More on Pollan and vegetarianism: vegetarianism as vocation

I have to admit that I find Pollan’s argument that the domestication of certain animals entails a real gain both for the animals and for us pretty convincing. He points out that animal husbandry may be a necessary part of a sustainable agriculture since relying on animal fertilization is the chief alternative to the chemical variety. In other words, a strictly vegetarian agriculture might end up being more industrialized and centralized than a pastoral and diversified agriculture that includes plants andanimals.

The issue of vegetarianism breaks down into at least two components: the question of suffering and the question of killing. Almost everyone will admit, at least theoretically, that it’s wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals. So, in theory, you could get most people to concede, I think, that the conditions of factory farms are wicked. However, things start getting much murkier when we talk about what evil, if any, is involved in killing animals for food, if, for the sake of argument, we suppose they were raised humanely and killed painlessly. Even Peter Singer allows that painlessly killing animals for food can be ok if it results in greater overall utility.

Pollan argues that there’s no great evil in killing animals as such. He gives two reasons for this. First, the species is more important than the individual. Animal rightists are wrong, he says, to focus so much on individual animals. For instance, if we took it upon ourselves to protect animals in the wild from predators we would end up condemning the predators to starvation and, ultimately, the prey to overpopulation and eventual starvation. What’s more important, Pollan says, is to preserve the natural balance of species.

This leads to Pollan’s second argument against animal rights perspectives: they are, he maintains, too sentimental and squeamish about predation in nature. Morality, for Pollan, is a human social construct, not a standard that can be applied to the facts of nature. Deracinated urban vegetarians need to take a better look at the actual workings of nature and recognize that death is part of the cycle of life. Indeed, he contends that a strictly vegetarian world might well result in a greater number of animals killed (because of the necessity of cultivating crops on animal pasture and rangeland to feed all the new vegetarians), and that many existing human habitations would have to be given up since they’re only suited for raising animals.

Pollan is right, I think, to point out the futility of trying to live completely “cruelty-free”; human life and civilization inherently lead to the deaths of animals. We compete for resources, for food, and for habitat. The philosopher Stephen R. L. Clark is perhaps on firmer ground when he writes:

The rights that all self-owners have simply as such cannot include any right of immunity to disease, predation or famine. No such right can be justly defended for all self-owners, since the terrestrial economy is organised around the fact of predation. None of us can be treated absolutely and only as ‘ends-in-themselves’, never to be material for another’s purposes. Of all of us it is literally true that we are food. If blackbirds have no right not to be eaten by foxes (and people, correspondingly, no duty to protect them), since such a general right would deny the right of life to foxes, but blackbirds have all the ‘natural’ rights that all self-owners have, it follows that we too have no right not to be eaten. The only ‘right to life’ that all self-owners might be allowed, just as such, is the right to live as the creature one is, under the same law as all others. Foxes do no wrong in catching what they can: they would be doing wrong if they prevented the creatures whom they prey upon from enjoying their allotted portion in the sun, if they imprisoned, frustrated and denied them justice. Foxes, obviously, are not at fault. (Stephen R. L. Clark, “Animals, Ecosystems and the Liberal Ethic” in Animals and their Moral Standing, p. 83)

However, Clark continues, this perspective:

requires that no one do more than enjoy a due share of the fruits of the earth, that forward-looking agents plan their agricultural economy with a view to allowing the diversity of creatures some share of happiness according to their kind. It does not require that everyone abstain from killing and eating animals, if that is how the human creatures their are can live. Some people may so abstain, because they see no need to live off their non-human kindred, but this (on liberal views) must be their choice, not their duty. (pp. 83-4)

I don’t think Pollan would really disagree with this, and it suggests an approach to vegetarianism that’s more vocational than deontological. It can be one way of not taking more than our “due share of the fruits of the earth” and of allowing other creatures their “allotted portion of the sun.” But humane and sustainable farming can also be a way of doing this. In fact, if, as seems likely, a sustainable and humane animal husbandry might result in considerably less meat being produced, there would seem to be a need for people who forgo flesh-food altogether, or at least most of the time.

6 thoughts on “More on Pollan and vegetarianism: vegetarianism as vocation

  1. Pingback: Meat Eating « About Animals

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  4. Pingback: Is universal vegetarianism (or veganism) possible? « A Thinking Reed

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