Civilization Burdens All Animal Life

» February 17th, 2014

Civilization, to which agriculture is integral, is necessarily and systematically harmful to non-humans. This point was recently reiterated by Rhys Southan in a response to a post of mine arguing that omnivores have a added obligation to consider the ethical implications of eating animals.

The reason why his premise, which I did not originally acknowledge (but should have), should be taken seriously is that it raises a possible bind. After all, it has ethical vegans saying “don’t eat animals” while they continue to participate in the basic infrastructure of civilized life. And so the question emerges: can we say I don’t eat animals but I tacitly support developments that harm them in possibly more systematic ways?  

It’s an excellent quandary to highlight because it suggests the potential inconsistency behind the seemingly untouchable idea that a decision to avoid eating animals is a selfless and morally superior choice. As it turns out, I think that it’s possible to draw a real distinction between the personal choice to avoid eating animals and our unavoidable (well, barring suicide or dropping out in some survivalist kind of way) participation in that collective inheritance known as civilization. Much of this distinction hinges on the degrees of separation between action and intention, as well as the extent of the consequences that ensue from our respective choices.

One relevant distinction between my choice to avoid animal products and my choice to, say, eat almonds that came from a plantation whose owners eradicated squirrels as a form of pest control, involves the relationship between intention and action. When I forgo eating a pig it’s not unreasonable for me to think that I have, as a direct result of my choice, helped save a pig from slaughter and consumption. Even if this one-to-one correlation is a self-serving (if not altogether false) mental construct, it nonetheless does the work of perpetuating my benevolent belief that it’s morally wrong to eat animals, and that doing so is tragically selfish and should be ended. To the extent that this opinion enters the world and merges with like-minded opinions on the subject of eating animals, thus shaping cultural thought in general, my decision to forgo the pig quietly ripples beyond my singular choice to become a force making civilization less harmful. Or at least attempting to.

When I choose to eat almonds instead of pigs, it could be said that I affirm the selfishness that I righteously denounce in the case of  choosing to not eat the pig. In other words, that I, squirrel killer, behave inconsistently. But I can’t ultimately agree with that assessment. While one could argue that by choosing to forgo almonds I’d be choosing to spare the lives of squirrels, this position would miss the point that the primary intention of growing almonds (an integral act of being civilized) is not to harm squirrels. It’s to provide consumers with healthy plant food, ideally with as little suffering as possible.

Intentions direct future action. Almonds might now come at the expense of squirrel slaughter. But that’s just for now. Consumer support for almonds could easily become a force for positive change if consumers, perhaps inspired by the growing public disdain for the arbitrary but direct slaughter pf pigs, pushed farmers to pioneer growing methods that minimized and eventually eliminated the perceived need to kill squirrels. We’re innovative critters. Such a prospect seems a lot more reasonable than caring for and then killing an animal in a mini-system specifically designed to do only that: wreck the lives of animals.

There’s another way to distinguish between “eating animals is selfish and causes harm” and “living a civilized life is selfish and causes harm.” It has to do with the impact of these decisions on humans vis-a-vis non-humans. When you kill an animal for food we don’t need you necessarily focus suffering exclusively on non-humans in order to enhance the gustatory pleasures of the human (I realize this comment ignores the impact of slaughter on laborers . . .but most of them experience the pleasure of eating meat). The whole point of animal agriculture, whatever its form, is to exchange an animal’s death for human pleasure. Now, there are numerous aspects of civilization—conjure up any form of brute-force development—that devastate the non-human world, if only as an unintended consequence. But, as I’ll be the first to concede, human “civilization” per se is a bitch for non-humans. No doubt.

But—and here’s the critical point—it’s also a bitch for humans. The engine of civilization mows down the disenfranchised, be they human or non-human, with indiscriminate power. Consider driving, which is integral to being civilized (yeah, smug New Yorkers will disagree), and it becomes clear that when you drive a vehicle your chances of killing animals is quite high. But, with over 35,000– 40,000 Americans dying in car accidents every year, driving is no picnic for humans either. The unintended negative consequences of driving are experienced by humans and non-humans alike. There’s thus a parity of sorts in the dominant apparatuses of civilization.

Except when we explicitly jigger it to harm sentient non-humans in a way we’d never harm humans. That’s just uncivilized.

 

39 Responses to Civilization Burdens All Animal Life

  1. John T. Maher says:

    This is Derek Jensen’s work and Rhys, however insightful, ought to credit him and discuss the broader and more destructive manner in which civilization enslaves life as part of the extractive process.

  2. Elaine Livesey-Fassel says:

    Perhaps it is ultimately simplistic to say ‘DO THE LEAST HARM’ when considering all aspects of LIVING -CIVILIZATION, but that concept/notion has helped this reader make her decisions. As I learn of different ways in which I might harm anyone/thing I change that habit as much as I can to ‘do the least harm’ but remain congnizant of what harm I do nonetherless and regret that that is so. I do far less injury by ‘treading lightly’ and your discussions highlight this quandry so well.

  3. Taylor says:

    Surely, eating animals is not “tragically selfish”; it’s just plain selfish. Harming animals in the production of edible plants is tragic, precisely because such harm is impossible to avoid completely.

    This is worth looking at: Number of Animals Killed to Produce One Million Calories in Eight Food Categories
    http://www.animalvisuals.org/projects/data/1mc/

    • Taylor says:

      In other words, it’s only unavoidable harm that qualifies as tragic.

    • Mountain says:

      That really depends on which animals one eats, and how those animals are raised.

      If you examine the number of animals killed to produce one million calories of beef, you’ll see that only 1.7 are due to slaughter; the remainder are animals killed in harvesting grains to feed the cow.

      But I eat grassfed beef, not grainfed. So only 1.7 creatures are killed to produce the beef I eat. Compare that with the number of animals killed to produce one million calories of grain (1.65), fruit (1.73), or vegetables (2.55), and you’ll see that eating grassfed beef isn’t so selfish after all.

      Of course, all of those categories (grain, fruit, vegetables, grassfed beef) are selfish compared to the eggs produced on our farm. We buy no chicken feed, so there are no animal deaths due to harvesting. And we don’t slaughter, so there are no animal deaths due to slaughter. Add the two together, and you get zero (0.0) animals killed to produce on million calories of eggs.

      • mynamefluffy says:

        But there are potential solutions to the inadvertent deaths – hydroponic, indoor growing, plant-based meat analogs (higher in calories and protein and more nutrient dense). But there is no solution to the meat eating practice that does not result in death, other than your farm, which, sadly, does not seem likely to become the norm (too much economic incentive to kill).

        ~Linda

        • Mountain says:

          Any vegans who actually get all their food from hydroponically grown sources may consider themselves more animal-friendly than a conscientious omnivores who eat grassed beef and plants from their own garden. The other 99%+ of vegans may not.

          As for economic incentives to kill– people always say that, but I’ve seen no evidence to support it. Egg farmers typically make less than 5 cents per dozen eggs they produce. That’s less than $2 per bird. And they can’t do anything else with their land because they have giant confinement houses and grain silos sitting on it.

          Meanwhile, our farm’s profit per bird is more than 100x that. And that doesn’t even include other (hard to quantify) benefits, like weed control and soil enrichment. And we can still grow a tremendous amount of vine and tree crops (garden crops need to be fenced off).

          We make more money per bird, more money per acre, a more enjoyable farming experience, and better and fuller lives for animals. The economic incentives are on our side, not the side of conventional farmers. They just don’t know it yet. They’re stuck in bad business models– bad for them, and bad for animals.

          • mynamefluffy says:

            “We make more money per bird, more money per acre, a more enjoyable farming experience, and better and fuller lives for animals. The economic incentives are on our side, not the side of conventional farmers. They just don’t know it yet. They’re stuck in bad business models– bad for them, and bad for animals.”

            Then what will it take to get them to understand that? Please – if you don’t have a website, consider getting one. Shout it from the rooftops, tell any farmer who will listen. I won’t lie – I’d like to see the world largely (or completely) vegan, but if you say you can grow high quality, profitable protein without killing, that HAS to be a better way than what is happening now to animals. ~Linda

          • Mountain says:

            I’m trying, Linda. I get the same general response from omnivores and farmers that I get here– people think I’m crazy or making things up. It’s hard to get people to see beyond their own paradigm. I’m sure vegan advocates run into that difficulty all the time.

            We’ve had some small, local success. We’ll keep building on that. Right now, we work with 1 school, 6 farmers markets, and 7 restaurants. That will continue to grow & spread the news by word-of-mouth. Nothing breeds interest like success.

          • mynamefluffy says:

            Sounds like you have already done quite a lot. Hopefully the word will continue to spread. And yes, vegans often run into a stuck-in-their-ways attitude also. People don’t like change, even when that change is positive. Strange creatures, we are. ~Linda

      • Anim says:

        From common sense morality it doesnt matter. The argument to eat meat instead of being vegetarian due to alleged crop deaths is like saying if you drive to a forked road and there is a foggy side and a clear side-the clear side has people in it–that it is better to drive over the people you see then take the risk with people you cannot on the foggy road OR to get out and walk(since crop cultivation methods can reverse if the same is true of meat and dairy production). Ultimately the meat and dairy argument fails because it requires treating nonhumans in ways we would consider unacceptable if done to humans(controlling their lives-killing them, killing other animals that come along–weasals etc). Because the myth of human superior moral worth cannot be shown to be anything other than biased personal opinion-as is the case with racial or religious supremacy beliefs–the moral argument for meat and dairy fails. Least harm scenarios dont change that-if we make it equal in scenario then we would say it is better to avoid direct harm than not. Discussions about whether egg farms have less deaths or not is truly irrelevant. If you say it is wrong to directly control humans and exploit them for any personal purpose then egg farms are unethical. Truly-case closed until you can prove human superior moral worth as anything other than biased personal opinion. Any criteria you use-from mind to soul to divine favor or evolution or might makes right-they are all biased personal opinions–nature and invisible deities dont verify them as absolute truth-the fact that humans can and do exploit other humans regularly is proof that human superior moral worth is opinion not fact. I always advise vegans not to bother with window dressing issues-stick to the basic morality and attack the myth of moral supremacy. if you keep focused on that they cannot answer that problem.

    • Mountain says:

      I should also note that AnimalVisuals underestimates the number of animals killed in grain, fruit, and vegetable production. They only include animals killed by harvesting the crops, which leaves out all the animals killed by tilling, pesticides, and protecting the crops from predators. These numbers are understandably harder to quantify, but they are very real– and in many cases, massive.

  4. Lisa LeBlanc says:

    I read a trivia question a few years ago and was stunned by the answer:
    Question: What is the only food which kills absolutely nothing in order to produce it?
    Answer: Honey.

    It seems that no matter what we do or how hard we try, the mass of civilization will condemn us, unless we can re-embrace a ‘tribe’ mentality – grow enough to support one another, remember to look out for one another and be comfortable with Enough is Enough.

    And yeah – I’m aware of how corny that all sounds in a society that takes pride in excess and the profit margin.

    But I’m also fairly convinced that a tribal mentality or way of life would eliminate a lot of the societal issues we face right now: If we were to suddenly become self-reliant and neighborly, volunteer a little of our time and donate a little of our stuff or our skills, well, then, wouldn’t that begin to nullify our dependence on a giant machine that seeks to keep us on our knees and off our feet?

    Food, like water, is neither a right nor a privilege; it is an absolute human necessity. But I’m with Elaine – we can produce on a smaller scale and do a lesser amount of harm if we remain cognizant of what we do.

    Now if we could just convince our educators to show a kid how to sprout a few pinto beans with nothing more sophisticated than a glass and a wet paper towel…

  5. Anim says:

    The crop harvest argument, from a moral POV is like someone saying that if you were driving and came to a forked road, and one side was misty and the other side had people standing in the road, that it would be more ethical to drive over the people you can see, then to take the misty road where you might kill more, or to get out and walk (harvesting by less destructive methods). Its completely ludicrous. Just another example where an unquestioned (and bigoted) belief in human superior moral worth blinds one to common sense fairness. Southan’s proverbial albatross around his neck is this belief in human superior moral worth that cannot be proven to be anything other than biased personal opinion like claiming skin colour, gender, or particular scripture is of divine importance.

    He says he is against the idea that veganism is a moral obligation–but it can be easily shown to be a moral obligation using a golden rule with force approach. You can say that one cannot have truly fair systemic human rights without accepting nonhuman rights. It isnt dependent on accepting sentience either.
    Opponents of animal rights have two unsolvable problems.
    The first is that human supremacy beliefs are personal opinion just like a belief in racial, gender, or religious supremacy. Any trait, criteria, or attribute cited to confirm this alleged superiority, whether mind, intelligence, soul, creativity, Divine specialness, Evolutionary specialness, survival of the fittest, moral reciprocity, or an unspecified faculty X, are as much subjective personal opinion as the importance given to skin colour or gender. Nature does not confirm this alleged superiority through natural phenomenon like weather, gravity, earthquakes etc and the constant routine natural exploitation of humans by other humans, which is the second problem.

    If you claim humans can justify the systemic exploitation of nonhumans based on biased personal opinion then someone can justify the systemic exploitation of humans using biased personal opinion. If you want a fair moral belief system for human rights you must accept nonhuman rights to close this loophole.
    Only humans can be shown to use laws in an effort to control their behavior thus they are the only ones obligated to follow them, nonhumans benefit without needing to reciprocate out of fairness and consistency, since punishing them for being unable to follow human laws when you know they cannot would be like punishing a blind man for not reading warning signs or an armless man for not grabbing a drowning swimmer. Also, they already follow them as they dont put humans in labs or zoos or farms. They are far more moderate in violence than humans.

    Moral perfection is impossible; you only do the best you can in any given situation. If we say the failure to stop homicide or child abuse does not justify concentration camps, thus the failure to stop the accidental death of microbes or plants etc. does not justify vivisection labs or farms.

    • mynamefluffy says:

      “..the failure to stop the accidental death of microbes or plants etc. does not justify vivisection labs or farms.”

      Exactly. We do what we can, when and where we can, and as much as we can given the circumstances we are in. Just because we have not yet solved the problems caused by human development, does not mean we have to doom billions of land animals (and billions more sea animals) to a horrible death while we work on it. We can stop the suffering of farmed animals WHILE we work on it, and hopefully eliminate or reduce the unintended development caused suffering as well.

      This is the argument nonvegans love to try and throw at vegans- if you can’t do it all, then you’re a hypocrite for doing any of it. If you wear leather (for the non-vegan vegetarians), then you might as well eat flesh. If you are vegan but drive a car, you are killing wildlife. I know my existence on this earth is causing some suffering. But I am still going to do what I can do reduce it. That does not make any of us hypocrites. It makes the ones making such arguments appear to have a convenient excuse for doing nothing at all. ~Linda

  6. Marc Bedner says:

    Humans are a burden to all other life forms. Civilization is an attempt to keep humans under control. Returning to a hunter-forager lifestyle, as Derek Jensen advocates, would not help animals.

  7. Rhys says:

    “To the extent that this opinion enters the world and merges with like-minded opinions on the subject of eating animals, thus shaping cultural thought in general, my decision to forgo the pig quietly ripples beyond my singular choice to become a force making civilization less harmful. Or at least attempting to.”

    It may be that as an individual vegan, your own lifestyle isn’t making much of an impact, but you influence other people, and this ultimately does lead to making a significant impact. That could be an argument against the idea that giving up animal products as an individual does nothing. But it doesn’t resolve the problem that animal rights philosophy still doesn’t — as far as I’ve seen — have an answer to the harms that even a vegan human civilization causes wild animals. In other words, this doesn’t fix the issue with veganism, which is that it says animals should have protections based on their interests, but then doesn’t consistently give wild animals protections based on their interests. (Largely because of the impact that human civilization and agriculture has on animals.)

    “Consumer support for almonds could easily become a force for positive change if consumers, perhaps inspired by the growing public disdain for the arbitrary but direct slaughter of pigs, pushed farmers to pioneer growing methods that minimized and eventually eliminated the perceived need to kill squirrels. We’re innovative critters. Such a prospect seems a lot more reasonable than caring for and then killing an animal in a mini-system specifically designed to do only that: wreck the lives of animals.”

    There’s more to the clash between humans and wild animals than killing so-called pest animals to protect food crops. Still, is there a way to fairly resolve all of the conflicts between (even vegan) humans and non-human animals over space, resources and the harmful side effects of human activities? Since the planet has finite resources and humans and most wild animals cannot cooperate in a mutually beneficial way, I doubt this. But it might somehow be.

    If it is actually possible, then you’re right that an ideological shift toward veganism or anti-speciesism would make it more likely for humans to come up with the technological innovations or whatever else would be necessary to end the seemingly inevitable clash between humans and wild animals. (Or to make the consequences of this clash equally bad for both sides). But for now, since veganism in its current form doesn’t treat wild animals in a way that animal rights philosophy says they deserve, there’s not as big a difference between vegans and meat eaters as vegans often believe.

    “But, as I’ll be the first to concede, human ‘civilization’ per se is a bitch for non-humans. No doubt. But—and here’s the critical point—it’s also a bitch for humans. … There’s thus a parity of sorts in the dominant apparatuses of civilization.”

    I don’t think there is a parity between the harms that civilization causes humans and the harms that it causes animals, at least not in the way you mean. (Maybe there is in the way that John T. Maher and Derek Jensen mean.) Take the example you give — driving. The risk of being injured or killed in a car accident is a risk that humans take if they want to experience the benefits of driving. For humans, choosing whether to drive is a trade-off, because there are good and bad things about driving. For non-human wild animals, however, cars are nothing but a harm. All they get are the consequences of habitat fragmentation from the construction of roads, and the risk of being hit by cars, and the risk to their lives from climate change.

    Even humans who only ride bikes are still benefitting from these roads that are nothing but bad for non-humans. And people who don’t directly use roads at all are probably still getting some form of benefit, like that delivery trucks stock their local grocery store and bring their mail.

    A better comparison, then, would be with a town whose drinking supply is polluted by a company producing something that is of no value or interest to anyone in the town and benefits them in no way. There’s no parity here. And I think you’ll find this to be the case with most aspects of civilization that harm animals. You’ll see both benefit and harm for humans (with perhaps more perceived benefit than harm, since humans tend to want to give up something that obviously harms them more than benefits them), but almost all harm and no benefit for animals. This constitutes putting human interests before the interests of non-humans, even when these harms aren’t related to animal farming or hunting.

    You might want to read Zoopolis, if you haven’t, because that book tries to get closer to the parity that you’re talking about here, by imposing far more obligations on humans than a vegan lifestyle. For instance, they say that if we want to maintain a road through animal habitat, we should in return have corridors through our cities to help animal migration. But even with all their added obligations, I don’t think they’ve envisioned a way for humans to avoid being a net negative to wild animals. There’s still just too much we do that benefits us and doesn’t help animals, even in their version of veganism. For instance, wind turbines are good for humans and nothing but bad for birds. So do we not have them?

    For there to be a consistent vegan philosophy that does not require human extinction, I think it will need to find a way for humans to be either net neutral or net positive for animals. And that’s probably going to require some really counter-intuitive ideas. For instance, David Pearce wants to genetically engineer predation and suffering out of the world. And Brian Tomasik argues that paving over as much of the world as possible — ideally getting rid of nature — reduces wild animal suffering by preventing animals from being born. If you accept their premises, and if you think their solutions are plausible and wouldn’t have terrible accidental consequences, then this could be a way of taking animal interests seriously without requiring human extinction.

    I’m not saying I agree with their ideas on this. But what I do agree with is this notion that if we’re going to take animal interests seriously, humans have to make themselves useful to animals, and not just claim to be getting out of their way. Getting out of animals’ way is impossible — human civilizations and agriculture makes a clash over interests inevitable — so a vegan lifestyle without additional obligations to actively make life better for non-humans than it would be if we weren’t here leaves humans as a net negative. And humans being net negative to animals is not justified as far as vegan philosophy is concerned.

    Another possibility would be for vegans to articulate an ethic that explains why it’s okay for humans to be a net negative to non-human animals. The difficulty here would be in explaining why it’s okay to be a net negative to animals the vegan way, but not net negative the omnivorous way.

    • Anim says:

      The fatal problem nonvegans have is they cant prove human superior moral worth as anything other than biased personal opinion. I articulated this in a comment already. I assume it wasnt read by Southan although if he ignored it I cant blame him because it cannot be refuted. All the moral perfection talk is just theoretical games to evade the important common sense moral issues. Trying to prove human moral supremacy as absolute objective truth is the deal breaker for a human supremacist position which is the core of all articulated opposition for veganism even when denied (i.e. might makes right ideology tends to overlook that humans do exploit other humans regularly–by that logic it should be acceptable to someone who truly holds such a view–they usually wont concede ). No one would seriously advocate that it is better to drive over the people in the road than take the misty side or walk–but that’s what the nonvegan crop death moral argument suggests. The key is-humans think they are better-worth more to the universe (just as a racial or religious supremacist would argue), they accept this as unbiased fact and not personal opinion, because it is a biased opinion like racial or gender supremacy views, it means one could justify systemic exploitation of humans using biased personal opinions as well. The so-called “vegan debunking” experts cant solve this problem. All they can do is change the subject to some kind of moral perfection theoretical exercise and thought game. The practical moral argument remains intact.

      • Rhys says:

        I agree that there is no proof of human superior moral worth, but I don’t see why this is a problem for meat eaters any more than it’s a problem for vegans. If humans were somehow judged to have worth while non-human animals had no worth — and like I said, I don’t see it this way — this would seem to make meat eating okay, and it would also seem to make non-human-extinction veganism okay. However, if we say that this isn’t the case, either by arguing that worth and value are subjective or that humans and non-human animals are equally worthy, this isn’t a problem only for meat eaters. It’s also an issue for vegans who recognize that just by existing, humans harm animals (to a far greater extent than they benefit animals), and that this harm is unnecessary because human existence is unnecessary. So if you’re going to accuse meat eaters of thinking they are better than animals because they eat them, then you need to say the same of vegans who think human existence is okay even though it’s a net harm for non-human animals.

        I don’t believe in the innate “superiority” of anything, and I don’t think superiority needs to come into this discussion of the ethics of meat eating. (The one exception I might make to this was implied in my previous comment: there might be a utilitarian case for humanity if humans could prove themselves a net benefit to other creatures by reshaping the world in a way that made life better for all sentient life and not just for humans. But most vegans don’t see the need to impose that kind of obligation on humanity.)

        What I instead see is a trade-off, not between “superior” and “inferior” beings, but between more powerful and less powerful beings. For the most part, humans fit into the more powerful category, at least compared to other non-human animals in most situations. This doesn’t mean humans are “better” than non-human animals, but rather that they are in a position to be making decisions about how much to advantage themselves compared to other animals. In general, this decision has to do with how selfish we’re going to allow ourselves to be at the expense of non-human sentient life and how altruistic we’re going to be. The only totally unselfish answer I see would be for humans to go extinct. That’s because the world has finite resources and humans can’t cooperate very well with most wild animals, and so it’s a zero sum game between us and most wild animals, no matter whether we’re vegan or not. (In this way, the conflict between humans and non-human animals is different than racism and sexism, since humans of different races and genders are able to cooperate in ways that humans and non-human wild animals cannot.) To not advocate human extinction, then, even when we’re a net harm to other animals, means that you are allowing us to be selfish in our relationship to other animals.

        Meat eating of course allows us to be selfish in our relationship to other animals as well. But for vegans to distinguish themselves from meat eaters, they have to explain why their brand of selfishness is different from the meat eating brand of selfishness. You’ve done that by trying to accuse meat eaters of believing in human superiority. You haven’t totally spelled out the criteria you’re using to support that accusation, but if the criteria is that meat eaters are willing to put our own interests before the interests of other animals and don’t protect non-human animal interests in the same way they might want to protect human interests, then that applies to vegans as well.

        So if you’re going to explain why vegans are making the correct ethical tradeoff as far as how much harm they’re willing to cause animals, while meat eaters are not, you’re going to have to make a different sort of argument — one that doesn’t implicate vegans just as much as it implicates meat eaters.

        • Anim says:

          I agree that there is no proof of human superior moral worth, but I don’t see why this is a problem for meat eaters any more than it’s a problem for vegans.

          **It’s simple. I’ll try to make it easier for you grasp. The moral defenses of meat eating are based on personal opinions taken as absolute truth. This includes least harm and sentience btw.They are also personal opinions.
          Meat eaters say that exploiting nonhumans systemically for food is ok, but it is wrong for humans to be exploited–we should avoid that-even though it is just as natural. Even those who deny they believe in human moral superiority as an axiom hold onto this–you just did it yourself in your reply. If you didnt believe in human moral superiority then you would declare right now that there is nothing wrong with humans exploiting other humans–those who have the power to do it or merely the cleverness to get away with it. We both know child abuse and homicide are completely natural–we sometimes try to curb it-other times laws sanction it–but it still happens. The meat eater has to show how they can justify the double standard morality. The onus is on you –unless you take the sociopath way out and say you dont care about humans exploiting humans. Vegans are not claiming to be perfect, just a more consistent moral philosophy than a meat eater’s. Dont assume all vegans base their moral code on least harm or utilitarianism. They are also biased personal opinion criteria. For example you mention the suicide option–that ignores that one’s body is also made up of organism–the morality of killing yourself and choosing to kill all those innocent lives residing on your body also could be a consideration. The beauty of this “prove human moral superiority as objective truth” argument is that any attempt to say: “vegans cant be perfect when dealing with plants or bacteria so we shouldnt even try–only care about humans” means that homicide is justified too-since you cannot prove human moral superior worth as being any different in design from a racial supremacy or religious supremacy belief. There’s the meat eater’s problem. They want to have human rights–but by denying nonhuman rights they leave door open for exploiting humans because their discrimination double standard moral view can be used by racial supremacists etc to do the same. That’s how veganism becomes a moral obligation–without even an appeal to compassion. I look forward to your reply and how you wiggle around addressing your adherence to the supremacy myth. You can always take the sociopath exit. If you do I cant really respond. If you say cannibalism and child abuse is permissible in your world view then nothing more to be said. But if you dont–bang! the supremacy myth knocks down your argument. 20 years and I still havent found anyone who could refute it.

          • Rhys says:

            “If you didnt believe in human moral superiority then you would declare right now that there is nothing wrong with humans exploiting other humans–those who have the power to do it or merely the cleverness to get away with it.”

            That would only be true if I saw no difference in harm between exploiting other humans and exploiting non-human animals. There are reasons to believe that it’s more harmful to humans to routinely farm humans for food than it is harmful to non-human animals to routinely farm non-human animals for food. Do you not agree that this is the case?

            My suspicion is that you would agree, but that you think the argument from marginal cases is irrefutable and you’re going to spring that one on me next. In other words, you’re next going to ask about whether I’m okay with systematically raising human babies for food, or with raising severely cognitively impaired humans for food. Is this safe to presume? And if so, why didn’t you specify human babies and severely cognitively impaired humans in this comment?

            “The meat eater has to show how they can justify the double standard morality. The onus is on you –unless you take the sociopath way out and say you dont care about humans exploiting humans.”

            I agree that it takes more to defend meat eating than to poke holes in vegan ideology. I also agree that my comments on this post don’t accomplish that. I wouldn’t claim that my comments on this post are enough to justify anyone eating meat. All I’m trying to show here is that most arguments that vegans can make for vegan humanity and against meat eating humanity are inconsistent. You say veganism is ethically “more consistent” than meat eating. But would you say veganism is totally consistent? And if not, why do you think the remaining inconsistency in veganism is okay?

            “They want to have human rights–but by denying nonhuman rights they leave door open for exploiting humans because their discrimination double standard moral view can be used by racial supremacists etc to do the same.”

            On a practical level they don’t (it’s very possible for humans to decide to give up racism, sexism and ableism but keep institutionalized speciesism), but I agree that on an ideological level, the way most meat eaters defend meat consumption does leave that door open. That’s something I think a lot about and am interested in addressing, if not necessarily in the comments on this post. However, vegan philosophy has the opposite problem. If meat eating philosophy risks allowing too much harm, vegan philosophy leaves the door open to requiring too much harm reduction, perhaps to the point that humans should go extinct. “choosing to kill all those innocent lives residing on your body also could be a consideration,” doesn’t address the ethics of humans simply refusing to breed anymore. Do you think it’s unethical for humans to stop breeding because of the bacteria who live inside of us and won’t be able to if we gradually go extinct? If so, does this instead require humans to breed as much as possible out of concern for those bacteria?

          • Anim says:

            There are reasons to believe that it’s more harmful to humans to routinely farm humans for food than it is harmful to non-human animals to routinely farm non-human animals for food. Do you not agree that this is the case?”

            ** We arent talking about farming humans for food although cannibalism happens–human corpses would have been one of the first if not the first-most easily accessible sources of meat–we know some cultures even ate their dead–but this is quibbling. Farming humans is another discussion. Let me restate what I said:

            “If you didnt believe in human moral superiority then you would declare right now that there is nothing wrong with humans *exploiting other humans*–those who have the power to do it or merely the cleverness to get away with it.”

            I was talking about exploitation of humans that exists right now–child abuse, domestic abuse, incest, homicide. Regardless of laws that curb it (or even ones that condone it). Just read today’s news. All you have to do is say that child abuse and homicide is permissible in your world view-if you say that-discussion over. If you do not say that then it means you hold to a belief in the superior moral worth of humans–and that means you hold to a belief in biased personal opinions-because you cannot prove human superior moral worth as anything but that (but you already know this and confirmed it later in your post).

            ” You say veganism is ethically “more consistent” than meat eating. But would you say veganism is totally consistent? And if not, why do you think the remaining inconsistency in veganism is okay?”

            **I have lived with it for 20 years plus so I do think its ok. I dont believe in moral perfection. I dont think this world allows for that. But I certainly think it is better than the alternative moral philosophy which leaves a justification for exploiting humans either systemically or on a case by case basis.

            I stated in an earlier post the conviction that moral perfection is impossible-whether you only care about human rights or mineral rights -if it is ok for those who only advocate that universal human rights is the only code that matters to have inconsistencies–paying taxes to governments that fund wars, living on land that was taken in wars, buying products that were linked to human exploitation (indeed, when I discuss vivisection I always bring Dr Sims and Dr Salk into the conversation–both experimented on humans–slaves and mental patients respectively–or Pfizer’s experiments on african villagers–anyone who uses medicine by any major medical company is benefitting from dangerous or lethal experimentation conducted on humans. Moral perfection is impossible. You only do the best you can–building a factory farm is not doing the best you can.).

            ” (it’s very possible for humans to decide to give up racism, sexism and ableism but keep institutionalized speciesism),”

            *although incidents of racism, sexism and ableism and other discrimination would still happen regardless of laws–as we have now so it is practical in that sense-on an individual level if not as a community or state. Many people would say child abuse is wrong-still have it (to say nothing about where abortion fits into the situation). Many would say war is wrong-but 3000 people get killed in a building attack and we use it to justify–hmm not sure how many deaths–few hundred thousand–over a million? As you say its the ideological level that is the focus-since this relates to the moral beliefs people hold. Even if we said meat eating was wrong and we banned it-it would still happen. On the other hand, unlike child abuse, most of what we are talking about is related to domestication. Remove domesticated animals-the access to the victim drastically diminishes–at least until humans find a way to breed members of other species from their own bodies.

            “Do you think it’s unethical for humans to stop breeding because of the bacteria who live inside of us and won’t be able to if we gradually go extinct? If so, does this instead require humans to breed as much as possible out of concern for those bacteria?”

            **
            I think morality is ultimately a subjective creation, or least cannot be proven to be an absolute objective truth–it is meant to be a practical band aid to control behavior we decide is undesirable and agree upon-issues of moral consistency and fairness come out of that. I think your question does not provide a common sense framework from which to make a practical answer and fortunately has no direct relevance to the principle of avoiding meat and dairy or how it impacts human exploitation of humans as I discussed before. I dont believe this universe allowed for moral perfection. To me your question is like asking how many angels can dance on a pin head.

  8. mynamefluffy says:

    Rhys,

    Regarding the harm that a vegan human civilization does to NH animals, I think we need to be clear about one important difference: the individual act vs. the collective act. Being vegan is an individual act. Anyone, at any time, can choose to become vegan and reduce drastically the consumption of animal derived products in their lives and the immense suffering that produces them. A civilization is a group act – the act of society. And as much as vegans, wildlife advocates, etc., might wish to reduce the suffering that occurs due to development, they are limited by the fact that wildlife advocates AND non advocates get to weigh in on the type of activity that occurs. There is still something that we can do, but it the change is more subtle and will take longer because it needs to beget an entire attitude change and change in action by many who do not yet believe that such change is even necessary.

    It reminds me of why I hated doing group projects in school or college – no matter how crappy someone else did their job, we all got the same grade. At least as an individual, we could stand or fall on our own. Civilization is a group project, and we have to try and lift up the ones who do not wish to make it a good project with respect to our nonhuman friends. ~Linda

    • Rhys says:

      But veganism is not just about the act of abstaining from animal product consumption: it’s also about the ideology that vegans want to spread, and whether this ideology makes any sense. While it’s true that you can’t easily abstain from civilization, you can still hold an ideology that maintains that the end of civilization is ideal, or which maintains that human extinction should be the goal. In a debate over ideology, I wouldn’t hold it against vegans if they were pro human extinction but did nothing to help humans go extinct. Focusing on individual behavior and not the argument is ad hominem. It’s like Marxists who profit from the stock market: I don’t mind if their behavior fails to line up with what they see is an ideal; I’m more interested in whether their ideal makes sense. And in the case of veganism without human extinction, there is usually some sort of ideological inconsistency.

      I’m not saying that vegans must be against human civilization or be in favor of human extinction. I think you can argue in favor of humans causing harms to non-human animals, and that vegans could use this kind of argument to justify not going extinct. However, it’s hard to argue that way without also allowing meat eating. Most vegans, I think, fail in their attempts to justify the vegan set of harms while condemning the meat eating set of harms. To be ideologically consistent, I think, vegans either need to advocate human extinction, or allow certain kinds of meat eating.

      • mynamefluffy says:

        “However, it’s hard to argue that way without also allowing meat eating…..To be ideologically consistent, I think, vegans either need to advocate human extinction, or allow certain kinds of meat eating.”

        Another false choice foisted on vegans. Again, being vegan is an INDIVIDUAL act – living a life in a developed society is a collective act. One can remove oneself to a greater or lesser degree, and one can make some choices to minimize development-induced damage. But they are not on equal footing. Besides, to advocate for human extinction, as to advocate for the extinction of any species, is against a vegan ethic, as is suicide, which would certainly remove oneself from the cycle of damage infliction. The choice not to procreate, or to adopt children already here, or to keep one’s family small, is a choice being made by many vegans and other pro-environment advocates. It is not necessary to introduce an increase in net suffering (a vegan starting to consume meat) in order to be ideologically consistent. A life whose choices reduce or eliminate as much suffering as personal choice allows is plenty consistent in my view. ~Linda

        • Rhys says:

          “Another false choice foisted on vegans. Again, being vegan is an INDIVIDUAL act – living a life in a developed society is a collective act.”

          I think I see what you’re saying — you can (partially) avoid supporting animal exploitation with your money but you can’t stop supporting human civilization or existence with your money. For one thing, just to use money at all is a tacit support of civilization, while animal exploitation is just a subset of civilization that you can try to avoid supporting. But why should veganism only concern itself with whatever changes can be made by altering our purchasing decisions? Admittedly, extinction or the re-wilding of humanity wouldn’t necessarily come about because of what we buy or don’t buy, but is veganism inextricably linked to consumerism?

          I don’t think so, since it’s not vegan to hunt even though that has nothing to do with buying animal products at a store. Hunting is another thing that someone can do or not do as an individual. But I still don’t understand why vegan ideology need only concern itself with what can be achieved as an individual, and ignore whatever would only be possible through collective action. Why do you think vegan ideology should be concerned only with individual action?

          “The choice not to procreate, or to adopt children already here, or to keep one’s family small, is a choice being made by many vegans and other pro-environment advocates.”

          I’m not denying that. The question is why veganism as an ideology doesn’t require that. Because in not requiring that, veganism allows humans to put their own interests before the interests of other animals. That then forces vegans to explain why it’s okay for us to put our interests before the interests of other animals, but not when that takes the form of raising animals for food or hunting. Vegans are bad at doing that latter part. That’s all I’m pointing out here.

          “It is not necessary to introduce an increase in net suffering (a vegan starting to consume meat) in order to be ideologically consistent.”

          I’m not saying that vegans need to increase suffering to be ideologically consistent. But they probably need to allow behavior that causes more suffering than veganism, even if they don’t want to engage in it themselves.

          • Anim says:

            “That then forces vegans to explain why it’s okay for us to put our interests before the interests of other animals, but not when that takes the form of raising animals for food or hunting. Vegans are bad at doing that latter part. ”

            And meat defenders are even worse at answering the charge that they believe in the superior moral worth of humans as something absolute and objective when it is actually biased personal opinion. The door swings both ways in discrimination.
            One can certainly make a case that extinction is the best action for reducing human exploitation of nonhumans-or humans-it can be quite compelling actually, it even ties into the Problem of Evil-the classic answer for that is that a deity could have created a universe free from evil but it would mean the planet populated by innocent automata–not humans with free will. The observer is expected to conclude that a world with humans and evil is better than a world without evil and no humans. But self-interest does not necessarily conflict with moral attitudes towards others–if it does with nonhumans then it does with humans. Ultimately imperfection in application of any moral belief system does not invalidate the system since there is no moral perfection. I.e. we say homicide is wrong-but there are many examples where we have homicide as legal-i.e. wars. The key issue is really that the meat eater wants to give humans special moral consideration-based on biased personal opinions which cannot be shown to be absolute-but they assume that they are. This-as demonstrated above, destroys the meat eating objection. The other discussions are ultimately window dressing and philosophical exercises with no practical application. Distractions really. Makes no difference to dietary issues and the morality around them. The myth of human superior moral worth is the key.

          • mynamefluffy says:

            “But why should veganism only concern itself with whatever changes can be made by altering our purchasing decisions?”

            I think and hope that veganism encompasses much more than just our consumer behavior. But one big piece of what drives most economies is consumer choice and purchase. The choices we make with our dollars can be a powerful and concrete way of causing change – i.e., by companies being influenced by what their customers want. But hopefully most vegans incorporate their philosophy in other ways as well.

            “Why do you think vegan ideology should be concerned only with individual action? ”

            I would love to see vegan ideologies manifested in more corporate and societal decisions, and I think vegans have an obligation to foster that change where we can. I do not think individual action is the only way to effect change. But it is the one way where we have the most control as individuals. Whenever a group makes a decision, it gets much more complicated and is more likely to be a diluted act (diluted from an activist point of view).

            “The question is why veganism as an ideology doesn’t require that [abstaining from procreation].”

            Wow is that a complicated issue for so many reasons. I would bet that many vegans DO believe that it is necessary for the expression of their veganism. Of course, there is also the possibility that the offspring of vegans will themselves be vegans and possibly a groundbreaker in the world of animal rights. I’d hate to think if Paul Watson’s parents had decided not to have children. He has done more to save marine mammals and sea life than most anyone around, and although I haven’t done the math, I am confident saying that his presence on this planet has been a huge net gain for the planet.

            Not easy questions, for sure. ~Linda

  9. Ruth says:

    Great post—I hope Rhys Southen gets to read it!

  10. Ruth says:

    Sorry, he has—should have read comments first. I agree also with Fluffy. (Linda)

  11. Mountain says:

    “[T]he primary intention of growing almonds (an integral act of being civilized) is not to harm squirrels. It’s to provide consumers with healthy plant food, ideally with as little suffering as possible.”

    The primary intention of growing almonds is to make money by selling (almond) flesh to willing consumers. While right-minded farmers will seek to cause as little suffering as possible, that has nothing to do with the primary intention.

    The primary intention of raising pigs is to make money by selling (pig) flesh to willing consumers. While right-minded farmers will seek to cause as little suffering as possible, that has nothing to do with the primary intention.

    You can imagine a science-fiction future in which scarcity has been eliminated, and animals are no longer harmed in the production of plant foods. But such a future is no more realistic than one in which slaughter has been eliminated, and meat is surgically removed without harming animals. It’s a swell idea, but it’s still fiction.

  12. Mountain says:

    “Consumer support for almonds could easily become a force for positive change if consumers, perhaps inspired by the growing public disdain for the arbitrary but direct slaughter pf pigs, pushed farmers to pioneer growing methods that minimized and eventually eliminated the perceived need to kill squirrels.”

    Except no. Buying almonds doesn’t signal to farmers that they should produce almonds without killing squirrels, it signals to them that they should produce more almonds. Which, as you know, means they will kill more squirrels.

    If you want to incentivize farmers to produce almonds without killing (or harming) squirrels, you need something like a “squirrel-free almonds” label, much like the dolphin-free tuna label. If such a label were to exist, and consumers flocked to it, taking market share away from conventional almonds, then farmers would persuaded to raise almonds without harming squirrels. But simply choosing almonds over pork does nothing– nothing– to make that change.

    • mynamefluffy says:

      I have to agree. The market is profit driven, and if the almond farmer wants to make more money, he/she will grow more almonds and perhaps be even more intent on “protecting” the harvest from “nuisance” animals such as squirrels. I hope to see one day a “wildlife friendly” label like the one you mentioned, similar to the dolphin friendly tuna. Many people have made purchasing decisions based on that. Perhaps vegans (and some non-vegans) will make purchasing decisions based on minimization of collateral damage inflicted by THEIR food choices. ~Linda

  13. Aquila says:

    Here’s another problem with the clash of animals and civilization I recently found out about: power plants kill fish. A lot of them. They use water for cooling, and grind up the fish in it. (http://www.sierraclub.org/pressroom/media/2011/2011-08-fish-blenders.pdf)

    So, should us, vegans abstain from using electricity?

    According to the article, this is because power plants use an outdated cooling system that could be replaced. If so, this is an issue vegans should be concerned about.

  14. Anim says:

    Another problem with the least harm-”meat eating is more vegan than plant eating” argument is that it actually leaves the door open to justify cannibalism since human superior moral worth is not proven (indeed, cannot be proven). One could say Jeffrey Dahmer was more of a vegan than a traditional meat eater or a plant eater since his harm “footprint” would have been less (taking out existing human population for food if he had done so for that purpose). Ultimately its a thought exercise and not connected to basic principles of morality that we hold with human relations (as I already stated with the forked road analogy).
    If one truly advocates that veganism is the perfect moral system then some of the questions raised may have validity, but if you look at it as a guideline for moral behavior and equate it with human situations of moral conduct then it makes no difference to the basic moral issues of harm, direct harm, equality etc. and one cannot justify the systemic exploitation of other animals for food on those grounds. Since one argument against factory farms is to go back to small scale meat and dairy farming–the same can be said of crop cultivation for an entirely vegan diet.

  15. Benny Malone says:

    I think arguments against veganism – particularly if it is defined as a ‘least harm’ principle and saying it does not achieve this more than other measures such as human extinction or living as a hermit etc – are the opposite of the logical progression of veganism from where most of us start. I compare it to Occam’s razor cutting out unnecessary animal usage which causes suffering. If we oppose some form of animal cruelty – and there is usually an example that most people will agree with such as dog fighting – then veganism to me is a logical extension of this. If people object to one form of animal abuse, there is no reason not to object to as many forms of abuse as possible. We aim to cut out avoidable and intentional animal suffering and reduce unavoidable and unintentional animal suffering. A recognition that causing unnecessary suffering to animals is wrong and to extend that as far as is possible, practical and avoidable. This moves in a definite direction for most of us and we usually end at a morally relevant criteria i.e. sentience that is more inclusive of more animals. My question for non-vegans is what criteria are they using to not inflict suffering and exploitation on animals? The vegan has extended that principle but an argument attempting to undermine it needs to show why it is wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals where possible and where we can avoid doing so. Why is moral consideration extended to some animals and why can this not be extended as far as possible? If indeed there are ways to consume things including animal products that cause less harm because of harvest deaths etc (which are regrettable and something that a vegan ethic seeks to reduce/eliminate) then these will adhere to veganism as closely as possible if they are truly least harm. For example the proposals by Davis and more recently Archer advocated eating large herbivores so essentially were ‘vegan except for…whatever particular animal could be consumed to obtain food but not cause more deaths’ (Lamey argued a similar point in his reply to the argument). If people proposing a ‘least harm’ alternative to veganism take it seriously they have their own guidelines to stick to. For example chicken and seafood would have to be off the menu and each egg sourced so no male chicks were killed. The argument does not take into consideration the confinement and exploitation of animals and associated cruelties. If the non-vegan is allowed ideal circumstances then to make a fair comparison the vegan should be allowed ideal circumstances and it will be hunter-gatherer versus gatherer. The problem I see with a lot of these arguments is that to attempt to discredit veganism the person arguing is forced to take a philosophical position that could also be used against human rights and human civilisation as a whole. It could be suggested to human rights workers that human suffering could be ended through non-existence also. Veganism exists within a current paradigm and currently as a sub set of other philosophies controlling the world. I have found arguments against veganism take the form of denying unnecessary nature of animal products (trolley problems – desert island and survival situations, arguments from health come into this category), denying animal suffering (ranging from saying it is not so bad, humane slaughter to Cartesian denial) and creating moral equivalence – veganism and no veganism are not much different so may as well eat meat. I think however holistically due to animal treatment, health the environment and ecological efficiency veganism is a better option and there is a gap between vegan impact and non-vegan impact that is significant.

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