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Begging the question against vegans

Renee at Womanist Musings expands her eviscerations of PeTA into an attempt to take on veganism as a whole. The post is a mix of familiar and less familiar anti-vegan arguments, but taken as a whole they make a nice illustration of the way much criticism of veganism begs the core question: is it wrong to kill animals for food?

Renee sets up the issue when she declares that despite her anti-vegan stance she "would certainly not support intentional animal cruelty." But of course nobody supports animal cruelty -- cruelty is by definition unacceptable, so anything you think is OK to do to animals is not cruel. The real question is whether killing animals for food is a form of cruelty. Renee would say no, whereas ethical vegans (that is, people who avoid meat for animal rights reasons) would say yes. If killing animals for food is not cruel, that by itself is a sufficient argument against ethical veganism. But Renee's other arguments only work if you already assume that ethical veganism is unjustified. If, on the other hand, you start from the premise that killing animals for food is wrong, then Renee's arguments lead to different conclusions than the ones she tries to draw. Note that my purpose in this post is not to defend the premise that killing animals is wrong, but merely to show that other arguments don't have any purchase (at least in terms of showing why vegans should not advocate veganism to others) unless you can rebut that premise.

Start with the distinction Renee draws between vegans who "moralize," who are her targets, and vegans for whom not eating meat is just a "lifestyle choice," who she is OK with. The term "moralize" is a question-begging one, as in left/liberal discourse it refers to unjustified imposition of one's values on another. But whether vegans trying to get others to adopt their values is unjustified, and hence counts as moralizing, is exactly what's at issue. If there is a serious injustice in the world, then it is prima facie justified, and therefore prima facie not moralizing, to try to get others to stop contributing to that injustice. Therefore, once you accept the ethical vegan answer to the question of the wrongness of killing animals for food, you have established that trying to get others to be vegan (which would correct the injustice of widespread killing of animals) is prima facie justified (subject to tactical questions about appropriate time, place, and manner of pursuing said goal). To label this activity "moralizing" is simply to restate the fact that you disagree with the vegan answer to the question of the morality of killing animals. Vegans only "moralize" if veganism was unjustified to start with.

Renee then raises ethical concerns related to food other than animal rights, which can be summed up as worker rights and environmental concerns. In part, this is the old "you can't be perfect, so why even try?" rationale. But it also evidences the question-begging issue. Renee points out that industrial farming is bad for the environment and bad for farmworkers. I agree. I'll even grant her that the "human cost to veganism and or vegetarianism ... is rarely to never discussed" among many vegans. If you start from the premise that there's nothing wrong with killing animals for food, then this just points up an absurd hypocrisy among vegans. But if you start from the premise that killing animals is wrong, then it highlights the need to broaden our idea of justice with respect to the food system. And in fact many vegans -- from Noemi and other writers at Vegans of Color to notorious clueless-rich-white-guy Hugo Schwyzer -- have written about these very concerns. Renee proposes eating locally as an alternative form of food justice. But veganism and local eating are hardly mutually exclusive. I'd be willing to bet that the proportion of vegans at your average CSA pickup or farmer's market is higher than in the general population.

This is linked to a ridiculous factual error in the post. Renee charges that to be sustainably vegan, one would have to eat nothing but root vegetables all winter. Having lived in southern Arizona with a wonderful year-round CSA, I laughed when I read that. But in fact it's also false for people living in cold climates, like Renee does in Canada. Now that I've moved to Pennsylvania, I buy vegetables from local growers at a weekly farmer's market. And sure, there are lots of root vegetables right now -- but we also get fresh greens, presumably grown in greenhouses. And there's nothing unsustainable about canning or freezing vegetables to use when they're not in season.

Renee goes on to point out that the animal rights movement is white-dominated, which is bad on general principle as well as leading to strategic blunders such as attacking black women who wear fur without sensitivity to the role of fur as a form of resistance to de facto sumptuary laws. I agree. But this is only an argument against veganism if you have already dismissed the core premise, viz: killing animals for food is wrong. If a movement is fighting for something unimportant, then it is a deadly sin to also be racist in the way it fights for that unimportant thing. But if you agree with the premise of the movement, then it is absurd to dismiss it just because those fighting for it are doing so in the wrong way. If a movement with a good goal is trampling on other good goals, then you have two options: work from within the movement to redirect its strategy, or call for an alternative movement seeking the same goal in a more acceptable way. It's ironic that Renee explicitly compares racism in the animal rights movement to racism in the white-dominated mainstream feminist movement, since that confirms my point. Women of color's response to racism in feminism was not to conclude that sexism is OK. Rather, some fought to fix feminism from the inside, while others gave their loyalties to womanism and other movements that integrated gender and racial justice in a more appropriate way. I'm not saying that Renee has to dedicate herself to one of these forms of activism, but she should acknowledge that those are legitimate responses by which a vegan could address the criticism of racism in the animal rights movement without giving up the "killing animals for food is wrong, so everyone who can should stop doing it" premise. If these paths are available, then we once again return to the "is killing animals wrong?" question as the only way to condemn vegan advocacy as unacceptable moralizing.

Renee ends by pointing out the problems with comparing humans to animals, given the history of those comparisons being used to denigrate people of color. Again I agree, as I have written before. But such comparisons, while extremely common, are hardly inherent to vegan advocacy. Here's what I say when people ask me why I'm not eating meat: "I don't think cows (or whatever) really appreciate being killed, especially when there's so much other stuff I could eat instead." That's hardly an ironclad philosophical exposition, but it summarizes the key issue in terms of the animal's nature taken on its own terms. No "we're all animals" rhetoric, no dwelling on "marginal cases," no ever-expanding circle of concern predictions, no parallels between the meat industry and slavery or the Holocaust, or any of the other common arguments that Renee is (rightly) objecting to. If you start from the premise that killing animals for food is OK, then the oppressive implications of human-animal comparisons just add insult to injury. But if you start from the premise that killing animals for food is not OK, then Renee's points just emphasize the need for more careful thinking about the grounds for veganism and the strategies used to advocate it to others.

The final sentence of Renee's post is: "The next time you feel the need to moralize to an evil meat eater, perhaps you can pause momentarily and consider that your choices are far from perfect as well." I heartily endorse her call for vegans to be self-critical about the way their advocacy intersects with other social justice issues. But to state this as categorically condemning all vegan advocacy once again begs the question. It only makes sense to demand perfection on all other social justice issues as a precondition for vegan advocacy if you have already decided that animal rights is a lower-priority concern than those other issues -- that is, you have already decided that vegans are wrong on the core question of whether killing animals for food is OK.


Blogger Duamuteffe said...

You guys are back in PA now? We should meet up sometime!

10:50 AM  

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