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Vegetarian Hyperbole

A quick post before I head off to Thanksgiving:

Meet Bernard Goetz, New York City's Veggie Vigilante

PETA: [Vegetarianism would solve] A quarter of the world’s problems?
Goetz: A general move to vegetarianism would change the soul of mankind. There would be less fear, cruelty, craziness, grief, and struggle in the world if most people were vegetarians. There would be more gentleness, love, and health. That seems like a good trade. I just don’t see violence abating generally until we move, as a society and a world, toward vegetarianism. It’s a crucial step if our species is going to become truly civilized.

PETA: This may seem odd, in light of what you’ve just said, but can you share a bit more about why you, personally, feel called to advocate vegetarianism?
Goetz: I’d like to see the world a kinder and more rational place. If we’re going to do that, we have to start from the ground up. A vegetarian menu in public schools is the key to change. Of course, everyone supports kindness for animals, and everyone is opposed to gratuitous violence, even as most of them eat animals. I’m just trying to show people that their belief in kindness for animals and their opposition to violence, both of which are very noble, must ultimately entail a switch to a vegetarian diet. A vegetarian society will be a better society, with better values in general.

-- via The Volokh Conspiracy

Let me begin by stating that I have nothing against vegetarianism. Indeed, I quite admire people who make that choice. I'm essentially vegetarian in my cooking for myself, though I don't go out of my way to avoid meat when I'm at someone else's house or a restaurant.

This article got me thinking about the intersection of two common vegetarian arguments. Goetz's assertion that vegetarianism would solve a quarter of the world's problems seems to be based in the notion that cruelty to animals leads to cruelty to people. I frequently hear that children who torture animals go on to be cruel toward people in their adult life. I wonder, however whether these factors don't really share a common cause (a cruel disposition), rather than the one causing the other.

Further, there's the question of what kind of line exists between humans and animals, and between wanton and necessary cruelty. For a person concerned with animal rights, these two lines are extremely fuzzy. People like Goetz have trouble seeing animals as morally distinct from humans, and trouble seeing any cruelty as necessary or justifiable. This may or may not be the correct view. Nevertheless, many people do make such distinctions. Drawing a line that allows you to think of animals and people as totally different sorts of things can seriously restrict the bleeding-through of practices used with regard to one group into the other. Given how much effort animal rights proponents have to expend in arguing against making this distinction, I find it hard to believe that the distinction is psychologically meaningless to the person making it. The line between wanton and necessary cruelty works similarly. The thing to note about the kids who torture cats is that they do it for the purpose of being cruel. This is different from the hunter who works to minimize the cruelty of his shot, or the butcher who has to kill the cow to get the steaks. Whether this cruelty is necessary or not, the key is that it's conceptualized as such by the perpetrators, and that conceptualization creates a barrier between categories.

At best, we could reframe the "cruelty to animals leads to cruelty to humans" argument this way: the ability to draw a distinction between animals and humans, and between necessary and wanton cruelty, gives a person the conceptual resources to draw a distinction between "people you can be cruel to" and "people you can't be cruel to," and to define some cruelty to humans as necessary.

Goetz seems to argue, in the second response I quoted, that our desire for nonviolence is already sufficiently strong. Here he's arguing that nonviolence should lead to vegetarianism, rather than the other way around. The link that's missing, he says, is recognizing that meat production is violent. This echoes another common vegetarian argument: "You wouldn't eat it if you had to kill it yourself."

This argument is based on the idea that we're separated from the production process of our food. We know in the abstract that meat comes from dead animals, but steaks could grow on trees for all the difference it makes to someone picking one up at the grocery store. The fact that people don't think about the cruelty involved in making their dinner means that that cruelty has no effect on them. Eating meat is not an acceptance or endorsement of cruelty, at least on the psychological level that would translate that into cruelty toward non-livestock, if one is as distant from the production process as the average American omnivore.

Further, humans are in general quite able to come to terms with the cruelty involved in getting meat. A slaughterhouse may be quite shocking at first to people who have always thought meat came from a plastic package and interacted with animals only as pets. Nevertheless, for thousands of years people were able to deal with killing animals for food. You (as an individual and as a society) get used to it -- a process that often involves setting up the kind of psychological distinctions I described above.


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