Dec 082009

BritRibA vegan seeks to avoid all use of animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose.  But if you tell people that you are a vegan, they will often infer rather more.  Some will hear “touchy-feely-hippy-freak,” some will hear “human-hating-animal-lover,” and some will hear “animal-hating-Animal-Rights-zealot.”  For a word coined less than 70 years ago, “vegan” carries a great deal of emotional baggage.

Some of my best friends are vegan, as was I for many years. There are many compelling reasons to be vegan , including nutritional or religious beliefs and culinary preference. However, many vegans are motivated by the desire to do what is best for animals.  Let’s examine the reasoning behind such “ethical veganism”:

Animals have the right not to be eaten:

This is a direct quote from one of the most respected legal scholars in the field.  Seriously. Setting aside the matter of “rights” for a moment, let’s acknowledge inescapable reality: in nature, every animal dies and is eaten. All life depends upon death.  If you truly love and respect Nature, you cannot reject its most central process.  Not only is being eaten a virtual certainty for every animal, this vital biological mechanism provides food for every living animal: billions of animals make it through each day by eating the bodies of those who died the day before. Even when not ripped apart by a predator, animals are eventually consumed by small organisms that are then consumed by larger organisms.  This is the cycle of life: you may celebrate this truth or lament it, but you cannot change it. If you could enforce the notion that no animals be eaten, in a few swift weeks life on Earth would cease.

Animals have the right to a life without suffering:

So absurd is this argument that it is astonishing that anyone might accept the assertion, yet it is the bedrock quicksand of the animal rights movement in general and PETA in particular:

  1. In the natural world, animals possess no rights, no protections, no guarantees.  Rights are a human construct, conferred by society or god: this abstraction has nothing to do with nature.
  2. Even if we were to extend the general concept of rights to animals, one we could not grant would be “the right to life free from suffering.”  No animal in the wild is free from suffering, nor is any human. A life free from suffering is not a right, but a fantasy.
  3. Life in nature is a struggle full of suffering – cold, heat, hunger, thirst, parasites, injury, illness, predation, conflict. Leave the confinement of your house and go live in the wild for a few months, then decide whether you prefer the “freedom” of the wild or the comforts of your home.
  4. If we pretend that a life without suffering were a reasonable goal, there is only one way to imagine achieving it: capture all the animals in the wild and bring them into our world and devote ourselves to ensuring that their lives are as free from suffering as possible. The only animals, including humans, that come close to life free of suffering are the millions of pampered pets whose every need and desire are met by doting owners, with the help of groomers, veterinarians, chiropractors, nutritionists, and others.

Animals deserve to be free:LHChomocreek

Very few animals are free: their movements are curtailed by other animals’ ranges, by geographic barriers, by predators. Freedom is a human illusion—we are all constrained. More important, anyone who has spent time around animals knows that, with few exceptions, animals do not want to travel: they want to establish a home range and stay there, safe and comfortable. If their range happens to be defined by fencing, and if within that range all their needs are met, animals do not yearn for some hypothetical freedom.

Animals deserve the longest possible life:

Life in nature is seldom long. Most wild animals die well before maturity, and few live long enough to see old age. If you believe that animals deserve the longest possible life, you cannot simultaneously believe that they should be in the wild: captive animals indisputably live considerably longer than wild animals.

Animals deserve a humane death:

Death in nature is rarely pleasant, never “humane.” Most animals in the wild die with little comfort. Whether they starve to death, are taken down by predators, succumb to illness, or meet one of numberless other fates, the end is often slow and agonizing. It may be comforting to imagine that predators kill with merciful speed, but anyone who has ever watched a cat play with a mouse, or seen footage of a killer whale flinging a seal into the air, a pack of wolves eviscerating a still standing ungulate, knows that natural deaths are often brutal. If you believe animals deserve a humane death, you cannot simultaneously believe they should be in the wild.

Humans are no better than animals and therefore should not eat them:

I am not sure this argument is valid—while we may not be better than animals, human consciousness is clearly different than that of most animals and might therefore obligate or entitle us to behave differently in certain situations.  However, even if we accept the idea that humans are no different than animals, it would follow from this that we are not constrained to behave differently from the rest of nature, in which case we would be no more obligated to veganism than any other animal.  Ethical vegans often suggest that meat-eating humans are misguidedly arrogant, that people who eat meat must believe they are superior to animals in order to ignore their suffering and consume them—that eating animals requires perceiving them as commodities.  And many meat eaters fall into this logical trap, defending their right to eat meat by quoting scripture about man’s dominion or making arguments about our moral or intellectual superiority.  However, these arguments are backwards.  It is arrogant to imagine that we are so qualitatively different from the rest of nature that we should eschew its underlying truths.  Do we really imagine ourselves so divine that we should remove ourselves from the very cycle of life? We eat, we are eaten. Our bodies are all commodities for animals yet to come.

Exploitation is wrong:goatonstump

Even accepting this assertion, very few human:animal relationships are exploitive.  On the contrary, they are mutualistic: both species experience an increase in quality of life and survivorship. In fact, many human relationships with pets are amusingly close to pure exploitation of the human: the animal derives virtually all of the benefits.  Many humans take such good care of their animals that their charges’ life expectancies are two to three times greater than those in the wild; and their lives are not only more comfortable but pampered. Even many animals kept for food are exceptionally well cared for and live longer than an average wild lifespan. They are not exploited, they are well compensated .… (The vegan notion of exploitation is so broad that using the bones of a long dead animal is considered exploitation, keeping a sheep and providing her with a great home, protection from predators, food, veterinary care, fresh water, and anything else she wants, and in exchange taking her wool that would fall off anyway and will grow back is seen as exploitation.)

Animals “belong” in the wild:

Animals belong in the world.  As the world has changed, so have animals.  Whatever the wild was before mankind arrived, it exists no longer.  Do not condemn the animals of the world to die as we inexorably alter the planet. Allow them to evolve and to become a part of our new world: it is their only option, and is also full of luxuries and benefits: plentiful food, medicine, warmth, pillows…

Species we eat are “worse off” than species we do not:

Not so. Species that we use for food or other practical purposes fare far better than species providing no tangible value to mankind. While a few exceptional species – mostly scavengers like rats and roaches – have thrived alongside mankind, in general as our numbers have increased, the populations of other animals have declined, many of them to the point of extinction.  It is predicted that half of the mammal species on the planet today will be extinct in fifty years.  On the other hand, species that have tangible value to mankind have flourished: dogs, cats, horses, chickens, cows, pigs, etc.  Unquestionably some individuals of these species have bad lives, but the species have flourished, and many of the individuals have had great lives. (As an interesting side note, one could argue that species kept by humans are injured genetically: they lose certain abilities over time, such as chickens that can no longer fly. However, this argument essentially demonstrates that captive lives are easier than wild lives: in captivity, species become less fit because human caretakers free them from the environmental pressures that normally keep them from devolving, just as humans have become largely incapable of surviving in the wild, having adapted during generations of civilization’s comparative ease.

peahenIndividuals we keep to eat are worse off than those we do not:

Sometimes this is true, often not.  In aggregate, we cannot know. Consider my chicken Sasha as an example. Of course she would never have been born if we did not keep chickens, but even if she had, she would have likely been eaten in her first few weeks by a predator, or starved to death her first winter.  Had she survived long enough, she would have been cold, hungry, wet, and miserable, until she reached her maximal life expectancy in the wild a few years later and died, likely eaten while still alive by a weasel, hawk, or bobcat.  Because I eat eggs, or more accurately I feed most of them to my other animals, she has spent 10 years in a perfect yard, protected from all predators, with a warm room for winter, healthy food and vitamin supplements, with all the room she wants, dirt to scratch in, bugs to eat, other chickens for companionship, rocks to keep her nails trimmed, a disco ball making lights on the ground to chase, virtually no parasites, veterinary care if needed, shade and mist on hot days, etc.  Even if I had eaten her years ago, she would have had a longer life, and a life far more full of happiness and free of suffering, than she would possibly have had without a human caretaker.

Not eating meat will have a practical impact on the meat production industry:

I believe this is the most interesting and compelling argument – both in favor of veganism and against. The basic argument is: regardless of all the theoretical and philosophical rhetoric above, we have seen what happens when humans raise animals for food, and it is not pretty. We have seen over and over in many different industries that when there is profit involved, some people will sacrifice the welfare of their employees and their animals in order to maximize gain. Perhaps  humans will someday evolve their thinking so that greed motivates good behavior because people recognize that being happy is more valuable than being wealthy and that the path to happiness lies through good behavior rather than profit, but for now, we need practical solutions.

In the real world, we must devise ways to prevent greed from driving bad behaviors.  This is true in every animal venture where profit is involved: breeding, racing, ranching, pet stores, and the rest.  The behaviors driven by profit are generally inconsistent with the best interests of the animals, and we need to find ways to prevent greed from motivating abuse or neglect. Historically, two tools have been effective: legal mandates for minimal care and consumer demand for improved processes.

Legal mandates on minimal care similar to minimum wage, child labor laws, and nursing home standards, for example, are likely essential to prevent the worst cases of outright abuse, and such abuse and neglect laws already exist in most states, and of course, depend upon effective enforcement.

Possibly the most effective tool we have to influence how captive animals are cared for is how we consumers allocate our dollars.  Dolphin-safe tuna, conflict-free diamonds, organic foods: it is clear that if consumers demand and are willing to pay for a process improvement, suppliers will meet that demand.  Let us imagine that everyone became vegan tomorrow: millions of animals would be immediately “unemployed” – and soon killed or turned loose into the wild where they would suffer and die; and billions of animals would never be born in the future.  On the other hand, if instead of becoming vegan, everyone tomorrow demanded humane treatment for animals in captivity, and only purchased humanely raised meat, suddenly raising meat humanely would be profitable, and raising meat inhumanely would become competitively unprofitable.  Billions of animals would enjoy pleasant lives before eventually being eaten, the ideal life for any animal. Such decisions would yield a far more realistic outcome: many more people would pay extra for humanely raised products than would renounce meat altogether. And as the human population increases and we need more and more food, animal consumption is likely to increase, not decrease.

Eat meat, do not eat meat. It matters not to the animals of the world.  They do not care whether they are eaten by you or some other animal, although you are hopefully persuaded by the arguments above that eating meat is neither immoral nor necessarily harmful to animals.

But strict ethical veganism goes much further than not eating meat: its partisans argue that it is ethically essential to exclude all usage of animals for food, clothing, entertainment, companionship, or any other purpose.  This means no beloved pets, no captive breeding programs of endangered species, no wool sweaters. “Better dead than caged,” they say. “The world is our cage,” I say, “let us enjoy it together, happily coexisting on farms, in living rooms, or even in comfortable enclosures.”

Animals today face a threat far graver than being eaten.  Their historic habitats are being destroyed while misguided animal lovers work tirelessly to eradicate every viable alternative existence for animals in the 21st century, relegating them to survive only in an imaginary realm where they are blissfully free, never die, have no interaction with humans, and are never eaten. Do not protect their illusory rights by sacrificing their comfort, their safety, their very survival.


 December 8, 2009  Posted by at 7:45 am

  13 Responses to “Veganism: Some Love, But Little Policy”

  1. animals and humans alike have no “rights” other than what we can protect and enforce on our own. when you start tallking about “deserving” this and that, well i dont like that either. humans have laws that we all(er.. most)choose to obey to keep order (also since we fear repercussions…) i think that being vegan is the only choice for me since i dont value one life over another. the duck i cant see is not more palatable than my pet lilly (a duck) that sleeps inside and knows her name. the fear and distress of an animal in a slaughter house is what keeps me away, i dont want to take that into my body.

  2. You have some good points with exceptional clarity, but also some very poor and uneducated ones, not to mention contradictions that are bitingly odd to say the least. Also, it would be helpful if you could define “strict ethical veganism” because that could mean a number of things. “Veganism” means different things to different people, and its definition(s) evolve. To many people, veganism is inherently strict and everyone should be herbivorous at all times, to others there are some minor exceptions, to me there are many exceptions. But you haven’t really explained which veganism you’re addressing specifically, and your explanation of why it’s wrong/meaningless don’t work for me. I think I’ll come back and say more later.

  3. This is an incredible misrepresentation of veganism and some of its theories. And that applies to several related blog posts.
    I don’t feel like going through all of the points, but I’ll pick one: animals have a right not to be made suffer or eaten BY US, who do not need animal products and are capable of ethically guided behaviour.

    • Kabi: I have not intentionally misrepresented anything; however, I addressed only those arguments I have heard and understood, and there may well be others that I neglected because I have not heard or understood them. If you would care to articulate them I would be happy to consider them and possibly alter my view. Merely asserting that this and several other blog posts are wrong does little to advance either of our views. I will respond to your example: you suggest that animals have a right not to be eaten ” BY US.” I do not understand this assertion. Where did they get this right? When? Are you suggesting that they have an innate right which always existed by which had no meaning until humans reached a certain level of development? That they did not have this right for millions of years, but as soon as man developed reason animals suddenly acquired a new right? This makes little sense to me. It seems to me what you mean to be saying is that we humans, as sentient and ethical beings, have a responsibility to make the choice that will cause the least harm. That is, if we are going to eat and we have a choice between eating a bean and a cow, we have a duty to eat the bean because it has the least “value” or capacity to suffer. In my opinion, this is the most compelling argument in favor of veganism; however, it is predicated on the notion that the cow would otherwise have a “better” future. If the cow would be killed by another animal in a less humane manner and eaten, or if the cow would never have existed at all were it not for my desire to eat it, would that have been a better alternative? My answer is that it depends on many variables, but in general, no. If the animal got to live, and have a reasonably good life, and then was killed in a reasonably humane manner and eaten, I believe that is essentially the best most animals can hope for in this world, and whether the creature eating them is human or not makes no moral difference.

  4. I’m sorry, but there are a lot of holes in your arguments.

    Most vegetarianism comes from some version of utilitarian thinking, that seeks to avoid suffering as much as possible. Death is not a harm. “if the cow would never have existed at all were it not for my desire to eat it, would that have been a better alternative?” Yes. Living conditions are what it’s all about, not death conditions; because you’re right, humane killing is better than what nature has in store. But if it was up to nature, the animal wouldn’t have been bred in the first place. Utilitarianism aside, basically what we’re doing is creating animals for the purpose of killing them, cutting them up and eating them. If that’s not a perverted system I don’t know what is. It has a certain lack of aesthetic appeal to it (not that that’s a good reason for boycotting it, but still).

    Like the other commenters, I could pick out a million things, but I’ll only do one more. The “if everyone went vegan tomorrow scenario” is a pointless exercise. If that happened, large chunks of the economy would completely collapse, many many corporations would instantly go bankrupt, people would be unemployed and the world would be in disarray. Filter down effects might mean total economic collapse. It’s just pointless to talk about, because it’s not going to happen anyway. A realistic thought experiment would be: what the idea of not eating meat gradually spread, and it was a slow transition? The meat industry would gradually recede, no animals would be destroyed or turned loose because less would be bred as demand waned, the number of animals in the world would gradually fall to zero. And we would all live happily ever after.

    The other obvious things you left out are the other positive affects of veganism other than animal welfare. Like the fact that a large percentage of greenhouse gases come from big old cow farts, and also the fact that meat production is a very unwise, inefficient use of resources. If everyone gave up meat tomorrow (economic disaster aside) and donated the grain once destined to be cow fodder to charity, world hunger would instantly cured.

    Otherwise, good post.

    • Dear Bob,

      Do not be sorry, I very much appreciate your taking the time to point out holes in my reasoning. I believe that discourse is one of the best tools to allow us to improve our thinking by genuinely listening to other perspectives. Let me share my thoughts on the points you raised:

      1. You suggest that “creating” animals for the purpose of eating them is perverse. I would argue that while that system may not be aesthetically pleasing to you, it is precisely what happens in nature. Billions of animals are born and are eaten while still infants (most species in the wild have at least a 50% infant mortality rate). Many of the species lower on the dietary chain are INCREDIBLY fecund, reproducing at a rate that is absolutely unsustainable unless the vast majority of them are killed and eaten. Those babies are essentially “created to be eaten.” And many animals higher on the food chain require huge numbers of lower animals in order to survive. Personally, I find this natural pyramid incredibly aesthetically pleasing, even though when I look at an individual transaction I often find it unpleasant. (I may feel sad watching a baby antelope being eaten alive after only a few minutes of life, but I can also feel joy that the lion will live another day.) Let me ask you this: if there were no alternative–if the only food that would sustain human life were rabbit–what would you believe was right? Should we allow ourselves to die so the rabbits could live? Should we breed lots of rabbits and give them humane lives but ultimately eat them?

      2. You propose that “yes” a cow would be better off never existing than existing in order that it can be consumed. I would suggest that is too simple an answer. Certainly, if the cow is born, suffers briefly, and then is killed cruelly, you MIGHT make a compelling case that it would have been better for that cow had it never lived, but what if I bred the cow solely as an eventual food, but gave it a great and healthy life for 5 years before eating it? How about 10 years? How much excellent life does an individual need to live before its life was worthwhile? Is the cow’s life less fulfilling because a human bred it to eat than if it had been born in nature where it would also have been eaten? Why? If you discovered at the end of your life that you had been intentionally bred by aliens to be consumed, would you wish you had never been born?

      2b. Seeking to minimize suffering cannot be the sole objective. This reasoning would lead to the absurd conclusion that we should simply annihilate all life today so that no more suffering would occur. The truth is that most of us want to live, we want to take risks and feel joy and comfort and pleasure, EVEN though all of those activities may lead to some suffering.

      3. You are absolutely correct that the “if everyone went vegan tomorrow” scenario is unrealistic. But then, that is the point of a thought experiment–to test out the rational consequences of an experiment that cannot be tried realistically. That said, you lost me with your alternate thought experiment: if the number of animals on the planet gradually fell to zero, I do not believe we would live happily ever after. Are you seriously suggesting that, or was there a word missing from that sentence?

      4. I will absolutely grant that there are many important consequences of a vegan lifestyle that I did not address. In all candor, while I have expertise on the animal welfare question, I simply do not have enough knowledge to offer an informed argument on those other issues. I do have personal opinions, but will leave discussion of those topics to others. As I said in the beginning, there are many excellent reasons someone might decide to be vegan. And there are many experts who have proffered opinions on both sides of those issues. I intentionally constrained my article only to the question of whether or not veganism made sense as a tool to improve animal welfare…

      Again, thanks for taking the time to respond, I think you raised some excellent questions that are well worth further consideration.

  5. This was very poorly done, and honestly, I expected more. I came here out of respect, but I find myself feeling disrespected. Of course we aren’t fighting for rights in the sense that the civil rights movement was; nobody is looking to give animals the right to vote for example. Peter Singer addresses this exact topic. Saying someone has “a right” isn’t the same thing as saying someone “has rights”. Because animals are generally free of the evils that we succumb to, they have an INNOCENCE about them that we do not have. It’s this innocence that gives them animal rights.
    To say that all life would cease if we were to stop eating animals is one of the most ridiculous things I have ever heard. In fact, the continued consumption of meat and other animal products is what is contributing more to the destruction of the planet than driving cars. Look it up.
    Life thrives on life, not death. Obviously we are all going to die one day, but nothing dead gives birth. Nothing dead nurses the young, Probiotics and other living foods are some of the best foods you can eat, and it’s living inside and out. Vegetarians, for instance, thrive on life. We can harvest from the same plants repeatedly and over the course of years without causing death, but you can’t say that about eating meat.
    I refuse to waste my time finishing reading this blog post since the first half was so misguided, so I’m sticking with the parts I’ve read. Try looking at these arguments in context- animals have the right not to be eaten…by us, animals have the right to live a life without suffering…caused by us, animals deserve to be free…from us, animals deserve to live the longest possible life…away from our consumption, animals deserve a humane death…by us, if we intend to kill them. A little context is all, just as in any conversation. You are obviously twisting these meanings around.
    Its the 21st century, we can build incredible structures, walk on the moon, and split atoms…but many people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the most simple concept of veganism- compassion. Hopefully one day you will understand the message, and know that there is very much policy and action going on.

    • Dear Matt,

      I am sorry you felt disrespected; however, I am not clear on why. How is it disrespectful for me to present my thoughts on this topic? How is it disrespectful of me to take the time to seriously consider the arguments in favor of veganism, even if at the end of the day I disagree with them?

      1. You suggest animals are generally free of the evils to which humans succumb, and that this innocence is what gives them rights. First of all, which “evils” do you see in man that you do not see in animals? Second, what is the logical basis for asserting that innocence imparts rights?

      2. I cannot find where I suggested that if humans stop eating animals all life would necessarily end. Can you point me to what exactly I said, because I agree that if I said that it was erroneous.

      3. I am not sure what you mean by the statement “life thrives on life, not death” although it sounds pretty! However, it is irrefutably true that most living organisms, and virtually all carnivores, survive by eating other animals. In most cases, this requires the other animal to die. So it is fair to assert that death does nurture life, and that life indeed often or perhaps always DOES thrive on death. Even the plants that you suggest are an example of a non-death based process, consume nutrients from organic material which is comprised of dead plants and animals. Death absolutely is an essential part of the cycle of life.

      4. You repeat several times your view that animals have a right to certain consideration “from us.” I take this to mean that you believe humans have a moral duty to behave in a certain manner, rather than that the animals have the “right” to expect such consideration. That is a fine and compelling argument, and in fact, is the basis of this post and subsequent conversation. I agree that human beings who aspire to be moral or good have an obligation to carefully consider their actions and choices and be fully aware of the consequences of those choices.

      You suggest that I and others who do not endorse veganism must not grasp the concept of compassion. On the contrary, if you look at the points I made, almost all of them are based on attempting to maximize welfare and are therefore derived almost entirely from a starting point of compassion. Compassion is a central virtue, and one of the most important requisites for a good and mindful existences. However, compassion does not stand on its own. It must be paired with reason and imagination and careful rigorous mindfulness if one hopes to arrive at the best conclusion. I am happy to continue working with you to do so; however, you will need to spend a little more time articulating what you believe and why. At present your assertions seem to be primarily emotional, without much reasoning articulated.

      I hope you know that I do not mean this response “disrespectfully” either. I do respect your compassion and your willingness to work to live your life in agreement with your ideals. And I do respect you enough to read your response and consider it carefully. At present I cannot say I find your arguments to be particularly compelling, but I am open to hearing more and giving further thought to your view.

  6. I am not vegan, rather vegetarian (lacto-ovo, 18 years), but I’d still like to offer my two cents. I do not think this was very poorly done, as stated above. People are just going to have as many opinions on this matter as there are people out there. You are trying.

    I don’t eat meat because I do have the capacity for empathy. I recognize that not all humans have this capacity, or choose to use it (as so many people I know tell me they just prefer “not to think about it,” and so I don’t suggest my lifestyle become the law of the land, but I do recommend it to anyone willing to listen.

    I don’t confer any “inalienable rights” on animals – the only reason we humans have those rights is because we constructed a government to give us those rights and to protect them; however, I would not eat another creature if it has the capacity for a desire to live (i.e. any animal with a brain). It’s the same reason I would not eat another human. I would also rather not contribute to an industry that exists to take life away. I don’t buy the “well the animal would never have existed otherwise” argument because the desire to live only begins at the beginning of life. Environmental benefits are merely the icing on the cake for me.

    Finally, if I were forced to eat meat for whatever reason, I think I would choose to hunt wildlife. While I have empathy for all sentient life and while I do understand that death is always at the end and rarely pretty, there is simply something particularly repugnant to me about a life created for the very purpose of slaughter. An animal raised to trust humans for everything, right up until the moment of ultimate betrayal. Whereas, a life in the wild is almost purely chance – the rewards of freedom are great but so are the perils.

    Because I am lucky enough to live in a time and place where my nutritional needs can be fully met without meat, though, my conscience can live in peace.

  7. Also, I did not mean to imply that meat-eaters don’t have the capacity for empathy. It’s just that, in my experience, most people would rather just pretend meat comes from the grocery store, and I find that to be remarkably sad. Because of their chosen ignorance, we do have an industry – a huge industry – that exists not to give these animals a worthwhile life, but rather to make as much of a profit off of them as possible. I like your line of thinking, but I don’t think we’ll see everyone demanding humane treatment of “food animals” any time soon because so many people really don’t like to think about it. My greatest hope is that research will finally succeed in finding a viable meat alternative that is “all of the above:” tasty, nutritious, cheap to produce and environmentally friendly.

  8. Final thought (for now…)

    I just wanted to thank you for presenting such an incredibly well thought out and informative blog. There is so much to learn here!

  9. Beautiful.

  10. I am finding this years after it was written. I would like to use it in a course on animals and public policy with your permission. I really appreciate the thoughtfulness of this. Definitely some new perspective.

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