More on the Vegan Dialogues

Matthew Blaisdell

This is a summation/expansion of my comments (see post & comments here) relating to the NY Times Op-Ed in which the writer likened the killing of animals for meat consumption to the Holocaust.

I know only about as much as the general public regarding animal rights/law.  I do think that the issues involved are fascinating, difficult and complex.  What strikes me is what I will call the ‘moralizing’ tenor of much of the dialogue.  I call these dialogues ‘moralizing’ because, to me, they rely on assumptions about ethics applied to a code of behavior, and are imbued with strong judgments about those behaviors.  What has been happening is that those who focus on the ‘immorality’ of factory farming have been attacked for not subscribing to the ‘immorality’ of eating animal products.  For example, see a selection from the postings made by a friend of mine:

“Actually, I think many meat eaters are a self-righteous bunch … I long ago gave up trying to convince meat eaters to change after I realized that theirs is much less a rational choice, than a thoughtless submission to a base urge.”

To me, such statements (as well as those likening the consumption of animal products to murder or the Holocaust) are either intended to introduce the listener to this moral code by way of a provocative statement, or to communicate to a listener who subscribes to the same moral code.  I am concerned with is the first of these motives.  

Many of the assumptions on which moralizing statements are based on assumptions that are non-intuitive to most people, including those like myself who are nevertheless interested in the ethics and practical considerations involved in eating meat, fish, or dairy.

This language tends to produce the opposite of the intended result—it shuts dialogue down and results in the listener (proudly) taking refuge in her own beliefs and behaviors.  A radical statement by a progressive will make a conservative happily beat her bible harder, and a radical statement by a conservative will make a progressive more condescending.  In the same way, radical statements by vegans entice people to stuff animal products down their throat with great enthusiasm.

Try telling a survivor of the Holocaust or someone touched by mass rape/genocide that her plight is no different than that of a chicken.  It can be easy to analogize in the abstract, but sit in an asylee interview, or any intimate conversation with a survivor or refugee, and the human suffering will be much more difficult to flippantly analogize away.  While the provocateur may not seek to degrade human suffering, but to instead elevate consideration of animal suffering, what in fact happens is that potential colleagues become angry adversaries.

My biggest problem with the moralizing approach is that it abandons context for easy answers.  I believe that there are better practices and ideals one may aspire to, but the difficulty of the issues bellow prevents me from seeing this issue in absolute terms.  To me, a choice over what to eat is imbued with ethical considerations and cost-benefit-type analyses.  Below are just a few problems off the top of my head.  Many vegans or advocates may feel that I am reducing their arguments to juvenile simplifications.  I respond that provocative, moralizing statements are rarely attached to qualifiers.

1)      If all meat-eaters are immoral and/or murderers, and the great majority of humanity today and throughout history has consumed meat when given the opportunity, then only a minority of people have ever been moral non-murderers.

2)      Is there a line drawn between moral meat eating and immoral meat eating?

  1. Is it immoral if there is no alternative source of nutrition?
  2. What if the eater has simply never been educated on alternative methods or ethical considerations?
  3. Are religions that celebrate meat eating inherently morally inferior to those that emphasize vegetarianism?
  4. Is it immoral for hunter-gatherers or nomadic peoples?  Are non-agricultural cultures inherently immoral?  (Some argue that ‘civilization’ is the source of all great sins.)
  5. Historically, geographically, culturally, practically, who is moral when they eat animal products and who isn’t?   Do these differences matter?

3)      Assume that: moral judgments hinge on the purpose of an act; the purpose of the Holocaust was to exterminate a race of people, while the purposes of eating meat range from satisfying an appetite to pure survival; and the very act of domestication ensures survival rather than extinction.

  1. How, then, can the Holocaust and meat eating be morally equivalent?
  2. Is any intentional act or repeated acts resulting in a large number of deaths of any living creature a Holocaust?
  3. Is the culling of bird potentially infected with avian flu a Holocaust, even if it could be proved that it was intended to save a greater number of human lives than the number of culled bird lives?

4)      If animal protein played a crucial role in our evolution (a debated contention, but for the purpose of this problem, assume it to be true) does that not entail that it is ‘natural’ for man to desire to consume to meat (because evolution hard-wires us to want it), and if so, is the act of following-through on this ‘wiring’ immoral?

5)       What life forms are morally acceptable to kill?  What about:

  1. Poisoning a rat nest within the walls of an apartment, in which small children live?  What if it is just you that lives there?
  2. Fly swatting?  What about cultures or tribes that eat insects?
  3. Pesticides used to save crops that large numbers of people depend on for survival?  Or is immoral killing strictly limited to food considerations?
  4. Are civilizations that relied on cannibalism to survive more or less moral than those that rely on animal meat for survival?

To me, the fact that I do not immediately arrive at easy conclusions dismissing all of the above arguments allows me to believe that I am not evil or a self-righteous person submitting to a baseless urge, re-enacting the Holocaust, each time I eat an animal product.  It is because I see many shades of grey that I believe that even very simple, coherent eating standards are more personal/subjective in nature than universal.  Thus, the best I can hope for in my own life is to strike a balance between my ideals, desires, and practices that works for me.  I’m less concerned with being philosophically consistent than with improving my practices, given what I know about factory farming, environment effects, and public health.  Because I do wrestle with these issues, I seek to continue to educate myself and adjust my ideals and practices accordingly.

Therefore, the discourse initiated by author Jonathan Safran Foer following his new book “Eating Animals” has caught my attention.  While I haven’t read the book, in interviews he advocates moving away from labels (vegans vs. meat-eaters) and easy-answer ideologies to just getting people to exercise awareness and reduce their meat consumption. and

I believe that promoting patience, education, sympathy, and dialogue is a far better method to change the practices of the general public than is labeling or moralizing.  I advocate for respecting the reasonably held, considered positions of others, and for spending more time reasoning and educating than demonstrating moral indignation and offensive metaphors.  And understanding that, for most people, sticking to a strict vegetarian diet can be an immense struggle (or more people would do it).

But am I wrong?   While not being terribly educated on the issue, I am pretty concerned about meat consumption on a number of levels; if you can’t convince me, good luck with the rest of the public.  Take a shot.

4 Responses

  1. Excellent article. I come from a similar place as you – I’ve always been concerned about consumption of animal products, particularly with the cruel practices of factory farming that dominate food production. I’ve been a vegetarian since high school and was involved with animal rights groups in college. But as I learned more out in the “real world,” the moral absolutes of animal rights made less and less sense to me.

    I’ve raised many of the same questions that you do. The more moralizing I hear, the less convinced I am.
    The bottom line is that we live in a world that’s full of shades of grey – especially when dealing with complex animal issues/law, and when dealing with the cultural, geographic, and socioeconomic questions around nutrition. The black and white philosophy of animal rights doesn’t hold up outside of theoretical debates.

    It’s discouraging that the argument about the “immorality” of consuming animal products is getting in the way of fighting the inhumanity of our current food systems.

  2. Provocative statements ignite debate and that is, overall and historically, a good thing is one believes fervently, as I do, in the Holmes/Brandeis Marketplace of Ideas (no one can believe that Patrick Henry seriously wished the alternative of liberty or death as a response to his heated rhetoric but his outcry fostered vigorous discourse).

    Speaking as someone older than most of the earnest contributors to this excellent blog, I can say that for many recognizing that few issues truly are clearly one way or the other with no shades of gray often comes with age. We can say that about, for example, pedophilia but even the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” has been subjected to centuries of secular and theological exegeses with a common understanding eluding us.

    What is clear is that there is much unnecessary and sometimes evil maltreatment of animals who suffer needlessly and reducing or eradicating that is a goal that all ought to embrace. Exhortations to “Go Vegetarian” or “Go Vegan” are often simply nonsectarian analogs of the religious preaching and zealotry most of us reject almost viscerally.

  3. Excellent post. I do think there needs to be a distinction between ‘the moralist vegan” and “the activist vegan.”
    Personally I think vegan (or vegetarian) moralism is inherently flawed. It boils down to man should not eat animals, because they are equal to man, but only man is forbidden from eating other animals because man is inherently better than animals and “should know better.” With the exception of citing religions texts (which most veggies aren’t prone to do), I’ve yet to be given a justification to this discrepancy.
    However, I fully support the activist vegan (or vegetarian) who willingly abstains from animal products because they want to take a personal approach to making a difference in the lives of animals, or reduce their impact on the environment.
    This is not to suggest that people aren’t both, but that those who are should be aware of what arguments they make and the basis of those arguments.

  4. Sarah, which “moralist vegans” subscribe to the view that humans and animals are equal to one another? Given that this is an academic blog, let’s stick with recognized academic authorities.

    I can’t help but wonder if those who wish to deny that the consumption of animals is a moral issue are not finding themselves in the same position as scientists using animals in research who insist that animals are not sentient and, hence, using animals in research is not a moral problem. Put in other words, those who would like to consume animals are in a position whereby it is in their interest that their eating habits not be questioned.

    Regarding point (4) above, evolutionary biologists once caused a scandal by suggesting that rape was an evolved reproductive strategy for males who were otherwise unable to secure access to females. This may be the case (I do not know), but it isn’t clear why an adaptive trait should not be subjected to moral scrutiny. If we condemn the rapist even if rape is an acquired trait, why should we not also condemn other socially and morally undesirable traits? This is an especially important point given that most animal rights advocates are deontologists and subjective intention plays no role in moral analysis.

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