July 25, 2004

Vegetarian riposte

Posted by Curt at 05:01 PM in Science | TrackBack

I planned to comment on my brother’s post but I thought I should do so a bit more publicly since I am, at least for the moment, a vegetarian (I say currently because I am studying in France next year, where I don’t have much hope of sticking by a vegetarian diet). It’s not much of a concession for me to acknowledge that any arguments for a moral “imperative” to vegetarianism are fraught with wholes because, like my brother, I have become radically skeptical of the entire notion of moral imperatives, not to say laws. I could explain my reasons for this at greater length, but suffice it to say that even if there were moral laws written in the sky to follow, obeying these laws would not seem to accrue much credit to us as moral beings, any more than one would be held to be morally virtuous for refraining from murder if one did so simply because it was against the law.

I also find no affinity for the utilitarian arguments, or indeed for utilitarian arguments in general. I imagine that simply by living a modern life in any capacity one is the beneficiary of so much misery and unhappiness that any petty cavilling about how best to serve the “greater good” amounts to an almost insultingly self-satisfied gesture, as if one could ever reconcile one’s lifestyle with the “greater good.” So let us all acknowledge that if we are basing our life choices off of utilitarian principles we are all hopelessly compromised. I don’t think our path to heaven will be paved by vegetarianism, whether evaluated on absolutist moral or utilitarian grounds.

That said, I will say that often in talking to non-vegetarians one encounters a defensive aggressiveness which seems a touch strange. This is evident, for example, in the person my brother cites who writes: “The only option left for you dipshits [vegetarians] is to buy some land, plant and pick your own crops. Impractical? Yeah, well, so is your stupid diet.” I must say I can’t quite understand this anger, which, as I said, is not infrequent among non-vegetarians with whom I have discussed the issue. After all, regardless of the merits of ethical-vegetarians’ arguments, by their moral standards they at least have a reason to feel anger towards non-vegetarians, since they view them as complicit at some level in murder, or at least wrongful death. But, as I said, I have observed a great deal more anger from non-vegetarians directed at the “stupidity” of vegetarianism than of vegetarians directed at the “evil” of meat-eating. And I wonder why, because for a non-vegetarian, vegetarianism is surely just a silly little superstition, just as harmless ultimately as going in for yoga or acupunture?

I suspect that this anger is built up as a defensive ring around a certain awareness of ethical vulnerability, because while I am sure that most non-vegetarians do not believe that human ethical norms are applicable to non-human animals, I suspect that at the same time most non-vegetarians do not have a skepticism towards the notion morality in general as extreme as mine. In other words, I assume that, even though they do not feel that meat-eating is a moral issue, I assume they do not reject the notion of morality as a whole. But if we do accept moral arguments as valid in general, then there are likely to be some real problems of consistency in justifying animal-killing. After all, the human right to kill animals is frequently justified on the basis of our superior intelligence, but since when is superior intelligence accepted as a valid moral distinction (pace Raskolnikov)? In other words, one could not (presumably) kill a mentally deficient person or an infant and justify it by claiming that one has a right to because one is more intelligent than them. So how can this justification have any currency when applied to animals? There is a similar inconsistency when people try to justify why in war it is morally permissible to kill people from another group or nation for the sake of the lives or lifestyles of the members of one’s own group.

My brother deals with this issue at some length and intricacy in his discussion of “marginal cases,” seemingly in hopes of deriving some sort of satisfactory general formula which defines our moral relationships to less intelligent humans, animals, etc. But I think the issue is much more simple than that. It seems to me that, generally speaking, we abide by a belief in the sanctity of life within the human community regardless of intelligence or other merits (with some obvious and flagrant exceptions). However, animals are outside the group, so none of the same standards apply. This may be a justifiable distinction biologically; I do not think that it is so by the standards of universalist ethics. But let us let that pass.

So why am I a vegetarian? I have no mathematically precise ethical justification for it, but I view that as an asset rather than a fault. Personally, I feel a certain tenderness towards many animals, and therefore I prefer not to have them killed for my food. Do I need any more justification than that? Especially because I feel that that is what in Hebrew is called chesed, the spirit of warm feelings toward another which is the impulse behind any “moral” actions, and without which morality is an empty shell of dogma. I reject the idea that I require or should attempt to provide any justification beyond my own sentiments. “Give me the world if you will, but grant me an asylum for my affections,” as the Czech artist Tulkas said. I do not hold non-vegetarians to be guilty of any greivous wrong, but I would at least request that subscribers to universalist moral codes consider the inconsistencies in a serious light and then either follow their commandments to their logical ends or abandon the pretensions, the “great illusions” of universalist ethics. As someone, I think it might have been Mark Twain, said: “Vegetarianism is a harmless enough thing, unless it give a man cause to feel abominably self-satisfied.” This is how I feel, too; if one cares for animals and their lives, then by all means, this is reason enough to treat them in a commensurate fashion; but do not assume that one’s feelings are universal.

Comments

After all, regardless of the merits of ethical-vegetariansí arguments, by their moral standards they at least have a reason to feel anger towards non-vegetarians, since they view them as complicit at some level in murder, or at least wrongful death.

I think the answer to that is pretty simple. Non-vegetarians take exception to being labelled as "murderers" by vegetarians when vegetarians themselves are also complicit in the death and maiming of millions of animals (at least, this is the source of anger in intelligent non-vegetarians). In other words, they resent being held to a higher standard than the (absolutist) ethical vegetarian holds himself to. After all, the vegetarian who really cared about killing helpless animals could prevent such by harvesting his own food; most choose not to because consistently applying their moral principles (that killing animals is wrong) would impact their lifestyle too negatively.

But I think the issue is much more simple than that. It seems to me that, generally speaking, we abide by a belief in the sanctity of life within the human community regardless of intelligence or other merits (with some obvious and flagrant exceptions).

I agree that this is generally true, but my intent was to demonstrate that one can be more consistent and still arrive at basically the same conclusion.

Personally, I feel a certain tenderness towards many animals, and therefore I prefer not to have them killed for my food. Do I need any more justification than that?

No, of course not. This is one of many perfectly legitimate reason for being a vegetarian. I hope my post didn't convey the notion that I think vegetarianism is "wrong" or that there aren't good reasons for being one; I'm simply objecting to moralist justifications for it and to the judgment passed by ethical vegetarians on the meat-eating.

I think you summed up how I feel exactly with this:

As someone, I think it might have been Mark Twain, said: ďVegetarianism is a harmless enough thing, unless it give a man cause to feel abominably self-satisfied.Ē This is how I feel, too; if one cares for animals and their lives, then by all means, this is reason enough to treat them in a commensurate fashion; but do not assume that oneís feelings are universal.

Posted by: shonk at July 25, 2004 06:10 PM

"Non-vegetarians take exception to being labelled as "murderers" by vegetarians when vegetarians themselves are also complicit in the death and maiming of millions of animals (at least, this is the source of anger in intelligent non-vegetarians). In other words, they resent being held to a higher standard than the (absolutist) ethical vegetarian holds himself to. After all, the vegetarian who really cared about killing helpless animals could prevent such by harvesting his own food; most choose not to because consistently applying their moral principles (that killing animals is wrong) would impact their lifestyle too negatively."

Well, I don't think the anger of most non-vegetarians is this reasoned out; as I said before, I think the source of the anger is generally a perhaps subconscious awareness of a threat to their ethical norms, a threat which, if one subscribes to a universalist ethical code, is not unreasonable, as I have suggested. I think, in addition, that this conclusion that vegetarians are complicit in just as many animal deaths as non-vegetarians, to the point of suggesting that the most humane diet would be one heavy in beef (I'm not saying that you go along with this argument, but you have presented it) is rather facile, if not misleading, in the sense that it is an issue of means not of first principles. It is certainly true that vegetarian food may be harvested in a way that kills animals, but animal deaths are not a necessary outcome of the process, as they are in raising meat. At least in theory it should be possible to buy grain and other vegetarian foods harvested with care to prevent animals from being run over or otherwise killed, and no doubt some farmers already have, or will soon, start producing in just this way to satisfy a niche of guilty-feeling consumers that are willing to pay quite a bit more. Thus, it is misleading to dichotomize the issue as a choice between complicity in animal deaths or raising all of one's foods by oneself (of course I am sure that in any farming method there would be some accidents, but it seems to me that this would be true even if one did all one's own farming, which is another reason why the above-mentioned dichotomy seems to me to be a false one). In the dairy industry, for example, a number of companies, including our own Horizon, have become quite successful by selling exactly that angle, namely their humane treatment of their animals. I do not pretend to know whether these claims are accurate or whether it would even be possible to run a farm wholly free of accidental animal death, but I simply wish to point out the flaw in this argument, which declares two processes essentially equivalent, when the similar result of one is inherent to the process, and hence cannot be reformed, whereas the similar result of the other is merely a product of a flaw in the execution of the process, and hence presumably can be.

p.s. It should be obvious from this that I'm not suggesting that eating vegetarian foods which were harvested in a way that caused many animal deaths makes one morally better than a meat-eater--that would be like saying that Stalin is morally better than Hitler because, in contrast with Hitler, mass murder was not a founding principle of his philosophy but merely a means to its realization. But I am suggesting that production of vegetarian food has the possiblity of possessing a distinct advantage over the production of meat in this area, assuming of course one finds the issue of the morality of one's food compelling.

p.p.s. Please don't take the Hitler and Stalin reference as an implied judgment or correspondence; I was just reading about a new book comparing the two, and the analogy popped into my head as an analogy of relational value, not of total worth.

p.p.s. Well, alright, if anyone feels really takes this whole morality-of-food-production issue extremely seriously and really wants to engage the animal consumption vs. genocide issue, I recommend Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee, which is certainly one of the most thoughtful treatments of the subject one can find anywhere. The main character, Elizabeth Costello, does in fact suggest that future generations will regard us as we regard Germans living in the shadow of Buchenwald, but Coetzee is acutely aware of all the contention such a statement would raise, and Costello is immediately confronted with all the opposition one might expect, by a Jewish Holocaust survivor who is aghast at the audacity of such a comparison, etc. (the scene is a scholarly lecture). Coetzee himself articulates what I think is probably the wisest response to this idea; he at one point said something to the effect of, "the question of whether livestock-raising is a moral crime on the level of genocide is a moot one, because the impulse to eat meat is ingrained in our very beings."

Posted by: Curt at July 25, 2004 08:11 PM

Well, I don't think the anger of most non-vegetarians is this reasoned out; as I said before, I think the source of the anger is generally a perhaps subconscious awareness of a threat to their ethical norms, a threat which, if one subscribes to a universalist ethical code, is not unreasonable, as I have suggested.

Well, obviously I can really only speak for myself, but among the intelligent non-vegetarians I know who've thought a lot about the issue the reason I gave seems to hold pretty universally. Clearly, that probably doesn't describe the majority of non-vegetarians.

As for your other point, obviously killing animals isn't a necessary component of eating grains as it is with eating meat. What I'm objecting to in my post and in my above comment is my distaste for the hypocrisy of ethical vegans/vegetarians who think I should change my lifestyle on the basis of their moral beliefs, but are unwilling to change their own lifestyle to be more in accord with those same beliefs because raising their own crops or purchasing only those foods which are harvested in ways that are not harmful to field animals is too inconvenient or too expensive. This distaste is the same that I feel for people who promote higher taxes and welfare as a substitute for true charity and compassion. Obviously, this doesn't encompass all vegans/vegetarians, but it does encompass a pretty high percentage.

As I had hoped I had made clear, this doesn't apply to you or to those who are vegetarians for health or religious reasons or who reject the moral underpinnings of the ethical vegetarian perspective.

And, as a side note, I absolutely agree that if it hasn't been done already some enterprising farm is going to start marketing its agricultural products as more "animal-friendly" because they harvest their crops in a way that reduces or eliminates deaths of field animals. And I'm quite sure that many vegans and vegetarians will be more than happy to pay the higher prices that such products will command. Hell, I probably would be myself, just as I'm willing to spend a little extra for Horizon milk.

Posted by: shonk at July 26, 2004 12:17 AM

I remember when Shonk vomited profusely after consuming "hooters" chicken wings. The sight of his lanky form projecting so much filth has driven me to Veganism.

Posted by: crews at July 27, 2004 05:02 PM

The concept of vegetarianism is like a lot of the utopian beliefs current among the affluent progressive elite. Vegans are divorced from the realities of the gritty, sweaty working world or the farm where there in the past there was a struggle to get enough to eat. They adopt a childlike sentimental attitude accompanied by much highfaluting intellectual churning and soul-searching and resulting in manufactured outrage and even violence but are guilty of selective indignation and rank hypocrisy. Believing that peace, justice, universal brotherhood and equality are possible for all, including animals, except for the deeds of evil villains, the bourgeois, factory farms, corporatism, and -(You fill in the blank) a struggle against injustice ensues.
The basis for all of this is an uncompromising egalitarianism combined with intolerance for hierarchy and power relationships even with animals. The progressive including vegans struggles against many isms. Racism, sexism, looksism, etc. but vegans struggle against speciesism. Who cares if you ruin medical labs, turn loose poor caged animals to starve or promote malnutrition in the process?
Since I think this whole movement as mostly malarky, I am pretty skeptical of those who push the vegan ideology. Iím not talking about the authors of this website, whose analysis is insightful and helpful. I donít care if people eat mostly vegetables. I like to eat vegetables too. I also respect people who abstain from some foods for religious or health reasons or just feel like it.
A personís attitude toward animals is inevitably schizophrenic. How else do you explain treating your pet like a family member but feeding deadly poison to the rats in your house. Would you poison your next door neighbors if they got into your tool shed? Persons inevitably react based on emotion, upbringing, and customs. Examples of insanity abound. A game warden recently shot an escaped tiger that jumped at him. He received five death threats. The community is aghast that a pagan cult sacrifices chickens in a religious ceremony but Kentucky Fried Chicken and other similar restaurants line the streets. It is basically because we are too far from the land nowadays, farm land and the land of reality.

Posted by: Dave at July 28, 2004 05:15 PM