Should I be Vegan or Vegetarian?

I read an article today arguing that vegetarianism is a morally better choice than veganism (via.this commentary by Jean Kazez).

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.

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10 Responses to Should I be Vegan or Vegetarian?

  1. Shereen says:

    Aside from issues of consent, it seems that the biggest problem with milking cows and brandying children isn’t with the action itself, i.e., extracting a valuable substance from the animal, but rather with exploiting the animal for one’s own profit, i.e., stealing the substance of value. If the money made from brandying a child was put in trust for the child to do with as she pleased, it wouldn’t seem as inappropriate anymore (assuming the extraction doesn’t harm or jeopardize the health of the creature). Likewise, if the money made from selling cow’s milk was put in trust for the cow’s retirement or for whatever use best served her, rather than for the pleasure of the farmer, that wouldn’t seem so bad anymore either, would it? Of course, we don’t see cows as needing money — though if they had more money, we’d probably treat them better — so nobody blinks an eye when a person keeps the money to himself. I have similar intuitions about parents who make money off putting their children in advertisements, etc., it seems bad if they use the money for themselves, better if the children get it, (again putting aside obvious issues of consent and harm). Not sure if you have similar intuitions, but I thought this might explain why it’s not a clear yes or no answer for you — it depends what’s done with the money.

    • lukeroelofs says:

      I think that’s a really good point. Do we act for the child’s own benefit, or for ours?
      But see how it relates to the issue of ‘farming’: if you remove this conflict by putting the money made by selling milk into some purpose that benefits the cow, then you personally get little benefit. This means you would never go into the cow-milking business for the sake of personal enrichment; you might milk a cow but only because the cow is already there and you already have some sort of relationship to it. But then, if the cow and the relationship are already there, for some other reason, the cow isn’t being bred or kept for milk.

      • Shereen says:

        Absolutely, but I disagree with how you frame it. If you consider benefitting the cow a benefit to yourself, that is, you already care about the cow’s well-being for her own sake, then you can do it for personal enrichment. We might see more symbiotic relationships replacing instrumentalizing ones: cow-human partnerships where the sale of milk can help both parties, perhaps through enabling the human to help the cow (assuming the cow consents to the arrangement since she’s raising the capital.)

        I would still classify the activity as farming — I don’t think the concept of farming includes moral unacceptabilty. And in general, I prefer a strategy of morally improving our practices to trying to find new terms for the permissible versions of the same activities and relationships.

      • lukeroelofs says:

        I suppose there may not be much difference between saying ‘it wouldn’t be farming’ and saying ‘it would be farming, but not instrumentalising farming’.

        I should clarify – I do think there should be human-animal relationships, especially because we inevitably share space with other species and have to get along somehow. And who knows if collecting secretions will play a part: all I’m insisting on is that there’s a meaningful concept that is ruled out, of constructing and directing the relationship for the sake of resource production. If you think that doesn’t line up exactly with the word ‘farming’ that may be right.

  2. Shereen says:

    Huge difference! The latter clearly implies that there is a morally better way to engage in farming if we don’t instrumentalize the nonhuman. For those who find farming too beneficial to forgo altogether, indicating a method of improvement is much more helpful than simply insisting that farming, narrowly defined, is necessarily unethical.

    I agree about ruling out of moral practice the construction/direction of human-nonhuman relationships for the sake of resource production, with the qualification I mentioned before (that the resource production is for the benefit of the human, and not both the human and nonhuman). If you still agree, we’ll have produced consensus!

    • lukeroelofs says:

      “For those who find farming too beneficial to forgo altogether, indicating a method of improvement is much more helpful than simply insisting that farming, narrowly defined, is necessarily unethical.”
      A rhetorical difference, then. Perhaps so; what do I know about rhetoric?

      “If you still agree, we’ll have produced consensus!”
      The only question is which of us will harvest this consensus and sell it, and for whose benefit?

  3. missivesfrommarx says:

    Very nice post; thanks.

  4. Belinda says:

    Perhaps because I read this immediately after your reply to David Benatar, the paragraph where you say that the paradigm of relating to someone’s body as a productive resource seems very difficult to combine in practice with relating to them as intrinsically valuable made me think about the tricky business of what seems problematic about prostitution. Issues of who gets the money seem relevant to that too, but perhaps not the primary source of tension, it may have more to do with using the control you have over yourself to give that control away or something like that?

    • lukeroelofs says:

      There may be a link, though it seems like there’s a big difference in the sort of ‘intrinsic value’ attributed: a child or pet’s value is in practice a matter of our positive duties to it, whereas a trader or worker’s value is in practice a negative matter – I have to refrain from certain acts towards shopkeepers and bus drivers, but I don’t have to actively benefit them.

      The big question about prostitution, to my mind, is whether anything differentiates a worker who agrees to do boring stuff for you for 8 hours from one who agrees to have sex with your for 1 hour, and why. That is – it has to be contextualised in a broader question of how ‘market relations’ are to be evaluated.

  5. Pingback: A Point about Principles and Paradigms | Majestic Equality

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