Friday, July 31, 2009

Some thoughts on ethical veganism.

Much of this post is in reply to Pat, who asked some questions about our views on eating meat. I don't want to speak for both of us, so I'll just answer for myself and Kat can add or amend as she sees fit. I think one way of discussing vegetarianism and veganism is to describe why and how I first came to these decisions. Some of the hurdles that vegans and vegetarians face is a lack of understanding about the decision or even about what such decisions entail. Unfortunately, many vegetarians and vegans become defensive when they are questioned by others instead of trying to offer any explanation. This can only lead to more misunderstanding.

I turned to vegetarianism because I could no longer separate the animal from the meat. I tried to separate the idea of the animal from the thing on my dinner plate, but realized that this disconnect was harmful and unnatural. There must be a direct connection between cause and effect, before and after, and to deny this is to deny an essential part of our own understanding. However, this separation is made easy for us by those from whom we buy such products. We are disconnected from our own source of nutrition because we don't see where it comes from or what it must face. This disconnect practically does not exist where vegetables are considered. We see plant growth everyday and know how it operates, but we don't see the same thing with meat. Along with this disconnect comes a loss of connection with the source of our nutrition. Our relationship to the packaged meat in the store is a fetish for the real relationship which must exist but is lost with the animal, and the plants and the earth before that.

The other aspect which originally led to my vegetarianism was a growth in my perception of the rights to happiness and life that other beings possess. I won't argue that all animals are equal or that animals are equal to humans (I do think that there is an affinity for proximity and likeness). I will say, however, that mutual respect is a premium I could never get around. It is unnecessary for me to end the life of another animal in order for me to remain healthy, and even to thrive. Consumption of these items is a luxury that necessarily comes at the detriment of others.

This may lead to the question of animals that die of natural causes. The question may be stated: "Is one ethically permitted to consume an animal, provided one does not cause the death of the animal?" In some cases, the question is moot. If an animal dies of illness or is killed by a predator, the carcass will likely be unfit to eat. In other cases, an animal that dies of old age would likely be unpalatable. So this question asks of unlikely circumstances that involve an animal dying in such a way as to leave a carcass which would be safe and palatable to eat. I would still answer this question in the negative. This question depends upon a view of eating flesh as normal. A vegan like myself wouldn't even think about this as an option anymore than an omnivore would think of pieces of wood or leather as viable food options.

Perhaps a different way of viewing the question would be to consider veganism as a positive, or liberating philosophy instead of a negative, or limiting, philosophy. Veganism is not built around the idea that I must refrain from eating one thing or another, but that my dedication to the recognition of the rights of sentient beings precludes my viewing them as consumable object, or objects at all for that matter. If one considers a liberating view of veganism, the question of eating animals or what they produce is null. It is only when one considers veganism from the limiting perspective that such loop holes become true questions.

Finally, the question may arise regarding the celebration of an animal's life by eating it. Pat asks about our views on this subject, but quickly points out that he doesn't mean a beloved dog, but a pet cow or chicken. I think that this question also relates to whether we view veganism as a liberating or limiting philosophy. If we see it as the former, then their is no question that the consumption of a pet is always inappropriate, whatever sort of animal the pet is. This question leads to two other questions, though: in what way would eating an animal be considered honoring its life? and what really is the difference between a cow and a dog? I don't see the connection between eating a pet and honor. Perhaps because of my point of view on the matter, I can only see this as degrading. As for the second question: why would we make a distinction between a dog and a cow? As far as I can see, this distinction is arbitrary. If a person kept a cow as a pet in the same way that s/he would keep a dog as a pet, then I would imagine that person would be just as horrified at the prospect of eating the cow as the dog. Just because a cow is conventionally labeled "food" would not change the way the owner would care for it or regard it.

There is more that I could write, but I think I'll cut it off here. Thanks Pat for your questions. I hope that I was able to provide some answers. Feel free to reply or ask more, I'm open to what others think, too.


D_Popov said...

That was a very detailed response, thank you! I never really knew too much about what exactly it means to be vegan, but from what I can tell from your posts, it's not about not eating meat anymore, it's about realizing that animals really are much different than plants and that animals just aren't food [/runon]. The comment about meat being like leather or a piece of wood is what made it click for me. Sure, I could eat some leather or wood to source some fiber and protein, but doesn't mean that it's food. And it is interesting to note that from your point of view, a cow is just as much not food as a dog, while from mine a dog is something that is somehow easier to sympathize with than a cow.

Alright, now this next question is one that is hard to answer truthfully face to face with someone you know, so I will ask it now so that I may get an unbiased response not impeded by worrying about hurt feelings or being socially appropriate: What do you think of others eating meat? I eat meat, does this mean we are less likely to become friends? or is it simply a matter of thinking "wow, they're eating that? weird..." at dinner when the non-vegan is chowing down on some hot-dogs.

Thanks, sorry for the jumbled comment ;-) Probably after this I will return to the rafters to lurk and read in darkness ^_^

P.S. Don't know which of my gmail accounts I used last time; if my name comes up as something else please ignore it. Also, posted once and it didn't seem to do anything, so here goes....

Anonymous said...

Don't lurk! I think that active participation and discussion of things is best--so comment freely, please.
I guess I can address your comment to some extent, and then allow Matt to add his response, too.
You say that "dog is something that is somehow easier to sympathize with than a cow," but if this thought process is questioned (Why is a dog easier to sympathize with than a cow?), one of the resulting answers/conclusions is that we are culturally trained to see one as companion, one as a food animal. If it were more common to see cows as companions, then the affection would be directed differently. Having had/seen a variety of animals live in the home has made me aware that although animals have different temperaments, different needs, they are nonetheless capable of self-expression and personality--be it dog or cow.

As for the question of others eating meat: this factor alone does not make me less likely to make friends with someone. I understand the way normativity works--before I became vegan, I did not even know that one could live (survive) without eating meat (this kind of thinking is pretty ingrained). After learning more about it, I made the decision to be vegan, but realize that people will continue to do what seems normal to them; oftentimes, they overlook the fact that they have a choice, or not think twice about what they're putting in their mouths--I've been there! This doesn't make them any worse, as far as people go.
There are exceptions, of course--but this only applies to people who attempt to push their eating habits onto me, actively disrespecting my beliefs and decision in the process. These are the people I choose to spend less time with, of course.
And you're right,it does oftentimes seem strange to see people consuming meat (and sometimes, it even hurts), but again--normativity.
Hope to hear from you again. Thank you for fueling discussion.

Piuvodku said...

I agree with what Kat said. The only real addition I would make is to say that I do have many friends who are not vegan. Many more than who actually are. Veganism is just one of a wide range of beliefs that I hold, and I would never use it as an "all-or-nothing" criteria for making/keeping friends. This is true of most things I think/believe.
Mutual respect and intelligent conversation are way more important than agreement on the issues.