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