A Modest Proposal

» August 15th, 2015

 

If you are a vegan, I have a modest proposal for you: Would you ever consider trying to make an ethical argument for eating animals? I mean, seriously try?

Most vegans I know would dismiss such a task out of hand, usually because it runs counter to a deeply ingrained belief system within which identities are intimately tied. But, uncomfortable as it might be, I think it’s an important exercise to undertake. Interrogating our creeds keeps us better attuned to guiding ideals. It keeps our thoughts alive and free from petrification. It challenges our ideals in a way that keeps us and the vegan movement intellectually honest and accommodating of unexplored non-vegan option that, alas, might turn out to be good for animals. Perhaps even better than veganism.

Let me tell you a true story. It’s one that makes this issue a personal one for me. Last year I was invited to contribute an essay (for free) to this volume. I worked rather hard on this essay, despite having a number of other competing (and paying) assignments to complete. In this essay, I noted that veganism, while a diet we should certainly pursue, had conceptual flaws that remained unresolved. I filed the piece. Bio and pic were requested. The essay is here. 

And it is only here. It is not in the book.  The publisher (Vegan Publishers) rejected it (the editor appalling asked me if “there’s another piece you’re working on” that might work better? Gah!). It rejected my piece not on the grounds of the essay being intellectually weak—no counter-critique was ever offered, despite repeated requests. Instead, the essay was rejected on the grounds that it was inconsistent with the book’s theme—which, if you read it, is an uncritical, painfully celebratory, endorsement of veganism. In any case, it was at this moment that I began to recognize the insidious anti-intellectualism at the core of the vegan movement.

Beyond my own outrage, here’s what was so monumentally stupid about the publisher’s decision: the only people currently reading this book (it’s about #900,000 on Amazon, so it’s not many) are committed vegans who are having their unexamined assumptions confirmed. How can the vegan movement reach beyond vegans? Here’s a tip: be self-critical. Highlight your weaknesses.  Doing so is plausible, alleviates doubts of cultism, and it’s honest. Hence my opening question.

Okay, I’m done with the sour grapes, but a series I’m writing at Pacific Standard is doing what I asked at the start of this post. Here is installment #1: come back at me with everything you got.

I desperately want to be proven wrong.

 

60 Responses to A Modest Proposal

  1. SDL says:

    The utilitarian view is that one’s pleasure balances out another’s pain and suffering. But how large is a unit of pleasure or of pain and suffering? And is it a one-to-one unit ratio? I do not believe that pleasure cancels out pain, because pain is something that livings beings find necessary to eliminate, and pleasure isn’t necessary, it is just a nice-to-have. Therefore, I think that pleasure can only outweigh pain and suffering when it is a negotiated arrangement one makes with oneself, of that is made between two individuals with knowing consent. Only then are pain and pleasure truly weighed against each other in a manner based upon one’s view of one’s own pain or pleasure.

    For example, running a marathon involves pain and suffering but people decide to do it anyway because the pleasure they experience outweighs their pain and suffering. Someone may decide to donate a kidney to another, in a negotiation between two consenting individuals trading pleasure for pain. We know that these are ethical because they are the result of knowing negotiations one has with oneself or another.

    Because non-human animals cannot negotiate or give knowing consent, the only ethical way for humans to eat meat is through consensual cannibalism. Here is one example:

    “Armin Meiwes is a German man who achieved international notoriety for killing and eating a voluntary victim whom he had found via the Internet. . . . Meiwes killed his victim and proceeded to eat a large amount of his flesh.”

    . . .

    “Looking for a willing volunteer, Meiwes posted an advertisement on the website The Cannibal Cafe (a blog site for people with cannibal fetishes). Meiwes’s post stated that he was “looking for a well-built 18- to 30-year-old to be slaughtered and then consumed.” Bernd Jürgen Armando Brandes, an engineer from Berlin, then answered the advertisement. Many other people responded to the advertisement, but backed out; Meiwes did not attempt to force them to do anything against their will.”

    . . .

    “While in prison, Meiwes has since become a vegetarian.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armin_Meiwes

  2. Teresa Wagner says:

    James, I so admire your work and the deep thought and intelligence that is part of it. I’ve learned a lot from you.

    On this question you’ve posed for us, on my part there is no intellectual evaluation to be made so I can’t give you one. I simply don’t want to be part of animals suffering so I choose not to eat them or wear them. It is an ethical decision for me motivated by my profound love for animals and my commitment to try to live from a biocentric view of all beings of the earth.

    “Anti-intellectualism” is an awfully strong phrase. In the context in which you used it, it seems to assume that those who make decisions from their heart are somehow against using their intellect, and that perhaps there is something wrong with those who make decisions from the heart. For me, some life decisions are made with careful intellectual scrutiny and analysis. Others are made not all from logic but from listening to my soul, the source of my ethics. When I made an important ethical decision from that place, I can easily live with myself. That doesn’t make me an anti-intellectual. It just means that on this decision, being vegan was not made from that part of myself. I feel no need to defend it intellectually, and no need for others to defend–or intellectually analyze–why they are vegan or not.

    Related to this, I found Matt Ball’s information in your earlier post fascinating–especially the statistics about how a large percentage of those who decided to become vegetarian for health reasons, not for ethical reasons, went back to eating animals. I think that once someone decides for themselves, from their own heart and soul, that they simply cannot intentionally be part of harming animals by eating them, it would be awfully hard to live with oneself if turning back.

    We are all different. Our decisions to be vegan or not vegan are personal. I believe we each make these decisions based on logical facts, personal ethics or our emotional connections to animals depending in unique, individual ways.

  3. Teresa Wagner says:

    James, I so admire your work and the deep thought and intelligence that is part of it. I’ve learned a lot from you.

    On this question you’ve posed for us, on my part there is no intellectual evaluation to be made so I can’t give you one. I simply don’t want to be part of animals suffering so I choose not to eat them or wear them. It is an ethical decision for me motivated by my profound love for animals and my commitment to try to live from a biocentric view of all beings of the earth.

    “Anti-intellectualism” is an awfully strong phrase. In the context in which you used it, it seems to assume that those who make decisions from their heart are somehow against using their intellect, and that perhaps there is something wrong with those who make decisions from the heart. For me, some life decisions are made with careful intellectual scrutiny and analysis. Others are made not all from logic but from listening to my soul, the source of my ethics. When I made an important ethical decision from that place, I can easily live with myself. That doesn’t make me an anti-intellectual. It just means that on this decision, being vegan was not made from that part of myself. I feel no need to defend it intellectually, and no need for others to defend–or intellectually analyze–why they are vegan or not.

    Related to this, I found Matt Ball’s information in your earlier post fascinating–especially the statistics about how a large percentage of those who decided to become vegetarian for health reasons, not for ethical reasons, went back to eating animals. I think that once someone decides for themselves, from their own heart and soul, that they simply cannot intentionally be part of harming animals by eating them, it would be awfully hard to live with oneself if turning back.

    We are all different. Our decisions to be vegan or not vegan are personal. I believe we each make these decisions based on logical facts, personal ethics or our emotional connections to animals each in our own unique way.

    • James says:

      “I feel no need to defend it intellectually, and no need for others to defend–or intellectually analyze–why they are vegan or not.”

      Okay, thanks for being so honest about it.

  4. Tom Kelly says:

    Not easy to be intellectual on this request.
    If in ate meat now it would be gross.

    I have a billion other options.

    If it were late fall, winter, or very early spring and say, I was a pilgrim or a Native American. I would eat meat.

  5. Casey Taft says:

    James, the truth is that the essay was rejected because it was conceptually flawed, which we had a back and forth about if you remember. It is also true that it did not fit a book focusing on how animal, human, and environmental rights are connected. Both made publishing the essay problematic.

    In your essay, you created “shaky pillars” based on incorrectly defining what veganism actually was. Your statement that “..it doesn’t automatically follow that ethical veganism is, at this point in time, a readily achievable goal” highlights your mischaracterization of veganism. You portrayed veganism as some state of perfection where we can avoid doing all harm to animals, even though that is never how veganism was actually defined by Donald Watson or anyone since. Veganism is about doing as little harm as possible to sentient beings- not eliminating all harm since we know that isn’t possible.

    So if you’re going to discuss the “pillars” of veganism, you have to define veganism accurately if your essay would have any validity. That was my central concern with the essay- you were not clear in your terms which allowed you to make faulty arguments and then rectify those faulty arguments in your own way.

    The notion that vegans who drive cars and unintentionally kill bugs represents a “shaky pillar” of veganism is fairly absurd because driving cars is necessary for most of us to work and feed and clothe ourselves.

    Your second stated shaky pillar is based on your personal view of smaller animals and insects as being less worthy of our ethical consideration, but that is also not a vegan view. Again, vegans avoid doing harm to sentient beings as much as is possible, including the little guys. There is nothing “shaky” about that.

    You even suggested that those who argue that “plants feel pain too” may have a good point, ignoring the central issue for vegans which is sentience.

    So by all means, I would welcome a discussion about the pillars of veganism, but we must first be clear about what the pillars of veganism actually are. Otherwise, there is not much substantively different between the arguments you have made and those who troll our social media pages arguing for plants-rights and suggesting that veganism isn’t possible because we use a computer.

    • James says:

      Casey:

      1) You write that veganism is about causing “as little harm as possible to sentient beings.”

      2) Then you defend driving cars.*

      3) Driving cars kills animals.

      4) You defend killing animals unnecessarily while, at the same time, arguing that veganism is about doing “as little harm as possible to sentient beings.”

      That’s a real example of a conceptual flaw. Don’t call my work “fairly absurd” without first showing the absurdity.

      *Which, admittedly, is highly convenient, but by no means necessary to our existence as humans; you could get a new job in walking distance, if saving animals meant that much to you, or ride your bike, killing far fewer animals.

    • soren impey says:

      “…insects as being less worthy of our ethical consideration. Again, vegans avoid doing harm to sentient beings as much as is possible, including the little guys. There is nothing “shaky” about that.”

      Vegan.org on honey:
      Many vegans, however, are not opposed to using insect products, because they do not believe insects are conscious of pain.

      Michael Geger on honey:
      http://www.satyamag.com/sept05/greger.html

      The notion that vegans who drive cars and unintentionally kill bugs represents a “shaky pillar” of veganism is fairly absurd

      driving kills hundreds of millions of invertebrates, birds, and mammals each year. moreover, WHO estimates that up to a million human beings are killed each year by drivers.

      because driving cars is necessary for most of us to work and feed and clothe ourselves.

      many households live car free (~15% in my city) and most car trips in the usa are under 10 miles. moreover, and in my experience, the suffering caused by driving is essentially a non-issue for ethical vegans.

    • Beth Grant DeRoos says:

      Casey Taft you wrote ‘Veganism is about doing as little harm as possible to sentient beings- not eliminating all harm since we know that isn’t possible.’

      Who are the ‘we’ in the ‘we know that isn’t possible’ arena? The reason I ask is one need only read comments on YouTube vegan channels like those of Vegan Gains, Gary Yourofsky, Bite Size Vegan,
      Sorsha Morava, Durianrider and Freelee the Banana Girl who instist EVERY ONE can be vegan for ALL the animals and in being vegan will not be harming ANY animals.

      Even though as a vegan I and others have noted we do do harm to animals intentionally if we intentionally CHOOSE to ride in any vehicle since bugs are killed every time we drive some place. Bug meet windshield.

      Just like someone who denounces horrid working conditions in second and third world countries yet CHOOSES to buy NON fair trade clothing, food and other goods is a hypocrite when they put their wants ahead of the needs of the men/women/children working in NON fair trade places in second and third world countries.

  6. Lisa LeBlanc says:

    Geographic location: isolated populations in far Northern or Southern climes where cold/bitterly cold weather precludes a variety of foods, and have instead evolved to eat a variety of animal products, say fish, walrus, whale.
    In my own evolution, there wasn’t a conscientious decision: my husband and I went on vacation. It was perfectly lovely. We came home. Next day, I could not abide the idea of eating animal…anything. It was actually kinda weird. No trauma-induced revulsion from watching one of THOSE videos, no health crisis, just lost the desire for it. It was very liberating.
    Prior to that, I HAD watched those videos, listened with minor horror as the latest meat recall hit the airwaves, hollered in indignation as the Feds removed another wild horse herd from Public lands where 3,000 cows watched with mild interest as the horses were gathered and sent to a Public gulag, but no epiphany ensued. It just…occurred.
    I will not browbeat the family and friends into submission, but what has happened is a respect for my choices. The husband eats vegetarian with me at least four nights a week, and family barbecues include a stunning variety of meatless goodies.
    Only one family member’s reaction left me bewildered: my 15 year old grandson asked me if I was still vegetarian. When I answered “Yes.”, he asked me if I thought I should see a doctor about it.
    Back to the point: in a world grown staggeringly small in just the past few decades, is it possible there are tribes, living on the ice floes or frozen land masses where vegetation is not possible? Being a carnivore would not be a choice, but a necessity.

    • Beth Grant DeRoos says:

      Lisa LeBlanc w became vegetarians in the 70′s because of Helen and Scott Nearing whom Mother Earth News featured every few months.

      Then our vegan journey began in the 80′s via Dr. Dean Ornish whom we encountered at Stanford University and the Dr. John McDougall whom we encountered via various talks at northern California SDA (Seventh Day Adventist) speaking engagements.

      Ornish and McDougall appealed to our intellect and science background, where as shock videos would have turned us off.

  7. Marc Bedner says:

    This challenge is not directly addressed to me, as I am not a vegan. I can see an ethical case for not being a vegan, but I do not see an ethical case for eating meat.

    I follow a plant-based diet, primarily because of the impact of the livestock industry on wildlife and their habitat, although I am also aware of the suffering of animals raised for food. I regard veganism as a religion. Like most (all?) religions, veganism is inherently anti-intellectual. The philosophical rationalizations for veganism may make for interesting speculation, but few vegans in my experience have adopted veganism because they were convinced of the rationality of it. The rationalization follows the adoption of a vegan lifestyle.

    This does not mean, of course, that all vegans are anti-intellectual. Certainly you are not. But the same can be said of any other religion: Christianity is inherently anti-intellectual, but this does not mean that all Christians are anti-intellectual.

    • Mary Finelli says:

      Religion is based on faith, veganism is based on fact. Veganism is not a religion.

      • soren impey says:

        I could not disagree more. The quickest path to a ban on most vegan sites is to discuss bivalves, insect death, freeganism, euthanasia/culling.

        • Mary Finelli says:

          Whether or not that is true, and I’ve seen very extensive discussions about all of those topics on vegan sites, it doesn’t make veganism a religion.

        • kram says:

          Perhaps these bans exist because the people wanting to discuss them really aren’t serious about learning or adding anything but trying to deride the discussion as in “Oh yeah,you’re vegan but you drive. THink about the insects. OMG do you even care at all about insects?”, which we all have seen these type of trolls before…

          • soren impey says:

            “Oh yeah,you’re vegan but you drive.

            I consider my low-car lifestyle to be as much a part of my vegan ethic as not eating bacon. Fortunately, I’ve developed a very thick skin when it comes to “ethical vegan bingo” comments.

            THink about the insects. OMG do you even care at all about insects?”

            I do. I believe the position of ethical veganism when it comes to insects is often inconsistent, irrational, and a barrier to wide-spread adoption of veganism.

            which we all have seen these type of trolls before…

            The dismissiveness of your comment makes my point. Instead of acknowledging the complexity of animal sentience or acknowledging that driving less would reduce exploitation those who want to discuss this are “trolls”. Responding to these kinds of critiques with knee-jerk defensiveness is bad for animal rights and bad for veganism.

      • soren impey says:

        On MacClellan’s utilitarian whale argument:

        The whale likely has a preference to live (whales are very long-lived animals) and this could outweigh the non-existential pleasure of whale eaters. The displeasure or pain of those who empathize with self-aware animals could also outweigh the pleasure of whale eaters.

        • James says:

          What if those inclined to be upset re the whale’s death never found out about it? There’s no reason that a bunch of whale hungry utilitarians could not maximize their happiness in privacy. But you raise a good point, and that is that knowledge of the whale’s death must factor into the utilitarian equation.

    • kram says:

      You said “I can see an ethical case for not being a vegan”. Yes people can rationalize anything. As in they can say “I can see an ethical case for not freeing slaves or anything else horrific”.

      If people are looking for an excuse to ignore suffering on an “ethical” case (note I did not say health, religious, economical), then they can find a way to justify it.

      Please elaborate on your ethical case for not being vegan.

      • soren impey says:

        Please elaborate on your ethical case for not being vegan.

        I’ll bite metaphorically and literally!

        I’ve met multiple “ethical” freegans who adhere to a vegan diet when freeganism is not feasible. In fact, I personally have consumed vegetarian freegan food on a few occasions. Nevertheless, consumption of discarded animal products by freegans is considered “not-vegan” by almost all ethical vegans even though it excludes exploitation and cruelty better than the strictest vegan diet.

      • Beth Grant DeRoos says:

        Ethical: pertaining to or dealing with morals or the principles of morality; pertaining to right and wrong in conduct of a given group or community.

        Eskimos who cannot grow food or harvest wild plants year round could be ethical if they harvested seals, fish to sustain their communities and did not waste any of the animal.

        Where as someone in the lower 49 states who has access to affordable fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts could be seen as unethical if they choose to eat animal products because that’s what they want (not need) which could be seen as unethical and selfish.

  8. Lisa LeBlanc says:

    P.s.
    Re: the unintended deaths of small animals in growing vegetables
    Could those deaths be prevented if say, small sonic devices were installed in fields to discourage their presence?
    I realize how off the effin’ wall that sounds; I assure you, it sounded infinitely more sane in the process than it does the printed word.
    However…
    Before the advent of the Supercalifragalistic Field for maximum tonnage of carrots and wheat, there were farmers who used beneficial insects as pest control, suction devices mounted on the fronts of tractors to remove the insects without poisoning them. There are myriad non-lethal ways invasive insects have been warned off the field to protect the crop.
    Couldn’t we have access to technology that would warn off small animals in a similar fashion?
    Yer killin’ me, James. Faced with the possibility of my veggies tainted by the death of a nesting field mouse, how the hell am I supposed to sleep?
    Next iteration: Honeyvore. As I understand it, nothing dies in the creation of honey…

    • Karen Orr says:

      There’s a new web site called “Your Vegan Fallacy Is.” What is considered a vegan fallacy is presented and six or seven people respond. Wild animals killed in the planting and harvesting of crops is addressed.
      http://yourveganfallacyis.com/en/vegans-kill-animals-too/resources

      The most succinct response is from the cartoonist Vegan Sidekick. His response is called “If you’re interested in minimizing deaths.”
      http://vegansidekick.tumblr.com/post/99388216835/wwwvegansidekickcom

      How many animals are killed when grain is harvested? I don’t know but if the studies cited in this (pro veganism) article are meaningful, there might not be as many animal deaths during harvesting as we’ve been lead to believe:
      http://www.theflamingvegan.com/view-post/Vegan-Mythbusting-1-Are-wild-animals-killed-when-grain-is-harvested-for-vegans#.VcsI5vTUgBo.facebook

      • James says:

        So we should take our intellectual guidance on a truly complicated problem from a cartoon?

        • Not at all, James! Granted, as Karen points out, that particular cartoon is the most succinct of the responses there. However, a more nuanced, researched, and heavily referenced articles are also available on that page; e.g. be sure to check out the first resources listed (i.e. Bite Size Vegan’s article titled “Vegans Kill Animals! More Than Meat-Eaters?”), or the third one (i.e. The Vegan Scholar’s article titled “Hey vegans! YOU KILL ANIMALS TOO!”), or any of the others in the “Issue Response” section there.

          =o)

    • James says:

      I could be misreading, but are you suggesting biological control is non-lethal? Were there really suction devices? Would love to see that. Did they relocate the sucked up insects? Where? Probably the next farmer’s field.

      • Elaine Vigneault says:

        Mr. McWilliams,
        You might benefit from googling “veganic gardening” and reading up on the progress being made to reduce or eliminate animal deaths related to plant agriculture.

        Furthermore, this entire notion that veganism isn’t “morally consistent” is founded on the wrong premise that human technology is incapable of eliminating animal use in the future.

        You may call vegans “anti-intellectuals” but the term that fits your current character is anti-technology.

        • soren impey says:

          You might benefit from googling “veganic gardening”

          Ummm…have you read any of Mr. McWilliams’ books?

      • Lisa LeBlanc says:

        Well, when you put it THAT way…
        I suppose I hold obligate carnivores (insects) to a different standard.
        And, having accidentally vacuumed up a Daddy Longlegs (and despite a desperate and somewhat ridiculous attempt to save it), there isn’t much that will survive vacuuming.
        Conclusion: stop buying commercially-grown fruits and vegetables. Grow your own.

  9. Mary Finelli says:

    Regarding eating whales: it’s not the most pleasure, least harm; it’s the most good, least harm. There might be societies that take great pleasure in stoning someone to death. The pleasure they would derive from it would not justify the stoning regardless of how much more pleasure than harm would result. It would not create more good than harm. It would be immoral. It’s comparable to minority protection in our social system. Exploiting minorities might cause the majority greater profit (pleasure) than it would cause a minority to be harmed, but it doesn’t justify it or morally outweigh the harm it would cause. It, too, would morally unjustifiable.

    Re eating roadkill: Aside from the significant health hazards that eating animals who have been killed by vehicles poses, it is disrespectful. One could argue that eating dead humans is harmless, at least to the person consumed, but such desecration of a body is considered to be so lacking in respect that it is illegal. Approving of eating roadkilled animals lowers their status to that of consumables, in turn holding down the status of all nonhuman animals. It’s a matter of respect and public perception of animal worth. Someone who ate roadkilled animals also couldn’t honestly represent themselves as being vegan. Setting a good example of being vegan would be much more worthwhile.

    Eating animals of uncertain sentience also holds down the status of animals overall. These animals are also small in size and would require many individuals to satiate human appetites. If in fact they are sentient, consuming them would entail immense suffering. There is evidence that fruit flies, for example, think and have emotions (e.g., fear). We are continually realizing abilities of other animals that have hitherto been denied. Animal species deserve the benefit of any doubt that they are sentient.

    Needlessly exploiting animals in any intentional way does more harm than good and is morally unjustifiable.

    • James says:

      According to a utilitarian framework it would be moral, rather than immoral, for hundreds (thousands?) of people to enjoy the pleasure and nourishment provided by one whale. According to a rights-based ethic, which is what my next column addresses, you may be right that the whale killing is immoral. But not as I frame it in the article.

      Why is eating roadkill, or dead humans, “disrespectful”? And I can’t imagine that if the roadkill was properly processed it would be any less safe than what now passes for “normal” meat.

      Your last comment begs the question: do we need the agrarian systems that kill rodents by the gagillions? No, we could build a greenhouse and grow our own, but vegans don’t do that, so they could be said to be causing avoidable death.

      • Mary Finelli says:

        It should be a matter of the most good, not the most pleasure, as terrible things could pass as being moral if based on pleasure rather than good, such as I noted in my prior message. (The world is going to pot largely because people are indulging themselves in pleasure rather than good.) Based on the most good, consuming whales does not hold up to the moral test.

        Dead or dying animals at regulated slaughterplants are supposed to be condemned and not allowed for human consumption because of very valid disease concerns. Society recognizes that consuming dead humans is disrespectful of the dead. (Really, James, what would you think, for example, of someone consuming your child’s body if they were to pass away?) Consuming the deceased body of another animal species is similarly disrespectful of them.

        We should try to find ways to minimize incidental killing of animals in agrarian systems. Using greenhouses to grow food is a fine idea but how realistic it would be to employ them to grow all of the food that is needed is highly questionable and might do more harm than good since it would keep wildlife (including insects) from accessing the land and resources where the crops would otherwise be grown.

  10. TYR says:

    I wonder why a publisher called “Vegan Publishers” which was writing a book about Veganism decided not to accept your essay criticising veganism? Hmmm. ;-) Why would they do that? Oh… I don’t know. Maybe because they are called “VEGAN publishers” hehe.

    I’ve got a suggestion James. How about asking the #BlackLivesMatter people to consider promoting the idea that Black people don’t matter and that unarmed Black people should be shot on sight? It might even advance their cause. No? Not a good idea? Why not? It’s as good an idea as the one you’ve suggested that vegans do.

    • James says:

      All I can really say is that your comment illustrates many of the problems that I articulated (and plan to articulate) with a certain kind of vegan mentality.

      • TYR says:

        “Vegan mentality”? lol You mean the one where we want animal use to be abolished instead of going on and on and on and on? Have you not been paying attention AT ALL to the mainstream animal movement? It is an anti-vegan movement, a “humane” use movement. There’s nothing “rights” about it and the reason is that they have built into their large animal organisation’s business model, to avoid promoting veganism because it effects their donations from their non-vegan donor base. That’s a fact and that’s mostly where all these bizarre and morally confused positions come from.

  11. Ed says:

    A Modest Proposal is the shorthand title of one of the most famous essays in the English Language. It’s a satirical essay lampooning thinkers of the time who used pseudo-intellectualism to justify and even promote inhumane treatment of those living in poverty.

    Suffice to say, the title is out of place here.

    Look, man. These guys were putting together Chicken Soup For The Vegan Soul and your submission didn’t fit. Whether the world needs another Chicken Soup… book by another title is up for debate (the sales figures and my personal intuition suggest not). But surely you can’t be surprised that they asked for a different submission, no?

    • James says:

      Not surprised but I still think it was shortsighted. Plus, I only mentioned it to note when I became suspicious re vegan willingness to self-examine.

  12. Elaine Vigneault says:

    Setting aside for the moment the fact that the above article is really just a big fat whiny rant about not being published in a book that wasn’t even a good fit, I will answer the question “Would you ever consider trying to make an ethical argument for eating animals? I mean, seriously try?”

    NO, I will not. It’s not because of laziness or discomfort. It is not because of some imaginary core of anti-intellectualism. It’s because there’s a far better way to determine the arguments in favor of carnism: ask the carnists.

    Those of us who work “in the trenches” on this issue and do hands-on advocacy are well verse in the myriad of excuses carnists make for their behaviors. We needn’t stretch our imaginations in impossible ways to fathom how eating animals makes sense to them, for we hear their rationalizations every day.

    A good advocate knows how to listen to the carnists AND acknowledge that their “logic” makes sense to them, but then to challenge them on their own logic. It’s called the “Socratic Method”, perhaps you’re familiar with it?

    For example, if someone gives me a reason they think they should eat animals I rarely challenge that view directly. Instead I find common ground – animal welfare/ humane treatment – and ask that they commit to their own values by sourcing their meat more carefully and cutting back on eating animals overall.

    There’s another reason that I will not make an ethical argument for eating animals: I already have. Inuits and others living in subsistence cultures who have to eat animals to survive have, in my opinion, an ethical justification for eating animals. They must do so to live, at least until alternatives arise.

    But you see, that’s not even an ethical argument against veganism, it’s an ethical argument for eating animals. At it’s core, veganism is not really “a diet” that omits animal products. Sure, that’s how most of us come to understand it (and at a restaurant that’s a perfectly acceptable explanation). But the essence of veganism, in my opinion and the opinion of plenty of other thoughtful vegans, is that veganism is about trying to abstain from causing harm to animals as much as possible and practical. It’s not possible or practical to avoid eating animals in some subsistence cultures, but it is possible and practical to avoid eating excess animals, to avoid using animals for trivial purposes and to attempt to kill the animals quickly with very little pain. The ethical underpinnings of veganism are certainly possible even when eating animals if eating them is not truly a “free choice.”

    Other examples where eating animals may be ethically justified: children and teens who want to eat a plant-based diet but whose parents forbid it, hospitalized or imprisoned persons who are not provided a plant-based diet, people for whom the issue is purely education and simply don’t know they can survive without eating animals, and more. All of these are examples wherein eating animals is justified but they are NOT counterexamples to ethical veganism.

    In today’s society with industrial agriculture and society’s high consumption of animal products, our food choices can make the biggest impact on the well-being of animals. Thought Experiment: imagine a future society where most foods are not sourced from animals (perhaps due to a change of social consciousness about the rights of animals or more likely due to a technologically-powered environmental shift away from the most environmentally destructive food production systems). In this future world it might be the case that the way in which humans more obviously embrace veganism is to favor technologies that do not use animals, for example, cosmetic and medical procedures that don’t use animals or housing choices that protect wildlife habitat. Many vegans do these things already, but to a lesser extent than they may be able to in the future.

    The point is: the ethical roots of veganism is not about avoiding eating animals or even of living a life “free of exploitation of animals” (as you argued in your other essay), it’s about abstaining from causing harm to animals as much as possible and practical. Said another way, veganism is about making progress towards a future that reduces (and hopefully eventually eliminates) harm to animals (also known as animal exploitation or animal use).

  13. James says:

    Take away the snark and this is a great response.

    My point here is to go beyond excuses from carnists and get at real arguments, and you proceed to condemn me for it . . . and then do the same thing yourself!

    You make great points by showing how there are cases “where eating animals may be ethically justified.” That’s all I’m asking we do. So, kudos.

    But why are moral justifications for eating animals not ipso facto arguments against strict veganism? I think you hedge against this question by saying that veganism is “about abstaining from causing harm to animals as much as possible and practical.”

    But those terms “possible and practical” pretty much gut the whole idea of veganism, as they can mean very different things in very different contexts.

    Seems like you want it both ways: don’t eat animals when possible and practical not to, but otherwise, eat animals. Not sure you can call that vegan.

    • Elaine Vigneault says:

      LOL, you don’t like The Vegan Society’s definition of veganism on the basis that it’s not vegan enough. So now you’re the vegan police. Great.

      The “possible and practical” qualifiers are simply an acknowledgement that our entire society has been founded on animal use and that we can do more good for animals by focusing on our maximum impact than by striving for total moral consistency. As new technology develops, it will become more easy to be “more vegan.”

      It’s kind of like how killing a human is murder unless it’s self-defense and then it’s ethically justified. You can call that “morally inconsistent” if you want but doing so makes you sound like you can’t see the big picture and that you care more about composing a philosophical legacy for yourself than about making actual, tangible progress on the most pressing issues of the day.

      • James says:

        If you are not going to strive for genuine moral consistency then what’s the point of creating a designation called vegan in the first place? Why not “veganish”? And LOL back, because that’s the reaction I had when you suggested that I’m somehow pursuing some grand “philosophical legacy” by writing posts on a little old blog that a few hundred people read and few dozen troll around. Some legacy!

        • Mary Finelli says:

          It’s not just here, though, James. For example, it’s also in the Pacific Standard article you linked to, and you are very critical of animal rights activists -misleadingly so- in this recent New York Times blog post:
          http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/when-vegans-wont-compromise/?_r=1

          Examining philosophical reasoning is laudable. However, to do so publicly with conclusions that are critical of those who are acting in favor of the victimized -and at the expense of the victims- is not.

          You have posted some brilliant pieces on your blog. You’ve also published articles that have been very troubling. I’ve wondered about your motivations, whether you are more concerned with helping animals or with making some kind of provocative name for yourself. Apparently I’m not the only one. Actually, I’ve heard others express such concern before, too.

          • soren impey says:

            People who identify as vegan in the USA have remained 1-2% of the population for many, many decades. As Matt Ball argued in an earlier post on this blog, the current mainstream exclusionary approach is not promoting animal liberation.

            whether you are more concerned with helping animals

            Quite a few animal rights groups have turned away from using “vegan” due to a negative perception among the general public (hence the use of “veg”).

      • Marc Bedner says:

        Elaine,
        Thank you for trying to turn the discussion from abstract moralizing (which, as Ed pointed out above, was the target of Swift’s “Modest Proposal) to reality. I fully agree with your statement, “we can do more good for animals by focusing on our maximum impact than by striving for total moral consistency.” I do not know or care how the vegan society, PETA, James or anyone else defines veganism, which is why I do not use the term except to criticize it. I care about what I can do to prevent animal suffering.

        • Connie Andrews says:

          Thank you Marc – you’re right. The labels don’t matter and neither do these “intellectual arguments.” The thing is get down into the trenches and if you are around people who love their meat – the heady stuff does not matter. They do not care. The guilt about animal suffering does matter, but they do not want to “think” about it. None of this matters. Learning empathy for animals is the real crux of it. The studies just published showed recidivism is high among vegans who did not change their diets for the animals, but more for their own health. So what James is not included in this book. Who cares? People who eat meat do not. The audience vegans and vegetarians need to reach won’t read this book. It is a moot point. Skip it and move on.

  14. kram says:

    You wroet “Instead, the essay was rejected on the grounds that it was inconsistent with the book’s theme—which, if you read it, is an uncritical, painfully celebratory, endorsement of veganism. In any case, it was at this moment that I began to recognize the insidious anti-intellectualism at the core of the vegan movement.”

    I find it hard to believe that a refusal to be published equated to instant recognition of ‘insidious anti-intellectualism’. My guess is you had this feeling all along or you fell slighted, hence need for an insult. In addition in this blog post, I don’t see where you are defining what you feel the ‘core’ of the vegan movement is or what is the vegan movement. Certainly Vegan Publishers does not define and is not the core of the vegan movement

    And your positioning question of “Would you ever consider trying to make an ethical argument for eating animals?” is kinda begging the question of your belief of “anti-intellectualism”.

    If you dont like peoples’ responses, in your mind it could be seen as vegans being anti-intellectual. If you do like peoples responses, you would be trying to rephrase or reposition the term vegan or vegan movement to fit your definition of it such that you would believe people don’t understand your definition and cant’ respond on an intellectual level.

    Hence it could be seen as you are trying to justify your belief of “anti-intellectualism at the core of the vegan movement”
    for the sake of backing up the statement.

    • kram says:

      Hastily written summary, meant to say: You are providing a question which you will do everything to refute intellectually and logically to prove your feeling that there is anti-intellectualism at the core of the vegan movement.

      • James says:

        That’s kind of a big charge to level without even knowing me, my disposition, or my personality. Presumptuous, even. But anyway, I’m not going to defend myself other than to say I asked the question and made my observation with genuine curiosity and hope for a better path for a movement I care about very deeply.

        • kram says:

          James Im responding to your statement that was shared on FB.You are making a statement basically attacking all vegans by siting anti-intellectualism at the core. I’m basically responding to that statement.

          If you didn’t expect a response than perhaps you shouldn’t have posted that. I’m also not questioning your disposition or personality. I did not make any comments about whether you are angry, mean, kind, compassionate, courteous etc.

          I’m saying that the whole premise and question appears to be an easy setup for you to knock down. IE formulaic. Make an insult, listen to their responses, attack people for defending themselves.

          If you hope for a better path for a movement that you care about deeply than why would you say ” I began to recognize the insidious anti-intellectualism at the core of the vegan movement.”
          You have not really given any documentation or facts to back this up besides your writing was not published. And this is your blog, so you could have written lots on why you feel this way.
          That doesn’t sound like a statement from one that cares about a better path. Because

          a) the conclusion based on a single publication refusal is incorrect
          b) you are not asking people what or whom is defining veganism and what or whom is considered the core of the movement.
          If you knew the answer to B, then you would understand that Vegan Publishers is not the core of the movement, nor do they define it. So to make an assumption that the whole movement is some insidious anti-intellectual core of people is not only odd but kind of inflammatory especially for those vegan whom are in academics, in animal-law, work tirelessly for legislative changes and all of the others who work for animals in a very intellectual capacity and not just emotionally screaming for animal freedoms.
          In addition lots of vegans (and vegetarians) make intellectual choices (as best as they can with their time/lifestyle/budget and often at great expense) for the reasons why they chose their lifestyle.

          Finally, you being a published author (historian too), I feel you have somewhat a responsibility to accurately portray the movement that you care for. As you will have some people that follow you and believe what you write.

          Those are my opinions. I am not attacking your personality. You are a publish professional. To get to this point, you have to had intellect, luck, perseverance and many more attributes that most would admire. I am simply making a response to the basis of your post.

          • kram says:

            BTW after reading your NYT blog post as referenced above by another commenter, I’m not convinced you understand the differences within the movement, the inward views from outside of the movement, etc and you can actually be damaging any progress that you care for.

            Why would you attack veganism here by pulling the anti-intellectual card when in the NYT post you discuss Gary Francione (certainly considered an intellectual academic and part of a core)? So which is it: Is the core intellectual or non-intellectual (assuming you knew the core )? and is the intellectual core insidious too?

          • James says:

            The anti-intellectualism reference was intended to highlight the movement’s reluctance to question its deepest assumptions, something that certainly includes Gary F. It wasn’t intended to suggest the movement does not have serious thinkers or that it isn’t founded on serious ideas. Perhaps I used the term too casually, without qualifications.

  15. Here is my Modest Proposal. Though it focuses on animals raised for food, it applies to animal exploitation generally.

    Philosophic Vegetarianism:
    Acting Affirmatively for Peace
    By Karen Davis, PhD

    The plea for ethical veganism, which rejects the treatment of birds and other animals as a food source, is not rooted in arid adherence to diet or dogma, but in the desire to eliminate the kinds of experiences that using animals for food confers upon beings with feelings. Historically, ethical vegetarianism has rejected the eating of an animal’s muscle tissue, or “meat,” as this requires killing an animal specifically for the purpose of consumption. The ethical vegetarian regards killing an unoffending creature simply to please one’s palate and conform to society with revulsion and likewise disdains premeditating the premature death of an animal. Thus, Plutarch mourned that “But for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh we deprive a soul of the sun and light, and of that proportion of life and time it had been born into the world to enjoy.”

    Confronted with factory farming, more and more people have come to feel that the degradation of animals is intrinsic to producing them for food. While in nature, animals exist for their own reasons, not only for others’ use, in agriculture, by contrast, animals are brought into the world solely to be used, whereby any happiness they may enjoy is secondary to their utility and dependent upon the “permission” of their owner, who has complete jurisdiction over their lives, including the right to kill them at any time at will.

    Though vegetarians may choose to consume dairy products and eggs, in reality the distinction between “meat” on the one hand and dairy products and eggs on the other is moot, as dairy products and eggs are every bit as much animal parts as “meat” (muscle tissue) is. No less than muscles, these parts derive from and comprise within themselves the activities of an animal’s body, and a magnitude of bodily expense. A hen’s egg is a generative cell, or ovum, with a store of food and immunity for an embryo that, in nature, would normally be growing inside the egg. Milk is the provision of food and immunity that is produced by the body of a female mammal for her nursing offspring. Milk, literally, is baby food.

    In reality, the production of milk and eggs involves as much cruelty and killing as meat production does: surplus cockerels and calves, as well as spent hens and cows, have been slaughtered and otherwise brutally destroyed through the ages. Historically, there have been two main solutions to the problem of unwanted bull calves: club them to death or bleed them out slowly for a couple of days and then slaughter them for veal.

    The “veal” calf was a “solution” to the surplus bulls of dairy farming for many centuries, long before 20th-century factory farming. The male chicken of the egg industry cannot lay eggs, and he has not been genetically manipulated to develop excess muscle tissue for profitable meat production, so the industry trashes him at birth. Spent commercial dairy cows and laying hens endure agonizing days (four or more days) of pre-transport starvation and long trips to the slaughterhouse because of their low market value. To be a lacto-ovo vegetarian is not to wash one’s hands of misery and murder.

    The decision to eat or not to eat animal products should not be regarded as a mere personal “food” choice. This perpetuates the view of animals as material objects, rather than as fellow creatures with precious lives of their own. It hides the fact that in choosing to consume animal products one chooses a life based on slavery and violence. Peace activist, Helen Nearing, said that one can assume a degree of sentience in plants and still recognize that “There’s clearly a distinction between a new-born baby lamb and a newly ripened tomato.”

    Some argue that the only way to persuade people to adopt a plant-based diet is to emphasize the effects of animal product consumption on human health and the environment. While these effects should be stressed whenever possible, it is a mistake to assume that people cannot care about their fellow creatures or about a life based on equal justice. Millions of people have impulses of compassion that have been stifled by fear of social reprisal. Many will openly care and move toward change when they feel it is socially safe. Eventually, some of the physical problems that are caused by an animal-based diet may be resolved by technology. Only the shared mortality and claims of our fellow creatures upon us are lasting.

    http://www.upc-online.org/thinking

  16. soren impey says:

    Would you ever consider trying to make an ethical argument for eating animals? I mean, seriously try?

    When it comes to the vegan society definition (see below) flexible vegans tend to interpret “animals” as shorthand for sentient animals and/or “excludes” as shorthand for reduces. Thus, flexible vegans can come up with an endless list of situations where eating animal products may be acceptable but most of these are trivial or on the margins and have little overall impact on the ethics of reducing exploitation and cruelty.
    However, many “ethical” vegans show a marked preference for “excluding” cruelty/exploitation associated with animal farming and little concern about indirect animal cruelty/exploitation. In some respects ethical veganism resembles a religious sect that has a public dogma that differs from esoteric practice:

    Vegan society definition (dogma):
    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.

    Ethical vegan esoteric practice:
    “Veganism is a way of living which seeks to reduce exploitation of, and direct cruelty to animals in the context of animal agriculture.

  17. Mary Finelli says:

    soren impey wrote:
    August 17, 2015 at 1:43 pm
    People who identify as vegan in the USA have remained 1-2% of the population for many, many decades. As Matt Ball argued in an earlier post on this blog, the current mainstream exclusionary approach is not promoting animal liberation.whether you are more concerned with helping animals
    Quite a few animal rights groups have turned away from using “vegan” due to a negative perception among the general public (hence the use of “veg”).

    The validity of the statistics regarding vegans is questionable. There may be many factors as to why there aren’t more vegans. Given that there is such a push for “humane animal products,” even within the animal protection community, could well be a major factor. The failure to use the word “vegan” could well be another. Advocates are supposed to advocate, not conciliate.

    Vegan advocacy is up against an immense amount of pushback. What’s remarkable is how much pro-vegan change has occurred in such a relatively very short time. How long did it take to abolish human slavery here? That was dealing with people, let alone other animals.

    • James says:

      I think the slavery analogy works to a point. Given that the earliest stirrings for slave abolition were in the 1750s, it took just over 100 years to abolish the institutions of slavery. Of course, the racism underscoring slavery is very much with us today. So while slavery has been abolished the social and economic consequences have not been, making the parallel a little less exciting the vegan hopefuls. Furthermore, the comparison is complicated by the fact that cheap white labor was making slavery look less and less profitable for many slaveholders, providing an economic incentive to end slavery. I’m not sure the same holds true for veganism, given how many people are deeply tied into the meat industry.

      • So are you, James, suggesting that the anti-slavery Abolitionists of the 18th and 19th centuries in England and America hindered and retarded the movement against slavery, whereas those who wanted to “go slow” advanced the end of slavery more effectively and rationally? And would you challenge MLK or Nelson Mandela, if they were your contemporaries, that they should be making arguments to themselves and others in favor of Jim Crow and apartheid in order to maintain sharp minds and high intellectual standards, and to avoid appearing too “pure”?

        Instead of laying virtually all of the blame for why society is not yet (and may never be) wholeheartedly vegetarian/vegan, why not ask to what extent the animal “welfare” push for “humane” animal-product consumption has contributed to the situation?

        In my opinion, you are contributing to the self-deprecation and self-flagellation that animal rights advocates already suffer from, eroding confidence in ourselves and our work. In my opinion, you should not be airing your criticisms of vegans and veganism in the mainstream press (as opposed to having your say on your personal blog), as these are internal issues amongst ourselves. Mainstream readers do not know the complex issues of strategy and activism we are struggling with and such writing contributes to a negative and misleading view of us and of ethical veganism.

        To me you seem to be an unhappy, sour vegan who does not respect vegans or animal rights activists very much, and maybe not animals very much either, and maybe not the “feminine/emotional” elements either, and who, underneath the high-handed lectures, belittling and contempt, seems peeved about something more obscure and personal. This is a sense I get from your commentaries.

        • James says:

          No, Karen, I’m saying that both the abolitionists and gradualists played significant and essential roles in ending slavery. Of course I would never suggest arguing in favor of Jim Crow laws. But there would be no need for me to advise MLK or Mandela to make hard compromises with residual and insidious Jim Crow traditions, because they routinely did precisely that.

          How is seeking intellectual and ethical consistency–even if I fail at it–a case of self-flaggelation? Critical explorations of a belief system are only considered self-flaggelation if you are a cult and brook no criticism from within. I have come to believe that we could reach a lot more people if we did not promote pure veganism alone, but highlighted points of entry that allowed very qualified and possibly ethically acceptable forms of eating meat. I think you underestimate how offensive the mainstream finds the idea of veganism.

          “Internal issues amongst ourselves”? What?! What kind of “us” versus “them” mentality guides your version of reality? With all due respect–and I have a lot for you–the mainstream knows a hell of a lot more than you give them credit for, and can enlighten “us” in ways that your self-imposed exclusion prevents you from appreciating. I would think your exclusion from “the common folk” would be a lot more harmful than my discussion with them in the mainstream media. And don’t ever tell me where to publish my ideas.

          Finally, I am, in fact, an extremely happy person. Genuinely so. But my happiness is challenged when people who do not know me make public and presumptive comments about my mood.

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