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The Ethics of a Natural Foods Diet

August 8, 2011

What revisions would I make to section III of A Vegetarian Sourcebook (AVS) on "Vegetarian Ethics," if I were to rewrite it today?

In this section, I took a historical approach to the "timeless issues" of a more philosophical nature. How have vegetarians dealt with ethics throughout human history? For the most part, this is the history of vegetarianism in philosophy and religion, with section III giving a quick overview of the major philosophical and religious systems and their attitudes towards animals.

How much have ethical issues changed in the last 30 years? Well, if youíre surveying the past 3000 years of human history, not that much. If I were doing a minimalist revision, I could probably get away with a couple of sentences. Since this is going to be a pretty boring blog if all I say is "not much would change in section III," Iím going to go into two details which have changed: (1) rights versus utilitarianism, (2) vegan versus vegetarian.

Rights versus Utilitarianism

In philosophy, there is a distinction between the "deontological" ethical systems (Kant is the most famous example) and the "utilitarian" or "consequentialist" ethical systems (e. g. Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill). This distinction has now arrived on the vegetarian scene, as Tom Regan took the chance to explain to me, and as he explains in his book The Case for Animal Rights.

When I read Peter Singerís book Animal Liberation, I was aware he was a utilitarian but I did not see him as making "a utilitarian defense of animals." I just saw it as a defense of animals, period. But Regan saw it differently, and he has a valid point. Duty-oriented ethics, or deontological ethics, seeks to establish what is right (or wrong) based on basic moral principles, such as "do not kill." But utilitarians try to establish what is right or wrong based on the likely effects of the action. If it produces the greatest good or the greatest happiness for everyone, then it is the "right thing to do."

Now if you think about it, in most cases these two systems will give the same answer to moral questions. Should I go out and hold up a liquor store? The deontologist would say, "do not steal." The utililtarian would say, "this is just going to make a lot of people, likely including you, unhappy." They would say the same thing, but give different reasons. Applied to vegetarian issues, there are two different ways of arguing that we should not eat animals. One is to say that animals have rights and it is wrong to kill them and eat them. Another way is to say that animals will suffer if you keep them for food and kill them, and their suffering at losing their lives far outweighs the minor brief pleasure the meat-eater has in eating them.

In an revised version of this book, I would explore modern vegetarian ethical thinking in terms of the philosophical idea of "animal rights." I think itís great to get a major philosophical battle going over this issue, because it creates interest in what Singer and Regan are talking about within philosophy. I have a soft spot for philosophy because I majored in philosophy in college and even did some graduate work.

However, as a practical matter, the differences between Singerís utilitarianism and Reganís animal rights philosophy are not as great as initially appear. Theyíre both vegetarians. There are some issues for which these two ethical systems will give different answers, and some "hard cases" for each side. But it would seem to me that despite their different "philosophical" approaches, Singer and Regan have more in common with each other, than Regan has with other nonvegetarian deontologists or Singer with nonvegetarian utilitarians.

Veganism and Vegetarianism

The most significant historical development within vegetarianism in the last 30 years has been the emergence of veganism as the dominant strain of vegetarianism. Vegans are vegetarians who in addition to not eating meat, fish, or fowl, also do not eat any animal products at all ó and thus do not eat dairy products, eggs, or honey. In addition to not eating animal products, vegans also seek not to use animal products for any other purposes as well, thus not wearing leather, fur, or silk, and avoiding cosmetics tested on animals, because this is an exploitive use that causes cruelty to the animals.

I am vegan and I believe that veganism is the best path to follow. All of the good arguments for vegetarianism, when you think about it, are also good arguments for veganism. Health? Meat has lots of saturated fat and no fiber, but the same can be said of dairy products and eggs. Ecology? Meat wastes resources, but so do dairy and eggs. Ethics? Meat is cruel to animals, but especially with the modern factory farming system, so are dairy and eggs. The case for veganism is fairly straightforward and convincing.

It is hard to remember now, but in the early 1980's even bringing up veganism was quite bold.  Vegetarianism was weird enough, but veganism was downright cultlike and extreme.  To give up all animal products was so bizarre that most people would dismiss it out of hand.  In the early vegetarian film Vegetarian World, William Shatner (famous for playing James Kirk in the early Star Trek TV series) politely mentioned veganism, but mispronounced it "VAY - gun."  So A Vegetarian Sourcebook, by giving veganism a straightforward hearing, really furthered its acceptance.  

Both the terms "vegetarian" and "vegan" are recent, coming from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, while the concept of vegetarianism clearly goes back to ancient times, it is much more difficult to extend the concept of veganism much before the nineteenth century. In fact, in some cases it is difficult to extend the concept of veganism to some areas of the world (like Tibet) even today. This is due to two facts: first, there are some ambiguities in the concept of veganism, which center around the idea of "using" an animal product or "exploiting" an animal. Second, the idea that "using" an animal product or even exploiting an animal entailed cruelty to the animal, is a modern idea.

The reason vegans do not want to use animal products is because they are thinking about just the animal products which crowd our stores: foods like dairy products and eggs, clothing items and furniture made of leather, and all manner of consumer products cruelly tested on animals. In these cases, there is a straightforward equivalence between use of the animal and cruelty to the animal.

But if you think about it, there are some animal products which one can scarcely avoid using, and there are other animal products which do not seem to involve cruelty. For example, there are animal products involved in the making of cars, and it would be difficult for the sake of animals to avoid either owning or even using a car in our modern society. Modern agriculture (even organic) involves the killing of insects, and it would be difficult to eat without being complicit in this. There are other animal products, such as the poop from oneís pet rabbits, which can be usefully composted and spread on oneís garden without involving cruelty to animals. And most conspicuously, human breast milk is technically an animal product, and yet most vegans would enthusiastically endorse breast-feeding of infants.

Most vegans will roll their eyes when they hear these kinds of examples. These are the isolated exceptions to the rule. No vegan is going to complain about composting your pet rabbitís poop or breast-feeding your baby. The British Vegan Societyís definition of veganism states:

"Veganism" denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude ó as far as is possible and practical ó all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.

This includes the phrase "possible and practical" to deal with the first objection, and "exploitation" to cover the second.

However, this raises questions about what is "practical" and what is "exploitation." Some might argue that it is not practical for residents of Tibet to avoid animal products or even meat, because it is so hard to grow crops there. It may not be practical, or even possible, for peasants in Asia or Africa to grow food without the use of work animals such as oxen or mules. Others might say that using milk from a well-treated dairy cow (as in India), or eggs from a backyard chicken allowed to live its natural life, is not exploitation or abuse. Do we allow these people to be vegan, or not? Is it possible to drink milk in India (if the cow is well-treated) and be "vegan"? Either way, the concept of veganism begins to get blurry.

This is why it is so difficult to write a history of the vegan idea. The historical relationship between using animals and necessary cruelty to animals is recent. Yes, people have been cruel to the animals which they kept throughout history, but this wasn't necessary, and it was possible to have one without the other.  "A righteous man cares for his beast," says Proverbs 12:10; but it would never have occurred to the ancients to say that "a righteous man does not use a beast." It is only in modern times that use of an animal almost inevitably implies cruelty. In the history of early Christianity, there is quite a bit of controversy over meat-eating (Romans 14:21, I Corinthians 10:25), but I have been able to find only one specific reference to avoiding animal products other than meat: Hegesippus says that James, the brother of Jesus, did not wear wool.

In the sense of ahimsa, or kindness to animals, the spirit of veganism is quite ancient, as the examples of Pythagoras and the Buddha illustrate. But its modern form, while it makes perfect sense in North America, Europe, and much of the modern "developed" world, will seem strange when applied to other times or places. In my revision I would explore and explain this further.

I continue to believe that A Vegetarian Sourcebook is an important book. I see a lot of discussion today by people, including a lot of vegetarians and vegans, who are unfamiliar with problems that I had already dealt with nearly three decades ago.  People are still talking about protein complementarity; many people don't know how widespread vegetarianism is in eastern religions, and was even in early Christianity.

Most conspicuously, there is still insufficient discussion of livestock agriculture and the environment by vegetarians.  Most vegetarian magazines and books assume that our economy will hum along just fine if we all become vegetarian and maybe put up a few solar panels, ignoring peak oil and countless other resource problems.  The environmental crisis is not just an important issue; it is the defining issue of the 21st century.