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Finally, Part 3 in this series!  Shortly before the American Thanksgiving last year, as stated in Parts 1 and 2, The New York Times published “Animal, Vegetable, Miserable”, a pro-vegan opinion piece by Gary Steiner, and then, in “The Ethical Choices in What We Eat”, published eight letters to the editor that responded to Mr. Steiner’s piece.

In Part 2, I wrote “I believe that many persons are likely to agree with the anti-vegan letters in that collection, for those arguments, which may superficially seem sensible, are very common and are frequently accepted as among the best counterarguments to the philosophies behind veganism and animal rights.  I will discuss each such letter’s serious shortcomings in the next entries in this series.”

One of the few reasons for my delay in continuing this series has been my fear of making the next entries imperfect.  But it's better to give voice to these valid points—even if I don’t do it perfectly, even if (as surely will happen) I don’t convince and persuade everyone.

So let’s begin!


The gist of the first letter—that baby steps are better than no steps—is fine:

Mr. Steiner might feel less lonely as an ethical vegan—he says he has just five vegan friends—if he recognized that he has allies in mere vegetarians (like me), ethical omnivores and even carnivores.  Some of us agree with his outlook, but just don’t have the fortitude to make every sacrifice he makes.

In fact, a whole lot of semi-vegans can do much more for animals than the tiny number of people who are willing to give up all animal products and scrupulously read labels.  Farm animals also benefit from the humane farming movement, even if the animal welfare changes it effects are not all that we should hope and work for.

If the goal is not moral perfection for ourselves, but the maximum benefit for animals, half-measures ought to be encouraged and appreciated.

Go vegan, go vegetarian, go humane or just eat less meat.  It’s all good advice from the point of view of doing better by animals.


But the second, while an interesting rumination on extremes, doesn’t actually refute the basic vegan, animal-rights argument:

Soon after I read Gary Steiner’s article, my wife asked me to kill a spider, which I did.  This made me feel guilty.  Spiders are living creatures, too; perhaps I should have gently caught it and carried it outdoors?

It is hard to imagine where a line can be drawn.  We kill so many living creatures when we build a house, construct a road, drive down that road or just walk on a path.  How far do we go in protecting them?

When we plant and harvest crops that vegans would find acceptable to eat, many animals are killed and their habitats are destroyed.

If we all decide to consider animals as precious as humans, the only logical place for us is back in the jungle.  But even then if we were to survive we would have to kill some animals in self-defense.

I understand that the letter may be only exploring illogical extremes, not actually advocating that we disregard vegan and animal-rights ideas or even all our cares about animal species other than our own.  But I am arguing ‘against it’ because the points that it does make are often used in anti-vegan advocacy.

To the first paragraph:  Not being sure exactly where to draw a line doesn’t make us incapable of knowing where not to draw it.  Though I may not be sure exactly how, and to what extent, to intervene if I see an adult repeatedly slapping a child forcefully in the park—should I speak up, use physical force, call the police, or what?—I still know not to mimic the action.  People do debate the matter of when it might be acceptable to kill a human being—as a criminal penalty, in abortion, in war, in self-defense, in euthanasia, in suicide, &c.—; but the collective uncertainty doesn’t stop them from debating the questions, fighting for their beliefs, and agreeing on some basics (e.g., it’s not acceptable to walk into a nursing-home or a preschool and start gunning down the residents, pupils, and staff).

The letter also makes no distinction between passivity and action.  Let’s say you’re sitting beside a path; you’re watching a bug the size of a pin, who is unlikely to be seen by those not squatting down; and you’re not sure how far you should go to protect him or her from the footfalls of passing joggers:  you’re uncertain about a specific protective action that might be taken.  Or let’s say you’re not sure whether people intent on defending non-human animals should bomb an empty slaughterhouse one night so that it can’t operate again the next morning:  again, it’s a question of action.  But deciding simply to refrain from giving money directly to animal agriculture is passive.  Failing to give people money—financial encouragement is what it is—for abusing animals from conception to slaughter is passive, compared to the questions about the bug and the slaughterhouse.  You’re almost certainly already giving money to other people anyway so that you can eat:  you may as well give the money specifically to those who are farming the plants so that you can eat the plants directly, rather than give it to those whose primary goal is the torturous treatment of feeling beings in exchange for money.  Money is one of the greatest motivators of human behavior:  in the case of animal welfare and animal rights, a huge part of ‘active protection’ is simply passively refraining from paying others to abuse.

The third paragraph touches on the fact that we still disturb, harm, and even kill animals when cultivating plants.  But the amount of vegetable matter that is cultivated for a human vegan’s diet and lifestyle is far, far, far lower than that cultivated for the non-vegan person’s food, clothing, entertainment, &c.  (See several previous entries in this community’s journal for some specific statistics.)  It means less use of land, less use of water, less use of fertilizer, less use of pesticides, less emission of greenhouse gases, less reduction in biodiversity, less habitat destruction, less environmental degradation, less pollution, less use of resources to treat human health problems, and on and on—not to mention almost infinitely less intentional breeding, abusing, and slaughtering of tens of billions of animals every year.

The letter’s final paragraph is something of a straw man.  ‘If you refuse to hand money to McDonald’s for the havoc it wreaks on our only environment in the universe, on the economy, on individual human health and society’s medical costs, and indeed on almost countless sentient beings, then you’re condemning man to a life of houseless jungle savagery and having to kill marauding animals!’  ‘I can’t call the police about the burglar I see breaking in to my neighbor’s house—because, if I start behaving responsibly about burglary in this regard, then I’ll have to force myself into perpetually patrolling the neighborhood to watch for crime, without any breaks for the bathroom or eating or sleeping!’  ‘I must do absolutely nothing, lest I fall short of doing absolutely everything.’


And now, as tempted as I am to move to the next letters, I’ll pause, saving them for future entries.  Maybe you all would even like to discuss this one.