Veganism’s Shaky Pillars

» April 3rd, 2014

Note: I wrote the following essay at the invitation of a prominent vegan activist for a book of essays this person was editing. A month after turning it in, I received a note from the editor asking if I’d be willing to change the essay substantially or if I had another essay I could submit. Well, no and no, I answered, before explaining how the essay met the volume’s stated theme. The editor wrote back and said that, on second thought, everything was cool and that they’d publish the essay. Two weeks later the publisher contacted me asking for changes on the grounds that vegans don’t believe this or that tenet of my essay and would object. The publisher also added that there would be “criticism” if my essay ran. So it was rejected.  I thus ask for your honest input. Is this an essay you think vegans need to read or not? I ask the question with genuine open-mindedness. 

 

Harming animals is a culturally ubiquitous act tacitly and not-so-tacitly accepted by virtually every human being on earth. The overwhelming majority of contemporary consumers unthinkingly contribute to animal suffering when they get dressed, eat food, apply cosmetics, and pursue basic forms of entertainment and recreation. Immense animal suffering, in short, is integral to a perfectly “civilized life.

Although unnecessary animal abuse practically defines modern life, we rarely see it. This is usually by choice. The suffering around us can be so extensive, it’s nature so viscerally brutal, that we have unconsciously but successfully limited our moral gaze to our fellow humans. And, even on that score, we’ve hardly set a model example of enlightenment and compassion.

But there’s a catch to this limited moral vision. A related concern has nagged humanity for centuries: what if, in our unknowing perpetuation of animal suffering, we might also be harming ourselves? This self-interested possibility has preoccupied thinkers from Aristotle to Kant to Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wisely wrote, “When a human kills an animal for food, he is neglecting his own hunger for justice.”

Could this be? Could our quest for the most delicious plate of barbeque be clipping the wings of our better angels? It is in the context of this age-old proposition—one that subversively connects the sacred and the profane–that this essay investigates the larger claim that ethical veganism can provide the key to a more just and equitable world.

. . . . . . .

One needn’t be a philosopher to offer an answer. Unhindered common sense dictates that extending toleration, empathy, and compassion to other species makes it extremely difficult for entrenched prejudices of tribalism to persist in human society. The heroic moral reach from the “in group” of humans to the “out group” of animals, if it took place in any meaningful way, would mark such a profound cross-cultural leap of empathy that the oxygen fueling human hatred would dissipate into insignificance.

The culmination of this process, at the very least, would be a more harmonious human relationship with humans and non-humans alike. For the idealistically inclined, you could even say that, with the onset of ethical veganism, we’d find ourselves on the path to World Peace. I’m not quite ready to go that far, but neither am I ready to rule out such a heady prospect.

Either way, it’s an inspiring hypothesis. And, despite the all-too-frequent venom spewed by ethical vegans against each other and non-vegans alike, I think it’s beyond safe to conclude that the idea is certainly an accurate one. Put it this way: I’d find it virtually impossible to argue that a mass embrace of ethical veganism would not lead to a more peaceful earthly existence.

So: just go vegan and save the world, right?

………………..

Well, not so fast. The premise here might be correct—that is, ending speciesism would help end prejudicial oppression of all sorts—but it doesn’t automatically follow that ethical veganism is, at this point in time, a readily achievable goal.

In my experience, many vegans don’t seem to appreciate this point. It’s never easy for an interest group to admit that its worldview isn’t ready for primetime. It’s difficult to recognize that an animating insight might lack traction in the court of public opinion. It’s never fun to confront the daunting reality that the pillars that support your ideals might need considerable strengthening.

But, for any social movement, it’s a necessary part of progress. Ethical vegans thus have a responsibility to administer a thorough and sober intellectual self-examination if we ever hope to present to a mainstream audience a coherent, simple, and achievable vision of peace predicated on the ethical treatment of sentient animals.

It’s with this goal in mind that this essay grapples with two substantial obstacles—call them ethical veganism’s shakiest pillars. It does so with an eye toward reaching a solid pragmatic consensus requisite to moving a cohesive message into a brighter future, one where the virtuous potential of ethical veganism has a fighting chance of being realistically realized.

………………

One shaky pillar of ethical veganism is the problem of moral consistency. None of us can live our lives free of animal exploitation. If we eat only plants, we harm animals. If we drive a car, we harm animals. If we take the bus or subway, we harm animals. It’s a deeply unpleasant, and even metaphysically troubling, aspect of existence, but the fact remains: life is unavoidably imbricated with animal exploitation. Worse, there’s nothing we can do about it.

The inability to avoid harming animals can, if not handled tactfully, place ethical vegans in a bind. Take the seemingly morally benign act of driving a car. A skeptic of vegan ethics might note that driving leads to the mass slaughter of insects and, in some cases, kills larger animals such as squirrels, deer, and even dogs and cats.

One can, by way of retort, reasonably argue that driving a car is an act we cannot, for all intents and purposes, avoid. Likewise, the vegan can further point out that the vehicular death of animals is incidental to our need to propel ourselves through space—an unintended consequence of being mobile and modern and in a rush

But does this answer suffice?

Not completely.  Just as human life is not fundamentally dependent on eating animals, survival is not fundamentally dependent on driving. Neither driving nor eating animals is a do-or-die scenario. It could therefore be asked in response to our “it’s incidental” defense: what makes driving any more or less a justifiable competing moral consideration (vis-à-vis killing animals) than sheer gustatory pleasure? Neither, after all, is required for humans to live. So, when it comes to justifying the harm of animals, why should driving have the moral edge over taste or tradition?

Taking this objection further, I can easily imagine a realistic scenario in which the choice to eat an animal becomes more central to one’s deeper sense of humanity than driving.

Consider a Hmong citizen sacrificing a pig as part of a traditional spiritual ritual and a New Yorker who works within walking distance of his dwelling space but drives to work anyway. Neither action—ritualistic slaughter or driving to work—is required to live life. But the competing moral consideration in the former situation (religion) is far more consequential than in the latter (driving).

So, this is a tough problem—a weak pillar. But I think it can be resolved in a way that purifies the connection between reducing oppression and ending speciesism.

That resolution begins by pondering a sad statistic: 33,561 humans died in car accidents in 2012. A ubiquitous action (driving) that we allow to justify the unintentional killing of animals also justifies the unintentional killing of humans. In this respect, the incidental nature of death, which applies to all sentient beings, allows the ethical vegan to escape the charge of speciesism.

There is, in the end, neither selective moral consideration nor intentional death at work when we drive. Despite its inevitable harm to animal life, driving thus remains acceptable vis-à-vis the prospect of animal death. The unintended consequences, however horrific, still apply to humans as well

By contrast, submit the other example–the religiously inspired sacrifice and consumption of animals– to the same test and everything falls apart. One might defend this practice by arguing not only from the perspective of tradition (a very weak move), but also from the platform of intention. Indeed, one might argue that an animal’s death is incidental to spiritual imperatives and, in that sense, no different than the death of animals being incidental to the need to drive the kids to soccer practice.

But, even so, the act does not pass the more critical test, the inclusion test. The inevitable harm done to animals does not equally apply to humans. Our species is spared ritualistic slaughter for spiritual fulfillment. The reason we are spared is the fact that we are human. And, therefore, no matter how deep the spiritualism at stake, the act of killing an animal for religious purposes is speciesist.

The beauty of this distinction is that is allows vegans to admit that we harm animals daily without being speciesist, thereby preserving the very quality that will help ensure a less oppressive world.

…………….

The next pillar is shakier, as is my proposed solution. It centers on the classic problem of where to draw the line when it comes to granting equal moral consideration to animals.

Ethical vegans routinely confront this question. We do so because it’s an excellent question. Regrettably, too many vegan advocates choose to dismiss it, or reach for unrealistic platitudes (“all animals should be treated with equal consideration”), rather than seek a workable stance (compromise) on the matter.

Fortunately, the billions of animals that we eat, wear, and exploit for research and entertainment are situated well above the line. For these creatures, the ethical implications of their intentional exploitation are conspicuously evident to anyone willing to look: it’s obviously wrong

Endowed with complex nervous systems, a conscious sense of self, and possibly even a theory of mind, these animals—pigs, cows, fowl, most fish, primates, rats, etc.—warrant our moral consideration and, in turn, our compassion. To cause intentional harm to these animals and deem such an act morally inconsequential is to accept the fiction that they are automatons. Aristotle and Descartes might have seen them in such terms. But Darwin rendered that view appropriately obsolete, if not ludicrous.

But what about animals that are less “complex”—that is, critters that do not seem to have comparatively sophisticated nervous systems or an obvious sense of self, much less a theory of mind or a comparatively long life-cycle? Although convenient, it’s intellectually inadequate to state that, “all animals deserve equal moral consideration” and leave matters at that. For one, as already shown, we cannot realistically live by such a maxim.

But more importantly, animal species differ in morally significant ways. These differences, in turn, warrant varying intensities of moral consideration. There’s a qualitative distinction between torturing primates in a lab and swatting a fly buzzing around the kitchen. This is not to say that we should swat the fly. We shouldn’t. But it’s to acknowledge that torturing (and killing) primates clearly has more severe moral consequence than killing the fly.

Failure to grant these differences leads one by the nose into the trap of “plant intelligence.” That is, if we cannot highlight morally relevant distinctions among animals, ethical vegans will have a hard time drawing morally relevant distinctions between plants and animals. And if we cannot draw that line, all bets are off. The vegan argument collapses.

Ethical vegans thus need to accept the position that it is never justifiable to unnecessarily harm life—plants or animals included. But it may be excusable. This distinction enables us to engage in the unintentional death of animals while still preserving the non-speciesism central to the idea of a more peaceful future.

Needless to say, the lines we draw cannot be determined on the basis of arbitrary basis of “cuteness” or familiarity. Instead, we must look to more substantial and less subjective indicators such as the length and quality of an animal’s natural life-cycle under optimal conditions (a couple of weeks for a mosquito, 80 years for an orca), the neurological basis of sentience, a theory of mind, and the nature of suffering for that animal. Only then can ethical vegans insure that increasing revelations of plant intelligence do not become a pretext (however disingenuously presented) for justifiably slaughtering a pig.

Fortunately, at least in terms of eliminating speciesism through lifestyle changes, the “drawing the line” issue rarely comes into play. By choosing to avoid animal products in general, we make substantial progress toward living according to enlightened values—values integral to creating a more just society.

By limiting our exploitation of animals to incidental circumstances in which the harm is excusable but not justifiable, we simultaneously acknowledge the presence of “the line” without clearly identifying it, all the while focusing our behavior on achievable and meaningful reductions in animal abuse.

…………………

It seems perfectly obvious that eliminating speciesism would help end other forms of prejudicial oppression. But it’s by no means obvious that such an axiom will, by sheer force of its exciting potential, break into a mainstream culture of carnism.

In order for this to happen, a daunting number of factors will have to fall into place. As they do, it is absolutely critical that the pillars supporting ethical veganism have as much intellectual integrity as we can possibly give them. Ensuring that unintended harm to animals avoids speciesism, and making critical distinctions between unjustifiable and excusable unintentional death, are challenges that are easy to avoid. But they are critical to our mission of seeking peace through the better treatment of animals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

51 Responses to Veganism’s Shaky Pillars

  1. Deborah S. says:

    I am a 12 year vegan (started for health reasons, but now think the ethical reasons are even stronger). I have read dozens (or hundreds?) of books and articles surrounding this issue.

    However, I still don’t have an answer in my mind to the cockroach question: would I kill a cockroach in my kitchen? Admittedly, yes. I don’t know how to articulate why I do that and rationalize “best is the enemy of better.” Doing something (not eating animals and animal secretions) is better than doing nothing.

    This article nicely addresses this issue and adds some additional insights to my thinking. As usual, I found your comments honest and consistent and I would certainly have included this article in a journal to be read by vegans. It adds another dimension to the thinking. Articulate, sensible, interesting, and informative. Thanks for doing this blog and I always look forward to your new posting notices in my email in box.

  2. Les Roberts says:

    Quite an amazing piece of work, which, rejected, shows the publication and the editor in a pathetic light,and James McWilliams in a very MORAL light..

    We DO swat flies mosquitos,and smash cockroaches. We DO kill insects when we drive along. We are forced sometimes to use products (mostly cleaning products) in our daily lives. We are NOT forced to eat, drink, wear or abuse ANY animal—and we certainly aren’t forced to go to Sea World or the Ringling Brothers Circus, or even the local zoo (here in Cleveland we have a large and more-or-less moral zoo) for our entertainment, KNOWING as we do how imprisoned animals are treated.

    I’ve been a vegan—which began with ethical reasons—less than two years, but am very committed to it. Have not, to my knowledge,eaten anything that once was alive, and have actually thrown out all my wool, silk,leather and down-filled clothing. However, considering the world society in which we now find ourselves, I believe that even as we post vegan-based thoughts on Facebook and/or the Internet, we can simply only try to be the best possible vegans that we can.

  3. Rucio says:

    I would have expanded the 1st-pillar discussion with the fact that as humans have moved away from human sacrifice, it is natural to expect further moving away from animal sacrifice.

    The 2nd-pillar discussion is more problematic. First, the drawing of a line between plants and animals seems to suggest that it is OK to unnecessarily kill plants. And a sliding scale of animal “worth” implies that it is OK to unnecessarily kill “lower” animals. Furthermore, many of the plants we eat are annuals that evolved precisely to be eaten. And eating fruits and nuts of perennials doesn’t kill the plant, which again evolved for it. If one then argues that taking an animal’s milk or eggs or honey is OK because it doesn’t kill the animal, which has evolved to live in a mutually beneficial relationship with humans, it is simple to note that the animals’ lives are in fact compromised, altered, and drastically shortened. This reflects economic necessity and not dietary or spiritual necessity.

    The question of intention, raised in the 1st pillar, can thus also be applied in the 2nd pillar to the entire continuum of plant and animal life. And any carnivore raising concern about plant life is laughable, not problematic.

    • Mountain says:

      If you’ve ever harvested fruit, you’ve probably noticed that the best fruit isn’t the “low-hanging fruit” that’s easy for us to reach, but the fruit at the top, where it’s easy for birds to reach. And it might occur to you that fruit didn’t evolve so much for us, but for the birds, and we’re just free-riding on their co-evolution. And in the process, we crowd out birds, and frustrate the evolutionary purpose of the fruit trees– who would, after all, prefer their fruit be eaten by an animal, who will deposit the seed in the ground (along with some fertilizer), rather than by a human, who will deposit that seed in a trash can.

      • Ken says:

        Mountain, I eat lots of fresh local fruit in the summer and fall (that is really easy to reach and pick) and regularly “crap” in the countryside – and often wonder if there have been any “fruits of my labor”.

        • Mountain says:

          Nice work, Ken. It may sound silly, but that’s the (admittedly unwritten, unspoken) agreement: eat the fruit, spread the seed.

  4. Bruce says:

    Hi James,

    I think your analysis of the two pillars is excellent, and I feel like I get smarter every time I read anything you’ve written–you have a superb facility with words that makes your writing enjoyable to read.

    I would have published the piece, though I’d have asked you to connect the dots more clearly. To whit, I don’t think you explain how your opening theses (“ethical veganism [may not be] at this point in time, a readily achievable goal” and “It’s never fun to confront the daunting reality that the pillars that support your ideals might need considerable strengthening”) relate to your discussion of the two pillars.

    I agree with everything you’ve written on the pillars, except that either of them presents a substantial obstacle to the philosophical case for veganism. In fact, I think that your discussion shows pretty clearly that neither does.

    But perhaps I’m missing something. No matter what, I enjoyed reading what you’ve written and am unclear on why someone might have refused to publish it.

    Cheers,

    Bruce

  5. María Vigo McMacken says:

    I’m a vegan for life. For ethical, health and ecological reasons. Your article is fantastic. Agree with you. All we can do is work with our intention, do the least conscious harm. Thanks for such a beautiful post, I wish it had been published, you are such an amazing writer, putting words in paper best that many people could.

  6. Rhys Southan says:

    “Ethical vegans thus need to accept the position that it is never justifiable to unnecessarily harm life—plants or animals included. But it may be excusable.”

    I’d like to see an elaboration of this point. What exactly does it mean for something to be excusable but unjustifiable? How can this be defined in such a way that it applies only to vegan harms but not to non-vegan harms? Is it possible to do this in a non-arbitrary way? (And if not, are vegans ethically much different from meat eaters who avoid factory farmed animal products? Why can’t meat eaters say that the harm we cause to animals is unjustifiable yet excusable?) Is the goal ultimately to get rid of the excusable but unjustifiable harms too, and if not, why not?

    “This distinction enables us to engage in the unintentional death of animals while still preserving the non-speciesism central to the idea of a more peaceful future.”

    This depends on how you define speciesism. Do you equate speciesism with anthropocentrism? Because it’s possible to eat animals and yet not be a cannibal, all without thinking that humans are inherently “better” than non-human animals. One could, for instance, accept a form of utilitarianism and be focused solely on suffering reduction. You could then be okay with raising and killing non-human animals for food as long as they don’t suffer much, and yet not want to raise humans for food because it would be harder to do without causing humans a lot of suffering and most of us wouldn’t want to eat human flesh anyway. This is one way of eating animals while avoiding anthropocentrism.

    But maybe you mean something else by speciesism. Like maybe just putting human interests before the interests of other animals — especially in a routine and institutionalized fashion — is speciesism even if we don’t believe that humans are inherently better. This definition of speciesism, however, makes it harder to classify the animal-harming actions of vegans as non-speciesist.

    For instance, roads and cars might be harmful to humans as well as non-human animals, but as I pointed out in a comment on another post, they aren’t an equal-opportunity harm. That’s because cars and roads benefit most humans to a far greater extent than they benefit non-human animals, which makes their harms and benefits a trade-off for humans. For non-human animals, cars and roads are almost 100 percent harm, which means that their construction certainly means putting human interests before non-human animal interests. So with the more strict definition of speciesism, a vegan civilization would be speciesist, and thus lose its ability to claim to cause only “excusable unjustified harms.”

    • Adam Merberg says:

      I second your comments about roads and cars, though I’d put it in slightly different terms. In my view, the crucial point is that we humans choose to use a road because we perceive it will benefit us in some way. If I wanted to avoid the risk of cars and roads, I could go live off the grid in the woods somewhere. Of course, I’d probably starve to death, but I wouldn’t die of automobile-related causes.

      The point is that roads and cars (and civilizations more generally) are things which exist for the benefit of people. Are there some people for whom they do more harm than good? Sadly, yes. But generally living in civilization is a good deal for most of us, which is why you don’t see more people living off the grid.

      A squirrel which gets hit by a car, though, doesn’t really have a way to opt out of the risk presented by a road. Nor do most animals benefit from the road in any real way.

    • unethical_vegan says:

      I think that roads and cars likely cause far more harm than benefit. WHO has estimated that ~2 million people die each year due to motorvehicle homicides. Estimates of the numbers of deaths associated with motorvehicle pollution (volatile and particulate) are equally shocking. Moreover, a car-associated sedentary liefstyle is a major contributor to metabolic disorders, CVD, dementia, and some forms of cancer. And finally, but not least, cars are a major contributor to the ongoing mass extinction associated with ACC.

      IMO, elimination of low occupancy vehicles would greatly increase human utility.

  7. Laura says:

    Deliberate, blatantly unfair, violent, harmful, avoidable… if you do something or support something that includes any or all of the above, it’s far beneath you as a human being and you need to change to avoid doing or supporting that sort of thing any longer. It’s not so complicated as people might want it to be so that they can continue supporting slaughterhouses, etc., comforted by the pretense that vegans are just as culpable for any harm or deaths caused by crop farming, etc.
    Given just one wish, here’s mine:
    No more suffering for anyone anywhere.
    That solves it all; no more cruelty, no more conflict, no more dining on carcasses, no more death…no more sadistic people. Pipe dream, yes, but that would be my wish. My being vegan is my part to arrive at that perfect state… let’s all do our part and make the world an immensely better place.

  8. Mountain says:

    James, forgive me for being amused that the editor and/or publisher found this essay too controversial to publish in a book of essays on veganism.

    I think it’s a very good essay, wrestling with the ethical implications of our choices. Whether either of your suggestions works to shore up the pillars of veganism is open to debate, but it’s an honest effort to grapple with the issues, rather than evade them. Nicely done.

  9. Mark Heideman says:

    I’m not sure I understand how an editor or publisher would not consider this essay relevant to any discussion involving ethical veganism. I was thinking about insects recently, and didn’t have an easy answer, but this definitely helps. As you say, it doesn’t mean it’s ok to “swat the fly” but it is certainly not the same as ritually slaughtering the pig.
    We have a “pest control” company that comes to the house quarterly and sprays non-toxic (to humans and human pets) substances on the outside foundation of the house to prevent infiltration of ostensibly “dangerous” species like Black Widows. I do not know that it kills anything directly and I have not been driven to find out. I am considering stopping the service, but this raises a similar question, “Is it ethical to pre-emptively block a potentially dangerous creature from entering your living space, even if it means the death of that creature?”
    There are no simple answers, but intentional harm should be relatively simple to isolate.

  10. Ken says:

    I agree, good piece – and I too don’t see why it wouldn’t be published – these are all great topics of discussion for any vegan. I have a friend who NEVER drives over 35 mph., he says if you keep your driving speed below that, most flying insects and animals can avoid you. He’s hated by most anyone driving behind him, but he’s one of the most true vegans I know. But may be a hazard on the road. I think as a vegan community we should be fighting just as hard for lowering the speed limit as we do for abolishing factory farms…. When in discussion about being a vegan, I usually start by saying that no one is a perfect vegan – we all have a violent affect on other animals. I swat mosquitoes when there are a bunch of them bothering me and biting me – I figure this is an act of self defense and I consider myself an animal and I intend to be compassionate to myself. I think we can all be better vegans when considering insects lives, but to me veganism or being vegan isn’t a noun – like being president or being treasurer, but rather it’s a verb – something to strive for. And yes I do agree that there are varying degrees of “consciousness” (for lack of a better term) I think it is more wrong to slaughter a pig for food than swat a mosquito (unless you’re starving). But if the pig is an invasive species that is wiping out some species of ground nesting bird in Hawaii, then perhaps killing the pig may be ethical. At any rate, I’m glad I live in a place and time when we can be discussing such finer aspects of life and death – I’d love to see the day when our population has quit farming animals and our national debate revolves around the ethics of swatting insects. Cheers

  11. Nancy says:

    This is an excellent article. Since I became a vegan six years ago I have sought how best to explain veganism to meat-eaters and maybe convert them. Your articles are always thought provoking and provide me with excellent arguments.

  12. Kip Sieger says:

    Like so many posts, I found this one to be both provocative and well written. That said, I’d like to veer off on a bit of a tangent. To be sure, I’ve found that veganism isn’t really something that is about to be adopted in prime time, even though impressive strides have been taken in that direction. In this, I’ve found Melanie Joy’s work on how deeply engrained meat eating is in our culture to be very helpful in understanding why not, as she outlines the ways in which meat eating is seen as being natural, necessary and normal. (For anyone not familiar with her work, there is a great hour-long talk online from a presentation that she did at a John McDougall retreat that is well worth watching.)

    Another “pillar” that I think is well worth addressing, however, is that meat eating is deeply ingrained not just in our secular/civilian culture, but is woven into our modern Judeo-Christian religious fabric as well. Author Keith Akers, (in his books The Vegetarian Sourcebook, The Lost Religion of Jesus, and Disciples, and Compassionate Spirit website) does an excellent job of addressing this issue. Again, while this is a tangent from James’ article, if vegans really want to aspire to primetime, this issue needs to be addressed. As Akers astutely points out, it is common for vegans to get into a dietary discussions with Christians, and eventually the conversation comes around to the Bible stories of Jesus eating fish and meat, at which point an impasse is usually reached, with the non-vegan/Christian devotee saying something to the effect that “if it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.” And at that point, the discussion typically ends, or maybe the stumped vegan mutters that what was right in Biblical times may not be right for today, or something similarly ineffectual. Either way, the discussion is essentially over at that point, with the vegan likely feeling frustrated by what he/she perceives as a shortcoming in Christianity, and the Christian not being particularly swayed by what they see as the rather baseless ethical plea to go meatless.

    Though I won’t be able to do justice to his work here, what Akers does is confront this issue head on, examining the milieu in which the historical Jesus lived through the epistles of Paul and a wealth of non-canonical sources, building a strong case for a vegetarian, animal-loving Jesus – by weaving together the disruption of the animal sacrifices in the Temple, and through evidence of a vegetarian James (and likely Peter), a vegetarian John the Baptist; and the circumstantial evidence of a highly eloquent Paul, who is at odds with the aforementioned leaders of the Jerusalem Church on the issue of eating meat, even though Paul does NOT invoke the example of Jesus himself as a reason for why it is okay to eat meat! In any case, something of a convoluted and esoteric tangent – and one that probably isn’t quite ready for prime time! – but at the same time, one that is not only fascinating, but critical if one hopes to prod Christian believers to re-examine their food choices for anything other than the relatively narrow reasons of personal health.

  13. Élise Desaulniers says:

    Finally! All activists have to struggle with those shaky pillars. I’m facing those problems each time I discuss with non-vegan intellectuals. I do believe this text is foundamental to move forward in a “third wave” of vegan activism. I don’t want to read a book that refuses to publish such important critics of our work and discourse.

  14. ryan says:

    i dont know how anyone made it through the first paragraph. if you did, you must care.

  15. Tina Eden says:

    My votes goes for printing the first seven paragraphs on the back cover of the book! It’s too bad the publisher didn’t accept the essay, however, it is but one venue. Perhaps another, better one, is around the corner, and the essay is ‘holding out’ for a place in which it will be more widely read.

    Keep knocking on those publishers’ doors. One of them will publish it.

  16. Benny Malone says:

    Great essay James I think vegans should be aware of these considerations. In people who argue against veganism I have found that aside from a lot of the frequently asked questions about practical matters the ones asked about the philosophy will fall into a few categories. If we take a basic simplified argument as being ‘it is morally wrong to cause unnecessary suffering to animals’ it is normally disputed in a number of ways. These are an attack on ‘necessity’ – saying animal products are necessary for some people or in some places (even if this is a trolley problem or hypothetical desert island). The next is an attack on the premise of animal suffering ranging from Cartesian denial to extolling ‘humane’ methods etc. Finally I have found there may be an attempt at equivocation and I would include plant sentience arguments in this, as well as the type of argument equating accidental and unavoidable deaths with confinement, exploitation and killing of animals. Where to draw the line is the other major consideration. All too often I see uncertainty at where the line is drawn as an attempt to move in the wrong direction away from that line to more exploitation, from the ‘grey areas’ making a leap to more ‘black and white’ areas. From where animal products or suffering is perhaps unavoidable and from the intersection of sentience/non-sentience to where there is little doubt about sentience and suffering exist or that animal products can be avoided in those instances (cosmetics for example). It is interesting to note that many of these types of arguments could be used against environmentalists or human rights workers also. As an aside all philosophies and even the most rigorous disciplines like mathematics and logic have self referential paradoxes like Cantor’s or Russell’s at their foundation. Again this does not mean that mathematics does not work for our ‘everyday’ purposes.

  17. Jamie says:

    The article seems to attack two pillars, and then argue so let’s not even try.
    “Just as human life is not fundamentally dependent on eating animals, survival is not fundamentally dependent on driving. Neither driving nor eating animals is a do-or-die scenario.”
    Logical Fallacy, it normally would be the case not driving is forgoing a human desire to be somewhere, however not eating animals is not forgoing a human desire to eat a gourmet fulfilling meal, consequently the rest of the paragraph does not follow.

    “But what about animals that are less “complex”—that is, critters that do not seem to have comparatively sophisticated nervous systems or an obvious sense of self, much less a theory of mind or a comparatively long life-cycle? Although convenient, it’s intellectually inadequate to state that, “all animals deserve equal moral consideration” and leave matters at that.”
    Though the point does correctly identify that people feel differently about different animals, the simple rule of no animal use, is one of practicality, the animal and plant kingdom have a clear line, this avoids a contentious list of what animals are OK to use, which would just result in a lot of committee meetings and no consensus, and even if there was consensus it would surely by a long and complicated definition, this is why simply saying no animal use is a reasonable moral line to draw because of its simplicity to understand and implement. The bottom line is why make a list to include some animals when humans don’t need to consume any animals to be healthy.

    “In order for this to happen, a daunting number of factors will have to fall into place.”
    Fallacy of it is so daunting so let’s not even get started, let’s not even try. It’s a rally call of pessimism, to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    • James says:

      “Logical Fallacy, it normally would be the case not driving is forgoing a human desire to be somewhere, however not eating animals is not forgoing a human desire to eat a gourmet fulfilling meal, consequently the rest of the paragraph does not follow”

      I never said the desire is foregone. The desire remains. There are many ways to get somewhere besides driving.

      “Though the point does correctly identify that people feel differently about different animals, the simple rule of no animal use, is one of practicality, the animal and plant kingdom have a clear line, this avoids a contentious list of what animals are OK to use, which would just result in a lot of committee meetings and no consensus, and even if there was consensus it would surely by a long and complicated definition, this is why simply saying no animal use is a reasonable moral line to draw because of its simplicity to understand and implement. The bottom line is why make a list to include some animals when humans don’t need to consume any animals to be healthy.”

      The “clear line” you assert is not as clear as we might hope, at least on a cellular level. Moreover, the implication that a revolution in human behavior should be based on a simple consensus that avoids nuance belies the human propensity for wanting to, well, justify our choices with good reasons. The criminal justice system would love to divide the world into good and bad people, but we thankfully don’t allow that to happen.

      “Fallacy of it is so daunting so let’s not even get started, let’s not even try. It’s a rally call of pessimism, to be a self-fulfilling prophecy”

      I never, ever say “let’s not even get started.” Why would I maintain this blog if I felt that way? For those who see this piece as a rally call for pessimism, that’s their problem. There are a lot of cheerleaders for veganism out there. Personally speaking, they come closer to making me pessimistic than those seeking to understand ethical veganism in more complex terms.

      • Erik says:

        “More complex terms”…How about something outside of Utilitarianism?

        Is stepping outside of moral cognitivism possible for vegans, i.e. could someone think that moral skepticism is true and still believe they should do no harm? I don’t see why not, but perhaps this approach is less “complex” as I’m not sure it has to involve rationalizing where the lines lead or how they are crossed.

        That said, does escaping speciesism trump escaping ethnocentrism? Are non-vegan cultures, or ideologies, “wrong?” Where do we start in “mak[ing] an ethical argument for eating animals” or not: induction, deduction, abduction? Do we, or should we, begin or end within a frame/box that assumes moral knowledge is possible, or a place with no assumptions about lines or box borders (…where we still stand, but on a flattened box)? By “no” assumptions, I mean nature is universal, and just is, and just does, human lines be dammed. Some critters are herbivores, some omnivores, some cannibals, innate and/or learned, and humans have the capacity to pick their poison (as that is partly the nature of being human). That still says nothing about right or wrong, should it exist in this context, nor is it a means to determine if we “should” go vegan or not.

        To bring in the synopsis of MacClellan’s ideology, choosing between a whale and field mice deaths is still speciest, as killing occurs in both cases to provide humans with food. Of course we could go smaller scale and farm with hand tools (I won’t entertain gathering), but worms, some insects, and probably a few mice will still die. In any case, is plowing a field like driving with unintentional collateral damage? Is killing a whale like driving with the intention of aiming for roadkill? Personally, I’d swerve around the whale, and feel that collateral damage is inexcusable so solutions should be sought. Of course we could also ask ‘why bother?’ Is it only Utilitarians that need rules and a means to justify the lines they cross? A moral skeptic may say, “driving [does not] have the moral edge over taste or tradition” as they may not be sure a moral edge is possible, although some may prefer some solution out of ending or interrupting another being’s existence that doesn’t involve driving into them, intentional or not.

        Intentions? Are intentions/actions the borders, the lines, or are rules/principles, or should one of them take precedence? Is it “critical” that we make “distinctions between unjustifiable and excusable unintentional death…”? In the post on the paleo diet it was said, “we need rules…something different—something that comes with guidelines— [this is]…a move in the right direction.” Is this an either/or case– rules or no rules? The no rules position may be “to each their own.”

        It was said, that “we must look to more substantial and less subjective indicators such as the length and quality of an animal’s natural life-cycle under optimal conditions…, the neurological basis of sentience, a theory of mind, and the nature of suffering for that animal. Only then can ethical vegans insure that increasing revelations of plant intelligence do not become a pretext… for justifiably slaughtering a pig.” Perhaps for a Utilitarian this matters, otherwise how does length and quality of life justify killing? To me these are arbitrary or subjective borders or rules as well, and we are equally justified in asking if potential food sees in color, has a tail, hair, or feathers… We can complicate things by seeking borders, and absolutes, drawing lines, and crossing them. We can also say there is no wrong or right, but we still can choose a life of minimal harm.

  18. Jamie says:

    ” There are many ways to get somewhere besides driving.”
    Your original analogy compared giving up driving, like giving up animal use, an absolute like veganism is, your new assertion that they are giving up driving to catch the bus, is like saying giving up beef but eat whale instead. You either stick by your original absolute analogy in which case my original point that being vegan does not cost, where-as not driving does cost. The whole point of being vegan is it has no on-going costs after the initial learning of new consumer patterns. If you choose your analogy to get transported a different way, it no longer holds to the analogy with veganism, so your following points remain non sequitur either-way.
    “the implication that a revolution in human behavior should be based on a simple consensus that avoids nuance belies the human propensity for wanting to, well, justify our choices with good reasons”
    Even when laws are being drafted, consideration is given whether it is practical to enforce, otherwise why bother having the law at all.
    We do need a simple and clear definition so it can be quickly understood with practically no confusion, this is important for café and manufactures, so the label means all animals, so it has universal appeal, people that may compromise on honey certainly won’t discard a product just because it is correctly labelled vegan.
    “The criminal justice system would love to divide the world into good and bad people, but we thankfully don’t allow that to happen.”
    Veganism is not like the “criminal justice” system in some zero-tolerance approach with equal punishments, Veganism is about preventing the act in the first place, there is nothing to judge because nothing happened, the cow never existed.

  19. Anim says:

    I dont think there is shaky ground–only for those who claim any moral code, veganism or any other, is perfect. One standard attack on veganism or any social cause is to claim the person is not morally perfect. I recall a defense of the US slave trade that argued along the lines that since the North beat their children, the South had the right to beat their slaves. My answer to the “moral perfection” attack is simply that we do not expect/demand human rights ethics be perfect, therefore the same applies for vegan ethics. We (most I assume) say war and crime and child abuse are wrong-and despite the laws we have, they still happen, sometimes with state sanctioning (i.e. wars). We say harmful human experimentation is wrong, but the work of AMA president James Sims, Mengele, even 1990s Pfizer experiments in Africa–are used. We all benefit from oppression and violence that we say is wrong. Such is the world we live in. Anyone who tries to claim that the inability to be perfect in dealing with insects or plants or bacteria justifies farms and labs, must face the fact that by such logic, the inability to stop homicide or child abuse would also justify concentration camps since human moral supremacy arguments are biased personal opinion like white christian supremacy claims. Ultimately the moral perfection attack on vegans is usually a case of the opponent to veganism trying to dictate the discussion and distract from the central issue–farms, labs and other systemic institutions of violence that take enormous effort to construct and maintain-very different from accidental killing of an insect. One can and should scrutinize the morality of dealing with all life, and one could say car use is bad and should be eliminated for many reasons besides vegan ethics — imperfection due to absent mindedness or scale does not mean labs and farms are morally justified. If one tries to derail vegan ethics by pointing out the obvious difficulties with avoiding all harm, I direct them to the daily crime news to remind them how far we are from achieving world peace even for humans. BTW-I have read that in isolated African villages there have been cases of ritual human sacrifice–usually children.

  20. Chris Hendricks says:

    Alas! What shaky pillars of straw you’ve constructed!

  21. unethical_vegan says:

    The type of cellular signaling that some have described as “plant intelligence” is also found in single cells and single cell organisms. IMO, by using the term “intelligence” you give tacit support to science that is decidedly out of the mainstream.

  22. Lila says:

    “The premise here might be correct—that is, ending speciesism would help end prejudicial oppression of all sorts—”

    If only.

    IRL bigots don’t all share a strict hierarchy of out-groups in which tolerating one group means tolerating all the groups above them in the ladder.

    For example, one person can be anti-sexist but still racist and another person can be anti-racist but still sexist, so neither “once someone accepts all races of course they’ll accept both genders” nor “once someone accepts both genders of course they’ll accept all races” is true.

    The same way, it’s possible for someone to be anti-speciesist but still be prejudicially oppressive in some other way.

  23. Elaine Vigneault says:

    The fundamental, historical, and oft-mentioned “pillars of veganism” are three:
    - animal rights/welfare
    - environmental protection
    - human health.

    What you’ve posted here are not “pillars” at all. They are merely invented criticisms of anti-speciesism (which btw, is NOT the same as veganism).

    Regarding whether or not this essay deserves to be “published” in the traditional format of printed book is YOUR decision so please stop whining about it. Today it is not only possible but also very easy to self-publish. Whining about being excluded from a compilation that doesn’t even pay is ridiculously petty. Get over it.

    • James says:

      How are the pillars “fundamental”? Do wild animals have rights, and if so, do we have a moral obligation to keep them from attacking each other, to enhance their welfare? Global veganism would surely create space for greater floral and faunal biodiversity, but that increased biodiversity would mean more animals attacking each other in the wild, so would there be a vegan program to deal with that violence and suffering? Vegans can be healthy, but so can meat eaters.

      You see, your pillars have problems, Elaine. Not fatal ones, but still. All I’m trying to do is raise these problems, confront them, and try to figure the best way to handle them.

      Regarding your tone, I have to ask: would you speak to me that way if we were face to face? If not, please don’t do it in print. Thanks.

      • Elaine Vigneault says:

        “Do wild animals have rights, and if so, do we have a moral obligation to keep them from attacking each other, to enhance their welfare?”
        I believe that they have a right to non-interference from humans. I’m open to other thoughts, but either way the solutions to these ethical issues can’t chip away at my knowledge that factory farming is wrong.

        In the future, perhaps when lab meat is readily available it might make sense for humans to feed wild carnivores lab meat in order to prevent them from killing one another, or it may not. That’s something to consider, like all human intervention in the natural world: is it ethical to breed in order to conserve? is it ethical to attempt to eliminate so-called invasive species? is it ethical to rescue and rehabilitate wild animals if they cannot be released back into the wild? and so on.

        These are all valid ethical questions, but they don’t poke holes in the basic underpinnings of modern veganism: which are that animals deserve to be treated better than how industrial animal agribusiness treats them.

        “Vegans can be healthy, but so can meat eaters.”
        The health argument for veganism is often confused by those who act as though veganism is a panacea for all that ails us. It’s not. And you’re right that there are a multitude of healthy diets for humans. However, neither industrial animal agribusiness nor the large consumption of animal products consumed by the average person are healthy. Veganism represents a healthier alternative.

        Keep in mind here, when I speak of human health I’m not only considering the health aspect of consuming properly prepared animal products vs a vegan diet, I’m considering the health consequences of industrial animal agribusiness as a whole: the air and water pollution that affects human health, the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the effects of food poisoning and other issues directly related to the consumption of animal products.

        • soren impey says:

          “but they don’t poke holes in the basic underpinnings of modern veganism: which are that animals deserve to be treated better than how industrial animal agribusiness treats them.”

          I’ve never seen a definition of veganism (modern or otherwise) that restricts exclusion of exploitation and cruelty to “industrial animal agribusiness”.

          Animals that die due to indirect human activity suffer just as much as the ones that die due to direct human activity. Ignoring the indirect suffering we inflict on sentient beings is indefensible.

          • Elaine Vigneault says:

            Modern veganism is rightly focused on animal agri-business because:

            http://www.countinganimals.com/is-vegan-outreach-right-about-how-many-animals-suffer-to-death/

          • soren impey says:

            At least a trillion wild aquatic animals are killed each year and almost all of them die slow, excruciatingly painful deaths. Estimates of invertebrates and vertebrates killed due to transportation are similarly large and most of these animals die incredibly brutal deaths. And even worse, our “modern” industrial lifestyle is causing animal death on a scale that has only been seen a few times in the history of this planet.

            Do these deaths matter less than those in slaughterhouses?

            For me, the answer to this question is a passionate NO!

  24. Joan Davis says:

    Thank you, James, for your thought-provoking essays. The degrees of commitment to a vegan lifestyle are certainly subjective. Should we not start from a belief that all creatures are sentient unless and until proven otherwise? Your point that just by living we inadvertently kill animals is well taken. To my mind, if humans had a bit more humility and curiosity for critical thinking, we might find more meaningful answers to our daily dilemmas. I have read Will Tuttle’s book “The World Peace Diet” and have heard him lecture. While i respect his work, I am disappointed to learn that your essay was denied inclusion in “circles of compassion – essays connecting issues of justice.” i look forward to your essays.

    • James says:

      Thanks, Joan. The problem with the proposed premise–Should we not start from a belief that all creatures are sentient unless and until proven otherwise? –is that it opens us up to the charge that plants are sentient, too. If you are going to grant the possibility of sentience to an amoeba, you have to be prepared to do the same for a sophisticated plant.

  25. Elaine Vigneault says:

    Regarding your criticisms…

    “the fact remains: life is unavoidably imbricated with animal exploitation. Worse, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
    WRONG. There are plenty of things we can do about it. Creative scientists and engineers and chefs are doing things about it everyday, inventing new technology that does not depend on animals. History suggests a shift away from animal use is not only possible but likely. Consider, for example, that we used to ride horses or have them pull carts but now we use automobiles. Insulin used to be derived from animals but is now synthetically manufactured. Soccer balls used to be animal parts but are now synthetic. We have superior synthetic boots, sleeping bags, and many other tools that were formerly animal parts. Today, there are companies and organizations working to create plant-based alternatives to virtually every human use of animals. If our species survives long enough, there’s every reason to believe that the future will provide the ability to live a 100% morally consistent veganism without even trying.

    “A ubiquitous action (driving) that we allow to justify the unintentional killing of animals also justifies the unintentional killing of humans. In this respect, the incidental nature of death, which applies to all sentient beings, allows the ethical vegan to escape the charge of speciesism.”
    This has to be the most twisted logic I’ve ever read to justify a vegan choosing to drive. To point out the flaw: attempts to reduce human casualties related to driving (such as the promotion of proper carseat and seatbelt use, the installation of airbags, reduced response times for emergency crews, etc) would result in “moral inconsistency” among driving vegans unless they took equal measures to reduce animal death related to driving. Furthermore, this rationale doesn’t take into consideration that entire categories of humans are more likely to be driving casualties than other categories and that those categories most likely to be casualties are also the least likely to have as much choice in the matter as the driver (children and poor pedestrians, for example). So while this convoluted logic may appear to be anti-speciesist it is not anti-agist nor anti-classist.

    How about simply using the logic that driving a car rather than using a horse-carriage is a sign of progress towards the elimination of animal use and in that sense fits with a vegan ethic? As for the charge of “moral inconsistency” in general, see above and also: the perception of whether or not someone is morally consistent depends entirely on the overarching paradigm. (The questions we ask reveal our assumptions and prejudices.) If the paradigm is “doing less harm and more good” then a lifestyle that omits eating animals and includes driving is morally consistent because the entire issue is about progress not perfection. (I will admit here though, having lived in NYC for two years, that driving within The City is utterly unnecessary unless you’re a cab driver.)

    The next issue is the “problem of where to draw the line when it comes to granting equal moral consideration to animals.”
    Well, that’s simple. There’s no need to grant “equal” moral consideration to animals. The need is to grant fair or equitable moral consideration. What’s fair is to prevent needless animal suffering, not to provide animals with the right to vote or other such nonsense alluded to by “equal moral consideration.” Currently, the need to prevent animal suffering is so great that we must “triage.”

    Let’s say, for example, that we agree on the assumption that both the scope and degree of harm caused to animals is greatest in the sector of animal agri-business. Not only are these animals needlessly killed, they are also denied any semblance of a free, “natural” life. At least in the case of the invading cockroach, the animal lived a free natural life until his or her death. Animals in agribusiness routinely are deprived of basic elements of a free, natural life such as the feeling of the warm sun, soft grass, or the ability to move around freely. Given the scope of the problem of animal suffering and the ease of which we can choose a plant-based diet, it only makes sense to start there. It only makes sense that that is a baseline for where vegans ought to begin to “draw the line.”

    In order to triage, we needn’t highlight any differences be they between species or animals vs plants. We need only highlight the differences in two things:
    -the intensity of suffering and
    -our ability to prevent it.

    For example, I do not need to assert that plants don’t feel pain in order to justify eating them but not animals. (And as a skeptic I won’t make that claim. I know that I don’t know everything and one of the things I don’t know is whether or not plants – or mollusks – feel pain.) The fact is that the by eating a plant-based diet my overall consumption of plants is actually far lower than that of a nonvegan’s diet due to trophic levels and the energy pyramid. Diet-wise, a carnist is responsible for the deaths of not only the animals and plants that he or she eats but also the plants that were eaten by the animals he or she eats. A vegan on the other hand is only responsible for the deaths of the plants her or she eats.

    But let’s back up to your claim that “if we cannot highlight morally relevant distinctions among animals, ethical vegans will have a hard time drawing morally relevant distinctions between plants and animals. And if we cannot draw that line, all bets are off. The vegan argument collapses.”
    No, it does not collapse. Disregarding for a moment whether or not we ought to “highlight morally relevant distinctions among animals” (if they exist) there is literally no actual relationship to plants here. You’ve simply created a slippery slope. For clarification, simply change some category titles here and see if it the logic follows:

    if we cannot highlight morally relevant distinctions among group A, group Z will have a hard time drawing morally relevant distinctions between group B and group A. And if we cannot draw that line, all bets are off. The group Z argument collapses.

    Clearly, it does not follow. It’s a non-sequitur, plain and simple. Try again.

    • James says:

      “The next issue is the “problem of where to draw the line when it comes to granting equal moral consideration to animals.
      Well, that’s simple. There’s no need to grant “equal” moral consideration to animals. The need is to grant fair or equitable moral consideration. What’s fair is to prevent needless animal suffering, not to provide animals with the right to vote or other such nonsense alluded to by “equal moral consideration.”

      That’s not how the term equal moral consideration is applied. The way it’s conventionally used (by philosophers) is not to call for the same exact rights being granted to every sentient being, but rather to grant the same consideration of that animal’s ability to suffer as a result of its sentience, which is in agreement with what you express about fairness and equitability. Obviously I’d never claim a dog or infant has a right to vote.

    • James says:

      “If the paradigm is “doing less harm and more good” then a lifestyle that omits eating animals and includes driving is morally consistent because the entire issue is about progress not perfection.”

      Sure, but a lifestyle that omits eating animals before 6 pm us also morally consistent if “the paradigm is doing less harm and more good.” Does a person who eat meat after 6 qualify as a vegan?

      • Elaine Vigneault says:

        If they want to self-identify as vegan I’m not going to stop them.
        They are doing a good thing and I would encourage them to do it. If that were as far as they were willing to go and felt they could do that sustainably then I would absolutely favor that approach over eating animals before 6pm too.

        I am not the vegan police and I do not feel as though the word “vegan” needs to be defended against people using it to describe vegan-esque behaviors. There’s a huge difference, in my mind, between using a label to describe one’s self or one’s activities vs. using a label in a philosophical discussion or applying a label to a food item.

    • James says:

      “if we cannot highlight morally relevant distinctions among group A, group Z will have a hard time drawing morally relevant distinctions between group B and group A. And if we cannot draw that line, all bets are off. The group Z argument collapses. Clearly, it does not follow”

      Uh, come again? I have no idea what you’re saying here.

      • Elaine Vigneault says:

        You said “if we cannot highlight morally relevant distinctions among animals, ethical vegans will have a hard time drawing morally relevant distinctions between plants and animals. And if we cannot draw that line, all bets are off. The vegan argument collapses.”

        I explained that your logic was flawed. To illustrate I subbed in A, B, and Z in place of animals, plants, and vegans. Differences within group A have no bearing on whether or not there are clear differences between group A and group B.

  26. soren impey says:

    “The fact is that the by eating a plant-based diet my overall consumption of plants is actually far lower than that of a nonvegan’s diet due to trophic levels and the energy pyramid.”

    The plants we eat are associated with animal death. In fact, few plant-based foods are associated with less cruelty than a bowl of steamed mussels.

    Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.

    IMO, the Vegan Society definition of veganism only makes sense if we consider “animals” to be short hand for sentient animals and consider “excludes” to mean reduce.

    • Elaine Vigneault says:

      And yet a diet of only plants is perfectly healthy whereas a diet of only mussels is not.

      • soren impey says:

        The health argument!

        I do not feel as though the word “vegan” needs to be defended against people using it to describe vegan-esque behaviors.

        I applaud this position but it is, IMO, a minority position among ethical vegans. Moreover, if this tolerant approach to identification were more common, veganism would likely look very different today and would be a much larger movement.

  27. Megan says:

    Before making my comment, I’d like to mention a great read which goes through ethical arguments behind veganism. It is Sherry Colb’s book, “Mind if I order the Cheese Burger: and other questions people ask vegans.” She works through vegan issues to find an ethical answer with clear-headed and thorough logic. She has chapters which may interest you, called, “There are no perfect vegans, so why bother?” and “What about plants?” as well as issues like, is abortion consistent with veganism, etc. There are more “pillars” to examine.

    As for the driving of vehicles vs eating meat, I think there is a significant ethical distinction between accidental killing or harm and deliberate killing and enslavement (that is why most 5 year olds know the difference between “accident” and “on purpose”). I’m not saying we shouldn’t reduce our cross sections with animals as much as possible on the roadways (eg. take a bus, minimize driving), but the deliberate act of torture and murder is much worse.

    Even if you believe there is no distinction between accidental and purposeful killing, raising an animal for your own purposes, torturing her all along, and then finally killing her is much worse than going out into the wild and deliberately killing her. The animal in the wild lived her own natural life, up until the end. The total harm done on the captive animal integrated over a lifetime is greater.

    One huge area where vegans participate in the animal food industry, by the way, is in feeding our domesticated animals that live in our homes. In the cases of cats and dogs who are domesticated (and who we have an obligation to take care of since we already domesticated them), most of the time we are feeding them slaughterhouse products and by-products. This is a big moral question for vegans: get rid of the beloved family pet, or buy meat so the pet can eat? I have started feeding my cats veg food and mussels in addition to their slaughterhouse fare, and it is challenging because I don’t want the cats to get ill, but I don’t want to be killing chickens etc on their behalf. This is a heated topic, I know…I’m being careful and trying to minimize harm.

    Also, I haven’t met any vegans who think everyone becoming vegans will precipitate world peace (although now that you mention it, it would be nice). I don’t think it is a shortcoming of veganism that human strife would still be present in the world despite that the cruelty and enslavement of animals would be lifted…

    PS. If you know of any good places to get vegan food in San Marcos, let me know!

    PPS. About larger cages and promoting more “humane” animal treatment which is on topic to your other article. The reason I oppose it is that I think people on the fringe of caring about animal rights may suddenly think it is actually okay to consume the animal products. Any lingering fear they may have that the food they are consuming may be unethical could be assuaged a bit. Then the animals would only have incrementally better cages that make their lives only a tiny bit better, and people would eat even more animal products since the felt reassured that it was okay to eat the animal products. I don’t know if more or less animal suffering would result in that scenario. The meat industries would turn their larger cages into an advantage, assuring the public that government standards are in place so that the food they eat is ethical. Just like they market the “cage-free” eggs – deceiving and lying about the hen’s conditions to people who care that the hens are so terribly confined. The “humane” meat is the animal industry profiting from a huge group of people who care about animals and may otherwise think about veganism/vegetarianism, (but at the end of the day, there is no such thing as “humane” meat – Sherry Colb’s book has a great discussion).

  28. Keith Akers says:

    I read your essay. It should have been published in “Circles of Compassion.”

    To me (if I was the editor) the problem would have been your title. “Veganism’s Shaky Pillars” sounds like you are (or could be) attacking veganism. Change the title to “Examining Veganism’s Pillars” and I doubt it would have raised an eyebrow. At least, you’d force them to read the actual article before becoming outraged; as you have it, all they have to do is read the title.

    The other potential problem with your essay (if you look at the other essays in the book) is what it has to do with social justice issues, but it seems clear that you’ve discussed this as well.

    The book “Circles of Compassion” was actually pretty good. It’s mostly intended, I think, as an inspiration for other vegans, or for other activists (whether vegan or not), and gives a good sense of what vegan activists think about social justice type issues. It would have been better with your essay, though.

    It’s not so much “an international symposium is convened on the relationship between social justice issues and veganism, and you have been asked to do the keynote speech.” It’s more like “you’re sitting in the bar talking to other vegans and the question comes up, ‘what do you think about social justice issues and veganism?’, and everyone goes around the circle talking about their own experiences and feelings.” Since the people in the anthology includes a lot of activists, it’s very informative from that point of view.

Leave a Reply to María Vigo McMacken