My husband and I had dinner with a friend last night whom we both like and respect a great deal. He’s a decent, smart man and we thoroughly enjoyed spending time with him. We talked about many things, among them our attitudes about the human use of animals. My friend is a vegan, and we’re not. I had no intention of trying to convince my friend to change his ways, and I am pretty sure he had no intention of changing mine. We are all the sorts of people who think deeply about things and do not make lifestyle decisions like what to eat or not eat without thinking about what that might mean.
In many ways our lives are very different – my friend lives in New York City and I live on a farm nestled in the eastern foothills of the Canadian Rockies. I didn’t ask, but I don’t think my friend has any pets or other animals who share his life. I have many animals, most of which I use in one way or another. I adore my animals and would find a life without them impoverished indeed. However, (and here’s the rub) sometimes, I eat one of my animals.
I struggle with the moral issues involved and so I continued to think about this after dropping our friend off at his hotel. My husband and I talked about it on the way home. I thought about it while falling asleep and again in the morning. I try very hard to be logical and reasonable in my arguments. I like to think of myself as an ethical person (I gave up a 23 year career over principles). I suspect I may not have succeeded in being entirely logical on this one. But neither did my friend.
This morning, I found this in the New York Times, so I thought I’d respond. I suspect my friend subscribes to some of the arguments made below, but I don’t know if he subscribes to all of them. In any case this is not directed at him specifically. Rather it is an attempt to pull the camera back to show more of the picture. It ‘s more complicated than people want to think. Unless you are prepared to live in the wilderness completely off the grid, being a vegan, even a strict ethical one, does not spare you from having animals killed on your behalf. Fewer to be sure, but they still die for you.
I’ve included some quotes from Professor Steiner’s editorial that I feel deserve another point of view. I’ve also put a short list of ways in which people manipulate arguments at the end of this post. I’ve indicated where I think they’ve been used in this article. At the end we can look at what’s left.
“Strict ethical vegans, of which I am one, are customarily excoriated for equating our society’s treatment of animals with mass murder.”
The other side of this coin is that people who raise animals and kill them to eat them are customarily excoriated for actually killing the things they eat. So what. This does not have any bearing on the moral issues or the question at hand and it doesn’t make me feel sorry for either side (see manipulation tactics #5, 6, & 7). I look my dinner in the eye. I take an active part in raising my dinner and making sure its life is safe, comfortable, rich, and full – even if it’s short. I take some comfort in knowing that the meat I eat came from animals that were cared for and looked after. And that they were dispatched with respect.
“Those who answer with a resounding no typically argue in one of two ways.”
I will grant that Professor Steiner qualifies this part with a “typically” but there are certainly more than two typical ways to respond (see manipulation tactics #2). I’ve added a couple of new items to the Professor’s list below, just to round things out.
1. “Some suggest that human beings but not animals are made in God’s image and hence stand in much closer proximity to the divine than any non-human animal; according to this line of thought, animals were made expressly for the sake of humans and may be used without scruple to satisfy their needs and desires. There is ample support in the Bible and in the writings of Christian thinkers like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas for this pointedly anthropocentric way of devaluing animals.”
As is typical of most people when trying to make a point, there is a tendency to over simplify the situation(see manipulation tactics #6, 7, 9).
It is true that the Bible says that God gave us dominion over the animals (Genesis 26-30). I don’t recall the Bible saying anything about us being able to use animals “without scruple to satisfy (our) needs and desires.” Some of us take the notion of dominion to mean that we have a responsibility of stewardship. It is ours to use, but not abuse. It is also ours to take care of. Taking care of the planet and its inhabitants is not necessarily at odds with using it. This is also true for people who grow domestic plants like broccoli, tomatoes and soy. They use the earth too. Have you ever seen what gets done to the land to make it produce? Have you seen what gets sprayed on the ground and the plants? Do you have any idea how many of our plants contain animal DNA now? There are some crops (like corn and canola) that are are grown almost entirely from GM seeds. Is that better?
2. “…because animals are incapable of abstract thought, they are imprisoned in an eternal present, have no sense of the extended future and hence cannot be said to have an interest in continued existence.”
OK. There are some people who feel that animals do not feel emotion and that the apparent lack of self-awareness that prevents animals from understanding their own mortality(as far as we know) entitles us to treat them with something less than respect (see manipulation tactics #3, 5, 6, & 7).
In my experience, this mindset is actually far more common among people who DON’T raise animals than among people who DO. Are there farmers who treat their animals like chattel? Absolutely. Do ALL farmers do that? Absolutely NOT. Most of the farmers and ranchers I know treat their animals well and work hard to make sure they are safe, healthy, and happy. Even if we take all anthropomorphizing out of the picture, happy animals are better for the bottom line. They grow faster, require fewer medicines, have more and healthier babies, the list goes on. This situation is NOT natural.
Free wild animals do NOT live most of their lives as safe, healthy, or happy. Newsflash: most wild animals live very short lives, never living long enough to breed. Should we do something about that? Is it OK to follow the ‘prime directive’ here while demonizing anyone who uses an animal for any reason? I’m just asking.
Here are a couple of other reasons people give for not being vegan:
3. Humans are omnivorous animals whose physiology has evolved to require meat for optimal performance.
4. There is not enough arable land to allow everyone on earth to be vegan (especially if we stop people from destroying more forest).
5. I live in an area that can barely grow grass, let alone the variety of plants necessary to provide a complete diet.
“Even if it is raised “free range,” it still lives a life of pain and confinement that ends with the butcher’s knife.”
What kinds of farms has this guy seen? (see manipulation tactics #5, 6, 7)
I mean, come ON. If he hasn’t been to any farms that raise free-range turkeys then he has no business judging. If the only kinds of farms he has seen are factory farms masquerading as ‘free-range’, then he really needs to get out more. True, such farms exist. I have not seen but have also heard, to my horror, that some places claiming to produce free-range eggs actually keep the same number of hens in spaces that previously housed battery caged hens, only without the cages. That’s horrible. And cruel. Under those circumstances, the hens are better off in battery cages (though it should go without saying that we shouldn’t be crowding so many animals into such a small space, caged or not). I share the shame that all caring, ethical humans should carry for letting this happen to any animal.
To claim that all free-range animals live a life of pain and confinement is simply a lie. See below for my thoughts about lying.
“The easy part of this consists in seeing clearly what ethics requires and then just plain doing it. The difficult part: You just haven’t lived until you’ve tried to function as a strict vegan in a meat-crazed society.”
This argument starts with the assumption that Professor Steiner’s ethics are the right ones (see manipulation tactics #2, 5, 6, 7, 9). All arguments must start with some assumptions. That does not make them correct. I too see clearly what ethics requires but I suspect I don’t see the same thing Professor Steiner does. This doesn’t help either of us.
Trying to function as a strict vegan is hard. This may be true, but it is also irrelevant. This strikes me as an attempt to gain points through martyrdom. Apparently vegans suffer because our society does not make their lives easy.
Here is a counter example: I happen to have a strict truth-telling policy. For the last 20 years or so, I have made a conscious effort to never say anything I don’t believe to be true. Ever. That’s hard too (try it sometime). The vast majority of human beings think that it is not only OK to lie on occasion, but that it is necessary. People think I’m weird. Some think I’m nuts. A few find me threatening. I know what it feels like to be the odd man out on an issue. That has no bearing on whether or not I’m the one who’s right. I accept the consequences of my choices. I do not expect the world to feel for me or re-arrange itself to make my life easier.
“To be a really strict vegan is to strive to avoid all animal products, and this includes materials like leather, silk and wool, as well as a panoply of cosmetics and medications. The more you dig, the more you learn about products you would never stop to think might contain or involve animal products in their production — like wine and beer (isinglass, a kind of gelatin derived from fish bladders, is often used to “fine,” or purify, these beverages), refined sugar (bone char is sometimes used to bleach it) or Band-Aids (animal products in the adhesive). Just last week I was told that those little comfort strips on most razor blades contain animal fat.”
This part I absolutely get – because I think about the same things. Here, Professor Steiner doesn’t go far enough. I suspect that is because if he did take this line of argument to its conclusion it would no longer help him. You see I too have thought about the ways in which we use animals and how often in the course of a normal day I benefit from the death of an animal. Professor Steiner mentions food and the myriad ways that animal products get used to help produce all kinds of foods that don’t appear to have any connection with animals at all. He mentions household products like Band-Aids and razor blades. I don’t know for sure, but I would suspect that MOST cosmetics, toiletries, and cleaning products either contain animal products directly (in the form of fats and such), or use animals or animals products somewhere in the process. We could write whole books about the ways animals have been used in medicine – everything from research to pharmaceuticals. Ever had a vaccine? Many vaccines are grown in albumen. Eggs.
Do you take advantage of any products or services that use energy that comes from non-renewable sources? Electricity maybe? Plastic? Synthetic fibers for your clothes (since leather, wool & silk would be out of the question)? I live in ranching country…. in Alberta – home to one of the largest oil reserves on the planet. Wanna know how many wild animals lost their homes (and with it their lives) to keep that oil flowing? How about metal? Use anything made of metal? Ever seen a mine? Ever seen the landscape around a mine? My point with this argument is NOT to justify my willingness to eat animals – it is to clarify that being vegan only reduces the number of animals who are killed for your comfort; it does not bring that number to zero. The only way to do that would be to live outside of society, completely off the grid.
I’m also not trying to say that being vegan is a waste of effort. I respect people who are willing walk the talk. But please acknowledge that it does not absolve you, nor does it get all the blood off your hands.
The lingering air of superiority that the professor sidles up to while at the same time berating his opponent for being the true black kettle really deserves to be re-examined:
“Let me be candid: By and large, meat-eaters are a self-righteous bunch. The number of vegans I know personally is … five. And I have been a vegan for almost 15 years, having been a vegetarian for almost 15 before that.”
Permit me to be candid too: I won’t go the “by and large” over generalization route (see manipulation tactics #1), but I will say that many vegans and vegetarians I have met are also pretty self-righteous (aside: my friend isn’t one of them, which is why I still call him friend). Again, personality is irrelevant, or at least should be. If we are arguing about whether or not it is right to kill or otherwise use animals for our own benefit, then whether or not people on one side or the other are self-righteous, or have more difficult lives because of their choices, or are criticized or ridiculed, (or are pretty, or smart, or law-abiding,….) are all quite irrelevant. You could be a total asshole (or I could) – that too is not relevant. Irritating. But not relevant.
“These uses of animals are so institutionalized, so normalized, in our society that it is difficult to find the critical distance needed to see them as the horrors that they are: so many forms of subjection, servitude and — in the case of killing animals for human consumption and other purposes — outright murder.”
Let’s take away the incendiary language and look at this again: (see manipulation tactics #5, 6. If you leave the language in, we have argument manipulation #1 & 3). These uses of animals are institutionalized and normalized in our society. If we take away the inflammatory language, that’s all that’s left. I actually agree with this. In fact, I have spent the last 20+ years providing a program that is intended to combat that very problem. In the last 20 years I have volunteered thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars to keep this program going. Our increasingly urbanized world makes it far too easy to distance oneself from real animals and real life and the fragility of our food supply (both animal and vegetable). This does not make me better than anyone, but it does lend credibility to my claim that I am willing to devote time and money to trying to raise awareness that animals deserve respect and humane treatment. I have earned my opinion. Money where my mouth is and all that.
I could write volumes on the servitude issue – but I won’t. I will say that almost all the animals on our farm ‘serve’ us in some way. I do not take that for granted. I owe them. I owe them a good life that includes good food, comfort, and medicare. I also owe them a life that allows them to do the things they were born to do, so my livestock guardian dogs get to do what they have been doing for thousands of years. My Rottie gets to be my cherished companion (and by the way, he would give his life for me. That is more than probably 99.9% of humans would do. And yes, I DO know how precious that is). My cats get to hunt and lay in the sun. My roosters get to crow whenever the mood strikes them. They get to run around, scratch in the dirt and chase mice.
Most of our domestic animals wouldn’t exist in the first place if not for the fact we want to eat them. There is growing evidence that without our faithful servants (such as dogs) we could not have survived as a species. Do we have the right to use them? I think we do. Do we have the right to abuse them? Absolutely NOT.
“People who are ethical vegans believe that differences in intelligence between human and non-human animals have no moral significance whatsoever.”
(see manipulation tactics #7). OK, let’s suppose we ARE all of the same value.
Here’s a thought my husband mentioned last night, which didn’t actually sink in for me till this morning. If we all hold the same value, then we are no better or worse than, say, coyotes, bears, or tigers. Lions and tigers and bears don’t give a second thought to the possibility that the animals they are about to kill and eat might not WANT to be eaten. I don’t think they consider it even for a moment. The mere act of deciding that WE should (dare I say it) rise above our animal instincts and not eat meat negates our claim to equal status with animals.
If I accept that my difference in intelligence, or consciousness, or morality, or what have you has NO moral significance, then neither can MY claim that I understand what’s right and wrong better than the polar bear who would eat me as soon as look at me. So how can Professor Steiner claim that our intelligence is irrelevant while at the same time demand that I accept HIS pronouncement that his moral judgments are superior and correct?
“Think about that when you’re picking out your free-range turkey, which has absolutely nothing to be thankful for on Thanksgiving. All it ever had was a short and miserable life, thanks to us intelligent, compassionate humans.”
Now this part is simply a lie. For one thing Professor Steiner has no more insight than I do into whether a turkey might be grateful, and if it were, what it might be grateful for. Actually, I probably have more than he does – I actually know some turkeys. I can guarantee that my turkeys did not have a miserable life (see manipulation tactics #8 & 9). Many of my animals live considerably longer than their natural, free, and wild counterparts.
If we are going to claim to argue logically about whether we should be permitted to use animals for our own purposes, let’s actually stick with logic. None of the arguments presented have much to do with logic or rationality.
There is more to say, but for now I won’t. If you are a human, then eating meat is natural. Is it right to eat meat? I don’t know.
The question is not whether you will allow animals to be killed on your behalf or not. If you live in the modern world, the question is where do you draw the line? ALL people should think carefully about this.
If you still think that all animals living in nature have a better life than any animals living in captivity, read this excerpt from Stewart, I., & Cohen, J. (1997). Figments of reality : the evolution of the curious mind. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press:
“Human beings, conscious of their personal mortality, are somewhat obsessed with the Grim Reaper, if only because they dimly see Him coming and they don’t like it. In consequence the Grim Reaper plays a central role in humanity’s usual story of evolution: ‘nature red in tooth and claw’, where creatures strive to out compete each other in a desperate no-holds-barred battle for survival. Only the winners of these battles, it is said, get to perpetuate their kind: the losers just die, and in this way organisms with ‘good genes’ proliferate at the expense of all the rest. It’s a simple, compelling picture, which seems to explain the general increase in the complexity of life-forms.” p.25
“In fact, in the evolution both of complex organisms and of mind, the central role is played not be the Grim Reaper, but by the Grim Sower, who starts things up by their billions so that nearly all of them have no option but to die before they have reached maturity. The popular view of ‘natural’ animal lives has been romanticized to such an extent that they are universally seen as idyllic, whereas actually the reverse is the case. Nearly all wild animals die without breeding. For example, from the 10,000 eggs that a female frog lays during her lifetime, on average, 9,998 die for each pair that survives to replace the parents and breed. A more extreme example case still is the cod: a single female lays forty million eggs, of
which about 3,999,998 die for each pair that survive to breed. This is what food chains are all about, and it’s the system that started with eukaroytes, who made death a necessary part of life.”
“… there is a huge advantage to making vast numbers of potential offspring and throwing most away. The advantage is that you can be selective cheaply, and sift through them for the occasional accidental good one. Indeed you can produce a few high-quality items even if the ‘technology’ needed to make thousands of them reliably doesn’t exist at all.” p26
Common Strategies for Manipulating Arguments
- ad hominem strategy: Judgment based on who said something rather than on the merit of the statement.
- either-or tactic: Forcing a choice by presenting only two possibilities when there may be others.
- extreme examples: Used to prove a point, to slant an argument, to support a prejudice.
- false analogies: An analogy that makes an inappropriate connection or comparison.
- irrelevant appeals: appeals to emotion, patriotism, tradition.
- leading statements, slogans: Designed to damage credibility, encourage hostility, create a false impression.
- polarized thinking: Us/them, strong/weak, rich/poor, good/bad; encourages distrust, suspicion; presents limited and false choices.
- scapegoats: Assigning blame.
- straw person: Creating a caricature of a person or group.