Vegan Ethics, Ctd

A reader writes:

A reader cited 9.5 billion animals slaughtered each year in the U.S. Another side of the question is would it be better if these animals never lived at all? Because that’s what would happen if we were all vegans.  If we could ask them, what would the animals say? I suspect a dairy cow might think that being born and having a life in exchange for milk was an acceptable bargain, while a crated veal calf might think a brief life of misery was not. We raise domesticated animals for our own benefit, but as a result billions exist who would not otherwise.


I lived a very strict vegan lifestyle for nearly two years in my late teens. I was motivated by the ethical arguments surrounding the conversation. John Robbins’ Diet for a New America changed my life. While I am no longer vegan, I can state that it impacted by life beneficially on many levels. I was forced to learn to cook for myself as there was not a lot of vegan restaurant options in Northern Nevada in the ’90s. I learned to eat and love healthy, whole foods that I would have not dreamt to even consider palatable in my earlier years.

Most importantly, I would say that my vegan years color my understanding of capitalism. Factory farming is a detestable system that is hidden from the vast majority of the population. They are animal concentration camps that are kept out of sight because of the horrors found within. These farms are highly efficient, but they come at cost to our environment and our humanity. My time as a vegan taught me that my money is powerful, that it can go to evil places if I’m not careful. Veganism taught me to be as moral a consumer as I can be.

Rhys Southan rejoins the debate by responding to Dish readers via email:

Thank you for starting a discussion around my essay, “The vegans have landed.” I’m writing to respond to some of the criticisms of the essay that that you received and quoted in “Vegan Ethics, Ctd,” which are similar to some of the other comments I’ve seen.

Much of my writing about veganism is a critique of vegan rhetoric and logic, and not so much the choice of living without animal products – even if vegans sometimes take it that way. In “The vegans have landed,” my target was specifically animal rights rhetoric.

The vegan philosophers who advocate a rights-based approach to our treatment of animals say that because animals are sentient creatures who want to live, we should grant them rights that respect their interests. They have an interest in not suffering, so we should respect their right not to suffer. They have an interest in living, so we should respect their right to live. The problem with this perspective, as I tried to show in “The vegans have landed,” is that not possible to seriously respect animal rights in a consistent fashion, or if it is, simply giving up animal products doesn’t accomplish it. Yes, veganism would stop us from raising animals for food, research and entertainment, but since giving up animal products doesn’t (for instance) stop us from manipulating the environment for our own ends in ways that are destructive to animals, veganism does not respect animals’ habitat interests the same way that human rights advocates respect human property rights. So if you want to give animals rights based on their interests – as animal rights advocates claim they want to do – veganism alone doesn’t cut it, and animal rights advocates are mislead when they say that it does.

However, not every vegan argument takes a rights-based (deontological) approach. Another major way to argue for veganism is from a “suffering reduction” (utilitarian) perspective.The suffering reduction argument for veganism basically says, “Raising animals for food and clothing and using animals as entertainment and test subjects causes a lot of suffering. Going vegan is the best way for you to reduce animal suffering.”

I wasn’t critiquing this argument for veganism with my essay, which is ironically why most of the negative reactions to my article take the suffering reduction approach: “Hey, we’re doing the best we can. Just because it’s not perfect doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything at all.” But these comments are missing the point. Never in the article do I say or even imply, “Do nothing because vegans aren’t perfect.” I certainly don’t think there’s anything objectionable about trying to cause less harm, and I try to cause less harm myself. I don’t advocate factory farming, I buy my meat from small farms, I don’t often eat chicken or pig, and I avoid eating muscle meat in favor of eating the less popular offal.

But since the suffering reduction argument came up in the emails you received and the comments people are making elsewhere, I might as well state my objection to the suffering reduction argument for veganism, which is that a demand for veganism on suffering reduction grounds is arbitrary. While it’s true that meat eaters cause more suffering than they absolutely must, so do vegans. Since vegans aren’t advocating that everyone reduce suffering as much as they possibly can, it’s self-serving for them to say that suffering reduction demands veganism but not necessarily anything more than that. After all, buying meat from humane farms reduces suffering too. We all cause suffering and could reduce the suffering we cause even more. There’s no set of behaviors that we can look at and say, “There, that reduces suffering the right amount, and anything more than that is wrong,” but vegans sometimes suggest that veganism is that exact right point.

It’s also worth pointing out that vegans have a tendency to switch between animal rights rhetoric and suffering reduction rhetoric, depending on what the situation demands. If you’re discussing a flaw in animal rights arguments – like by pointing out that veganism doesn’t consistently respect animals’ rights to their lives or homes – then argumentative vegans might switch to a suffering reduction stance and respond, “Yes but we’re doing the best we can and veganism reduces suffering the most.” But then if you note instances in which intentionally violating animal interests can reduce suffering more than veganism – such as killing invasive animals who are destroying plenty of other animals, or even eating a deer that you’ve hunted instead of the equivalent amount of veggie protein (the farming of which has harmed many more animals than hunting that one deer did) – vegans will typically drop the suffering reduction argument and switch back to rights. “You can’t kill that deer because the deer has a right to life.” And that can go on and on.

One of my goals in writing about flaws I see in vegan arguments is to blur the ethical boundaries between meat eater and vegan. These are categories that vegans tend to believe are distinct (and all too often coinciding with “bad” vs. “good”), but I want to show that they represent differences in degree rather than kind. Some vegans think I do this because I like to eat animal products and I want to find a way to not feel guilty about it, and so I console myself with the knowledge that everyone is selfish and even vegans put their interests before those of other animals. If there is truth to that, it’s not my conscious motivation.

Veganism can be a compassionate philosophy, it can be relatively neutral philosophy that manifests as an interesting personal quirk, and it can also be a divisive philosophy that encourages misanthropic tendencies. For vegans who believe in a clear ethical distinction between vegan and meat eater, most of the world is complicit in something truly awful – something that vegans have no part in. This is why some meat eaters think vegans consider themselves to be “morally superior.” However, believing that most humans suck isn’t usually that great. One way to avoid this distress is for vegans is to excuse the world on the basis of its ignorance: “People are basically good. They just don’t know what I know, but if they did, they would be vegan too.” But this only works for meat eaters who are not thoroughly exposed to vegan ideas, or information about slaughterhouses and animal farming. It will be harder for vegans to excuse omnivore ignorance as omnivores become more informed. I’d like to think that discussing flaws in vegan logic can help erase some of the conflict between vegans and meat eaters by showing that we aren’t so different after all.

Admittedly, it’s hard to say that this is working when all it seems to do sometimes is piss a lot of vegans off.