Beyond Veganism?

» August 18th, 2015

In order for any movement to remain dynamic I think it’s critical to evaluate and constantly refine foundational principles. I do this with my own ideas all the  time. My own work has tried recently to explore other ethical ways of eating than veganism. I’m doing this not to harass vegans, or insult anyone, but to create space for more people to eat in a way that reduces animal suffering. I’m exploring the idea that veganism as the sole approach to reducing animal suffering may be too limited.

Given that there are nominal forms of meat consumption—roadkill, freegan scavaging, insects, oysters—that may not cause intentional animal suffering and that, just  as importantly, in no way directly supports animal domestication as we know it, I think it makes very good sense to promote these options as viable alternatives to chicken, beef, pork, and fish.  The risk of being wrong on these options strikes me as worth it in light of the trade-off: more people choosing to avoid eating animals that we know for sure suffer.

This is the game I’m chasing of late, and this is why I’ve been publishing the pieces I’ve been publishing, both here and in the New York Times and Pacific Standard. When I floated these ideas here, I knew there would be resistance, and I knew I might even get cyberspacially psychoanalyzed (which, really, if you’ve never had it done to you, wow!), but I did not know how vehement and visceral the anger would be.

This blog has been around for a while, many years. I’ve worked very hard to cultivate a civil and intellectually open and even playful atmosphere, if only for self-interested reasons: when I latch onto new ideas I like to bounce them around, get respectful and honest feedback, take stock, think, and revise. When readers are charitable, open, judicious, and reasoned in their disagreements, this happens. When they aren’t, it doesn’t.

So, I’m politely and without rancor asking those who want to use this blog to level ad hominen attacks, or undertake unsolicited psychoanalysis, or assume the worst about those with whom they disagree, to refrain from posting comments.  And if that’s too difficult, just unsubscribe. By contrast, I welcome and deeply appreciate comments that are critically reasoned* and charitable of each other’s motivations.

Can we do this? Yes we can.

*Emotional responses are not only welcome but necessary, as critical reasoning is ultimately an attempt to make sense of what we feel in our guts.

28 Responses to Beyond Veganism?

  1. Annie Leymarie says:

    Hi James, I’m a new reader to your blog and so far appreciate your views, which I mostly share, but your previous post left me a little sad because it felt to me that you were precisely adding somewhat to the “all-too-frequent venom spewed by ethical vegans against each other and non-vegans alike”. You wrote for instance that the decision of the Vegan Publishers not to accept your essay was “monumentally stupid” – rather than just stating how and why you disagreed with it. That’s a scathing judgement! So my sadness has to do with agreeing with you about the difficulty to express opinions – and quite understandably passionate opinions! – in the vegan arena without falling into judgment. No doubt I too have to develop skills to let my heart inform my rational mind so that I can feel and express compassion for all animals – humans included. A journey to be continued!

    • James says:

      I don’t mind strongly expressed opinions, so long as a strongly reasoned justification is provided. But you’re right, I could have chosen my words better, but the fact is the decision to avoid self-scrutiny (not publishing my essay) is, as I argue, counter-productive to the cause vegans espouse. So there–”counter-productive”!–indeed, much better than “monumentally stupid.” :)

  2. Teresa Wagner says:

    “By contrast, I welcome and deeply appreciate comments that are critically reasoned* and charitable of each other’s motivations.

    Can we do this? Yes we can.

    *Emotional responses are not only welcome but necessary, as critical reasoning is ultimately an attempt to make sense of what we feel in our guts.”

    Like this very much. Thank you.

  3. Nan says:

    I applaude your approach. It seems reasonable and they are things that need to be discussed. I personally can’t see that the world is going to go vegan tomorrow unless forced, and probably the western world in general is not going to eat insects until that is the only option (or close to it), but the discussion is worth having for itself. Thank you James for getting all of us to think a bit bigger.

  4. Joan Davis says:

    I find your posts to be thought-provoking often bringing new perspectives to the table. Veganism is an emotional hot button issue. I commend you for your courage in diving into the subject and inviting readers feedback. I struggle with negative responses frequently at the mere mention of a “plant-based diet” or “veganism.” It is obvious that the mere word vegan conjures up hostility and personal attacks. It is a serious dilemma for me because I feel very strongly that it is my moral obligation to speak up for voiceless animals. The grave environmental costs of animal agriculture/factory farming is so dire, shouldn’t we be exploring and discussing the topic much more, not less? Please keep writing about it!

  5. Layne says:

    Dear James,

    I hesitantly :-) offer a comment about my reactions to your blog today.

    It seems to me that eating insects, scavanging or eating roadkill would be, for most people, far more radical than just being vegan, and if connected with “mainstream” veganism, would do the movement harm.

    Of course, if I were starving I would probably take some of these options if available. But from what i see of the spiders etc. in my home, insects too value their lives and fear death.

    Layne

    • James says:

      The appearance of valuing lives and fearing death is not sufficient to assess sentience, as plants, too, appear to value life and fear death, as we certainly don’t want to grant them sentience. Furthermore, many physically challenged humans do not appear to value life and fear death, but we don’t make big judgements based on what we see.

      While eating insects might seem foreign to you, it is in fact the norm in much of the world. Roadkill might seem strange, but it’s little more than a form of inadvertent hunting.

      Never hesitate to offer your thoughts, please! I only ask that we all do so with a charitable attitude (myself included). Thanks for your thoughts.

  6. Lisa Nicole Szucs says:

    Re: “I’m exploring the idea that veganism as the sole approach to reducing animal suffering may be too limited.”

    Agreed, James, and that’s why I gave up trying to persuade others to go vegan long ago.

    After many frustrating experiences debating the merits of veganism with non-vegans– and some even more frustrating from within the vegan community– I have determined that the *how* is not always as critical as the fact that we as ethical vegans do *something* to persuade the masses that it is quite simply WRONG to intentionally harm, exploit, and kill animals for our consumption.

    Whether that something comes in the form of lab-grown meats, or pea-based egg substitute like that being developed by San Francisco’s Hampton Creek Foods, via protest, legislation, or vegan advocacy, it is our moral imperative to present these options to the majority.

  7. Karen Harris says:

    I think that promoting roadkill and insects as acceptable forms of animal consumption will only serve to marginalize veganism further. Anyone who suggests those options to a meat eater would be the brunt of more jokes and wayward glances than I care to count, and I believe mitigates the argument for veganism.
    I agree with you that it is important to challenge assumptions and to think critically. However, there is so little support for veganism in the mainstream press, like the New York Times, and already so much support for the Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman school of thought, I personally would not choose to write a negative critique of veganism in the main steam press. In that arena, it needs all of the support it can get.

    • James says:

      I think your comment begs the question of whether or not veganism is best for animals in the first place. Technically speaking, promoting roadkill and insects does not marginalize veganism so much as demand that we rethink veganism and the entire approach to eating animals. And I think your assessment that such options will create ridicule is undermined by the fact that both options, in rural and global contexts, are quite conventional. And not just rural–go to Mexico City. Think people will laugh at you there for eating insects?

      • Karen Harris says:

        Yes, veganism is good for animals – the ultimate good. What it says is that animals are not commodities, they are not on the planet for us to consume them, wear them, be entertained by them, operated on etc. for our benefit. But this is stating the obvious, the absolute core, and yes moral baseline of vegan ethics.
        The question you raised in the New York Times piece is one that has been debated for years in the animal rights/animal welfare community. You mentioned that the abolitionist stance is gaining traction – to the contrary. Gary Francione is in fact more and more marginalized as almost every animal organization has adopted the welfarist point of view, in other words, do what we can to help suffering now and hope that it will gradually lead to its elimination.
        As Francione has pointed out, in spite of decades of these reforms, there is more animal suffering on the planet than ever before.
        A zoo that relabels itself as a conservation society is still a zoo. Temple Grandin’s Highway to Heaven, extolled by Peta, still results in having your brains knocked out. Organizations like Mercy for Animals, which has done such fine undercover work, now avoids the term vegan on their site and substitutes the term vegetarian.
        I spoke with them about this and they said, what is so common these days, that they did not want to alienate people.
        It goes on and on.
        So, I am wondering what you are adding to the debate by basically adopting the stance of almost every animal organization on the planet, major supermarket chains like Whole Foods, and so many other writers, like Pollan and Bittman?
        I think it is the abolitionist point of view that so desperately needs voices like yours.
        On the issues of eating insects and roadkill – I am aware that it does exist. However, I do not think it is as widespread as you suggest. I certainly never see it on menus in most countries I visit – with the exclusion of Mexico. Also, I think for vegans there is a shift in consciousness that happens that makes the thought of any animal flesh repugnant, regardless of how the animal was killed. I could no more eat a rabbit that was run over than I could one who was clubbed on the head in someone’s backyard. I do not think of animals as food.

  8. TYR says:

    James, you wrote “In order for any movement to remain dynamic I think it’s critical to evaluate and constantly refine foundational principles. I do this with my own ideas all the time. My own work has tried recently to explore other ethical ways of eating than veganism. I’m doing this not to harass vegans, or insult anyone, but to create space for more people to eat in a way that reduces animal suffering. I’m exploring the idea that veganism as the sole approach to reducing animal suffering may be too limited.”

    Forgive me James, but your definition of veganism as “reducing harm” is not animal *rights*. Veganism was never intended by Donald Watson who first coined the term as a way of “reducing harm”. Large animal organisations have led the public to believe that all we can expect is to “reduce harm”, but that is so they can continue with their numerous single issue fundraising welfare campaigns. But veganism is not about “reducing harm”. It’s about abolishing animal use and it will never happen while we are mealy mouthed and tell the public it’s morally acceptable to use animals as long as its done “humanely”. It will never happen while “advocates” put out anti-vegan messages telling everyone that being vegan is optional, or just one path they can take. Abolishing the property status will never happen with this poverty of ambition and while people are more interested in their careers, than they are in ending animal use.

    If you and others want to create a new “ethical system” which you believe is “beyond veganism”, then maybe it’s best not to avoid using vegan in relation to anything like that. There’s enough distortion of the term as it is by large animal orgs and “animal advocates”.

    I find it a constant source of amazement that people want to water down a justice issue. Would we do this in relation to human *rights*? I would hope not, but for some reason many “animal advocates” seem to think it’s OK to do it in relation to animal *rights* and one cannot have animal *rights* without veganism. Veganism is not “absolutist” or “daunting”, “narrow”, “rigid” or any of these pejorative characterisations. Being critical of those who want to constantly bash veganism is not mean. The whole “beyond veganism” is a bit like saying “beyond human rights”. It really doesn’t make much sense to those who understand that veganism is an ethical position which rejects the property status of animals, which rejects *all* forms of animal use (food, clothing, entertainment or other reasons).

    • TYR says:

      Correction: It’s best to avoid using “vegan” in relation to anything like that.

    • soren impey says:

      Veganism was never intended by Donald Watson who first coined the term as a way of “reducing harm”.

      From the very first newsletter veganism was rooted in utilitarian hedonist philosophy. Abolitionism, on the other hand, is a far more recent movement.

      Let me quote Donald Watson himself:

      “Being a hedonist, providing I do not harm myself, other people, or animals, or the planet.”

  9. Michael Goldberg says:

    Dear James, I think your book The Modern Savage is excellent and in it you made it clear that there is no such thing as “humane meat.”

    That said, I don’t think your recent essays are helping nonhuman animals. We who believe that the torture, abuse, exploitation and killing of all sentient beings is wrong have enough problems dealing with the status quo without James McWilliams providing ammunition to the meat eaters.

    I wish, instead, that you would write in the New York Times about the myth of “humane meat.”

    Best, Michael Goldberg

    • James says:

      Michael,
      Thank you for the good words on Modern Savage. Can you offer any real evidence that my recent essays are not helping animals? I ask because I have an inbox full of people thanking me for the NYT essay, noting that, while they are not vegan, they are working very hard to reduce and maybe even eliminate animal products from their diets. By contrast, I have not a single example of an individual reading Modern Savage and becoming vegan. In fact, I actually know of a couple of cases whereby people were angered that they started eating MORE meat. The only people moved/convinced by the message of MS, as near as I can tell, were vegans. So please explain how I’m currently “providing ammunition to the meat esters,” given that my experience is very much the opposite of what you claim. Seriously, I may be wrong on this, but I need evidence. Furthermore, you seem to be an articulate person, so instead of telling me what to write for the NYT, why not try doing it yourself? I’m sincerely happy to help you edit and pitch anything you write for them (tip: keep it to 800 words). (james.e.mcwilliams@gmail.com).
      JM

    • James says:

      One clarification. I made it clear in MS there is no such thing as humane meat from domesticated or hunted animals. Important distinction.

      • Mary Finelli says:

        “Can you offer any real evidence that my recent essays are not helping animals?”

        Take a look at all of the anti-vegan/anti-animal comments posted in response to the NYT essay.

        Then there’s this comment you yourself posted in response to your previous article:
        “I think there is a strong moral case to be made for eating oysters.”
        http://james-mcwilliams.com/?p=5912

        Oysters are animals, and defending the consumption of them harms, not helps, them.

        Encouraging people to eat animals perpetuates their status as consumables. Suggesting it is alright to eat certain animals further muddies the muddled message being broadcast to the public by supposed-to-be animal advocates/organizations promoting ‘happy meat.’

        The public needs a strong, clear message from the animal protection community. Animals need their advocates to unequivocally assert that needlessly harming animals for food or ‘fun’ or any other purpose is immoral and unjustifiable.

        Loopholes and fudging the message does not help but harms animals. It is a grave disservice to them and makes genuine advocacy for animals all the more difficult.

        You may enjoy the attention and whatever other perks such articles bring you but you delude yourself if you think they aren’t harming animals.

        Can you imagine, for example, someone from the child protection community, publicly musing about acceptable ways for pedophiles to rape children? Maybe if they only raped dead children they’d leave the live ones alone. What if they were allowed to have at it with children in a permanent vegetative state? After all, those children don’t consciously suffer. OUTRAGEOUS AND INFURIATING.

        The problem is with those who want to exploit others. That is where the change needs to happen, and not by indulging their appetites.

        • soren impey says:

          “Oysters are animals, and defending the consumption of them harms, not helps, them.”

          Consumption of plants harms them. What is different ethically about harming an oyster and harming a plant?

          • Mary Finelli says:

            Oysters have much more of the physiology that sentient beings are recognized as having (e.g., a nervous system) than plants do. There is much more of a probability that oysters are sentient than there is that plants are sentient.

            We need to eat something in order to survive. We should respect plants in that they are living organisms, and try to not cause them more harm than is reasonably necessary, but we are likely doing less meaningul harm by consuming them than by consuming animals. If we’re looking for crops that can be cultivated with minimal harm to animals, seaweed is a good place to start:

            “Professor Ronald Osinga at Wageningen University in the Netherlands has calculated that a global network of “sea-vegetable” farms totaling 180,000 square kilometers — roughly the size of Washington state — could provide enough protein for the entire world population…Because they require no fresh water, no deforestation, and no fertilizer — all significant downsides to land-based farming — these ocean farms promise to be more sustainable than even the most environmentally-sensitive traditional farms.”
            http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2011/12/01/379291/seaweed-aquaculture-sustainable-food-fuel/

            Oysters are members of the animal kingdom. To propose that it is ethically acceptable to use them as food opens the door to the acceptability of using other animals as food.

          • soren impey says:

            “Oysters have much more of the physiology that sentient beings are recognized as having (e.g., a nervous system) than plants do.”

            oysters are sessile animals that have devolved and no longer have centralized ganglia or sensory afferents. the only way an oyster could experience pain is via some unknown mechanism and the same argument could be made for plants.

            “Oysters are members of the animal kingdom”

            as are the nematodes in the water you and i drink. since few vegans are concerned about microscopic animals i think it’s fairly evident that the vegan society definition refers to sentient animals, not all animals.

        • James says:

          “Encouraging people to eat animals perpetuates their status as consumables.”

          This comment implies that people waver on their assessment that animals are consumables. They don’t. Animals ARE consumables as far as 99 percent of the world is concerned. Highlighting oysters does this opposite of what you suggest; it indicated that SOME animals are consumables but others are not.

          “The public needs a strong, clear message from the animal protection community.”

          They’ve heard it. They’ve rejected it.

          “Can you imagine, for example, someone from the child protection community, publicly musing about acceptable ways for pedophiles to rape children?”

          Red herring. Rape is not a commonly accepted and celebrated act like eating animals is.

          “The problem is with those who want to exploit others.”

          We all exploit others.

          “You may enjoy the attention and whatever other perks such articles bring you”

          Please.

  10. Elizabeth says:

    I appreciate that you are thinking outside of the rather narrow parameters of traditional veganism (I think I just made that term up) and for inviting others to do the same. I’m a 12-year vegan veteran and periodically think through my vegan decision. So far, my decision to be 100% vegan remains unwavering, but I think everyone should have the freedom to explore options without being labelled a traitor to the cause. I think it makes veganism more appealing to nonvegans if we can Show how we’ve thought through being vegan rather than simply demand that it is the right way and become angry at any mention of an alternative. Thanks for always being a reasonable voice.

    • soren impey says:

      I think it makes veganism more appealing to nonvegans if we can Show how we’ve thought through being vegan rather than simply demand that it is the right way and become angry at any mention of an alternative. Thanks for always being a reasonable voice.

      i also believe that being reasonable about ethics and open about grey areas makes veganism more attractive to interested omnivores.

      traditional veganism

      traditional veganism is rooted in classical utilitarian thought and is well represented by vegan outreach, vegan.org/vegan action, and just about every major animal rights group. in general, utilitarian vegans are not as concerned about honey, insects, oysters, road kill, freeganism, or other marginal issues.

  11. Mary Finelli says:

    soren impey says:
    August 20, 2015 at 6:40 pm

    “oysters are sessile animals that have devolved and no longer have centralized ganglia or sensory afferents. the only way an oyster could experience pain is via some unknown mechanism and the same argument could be made for plants.”

    It’s possible that plants are sentient through some mechanism that we don’t recognize. I’m not ruling that out. However, of the mechanism we do recognize for pain perception, oysters have much more of what is required for it than do plants.

    Consider octopuses: “Their arms continue to remain alert, reacting to pain, long after they have been removed from the body of the octopus. This isn’t just post-mortem twitching — the tentacles are aware of their environment, and responding to danger…Harvard philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith has studied consciousness in octopuses, and describes their minds as potentially an example of ‘distributed consciousness.’…This raises the question of whether the arms have something like minds of their own.”
    http://io9.com/detatched-octopus-arms-show-independent-awareness-1209041248

    We are realizing that humans who have loss of consciousness from anesthesia or from brain injury may be more aware than had been previously believed.

    The point is that we are continually being surprised by animals’ capabilities. We have to eat something in order to survive and, given what we know of the prerequisites for sentience, we do less potential harm by consuming plants than by consuming oysters. We don’t need to eat oysters, and they deserve the benefit of any doubt we may have as to their sentience.

    Why give the nod to needlessly using them as food? To show how objective you can be? Suppose you are wrong. You are staking your bets at their expense. Where’s the morality of that?

    • soren impey says:

      Mary,
      Extrapolating my comments about brainless sessile molluscs that lack a sensory nervous system to other definitively sentient organisms is not nice. Octopi have complex cephalized nervous systems and are unambiguously sentient. Moreover, limited ethology suggests that some octopus species may be self-aware.

      I should note that I’m a fan of your web site and absolutely give animals with a CNS the benefit of the doubt (even insects to some degree). I’m simply not interested in drawing the lines of veganism based on some arbitrary taxonomic definition; rather; I draw my lines based on objective neuroanatomical and/or behavioral evidence. And objective evidence indicates that animals which make up ~85% of all the animal mass on this planet are non-sentient.

      “they deserve the benefit of any doubt we may have as to their sentience.”

      For oysters (and quite a few other animal species with devolved nervous systems) objective evidence indicates that they have no more capacity for sentience than plants. I eat plants, so who am I to judge ostrovegans.

      And I gotta say that oyster consumption by vegans is becoming the new honey. And if don’t believe me let me quote a philosopher:

      There are some pretty good arguments that they [Oysters] don’t feel pain, and are really just little slabs of meat on a plate. They’ve got more in common with plants than animals. I know a lot of vegans who eat bivalves.

      “We don’t need to eat oysters…”

      I don’t eat oysters personally because I think they should be more available for omnivores and veg*ns who crave them .

  12. Mary Finelli says:

    Soren, I did not extrapolate your comment about oysters to octopuses (or humans). You missed the point of my comment about them. (They are indeed amazing beings.) It is, as I explained, that we are continually realizing surprising abilities of animals.

    Perhaps the previous quote I used was too subtle. Here is a more graphic one: “For example, researchers who cut off an octopus’s arm (which the octopus can regrow) discovered that not only does the arm crawl away on its own, but if the arm meets a food item, it seizes it—and tries to pass it to where the mouth would be if the arm were still connected to its body.”
    http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/6474/

    Octopus arms -attached or detached- can in ways function independent of the brain. Who would have thunk it? (Can you imagine human hands performing that way?!) Brain-impaired humans are thought to have greater perception than was previously attributed to them. It is only relatively recently that authoritative scientific evidence was obtained to show that fish are sentient – which some people still dispute. (I’m glad and appreciative that you are a fan of the website.)

    There are things we don’t know about sentience capabilities. We should have the humility to acknowledge this, and the benevolence to want to err on the side of caution. We don’t know where the fine line of sentience lies, and we should leave plenty of room to accommodate that uncertainty. The cost of erring is too great – with others paying the high price for it.

    We need to eat plants but we don’t need to eat oysters. Oysters have more of the recognized prerequisites of sentience than plants do. We should give them the benefit of any doubt and urge others to do the same. We should not be so arrogant in our quest to be clever or correct that we force our morality to fit our philosophy (e.g., utilitarianism), in doing so putting others at great risk.

    That people who identify themselves as animal advocates are promoting the consumption of oysters -publicly so, no less- is very sad and very disturbing. (Btw, vegans don’t eat oysters or honey.) I am not impressed that a philosopher made the remark you quoted. There are many different philosophies, and there are philosophers with appalling views. If we are to be decent people, we should strive to do the least harm that is reasonably possible. That includes not eating oysters.

  13. soren impey says:

    Can you imagine human hands performing that way?!

    Absolutely. Peripheral nerves can produce very complex movements and stimulus responses in organs. Does this make an organ or an appendage sentient? I hope not, because then we would need to consider some human organs sentient.

    There are things we don’t know about sentience capabilities.

    And there are things we do know, such as, the devolution of central sensory nervous systems in some bivalves and tunicates.

    Btw, vegans don’t eat oysters or honey.
    Many people who call themselves vegans do eat honey. Given that I eat shellac-coated fruit (like most vegans) who am I to judge?

    We should not be so arrogant in our quest to be clever or correct that we force our morality to fit our philosophy (e.g., utilitarianism),
    I view veganism as a rational extension of consequentialist ethics in much the same way that an abolitionist views veganism as an extension of morality.

    we should strive to do the least harm that is reasonably possible. That includes not eating oysters.

    We harm everything we eat.

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