Monday, July 12, 2010

Carnism and Lacto-Ovism Part II

What follows is Part II of exchanges between Sherry Colb and Melanie Joy, inspired by Professor Joy’s book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows:  An Introduction to Carnism.  (For Part I, click here.)

From SC to MJ:

Hi Melanie.  I look forward to the longer version, but I wanted to offer a brief response to your email.  I agree that even vegans cannot be “pure” in their veganism if they are to participate as a member of a society in which almost everything includes some incidental animal products or results from animal testing or both.  That just means, though, that even vegans are not perfect (which will not be news to anyone who either is or knows a vegan!).  If one is a vegan, however, one attempts to the best degree possible, to eliminate these products from one’s life and diet.  If one is instead lacto-ovo vegetarian, then one is probably not eliminating these products at all but merely substituting some for others.  For that reason, I see a difference between a person who is transitioning to veganism (whether through vegetarianism with reduced eggs and dairy or whether through omnivorous consumption with vegan days each week or meals each day) and a person who has stopped and decided either that (a) dairy and eggs are okay, while flesh is not (b) “food” animals (like pigs) are okay, while friendship animals (like dogs) are not, or (c) all nonhuman animals are okay.  

With the dramatically increased modern consumption of animal products, I think many people find it difficult even to imagine a meal without animal products, but we know that cookbooks and web sites offer an amazing abundance of possibilities, for simple cook and creative chef alike.  At times, I wonder whether you underestimate people’s capacities for change and growth.  Though change can be scary, it is also exciting and invigorating, and there is so much to learn and discover, whether one most enjoys processed foods or whether one is interested in moving toward a more whole-foods oriented diet of the sort that T. Colin Campbell has urged.

Best,

Sherry  

From MJ to SC:

Hi Sherry,
I’ve had some time to mull over your points, and to sit down to write back. I want to say that yes, as a vegan myself, I completely agree with you about the cruelty and horror of the egg and dairy industries and that yes, of course, the vast majority of these products come from such conditions. (When I said they’re not inherently cruel, I meant they can be procured without cruelty; and yes, so can flesh, but many animals, as far as I am aware, have a natural aversion – disgust, perhaps – to the flesh of an already dead animal, as this flesh is dangerous to consume.) And I concur that we need to raise consciousness and promote veganism, among vegetarians as well as carnists. I also agree that carnistic conditioning is the reason people can, for instance, drink cow’s milk but not rat’s milk or eat hens’ eggs but not pigeons’ eggs and that carnistic numbing plays a role in many vegetarians' ability to consume animal products.

However, I do believe that there is a continuum between carnism and veganism, and among carnists and vegans. I am not referring to a moral continuum, because I find the concept of moral superiority/inferiority impossible to qualify or quantify, to be socially constructed, and ultimately counterproductive. The continuum I’m talking about is one of behavior and mentality. For example, there are carnists who consume the flesh and secretions from a variety of animal species, multiple times a day, without any reflection on their consumption patterns whatsoever. The carnistic mentality is rigid, with a high degree of numbing. Then there are carnists who have, for instance, cut out certain types of flesh products from their diet, as they have become sensitized to consuming the flesh of these animal species. And there are carnists who rarely eat any animal products at all but haven't actually become vegetarian. Then we have so-called pescetarians, who may be sensitized to consuming all animal flesh except that of fish and other sea life, then vegetarians, who may consume varying degrees of dairy and/or eggs. There are flexitarians, freegans, and vegans who will, for example, eat soy cheese that has casein or wear used leather or buy sunscreen that contains animal products. Yes, as you point out, vegans are making “attempts to the extent possible” to eliminate animal products from their lives, but the same could be said for vegetarians and other types of consumers. How do we determine what is the extent possible for another? It is possible, for instance, to avoid wearing non-leather shoes from Payless whose heels are affixed with animal-based glue. It’s possible to turn down the “vegan” cookies your mother-in-law made especially for you, because she used honey without realizing honey isn’t vegan. But we need to live in a way that is sustainable for ourselves, psychologically as well as practically, and so we will each draw our carnist, or vegetarian, or vegan line in different places.

I think it’s important that we, as vegans, hold a spaciousness that avoids the black-and-white thinking that we so often find in the movement. I think we need to avoid labeling in a way that ends up being counterproductive. (I’ve heard vegans say to other vegans, for example, “You’re not vegan if you eat soy cheese with casein!” The typical result from comments like this is that people throw up their hands and feel like it’s impossible to be truly vegan, so why try at all.) I think we need to be very careful to avoid creating a moral hierarchy, which inevitably labels those who aren’t ready to become vegan as morally inferior and which strengthens their carnistic defenses.
I also believe that we need to be careful not to project our own experience of veganism onto others. I became vegan fairly quickly; I gave up all flesh and eggs overnight, and then later dairy. Most people, however, do not transition this way. At least that’s what the small amount of research I’ve seen suggests, and what the large amount of anecdotal evidence I’ve accrued over the past two decades supports. Transitioning to veganism is a social, psychological, and behavioral process. Asking someone to become vegan is asking for them to take on an added dimension of a political identity; vegetarianism is often more of a social identity. People need to feel psychologically safe enough to shift their consciousness and identity from carnism to vegetarianism or from vegetarianism to veganism.

And for many people, it’s not easier, on a practical level, to be vegan than it is to be vegetarian. Given the carnistic world we live in, your options decrease dramatically when you eliminate all animal products from your life. Winters in Boston are awful for me. I won’t wear down or wool, nor will I wear silk (the only long underwear that’s thin and affordable enough for me). I can’t afford expensive thinsuate winter clothing or and the affordable vegan boots I wear never really hold up. And when I'm traveling, or eating out with others, it's far more of a challenge to eat as a vegan than it was as a vegetarian. So while I’m not saying it’s not rewarding to be vegan, or that veganism isn’t the ideal lifestyle, or that we shouldn't aspire to veganism,I do believe we need to be careful not to misrepresent the realty of the change to others, lest they become disillusioned and or feel pressured to live a lifestyle with demands they're not prepared to meet.

So, to wrap up, what I’m saying is that I think people are complex, change is a process, and I believe it’s more strategic as well as more accurate to advocate to others with an appreciation of these principles. People aren’t either compassionate or not; they’re compassionate in certain ways yet less so in others, more or less compassionate on certain days and in certain contexts . Vegans aren’t morally superior to vegetarians; we’ve simply taken another step that we’d like to encourage vegetarians to consider. And, I believe, we’re a lot more likely to get people considering these issues if we approach them with a spaciousness that gives room for people to make choices that are in alignment with their current level of awareness and ability.  I’m not in any way saying we shouldn’t advocate for, or raise awareness of, the abolition of all animal products; I just think we need to advocate based on the orientation and capacity of our audience. I advocate veganism to vegetarians when appropriate, and veganism or vegetarianism to carnists, when appropriate.

I hope I've addressed all your questions. Thanks for all your insights, for challenging me to think more deeply, and for a very stimulating dialogue! Best wishes, Melanie

From SC to MJ:

Hi Melanie.
Sorry it has taken me so long to write back.  I think we agree on so much that it’s worth emphasizing our points of agreement, just as you propose more generally for people within the animal-concerned community.  We both understand that there is terrible cruelty involved in the flesh, dairy, and egg industries (as well as in the industries that produce clothing by exploiting and slaughtering animals, including wool, leather, etc.).  That is why we both found our way to becoming vegans and withdrawing our support from these industries. 
I also could not agree with you more that personal purity is not possible in today’s world, in which even roads and car tires are made with animal ingredients.  In that sense, there is a continuum, even among vegans.  Though it is a cliché, I find it worthwhile to remember not to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good, in terms of either my own practices or my advocacy.
From a psychological point of view, I also agree with your observation that there is a continuum among approaches to animals.  Some people have no consciousness at all about animals and are willing to eat, wear, or use any of them without a second thought.  You’re right, I think, that such individuals have engaged in a high degree of numbing (comparable, for an emotional point of reference, to people who can kill other human beings without feeling any remorse).  With emotional awareness of other animals comes sensitivity, and that sensitivity can express itself in a variety of ways, including decisions to refrain from consuming particular animals or categories of animals or animal products. 

It may sometimes be easier to raise consciousness among people who have already taken steps in their lives to align their behavior with their values regarding animals, than it is to do so among people who seem to act as though animals exist entirely to serve as resources for humans.  At the same time, though, I don’t find this to be invariably true.  Some people have not questioned their consumption habits because they have simply never thought about the connection between the non-violence to which they are committed and food and clothing choices.  They have learned throughout their lives that one ought to be kind to animals, but they have also learned that part of life is eating animals and their products.  They perhaps find it almost unimaginable to live a happy, pleasurable life in the absence of animal consumption.

For such individuals, simply pointing out what happens to animals who are used to create flesh, dairy, and egg products (even on supposedly “humane” farms) can be enough to begin their journey to a more compassionate way of living.  By contrast, people who are firmly committed to being ethical vegetarians and not vegans may be more resistant than many omnivores to the arbitrariness of carefully avoiding flesh while consuming large quantities of dairy cheese and yogurt every day.  Such individuals will make comments like “I don’t know how people can eat things that come from slaughter and killing” while they regularly fry scrambled eggs in butter for breakfast.  Part of what makes their line-drawing symptomatic of irrationality is that it is the same animals – cows and chickens, for example – whose slaughter is involved in creating the products that they eschew and the products that they embrace with abandon. 

Once this fact is brought to their attention, their insistence that there is a rational distinction between dairy and flesh seems to require a great deal of numbing.  In this sense, they are very much like the so-called “conscientious omnivores” who eat products marked “humanely raised.”  They are both knowing and not knowing about the suffering in which they participate at the same time, even as they feel some empathy for animals.

There are, of course, a range of behaviors in which distinctions are drawn between different animals (e.g., dog versus cow), between different categories of animals (e.g., mammal versus bird versus fish), between different sorts of animal products (e.g., foie gras, veal, and fur versus chicken, dairy, and leather).  In the case of each distinction, pointing out its weakness can serve to sensitize people.  You do this very effectively in your book, by pointing out that dogs, cows, and pigs are not meaningfully different from one another and that, accordingly, one who finds the eating of dogs repellent should reconsider her willingness to eat cows and pigs as well. 

My sense is that that such sensitization (or re-sensitization) is just as necessary for people who draw the other irrational distinctions that enable them to engage in behavior that would otherwise elicit guilt and dissonance.  The fact that they do refrain from some kinds of animal cruelty serves as a useful building block for erecting a more coherent, vegan structure that no longer says “dog flesh wrong/cow flesh right or cow flesh wrong/cow milk right.”

I do agree with you that it is counterproductive to speak as though vegans are morally superior to vegetarians or omnivores.  We are all flawed beings, and we hopefully evolve into better people over time and never stop growing more conscious and sensitive.  It is useful, though, to think in moral terms about our relationships with animals and to view veganism and abolition of animal suffering as better than vegetarianism, even though the people are not better or worse than one another.

Psychologically, for example, there is a huge difference between the man in the United States who tortures his pet cat or dog in his basement and the man who enters a restaurant in a foreign country and orders a plate of “cat” or “dog” (or the U.S. scientist who performs vivisection on a cat or dog to test the toxicity of some household product).  The first person is likely suffering from some form of anti-social personality disorder, while the second is probably “normal” relative to the rest of the population.  Yet, as you illustrate in your book, the distinction between the two people – from the perspective of the victimized animal, the harm inflicted, and the degree to which such harm is deeply at odds with a vision of kindness and compassion to animals – is one without a difference.

To give you a different sort of example, much more numbing is required for a person to walk around a city and shoot at people one by one than would be required to enable a person to drop a bomb from an airplane onto a city.  Even greater numbing would be required for the same person to walk into the same city with a knife and personally kill each of the people by stabbing him directly.  This is doubtless true of many people who eat animal flesh and dairy and egg products but who would balk at having to do to animals what is required to bring their flesh and secretions to market.  The closer the violence is, the more readily we empathize and the more potentially pathological our inability or unwillingness to empathize. 

Yet I read your book not simply as a descriptive account of people who consume meat but also as a normative plea for greater sensitization.  This is not to say that we, the morally superior, can lecture from on high to the immoral masses.  It is, instead, to say that once we discover an injustice, we try to bring the injustice to light and call people’s attention to it, unvarnished by self-soothing (and socially popular) but unhelpful distinctions.

I say this as someone who did give up using different animals, a few at a time.  When I learned about the warmth and playfulness of pigs, I began purchasing cow ears instead of pig ears for my dogs.  My mom – quite reasonably – asked me at that time, “but what about Elsie the Cow?”  I had no answer.  Though I was, in my own way, expressing concern for animals by switching from pig ears to cow ears, in other words, I was actually engaged in an irrational substitution that did nothing to reduce the amount of animal suffering and injustice in the world. 

I think it is useful to acknowledge when people take steps to express their concern for animals, but it is at least as important to explain why we view some of those steps as leaving the suffering and killing where it was before.  Your project in the book does that, I think, by acknowledging the love we have for dogs and the horror we would feel upon learning that we were eating a dog, but then by also going on to tell us the truth – that what we do to cows and pigs and chickens is not different from or better than what we refrain from doing to dogs.

I agree with you that it is important to recognize that different people react differently to the practical challenges of abolishing animal use, and I think we need to be compassionate and supportive to people as they attempt to move their behavior to match up better with their values.  At the same time, though, if the world is to change in a positive way, more people need to say – whether at a restaurant or at work or elsewhere – “replacing steak with dairy quiche or dairy cheese pizza does not help cows.”

Despite what I say here, I know that when I talk to people about abolition of animal use and veganism, those who are moved by what I say sometimes react with one of the positions you identify (vegetarianism, pescatarianism, or whatever).  My hope is that they will eventually become vegan, so I try to be friendly and supportive but simultaneously to make clear that eating scrambled eggs is not different from eating chicken mcnuggets.  It just “feels” different to people, because our culture has classified things that way, much as it has classified eating dogs as different from eating pigs.

On the subject of the challenge of finding coats and thermals to wear in Boston, I did want to take this opportunity – as a resident of Ithaca (also quite cold) – to share some product recommendations, for what they’re worth:
1. This warm jacket from L. L. Bean (for 99.99).
 4. These nice winter boots (for 29.46), and these (for 29.98), these (for 62.30), these (for 49) as well as these (for 49.99).

I hope this email finds you well, and I want to thank you for exploring these important issues with me.  I too have found our dialogue to be a very stimulating and thought-provoking one that has forced me to think more carefully and thoroughly about my own views.
 Sherry

From MJ to SC:

I agree with you on pretty much everything. I see from the statement below that you have a different experience than I do with some vegetarians toward veganism:

By contrast, people who are firmly committed to being ethical vegetarians and not vegans may be more resistant than many omnivores to the arbitrariness of carefully avoiding flesh while consuming large quantities of dairy cheese and yogurt at every meal.  Such individuals will make comments like “I don’t know how people can eat things that come from slaughter and killing” while they regularly fry scrambled eggs in butter for breakfast.  Part of what makes their line-drawing symptomatic of irrationality is that it is the same animals – cows and chickens, for example – whose slaughter is involved in creating the products that they eschew and the products that they embrace with abandon. 
Once this fact is brought to their attention, their insistence that there is a rational distinction between dairy and flesh seems to require a great deal of numbing.  In this sense, they are very much like the so-called “conscientious omnivores” who eat products marked “humanely raised.”  They are both knowing and not knowing about the suffering in which they participate at the same time, even as they feel some empathy for animals.

I can say in all honesty that I've never had a conversation that reflects this attitude. Yes, I've heard vegetarians say they can't believe carnists eat flesh (I once said that myself) but when it's pointed out to them that dairy and eggs come from the same suffering, those I've spoken to have been completely open to the idea of veganism. Most vegetarians I speak to do know that all animal products result from animal suffering, but they minimize, in their minds, the suffering of so-called dairy cows and hens. Yet, they say they are "trying" to become vegan, or they are "moving toward" veganism, and are generally -- no, in my experience I can say consistently -- supportive of veganism, at least in theory. Perhaps my experience is unusual, but I haven't ever encountered the kind of defensiveness or resistance among vegetarians that you illustrate.

The other thought I've been pondering lately is one of social identity. A French speaker posted something on my book's French fan page saying something like "there's no 'culture of the egg' as there is a culture of flesh." And I think it's true. I think there's an identity that is involved in eating flesh that is not involved in eating eggs or dairy. Meat, and the consumption of meat, is culturally symbolic in a way that other animal products are not. I think this is part of the reason why I see vegetarians as having a very different self-concept, and consciousness, than carnists and the vegetarian self-concept, in my opinion, is quite close to the vegan one (in many ways; in others, not so much).

But yes, I do agree with you about always keeping our eye on the prize, and being careful to ask for veganism even if we only get vegetarianism. Absolutely.

Hope this makes sense! I'm still recovering from the semester. And I hope you're well and getting some time for a break...

Best, Melanie

13 comments:

Paul Scott said...

I think my concern about lacto-ovo vegetarianism is that the flesh and dairy/egg industries cannot really exist without the other. I suppose it is possible (if economically wasteful) for the flesh industry to exist independent of the dairy/egg industry, but it is clearly impossible for the dairy/egg industry to exist without the flesh industry. That is to say, if you are someone who consumes dairy and eggs there *must* exist a large flesh industry to support your food choices. That is, it is not merely a fact of today that eggs and milk happen to result in tremendous animal cruelty it is that it is completely impossible to have a milk industry without a veal industry, ect. That being the case, I just don't see the point (even though I did, myself, transition in exactly that manner, but I can only put that up to my own stupidity or willful ignorance).

In that vein, pescitartians (as long as they are not also lacto-ovo) do represent a real step towards less animal cruelty, even if pescitarianism is the end-point for that individual.

Also, I think it is a mistake to think that vegans are not also "guilty" (if that is the right word for it) of arbitrary line drawing. To me, the most obvious, is "honey is bad/fruit is good." The fruit industry cannot exist without the honey industry. If you eat commercially grown fruits or fruit products (and the same applies to many vegetables), you are supporting commercial bee farming to the same extent that someone who drinks milk is supporting the veal industry.

The point is not whether one draws arbitrary lines or one does not. The essential question is whether one recognizes suffering and chooses to do something about it.

Vegans (of all form) can lay claim to that recognition and action. Lacto-ovo vegetarians cannot (they lack either the recognition of suffering or the will to stop it). Regardless of what may be politically expedient and regardless of whether lacto-ovo vegetarians may wish or believe they are doing good, it is a distinction that should not be ignored.

Speaking from personal experience, I am certain that if during the many years I was a lacto-ovo vegetarian if some of the people I knew as vegans had forced me to confront what my choice to continue eating cheese really meant, I would have been vegan much sooner than I was. I think it is a mistake to assume that the best policy is to tread lightly around "potential allies" so as not to scare them off. Someone who has made the choice to stop eating meat because they find the cruelty repulsive is not going to return to eating meat just because you force them (repeatedly, if necessary) to face the fact that what they are doing is no better (and in fact that what they are doing by eating dairy and/or eggs requires that others "eat their meat for them.")

beachwoodflea said...

I couldn't agree more with Melanie Joy!

MJ: I think it’s important that we, as vegans, hold a spaciousness that avoids the black-and-white thinking that we so often find in the movement. I think we need to avoid labeling in a way that ends up being counterproductive. (I’ve heard vegans say to other vegans, for example, “You’re not vegan if you eat soy cheese with casein!” The typical result from comments like this is that people throw up their hands and feel like it’s impossible to be truly vegan, so why try at all.) I think we need to be very careful to avoid creating a moral hierarchy, which inevitably labels those who aren’t ready to become vegan as morally inferior and which strengthens their carnistic defenses.
I also believe that we need to be careful not to project our own experience of veganism onto others. I became vegan fairly quickly; I gave up all flesh and eggs overnight, and then later dairy. Most people, however, do not transition this way. At least that’s what the small amount of research I’ve seen suggests, and what the large amount of anecdotal evidence I’ve accrued over the past two decades supports. Transitioning to veganism is a social, psychological, and behavioral process. Asking someone to become vegan is asking for them to take on an added dimension of a political identity; vegetarianism is often more of a social identity. People need to feel psychologically safe enough to shift their consciousness and identity from carnism to vegetarianism or from vegetarianism to veganism.

Michael C. Dorf said...

If someone wants to call herself vegan but eats foods with casein when she can't find an equivalent food without it, I'm not going to judge her. But words have meaning in social context. Thus, I would certainly object if a package of rice or soy cheese were labeled "vegan" even though it contained casein, because I don't want to eat casein and in treating what is in fact cow milk protein as an animal product, I am hardly insisting on an idiosyncratic, "black and white," or otherwise extreme view. Likewise, if a friend brought a dish labeled "vegan lasagne" to a vegan pot-luck and it contained rice cheese with casein, she would be acting against the interests of those members of the community who depend on one another's standard use of language. The issue isn't judgment; it's community.

Sherry F. Colb said...

On Paul's point about honey and vegans, I think there is something to it. Moving hives from place to place is an abusive thing to do to bees, if bees are sentient beings (and we have at least some reason, based on their behavior, to believe that they are). Therefore, if we refrain from honey but eat fruit and vegetables, we are not being entirely consistent.

Nonetheless, there are some distinctions that make me think it appropriate to avoid honey while continuing to consume fruit and vegetables.

First, and perhaps most importantly, fruits and vegetables are necessary to our health and well-being, and right now, they are not readily available in versions that do not involve exploitation of bees. Honey, by contrast, is easy to live without. It is no healthier than other sweeteners (such as maple syrup, rice syrup, agave, or dehydrated cane juice), and it is the only sweetener that provides a medium for botulin toxin (this is why the underdeveloped immune systems of small infants counsel strongly against feeding them any honey).

By analogy to fruit versus honey, if I have to receive a medicine that is obtained by harming an animal (e.g., heparin, which is obtained from a pig who has been killed), my taking that medicine does not make my decision not to consume pig flesh silly or arbitrary. I might need heparin at the moment; I never need to eat pig flesh or any other animal product.

A second distinction is that of inflicting less harm rather than more harm. If I refrain from eating honey, I do not then replace honey with other foods that themselves inflict as much death or harm on bees as honey does (as I did, for example, when I replaced animal flesh with greater dairy or egg consumption). I simply remove one source of harm to bees -- where smoke is sprayed at the bees, and the honey that they produce for the young bees is forcibly stolen from their hives and replace it with a vegan alternative (or the incredibly well-named product "Just Like Honey."

To go back to the original topic, if someone actually stops eating animal flesh and continues eating only that amount of dairy that he or she ate before, then that would represent a reduction in harm and would be better than continuing to consume both flesh and dairy in the earlier quantities. Similarly, if someone stopped eating dairy and continued eating flesh (but only that quantity of flesh that he or she consumed before), thus becoming a non-ovo-non-lacto-carnitarian, that too would represent a step in the right direction, relative to continuing to eat as he or she did before.

What worries me is that people who consider animal products a part of every meal (which is how many people unwilling to become vegan think about animal products) would likely feel the need to replace the old animal product with more of the still-allowed animal product (e.g., fewer chickens, more dairy and eggs). And if that is what someone does, then the substitution is hard to characterize as a net benefit for animals.

In short, I think it would be a mistake to take no steps just because one is unwilling to take all steps -- whether that means taking no steps to reduce the killing of undoubtedly sentient animals like cows, sheep, chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, and fishes, or whether it means consuming honey just because one consumes fruit and vegetables. It's just that I would not regard it as taking a step if one were to replace one harm with another (replacing killing cows, for example, with killing chickens). With lacto-ovo vegetarianism, we don't really know whether someone has taken a step or not, because the quantity of animal products remains up for grabs. Both the individual who eats nothing but quiche and the person who eats an almost entirely vegan diet except for a half a cup of cow milk a week may be called "lacto-ovo vegetarian."

heathu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
heathu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
heathu said...

The widespread use of commercial pollinators does provide a logical problem for vegans, if a person is a vegan because he or she believes that any sentient creature is the moral equivalent of any other sentient creature. This is because a vegan diet really doesn’t present an alternative to exploiting sentient creatures, only an alternative to which sentient creatures, and in what numbers. Pollination services are currently used in 90+ crops commonly consumed in a vegan (and, for that matter, omnivorous) diet. Even the least intensive pollination services use one hive per acre, (some more intensive crops require up to 4) and each hive could have 40,000 or more bees in it. The agribusinesses that buy these services, of course, pollinate hundreds or even thousands of acres. And hives in commercial practices generally do not last more than one year – like many commercially exploited animals, bees in commercial pollination services have a greatly reduced lifespan compared to their wild cousins, which necessitates the need for more hives.

I am unaware of any studies that show how many bees are exploited or killed to make a vegan meal (it probably varies a lot), but it’s certainly possible that some diets consume fewer sentient creatures than a vegan diet sourced exclusively from agribusiness. A diet that is heavy on wind-pollinated grains and grass- or grass-and-corn-fattened beef could very well be such a diet. Aboriginal subsistence whalers may consume the fewest sentient creatures of anyone.

Should we all become Argentinean gauchos or Inuits? Of course not. Whale meat for everyone is unsustainable and toxic. A near-exclusively bovine diet would be a bigger health and ecological disaster than our bovine-intensive diet already is. But if any sentient creature is the moral equivalent of any other sentient creature, then even a vegan may be able to reduce the number sentient creatures they exploit by occasionally substituting one of their salads for sandwich of grass-fed beef. Or just go hunting and reduce the number of sentient creatures exploited by obtaining some calories from elk or moose. (Recipes available upon request.) They couldn’t call themselves a vegan at that point, but it not at all clear to me that such a person would be exploiting a greater number of sentient creatures than one who is vegan.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

And so it seems: Adieu to the land flowing with milk and honey!

Michael C. Dorf said...

I can't tell whether heathu means his comment to be serious or not. If not, then in the same spirit, I'll offer "heathu recipes" upon request. But I'll assume he means this as something other than a "gotcha" point, in which case I have several reactions:

1) Based on my own experience, people who eat meat, certainly including me when I did, eat a lot of it, and even if they think it better to eat a small amount and only grass-fed or hunted wild animals, will make many more exceptions than someone who follows a strict vegan regimen. He or she will frequently find himself or herself at a restaurant or at someone's house eating animals and products of animals raised in a much less sustainable fashion. For me, being strictly vegan is at least partly a form of self-discipline.

2) Beyond that, I can't speak for all vegans, but I certainly don't think that any sentient creature is the moral equivalent of any other sentient creature. If given a choice between eating a plum that, statistically speaking, was the product of two excess bee deaths, and eating a sparrow, I'd eat the plum.

3) Again speaking only for myself, veganism rests not on the proposition that all sentient creatures have equal moral worth but that all sentient creatures have some moral worth. There certainly are hard questions about tradeoffs once one accepts that proposition. Perhaps Heathu has raised one of them, but regardless of whether or not he has, the existence of hard moral questions needn't blind us to the existence of easy moral questions: Given that the production of the vast majority of commercially available animal products in fact are based on harming the animals directly involved and many more indirectly, not participating in that process is a choice about which I have no qualms.

Sherry F. Colb said...

After reading Heathu’s post, I think I need to clarify something. Neither I nor others (whether within or outside of the vegan community) generally consider killing an insect to be the equivalent of killing a cow, a chicken, or a fish. These vertebrate animals have brains, nervous systems, and neurochemistry that operate and respond to pain and fear in the way that ours do. We know that they are sentient (just as we know that other humans are sentient), and we therefore owe them moral obligations. Whether insects are sentient is a question. We do not know that insects experience fear, distress, and pain. In avoiding honey, I am therefore erring on the side of assuming that they do, given the unnecessary nature of honey. If the choice, however, is to kill a free-living moose, who I know experiences pain and loves her young and her herd-mates, versus eating a fruit that has been pollinated by a bee kept by a bee-keeper, that choice is straightforward. People who want to mock animal rights, in fact, will say “what about insects?”, to which my response is that I err on the side of not harming them when I can, but I (like those who wish to mock animal rights) do not place them in the same category as creatures whose capacity to suffer is as clear as that of the animals slaughtered for their flesh, secretions, and skin. So I will pass on both the moose recipe and the heathu recipe.

heathu said...

Just a quick response to Profs. Dorf and Colbs’ responses. I did mean my answer as serious, though in retrospect, the offer of moose recipes at the end may be reasonably perceived as a bit cheeky. Prof. Dorf’s #2 response: what prompted my comment, in part, is the belief of some vegans who do use sentience as a baseline for how much cognitive function an animal needs to have not be exploited, ethically, by humans. My comment was to address some of the problems that assumption holds, particularly since in Prof. Colb’s first post at 2:39pm she seems to put bees solidly in the sentient category, so she avoids honey, then by 8:54pm, throws them under the (traveling commercial apiarist) bus by saying we really don’t know what an insect feels or knows.

To address Prof. Colb’s clarification: I’m just trying to narrow down where vegans do draw the line: is it sentience, or some “higher” (or better seen as different) function? To me, it now it sounds like Prof. Colb is drawing the line not at sentience, but at craniums, (and the centralized nervous system that accompanies it) rather then mere perceptual awareness. Prof. Colb, then, should have no moral problems with a Jamaican free diver who grabs some conch and throws it on BBQ. (Sorry, no good jerk recipes for that at hand for that.)

To address another part of Prof. Colb’s clarification: I wasn’t trying to mock animal rights by asking about insects. I was just genuinely posing the question of where they and other invertebrates fit into the complex moral relationship we have with other animals.

I’ll close by thanking Prof. Dorf for accepting and patiently answering all these questions about vegans and animal rights. I assume he started this blog because he was interested, primarily, in legal and policy issues, like federalism and deficits. In fact, as I write this, he has gone back to that on his next post. But his tolerance for such conversations should be commended.

Paul Scott said...

"I’m just trying to narrow down where vegans do draw the line: is it sentience, or some “higher” (or better seen as different) function?"

I think the best answer remains the one I gave in my first post. Vegans are people who recognize the suffering of animals and choose to do something about it. This is probably too loose a definition for some, but I think the line drawing thing is an issue. Vegans, like all groupings (whether or not related to consumption grouping), draw lines. Sometimes those lines are arbitrary - or perhaps more appropriately - hard to defend with simple (or sometimes even complex) constructions. I mentioned the bee/fruit thing, but there are plenty of others. Ants (and other insects) and agriculture, generally, for example. I have heard and read reasonable arguments vis-a-vis bivalves; though I personally would never eat them, I am certain my arguments opposing their consumption are far weaker than my arguments for not exploiting cows, for example.

I think Mike has it completely correct when referring to commercial labels - "Vegan" on a consumer label should have a consistent and reasonably agreed upon meaning and no product labeled "vegan" should contain casein or honey - even if there are some people who would call themselves vegan even though they would consume products with casein (I can't really imagine this happening knowingly - MJ's suggestion to the contrary is the first I have encountered it) or honey. To me, commercial labeling is the only place it is essential that the generally agreed upon food classifications are followed.

I certainly understand to some extent the concern with "incorrect" self labeling. I have, for example, a friend who calls herself vegetarian even though she eats fish. I can't say I understand that, but she does. I know of at least one other person who does likewise. Almost everyone who calls themselves vegetarian is, in fact, nothing of the sort, since those identifying with the label "vegetarian" are almost always lacto-ovo-vegetarian. I think that is almost certainly why the name "vegan" was necessary in the first place.

I don't really know of any striking examples of odd self-labeling with regard to vegans. Given that, I am not sure it is all that necessary to delve deeply into the line-drawing and introspection heathu is seeking.

beachwoodflea said...

PS: MJ's example of the casein situation was not a plea for concession, rather an example how extreme finger pointing can be illustrated within the "black and white" reality of the inner sanctum of the vegan community.
Points like: eating scrambled eggs is not different from eating chicken mcnuggets. Are a better example of dangerous "black and white" thinking (no matter how accurate) as it relates to people who have not made the commitment or are just beginning to.

To the question at hand:
All vegans draw the line in different places. But the generally agreed upon definition is: a person who does not consume, or wear, any animal (not insect) products.