Thursday, July 24, 2014

Veganism, Year Six: The Familiar and the Unfamiliar

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

On July 24, 2008, I posted "Meat, Dairy, Psychology, Law, Economics," here on Dorf on Law, in which I described how I had decided to become an ethical vegan, after several years of having been a vegetarian.  Every year since then, on or near the 24th of July, I have posted various thoughts that have been inspired by the anniversary of having made the decision to become a vegan.  Those posts are available here: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 (part I and part II).  Very occasionally, I will also write a vegan-related post at some other time of year.

In these posts, I tend not to adopt the academic style of my other writing, which would in this case involve discussing the deep moral questions raised by veganism.  I have done so, in part, because my co-bloggers cover that territory so very, very well.  For example, any readers who did not happen to read Professor Colb's post yesterday, in which she capped off our Hobby Lobby post mortem series, should do so immediately.  There, Professor Colb discusses the moral implications of being complicit in someone else's decision, comparing the moral claim asserted by the plaintiffs in Hobby Lobby -- that they will have participated in an abortion if they provide the health care coverage that allows one of their employees to buy a morning-after pill that might prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the employee's uterine wall -- to the question of whether a vegan "participates" in animal cruelty by giving money to a non-vegan who might buy cruelty-infused foods.

Professor Colb's blog post is a tour de force of nuanced inquiry into subtle and important questions. That it ends by further strengthening the points that Professor Dorf and I have been making about the heavy (and perhaps ultimately unbearable) pressure that Hobby Lobby will put on the "sincerity" inquiry in future claims of religious burdens, is even better. Add in Professor Colb's book Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger? And Other Questions People Ask Vegans, as well as a new book addressing questions regarding abortion and animal rights, which Professors Colb and Dorf have recently written (to be published, most likely, next year), and it is fair to say that the Dorf on Law team has (at the very least) the academic/philosophical side of veganism completely covered.

With no need to add to that academic side of the argument, I have typically used my "veganniversary" posts to discuss questions about veganism from a more personal perspective.  My experience has been that even the most morally thoughtful non-vegans find (as I did) that there is a strange disconnect between the mental process of finally figuring out that the moral case for veganism is compelling and the ability to make the personal decision to become a vegan.  I have had both students and colleagues say things like this: "I completely respect anyone who can become a vegan.  I wish I could, because I know that I shouldn't do what I'm doing.  But I just can't take the leap."  My approach, therefore, has been to write posts addressing the questions of what it means to live life as a vegan, in terms of how it affects one's daily choices, interactions with non-vegan loved ones (as well as strangers), and so on.

This year, the "lived experience" question that has begun to fascinate me is how non-vegans conceive of the different diets involved in typical non-vegan eating versus vegan eating.  In particular, I have come to realize that there is really a two-part claim that goes into rejecting veganism -- coming both from those who, like my colleagues and students noted above, "get it" on the moral questions, as well as from the many more people who think that "man has dominion over all animals," incorrectly thinking that mindlessly reciting such a phrase (as Stephen Colbert's nit-witted conservative alter ego does) somehow excuses animal cruelty.

The two parts boil down to "defending the familiar" and "rejecting the unfamiliar."  As I will explain, I find both parts unconvincing, but I find the latter claim especially bizarre.  By "defending the familiar," I am referring to people's statements that they simply enjoy the cruelty-based diet that they have come to regard as normal.  For example, my last gasp was, "I just couldn't live without pizza."  People similarly object that virtually every family gathering for holidays involves dead and/or tortured animals (Thanksgiving turkey and giblets, for one disgusting example).  The familiar is familiar, and thinking about never eating those favorite dishes again -- no matter how fully one has accepted the moral logic of veganism -- can be daunting.

My reaction to such claims has always been that, yes, one will no longer eat those familiar things, but that what made those things seem delicious is generally not the animal-based part of the meal.  How could that be?  Consider what is possibly the easiest case: eating hot dogs while watching a baseball game.  Even the most insistent meat-eaters joke about hot dogs not really having any meat in them, or only having animal parts that people consider disgusting.  (Homer Simpson once commented on the "pigs' snouts and chickens' rectums" that go into his hot dogs.)  When any "tube steak" is actually tasty, it is not because of the meat, but because of the various spices that go into brats, italian sausages, and so on.  This is easily demonstrated by tasting any of the vegan alternatives to these standard items.

In response to "But I like my familiar stuff," in other words, we can note that a surprisingly large number of people's favorites taste good because they are "non-animal item delivery devices."  Even those that arguably are not, such as steaks or sushi, are still generally treated with heavy dousings of salt and other spices.  It is true that some things might never be quite the same (although advances in vegan foods might soon change that), but if one is really thinking about rejecting a moral choice because it is "just too hard," then it is at least important to know that it is a lot less difficult than one might imagine.

This past year, however, I have become more interested in the "rejecting the unfamiliar" half of the non-vegans' lament.  Last Fall, writing a Dorf on Law post on a different subject, I noted that the ESPN sports talk show "Mike & Mike In the Morning" had bizarrely gone on an anti-vegan rampage, with the second Mike (Golic) ranting and raving about how terrible vegan food is.  The first Mike (Greenberg) egged him on (pun intended), threatening to force Golic (via a "gentleman's bet") to eat nothing but vegan food for a full week.  Greenberg then spent time on the show, over several days, playing straight man to Golic's ranting, at one point reading the ingredients to a vegan dish, allowing Golic to make sarcastic comments after each item.  The level of humor was so ridiculously low that when Greenberg named the first item, "water," Golic bellowed, "YUMMMM!!" and rolled his eyes.  I changed the channel and have never turned back.

OK, so it is easy to make fun of sports talk shows and the intellectual Lilliputians who populate them.  And it is not worth thinking for more than a second about what an item-by-item list of non-vegan ingredients would entail.  What I found fascinating, however, was that it was not enough merely for Golic to say, "But I like what I usually eat," but that it was also essential to say, "And what you freaks eat tastes TERRIBLE."

This, I think, more clearly than anything else exposes the unthinking, clenched-fist emotion of the anti-vegan reaction.  This is an assertion as fact of something that is not only false, but about which the person has no knowledge.  "Vegan food tastes terrible" -- or is not filling, or is lacking in nutrients, or any other demonstrably false assertion -- is an essential part of the rationalizing that allows some people to sleep at night.

Of course, people like Golic will never come around.  For those who might, however, the "rejecting the unfamiliar" half of the discussion is even easier to deal with than the "defending the familiar" half.  "You'll never eat another steak, but you'll probably not miss it as much as you think you will, and it's worth it in any case," is a harder sell than "What you will eat is great."  (That is not to say that it is impossible to produce tasteless vegan foods.  But honestly, the non-vegan foods that people eat are often pretty awful.  Arby's, anyone?)

If one wants to eat delicious, filling, and nutritious foods, one can do so as a vegan.  One can even be a "junk food vegan," but speaking from personal experience, I do not recommend it.  The point, however, is that half of the "can't make the leap" visceral rejection of veganism is based on nothing more than fear of the unknown.  The more common it becomes for people to learn that vegan food tastes good, the less resistance people might have to making that leap.


Unknown said...

This is exactly what I needed to read today. Thanks!

Joe said...

One problem I have, trivial it might be, is convenience. I have had it and it can be good, but something like vegan pizza. Even in New York City, just ordering a slice isn't so easy.

I'm not a great cook and over the years at times had limited funds or cooking resources (e.g., no oven). I have various cookbooks, but never really use them except to determine how long to cook vegetables. Even "simple" recipes have multiple ingredients, many I would not normally own.

Long term, vegan eating can be convenient and cheaper but that's one thing -- e.g., Toronto has vegan dogs at certain hot dog stands. Haven't seen that around here. Likewise, a fresh vegan pastry at the bakery or a food truck. etc.

Taste was not really an issue for me.

[I am typing this while have lunch -- vegan "tuna" spread on a bagel with coffee flavored with vanilla almond milk. So, good timing.]

David Ricardo said...

Mr. Buchanan is correct that the movement towards a more vegan diet will take place because the food is getting very tasty.

In thanks for his comments I would direct everyone to this site

which is the wonderful Melissa Clark cooking a great veggie burger. The cheese, eggs and mayo can be changed to make it vegan. I have done so and it is fantastic.

Greg said...

This is the first of two responses I had on this topic. We'll call this the more academic one.

Before I begin, I want to be clear that I am defending Hobby Lobby's owners, and not Justice Alito's decision. I consider the logic in his decision to be at best recklessly broad.

I find some of the assumptions implicit in this post to be curious, especially when following the Hobby Lobby post from Professor Colb.

I personally have no moral qualms with raising my own animals, collecting my own eggs and milk, and slaughtering them for meat. It's important to understand this, or the following discussion makes little sense.

That said, despite my lack of moral qualms, I choose instead to hire someone to do it for me. This is due to both a lack of sufficient land and a personal disinterest in spending my time in raising animals for food. The grocery store I purchase from doesn't own their own farms or slaughterhouse, so they in turn pay someone else to raise and slaughter the animals for them. Somewhere down the chain, potentially several more stages removed, are the actual farmer or rancher who raises and slaughters the animal.

The individuals actually doing the raising and slaughtering may not do so in the way that I would normally do it. To a certain extent, I wouldn't expect them to. I would assume that certain efficiencies would apply to farming on a scale larger than the individual household. These would include but not be limited to ranching on land that would be undesirable for quasi-residential development and raising herd animals in herds rather than small groups.

The real problem comes when the farming is done in ways that I would find morally objectionable. The production of veal (rather than raising the male calves to adulthood and slaughtering them then) is just one example of this. There are a number of slaughterhouse practices that would also apply here.

The question becomes, what is my moral culpability in the practices that I disapprove of? These are decisions made neither by me nor by people who I employ directly. Am I responsible for these choices made by others? Are my only choices to either raise my own animals or decide to eat vegan? Traditional ethical vegan morality says that I am morally responsible and that those are my only ethically defensible choices.

What does all this have to do with Hobby Lobby?

In Professor Colb's post, she comes close to deriding Hobby Lobby's owners for refusing to face the reality of our interconnected world. This is in a case where there are likely fewer steps between their money and the practice that they find objectionable and where the owners feel that they have the ability to effect change, but are not allowed by the government to do so. Furthermore, the wrong that Hobby Lobby's owners are trying to prevent (in their eyes at least) is the death of a human.

It seems somewhat hypocritical (and in this case possibly even backwards) to hold one's self morally responsible for the actions of a farmer or slaughterhouse that is 3 or more employment steps away while considering Hobby Lobby's owners unrealistic for simply holding themselves to the same standard on a different issue.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Greg: There is an enormous difference going in the other direction. The owners of Hobby Lobby object to being implicated in the wrongs of their employees, but they do not think, nor could they realistically think, that by opting out of providing abortifacient coverage they are actually going to stop the use of abortifacients by their employees. The employees will still do it; but the Hobby Lobby owners won't feel implicated.

By contrast, when Neil, or Sherry, or I refuse to purchase animal products, we actually reduce demand for those products, which, in a market economy, translates into fewer animals killed. (I've seen various estimates but about 100 animals spared per person per year is a common figure.) So yes, if all one is concerned with is whether one participates in another's essentially inevitable wrong, then the Hobby Lobby plaintiffs may have a more direct case. But that is not what vegans are primarily doing.

Greg said...

This is the second of two posts in response to this post. We'll call this the lifestyle post.

I don't get vegan food that pretends to be meat, especially when used as a substitute for meat.

I personally don't eat exclusively vegan, but don't get me wrong, there are lots of vegan dishes that I enjoy. In particular there was a vegetarian sub that I ate all the time in college. I never understood those who deride vegan food. It's a different choice, and choice is good!

At the same time, I don't understand vegan food (like the vegan hot dog listed in the original post) that tries to emulate traditional meat dishes. I see this kind of like diet soft drinks. Studies have shown that drinking diet soft drinks usually increases calorie intake because the individual develops a taste for sweet things.

It seems to me like vegan foods that emulate meat dishes work the same way. Instead of developing a taste for vegan foods they preserve an attachment to meat and could ironically make a vegan diet more difficult to adhere to. Furthermore, eating vegan foods that look like meat can send the wrong message to others by implying that being vegan is undesirable (i.e. "I really wish I could have a real hot dog, but am making do with this.")

To me, if you want to be vegan, be vegan, and good for you. Eat pizza (a flat bread) all you like, but there's no reason to eat a pretend hot dog, and may be good reasons not to.

Then again, as I said earlier, choice is good!

Michael C. Dorf said...

On Greg's second comment: I agree with a lot of what you say here. I'll give a partial defense of the "fake meat" phenomenon, though: I think it's very useful for people who are transitioning to veganism; the ability to eat foods that seem familiar makes it less daunting. Having been vegan for eight years myself, I almost never get the stuff anymore, in part for the reasons you identify. In addition, the veggie-based meats tend to be highly processed, which undermines some of the health benefits of a vegan diet.

Greg said...

Professor Dorf: I guess now we're into reading a third party's mind, but here's my go...

Regardless of what they may have said in court, I suspect that the Hobby Lobby owners believe that, in the end, they will be preventing actions they disapprove of from occurring.

While they didn't wait around to see, my guess is that the Hobby Lobby owners believe (and certainly hope) that even the government accommodation referred to in Justice Alito's decision as justification for a less restrictive means existing will eventually be struck down on RFRA grounds.

If not that, they probably hope that sheer administrative inconvenience will at least prevent a few employees from having access to birth control that the owners disapprove of.

Of course none of this is a factual argument, as noted in your post it's a moral or perceived moral one. The factual argument is that if they succeed in restricting access to birth control there WILL be more post-implantation abortions of the kind that they were never required to cover, and thus they can't win even if they win. But, it's their perceived moral implications, not the actual factual implications that matter from a moral perspective.

Joe said...

There are low calorie alternatives for all sorts of drinks, including juices.

As to "hot dogs," it amounts to a convenient form of food of a certain texture. A "patty" is a convenient and at times tasty means of eating. Animal products also have certain flavors, as NB noted, that people like.

The animal product aspect can be removed w/o lost of enjoyment. In the process, common terminology like "dog" or "patty" could be used. I'm really unsure how much this hurts the cause. This would apply to pizza too. Anyway, it's only one part of a vegan diet, just like hamburgers or hotdogs would be put one part of a non-vegan one.

I also think Prof. Dorf's transition argument is correct too.

Joe said...

Also, the average "meat" eating person doesn't want to slaughter animals. I think there is some moral feelings there though it also is that it is an unpleasant thing. Lack of time or space is not the average reason. Greg there isn't typical.

Anyway, the person who eats animals directly does so. Hobby Lobby wishes to refuse to offer the option to choose to do so, to provide a direct parallel. Meanwhile, the employee is paid and can regular salary or (with some burdens) perhaps government subsidies.

Seems eating chicken is more direct involvement; this putting aside whatever respect one has for HL's argument as a whole.

Greg said...

Joe: Lest you think me more unfeeling than I am...

There's more than it may appear at first in my "personal disinterest."

All I said is that I have no moral qualms about it. This is different from saying that I don't think it's unpleasant or messy in a way I would dislike. I wouldn't like to be the one holding the bone saw in open heart surgery for similar reasons, but I certainly would have no moral objection to doing so.

I'm fairly picky about the distinction between moral objections and more "it's icky" objections. I agree that many people have trouble making the distinction, and I blame this for some of the resistance to gay rights.

I'll certainly agree that if a person has moral objections to raising and killing their own animals for food then they should seriously consider whether paying someone else to do it is morally different from hiring someone to commit a crime. That said, I suspect many meat eaters could look at raising animals in a historical context and realize that they probably don't really have a moral problem with it, even if it seems repulsive at first.

There is one aspect of meat eating that gives me pause, and this is the sustainable farming perspective. From that perspective, insects would be far better, but are unfortunately largely unavailable as a food source in my area of the world. There's also the ickiness aspect, but that's a cultural consideration, not a moral objection.

Michael Duff said...

I'm ridiculously late to these posts but wanted to say that I find them thrilling. I came to veganism in the mid-1980s largely in reaction to two currents of thought (I was a blue collar laborer at the time now a law prof.) First, I did not want to have any part in causing any sentient being pain. Simple as that. Second, the raving lefty Teamster that I was became convinced that "they" were trying to kill me. When later attending HLS I ducked over to the Divinity School and had the good fortune to meet some Jains. Those folks were so immersed in consideration of "ahimsa" (loosely, not causing pain) that they were concerned about walking lest they injure unseen creatures). I sometimes wonder what would happen in Hobby Lobby land if folks did honest "lesser of the pains" assessments. I don't know if answers would come any more easily but the tone of discussion might be different. I can still remember the easy demeanor of the Jains and their incredulity that anyone would seriously contend that causing suffering was OK.

american maid said...

I work with a guy who constantly makes the same, "I get veganism, but mock meat is stupid and makes no sense to me," argument. Personally, I don't buy it. If he is going to take the time to inveigh against something as harmless as a meat analogue, then he must be at least a little threatened by veganism. It seems like he is saying, "Hey, you chose to be vegan buddy, no meat like stuff for you," and is doing so because he feels like I should be deprived, and that if I want something like that then I should eat the “real thing”. What he does not seem to understand is that I didn't abandon sandwiches, hot dogs, burgers, cheese steaks and other foods because I didn't like the way they tasted; I did so because I made a decision to reject animal cruelty. I am vegan solely because I don’t believe that I, or anyone else, has the right to inflict unnecessary harm on another sentient creature. If I can enjoy the taste and experience of traditional American foods without contributing to the pain and suffering of helpless animals, then I will certainly do so. I have been vegan for seven years now, and my diet primary consists of fruits, veggies, legumes, and whole grains. However, I live in Philly, and if I want to occasionally go to New Harmony for some Chinese, Khyber Pass Pub for a vegan pulled pork sandwhich and popcorn, Blackbird Pizza for an amazing cubano or cheese steak, Fergies Pub for some hot wings, or Local 44 for a reuben, then I will do so. It’s completely fine, in moderation, and any attempt to argue against it seems disingenuous.

Unknown said...

@Professor Dorf: I was unaware of the "100 Animals per year" statistic. Can You provide a citation I can share with Others?

Michael C. Dorf said...

One source for the 100 animals/year is the following on PETA's website:

(It says 100 animals/year from going vegetarian but the page appears to use vegan and vegetarian interchangeably.)

Neil H. Buchanan said...

My sincere thanks to all of the commenters here. I agree with Michael Duff's statement that this is a thrilling discussion. Plenty to think about for my next veganism post.

I'll just add one personal thought on the mock meat question. In some ways, I'm the last person who should speak about the "defending the familiar" part of my two-part analysis, because I NEVER missed meat at all. I don't know why it happened this way, but I simply did not have any moments where I thought, "Oh, boy, would I love to have some prime rib right now, but I must desist!" I didn't miss it at all, and still don't.

So, in a sense, I'm engaged in an attempt to try to be sympathetic to people whose reactions are quite foreign to me. Having heard people's arguments/objections to veganism over the years, the "but I'll miss so much good stuff" argument comes up again and again. Far be it from me to say, "No, you won't, because I don't." The most I can comfortably say is, "You might be surprised, as I was, but whatever sacrifice you make is for a good reason.

That said, I have tried various mock meats over the years, and my wife and I even included a fantastic mock beef dish as a choice at our (all-vegan) wedding reception last summer, as I described in last year's veganniversary post. It was delicious not because it tasted like beef, but because it was delicious. As I said in this year's post, the contribution of the animal flesh's taste is generally quite minimal (and frequently negative), and the tastiness of the dish almost completely depends on what one does with spices, sauces, chopped veggies, and so on.

Thanks again to everyone for your comments.

Joe said...

This is past due, but one thing about meat analogues that would be a concern around here is that many aren't vegan. Morningstar products, e.g., seem to generally have dairy or eggs in them.

This is part of the bother for those who like convenience -- see also, "vegetable" soup that has some sort of animal product. But, there are various brands that don't have this problem.

On another blog, someone said s/he never found a cheese alternative that worked. This is not my experience. The slices to me are akin to processed cheese and you can get other versions including shredded and such to match the texture, taste etc.

Such things are part of eating -- did not ancient monks think along these lines when using tofu, e.g.?

Elissa Blake Free said...

I found this blog because I am reading "Mind if I Order a Cheeseburger?" and looked up the author.

Being an ethical vegan, who works at a law school (I am not a professor), I am just THRILLED to read this!

Thank you all so much for discussing this incredibly important ethical issue!