it JMC.

    Vassar one of the most beautiful campuses in America. I gave a talk there last year and thought it was delightful. Poughkeepsie is sort of squalid and the contrast is a jarring reminder of wealth stratification.

  5. Tina Eden says:

    One might note that we don’t eat many plants until just before they die. An apple isn’t picked (theoretically) until it is so ripe it is about to fall off the tree and rot. The beans we grew in our backyard garden this summer were picked either while still green, but about to go dry, or after they had dried and were basically dead.

    Animals that are used for food are killed in their early years, thus depriving them of their life cycle. Plants are eaten at the end of their life cycle, and interestingly, some continue to grow and thrive (kale and chard for example) when they are thinned. It is as if their life cycle benefits from humans (or in the wild, I would guess grazers) eating the mature plants.

    One also must note that we have to eat to live. It is a choice that biology made for us. We are fortunate in this century to have the luxury of being able to live our lives without consuming flesh. That is a privilege that has been unknown to most of our ancestors since the dawn of time.

    • Mountain says:

      This is just factually wrong. Almost every plant we eat is dead long before we ever eat its product. Fruit & nut trees are an exception, right up there with dairy & eggs.

      Further, agricultural is dominated by (or dominates) annual plants, plants that live only one season. Nature, however is dominated by perennials, plants that live extended lives.

      The idea that vegan eating is somehow more harmonious with the natural life cycle of plants is delusional. If there is an ethical argument for veganism, it isn’t that we treat plants any better than we treat animals, it’s just that plants most likely don’t have any mechanism for suffering from our mistreatment.

  6. Thanks for this post, James, and again for speaking at Vassar last night. I’m glad that you agree that it was a highly successful event. I, too, received many questions and comments after the event (mostly on how to start the transition to veganism and what time the Vassar Animal Rights Coalition holds our meetings). ;) Keep up the fabulous work, as always. I hope to be in touch.

  7. Fireweed says:

    There are no doubt many anti-choice folks who consider termination of a pregnancy at any stage unacceptable because they choose to believe that life ‘begins’ at the point of conception.

    For many of us who support a woman’s right to decide whether or not to ‘GIVE birth’, however, there is a huge difference between ‘potential life’ and ‘actualized life’.

    Once again, this is where ‘intersectionality of oppression’ cannot be marginalized as a consideration when it comes to animal ‘rights’…

    By logical extension, those of us who are pro-choice and believe every woman has the right to bodily autonomy should extend that consideration to the bodies of other sentient beings. Doing so requires abstaining from intentionally or unintentionally exploiting cows for the milk that rightly belongs to their own offspring (not to ‘us’), stealing eggs from chickens…and directly or indirectly supporting the termination of ‘actualized’ lives, etc.

    The dairy industry likes to ‘cover up’ the fact that it is predicated on exploitation of the female body. I touched on this in my most recent column here:

  8. michele mooney says:

    A note is made that Sentience is the ability to (physically)suffer. Isn’t there more to sentience than the experience of pain ?

    • Taylor says:

      O.E.D. definition of “sentient”:
      1.a. That feels or is capable of feeling; having the power or function of sensation or of perception by the senses.
      1.b. Conscious or percipient of something.
      2. Physiol. Of organs or tissues: Responsive to sensory stimuli.
      3. Characterized by the exercise of the senses.

      In animal ethics, the term typically connotes having the capacity for positive or negative experiences, including — but not necessarily limited to — the capacity to feel pain.

  9. mynamefluffy says:

    It’s interesting to note that some of the most vocal non-choice politicians are also on the bandwagon of supporting big-ag and its inherent animal cruelty. They are in favor of taking away choices for human AND non-human animals- basically, they are equal opportunity non-speciest exploiters. It’s all part of the caveman – “I have weapons, money and power so I am going to control the world” mentality. And of course, woven into both the abortion debate and the big-ag/vegan debate is the females’ reproductive capacity and exercise/control thereof, which does not seem to be a problem for career exploiters.

    And speaking of which, this article ( explains that slaughterhouse workers’ propensity for violence is higher than the general population, and aggression levels were comparable to incarcerated persons. What a shock. ~Linda

  10. michele mooney says:

    “—– your comment about killing all humans but disagree that this is an irrational act. Life would certainly be better on earth for all, including any surviving humans.”

    Well now, are all humans killed or not ????
    On another entry, may I have your opinion on the following : is a sense of humiliation solely experienced by humans ? My belief is YES . Non-human animals might show fear or anger but I trust humiliation, or a sense of degradation is typically a human mental process .

    • Mountain says:

      “[I]s a sense of humiliation solely experienced by humans?”

      No, it’s pretty clearly visible in primates and other social animals, as well. The emotional lives of animals may not be as complicated as ours, but they are much richer than most people (even animal advocates) realize. They’ve even discovered that rats laugh when they play; it occurs at a frequency invisible to the human ear, so it took a long time to discover, but it’s there.

    • Mountain says:

      Check out this article:

      It actually opens by the talking about the morality of primates, dogs, and even rats (if you think in terms of social animals, rather than similarity to humans, it makes total sense), but then goes on to discuss the evidence of morality in babies. Since much, if not all, of the morality has a genetic, rather cultural basis, it’s one more reason to believe than human morality isn’t exceptional. It’s just a complex version of something that evolved first in other social animals.

  11. Jenny brown says:

    Well now that’s funny–you’re in my state & I’m in your speaking at the El Paso Veg Society Thanksgiving event! You are most welcome to come visit Woodtock farm animal sanctuary if you are still in town. I’ll let the staff know. Great blog as usual. I’ve spoken there as well & I know you have spoken at the event I’m here for. Small (vegan) world but growing by the day.

  12. Madeleine L. says:

    Hurray for such a great event!
    I love your idea of beginning to heal from the animal foods addiction by cleaning the plate to make room for scrumptious, healthier, new delights. It reminds me of the way Erik Marcus writes about not “cutting out” animal foods, but “crowding them out” with of all of your newfound favourite foods. Framing veganism as an opportunity for new and exciting adventures, rather than as a deprivation club, does wonders for opening people’s hearts and minds…

  13. michele mooney says:

    Our fate is to kill in order to survive . Simply .

  14. michele mooney says:

    I understand rats laughing , it’s a natural vocalization associated with pleasure . ButI believe that the experience of humiliation, or remorse for example, are 2 mental events and, again in my opinion, solely human.

    • Mountain says:

      I’m saying humiliation (and remorse, for that matter) have been pretty clearly observed in animals other than humans.

      Rats laughing was a separate example, intended to show that animals do many things we traditionally thought were uniquely human. I think it was Plato who thought laughing was unique to humans.

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