A recent piece at Waging Nonviolence by Sangamithra Iyer usefully argues for the importance of the vegan dietary movement. Iyer traces the origin of the movement to an Englishman, Donald Watson, who founded a group adopting vegan principles in 1944. Iyer notes the fanatical opposition from the corporate food industry and captured government agencies.
Contemporary society embodies a profound hypocrisy: many of those who consume animals would likely be unwilling to ever actually slaughter an animal themselves. In contrast to a mere century ago, the vast majority of the populace is now quite removed, culturally as well as physically, from food production. Paying others to do dirty work you are unwilling to do yourself is hardly a defensible moral stance. Documentary filmmaker Keegan Kuhn, who had tackled the animal agriculture industry, notes that “Hiding the animals, hiding the farms, hiding the entire issue is a marketing tool that is used by the industry. Their attitude is, if you can’t see it, it’s not there. There are upwards of 10 billion farm animals slaughtered every year in the United States. But where are these 10 billion animals?” In much of the U.S. in particular, meat products are now often unrecognizable as an actual animal. The fish stick lover may express revulsion at being confronted with a whole fish on their plate.
There is a strong ethical argument to be made for veganism. One of the earlier influential proponents, philosopher Peter Singer, has written about the expanding circle of moral concern. Certainly, our moral horizons have expanded since 17th Century Europe, where René Descartes held that animals were mere automata, incapable of suffering. When I dabbled in vegetarianism many years ago, I did so primarily out of concern for the environmental consequences of meet consumption. Although I was not immune to animal welfare concerns, I felt that animal rights activists tended to be ‘beautiful souls,’ to borrow a Yiddish expression that is not exactly a compliment. For myself, those mixed feelings endure, perhaps typically of a society in transition. Animal rights advocates sit awkwardly within the left of the political spectrum. Socially, there is often some degree of shared sympathy mixed with mutual wariness and disinterest. From an organizing standpoint, there is a danger in separating oneself from the rest of society too markedly in too many different directions all at once. When the great organizer in the Civil Rights movement, Bayard Rustin, chose to keep quiet about his homosexuality, it was a defensible decision. It probably made strategic sense: fight too many battles simultaneously and you ensure defeat on all fronts. I eventually abandoned my vegetarianism. As with all consumer ethical decisions, if there is no active boycott campaign, the decisions are highly personal. It made little sense to me to avoid meat while still purchasing sweatshop clothing, or Foxconn-manufactured electronics. Trespasses against human life and well-being should be regarded with greater concern than violations against other animals.
This is not merely a speciesist claim. Human life has priority because our species is capable of self-awareness – of consciousness. Yet there is more to the story. Human morality is a biological and social construct. Our biology guides the general contours of our moral senses, and socialization further shapes our ethical sensibilities. Reason can inform our moral opinions. As such, some moral precepts are evident: life has value, and the more intelligent a life-form is, the more ethical value it has, up to the point at which consciousness is attained and after which all life is sacred and further gradations of intelligence are immaterial. Opponents of abortion have a moral opposition to killing fetuses. Their error is in overvaluing the life of the fetus, a creature lacking self-awareness. However, studies have found that a human toddler is of roughly analogous intelligence to some of the most intelligent non-human animals. The logical ethical deduction is that – unless we are willing the regard the lives of human toddlers as less than sacred, something very few would countenance – the lives of animals of similar intelligence are substantially sacred as well. Therefore, the most intelligent of animals, like the great apes and cetaceans, are to be accorded particularly strong rights. It also follows that the treatment of other intelligent creatures is an ethical matter. Pigs are as intelligent as dogs, yet in the West the former are food while the latter are accorded special protections and the consumption of the animal in some Asian societies is regarded as barbaric. The attitude is plainly irrational prejudice that cannot be articulately defended. Though the animal rights movement may sometimes be hobbled by sentimentality, it has considerable moral force behind it that has nothing to do with sentimental prejudice.
There is little argument to be made for veganism on health grounds (unless simply because it leads one to consume more vegetables). The much-maligned paleo diet is in fact the by far the most compelling available nutritional ideology (contrary to the confusion stirred by T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study which misreads the adoption of the modern Western diet and the concomitant diseases of affluence as diseases of meat consumption). Nutritional science, hobbled by decades of government-corporate biases, is only very slowly acknowledging the obvious explanatory power of the paleo framework, as advanced by leading proponents like Loren Cordain, still in its infancy. Inevitably, the science of nutrition will adopt a model of an ideal diet that looks far more like Cordain’s than that of the food pyramid (or even the current food plate) guidelines. There is, however, a practical issue with the paleo nutrition model – global society cannot fully adopt paleo dietary practices. As a species our population has grown explosively, fed on the original junk food – grains, tubers, and legumes. It is no longer possible to feed the world eating only what we are best adapted to eating. So while knowledge of proper nutrition is helpful, we must modify our eating practices to include cheaper calories.
The paleo diet is part of a broader awakening of interest in an anthropologically-informed return to a more biologically suitable lifestyle. If the first half of the 20th century witnessed a nadir – an era of boundless confidence in existing science to improve life while arrogantly discarding traditional knowledge, thus, for example, producing guidelines for raising infants with minimal human contact (inevitably resulting in psychological damage) or replacing breast milk with nutritionally inferior infant formulas – the counter-reaction has now set in. American society is finding that Western toilets are poorly suited to human physiology and that most of us would do better to return to the Turkish-Asian style toilets that replicate paleolithic posture. Sedentary life may also be causing back pain and altering our basic erect spinal posture. The negative aspects of overusing antibiotics and soap are slowly percolating through popular culture. Exercise gurus are now discovering interval training and barefoot running, while offices are abandoning the eight-hour-sit with standing desks and more, all emulating modes of behavior more characteristic of hunter-gatherers.
However, while this new appreciation for the value of anthropology and archaeology to inform our modern lifestyle is all to the good, it does not absolve us of the responsibility to make decisions about how to ethically adapt modern technology to productive ends.
It was not until several years after Watson founded his vegan group that scientists identified vitamin B12. Without knowledge of this essential vitamin, let alone how to synthesize it, veganism would have been nearly impossible to practice healthfully. Though veganism was not practicable until the mid-20th century, there is an ancient history of vegetarianism in some societies, most famously in India. Sometimes this took rather extreme forms, as with the Jains, who avoid eating plants that cannot be harvested without killing the plant (e.g. onions). Other meat-consuming societies, as in some of the American Indian tribes, hunted animals within a value framework that was ethically and spiritually-inflected.
This past is a far cry from modern industrial livestock production, which has inflicted cruelty upon animals at a concentration and scale previously unknown. The move away from small Old MacDonald family farms to concentrated animal feeding operations has precipitated the new ethical soul-searching. Some have concluded that even the older model of more humane pastoralism is indefensible. Though still a small minority, there is every reason to suppose that this is the direction in which humanity is headed. As civilization grows more technologically advanced, it is becoming possible to transcend our biological limitations, the omnivorism we evolved for among other things. The ethical and environmental pressures may also force a shift towards consuming different animal proteins like insects, as many traditional peoples do, and shellfish, particularly oysters, which are environmentally sustainable and lack a central nervous system.
Predictably, the principle handicap facing us is the institutional structure of our society. The prevailing system of government in the contemporary period, wrongly awarded the label of democracy, is far more accurately denoted by the terms polyarchy or oligarchy. Global society is saddled with anemic fora for discussing ethical issues and is totally bereft of democratic controls upon economic decisions or of a proper pricing mechanism for environmental costs (e.g. the pervasive problem of externalities, unaccounted for in capitalism). To combat this, mass civil society movements will be needed. Ethical consumerism is a piece of that struggle, but hardly the most important one. We are simultaneously hurtling down the road to ruin as a species, and beginning to explore ways to learn from and transcend our origins and ennoble ourselves.