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.

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16 thoughts on “Vegan versus vegetarian utopia”

  1. In many cases, depending where a person draws the line and how they do it, veganism can become a very slippery slope. The criteria one uses for what is a acceptable to eat and what is not acceptable is a very blurred hierarchy. As an octo-lavo vegetarian I have drawn the line for my morale community near plant or vegetative life (Not from a utility perspective). Logically, I can’t see how this boundary can be pushed further without running into the problem that plant life is not acceptable to eat as well.

  2. As someone (now a Franciscan) who spent much of his (thoughtfully Christian) working life in the dairy industry, and has seen it at close quarters in its better and worse (though not its best or worst) manifestations, I think it’s worth pointing out that it’s possible – at least in a rural community where food sources are readily identifiable – to be a moral vegetarian. If everyone who truly cares for animal welfare simply boycotts all animal products no matter how ethically produced, how are ethical producers to survive without reverting to industry-standard methods and markets?

    Yes, ethical dairy and egg production is possible, and it is beginning to be practised, despite the real difficulties you outline. I don’t see, though, how we can begin to walk that long road to industry-wide ethical production unless we actively support those who are making the effort at the point at which they are making it!

  3. This is interesting, and I guess I will finally have to get around to reading his book.

    A few unorganized thoughts (from someone that is in this criteria between a tentative vegan and a strong vegan).

    First, I am curious: if his argument about the political superiority of moral vegetarianism do not themselves justify the local meat movement? So, for example there are many people who are trying to create (some really are, many are just trying to make a buck) alternatives to factory farming but still eat animal flesh. Should we support these efforts by purchasing this animal flesh? (Not to mention this whole needing to use animals to keep the species alive is the same argument Pollan makes for local meat consumption. I remain fairly unconvinced, particularly when dealing with some types of animals whose genetics have been so messed up that life is pretty terrible for them regardless).

    Second, is increased demand for a product really the best way to keep it ethically pure? Two examples: Bill Niman helped promote one of the largest local meat and attempts at ethically raised livestock in the country. His wife is a vegetarian. He was recently kicked out as head of his group because the other people wanted to start cutting corners now that there is a larger demand for this sort of thing. Or, look at the cage-free eggs. About fifteen years ago it was pretty hard to find cage-free eggs in a lot of places, but most cage-free eggs you did come across had some sort of standards. But we’ve seen a huge explosion in the demand of cage-free eggs, which not only has seen a resulting rise in supply but also a resulting cutting of standards to meet demand. A pool of demand tends to result in both corporations misleading consumers and also formerly more ethical people justifying to themselves why cutting corners is okay because the resulting money is so much larger.

    Third, back when I lived in Ithaca I knew this human who had pet chickens. They ran around in the yard, and had plenty of food and lots of love and support. They had names and weren’t killed or abused. They laid eggs, and she sold the eggs to people she knew. I never had a problem with eating those eggs, not a second of moral doubt. But, I recognize there is no way to turn this into a profitable economic model. It is one thing to have a hobby farm, or keep some chickens as actual pets, and give or sell the eggs to people you know. But try turning that into a for profit business, how do you keep paying for things like keeping the male chickens alive? I certainly think we can have non-exploitative relationships with animals. But I have trouble imaging that animals raised in truly non-exploitative ways can ever be at the basis of a for profit relationship (Hell, we aren’t even that good to our human workers most of the time). So, unless you yourself or your neighbor is the one raising the animals, I think we are basically talking about veganism most of the time.

    Or am I missing something here?

  4. Scu raises some interesting points, and ones which are very necessary to consider when we look at the possibility of industry-wide ethical production. I’d better make it clear, without people needing to look up my profile, that I live, and spent all my working life, in the UK, where farming is rather less dependent on the large-unit, long-distance distribution model.

    Certainly in the UK, as ethical production gradually moves forward – and this is especially the case in egg production – small unit, local distribution models become more feasible. With enough of these, very large-scale production is possible. It’s just decentralised, and you have greater numbers of self-employed people, or small employers, rather than fewer larger, corporate employers, with all the ethical challenges to go with corporate business in any field.

    Even in dairying, most UK units are on independent farms; if they are by economic necessity much larger than the small egg-production units, they are not in themselves corporate operations, even if most or all of their sales are made via corporate wholesalers (and retailers).

    I quite take Scu’s point that workers as well as animals tend to suffer in very large-scale production units. In many cases the animals suffer because the humans suffer. Brutalised people tend to be brutal to animals in their care. However, I don’t have such a problem as Scu does “imag[in]ing that animals raised in truly non-exploitative ways can ever be at the basis of a for profit relationship.” It can be done. It can be done without cutting corners. It does however take commitment and imagination; my argument is that such commitment and imagination is only viable if there is a strong market for ethically produced milk and eggs. And, among non-vegetarians, for “naturally” produced meat.

  5. Thanks for the great discussion.

    Scu: your point that large-scale production will (inevitably?) tend to give the interests of animals short shrift is well taken. I think it’s an empirical question of what, if any, viable models there are that don’t depend on exploitation and/or mistreatment. But I agree that Zamir’s argument depends on this being a live possibility since, otherwise, you’d be deceiving yourself in thinking that buying marginally more ethical products is a step on the path to that goal. I think Mike raises some interesting complications here: is it the necessities of large-scale production or the profit motive per se that is the problem here? Of course, if the profit motive leads to expanding production whenever possible, then maybe they aren’t separate problems.

    Regarding the question of whether Zamir can consistently say that we should avoid meat but patronize “ethical” egg and dairy producers: he does grapple with that argument. In short, he says that meat can never be ethical (so long as there are nutritionally sufficient alternatives available) because it inherently involves the premature killing of animals. (He does make exceptions for eating the flesh of animals who’ve died natural deaths, but that’s pretty clearly not a viable model for large-scale meat production for obvious reasons.) By contrast, if dairy and meat can, in theory, be produced ethically, then it makes sense to encourage steps toward that goal. In other words, there’s no such thing, in his view, as truly ethical meat, but there can, he thinks, be ethical dairy and eggs.

  6. Just a quick word of clarification, Lee and Scu. I think the problem tends to be one of large-scale production driven by the need of corporations to meet the expectations of shareholders far removed from the production processes themselves. I don’t think you can separate the one from the other in any meaningful way.

    On the old family farm, ethical standards may or may not be high (I’ve seen the occasional bad example over the years! but no-one can pretend that they are other than they are. In a agri-corporate setting, the shareholders, and sometimes the senior management also, may have no idea of the day-to-day realities of the job. If they make, for instance, staffing decisions based merely on maximising the bottom line, they often do not see (or wish to see) the repercussions for the animals and the humans at the sharp end.

    I find it hard to imagine large-scale corporate farming models delivering ethical agriculture, either in terms of animal welfare or in terms of environmental responsibility. I find it perfectly possible, on the other hand, to imagine that with a combination of consumer and legislative pressure on the one hand, and good old-fashioned business ingenuity on the other, a re-envisioned, ethically responsible “family farm” model delivering very high levels of production on a decentralised, as opposed to centralised, basis, with a corresponding reduction in environmental impact as a bonus.

    Some will accuse me of business naivete, but I will stoutly contend that what is lost in “economies of scale” is more than made up for in reduced administrative overheads, and vastly reduced transport costs. On the contrary, I think the naivete often lies on the side of corporations who imagine that business models that work for, say, motor cars, can be applied to farming in ways that are either ethically acceptable, or, in the long-term, environmentally or even economically (see the ongoing crisis in the UK dairy industry following deregulation in 1994 and the subsequent demise of the Milk Marketing Board) sustainable.

    I pray that our eyes will be opened to God’s love and mercy for his entire creation, and that our hearts and minds will turn increasingly towards finding ways that we can sustain and nurture, rather than rape and pillage, that creation, and all our sister and brother animals with whom we share it.

  7. Sorry, I meant:

    “I find it perfectly possible, on the other hand, to imagine that with a combination of consumer and legislative pressure on the one hand, and good old-fashioned business ingenuity on the other, a re-envisioned, ethically responsible “family farm” model can deliver very high levels of production on a decentralised, as opposed to centralised, basis, with a corresponding reduction in environmental impact as a bonus.”

  8. Lee, Thanks for the link to my blog and mention of my book! I really appreciate this pointer to Zamir’s argument, and your explanation and discussion of it. I worry (like you) that my attraction to this argument may be self-serving, but at least it’s something new to think about! Yes, I’m not convinced it’s inherently wrong to use animals for eggs and milk…so maybe I can feel good about supporting humane eggs and humane dairy, even if they’re not as humane as we would want.

    But here’s a problem–in fact, there’s a certain amount of killing involved in humane egg and dairy farming. The male chicks are immediately killed and the male calves wind up as beef (thought not veal–I’ve looked into that). So how can Zamir draw a sharp line between meat (wrong) and milk/eggs (permissible)? Does he say anything about this?

  9. Hi Jean — thanks for stopping by!

    Zamir does address the issues you raise, though only briefly and not completely satisfactorily to my mind.

    For example, he suggests that “differential artificial insemination” can be used to regulate the births of male chicks and calves, which I take it means something like selecting for females. He also says (somewhat un-persuasively I think) that there is no evidence that consecutive pregnancies harm cows. This assumes a lot, considering that dairy cows now live short lives, and he admits there’s not much evidence to go on. (This discussion occurs on pp. 105-106 of his book, which I think can be viewed on Google Books.)

    So, he’s aware that these are issues, but he–or someone else–would have to do a lot more work to show that this type of vegetarian utopia, particularly on a large scale, is a live economic possibility.

  10. Just a very quick one, this time!

    Zamir is quite right when he suggests that consecutive pregnancies do not hurt cows. There is nothing unnatural about this – it is what tends to happen under natural conditions with herd animals. The big difference is that domesticated calves are not subject to the very high losses from predation, famine etc., experienced by wild individuals.

    The often short lives of dairy cattle may be due more to bad husbandry than to anything else, but are often due to the results of unwise breeding decisions. Nothing shortens a cow’s life like chronically bad feet, or a congenital predisposition to fertility problesm.

    In a humane farming practice, not only would nutrition and other husbandry decisions be made as much with animal welfare in mind as herd output, but breeding decisions would be weighted less heavily in favour of production before all other considerations. In the best herds, this is already the case. Short-lived cows are not best-practice farming, and this fact is widely recognised in the industry, at least in the UK and Canada.

    I can’t comment on “differential artificial insemination” – were it feasible on a large scale, I imagine it would be quite widely used already. Certainly the very poor market for calves experienced in this country a few years ago would have pushed research in that direction. See however my earlier comments above!

  11. Thanks Lee–I’ll look at those pages. Actually, “differential artificial insemination” is already taking place on a large scale (surprisingly enough) in dairy cows–

    http://kazez.blogspot.com/2009/09/milk-without-killing.html

    They sort bull semen and sell the “female” half to dairies The problem is that the other half is sold as well. But in principle you could throw it out. So milk could have very low “killing costs”–though not zero. Since semen sorting doesn’t work perfectly, you wind up with a few male calves. Then again, the whole thing can backfire. In the article I reference, it says when this was tried on a large scale they wound up with a surplus of dairy cows — and then there was a mass slaughter. It is very hard to combine “humane” with “big business”! Wish it weren’t true, as I do drink milk.

  12. My girlfriend and I would like to run an ethical dairy farm and we’ve worked out that we’d have to sell milk at five times regular price or cheese at three times the going rate. Wonder how many vegetarians out there would be willing to pay as much for milk as for wine.
    Perhaps this is simply the true cost which modem techniques do a good job of shielding us from?

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