Wednesday, 15 October 2008

why ethical vegetarianism isn't

(alternate title: How to alienate your vegetarian readers and spark a bunch or really really defensive comments on your blog)

Sometimes I've been asked why I call vegetarians "omnivores", as if I don't make a distinction between a life that includes eating meat, and one that does not. The short answer is that I actually *don't* see a difference ethically. Aesthetically, yes. There is a huge aesthetic difference between vegetarian food and meat-including food, though this need not be the case, especially in cuisines where meat is used in small amounts, basically as a seasoning, much like vegetables are in the standard western diet. Being vegetarian is like not eating wheat or something. It may have a large impact on the taste of your dinners and your choice of entrees at restaurants. In that sense it is different than a standard omnivorous diet. But ethically? Nope. No difference at all. Either way, you're killing animals. Whether you do it sooner or do it later and then make someone else eat the evidence makes no difference to how dead they are.

The frustrating bit is that I know several people who are vegetarian for ethical reasons. I was. And the fact that this is even possible speaks to the frightening level of misinformation about animal use and treatment, as well as to the strength of denial and degree of cognitive dissonance that people live with.

1. Milk and eggs are no less cruel than meat. Leather is no less cruel than meat. We all know this if we do even a tiny token amount of poking around on teh Internetz on sites that are not directly funded by the dairy and egg industries. Dairy cows are killed when they don't produce milk anymore. No mammal should produce that much milk anyway (mammals lactate only to feed their young, so dairy cows have to be repeatedly impregnated). Half of all calves are male, and since males don't produce milk, they are used for meat (veal). Same goes for chickens. Show me the "happy chicken retirement home" for the spent egg layers and the "foster care" where all the male chicks are reared with adequate space and food and opportunities to act like actual birds despite being useless in terms of egg laying (hint: slaughterhouse and garbage bin, respectively).

Leather is not a byproduct of the meat industry. It is important in of itself, and is part of the reason that we slaughter animals. "Meat" is only part of the money value of an animal body. The demand for leather and other "byproducts" is just as important as that for meat. Plus, what could be better advertisement for endorsing killing than wearing a dead skin out in public?

2. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that milk and eggs are actually worse than steak. If someone was going to kill me horribly, I'd rather they just do it, rather than rape me repeatedly and force me to bear several children first, which would then be taken away from me and either killed or sold into the same horrific "life" that I was leading. I would find it laughable (though I can't picture myself laughing under those circumstances) that people who only benefited from the part of my "life" that preceeded killing me were considered "kinder" or "more ethical" than those who also benefited directly from my death. Of course, I'd rather not be owned and killed at all, horribly or otherwise, which brings us to...

2.5. Empathy. If you thought that point 2. was a bit over the top, stop and ask yourself why. Our idea that it is wrong to kill (assuming you think that it is) is based on empathy. We understand that a cow wants to live. All I did there was to follow that empathy through rather than cutting it off where it would have been convenient to do so if I had a leather fetish or a deep and meaningful love of cheese pizza. It requires doublethink to say that killing is wrong but a little torture is okay. It requires turning off empathy when it interferes with our selfish wants or with our image of "who I want to be". If one wants to be caring, then the way to do that is to look at our actions and see if they actually reflect that, changing them when they do not. Realizing that I am doing something wrong doesn't make me uncaring. We all fuck up, and we all sometimes make decisions based on incomplete or untrue information, peer pressure or habit. However, realizing that I am doing something wrong and subsequently doing nothing to change it makes me uncaring. It also makes me a hypocrite.

Ethical vegetarianism goes about this whole "I am a caring person" business ass-backwards and says that instead, we first define ourselves as caring, and since we are caring, our actions are de facto caring because they are motivated by this, no matter what the actual consequences of these actions are (also known as "the road to hell is paved with good intentions"). So yes, I think that ethical vegetarianism is uncaring. It can be so because the actual person is uncaring or in denial, or because of wrong or incomplete information, peer pressure etc. But the reason doesn't change the action itself.

And actually, it's not about us. It's about whether or not one species is soooo important that it gets to own others. Even the gentlest, kindest farm where the cows are cuddled constantly, allowed to frolic through the cow-friendly fields and given handjobs every day is still us owning them. If you can't see why this is wrong, think about the recent property status of women. I'm sure that some women were happy in marriages where they were the legal property of their husbands. I'm sure that many of these men were nice and kind and let the women do pretty much what they wanted. But that ultimately doesn't matter, because women shouldn't be property, no matter how nicely you treat them. The fact that you can make the best of a terribly, terribly wrong situation does not make the situation itself right. We, and cows, exist for our own sake. Okay, that's a whole other post on abolitionism vs welfarism, and we may get there eventually, but not today.

3. Free range is just greenwash to make us feel better. You cannot purchase a clear conscience, no matter what the glossy green recycled paper adds with a Prius in the background tell you. You still kill animals. If you don't look too hard, you can pretend like it's a slightly less horrible way to treat them, and then indulge in killing without guilt. However, happy meat is about people feeling good, not animals feeling good. And again, there's still that nasty killing. When you look at what "free range" actually means, it isn't usually all that wonderful in terms of treatment. For chickens, free range just means theoretical access to the outdoors. So to put this in perspective.... if we put several hundred children into a small classroom with no room to sit or move and then opened a small window at one end that they could theoretically get out of, that would be "cage free". And free range stuff can be more profitable for the meat and dairy industries than conventional farming because they can charge higher prices that more than compensate for any extra cost incurred. This supports the meat and dairy industries, which don't care about the health of animals (or of people, really), but are industries like any other, with the primary goal of turning a profit by telling you what you want to hear.

4. As a certain little wrinkled jedi master has pointed out: There is no try. In kindergarten, there is a gold star for effort, but that's because in kindergarten, the point is to learn how to make an effort. However, the reason we learn to make an effort is not merely to expend energy and accumulate gold stars, but to actually *accomplish something*. I shit you not. That's the point. And in some cases, such as ethical vegetarianism "trying to be more vegan" is code for "I want credit for being ethical but do not actually want to bother being ethical. Give me a gold star." Vegetarians who tell me that they "try" to be vegan or are "moving towards" being vegan (often for years... sheesh... how slowly do you move?!!) make my head spin. If you think you are acting immorally, than fucking change what you're doing! Do you really expect me to respect someone who has just flat-out TOLD me that they're unable to act in accordance with their own morals on something this simple? Being vegan is easy if you are not dependent on parents or such and can afford access to the internet or a library. There are books and websites. There are a kazillion blogs. There are vegans who would be bloody delighted to help you and cook for you and cheer you on. Hell, I would not only help with cooking and finding vegan replacements for household stuff and some clothes (and the all important sex toys etc.), but I would do little dances of encouragement complete with cheerleader skirt and pompoms! So no, I don't think trying or "moving towards" is enough. If you think it's okay to kill animals, then say so. If you don't, then act like it. Would you respect someone who told you that they were "moving towards" being okay with homosexuals, but "occasionally" indulged in a few rounds of gay-bashing or homophobic slurs when it was just too hard to hold back or when they would feel left out because everyone around them was doing it? Or someone who was only racist on thanksgiving because of tradition?

Just to be clear, I respect ethical vegetarians as people (just as I respect Republicans or those who drive SUVs), but that doesn't mean that I agree with or will pretend to ignore their inability to act in line with their own stated morals. Just because something is legal and done by the majority of people, that does not make it morally okay. You can respect someone without condoning their behavior.

Much as I disagree with meat eaters, I find that I can handle them better than ethical vegetarians. At least there is some level of consistency in saying "I have no problem with killing" and then acting accordingly. While I find it terrifying that most people don't have a problem with killing, and that we have stunted our ability to empathize so fully that this is "normal", at least it is consistent. You can disagree with consistent. You can argue with consistent. You can at least see where consistent comes from and where it's going. Whereas when somebody tells me that they're an ethical vegetarian, all I can think is "that's an oxymoron". Either you lack information or you lack balls. I have enough for both of us, so tell me what you need, and if I can help, I will.


medici said...

... and a double Welcome Back in response to *this* post. Maybe even a triple.

Thanks for cutting to the quick about the only difference between meat-eating and vegetarianism: aesthetics. I was also an ethical vegetarian for years, until I did some poking around online about the wool and dairy industries and their consequences to animals. There truly is no meaningful difference in terms of cruelty and ethics between these industries and the meat industry. I was horrified (and angry). But somehow I wasn't that surprised - I just had been tamping down my suspicions and guilt out of selfish desire to eat cheese.

And now I am vegan for ethical reasons. It wasn't a difficult decision, once I decided to open my eyes. How could I continue to engage in the torture and killing that I has told myself I was avoiding by being vegetarian? I couldn't. I changed immediately. Some kinds of changes are easy.

Thank you for posting your comments.

My food tastes better, too. That's what a clear conscience can do for you.

T.Allen-Mercado said...

What a great post. I was an "ethical vegetarian" for 17 years and celebrated a year of vegan living in April. It's refreshing when someone else makes the obvious and understated comparisons. Someone's gotta say it and quite frankly people are sick of hearing my voice.


sinead said...

Thanks all of you for posting comments here! I know that I probably offended a few of my readers with this post, and y'all made me really glad I put this up.

Anonymous said...

Hm. Wonder how eating tofu, which is mainly produced on raided tropical rain forest grounds, using truffles in recipes, which is found by pigs or dogs in Italy, France and Spain, or generally eating vegetables, which are grown on soil that could oh so easily be a forest or a natural, untainted meadow and a great haven for all endangered species, is ethical in the grand scheme of things?
Double standards exist each and everywhere you look, and most people, may they consider themselves as ethical as they want, are not immune to them...
After all, being human isn't ethical, if you care to take a closer look!

sinead said...

@ lepiaf,

Yes. Being alive means you have to take up *some* resources. Even someone living in a shack in the woods with a garden has a non-zero carbon footprint. But there is a clear difference between that and someone who drives their SUV to the steakhouse 3 blocks away. The two choices of lifestyle are not ethically equivalent just because they both have carbon footprints bigger than 0.

There is nothing unethical in simply being alive, as in, living and taking what you need to exist and have a reasonably satisfying life. The question lies in whether or not one gratuitously causes harm, or greedily takes much much more than necessary and hurts others needlessly in doing so, especially when less harmful or selfish alternatives exist and are readily accessible.

For the tofu: most soy is grown for livestock, not people. If we didn't need to feed livestock, using "raided tropical rainforest grounds" for crops cultivation would be completely unnecessary. For the truffles, I buy the ones that are cultivated, not hunted. As for the eating veg: Are you serious? Given that we have to eat to stay alive, plants are the least resource-intensive thing to eat.

Treading lightly and causing as little harm as possible, while still taking into account that one has the right to exist (and acknowledging that this means you will require *some* resources from the world around you), is not a double standard, it's just realism. Now, if one thinks that humans just shouldn't exist at all, that's a different story, and one that I don't subscribe to.

As for your last two sentences: Dude. I'm not perfect. Never said I was. But ... I think about what I do, and when I catch myself in an obvious oxymoronic moment, I change my actions so that they line up with my ethics. The point of my post is that ethical vegetarians often remain ignorant (deliberately or not) of the discrepancy between their actions and their stated ethics. I've never said, and never will say, that any person (vegan or otherwise) is perfect. In fact, I said "we all fuck up."

Your comment, however, is exactly the kind of really really defensive one I was expecting. Since you don't have any *actual* logic to offer, you've simply spewed a bunch of hyperbolic nonsense. Frankly, I'm surprised that it took so long for this to happen. Meh.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
sinead said...

Hey y'all -
While I welcome comments even when they challenge what I write, I don't welcome name -calling or other rude behaviour. Such comments will be deleted with no apologies. Debate is okay, mudslinging and aasshattery is not. Play nice or shut up. Nobody makes you read this blog, and if doing so infuriates you to the point where you are unable to communicate like a reasonable adult, don't read it, or find another outlet for your anger.

Jake said...

Aww, I missed the temper tantrum. Dammit Sinead, now I'm going to spend all day wondering what that deleted comment said. Why do you do this to me?

sinead said...

Jakey baby, I do this to you because deep down, I know you love it.

Also, someone has to give you something to daydream about during histology.

kiss kiss.

Jake said...

It's very true. I'm thinking of starting a research project to investigate if there's anything more boring than studying histology. Do you think NSERC would fund it?

omni said...

Interesting points of view.. albeit rather one sided since opposing views are conveniently erased! I am brand new to the fervour and obsession of the vegan lifestyle so you must excuse me if I offend your sensitivities!

My first naive comment is: Why is it wrong to eat meat? We as humans have evolved over the ages a fine set of meat eating abilities from our teeth to the bacteria in our gut. It is quite obvious what nature intended! Perhaps you are disputing the existence of the food chain? Very simplistically: Energy comes to earth from the sun, plants capture this energy, herbivores eat the plants and the energy gets passed on, carnivores eat the herbivores and the energy gets passed on. The carnivores energy requirement is large which naturally limits their numbers. If there wasn't a food chain the planet would get overrun with herbivores and the delicate balance would be upset. Nature would always evolve a new carnivore anyway. I don't think any sane person would argue the existence of a food chain so the only logical conclusion is that vegans dispute human's place at the top of the food chain?

Second naive comment: Are all vegans as angry and self-righteous? It is almost as if you all revel in your marginalised position and while this is typical of all minority groups really not helpful in getting your point across to the wider community. Most people try very hard to understand and be sympathetic to your lifestyle choices, be tolerant of them in the same way that you expect total comprehension from them.

Third niave comment: What's wrong with eggs? I enjoy eggs from hens that are loved, wander around the garden and are happy. I keep them safe from predators, i give them food and shelter. In return they give me eggs.. who is the villain in this scenario? And a word to the wise - all my hens are female, the eggs are never fertilised and the hens lay them anyway. Newsflash vegans - go enjoy an omelette!!

Fourth niave comment: I think we all know that your post was created in the hope that vegetarians would be offended, in fact you were disappointed it took so long for an opposing view to be posted and then with great relish you slapped it down.. Why this contempt for vegetarians? The mere fact that that there wasn't a rush of responses indicates that they are a heck of alot more tolerant that the 'ultra orthodox' faction of your 'no-meat' community. You guys should be allies and less contemptuous of each other, then perhaps you might have a chance of changing the world.

Question - would you eat lab grown meat?

- An animal loving, vegan tolerant Omni

sinead said...

@ omni,

Hi. I don't erase all opposing views. I erased a comment that was almost entirely name-calling and which didn't state any view other than that the person writing it didn't like me. Meh. I welcome well-thought out opposing views and sincere questions.. but if people just want to act like schoolyard bullies, I don't have to let them do so in my space. Blogs are not run by committee. They are the work of individuals, and much like a party at someone's house, the host can ask you to leave if you're being an ass.

For more information on *why* I and many others I vegan, I encourage you to click on the "vegan" label on the right hand side of my blog, which will find all of the posts where I discuss it. There is also a "vegan links" label, that will bring you to other websites where this is discussed. Your questions will be in the FAQ section of any vegan outreach site.The point of this particular post was to look at the logical problems with the statement "ethical vegetarian".

I didn't post this in order to offend vegetarians. I've wanted to post this for a long time, and waited because I *didn't* want to offend vegetarians. But I see the topic as important enough that I finally posted it anyways. I posted it because I see ethical vegetarianism as problematic from a logical point of view. and beause many of the ethical vegetarians I've met are well intentioned but often misinformed or haven't ever been challenged about whether or not it is actually better from an animal rights point of view to be a vegetarian than an omnivore.

Also, this is a blog. Furthermore, it's a vegan food blog. There is absolutely no pretense that I will ever present "both sides of the story" with no bias. I think using animals is wrong. Period. Vegetarians use animals.

As for how "tolerant" vegans are: most vegans spend most of their lives around people who are eating animals and wearing leather. Most of the time, we shut up about it, even when omnis make disparaging comments about our food, or wave theirs under our noses just to get a rise out of us. In real life, I would say that I , like most vegans, am extremely tolerant of other's choices, even when others are not tolerant of mine. I've spent most hollidays with omni friends or relatives, and (even in one remarkable case where they assured me I didn't need to bring food and then they had NOTHING...not a single thing for me to eat) not commented on what they were eating. They're my friends, and I respect them. They know what I think of the choice to use animals, but I don't bring it up over dinner. Actually, I don't bring it up. If they ask, I tell, but I've never told them that I thought they were evil or bad or ill-intentioned.T MOst of my friends have asked why I'm vegan. Most of them have told me why they're not. We agree to disagree. It pains me to see the people I love doing something that I think is not only wrong but cruel, and it is difficult to do so without comment. However, nagging them won't accomplish anything.

That being said, there is nothing intolerant in calling it like you see it. Would you consider it intolerant, for example, for me to point out sexist behavior and say that it was at odds with the belief that all people are equal? Nope. Even though it would offend sexists. As I've said, this is a blog specifically created to talk about vegan food and veganism. Should anyone be so upset by this that they hate reading the blog, they shouldn't read it. There are a million omni food blogs out there if all you want is a recipe with no politics..

As for the lab-grown meat. I have no ethical problem with it per se, but find it rather gross, so wouldn't eat it, but that's just because meat smells completely repulsive to me. That's a matter of personal taste, not ethics. If I wanted to eat it, I'd probably do some poking around to see if I'd be supporting the animal industry by buying it before coming to a decision.

medici said...

Hello Omni,

I frequently get asked the question about the ethics of meat-eating in the context of diet and human evolution. We likely did evolve while eating other animals, including our conspecifics (and plants and fungi): this can be inferred from physical evidence, as you point out, as well as from the behavior of our close hominid relatives. Chimps and bonobos, our closest relatives, have both been seen hunting, although the bulk of their diets is plant-based. Gorillas have not been seen hunting, and the only animals in their diet are small invertebrates, which they may or may not deliberately ingest (I just don't know). Chimps and bonobos group-hunt, and often are cruel when killing and eating their prey – this includes eating large mammals while they remain conscious. It's possible (even likely) that our hominid ancestors behaved similarly. But – this is behavior that modern humans reject as cruel and unethical (although we do something similar in slaughterhouses every day; many “stunned” animals are “processed” while still alive AND conscious). We choose to behave differently, regardless of our (evolutionary) past -- or at least we tell ourselves that we do (see slaughterhouse comment above).

Evolution is not fate. Evolution is not destiny. Evolution lacks ethics - it merely imposes certain constraints and exploits certain fitness opportunities. Evolution is entirely impersonal. There is *no* reason why our evolutionary past should preclude the modern exercise of ethics where choice permits this. Despite the likely use of slaves extending back across evolutionary time scales, most modern humans reject slavery as needless, cruel, and unethical. Similarly, modern humans are able to use ethics to decide whether to use animals as convenient food items (convenient because healthy, attainable alternatives exist to us). Vegans have used ethics to decide that animal use as food and other conveniences is needless, cruel, and hence unethical. There is nothing at all unnatural about this decision – our evolutionary past has resulted in the human ability to make and carry out reasoned, ethical decisions.

I hope that you meet more vegans. I don't think of us as a group of angry, self-righteous, marginalized extremists. I think of us as a group of informed, logically-consistent, well-fed activists. I re-read the Kitchen Dancer's ethical vegetarianism post and didn't find it to be angry and self-righteous. Challenging? Yes. In your face? Yup. And I agreed with every word of it.

Jake said...


1) On the topic of humans having evolved to eat meat: among the behaviours that humans have likely evolved because they were selectively advantageous are rape, xenophobic violence, theft, colonization, and infanticide. This doesn't make any of these behaviours acceptable. That we have the physical or psychological capacity or even predisposition to do something does not make it acceptable for us to do that thing.

2)This quote: " all revel in your marginalised position and while this is typical of all minority groups..." betrays a lack of interest in real discussion on your part, while this: "Most people try very hard to understand and be sympathetic to your lifestyle choices..." is simply not true. Most people, even hippy vegetarians, are assholes to vegans about their diets.

3)This: "I think we all know that your post was created in the hope that vegetarians would be offended..." is also bullshit. Posting something strongly worded on one's blog can come from a variety of motivations, and unless you see evidence to the contrary it's only fair to assume that the person writing it was writing in good faith, because they sincerely believe and feel strongly about the subject.

4)"The mere fact that that there wasn't a rush of responses indicates that they are a heck of alot more tolerant..."

Well no. There are different standards about what one may say on one's own blog (in one's own living room) and what one may say in the comments of someone else's blog (in someone else's living room). Sinead, in not yelling at me in my comments every time I post a non-vegan recipe on my blog, has shown herself to be every bit as tolerant as whatever vegetarians have refrained from posting here. You, on the other hand...

sinead said...

Thanks medici and Jake. Sometime y'all are so much more articulate than me. But yeah, I agree with pretty much all of what they both say.

I'd just like to reiterate that I don't mind people challenging what I say, but I do mind people being rude.