Vegans: Watch What You Say

» August 6th, 2014

I’m not sure where I’ve heard it but I know I heard it because it won’t leave my head: vegans are saying things such as “I don’t care what you eat so long as it’s not an animal product” or “being vegan means not having to say I’m sorry to what’s on your plate.” I’m paraphrasing here, but that’s the gist of what seems to be all over the vegan social media. Probably has been for a while, but I’m often slow on the uptake.

I do know this, though: vegans should avoid these kind of slogans. It wrongly indicates that because you, virtuous vegan, have made one ethical choice about how to eat—avoiding animals— that all other ethical matters bearing on food are irrelevant. Needless to say, eating animals is just one of many ethical concerns that accompany the production and consumption of food. Many consumers who eat animals approach their diets with as much ethical deliberation as vegans do (maybe more), but they do so by focusing on other concerns–very real concerns such as labor treatment, ecological impact, and public health.

In general—as the aforementioned slogans indicate—ethical vegans do a mediocre job at best integrating their concerns about animal rights into these (equally?) critical moral issues (to be fair, those focused on other concerns aren’t so cooperative either when it comes to animal rights). One reason for this reticence may be that incorporating other ethical concerns into our choice-making matrix blurs the ethical clarity that so many vegans take for granted. As much as we might like to think that eating ethically is simply about not eating animals, that’s only the start of things. In fact, by making the noble decision to bother about animals at all, you open up many other cans of worms—and things can get sort of messy real quick. From this perspective, you can see why so many intelligent people put their hands over their ears and say, “I don’t want to know!”

Consider this scenario: you have a choice between eating roadkill and eating a plate of vegetables harvested by child slaves. If the slogan “I don’t care what you eat so long as it’s not an animal product” holds, then you are forced by an overly rigid conceptualization of veganism to exploit child slaves rather than eat an animal that in no way was intentionally harmed for your consumption. You are, in other words, forced by your belief system to make an arguably immoral choice. That’s an extreme case, but one could easily see how, as you leave the margins, the decisions become veritable toss-ups. For example, what if the choice was between eating oysters (questionably sentient critters) or a bowl of rice grown with water diverted from a subsistence village suffering a drought? Anyway, you get the idea.

I’ve often criticized carnivorously-inclined sustainable food people for putting “soil ahead of sentience.” But I’m coming to realize that there can also be ethical problems with placing sentience ahead of soil. More to the point, I’m coming the difficult realization that eating ethically is not about drawing a line in the sand (soil?) between plants and animals and mouthing a bunch of slogans about your superior choice.  It is, for sure, about not eating animals raised to be food, but it’s also about merging that choice with so many others that deserve our ethical attention.

If you’ve made the choice to go vegan, well done.  But now the real work begins.


33 Responses to Vegans: Watch What You Say

  1. Karen Harris says:

    I couldn’t disagree more.
    What is wrong about moral absolutism when it comes to treating other sentient beings like commodities? Why is a strong and unequivocal ethical choice necessarily viewed as self righteousness?
    If I said rape was unethical, would that be self righteous because it did not take into account a number of extreme scenarios?
    Also, bringing up extreme examples such as the choice between eating roadkill or eating vegetables harvested by child slaves, is ridiculous. If these situations were to come up in real life, which they rarely do, one might choose to eat roadkill, but that does not make the killing of sentient beings any more ethical. Really, these kind of extreme scenarios are a distraction that have been employed by mainstream, anti-vegan thinking for decades and they only serve apologists for the animal industrial complex.
    Also, since when can’t one have a moral stance in one area, in this case not treating other sentient beings as things, without having to take on every other ethical matter bearing on food production. I don’t have a problem with those taking on issues such as ecological impact and public health – I applaud their efforts and passion.
    So, NO, I don’t think that vegans should watch what they say – anything but. What we need now are more people who are not afraid to unequivocally state that treating other sentient beings as commodities – things for us to consume – is just plain wrong!

    • I think the key to what James is saying is the word “slogans.” There’s a difference between having a real discussion with someone in which common ground is sought and expanded – and just spouting slogans at them.

      Not sure about “moral absolutism” in general, but it is certainly possible to take a strong pro-abolition stand within the context of a respectful conversation that acknowledges the real barriers to doing the right thing.

      It’s incumbent on us as activists to “watch what we say” because when we don’t, we often wind up doing the opposition’s work for them – alienating others from both ourselves and our cause.

      I made a similar point here:

    • Mountain says:

      I will state unequivocally that it is wrong to keep sentient beings in conditions in which they are not free to feed themselves.

      • Dachia says:

        “To feed themselves?” While some animals are being “pumped” with food, the vast majority (although only because it is cost-effective and nothing to do with humane practices) are feeding themselves from some sort of offered material. My dog is fed twice a day. She is not allowed to go hunt for her meal. So, are you referring to those that are quite literally being fed via tube?

        • Mountain says:

          Your dog would qualify as a sentient being who is not free to feed herself, as are my dogs. And it’s wrong. It’s better than the alternative (letting them die in shelters), but it’s still a powerful sign that they are living in confinement.

          By this standard, all factory farming is wrong. By this same standard, most pet ownership and “humane” farming is wrong. They are better than the alternative (euthanasia or factory farms), but they are, at best, a bridge to where our relationships with animals should be.

          • Dachia says:

            Well, then feeding a sentient baby is wrong. Jails are wrong. I can agree on inhumane treatment being wrong, but I think we might have different definitions of inhumane. I look at my relationship with the dog as a partnership or parent/child. I’m responsible for them. I don;t get the impression they resent not being able to fend for themselves. And I think most pets/domesticated livestock (like horses) have evolved psychologically to live in our village with us. But I understand that might be a higher standard that you are aiming for. It is not something I am aiming for. And I think that is possibly the goal of this blog post, we can respond to people with terms they understand and can grasp and maybe accept. We may have “moral” issues with eating meat, but if they don’t, yelling slogans at them does no good. We need to find what they do understand and speak to that. Health, Environment/ecology, and Compassion. We can be useful without being rabid and pedantic. All that last stuff was not directed at you Mountain. Just adding on to the overall conversation.

          • Mountain says:

            Well, no, feeding a sentient baby isn’t wrong– babies can’t feed themselves. But a dog can feed itself, as can a cat, horse, chicken, pig, turkey, etc. And again, I don’t mean that you’re wrong to feed your dog– after all, humans have deprived dogs of an environment in which they had the option to scavenge their own meal. But by making dogs dependent on us, we have done them wrong.

            And, of course, jails are wrong. There’s a reason they’re called rape cages. That’s why they should only be used as a last resort, when there is no other way to stop someone from committing violence against others.

            But back to dogs. I don’t mean to demean your relationship with your dog– a world in which she is deprived of the ability to scavenge her own meal is still far better than a world in which she dies at the animal shelter. It’s the best most people can do in modern society. But a world in which puppies are raised by canine parents, and grow up to feed themselves as part of a self-sufficient pack, is a better world.

    • unethical_vegan says:

      I agree that it’s wrong to treat sentient beings as commodities. It’s also often terribly wrong to believe that consuming plants and fungi does not treat sentient beings as commodities.

      The animals do not care whether you cause them excruciating pain directly or indirectly. And sadly some of the most inhumane treatment of animals is associated with indirect harm. For example, the agonizing and unnecessary death of trillions of endangered intertidal fish (used largely for organic fertilizer) is virtually a non-issue among so-called ethical vegans. Why the heck is the menhaden that died to grow your organic kale less worthy of compassion than a wild salmon?

      I am also exceedingly tired of people who live in 1st world McMansions, travel excessively, drive motorized couches, and consume copious amounts plant products grown with/using animal products who claim to be more “Vegan” than those who occasionally eat local honey, oysters, roadkill, freegan animal products, backyard rescued eggs etc.

      I strongly believe that people who define veganism as simply “not consuming animals or animal products” have greatly harmed the animal welfare/right movement. I will tirelessly fight to dilute and undermine the dogmatic interpretation of veganism favored by many abolitionists and many so-called “ethical” vegans.

      PS: Bill Clinton is Vegan!

      –A hardcore welfarist and utilitarian

      • Greg says:

        If more people ate less animals, there would be less animal by-products to get rid of. For example, if we didn’t eat cows, we wouldn’t have to find a use for the mountains of manure they presently produce. Similarly, if we didn’t eat fish, we wouldn’t have to somehow dispose of all of the by-catch. Animal by-product input is not necessary for crops to grow. Like Sweeney said, I believe that most vegans realize that causing harm is unavoidable but there is a difference between intentionally causing harm and living in an incredibly violent system where harm cannot be avoided. That being said, we should do everything possible, in addition to being vegan, to minimize our contribution to the violence.

  2. Lisa LeBlanc says:

    First issue: When an individual or group which has achieved what it believes to be the moral high ground then undertakes shaping the morality of others – by volume or by force.
    Zealotry tends to discredit the cause.
    Second: There are natives living in remote, icy climes that have no choice. They cannot grow their own food, so they eat the only bounty available: Seafood, whales and pinipeds. Theirs isn’t a moral choice but one of necessity. Can vegans/vegetarians lambaste these communities in good conscience?
    Last (um, maybe…): Perhaps the only moral, sustainable method of food acquisition is Grow Your Own.
    Let’s say you have a gift for growing tomatoes and zucchini, but zero luck with sweet peas or corn. Your neighbors, on the other hand, have the magic touch for those things you don’t. So, like the tribes of old, you exchange goods. Maybe get together and have a freeze-n-can fest to put your goodies up for the winter; maybe make it a monthly social for the whole block.
    I firmly believe we will not long survive the modern large scale mechanization of food production. We see the results in biological and chemical discharge into waterways and the diseases and poisons that result. We have built an antibiotic base into animals that is so strong, antibiotics can no longer do their job properly. Factory farms deny, deny, DENY – the detrimental effects of a agri-system gone horribly awry.
    ‘Boutique’ farms and back to basics may soon be the only fallback we have left.
    Meanwhile, being vegan/vegetarian is an admirable choice, but it does not make you Holy.

  3. Dachia says:

    Awesome post! When people ask me about my lifestyle choices, I never say I’m vegan or vegetarian, because it really has no meaning, but certainly lumps that person into a huge category of slogan-yelling twits. The need to try to use morality is an argument does not hold water. If the other party had the same moral standards, the first party could simply share the facts about how animals are raised and the second party would raise an eyebrow and say, “wow… really?” And they then make a choice, that is theirs completely.

    If they do not share the same moral standards…. it does not MATTER what the first person points out or how emotional they get or that they type in all caps, “YOU ARE A MURDERER!!!!!!”

    Emotion should never be in the discussion. When I’m asked, I say I have made the decisions I’ve made for the HEC of it, health, environment/ecology and compassion.”

    The emotional knee-jerks reactions do not do the vegan side any god. It makes them look silly. We do need more educated speakers and posters out there sharing information that is science/fact based and able to extricate themselves from a conversation that is being overtaken with caps and exclamation points.

    James your analogy of child labor and roadkill was excellent.

    Thank you for this post,

  4. Mountain says:

    James, why eat vegetables harvested by child slaves when you can just eat the child slaves directly? That way, you avoid the environmental degradation involved in growing the vegetables, and you save children from a lifetime of slavery!

  5. Jennifer Mora says:

    Are you advocating for amoral veganism? See more here from Rhys Southan about that

    While I think it wrong that the vegan abolitionist movement has attracted some moralistic sharp-shooters and egoistic rants (social media is a prime area for it) social media itself provides insight into the thinking processes of vegans and nonvegans alike. In the past, you have said that you have turned away from Facebook (for example) because of it’s low barriers to visual violence but Facebook is where most discussions about veganism seem to happen. Hillary Rettig, you provide a link in your comment above about nonperfectionist veganism and in that post you state that is defunct. But that is not true. If you follow on Facebook, for example, you see that he has redesigned the website and has new videos and links to videos and book recommendations.

    I am weary though, in social media, of it being another sounding board for privileged white males with an axe to grind.

    The way that social media works is that (similarly in advertising) you have to make your point in the first sentence. And each idea has to be encapsulated into two sentences because most people do not have the patience to read links anymore and if a post in says “more” where they read the rest of the post, in Facebook for example, hardly anyone clicks it. People seems to be “click weary”. That is why meme’s and Instaquotes have become so popular. They encapsulate in an image, that doesn’t require more than one click, a larger thought. It is simplistic but conversations develop and devolve in the comments sections to these images.

    I understand why anyone would avoid Facebook in general because it can be a huge timewaster. But it can also be a valuable tool in sharing knowledge about animal agribusiness to people who are primed to want to know, who are animal lovers.

    And if you are not plugged into social media, you probably don’t know about Vegan Sidekick either. He takes the absurdist thinking of carnism and pictorializes it. His cartoons get shared a lot in social media and he frequently seems to “summon” those he makes fun of.

  6. Mountain says:

    This is a good start. Two towns in Northern California where flocks of chickens (about 80 in one town and 300 in the other) roam free.

    • unethical_vegan says:

      i personally would consider discarded eggs from these flocks to be more vegan than kale, almonds, or even chia seeds grown on large-scale factory farms.

      • Sweeney says:

        Most of the people I know who identify as vegan DO see the grey areas, know that there is no such thing as 100% vegan, know that kale is not purely “vegan”, etc. While detailed labeling (though costly) could not possibly address all the issues, it can certainly improve our ability to make the most ethical choices. I think most people who call themselves vegan would do all that they could in order to avoid fertilizer made from menhaden. Maybe I’m naive, but I think the enemy here is a lack of knowledge and know-how – not some kind of obscene double standard.
        I describe myself as “vegan” even though I certainly contribute to the suffering of sentient beings through fertilizer, habitat destruction, etc – I do this largely because society is label oriented and if I can possibly get someone to start thinking about their food, I see it as progress. The vast majority of “vegans” I know have no delusions that we live in an incredibly sick system that makes it almost impossible live without exploitation.

        • unethical_vegan says:

          “Maybe I’m naive, but I think the enemy here is a lack of knowledge and know-how – not some kind of obscene double standard.”

          Vegans are quick to acknowledge grey areas when it comes to indirect killing but when it comes to direct killing there is a brick wall of intolerance.

          Could it be that that the proverbial bowl of kale or vegan baked good is actually more exploitative than the oysters, insects, and discarded offal that Rhys Southan eats?

          The responce to Southan’s recent essay is typical:

          IMO, it’s best not to throw stones when we all live in glass slaughterhouses.

      • Mountain says:

        Indeed. People just need to be smart about feeding them on natural surfaces (grass, dirt, leaf litter) where their poop is beneficial, instead of parking lots where it’s just a mess.

  7. M Decker says:

    I own a small farm. I raise both vegetables and animals. I can’t stand vegetarians/vegans that think that they are taking the moral high because they eat plants! REALLY?! why do people like that put plants beneath animals just because they don’t bleed the way you do? When you cut the head off the broccoli or cauliflower or pull up a beet or carrot. You are KILLING another life! Just because it isn’t cute and doesn’t bleed red doesn’t make that life less significant within the ecosystem. Whether vegans like it or not something has to die for them to live!

    • James says:

      Do you think killing a carrot and killing a pig have the same moral implications? By your logic, I could kill any living being, even a person, and declare, as you do, that all life is equal in an ecosystem. You might not be ale to stand vegans and vegetarians who take the high ground, but I can’t stand this sort of sloppy and, frankly, absurd logic. I’m happy to have a meaningful discussion about the ethics of killing, but it has to be grounded in common sense, for starters.

      • Mountain says:

        James, I accept the sentience argument on a common sense basis, and therefore accept that it is worse to kill a pig than to kill a carrot. However, I don’t see an objective basis for privileging consciousness over other forms of experiencing the world. Consciousness is the form of experience humans are most comfortable and familiar with (even though most of our interactions with the world are mediated by the nervous system below the level of consciousness), but why is it more important than others? Why is the ability to suffer and feel joy more important? Why is the ability to form a narrative more important? These are all just survival mechanisms like any other, they just seem special because they are ours.

  8. Dachia says:

    M. Decker. Well, I draw a line where I define sentience. For me, sentience is an animal that has the ability to recognize danger and act for its own salvation. So, plants don’t. While many plants do have poisonous parts or bitter taste to make at least an attempt at self-presevation, I don’t think/feel it s a conscious one. I don’t think that logically, a creature would be created either intentionally by a God or by evolution that could recognize danger, feel pain, and not be allowed to move. And absolutely, eating broccoli is taking a life, but it is part of ecology. Not outside it.

    • Mountain says:

      Plants do, in fact, have the ability to recognize danger and act for their own salvation. They even have the ability to favor, and share resources with, closely related plants at the expense of less closely related plants.

      This doesn’t mean they’re sentient, but they do a lot more than you realize.

    • Mountain says:

      When being attacked, plants send out distress signals to their neighbors, who then send out signals to attract predators of the animal attacking the initial plant:

      • Dachia says:

        Mountain, I’m aware of the information you brought up. I think you have supported my contention that plants are not sentient. They are part of a larger ecosystem, which helps to ensure the preservation of some. That ecosystem, that sends out signals to predators of the initial predator, also includes those predators and their preservation. As my comment was directed at sentience and defining it as the ability to recognize danger and act for self-preservation (in the immediate sense), by moving away or protecting itself from harm, I appreciate your response and its support on my initial contention.

        • Mountain says:

          I absolutely support your contention that plants are not sentient beings, even though they can– as individuals– recognize danger and act to protect themselves from it.

  9. Sailesh Rao says:

    Veganism is “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practical, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” I realize that it is impossible to eliminate the exploitation of and cruelty to animals entirely, which is precisely why the definition includes the qualification, “as far as is possible and practical.”

    I wholeheartedly embrace this way of living. If ever given this weird choice between eating roadkill or eating vegetables harvested by child slaves, I hope I’ll have the fortitude to refuse to eat either and starve to death.

    Please stop cooking up excuses for eating animals unnecessarily. The next thing you know there will be a roadkill food manufacturer, who will be collecting roadkill from all over to supply the needs of such “ethical animal eaters”. And soon after, that manufacturer will engineer the production of such roadkill by driving cars deliberately at stationary animals.

    • James says:

      I find this comment not so wise.

    • Mountain says:

      A great deal of roadkill is already collected, rendered, and commodified as pet food, livestock feed, and fertilizer. There is no financial incentive to create extra roadkill, and a boom in roadkill freeganism wouldn’t create one.

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