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Why Vegans Can Eat Roadkill

Being vegan is about reducing the amount of harm done to animals. That's it. If a practice harms animals more than the alternative, it's not vegan. If it doesn't, then it is.

Unfortunately, since the key mechanism by which veganism reduces harm to animals is in the procurement -- and hence consumption -- of food, non-vegans so often insist on reframing it as a diet. A "diet" here is a food practice whose guiding principle is regulating what things go into your mouth and down your throat. A person with a peanut allergy avoiding peanuts is on a diet -- they don't care if the world is buried in a 2-foot layer of peanut butter, so long as none of it ever passes their lips. As it's been explained to me, keeping kosher is a diet -- observant Jews don't care how much shrimp is produced and eaten, as long as *they* aren't among the eaters. Veganism, however, is just the opposite*. Keeping meat out of their mouth is only an instrumental act for a vegan, aimed toward reducing the demand for and hence production of things that involve animal harm. That's why it makes no sense, for example, to tell a vegan to go ahead and order the full breakfast combo and just give their bacon to someone else -- once the bacon is ordered, the contribution to harming
animals is done, and it doesn't matter whose belly the product ends up in.

I was reminded of this issue by a recent post by belledame222, who recounted a story told to her by a diner cook who was smug about sticking it to an annoying vegan customer:

"Oh, yeah, he's going on and on about how he's a vegan, and I'm thinking, I didn't say it, those french fries you're eating? Were fried in the -same- oil as the scallops, the chicken...and I was like, haha, I win."

Cooking french fries in oil that has been used for meat does not in any conceivable way cause more harm to be done to animals. Assuming that there's no way to stop those scallops and chicken from being produced in the first place, I would *want* my fries cooked in the same oil, just so the diner isn't wasting oil. So the joke's on the diner guy -- his gotcha is based on a false understanding of the thing he was gotcha-ing.

Roadkill raises a similar issue. Setting aside health concerns and second-order effects (e.g. that eating roadkill implicitly endorses eating all meat), there's nothing un-vegan about eating roadkill. Refusing to eat it won't bring the roadkilled animal back to life, nor will it reduce the likelihood of future animals being hit by cars. Because veganism is fundamentally about keeping suffering out of animals, not about keeping animals out of our bellies.

*The issue is a bit confused because there are actually people for whom veganism is a diet, either instead of or in addition to the harm-reduction motivation. For the sake of brevity I'll use "vegan" to refer to people who avoid animal products solely for animal rights and/or environmentalist reasons, not those who do it to lose weight or reduce the risk of colon cancer.

Several Species of PUMAs

I find it frustrating, albeit not entirely surprising, that so much of the commentary (in the mainstream media and blogs) has a lot of trouble conceiving that disgruntled supporters of Hillary Clinton who aren't sold on Barack Obama come in more than one flavor. I count at least three. (I should note that the vast majority of Clinton's supporters have gone over to Obama, but this is an election that will hinge on small shifts of opinion.)

First are the "feminists" (by which I mean "feminist disgruntled Clinton supporters," not "all feminists" -- and mutatis mutandis for the other category names). These are voters who were primarily drawn to Clinton because they saw her as having strong, progressive positions on the issues, particularly "women's issues." They aren't sold on Obama because they think he's too centrist and doesn't care enough about fighting sexism. Clinton's gender played a mostly derivative role -- it explained why she is better on "women's issues" and gave some confidence that she'd follow through once in the White House. These folks are thus definitely not interested in voting for McCain, because he is clearly even worse than Obama on the issues (though they may occasionally fantasize about how an Obama loss would teach the Democratic Party a lesson about ignoring women's concerns). They're planning to either sit out the election or vote for a left-wing third party candidate such as Cynthia McKinney.

Second are the "moderates," the classic swing voters. These are folks whose issue positions lie in between the two major parties -- either because they think that's the objectively right policy, because their personal identity is wrapped up in proving their independent-mindedness by taking whatever happens to be the middle-of-the-road position, or because they haven't put much thought into the issues. Moderates would be up for grabs between the various candidates, but for many women Clinton's gender was the thing that tipped the balance in the primaries. They thought "I don't necessarily agree with how any of these candidates would govern, but it would be really cool, and make me feel good about my country, to see a woman in the White House." And I think this kind of affirmative action voting is a good thing if you think the candidates are otherwise close to equally good on the issues (this is why I never seriously considered supporting John Edwards -- he would have had to be much better on the issues to trump "First black/Latino/woman president"). Now that Clinton is out of the race, this group has been distributed among the truly undecided and soft supporters of Obama or McCain.

Finally there are the "double agents." These are people who are committed Republicans, but who took up the Clinton banner for strategic reasons -- to destroy Obama outright in the primaries, and/or to set themselves up to be effective concern trolls once she lost. Most of these folks probably would have voted for McCain anyway even if he was running against Clinton (either secretly in the voting booth, or after an overwrought public statement about how Clinton has betrayed them). So it's no surprise that they're solid McCain voters now. Most of the PUMAs that the media focuses on fall into this category, because their McCain support and shrill rhetoric make for better copy.

So if you want to ask, for example, how McCain's pick of Sarah Palin as VP will affect his standing among disgruntled Clinton supporters, you have to break it down. Feminists will be unswayed, because while an affirmative action vote may have some appeal when choosing between very similar candidates like Clinton vs Obama vs Edwards, Palin's vagina can't make up for her staunch opposition to abortion (among other issues where she's a doctrinaire conservative). Double agents won't be swayed because they were already committed to McCain. But it's quite likely that there will be a number of centrists -- possibly even a decisive number in a key swing state -- who are undecided between Obama and McCain on the issues and will find Palin's gender to be the small push they need to vote McCain.

(I should point out that I fall into none of these categories, though I have sympathies with the feminist position. Being an Independent I couldn't vote in the Arizona "presidential preference election," but if I could I probably would have voted for Obama.)


Monism Vs. Pluralism

One of the great debates in moral philosophy -- particularly environmental ethics -- is monism versus pluralism. Monism refers to ethical philosophies that posit one overarching value. The archetype here is classical utilitarianism, which says that all ethics comes down to promoting the greatest happiness, and other supposed values are valuable only if they're instrumentally useful in achieving happiness. Pluralism, on the other hand, holds that there are multiple incommensurable values -- say, happiness, freedom, beauty, etc.

Pluralism has a certain prima facie plausibility -- it does seem like there are lots of different things we care about. But does that intuition represent a fundamental moral truth, or is it just the product of being socialized in a culture that does not have one clear and consistent moral philosophy? A sense of the answer, I think, has to come from asking what we do when two of our ostensibly different values conflict and we're faced with a choice between them.

The most obvious response is to set up some sort of tradeoff. We can say, for example, that we're willing to accept a loss of X amount of beauty if it gains us Y amount of happiness. But as soon as such a tradeoff rule is established, we're on the express train to monism. If two values trade off at a defined rate, then we can express this in terms of them being measurable in a common underlying quantity. And making the tradeoffs vague, denying the ability to precisely define either the tradeoff ratio or the values of particular choices, simply weakens the ethical system's ability to give clear answers without eliminating its monistic implications. Granted, there's still a distinction to be made between substantive monism and abstract monism. Substantive monism, like classical utilitarianism, reduces all values to some real phenomenon -- such as the psychological state of happiness -- by examining the causal connections between other things we value and the phenomenon in question (e.g. the value of freedom is determined by the amount of happiness it leads to). Abstract monism posits some conceptual metric, perhaps just called "value," in which the relative worth of different substantive things can be expressed. Abstract monism need not even posit the ontological reality of this common metric -- "value" can be a pragmatist device for moral calculation, rather than a Platonically real Idea. But it is still effectively monism. Tradeoff rules, while immensely useful in guiding actual action, deprive us of the high-minded refusal to make comparisons or sacrifice one thing for another that is at the root of much of pluralism's appeal.

Another option is lexical ordering. We can rank the values, and then in any situation the first value must be equal before we consider the second. For example, if freedom is our primary value, then we always pick the option that maximizes freedom. But if two or more options are equal in terms of freedom, then we ask how they stack up on our second value (perhaps beauty). And if there are still two options equal in both freedom and beauty, we might move down the list to happiness. Etc. This works best if our values are yes/no characteristics (e.g. "are anyone's rights violated?") or satisficing ("ensure everyone has Z utils of happiness -- extra happiness above Z is not morally of concern"), rather than maximizing continuous variables. Otherwise it's highly unlikely you'll ever get to use even the #2 value -- making your system monism in practice even if conceptually there are other values out there. And even if your values are satisficing, the chance of a value ever having an impact on your choices quickly becomes vanishingly small as you move down the list. So while lexical ordering technically avoids tradeoffs, it goes in the opposite direction from where the pluralist intuition guides us.

So let's say we have multiple values, which are incommensurable (can't be traded off) and equal (can't be ranked). One common claim is that when faced with a value conflict, rather than following an ethical rule (which is usually implied to be a slavish, mechanical form of action), we should make a choice that expresses our character-- "look at me, I'm the kind of person who will sacrifice happiness for freedom." This strategy maintains pluralism at the global level by sanctioning relativism at the individual level. That is, each person's character drives them to be a monist, or at least a lexical orderer, even though different people are different sorts of monists. This raises the question of on what basis a person chooses what kind of value-promoting character to express. Assuming it's not chosen entirely at random, nor is it a not-open-for-debate product of their genetic or socialized temperament (talk about slavish and mechanical action!), a person presumably has reasons for their choice -- reasons that could be used to judge others as having bad character and/or to exhort them to express the proper character. But if that's the case, we're back in full-on monist territory (albeit with a two-level structure that allows us to signal some uncertainty about the precise form of the monism while engaging in meta-discussion).

Finally, we could deny that ought implies can. This discussion has been assuming all along that in any situation, at least one option is morally justified. We can always discern a lesser evil -- or else we're justified in picking a greater evil because no lesser evil is available. But perhaps pluralism means that there are situations in which every option is wrong, in which you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. An analogy to physical incommensurability makes me think this is the most internally consistent form of pluralism. The human body's nutritional needs are pluralist. We need both iron and zinc, for example, but we can't trade them off in terms of some higher measure of nutritiveness. No amount of iron will make up for a zinc deficiency, or vice-versa. So if we were to find ourselves in a situation where we had fatal iron and zinc deficiencies, and we had the opportunity to take just one pill -- either an infinite iron supplement with no zinc, or an infinite zinc supplement with no iron -- there's no choice that would save us. But while my analogy here comes from science, the appeal of this form of pluralism is usually couched in humanities terms. No-win moral dilemmas are often framed as having a sort of tragic grandeur, more deep and noble than monistic philosophies that can crank out an answer to any moral dilemma you give them. I find this defense absurd. It seems to be a product of considering moral questions only as matters of abstract philosophizing, in which case insoluble dilemmas have a sort of interestingness and humbling blow-your-mind-ness. But as I see it, ethics is a pragmatic pursuit aimed at telling us how to act. While ethical systems may run into genuine problems, to praise the production of such problems as a virtue of an ethical system and denigrate other systems for giving answers is contrary to the whole purpose of ethics. It's as if Bill Gates started telling us that the blue screen of death is an important feature of Windows, and he feels sorry for those Mac users whose computers narrow-mindedly respond to their commands, depriving them of the tragic wonder of a system crash that destroys their data*.

*In my admittedly limited experience, I've actually had Macs crash about as often as Windows machines.


Not the kind of Joementum you were hoping for

I hadn't been planning on voting for Obama, but this seals it. (And before you start wailing about how McCain is worse, remember that I live in Arizona. If Obama is doing well enough to make even the AZ race close, he'll have a landslide even without our 10 electoral votes. Incidentally, while I'm generally in favor of discarding the electoral college, the shelter the current system gives for pure conscience votes in uncompetitive states is a -- sadly underutilized -- positive feature.) Although it should make my mother-in-law happy, since she was an early Biden fan who ended up as a precinct captain for Obama in Iowa.


Scattered Ramblings About Animal Rights

Today I read two good posts on animal rights* by bloggers I wouldn't ordinarily classify as "AR blogs." First was brownfemipower, writing about why violent tactics -- such as a recent firebombing of an animal researcher's house -- are inappropriate and ineffective. She draws a parallel to her younger self's desire to just do something in the face of another screaming injustice, and points out how violent tactics reinforce the underlying systemic dysfunction in the process of attacking one manifestation of it. Further, to expand on one point she touches on, I think it's important to be clear about the distinction between "following the rules" and "understanding the cause." Insofar as attacks on animal researchers are successful at intimidating people out of that line of research (and they appear to be so to a certain extent), they succeed only at getting people to follow the rules -- to make the behavior that's being explicitly addressed conform to the dictates of the enforcer. But they do nothing -- and indeed are likely counterproductive -- at getting people to understand the cause, that is, to come to see animals as sentient beings whose suffering deserves more consideration than we currently give it. Enforcement of rule-following is a useful and necessary part of social maintenance, but it is impotent if used alone (or used in a way that undercuts cause-understanding efforts). Violence thus creates a veneer of radicalism over what's really a short-sighted and unsustainable form of action.

The second post is this one by Marisol LeBron at Racialicious, discussing PeTA's recent offer to put pro-veganism posters on the Mexican side of the U.S. border fence. The post and commenters do a good job of bringing up all the many ways that this specific project is wrong:
* It implicitly reinforces the legitimacy of the U.S.'s restrictive and punitive immigration system (and were it ever to come to fruition, it would give material support to the fence).
* It romanticizes traditional Mexican life -- if people could have a happy meal of nopales and watermelon every day, they wouldn't be risking their lives to cross into the U.S.
* The romanticization of Mexican diets and slamming of U.S. diets operates as a sort of backhanded imperialism (in a similar way to attempts to justify misogyny by saying that women are so much better than men).
* It uses, and hence reinforces, the "skinny=healthy, fat=unhealthy" trope.
* It puts the burden of fixing the problem of meat-eating on the people who are in the worst position to be able to create any real change in the system -- laying a guilt trip on immigrants rather than doing anything to improve the conditions under which some of them will be picking the ingredients of your vegan meals and ensuring that they will have access to the ingredients and time to go vegan as well.

Early in the thread, commenter Chris says something that I think crystallizes an important underlying issue with so many of PeTA's publicity stunts. Chris's reaction to PeTA's tactics is to say "At some point, you have to place human rights and dignity above that of animals."

The problem here is that PeTA's tactics encourage us to pit the interests of animals against one or more human groups. Regardless of the intended meaning, PeTA's campaigns have repeatedly put animal rights up against other social justice causes (and considering the way they seem to be systematically moving through the various causes -- objectifying women, the Holocaust, slavery, and now Mexican immigrants -- I almost wonder if they have a checklist at PeTA HQ of all the groups they have to offend). But when you invite competition between your new cause and causes that your audience already has some commitment to, your cause is going to lose every time, as Chris's comment illustrates. The idea that human and animal interests are a zero-sum game is a deeply entrenched one that needs to be rooted out, not reinforced.

At the same time, though, the fact that PeTA encourages us to play the oppression olympics doesn't get us off the hook from falling into their trap. It's a completely unjustified cop-out to say "well, PeTA is a bunch of jerks, so I'm going to keep eating meat." Either oppose animal rights on the merits or join the cause and resolve to promote it the right way.

On a meatspace-inspired note, I've come to hate it when I'm at a restaurant with someone and they ask "would it bother you if I order meat?" While I can accept that people who ask it mean well, depending on the person, the question can be read one of three ways, none of them good:
* "I need you to confirm for me that you're not one of those preachy vegetarians."
* "I understand that you've got this sentimental aversion to meat, so I want to make sure I don't disturb your delicate sensibilities."
* "Your presence makes me feel a little guilty about eating meat because I don't have a satisfying philosophical justification for it, so I want you to assuage my guilt by giving me permission to order meat."
Ultimately, the problem with the question is that it trivializes the concerns that motivate ethical veg*anism, treating it on the same level as if it's just a health- or taste-based choice. If you're going to eat meat, grow some gonads and own it. (My usual response is "Would you actually not order meat if I said I did mind?" with the clear implication of "Don't push the responsibility for your dietary choices onto me, because I just might say 'in that case, I don't think you'll die if you order the tofu today.'")

* Despite my tendency toward abstract armchair philosophizing, I get tired of pedantry about what exactly qualifies as "animal rights." I realize it makes it easy to crank out a blog post saying "this article refers to Peter Singer as a proponent of 'animal rights' but he's really a utilitarian!" However, "X rights" has become a well-understood shorthand for "wanting to make things better for Xs regardless of the philosophical underpinnings or legal/cultural mechanisms for achieving it."


Pragmatism and Inerrancy

Sam at Feministe writes about a Jewish poem, "Yedid Nefesh," which fell victim to a sort of sexist game of Telephone. Whereas the original referred to God as both male and female, the version popular today makes God solely male. She asks whether Jews ought to continue singing the all-male version, which has become well-known and traditional, or switch to the original dual-gender version.

I'm wary of stories like this contributing to what I'll call "progressive fundamentalism" -- the insistence, or at least hope, that the original meanings of scriptures and other things are supportive of progressivism, and the ostensibly anti-progressive versions are later corruptions. While there may be a certain schadenfreude about hoisting the conservative fundamentalists by their own petard, I think we should be careful of attributing too much significance to the original version of a thing -- particularly an "art" or ceremonial text like a poem or hymn. The author's intent is not sacred.

As a counter-example, consider the UU hymnal. The UUs took some hymns whose original version was indisputably sexist -- clearly calling God male -- and made them gender-neutral. The type of progressive fundamentalism that would get excited to learn from Sam's post that "Yedid Nefesh" is "really" non-sexist would have to accept that these ostensibly non-sexist UU hymns are "really" sexist, and therefore we must either accept their sexist portrayal of God or reject them altogether as fundamentally tainted by their sexist original conception.

My answer to Sam's question is based on the philosophy of pragmatism: it depends on what your goal in singing it is. If your goal is to express your conception of God, and your conception of God is a non-sexist one, then you should sing the original "Yedid Nefesh" and the revised UU hymns. If your goal is to have that kind of comfortable coming-together that is achieved through reciting familiar words, then you should sing the revised sexist "Yedid Nefesh" and the original sexist versions of the UU hymns. There's nothing inherently wrong with an (honest) revision of a text, if it makes it more suitable for a legitimate purpose.

Things get a bit trickier when the text in question is a scripture. "Scripture," as I'm using the term, is a text whose value comes from it being evidence of what God thinks. Faithfulness to the original -- however sexist or not it may be -- is worthwhile in the case of scripture because we can make the original hypothesis that it was in the original version that God most clearly expressed him/herself (though that's not always true -- e.g. some Christians believe the King James Bible was as, if not more, divinely inspired than the original texts that King James's translators were translating). But even this issue can be subsumed under the pragmatist rule -- if your goal in using a text is to figure out what God thinks, then the correct version is the one closest to God's inspiration.