The Death of a Chef, Vegan Views, and the Relevance of State of Mind

by Sherry F. Colb

Like other movements for change, the animal rights movement hosts its share of internal battles. Ethical vegans disagree, for example, on the Impossible Burger, a plant-based burger with the taste and texture of a hamburger made of cow flesh. Some support it because it diverts demand from the slaughterhouse, while others oppose it because one of its ingredients was tested on animals.

Vegans also part ways on whether a person who eats a plant-based diet to achieve optimal health should be considered a vegan at all. Disagreements abound over whether laws regulating the treatment of animals in agriculture and laboratories are generally a positive intervention or an empty promise that impedes actual progress toward the abolition of animal exploitation. When it comes to determining what the best steps are for ethical vegans, consensus is the exception rather than the rule.

It was therefore unsurprising to find that ethical vegans disagreed over how to react to the death of a very non-vegan chef.

Earlier this month, celebrity chef and bestselling author Anthony Bourdain was found dead in an apparent suicide at the age of 61. Following news of his demise, fans of all stripes published laudatory descriptions of the man and his life. He did have detractors, though, and among them were some ethical vegans.

In this post, I want to consider the reaction that some vegans had to Bourdain's death as well as the reaction that other vegans had to the first set of vegans' reaction. The vegan "conversation" about the death raises questions about how we ought to assess the culpability of a bad act.

Just so readers understand why a vegan might regard Bourdain negatively, consider some of the things that he reportedly said and did. He was recorded one time eating the intestines of a duck who he said had been alive when disemboweled. Another time, he was recorded grabbing an octopus out of her underwater home and then commencing to eat her while she was still alive.

On yet another recorded occasion, when asked about the cruelty of foie gras, Bourdain said that cruelty would be exceptional. The production of foie gras typically involves  force-feeding birds to induce fatty liver disease so that people can eat the diseased livers. Bourdain argued that producers have an incentive to give animals a comfortable life because animals taste better after living such a life, quipping that the birds are asked to do only what any self-respecting adult film star does.

In addition to showing what appear to be sadism and callousness toward animals, Bourdain expressed anger and contempt for vegans, the people who wanted him and everyone else to leave nonhuman animals alone and stop hurting them.  He was not a fan of vegetarians either. 

He said: "“[v]egetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food." 

He declared  as well that “[v]egans are disgusting and loathsome. I’m often asked why vegans are the enemy of everything good and decent and must be hunted down and destroyed so their genes don’t pass onto future generations. It’s because if you can’t enjoy even a nice, stinky, runny, ripe cheese like this you may as well kill yourself now.”

You get the idea: Bourdain was not a friend to vegans. Hatred of vegans might seem relatively innocuous; vegans, after all, are not an oppressed group. "Veganophobia" is accordingly not in the same category as racism, misogyny, and homophobia. Yet it may not be as trivial as it sounds.

Consider by analogy an insult aimed at men who refrain from violence against women and children. The nonviolent men are not oppressed, but stigmatizing them could hurt women and children by encouraging other men to commit violence against these vulnerable groups. Likewise, an attack on vegans hurts those whom vegans are trying to protect, nonhuman animals. 

If violent men and non-vegans look up to the person hurling the insults, then they might be less inclined than they otherwise would have been to change their lives and choose peace and respect over violence and exploitation. Stigmatizing people who advocate for the vulnerable can thereby harm the vulnerable, not only their advocates.

Now let us turn to the story of vegans and their reaction to Bourdain's death.

Most vegans I know said that any suicide is a tragedy and acknowledged that Bourdain advocated for immigrants and other marginalized people during his lifetime. Of that group, some added that notwithstanding his advocacy and kindness toward other humans, he showed no compassion for nonhuman animals and took positive delight in hurting and killing them, a course of conduct worthy of some attention and criticism. And an even smaller number of vegans posted insensitive responses to the death, including declarations of "I hope he suffered!" and "this is karma" on social media. 

Upon reading the criticisms of Bourdain, in addition to the more callous remarks, some vegans  became very angry. No one should celebrate anyone else's death, they said. Celebrating a death is morally unbecoming and creates the impression that vegans lack compassion for other humans. 

After quite a few of these pro-Bourdain, anti-celebration posts came up, however, it became difficult to tell whether the offensive celebration of a death included only the cruel posts or whether it referred as well to any and all critical statements. One person asked whether vegans should perhaps avoid lionizing Bourdain, given what he did to animals, and the pro-Bourdain vegan replied that it is outrageous to celebrate his death. Because Bourdain had done some very good things for humans, it appeared, it was immoral and even celebratory for vegans to say anything critical about him.

While no one could deny that doing very good things for humans is praiseworthy, it hardly cancels out having done extremely cruel things to nonhuman animals. Most vegans and many non-vegans as well can appreciate the need to include animal cruelty in the moral biography of a man. I have read in a few places, for instance, that René Descartes, a great mathematician and philosopher, nailed dogs' paws to boards and then cut open their bodies to look at their still-beating hearts. 

I do not know whether this is true, although it fits with Descartes's professed view of animals as machines without sensations or emotions. If I were sure that Descartes did what people have claimed he did, then I would supplement my view of him as a brilliant mathematician and philosopher with a simultaneous view of him as a moral monster to nonhuman animals. Most people can hold such disparate ideas in their heads at the same time. 

In addition to calling out other vegans for sharply criticizing a good person, a few of Bourdain's vegan defenders made an interesting assertion about Bourdain's sadistic treatment of animals and contemptuous words for vegans. They said that none of what he did or said distinguished him from other non-vegans, so vegans should not single him out for condemnation. The vegans who condemned Bourdain's behavior, on this theory, were hypocrites for not similarly condemning their own non-vegan friends and family too.

I want to suggest here that there is an important difference between Anthony Bourdain and the average non-vegan. Almost all of us, including vegans, grew up hearing that (a) the law makes sure that farmed animals have decent lives, (b) animal foods are healthful and necessary to a nutritious diet, and (c) vegan foods are nutritionally and culinarily inadequate. Knowing that someone is not a vegan tells us only that they--like we--have been brainwashed to believe falsehoods about animals and food their whole lives, beliefs that ground their (and grounded our) behavior.

Because of the brainwashing, which is more extensive than these three simple propositions, people who love animals, people who adopt shelter dogs and cats, and people who cry when an animal dies in a film nonetheless eat animal-based foods. They do it because they do not really know that they can easily and healthfully opt out of doing it. They ask me where I get my protein because they truly have no idea that plant foods have plenty of protein and that the suffering they inflict on nonhuman animals is completely unnecessary.

Am I downplaying the harmfulness of what non-vegans do several times every day? No. Every meal of animal-based foods contributes to horrifying cruelty and the slaughter of sentient beings who want to live and be free of suffering. When you eat (and when I used to eat) a chicken, you (and I) register/ed your/our request that more of these gentle birds be trucked to a slaughterhouse, hanged upside down, and have their throats cut.

I am accordingly not letting people off the hook (so to speak--one of so many expressions built on violence against animals) for consuming animal cruelty. When a cow moos and becomes violent when her newborn infant is dragged from her side and stopped from nursing, the consumer of dairy cheese is the reason that is happening and the reason that that dairy cow's infant calf goes to slaughter for veal. In that sense, all non-vegans are Anthony Bourdain.

There is another sense, however, in which Bourdain was different. He apparently enjoyed deliberately inflicting suffering on nonhuman animals. He railed against vegans for embracing the principle that a good human life must take account of the lives of nonhuman animals. Rather than trying not to think about the blood, the pain, and the fear, like most non-vegans, Bourdain appeared to relish the violence involved in animal consumption: "Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay," he said.

He one time appeared with blood--from a freshly killed buck--smeared all over his face. Another time, he jauntily held up a tray on which was placed the head of a slaughtered pig. Had his victims been human, he would have merited classification as a psychopath. 

Does the sadism toward animals matter morally? I would suggest that not only does it matter, but our whole legal system is organized around the importance of state of mind in designating the seriousness of a crime. If you drove down the street at 85 miles per hour and accidentally killed someone, you would have killed them either negligently or recklessly. 

If you instead drove your car at a particular target and ran him over deliberately, killing him, then you would have killed him intentionally. Intentional murder carries a harsher penalty than reckless or negligent homicide, in part because it is worse to act out of an intention to kill than it is to act without sufficient attention to the danger that your actions pose.

Our law, in other words, looks at more than just the harmful consequences of an action in determining an appropriate classification and punishment for misconduct. Some actions cause tremendous harm but reflect a purely innocent mistake, and we do not punish those actions. Other actions knowingly result in grave harm, and those carry a long prison sentence. And still others are purposeful and exhibit a malign motive and may result in the most severe penalties of all.

Where does Anthony Bourdain's animal cruelty fall in this hierarchy? As a matter of consequences, his actions inflicted torture and death, just as the actions of an average non-vegan do every day, by contributing to the torture and slaughter of animals. Consequences, then, may not differ between Bourdain and ordinary non-vegans. 

Bourdain, however, brought a different state of mind to animal torture, a state of mind evident in the delight he manifested in violent power exerted over the helpless sentient beings at his mercy. Rather than knowingly inflict torture on animals with a cultivated indifference, as most non-vegans do regularly, Bourdain purposefully inflicted torture with sadistic excitement. 

In a 1993 case, Wisconsin v. Mitchell, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a First Amendment free speech challenge to a hate crime sentencing enhancement. The enhancement provided that a criminal convict could have his punishment increased if he committed a crime with a hate motive such as selecting the victim because of his race. The Court thereby recognized the legitimacy of treating crimes motivated by racial hatred as worse than otherwise identical crimes motivated by something else.

Anthony Bourdain is like the person whose crime resulted from an invidious motive. His motive in this case appeared to be sadism. To him, torturing an animal while eating him or before eating him was an apparent adventure. That motive is reprehensible and worthy of condemnation by people who believe that animal suffering and death count.

The truth is that the average non-vegan is not different enough from Anthony Bourdain for my taste. Committing a murder with knowledge and indifference is horrible enough and does, in the end, result in the same terror, pain, and loss of life as does the murder committed out of sadism. Maybe in part because of the relatively short distance between them and him, maybe because he was so widely known and loved, and maybe because what he shared with his fans included an implied invitation to enjoy the disrespect and sadism that he showed for his animal victims, an ethical vegan need not apologize for feeling that however generous Bourdain might have been to other humans, we ought to remember what he was to animals.