Veganism, Year Fourteen: The Duty to Inquire, and the Ethics of Environmental Impact
by Neil H. Buchanan
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, the time has come for this year's veganniversary column. Exciting, I know. As in previous years -- 2021, 2020 (plus followup), 2019 (plus followup), 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, and the original announcement in 2008 (plus followup) -- this is my annual moment to reflect on life as a vegan, offering observations both pedestrian and philosophical about the practice and impact of refusing to include the products of suffering, torture, and death in one's life.
I do sometimes write columns about veganism not keyed to the veganniversary date (officially July 24, 2008), most recently last month, when I tied the debate about inflation into the argument for being a vegan (including the observation that "meat is not just murder but extremely expensive murder.") And Professors Colb and Dorf continue to be the true scholarly experts on the topic, especially (but by no means exclusively) their book Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights (Critical Perspectives on Animals: Theory, Culture, Science, and Law, as well as Professor Colb's sole-authored Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger?: And Other Questions People Ask Vegans.
Today, I want to update the current state of play in the media regarding the connection between animal exploitation and climate change, a problem that is slowly beginning to penetrate the broader discussion -- but not quickly enough, and much too tentatively. Before getting there, however, I want to take more than a few moments to think about some variations on the ethical case for veganism and people's resistance to it.
Stipulating that there are no "new" things to say about any of these issues, I do think it is interesting to consider the rather odd overall situation in which we find ourselves: (1) there is a solid (airtight, I daresay) ethical/moral case in favor of veganism; (2) there is simply no ethical/moral case against veganism; but (3) no one seriously thinks that veganism is likely to become anything like a dominant (or even competitive) norm in society.
Propositions (1) and (3) will come up in due course here, but (2) ought to be something of a showstopper. Most of the time, arguments against veganism are not based on ethics. They are, instead, either health-based, consistency-based, or personal offense-based. Health-based arguments generally take the form of the "but where will you get your protein?" run of mis- and disinformation that almost every journalist (no matter how sympathetic) includes in any discussion of veganism. Consistency-based arguments are the familiar "but you're not so pure, you know!" retorts from adults deploying stale high school debating tactics, one example of which I will explore below.
The personal offense-based arguments take this form: "So you're saying that non-vegans are horrible human beings? You think you're morally superior to me?" Given that almost everyone I love has not become a vegan, this is a very personal issue; but that does not make it a difficult one. Yes, I do think that I have made a better choice than anyone who has not become a vegan, even as I admit that there are other sins of omission and commission of which I continue to be guilty. I do not know if (or even how to determine whether) I am morally superior to non-vegans overall, but I do know that they have chosen not to do something that they could be doing, and as a result, they continue to contribute to the suffering and killing of innocent, sentient beings. If you live a great life otherwise but club a baby seal to death every day, what should the world think about you? What should you think about yourself?
In any event, there is no moral case against veganism. At most, there is an unpersuasive case that veganism is not morally required. Even the most tendentious argument that I have seen -- which Professor Dorf dismantled in a two-part column in 2009 -- merely says (incorrectly) that animal sentience does not include the ability to anticipate future existence and thus that animals only "live for the moment," meaning that it would be acceptable to kill animals (painlessly, which of course is not how they are killed) because taking away future moments cannot disappoint them or frustrate their plans.
Again, however, that argument merely says that it is not immoral to kill animals for our own pleasure, not that there is an affirmative duty (however slight) to kill them. If your best answer is, “It might not be morally necessary for me to inconvenience myself by not killing animals or to ask someone to kill them for me, even though I know there's no reason to do so," you might be asking the wrong questions. Even people who might quibble with my assertion above that "there is a solid (airtight, I daresay) ethical/moral case in favor of veganism" should need something to justify the active choices that they make. The best thing they have is, "because it tastes good." At the very least, one would think they might insist on non-cruel treatment of animals, given that the horrors of industrial ranching and slaughter are not hypothetical.
To return quickly to my promise above to explore the consistency-based arguments that non-vegans often try to use against vegans, I think it is useful to think about (as I put it in the title of today's column) "the duty to inquire." A few years ago, I was at a dinner hosted by a European colleague at her home, where she was caring and considerate in making sure that I had plenty of good vegan food to eat. She also invited some colleagues from her university whom I did not know, and the conversation inevitably turned to a "discussion" of my decision to be a vegan that moved seamlessly from discussion to attack-and-defend.
Sporting the standard self-satisfied smirk of the consistency-based arguer, one colleague ever-so-politely asked how I handled the question of drinking wine (a lot of which was flowing at that dinner). I said that I was aware that some wines were produced through processes that use animal products, and that I would of course not consume such wines, but my understanding was that those were rare and that I was aware of the wines to avoid. She asserted, and I could not knowledgeably deny, that I was wrong about that, which she asserted meant that I was not in fact an ethical vegan because -- for all of my efforts to make sure that I never buy, say, pesto that has whey in it -- I was blundering my way through life possibly drinking non-vegan wine willy-nilly.
At that point, I could only say that I was trying my best based on what I thought was accurate information, but if I found out that I had had some non-vegan intake (wine or otherwise), I would of course be sure not to do so again. (I later checked online and did learn that navigating the vegan/non-vegan determination in wines is not as simple as I had believed.) Somehow, my not-so-friendly companion viewed that as a victory for her side. Even a guy who claims to be a committed vegan admits that he hasn't bothered to be perfect!
This, however, is not limited to the question of wine drinking. If a person goes out to a restaurant, and the restaurant says that there are no animal products in a particular dish, what is a vegan to do? For that matter, grocery labels assert facts that I could independently verify; yet I take them at face value. On the other hand, non-vegans who are also non-cannibals look at menus and, not seeing "human flesh" listed among the ingredients, confidently assume that they are not eating Uncle Phil when they order the red meat. And how do we know that red wine is not "flavored" with human blood?
To be sure, this comparison only goes so far. If a person were visiting a country that had, shall we say, a “cannibalism casual” culture, the nature of the duty to inquire must surely change. Whatever else I might think about an American steakhouse, I would be unlikely to think that a person was not truly a non-cannibal if they failed to ask and verify that the meals there would not involve human meat. If a person were at a restaurant that served "meats from all animals, human and otherwise," we might draw a different conclusion about a person who does not take at least some pains to make sure that the slaughtered flesh that they are being served is not human.
In that sense, then, it is not always enough to say that one can simply trust in the idea that something is vegan. When I go to a non-vegan restaurant, I do not insist on inspecting the kitchen, but I do ask questions to be sure that the animal-based items do not end up on my plate. Even so, ignorance -- so long as it is not willful ignorance -- is a defense. Wine is made from grapes, and until one learns that it can be made in ways that are unethical, drinking wine does not make a person a hypocrite. Once the veil is lifted, however, the obligation changes. Potatoes are potatoes, and mushrooms are mushrooms, but they can be baked in butter (and covered in cheese and bacon, for that matter).
Honestly failing is not the same thing as not wanting to succeed.
Even so, huge numbers of highly educated, seemingly well meaning people (as well as millions of other people) regularly use consistency-based (along with health-based and personal offense-based) arguments to deflect the unwelcome thought that they might need to change how they eat and clothe themselves. That is why my third claim above, "no one seriously thinks that veganism is likely to become anything like a dominant (or even competitive) norm in society," continues sadly to be all but impossible to deny. At best, we can look for signs of progress on the margins.
And that -- looking for wisps of optimism -- is often what I do in these veganniversary posts. For example, the increasing ease with which one can find vegan meals at restaurants (with the caveats noted above), is reason for optimism, especially because large numbers of non-vegans are now ordering such meals simply for the taste. That is not nothing.
All of which brings me to the optimism/pessimism divide on the question of the environment. One can, of course, have no ethical commitment to veganism but choose not to support the animal exploitation industries because of their devastating contributions to climate change. Similarly, one can reject both of those reasons and become a vegan for personal health reasons, as Bill Clinton did at one point. And the economic impact of all of this is its own category of concern.
For the billions of people who will not reduce animal suffering for other reasons, the increasing salience of climate catastrophes is at least causing the stirrings of concern that might cause people to reduce their harm to animals and the planet. This case has been made for years and is brought up regularly (see, for example, "Avoiding meat and dairy is ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth," from The Guardian in 2018, summarizing a study in Science), and careful analysts continue to point out how truly expensive animal exploitation is (including a nice piece earlier this year by Jan Dutkiewicz and Gabriel N. Rosenberg in The New Republic).
All of that is good, but the summer of 2022 has been such an environmental sh_tshow that there is an opening for people to say, "Wait, isn't this an all-hands-on-deck moment. Maybe I shouldn't order the cheeseburger?" I obviously wish that this was front-and-center coverage in all news outlets every day, which is still impossible to imagine. By comparison to what is needed, there is nothing close to a sufficient effort to remind people that climate change is not only (or even primarily) about our car-crazy culture.
Even so, the hipster-nerd crowd seems to be getting over their too-cool-to-care-about-animals stance. To take two recent examples from YouTube, the uber-geeks at SciShow posted "Cutting Beef Could Reduce Emissions. No, Like, a Lot" on May 6 of this year. (Only the first 2:53 of the 6-minute video is on this topic, with the video suddenly switching to a completely unrelated discussion of immune systems from that point onward.) Summarizing a study in Nature, the video begins: "Switching as little as 20 percent of our global beef consumption to a substitute protein could cut deforestation and CO2 emissions from farming cattle in half by 2050."
Even leaving aside the misinformed reference to "protein," the video is a good example of what makes this kind of reporting both pleasing and annoying to vegans. The narrator points out that larger reductions in beef consumption have larger impacts but that they are subject to diminishing returns, which allows them to deliver the message that people do not have to become vegans to have a big impact. That is true, but it is exactly why the alliance between ethical vegans and consequentialist harm-reduction types can be fraught. "Go ahead and torture and murder four out of the five cows you were going to murder, and we'll be good!" Yeesh.
Similarly, What If Geography posted "What If The United States Was Vegan? A Plant-Based Country" just yesterday. (In a sickeningly ironic coincidence, the YouTube video was preceded by an ad for Red Lobster; but that was obviously not the content creator's decision.) The narrator there took pains to say that he is not vegan, but he very sympathetically ran through the still-shocking facts about humans' treatment of animals. (A particular potent moment: "In order to feed this ravenous chicken-loving population, somewhere around 25 million birds are slaughtered daily. Just think about that for a moment: regardless of your stance on eating meat, that is a truly staggering amount of chickens killed every single day.")
The video also provided useful data of all sorts, including the fact that "fully 41 percent of the [land in the] contiguous United States is used to support and supply the meat industry," while only 3.6 percent of the land is accounted for by "all cities and urban areas." I was pleased to see him make a special comment that USDA nutritional guidance is biased by the meat industry's lobbying and capture of the agency. He also notes that meat production is ridiculously water-intensive, which is especially bad when huge swaths of the country are in long-term drought. Finally, he notes that freeing up land by not using it for animal torture would allow the land to be reforested, which would then absorb climate-harming gases: "It would tackle climate change from two sides, and that's super-important."
The video ends with this summary:
The reality is that a meat-free United States is not necessary, but what would be nice is simply a country that eats less meat overall. The meat industry is not sustainable and is causing long-term irreparable damage to the planet, all in the name of feeding people too much meat. This of course would not be profitable for the meat-industrial complex, but it would go a long way to insuring we have a sustainable, long-lasting planet for future generations."
Again, I rage at the ethics of continuing to kill animals when there are so many reasons to stop entirely and no reasons to do so. Even so, harm reduction is harm reduction. As the consequences of climate change become worse and worse, we can only hope that a growing number of people will put "stop the murder" at least on the same level as, say, Just Stop Oil. It might not be too much to hope for.