A Pragmatist Case for Animal Rights
There’s a common (and partly accurate, as are most stereotypes) cliché about vegans being very annoying company. Rather than just minding their own business, they have to lecture others about the evils of factory farming. It’s a safe bet they’ll bring up their vegan lifestyle five minutes into any conversation. They also tend to be extremely finicky and have a reputation for being intolerant towards people who don’t follow their eating habits. Optimistic headlines notwithstanding, then, it’s not surprising that veganism is very far from being a mainstream phenomenon. While many Western nations have seen the numbers rising rapidly, the share of vegans is still low (Wikipedia claims that even in Germany, first country on the list, the relative number of vegans is only around 1.1%), and global trends point in the opposite direction: Nations rich and poor have seen a growing demand for meat and dairy products, the most drastic changes taking place in developing countries.
Even apart from the environmental impact, these trends are no reason to celebrate. The case against eating meat, and many other practices that cause tremendous amounts of animal suffering for minor benefits, is, I think, pretty straightforward, though I do not wish set it out here again. (But see this series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 for a good summary of the common arguments, as well as this excellent article. I’ve debated the issue myself here and here.) Rather, starting from the premise that eating meat is morally indefensible, I would like to make some humble suggestions how to effectively get closer to a world where animal abuse is no longer the norm. And, truth being told, vegetarians and vegan aren’t attacking this problem very effectively.
I’ve been a vegetarian for the last 10 years or so after having been exposed to Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. Recently, I started shifting towards veganism, reducing dairy products as much as I manage to, and eliminating eggs from diet altogether — but I’m certainly not a vegan by any stretch of the word. I’d lie if I claimed that this lack of consistency doesn’t bothers me; in fact, it can lead to a nagging sense of guilt for not being strict enough. In spite of this sporadic gut feeling, I will argue in the following that we need more pragmatism and less moralizing in the fight for animal welfare. Achieving progress demands the very opposite of PETA’s egregious ‘Holocaust on a plate’ campaign and the mindset that fuels these kinds of PR stunts.
Note, however, what I am not saying: That the moral argument would somehow be irrelevant in this battle. The claim that we should reduce animal suffering as much as possible is based on a moral conviction, after all, so the whole thing would become pointless if you were to scrap ethics from the picture altogether. Nor do I claim that no one has even been convinced to go vegetarian or vegan by a principled and relentless animal rights activist. Radical viewpoints can be refreshing and help people to see the issue more clearly. However, I do believe that the moralists are overrepresented among vegans — not by headcount, but certainly by media coverage — and that the gradualists have to speak up more forcefully.
Let’s begin by asserting an uncomfortable truth: It’s incredibly hard to be a vegan in a meat eater’s world. This is true on a number of levels:
- Evolutionary speaking, we certainly weren’t born to be herbivores. Meat was critical for the development of human intelligence, and those who passed on their genes to us were the ones who managed to consume a lot of it. Our brains aren’t hard-wired for meat (otherwise, no one could ever be vegan), but it’s an uphill battle.
- There are certain health risks associated with going vegetarian, and even more so for vegans. B12 deficiency, which may result in anemia and nervous system damage, is maybe the most famous item on the list. It’s not impossible to overcome this problem today, but you will have to include fortified foods and/or supplements in your diet. The general point is not that meat eaters are more healthy than vegans, but that the latter group needs to make an extra effort to ensure their bodily needs are met.
- Talk about gustatory delights — we’re still far away from having developed an affordable alternative to the many types of meat and dairy products out there. Although I find that one can get used to not experiencing this taste anymore (I, for one thing, no longer miss eating meat), it may feel like settling for an inferior option for many would-be vegans.
- Switching to vegetarianism is fairly easy (unless you start worrying about rennet and gelatin, that is), but veganism is a whole different level. Once you realize that almost all processed food contains eggs or milk in some form, it means that you’ll either spend a lot of time checking ingredients, or that you’ll have to cook everything yourself. Going out or meeting with friends brings similar problems; you’ll always have to ask what’s inside a dish, and be prepared that most people won’t even understand what you mean by ‘vegan’.
- The problem goes beyond what you eat; think leather and fur. Indeed, it’s hard to say where to draw the line. The more you try to be consistent, the more restricted your choices will be.
- Lastly and only half-seriously, you’ll always have to explain why on earth you opted for this lifestyle, and be prepared for an endless series of recycled jokes along the lines of “stop eating my food’s food”. You’ll also get accused of being preachy at times.
I don’t mention this to discourage anyone (quite the contrary!), but let’s face it: Going vegan is a real sacrifice, and it’s almost impossible to never stray from the path. Now, what happens when expectations are so high that they remain all but unattainable for most people is that people give up on these lofty ideals altogether. Plagued by insecurity and shame, and knowing that they will always fall short of being perfect, they decide that there’s no point in working towards the utopian state of ‘pure’ veganism, and give up. Surveys back up this claim, with some 84% of vegetarians and vegans eventually returning to an omnivorous diet. If you’re interested in the long run, these numbers look pretty bleak.
Consequently, the first item on my agenda, to borrow a platitude from the corporate realm, is to start with the low-hanging fruits. The world’s meat producers slaughter around 40 to 60 billion creatures annually, and any — really, any — strategy to bring down these number significantly would amount to a major ethical victory. And in this case, the math is straightforward. If you manage to convince a majority of regular meat eaters, to, say, cut their meat consumption in half, you could save tens of billions of animals from dire fate. By contrast, the effect of making people who already go to great lengths to avoid animal-based products feel guilty about that one piece of turkey they ate for Thanksgiving is almost non-detectable in the grand scheme of things.
Economists use a very similar concept for their analyses, namely, diminishing marginal utility. Here, the idea is that the first instance of a particular good will be used to satisfy the most urgent needs; additional units will be used for ‘lesser’ desires. The first liter of water might be used to quench your thirst, but larger quantities won’t be used towards this end anymore and might end up in your swimming pool (no, this is not essential for survival). To draw a somewhat loose analogy, going from regular to occasional meat eater has a large utility; refusing to eat honey because bees are ‘enslaved’ by the beekeeper does not.
Very well, then. How do you make this first, big step? I don’t have the perfect answer, but anything that accuses meat eaters of being evil, inconsiderate monsters is almost guaranteed to backfire. Most people can’t imagine to do without meat, so if you start by demanding they never eat it again, chances are they’ll shun you instead of engaging with your arguments. Don’t ask for the impossible; rather, make it easy for them to move in the right direction. What’s the one thing they could forego with the least regrets? Challenge them to remove it from there diet for a while to test how it works for them. Conceivably, such a first step might even include switching from chicken to beef.
Another thing that would make it easier for people to opt for a less meat-intense diet is to show them that there are excellent, tasty dishes that use no animal products. (In this spirit, I’ve listed some of my favorites at the end of the article.) The sad truth is that many of them don’t even know what a vegetarian/vegan meal could look like, as exemplified by the question “Am I supposed to eat fries and ketchup all day?”. This is a pretty straightforward (and non-preachy) avenue that’s rather underutilized in the discussion.
The above, in a sense, also implies that you shouldn’t keep your choice to forego animal-based products for yourself. What I mean by this is that a vegan lifestyle goes beyond eating habits. I cannot answer the question whether you have a moral obligation to contribute to animal charity, but if you do, do it wisely. It’s unclear at best, for example, how effectively money donated to PETA is really used; they offer no statistics to compare them across the board. (It mostly boils down to plain old storytelling, with ‘victories’ as bizarre as “Chris Brown Charged With Keeping Monkey Without a Permit”. Have a look at the Animal Charity Evaluators instead.) Or donate to research on lab-grown meat or cheese to drive down the price of these products and make them a viable alternative to their ‘natural’ counterparts. It’s much less attention-grabbing, of course, than naked celebrities arranged on a supersized plate. But if you were looking for advice on “How to convince my peers I’m a good and caring person”, I’m afraid you’re reading the wrong article. Sorry, dude.
Before I end, I want to answer to one potential counter-argument. Namely, if we indeed wanted to drastically reduce the 40 to 60 billion number I quoted above, we’re facing a global coordination problem. No effort that I could possibly make to alleviate animals’ suffering will have much of an effect on the grand total — so why should I forego the pleasures of consuming meat when others don’t? This is, of course, a very real problem when we’re talking about climate change, where any nation’s (not to mention any individual’s) decision to reduce carbon emissions means it will incur all the costs and receive no benefits; a situation where all nations continue polluting the atmosphere as they wish is a Nash equilibrium, but not a global optimum. However, factory farming, unlike carbon emissions, has no critical points below which nothing much happens, and above which a chain reactions is set in motion. That is, by going vegan, you can save concrete, individual animals from being tortured and slaughtered. Here, contrary to the climate change example, any step in the right direction makes a real, noticeable difference.
I have no illusions that we’ll be able to banish factory farming and many other unjustifiable practices from the face of the earth anytime soon. As I said in the introduction, at least in the short-to-medium run, the demand for meat will be growing, rather than declining. But this is no reason for despair, and I do indeed believe that a lot of suffering could be eliminated by embracing the pragmatist case for animal rights. Somewhere down the line, there’s hope that we will collectively move away from the old Cartesian notion of animals as ‘soulless machines’ and begin appreciating their rich inner lives. Your efforts will be appreciated.
Appendix:Some vegan recipes, tested and approved
Bangkok Coconut Curry Noodle Bowls - Pinch of Yum
These Bangkok Coconut Curry Noodle Bowls are quick to throw together and packed with veggies and brown rice noodles…
Chipotle Pumpkin Veggie Burgers
These tasty Chipotle Pumpkin Veggie Burgers are quick, easy, and a total crowd pleaser! Each veggie burger is vegan…
Colorful Beet Salad Recipe - Cookie and Kate
Reset with this healthy beet salad recipe featuring superfoods like carrot, quinoa, spinach, edamame and avocado. This…
Eggplant Goulash - Connoisseurus Veg
Potatoes, bell peppers and tender-melt-in-your-mouth chunks of eggplant are simmered up in a smoky paprika sauce to…
Potato & Rosemary Focaccia | Bread Recipes | Jamie Oliver Recipes
A rosemary focaccia recipe with a twist, with finely sliced purple potatoes and a crumbling of jersey royals you can't…
Vegan Bircher Muesli (Ultimate Breakfast Prep!) | Lauren Caris Cooks
Breakfast Vegan Bircher Muesli is a great, delicious and nutritious start to your day. Great for preparing in advance…
Vegan Lentil Curry - Simple Vegan Blog
This vegan lentil curry is absolutely amazing. It's simple, exotic, spicy, tasty, creamy and has an intense coconut…