Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Hard Question for My Readers and Me

Every farmer knows that small animals are killed in the process of farming.  I do not just mean insects.  A big efficient combine keeps food costs down, but as it goes through the amber fields of grain, thousands of cute little animals (and some not so cute) are caught up in the process and killed.  This fact, popularized in Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma," is one of those inconvenient truths.  The inconvenience may be greater for the vegetarian than the vegan.  If eating reasonably priced grains and vegetables inevitably causes the slaughter of mice, rabbits, and other little animals, then what is gained by not eating meat?  One response might be that surely more animals are killed for direct consumption than by accident while harvesting grain.  This is not necessarily so.  One source reports a bit too gleefully that switching to a diet heavier in beef and chicken would save 300 million animal lives over a vegan diet.  One answer may be that deliberate killing is much worse than accidental killing.  The Curious Vegan is thus far not impressed with such a distinction, especially when the accidental deaths are predictable and well known.

I have learned, in the course of blogging, not to demand consistency, and especially not in veganism.  Still, this question bothers me.


  1. I think that this post goes back to the question that Jeremy (who is a terrific philosopher, who holds a chair in Environmental Philosophy at Case Western) asked you: what are the underlying values that you really want to defend, after having done all this reading? Is it freedom from suffering on the side of the animal? In that case, we should be preventing not just deliberate killings, but also the accidental, insofar as we can, and we should also be preventing animals from inflicting suffering on one another, just as a good system of criminal law will protect the rights of all, not just fail to inflict damage through its own agents. (But it's possible that one might exempt insects, if one thinks they don't suffer pain.) Is the value, instead, one of doing no harm oneself? In that case, one might try to say that it's ok to allow harms to occur so long as one does not inflict them, especially deliberately. But can this distinction between doing and allowing really be sustained? One philosopher's favorite is the "trolley problem": if a trolley is going along the track and about to run over five people, and you can switch it onto a track on which it will kill just one person, shouldn't you do it, even though then you are doing and not just allowing? What do you think about that? Finally, for the true vegan it's really not just about suffering, it's something more abstract about non-domination, which I confess I do not really understand or sympathize with, given that I think nature is a cruel place, so I see nothing wrong with intervening to make it better. I'm very curious about what you are thinking about these big issues by this point in your project.

  2. Thank you for your comment. I try to address some of your topics in today's blog.