Sunday, May 22, 2011

Honey and Leather Seats

The Internet is full of discussion about whether true vegans would buy cars with leather seats.  Some definitions of veganism limit the commitment to a diet that is free of animal products.  Others, however, extend to any use of animal products and to any exploitation of animals.  For example, some vegans not only keep to a vegan diet but also eschew leather shoes, leather coats, wool, and even silk.  Leather is the easiest to understand because it involves dead animals, whether killed for that purpose or not.  It is similar to the case for not eating animals without inquiring into the cause of death.  One who does not wear wool might be like one who does not eat eggs or milk.  These are animal products and the danger is that the animals are exploited.  On the other hand, sheep raised for shearing might be thought to live fairly "normal" lives compared to chickens in coops or even free range chickens.  The extreme vegan tries not to make such distinctions or inquiries, and avoids all animal products.  The most extreme behavior I have read about is that of vegans who will not sit on leather seats even in the cars of others or on airplanes.  Some vegans express their distaste for the leather by putting a towel on the seat before sitting down.  This reminds me of the laws of Kashruth and some Jewish priestly codes, requiring, double "protection" between a priest and a dead body. These examples illustrate how hard it is to be a consistent vegan.

 Let us not ridicule the extreme vegan. The average American human meat eater consumes eight cows in a lifetime, and apparently a large minivan with leather seats also uses eight cows or so.  (Here is my back of the envelope calculation:  1/2 pound of meat every other day for 72 years is 13104 pounds of meat.  An Angus cow weighs between 1000  and 2000 pounds.)   In short, leather seats may be an important part of the demand for dead cows.

I must admit that it never occurred to me to avoid wearing wool.  That is how much of an omnivore I am/was.  What about silk?  The silk worms are burned alive in the silk-making process but perhaps these caterpillars are not sentient.  They have sensors, but not nervous systems capable of feeling pain.  On the other hand, we do not think much of people who pull wings off flies.  In both cases it is not a matter of pain perhaps, but the "vital interest" of life itself.

All of this brings me to the well known question of whether vegans "should" or do consume honey.  Honey is an animal product, but the animal is an insect.  Moreover, much of what vegans eat requires pollination.  The mediating role of bees seems exactly like the mediating role of draft animals in an era in which animals plowed and brought most things to market.  Again, my goal is not to hurl stones at inconsistency but rather to think about it.  It seems safe to say that intermediating animals must be acceptable to most vegans, and that is why I have allowed myself bread made with honey.  I am trying neither to ridicule nor to blindly follow vegans who really try to work through the bee and work-animal conundrum. My goal is to understand the issues. I do admire people who are thoughtful about their lives and habits, and aware of inconsistencies; as fas as I can tell, all vegans fall into this category.

I wrote yesterday that vegans faced all sorts of line drawing problems while vegetarians would find it much easier to be consistent.  The question of leather seats, however, seems hard for vegetarians.  This is not just an animal product but rather one that requires a dead animal.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Nathan, What's causing the confusion is the lack of a clear center on the values being upheld. Is anti-suffering what's at stake? Or anti-domestication? Or anti-defacing an animal's dignity? Or? I think getting clear on the core values at stake in your spiritual exercise (askesis -- a philosophical practice performed deliberately to cultivate wisdom in oneself or others) would help move it to where it wants to go. What are the core values you are trying to uphold? Why?