Vegan versus vegetarian utopia
In his book Ethics and the Beast, Tzachi Zamir makes an interesting “speciesist” case for animal liberation. But for the purposes of this post I want to focus on his argument in favor of moral vegetarianism, and against veganism. That he makes this argument is surprising since most liberationists, I think it’s safe to say, regard veganism as the ideal even if they recognize that practice will often fall short. (This seems to be Peter Singer’s view, for instance.)
To make his case, Zamir distinguishes between veganism, “tentative” veganism, and moral vegetarianism and argues that the last position is superior to the first two. He defines vegans as those who are opposed to all uses of animals period, including using them for milk or eggs. Tentative vegans are those who allow that egg and milk production might, in theory, be carried out in non-exploitative ways, but believe that under current conditions, liberationists should boycott all such products. Moral vegetarians oppose the killing of animals for their flesh, but not the use of milk and eggs under at least some current conditions.
As the first step in his argument against veganism, Zamir makes the case for a distinction between exploitation and the permissible use of animals. The hard-core vegan recognizes no such distinction and insists on a strictly “hands off” approach to animals, at least as the ideal. But, Zamir argues, all use is not necessarily exploitation. It’s possible to be involved in a give-and-take relationship with animals that is not exploitative. X exploits Y only when the relationship is substantially detrimental to Y’s interests, or Y is unable to fully consent to the relationship, or under some combination of these conditions. While the line between exploitative and non-exploitative relationships can be a fuzzy one, there are clear-cut cases on both sides of it. “Generally, you are clearly exploiting someone if your relationship predictably benefits you and harms the person involved” (p. 92).
As an example of a non-exploitative human-animal relationship, Zamir discusses the case of well-cared-for pets. Cats and dogs that could not flourish on their own and are well fed, well housed, and have their medical and other needs seen to are being used by humans (pets give us great pleasure), but not necessarily exploited. “Well-kept pets are a source of joy to their owners, live a much better life than they would have lived in the wild, and, as far as I can tell, pay a small price for such conditions” (p. 97). Note that this only applies to domesticated or quasi-domesticated animals like dogs or cats; keeping genuinely wild animals as pets is pretty clearly detrimental to their interests because it usually involves frustrating deep-seated desires and preventing those animals from engaging in characteristic behaviors.
If this is right, then we have at least one case of non-exploitative animal use. Thus, the strong vegan position–that animal use is always wrong–can’t be right. But what about the use of animals for milk and eggs? (Remember, we’re only dealing here with the narrower vegan-vegetarian debate; Zamir has argued earlier in the book that killing animals for their flesh when other nutritionally adequate food sources are available is wrong.) If pet-keeping can be justified, roughly, by its overall utility to the animals, then a similar justification for raising animals for eggs and milk is potentially available. Zamir contends that it is theoretically possible to provide dairy cows and laying hens with overall good lives and without the “collateral damage” that the dairy and eggs industries currently inflict (e.g., the fates of veal calves and male chicks). And this ideal is superior to the vegan ideal in which these animals cease to exist in significant numbers. If, like pets, these animals can be allowed to live good lives and die natural deaths, then our use of them for eggs and milk wouldn’t be morally problematic and would be superior to the envisaged alternative vegan ideal. If the lives of pets can be an overall good, so can the lives of farm animals, under the right circumstances. A mutually beneficial relationship is possible.
Zamir recognizes that current practice in the egg and dairy industries falls far short of even his vegetarian ideal. This is where the “tentative vegan” position–that absent reform, it’s morally mandatory to boycott the products of these industries–comes in. Tentative vegans don’t oppose the use of animals for eggs and dairy in principle, but nevertheless believe that the current egg and dairy industries are so morally compromised that it’s wrong to buy their products. The moral vegetarian, on the other hand, believes that encouraging reform by purchasing the products of relatively more progressive producers (e.g., cage-free eggs) can be a step toward a better world, even if it falls short of the vegetarian ideal: wholly non-exploitative animal use.
Deciding in principle whether a particular producer is “good enough” to merit buying from, Zamir says, is probably impossible. Instead, he argues for the political superiority of the vegetarian position to that of the tentative vegan. He says that “step-by-step cooperation with partial improvements [can pave] the way to radical reform” (p. 109).
To conclude, against the tentative vegan’s claim that vegetarians participate in an exploitative practice when they eat products that are derived from free-roaming animals, vegetarians first that nothing in the consumption makes the vegan description of it more reasonable than the vegetarian one. Second, political considerations make the vegetarian description of selective-consumption-as-promoting-progress preferable to the overly purist stance of the vegan. (p. 109)
I should admit up front that this argument appeals to me for what are no doubt partly self-serving reasons. I’m a lacto-ovo vegetarian with something of a guilty conscience for not being vegan. So I’m probably predisposed to like the idea that the vegetarian actually occupies the moral high ground. Nevertheless, I do think that Zamir is probably right that use is not necessarily exploitation. (I think the case of pet ownership shows that this is at least a live possibility.) And if dairy and egg production is not wrong per se, then supporting incremental steps toward reform makes sense.
My sense, however, is that most people who buy “free range” eggs or organic milk are under the impression that the animals lead largely pleasant lives. How many of them (us) see these as just one small step on a long road toward a wholly different model of egg and dairy production? To make good on their commitment to non-exploitative animal use, vegetarians need to articulate more clearly what the end goal is and describe a plausible path there from the status quo. Otherwise, the vegan critique will continue to have significant bite.