Saturday, September 26, 2009

Babbling, hopefully in an interesting way, about veganism

This responds to this article on the HuffPo by Ari Solomon.
Despite agreeing with much behind what Solomon says, I think he undermines himself in this article that is, basically, a screed on vegan's rationality. Yet, he clearly has feelings about veganism that go beyond the rational or "logical." There is nothing inherently wrong about this, but from a rational/logical perspective, I find this sentiment ill-formulated:

"All animals deserve to be free from unnecessary pain, fear, and suffering at the hands of humans."

It may be morally hard to disagree with that, but it *is* a statement on morality, a value statement, not a logical proposition. I wouldn't argue that working to help fellow humans or, say, broad secular humanism are purely "logical" systems. For example, I myself choose to work in an area pertinent to social justice because of my relevant beliefs, not because it is in some unassailable way "logical." And of course, one cannot actually practice what Solomon is talking about literally, because the growing of vegetable crops takes an undoubtedly huge toll on animals as well, from their production (i.e. pest elimination, exploitation of pollinating bees) to their harvest (i.e. threshers killing field animals; tractors crushing soil fauna), their processing (even vegan and vegetarian processed foods tend to be made in plants, where there again will be pest control and likely "maximum allowable" animal parts from processing plant mishaps with resident rodents, say), and their transport (I'm sure we could cut down the number of insect deaths and roadkill if we demanded all food transport took place at low speeds, i.e. not interstate highway speeds.)

This is not to critique veganism as inherently flawed, and heaven forbid that someone think I'm defending careless or thoughtless eating. Local food, ethically produced food, organic food, food where you personally know the farmer, and yes, vegetarianism and veganism all help address numerous problems in our food system, that threaten our ecosystems and ourselves. But come on--addressing many of these issues is a moral choice, verging on a choice of "faith" in how the world should be run and for whom.

"...if we say we care about cruelty to animals then it's time we start caring about all animals. Yes, dogs and cats are companion animals but in terms of suffering our canine and feline friends feel the same as a pig, cow, chicken, lamb, or turkey. To pick and choose species in terms of whose pain we care about is incredibly hypocritical and inconsistent."

There is much, *much* to agree with in veganism. But this article sets out to talk about its logical premises, and then leaves numerous logical holes, filled in with values. Values that may be noble, or righteous, or just, but nobility and righteousness verge on what one could call spiritual choices.

Solomon seems to aspire to the intellectual rigor of, say, a Peter Singer, but seems unwilling to fully embrace utilitarianism or a similar system where there is consistency, but as with any system, absolute consistency or certainty leads to counter-intuitive or extreme results. An absolutely consistent veganism along his lines would lead to conclusions way beyond what most would consider reasonable or, dare I say, "rational". For Singer's utilitarianism, this comes in often with his famous equating of animals with humans without higher reasoning/brain functions; in Solomon's case, the inescapable conclusion that "consistency" would demand could be, for example, not eating almost all crops in the US, considering the animals killed in the production of almost all plant-based products, especially those processed or transported for any significant distance. By the same consistency, one could similarly critique and therefore conditionally ban the use of, say, wind power, airline travel, and tall city buildings that, even with technological advances, will likely inevitably kill significant numbers of birds, etc.; one could conditionally ban non-emergency speeds above, say, 30 or 40 mph to avoid killing insects or inadvertent roadkill.

I don't disagree with the aspirations of veganism; but seeking to avoid the "exploitation" or unnecessary pain on all animals is a *value decision*. It must be discussed as such, especially if you wish to talk about all meat and all animal products; veganism has no special claim on logic, and to appeal to such a claim is not only inconsistent, verging on perhaps hypocritical, but also counterproductive. Just like telling religious people that they can't possibly be religious and care about logic, telling everyone that they can't possibly care about animals unless they follow vegan rules generates far more self-satisfaction and (illogical) righteousness than it does converts or reasoned discussion.

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