Thursday, May 19, 2011

Questions for me and my followers.

I am interested in thinking over the following questions.  I welcome others' attempts to provide answers or personal experiences.  The questions assume a vegan's approach to eating or to the planet.  But a vegetarian's perspective will do.  Of course, a very temporary vegan like me can make believe he is entitled to answer these questions.

1. If one does not eat meat or wear leather, what about meat or leather from an animal that is already dead.  Imagine a wild turkey flies into a pole and dies.  Would you eat it if it could be cooked safely?

2. If you do not normally eat meat, would you eat meat that was left over by guests at a wedding, assuming it would otherwise be thrown away?

3. Is it more defensible to keep a pet, or to domesticate an animal, than to eat meat?  I have discovered that many vegetarians/vegans are also opposed to supporting the dog breeding industry, and would not accept a pet or buy a pet from a breeder.  However, many take pride in "rescuing" mutts or other dogs and cats. Is it inconsistent for a vegan to ride a horse?  What about consuming goods in an era in which most goods were transported by carts and animals?  I even wonder whether the rise of veganism necessarily followed the disuse of animals in transportation.

I plan to discuss these questions in three subsequent posts.  It would be fun to hear from readers.


  1. These are great questions. I have a very fine mink coat that was left to me by my grandmother. I don't wear it. The reason is that it encourages people to think that the fur industry is a good thing, whereas I think it should be completely eliminated. So, although cruelty to the living animals is the main thing I care about, use of dead animals can perpetuate cruel practices.

    Here's a question for you: if the fur industry were indeed abolished as I would like, very few minks would be born. So although the ones that were born would likely have better lives, minks would perhaps even become extinct, and would certainly be few in number. Should we care about this? Utilitarian philosophers debate such questions constantly. Derek Parfit is fond of posing various difficult puzzles involving increasing population size to the point where life quality is barely above not being worth living, and asking whether the person who believes that the right criterion is total utility should not prefer that state of affairs. So that is a fun area to think about.

    On the second, I'd give it to a homeless shelter.

    On the third, I think that the question has to be discussed in the context of the fact that some species, including dogs and horses, have evolved as symbiotic creatures. They simply are not equipped to live on their own without humans. So it makes no sense to oppose the idea of ownership, though of course rights of ownership should be defined in ways that rule out cruelty, as most states already do. I think the point about buying dogs from breeders and puppy mills is not so much a point about ownership per se, as it is a point about the cruel practices that go on in this industry. So the person you describe is being consistent, by not supporting these cruel characters, but also rescuing an animal who otherwise would lack good care. As for riding horses, my vegan friend Ellyn was a top rider, and she used to worry about this, but the fact is that horses really are symbiotic: they can't just go out and roam the range. Moreover, some species are highly capable athletes, who derive pleasure and pride from their athletic achievements. So even the option of putting them in a nice pasture is not an attractive one. It would be like putting a professor in some nice sauna or hot tub and preventing her from teaching and writing. (In other words, what is fun for an hour is not a good full way of life for a human or animal who derives satisfaction from striving.) What would you think of a life in which nobody expected anything of you? It might seem appealing for a while, but it would get boring pretty quickly I bet.

  2. Thank you for these great posts - I've enjoyed hearing your impressions of these works and authors. I have been focused on the theory behind veg(etari)anism for some time. I'm trying to understand why I have continued to be vegetarian when it's a counter-cultural behavior. And I've also tried to understand why almost everyone else continues to eat animal products when (1) it's not very good for us or the environment, (2) it's definitely not good for the animals involved, and (3) it's no longer necessary for our survival. It seems so clear to me that we shouldn't eat animals for a host of reasons, yet most people don't agree. It's refreshing to read your remarks as a temporary vegan, and you can probably explain what I fail to see.

    As to your questions, here are some answers based on personal experience:

    1. If I were vegetarian only because I didn't want to harm animals, then I might consider eating one that did not die on my account. After years of not eating meat, fish or fowl, however, I cannot imagine putting any part of any living being in my mouth. It's as much a matter of not harming animals as not wanting to something in my body that I no longer think of as food. I'd no sooner put your hypothetical already-dead turkey in my mouth than I would a discarded tire. If I came across your dead wild turkey at the base of a pole, I'd probably bury him.

    2. Likewise, I would not be tempted to eat leftover meat, but I would not want it to go to waste and I would hope to find someone to take it. When I first became vegetarian, I craved Wendy's Chicken Sandwich (with lettuce, tomato and mayo) and would dream that I was eating one. I can no longer can think of a meat dish that tempts me, and my recurrent dream now is that I've accidently eaten meat.

    3. I don't see the inconsistency between owning a pet and taking care of an animal that helps his owner (by plowing, being ridden, etc.) in exchange for care. Rather, I see the inconsistency of the pet owner who lavishes love and attention on his pet, and then eats another animal without caring that it too had a personality and probably didn't want to be raised for meat. Some cultures eat animals that we consider pets. How does one draw the line? Why dote on a cat and eat a bunny? That to me is the inconsistency.

    Thanks again for asking good questions and making us all think hard about these issues.

  3. I don't consider myself to have a clean philosophy on this stuff, and I am neither a vegan nor a strict vegetarian. I am still unsure about many areas around your topic, e.g. free-range, organic livestock killed with a piston in a matter of one second with no suffering. The animals enjoy a good life and then die without suffering.

    What I do do is to zone out of my life the areas of industrial meat production where animals are clearly suffering and disfigured, where they cannot have a life appropriate to the dignity of their kind. Those are clear no-goes.

    The areas you mention are confusing -- I think a lot depends on context. For instance, is it more or less respectful to eat meat that was already prepared, provided that the people at the table with you, who made the dish not knowing your tastes, also hear your views? The animal was killed; perhaps it is more respectful to use it. To not waste that life that was wasted. On the other hand, if the animal was -say, with veal- horribly raised -- and this will go for most factory farmed meat, so your typical table -- isn't it wrong to use the animal at all when it was so inhumanly treated?

    To me, these judgments are so context dependent that I think the best we can do is encourage the virtue of thoughtfulness and put a "force vector" on our consumption practices, slowly narrowing down the area of possible acceptability and eliminating the growing areas of unacceptable consumption.

    Part of the problem here, for me, has to do with these things:


    I am clear that suffering is wrong to inflict on an animal. The questions get complicated, though, when it comes to preventing suffering, i.e., that we do not cause but which animals will meet in their lives. Since humane stock-raising prevent suffering -- e.g., wild predation, much illness, etc. -- it starts to look better.

    But then I turn to enslavement. It is an indignity to keep any animal for our use without it being a reciprocal relationship that is more than use --e.g., with a dog or a horse? Again, I am not clear here. What does the chicken care if it has its life to roam, doesn't live in fear (a big one!), and has a good social life? This doesn't seem bad, but good. If the chicken then is killed almost instantaneously without suffering after a good half life, does that wrong the chicken? It lived well. Or is it wrong because we take slavery to be wrong. Why is it wrong? (I.e., what in it is wrong -- that we deny a life, or take a life as property, or is it that humans are free, and so slavery is especially wrong? Does that apply to chickens, though?)

    And death. Is death bad, provided that it comes later than it would for most animals in the wild, and without suffering? Is it even bad at all?

    I could go on! But the sheer ignorance I have in these areas makes me aim at the clear cases and then try to be as thoughtful as I can be thinking through each thing that comes up. I do not, however, appreciate the utilitarian approach which makes a mockery out of moral complexity and the pluralism of life's values and relationships. It seems to avoid thoughtfulness, to me. I'm sure the Utils would disagree! (They'd say I am just being wishy washy.)