What better way to start off the new year than with a return to blogging?
I was on a farm recently, with animals kept for food and so forth. Being vegan, I am opposed to this on principle, but I felt very reluctant to bring it up. Partly this is because it can be nice to avoid arguments, but it was also partly because I was very conscious of my practical ignorance of the matter: I don’t really know anything about keeping, say, chickens, and so if I tried to say ‘don’t do X’ I would probably end up accidentally advocating something that would get them all killed. Yet this didn’t shake my confidence in the position itself. Why not?
Consider two people, A and B, who have to choose between three possible projects to work on together for the next month. Suppose that project 1 would be definitely the best one to choose – more rewarding, more suited to their talents, etc., while project 3 would be a stupid one to choose.
If they discuss the issue, and choose project 3, and it turns out to be terrible, they can be criticised on grounds on skill – they made a bad decision. But if A lies to B about what the projects will entail, thereby getting B to choose project 1, which turns out to be a very good choice, the process can be criticised in a very different way, on grounds of justice. In the first case, A and B may be unhappy but they can’t complain that anyone treated them unfairly, while B can make such a claim in the second case.
It seems to me that these two sorts of issues are, at least in many cases, relate as ouput and input to a decision. The criticism of skill – the claim ‘you’re doing it wrong!’ – focuses on what decision you reach, whether it’s a smart one given the facts. The criticism of justice – the claim ‘that isn’t fair’ or ‘that’s not right’ – focuses on the set-up by which the decision gets made. If that set-up involves one party being deceived by another, or one party coercing another, or some other such problem, then whatever decision is reached will be ‘infected’ by that flaw in its origin.
Of course, this also allows the two criticisms to come together, since (arguably) a decision-making process which is unjust, ill-formed, is more likely than not to produce bad decisions (e.g. if A deceives B, the outcome is more likely to go against B’s interests) – but this claim need not require any particular factual knowledge about the options themselves.
So back to veganism: what is it? It’s certainly not principled opposition to ingesting the products of a living animal body per se – if it were, it would condemn several perfectly innocuous erotic practices. For me, it can best be summarised as ‘animals should not be property’, and this is a justice claim, a claim about the basic set-up for certain decisions, not a claim about how well decisions are being made.
‘Animals-as-property’ is an institutionalised framework in which the entirety of animals’ lives – the conditions of that life, the length of that life, the way that life begins and ends – are made subordinate to their usefulness to humans – human desires for amusement, profit, etc. That’s what it means to be able to buy animals as a resource. And this paradigm systematically, and in perfectly intelligible ways, produces vast quantities of suffering, not necessarily because people make bad choices within but because of the way it’s set up.
But holding a position on that ‘paradigm’ need not mean knowing jack about pigs, or being able to intelligently identify, in a given situation, some respect in which some pigs are being mistreated. I don’t know exactly what makes pigs happy – I know very little, indeed, about what makes humans happy. And I’m worried sometimes that expressing vegan criticism would come across as claiming such expertise, and would consequently be undermined when my ignorance became apparent.