Animals Are Everywhere

» August 30th, 2015

In response to my last post, several readers have pointed out the prevalence of animal products in everyday consumer goods, as well as our myriad indirect associations with animal exploitation. My response? Aside from “thank you,”

Exactly!

This reality you have duly highlighted, after all, only further supports the larger case that I’m making with the beef-fat-fuel example.*

And that case is this: given the ubiquity of animal products in the world around us, as well as the numerous ways in which our voluntary activities harm/kill animals, veganism as currently understood is less a clear moral baseline line than a circumscribed choice to avoid animal products in relatively easy and accessible contexts.

Of course, this is not to say that we shouldn’t avoid those animal products in those relatively easy situations, or that we shouldn’t strive to do so in the harder cases as well. It’s only to say that if we engage in actions such as driving or flying—things we could give up but won’t because it would seriously put a crimp in our life—we are, technically speaking, violating the spirit of vegan.

Now, one could say that the point here isn’t to be perfect but to do the best we can, always striving to be better, always recognizing the challenges posed by reality, always working toward the ideal. Well, amen to that!

But we have to recognize that this kind of approach to ameliorative social change closely associates veganism with religious belief, and that association makes it harder for vegan advocates to impose their agenda on others. (Plus, I think what vegans want—a recognition of the fundamental moral standing of sentient animals—-transcends religion.)

In any case, just to clarify: it seems as if some readers are under the impression that I’m looking for an excuse to throw off the gloves of morality, gleefully poke holes in veganism, and eat meat. Not so.

So not so.

I’m just asking questions about the term vegan itself, the term that we use to make sense of our moral regard for sentient animals, and question whether or not there is a better way to encapsulate the vegan ideology, a way that is more inclusive, less alienating, less cultish-seeming, and more tolerant of various personal processes.

That’s all that’s happening here.

 

*Which, in a basic way, is different than say leather seats on an airplane, or animal products in tires, in the sense that a plane is not reupholstered every time it takes off, and the tires on a bike are rarely changed, whereas fuel is an ongoing resource demand. I think this is a matter of degree with qualitative implications.

16 Responses to Animals Are Everywhere

  1. >”One could say that the point here isn’t to be perfect but to do the best we can, always striving to be better, always recognizing the challenges posed by reality, always working toward the ideal. Well, amen to that! But we have to recognize that this kind of approach to ameliorative social change closely associates veganism with religious belief.”

    I wonder what basis you have for that statement. To me, the idea that the goal is to do the best we can reflects common sense, and a realistic idea of human nature and the human condition, not to mention effective methods of influence and persuasion. It’s also humane, which makes it even more directly relevant to veganism.

    To the extent that it looks religious, it’s probably because religions are themselves some of the savviest and most seasoned students of human nature, and some of the successful influencers and marketers of all time. We would do well to emulate many of their best practices, as well as those of top corporations.

    One thing successful religions and other marketers *don’t* do is leave people with a sense of hopelessness and helplessness and futility, which is exactly what your article did. While I agree that the issue of beef-powered planes is worth raising, to shame people over it and not offer any solutions strikes me as irresponsible.

    Ditto for not pointing out that this is probably happening at least partly in reaction to what looks like a permanent decline in US beef consumption, a notable vegan triumph. Capitalism dictates that, when revenues are down, factory farmers will try to make them up elsewhere–and for several reasons, including that the supply of poop directly depends on meat sales–this strategy is probably a stopgap at best.

    http://www.lifelongactivist.com

    http://www.vegsource.com/news/2012/06/the-rise-of-nonperfectionist-veganism.html

  2. John T. Maher says:

    At the risk of sounding like more of a pedantic bore than I already admit to, I may have cited this before, but, Ayres’ article in Stanford Journal of Animal Law & Policy “May Contain Hooves: Why and How the Government Should Implement Plain Language Disclosure of Animal Products in Food Labels” deals with this topic in the consumer confronted with his/her own supposed agency sphere, as does Francione in conversation.

    I further argues that animal components are in every material thing dependent upon capital as a means of production. So although I am pleased to see McW confront this a bit where he writes “[o]f course, this is not to say that we shouldn’t avoid those animal products in those relatively easy situations, or that we shouldn’t strive to do so in the harder cases as well. It’s only to say that if we engage in actions such as driving or flying—things we could give up but won’t because it would seriously put a crimp in our life—we are, technically speaking, violating the spirit of vegan.” — I emphasize that there are animal components in the material conditions of production or conditions and possibilities of use of automobiles and airplanes and cellphones — such as the sperm whale semen lubricating the satellites which position your GPS on Google Maps or the turkey burgers served to the crew who made the film you watch on your iphone or the pork eaten by the immiserated Chinese workers at Foxxconn who manufactured it — and everything else which leads to the posthumanist tenet that all life implicates killing other life and it is really a question of developing an ontology of killing (or in Derridean terms ‘sacrifice’) and deciding how to kill with a responsibility answerable to ones’ ethics of choice. i.e. none of us are vegans.

    If anyone is interested in the ubiquitous nature of animal components, see:

    https://journals.law.stanford.edu/stanford-journal-animal-law-policy-sjalp/print/volume-5-2013/issue-1/may-contain-hooves-why-and-how-government-should-implement-plainlanguage#sthash.Zm3woNGn.dpuf

    as well as Nicole Shukin’s groundbreaking Animal Capital.

  3. Mary Finelli says:

    “we have to recognize that this kind of approach to ameliorative social change closely associates veganism with religious belief”

    How so? Religion is based on faith, veganism is based on fact and reason.

  4. TYR says:

    You say James that you are not looking for reasons to discredit veganism but I beg to differ. The language you use e.g “imposing”, “less cultish-seeming” “religious”, are the typical kinds of pejorative language and clearly reveals your view.

    You wrote <>>

    Your blogs attacking veganism have been almost every other day lately. I expect it now. Here’s something to consider: Is a fundamental moral standing against racism “transcending religion”? Is a fundamental moral standing against homophobia and heterosexism “transcending religion”? If the answer is no, then why do you characterise a fundamental moral standing against eating, wearing and using animals to the best of our ability (veganism) as “transcending religion”? Because it’s everyday speciesism you are displaying. You often hold a completely different moral standard as to what we owe nonhumans than you would (hopefully) hold for humans. You blog has been anti-vegan for some time and it gets a bit tiresome. I think it might be time to unsubscribe.

    • James says:

      If you would take the time to explore my take on your phrase “to the best of our ability,” you might begin to feel less threatened and take a more charitable stance to what I’m trying to argue. But hey, if I’m tiresome to you, I beg you to unsubscribe.

  5. Melissa Maedgen says:

    Can you propose an alternative term to use at dinner? Because while using the term “vegan” does invite argument over what you might be doing that contributes to animal suffering or death, it is pretty well understood what the dietary conditions are. And from experience, I have found that other terms do not work as well. “Plant-based” seems to imply mostly plants, but not necessarily all plants. I’ve found that the word “vegan” does get me what I want in a meal. So it’s a convenient term, and I intend to keep using it.

    And if “vegan” does not imply no harm to animals ever, is that necessarily a problem? The term “vegetarian” certainly doesn’t mean that, nor does it mean a diet of vegetables. So why not accept the term “vegan” for what it DOES mean, just like we accept “vegetarian” for what it implies, and if there is a need to coin a new term for increased levels of non-harm, then we can cross that bridge when we come to it. I don’t think we’re there yet, given how much meat the average American currently eats.

    • James says:

      I’m not so sure a “term” is what we should be after. A term is great for our identity but may not be the best thing for animals.

  6. BLB says:

    Thank you for your thoughts. I have been vegan for 10 years now and have been grappling with the same issues for sometime now.

  7. Karen Harris says:

    Thanks for the clarification.
    I do have a few further thoughts.
    First, I am not sure that I understand your reference to religion in this context. I must confess that I do not think a whole lot about religion in my personal life, so maybe that is why. Anyway.
    On a more important point, I do not agree with your referring to the choice to give up eating and wearing animals as easy. As a vegan for over 20 years, I still find my choice not to eat animals to be difficult at times, and to require ongoing willpower.
    (Most recently on vacation in Italy passing more than one bakery and gelateria!)
    If giving up eating animals were so easy, why the need to promote meatless Mondays, vegan before 6, consuming less meat, and the like? I think by suggesting that making these decisions in one’s life is “relatively easy”, compared to the decision to fly or not, is simply not the case. It requires an ongoing DAILY commitment and sincere belief. It is the critical choice, and everything else flows from it. As an aside, if people did not consume beef, there would be no beef fat for fueling planes!
    I do think that the decision not to eat or wear or consume animals is the moral baseline. Gary Francione in his recent blog said it very well, when he said that by shifting the paradigm away from animals as property and toward animals as persons, veganism is the only rational response to recognizing that animals matter morally.

    • James says:

      Do you plan on granting personhood to insects? Wild animals?

      • Karen Harris says:

        I would say yes, as far as I am concerned, wild animals are definitely persons. With regards to insects, I am not sure where to draw the line of sentience, so I am at this point in time, not sure.
        I know that wild animals are killed as a result of driving, as are insects, if that is where this is leading.
        I would restate what I said in an earlier reply, that it is also true that thousands of humans die as a result of automobiles as well. The fact that I continue to drive, does not mean that I do not think humans are persons. I do think that it is a moral imperative to drive carefully, and with regards to both humans and animals not to hit anyone! Luckily, I am fairly certain that I have been lucky so far in that regard!
        I do not think the fact that insects die as a result of my driving lessens the importance of not choosing to eat animals whom I know to be sentient.

        • soren says:

          Would not the fact that driving kills so many human beings (up to 1.2 million each year according to WHO*) only make it more exploitative and cruel (less vegan)?

          *http://www.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/78256/1/9789241564564_eng.pdf?ua=1

    • soren says:

      “veganism is the only rational response…”

      In my experience, veganism has largely avoided rational discussion of what “as far as is possible and practicable” or “any other purpose” mean. I think this is dysfunctional and unattractive to non-vegans.

  8. Adam Barber says:

    Why do we want to call ourselves something? Why do we want to be called something by someone else? Seems like a lot of pressure to me. I don’t want to be called anything. If someone asks me why I am eating a veggie burger or a black bean burrito, I’ll tell them. We are the dominant species on the planet. All of us; vegan, vegetarian, whatever must accept that our very existence involves some animal exploitation. If you live in a house, animals died when your foundation was dug. And don’t even start thinking about the animals in the forest from where the lumber came. Even if you only wear synthetic clothes, animals died clearing out the foundations for the factories. Those clothes had to be driven to a store near you. Animals died making the roads. Can we be sure that truck carrying that synthetic shirt did not kill and animal or two on the way to the store? If you walked to the factory and got the shirt yourself, you could have saved countless animals.
    I agree there is more to morality than not eating meat. It is a huge hurdle and a great place to start.

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