The author, Tzachi Zamir, distinguishes ‘vegans’ strictly from ‘tentative vegans’: the former think that no animal farming can be ethical, the latter thinks merely that current farming practices are not, and he has different arguments against each.
Against ‘tentative vegans’ his argument is essentially strategic: selectively eating egg and dairy products that are made in somewhat better conditions is a more efficient way of improving conditions than refusing to eat any. This might be true – it’s largely an empirical question what works best. I don’t accept the argument but I’ll leave that aside.
The more interesting part of Zamir’s argument to me is that vegetarianism is better than full ‘in-principle’ veganism, which I think involves two main points. The first point is that egg and dairy farming can be ok, in which he relies on an analogy with pets – responsible pet-ownership is better for both humans and pets, and the same can be true of farming under the right conditions. The second point is that a merely vegetarian world is not only acceptable, but better, because so many farm animals in it get to exist who otherwise wouldn’t.
I have qualified disagreement with both points. In essence, my disagreement with the first point is the (possibly semantic) issue that a morally acceptable relationship to animals would no longer be recognisable as ‘farming’, and my disagreement with the second is that while a vegetarian world might contain millions more farm animals than a vegan world, it need not therefore contain more animals overall, since those animals will require space and resources that will have to be taken away from other animals (human or nonhuman).
I think that I can best explain my take on these issues by taking about ‘paradigms’, practical ways of conceiving of things and situations, which fit somewhere in between abstract principles and concrete practices. For example, a principle might be that animals have only instrumental value: a paradigm that expresses this is that animals are property, a resource to be managed. Another paradigm would be animals as pests – something disruptive to be destroyed. They differ not on claims about what, strictly, is valuable, but on what sort of situation is being dealt with, and what general forms of action are appropriate. Principles are true or false; paradigms are appropriate or inappropriate.
This matters because things may be coherent at the level of principle, but be very difficult to embody in practice, and that difficulty may be much broader than any specific sort of action. My hope is that speaking of ‘paradigms’ can capture this.
So on the issue of pets and ‘farming’: as Zamir points out, responsible and humane pet-ownership involves a pretty similar sort of paradigm to parenting. There’s a being that’s intrinsically valuable, but dependent on you, and you have the right to control it for its own good. He calls such relationships ‘paternalistic’, correctly I think.
Now, typically we tend to see something slightly inappropriate in making money out of one’s children, especially out of their bodies. If your 2-year-old secretes from their ears a substance that can make very high-quality brandy, is it ethical to extract that substance daily and sell it? My intuition is that it’s not clearly ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but that there is a sort of tension here.
What about having another child, or paying someone else to have a child, so that you could harvest its aural secretions? Even if you treat the child very well, I can’t suppress a feeling that things are not entirely alright here. To farm human children may not harm them, but…
What I think is driving my feelings of unease is this: a paradigm in which you relate to someone’s body as a productive resource, and a paradigm in which you relate to someone as intrinsically valuable and being within your power, are in practice very hard to combine. The paradigms are too different in their priorities and the way they make you look at that being, too prone to ‘conflicts of interests’.
That’s not to say that milking a cow is automatically an unethical action – I don’t think it is, any more than consensually milking a human. But it seems to me that ‘farming’ is by definition an activity where you make the ‘productive resource’ paradigm primary. It is, after all, job. It requires planning. It forces you to be competitive. For this reason, I’m very pessimistic that anything deserving the name ‘farming’ would be consistent with treating something as an independent source of intrinsic value.
Paradigms are also relevant to the other issue, of whether a vegetarian world is better because it contains extra millions of living farm animals. Whether or not this is true, I don’t think it can guide our actions or judgements for the foreseeable future, because it embodies a paradigm where we relate to animals not only as having ‘negative rights’ (that we not harm them), and ‘positive rights’ (that we benefit them), but also ‘creation rights’ (that we bring them into existence).
This positions humans as benevolent overlords of the biosphere, ‘taking responsibility’ for not just individuals, but the total amount of life. Now, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with this paradigm, and I would defend it against those (e.g. most religious traditions) who would denounce it as ‘playing God’.
But it’s not appropriate now. We should only take responsibility for what we are capable of managing, what we understand sufficiently to improve. And we are so clearly, spectacularly, incapable of improving the total sum of life, that we are struggling to avoid catastrophically reducing it. For the foreseeable future our paradigm for relating to the biosphere must be largely negative: stop poking or it will break. Leave it alone.
Until that changes, I think that Zamir’s arguments may work in principle, but not in light of the limitations on human agency reflected. For this reason, I think that veganism is still a morally better choice than vegetarianism.