Why Should We Talk to Others About Veganism?

The most obvious, and most important, reason to engage with others about veganism is to mitigate the harm and injustice done to (nonhuman) animals. There is, however, an additional reason to talk to people about ethical issues of this kind, namely out of a recognition of the moral integrity of others. By choosing not to converse with others about an injustice as serious and as glaring as the present one, we to some extent degrade them and regard them (even if not explicitly) as lacking the requisite sympathy and judgement. We assume that they will not care or understand, and hence, we assume something about their character.

To be sure, many people do not care or understand, even after the relevant arguments and evidence have been presented to them; but there are many people who would be appalled by the actual state of things, and who would cease to support such things if they only knew. Accordingly, there is a certain amount of guilt that comes with passively watching people engage in practices which they themselves would disapprove of if they were fully informed, not least because of the injustice that is otherwise allowed to continue unchallenged.

As vegans, do we not all think from time to time, ‘I wish someone had told me sooner about this‘? There are undoubtedly many people who would feel the same way but have never been adequately informed. Just as most would consider it wrong not to inform others of the harmful effects linked to some activity directly concerning their wellbeing, it is arguably wrong not to inform others of issues which they care deeply about, but lack the knowledge that would provoke the appropriate changes in their life. In order to avoid this, it is also important that we do not dilute the position we wish to communicate. What we owe to other sentient beings, and to other human beings, is to provide the unadulterated truth. By presenting a weak, and ultimately specious, version of veganism, we increase the risk of our listener someday thinking, ‘I wish they had been clearer about such an important issue!’, and they could rightly censure us for fundamentally distrusting their moral judgement.

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How Good Is Life?

In our world, optimism is, without question, favored over pessimism. Indeed, pessimists are often dismissed as disturbed or as misanthropes. But what is the truth of the matter? How good is life really? First of all, we need to roughly define pessimism in this context. Pessimism, basically, is the view that there is more bad in the world than good. It is not the view that nothing can be done to mitigate existing evils, or that nothing matters. Thus, we must distinguish it sharply from nihilism. Optimism is the view which says there is more good in the world than bad; pessimism, that there is more bad than good.

To see in a few seconds which of these two accounts of the world is more plausible, it seems sufficient to say that there are major atrocities being committed at all times, and all around us. To name one example, billions of nonhuman animals every year are tortured and killed for human consumption and other superfluous ends. Are we seriously to believe that this is compensated by the joys of the world? Would we create another world just like ours on the grounds that the happiness and pleasure in it will outbalance such evils?

But surely, our lives are good, right? In Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume presents the following challenge to this sort of optimism: If you were offered the opportunity to relive the past ten or twenty years of your life again, in its entirety and exactly as it was the first time, would you accept this or decline? I have not met a single person who has said that they would accept such an offer. The truth is, most of our existence is unpleasant, and any pleasure we find in it consists primarily in the removing or overcoming of some unpleasantness. This, I suspect, is why the thought of living our lives again is hardly an appealing one. To give a simple example of this, the pleasure we get from any sort of relief ultimately consists in the removal of the pain we feel from some burden (e.g., the pleasure of drinking consists in the removal of thirst, the pleasure of taking a bath consists in the removal of physical stress, and so on). Hence, Epicurus says: The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain.

What all this means is that there is no surplus of pleasure possible in this life. Pain or unpleasantness is the real aspect of our existence, pleasure and joy being merely the absence thereof. Accordingly, the best we can hope for in this wretched state is complete freedom from the bad; and this, let us not forget, is when life goes exceedingly well. If we only picture to ourselves the life of someone who, at this moment, is being subjected to tortures of all kinds, surely, even the most committed optimist will agree that procreation is, at least, ethically risky, if not actually downright immoral. Before we so casually bring another being into an existence capable of turning into a horror and nightmare, and potentially a living hell for the new being, we ought to critically examine our optimism once more.

Are All Opinions Equal?

Today, fear of causing offense often stands in the way of critical and challenging discourse on important issues. Too often, just to take a strong position on some matter is seen as akin to being arrogant. The cause of this, it seems to me, is the prevalent idea that all opinions are equally valid; in other words, there is no correct point of view. Incidentally, if one wanted to defend such a view, one would need to apply this principle equally to itself. That is, even the idea that there is no correct point of view would, I think, be subject to its own criticism. For the sake of this discussion, however, we will leave such worries aside.

So are all points of view equal? We need to first of all distinguish between the truthfulness of a position and the right to express that position. Every point of view is deserving, at the very least, of a hearing. That is, we should be allowed to express any point of view. In this sense, all beliefs are equal. However, there is another sense in which they are not. For although one should certainly be allowed to express the view that the combined length of two sides of a triangle is shorter than the length of one of its sides, this does not make the claim any more reasonable or true, nor would it be arrogant to point out this error to anyone who holds it.

Some people seem to think that respecting everyone’s opinion is kind and courteous, and that we should exhibit endless patience for every error and absurdity. There is an obvious need to reexamine this claim. For instance, should we really respect the view that children can be sexually abused? And if we choose to respect or put up with such a view, how do we not thereby discount and disrespect the potential victims of such beliefs? Similarly, by respecting or tolerating people’s views about other animals as inferior and as mere tools for human use, how can we call this ‘respect for all’? When certain beliefs lead to very significant harms for others, that is the time to abandon the hopelessly idealistic notion of ‘respect for all opinions’, ‘agree to disagree’, or ‘I respect your decision, so please respect mine’, as though respect for an opinion is won by an exchange of respect, and not, as it should be, by an exchange of arguments. We should respect people’s right to express their beliefs, certainly, but let us not pretend that all opinions are equally dignified or justified. Let us talk; this is what reasons and arguments are for.

How to Change People’s Minds About Veganism

Changing minds when it comes to eating animal products can be difficult, and my own experience has not been an exception. Accordingly, the title to this is somewhat presumptuous. In any case, here are some things I recommend when advocating for veganism, for whatever worth they may have.

1. Arouse the listener’s empathy.

It seems to me that for anyone to care about the state or condition of another, there needs to be an act of the imagination, whereby we put ourselves in the position of the other. The question is, how do we encourage people to empathize with other animals? The approach I take is a very simple one, namely, stress the subjective dimension of nonhuman animals, and show how they are like us in this crucial respect. So I say things like this: other animals are conscious; it is like something to be them; their pain matters to them as our pain matters to us; they are each somebody and not something; and so on. In this way, we can hope to change people’s perception of other animals; and, if effective, people will begin to see other animals from within, rather than only from without.

2. Link veganism to something the interlocutor already understands.

Most people think, for example, that it is wrong to inflict immense suffering on other animals without any necessity. This is something they already understand and acknowledge. We can show people the implications of these views. Again, most people recognize that certain forms of discrimination are wrong and unjust. We can explain to people that speciesism is also a form of unjust discrimination, and hence, if they oppose the others, they ought to oppose speciesism as well. Or again, many people recognize that at least dogs and cats matter morally, and simply pointing out the obvious similarity between these beings and the beings we exploit for food and other uses can help people connect and empathize with these other animals. (To be sure, we should absolutely oppose the breeding and exploitation of other animals, and this of course includes the ‘pet’ industry. The word ‘pet’ is itself a very problematic one. We can see just how problematic the word is when we imagine calling a human a ‘pet’.)

3. Use appropriate analogies and comparisons.

This is very much related to the previous suggestion, and is particularly useful in showing some piece of reasoning to be spurious. So suppose someone were to say (as they sometimes do) that cows are better off existing than not existing at all. To show just how mistaken this suggestion is, we need only ask them to imagine humans who are brought into existence only to live in captivity their entire lives with basically no rights or protections granted to them. In general, arguments against veganism of this kind can swiftly be refuted by switching the subject(s) from nonhuman animals to humans.

4. Keep the conversation focused on the issue, rather than on the interlocutor.

Always focus on the wrongness of the act, not the person who in some way participates in that act. For example, when saying ‘every time you buy animal products’, we might instead say, ‘every time we buy animal products’. This is just a way to keep the conversation impersonal, for when things get personal, people’s ego often corrupts the conversation, rendering any rational exhange impossible.

5. Show people the reality of rearing and killing nonhuman animals.

When people are presented with images, it becomes, I think, much more difficult to dismiss. Timing, however, seems crucial. I prefer to explain concepts like speciesism, and arouse their empathy towards other animals, before presenting images of slaughterhouses and other places of abuse. I find this to be the most effective progression. In any case, it is useful to have both images and ethical explanations.

Should Vegans Be More Tolerant?

Critics of veganism often charge the position with being divisive and intolerant. First of all, it should be pointed out that these sorts of criticisms have nothing to do with the logical integrity of the position; in other words, they are attacks on the people who take the position, not an argument against the position itself. For example, suppose a religious literalist were to say to a teacher of evolution, that they are being rude and disrespectful of their religious beliefs. Would this be a challenge to the fact of evolution? No. Clearly, whether one is rude or polite in presenting some position has no bearing on the truth or falsity of that position.

We cannot, and should not, tolerate wrongful discrimination. Accordingly, we should be as intolerant of speciesism, as we would be of racism. Nevertheless, the negative perception of vegans is certainly troubling. This, I think, is the real source of many people’s unfavorable attitude toward vegans: we too often assert without explaining. When we say, for example, that ‘meat is murder’ and proceed to call non-vegans murderers, does this do anything other than make non-vegans more hostile to the position? There are at least a couple of things we may question regarding campaigns of this kind. One is that they do not seem to explain anything, but simply assert the answer, and this seems to contribute to the perception of vegans as merely rude and intolerant. Plainly, such things do not really amount to educating the public. Secondly, they focus on individuals, deeming them immoral, and this also seems to me to make matters unnecessarily personal. Moral education is most effective (I would argue) when we clearly explain why something is indefensible, while keeping the conversation focused, as much as possible, on the wrongness of the act, rather than any quality of the listener. This does not require us to be tolerant of injustice; indeed, it requires the opposite.

On the other hand, I do not wish to condemn people who take a more direct approach (for want of a better word) to activism, though I do, nevertheless, question its effectiveness. The seriousness of the evil with which we are dealing is such that any rage or indignation is, in my judgement, entirely justified. All I hope is that vegans who do speak openly about these issues are thinking, first and foremost, in terms of impact and effectiveness.

Is Animal Equality a Threat to Human Dignity?

In the English language, though by no means unique in this regard, the word ‘animal’ is largely used in a derogatory sense, meaning uncivilized (as in, ‘they behave like animals’) or worthless (as in, ‘they were treated like animals’). Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that people are often offended when other animals are compared to humans; they feel such comparisons to be a dangerous assault on human dignity. This is, of course, even more so when we equate the two.

What people seem not to realize, however, is that when we demand equal respect for humans and other animals, we do not thereby lower the status of humans, rather, the point is to raise the status of nonhuman animals. In other words, the claim being made is that other animals are also deserving of the same basic moral rights. Would granting fundamental rights to black Americans, for example, diminish the rights of white Americans? Obviously not. Similarly, granting rights to other animals does not imply denying those rights to humans.

Incidentally, those who find such comparisons offensive and obscene ought to consider again what their offense entails. Presumably, they think, ‘How can we compare a human mind to an animal mind!’. Putting aside the fact that we are animals, for it is not so relevant here, this sort of reaction fails to appreciate that the supposed differences between humans and other animals (e.g., capacity to think using abstract concepts and engage in social contracts) are differences which exist between humans as well. That is, there are many humans who do not have the foregoing capacities; and yet, who seriously thinks, ‘How can we compare ‘normal’ humans with these humans!’. It is therefore not obscene to compare the suffering of nonhuman animals to that of humans, any more than it is to compare the suffering of humans without specific capacities to that of humans with those capacities. To insist that merely belonging to a certain species makes an individual more or less valuable than another is plain speciesism, and is as irrational as any other form of discrimination.

A Few Words on Logical Consistency

It is a fundamental aspect of reasoning, yet one which is not always appreciated, that beliefs have implications. That is, virtually any belief we hold will have logical consequences not explicitly stated in it. For example, if I believe that dogs matter morally because they can experience pain, I thereby imply that other beings who are similarly capable of feeling pain also matter morally; and hence, I imply that cows, for instance, matter morally. While I have not stated the latter explicitly, I have very clearly implied it.

There are many arguments against veganism which are simply incompatible, and ignore the role of implications. For example, most people who set themselves against veganism admit that cruelty to other animals is wrong. They then tell us that eating other animals is, nevertheless, acceptable. Why? This is because, according to them, it is natural to eat other animals. The problem with this line of thinking is fairly obvious. If being natural is enough to justify some practice, there is no reason why cruelty and violence toward other animals cannot be similarly justified. After all, there is absolutely nothing unnatural about being violent toward others. So then what is wrong with cruelty? In this way, their own assertion about cruelty invalidates the reasoning used to defend the consumption of other animals.

Again, there are those who say cruelty to other animals is wrong, but then declare morality to be completely subjective and groundless! That this is self-refuting is too obvious to need an explanation. If people more often thought through the implications of their views before they expressed them, how much more worthwhile and profitable would our discussions be!