Veganism and Postmodernism

In a world plagued by the influences of postmodernism, relativism, pluralism, and the like, we find yet another bad reason for people not to be vegan. Anyone who has advocated for other animals is familiar with the claim that morality is just a matter of opinion; and therefore, there is nothing really wrong or bad about how we exploit other animals. According to such people, good and bad are entirely made up notions.

I want to suggest something obvious, namely that good and bad are not merely constructed, made up, or arbitrary. And I should like to prove it by means of a simple, yet I think sufficient, point: Ask yourself, honestly, is there a difference between being in extreme agony and extreme comfort? Of course there is. Is the latter preferable to the former (that is, better than the former)? Clearly. How much reasoning does it take to establish this? I would suggest none at all. The badness of pain (and the good of its absence) is a fact about our psychology and the psychology of many other animals. That is, it is something we discovered about ourselves, not something we created (we had no say in the matter).

I suggest that this is all we need to ground ethical claims. Needless to say, for a full-fledged ethical system, various details need to be worked out, discussed, and argued; but the basic distinction between good and bad outcomes can be established in the way I have suggested, or so I argue. On this view, there is no gulf between psychology and ethics, at least in terms of what is good for us. Psychology informs ethics directly in this sense. As such, there is no contradiction in believing in objective moral values on a naturalistic worldview. We do not need to appeal to anything beyond our experience to ground moral values; all we need is honest engagement with facts and arguments. This is what those who routinely use relativistic arguments, however, seldom acknowledge.


A Question for the Optimist

Most people think, or at any rate, claim to think, that the world is good. They acknowledge that there are problems and even serious evils in the world, but feel that on the whole, the good nevertheless outweighs the bad. In other words, it is good that life came into being; we are lucky to be born; the world is a wonderful place; and so on. Here’s a simple thought experiment, not original incidentally, that might awaken a different point of view:

Imagine that you are in a position to choose whether to create world x or create nothing at all. Like God, you are all-knowing. You foresee that by bringing world x into existence, you will create a perfectly blissful condition for billions of individuals, with one exception: a child will be tortured by a profoundly sadistic person for ten years, and both die soon after. But otherwise, everyone in this world x will live in perfect joy and contentment. Would you bring such a world into existence?

It’s important to note that this hypothetical world is of course, better than our actual world. Thus, if we answer the above question in the negative, this would necessarily imply that our actual world is also bad enough to wish it never came into being; and I think the same sort of considerations should apply when choosing to create or not create future generations.

Do Plants Have Rights?

To answer this question, we need to first understand what the function of a right is. Consider, for example, the right to life. Why do we have this right? Well presumably because we generally want to live, that is, because we have a preference or interest in continued life. Why do we have a right not to be subjected to pain? Because we have an interest in avoiding pain. In a word, these things matter to us; we have an interest in either having or avoiding them. In this way, we can see that rights exist to protect desires and interests we have. Incidentally, the idea that rights only exist for those who can reciprocate or respect others’ rights is wholly absurd. We do not, for example, grant an infant rights because they can respect our rights; the real reason we grant an infant rights is because they possess important interests that need to be protected. The same is of course true of most other animals.

Now if we are right to believe that plants are not sentient (this appears to be the current scientific consensus), then by definition, they cannot have desires, interests, or preferences. Hence, when people say that plants want to live, what they really mean is that plants tend toward self-preservation. If a stream, for instance, flows in one direction and not the other, we do not say the stream wants to flow in that direction, but that to flow in that direction is its natural tendency; and if we could reverse the direction of the stream, we would not be harming the stream in any real sense. The stream, having no desires or preferences, also has no rights, for these rights would have no role to play in protecting important interests. I think exactly the same can be said about plants and other unconscious systems. Their physical character may be such that they tend toward this or that, but they do not, as far as we know, want or desire this or that; and hence, rights can have no meaning with respect to non-sentient life.

Nevertheless, it is important to exercise caution when making moral claims of this sort, for if the past has anything to teach us, it is that we often err and make mistakes. Accordingly, I think a very safe and judicious position on this is taken by the philosopher, Gary Steiner, who grants at least the possibility of harm to unconscious systems. Steiner’s point is that even if we allow that non-sentient life can be harmed in some way, it is still plausibly the case that there are many ways in which sentient beings can be harmed that non-sentient life cannot be, because the former are sentient, have interests, and can suffer. This is a position by which we can remain open to the possibility that plants can matter, without actually abandoning the moral distinction between conscious and unconscious entities.

Would Human Extinction Be Bad?

Many people who reject the view known as antinatalism do so on the basis of a very common assumption, namely that the extinction of human beings would be very bad. My own view, of course, is that it would be good, or strictly speaking, not bad.

As I have argued elsewhere, the view that the complete absence of humans (and other beings) would not be bad is really not as radical a position as it might seem to us initially. Consider for instance, how this absence is already true for the zillions of potential beings who were never, and will never, be conceived and born. This number, as simple analysis can demonstrate, must be vastly, if not infinitely, greater than the number of actual beings who have ever existed, or will ever exist. However, I have not met a single person who would regard the complete absence of those beings as bad. What I am suggesting is that the absence of the relatively small number of beings who might exist in the future, that their absence, would also not be bad. For it seems to me that if the absence of zillions is not bad, neither is the absence of (relatively) a very small number of beings.

There is also, I think, no sense in the claim that the absence of something, as such, can be bad; for this would require something that is not, to be something, which is absurd. Therefore, nonexistence, as such, cannot be bad. What this means is that even if life really were something good, its absence would nevertheless, not be bad. This is easy to see with other examples: the absence of something sweet is not a bitter thing; the absence of something smooth is not a rough thing; and so on. Similarly, the absence of something good is not a bad thing. To say that its absence would be bad would be to confuse the concept of absence with opposite. The opposite of heavenly experiences may be hellish experiences, but the absence of heavenly experiences is neither hellish nor bad, but nothing; hence, I should like to declare in the manner of Epicurus that, verily, extinction is nothing to us.

Does Being Vegan Make a Difference?

One objection that is never far from the minds of non-vegans is that being vegan makes no practical difference, that it is a position adopted selfishly by those who wish to feel good about themselves, and is, as such, a mere pretense of improving the situation for other animals. This objection might have some merit were it well founded.

First of all, no thinking person would maintain that a significant number of people choosing not to purchase a particular product will have no impact on its supply; and for one very simple reason, namely, it is economically irrational for an industry to continue supplying products at a capacity far beyond what is demanded by its consumers. Therefore, as a matter of course, as the demand for such products decline, so too will its supply; and this we are seeing clear indications of already.

But to respond more directly to the above criticism, which suggests that one person’s contribution cannot matter much (that is, our own), let us imagine a situation where not one, but the effort of two individuals were necessary to effect some change in the world. What would we say in this case? Well surely the fact that neither individual could have effected the change alone does not render their individual contributions insignificant. That is, it would be absurd to say that neither person’s effort mattered in this case. On the contrary, it is obvious that both mattered crucially, as both were, after all, necessary. Thus, the fact that one person’s contribution is not by itself sufficient to effect some important change, does not at all imply that it is insignificant.

Another motivation, however, for this particular objection seems to me to be some such reasoning as this: Since the number of victims in the context of other animals is of such an unprecedented magnitude, any difference we make, though real, is ultimately insignificant. For instance, one might say that preventing one individual from being born into horrific circumstances does not make much of a difference. Such a person, however, fails to recognize a very crucial fact, namely that it makes all the difference to the individual spared this miserable existence, and moreover, that the world ultimately consists of individuals. Accordingly, even if each of us individually being vegan only helped one being (and surely it helps countlessly more), we should not for a moment entertain the notion that this difference is insignificant; it is hugely significant.

How Should We Refer to Other Animals?

When referring to one’s gender, it has been customary to use either the pronoun ‘she’ or ‘he’; but a need to reexamine this has recently been exposed by those who would identify as neither. One proposal to a solution has been to use, in its place, the singular form of the words ‘they’ and ‘them’. For example, rather than saying ‘she would like to go’, we say, ‘they would like to go’.

The language we use matters, inasmuch as words differentiate objects of experience, and to this extent, shape our understanding of the world. In many cases, the result is benign; for example, consider the difference signified by the words ‘forest’ and ‘desert’. It is important to notice, however, that when we refer to one thing as a forest and another as a desert (when we distinguish them as two different kinds of things) we imply that the two have different properties, and are in fact stressing those differences.

Traditionally, we call all sentient beings, excluding humans, animals, thereby distinguishing through our everyday language, humans from ‘animals’. This tempts us, or rather allows us then, to consider the two groups as fundamentally separable, as totally distinct kinds of beings. Accordingly, we are apt to attribute to the two, distinct values and properties. This explains why many have preferred alternatives to this such as ‘nonhuman animals’, ‘other animals’, ‘sentient beings’, and so on, thereby stressing the continuity between humans and other animals, rather than the assumed gulf between them. The word ‘it’ to refer to an individual (nonhuman) animal is another obvious device used to keep humans and other animals apart. Here, as before, it is more appropriate, I think, to use ‘they’ and ‘them’. By saying ‘it’, we implicitly reduce sentient beings to things, and this only contributes to our failure to see that they, like humans, are somebodies.

Whenever we discuss the ethics of veganism, it is important to be aware of the manner in which we refer to other animals; by using more subtle expressions, we cause people to confront the similarities between humans and other animals. On the other hand, when we refer to other beings as ‘it’ or ‘animals’ (without reminding them that we too are animals), we simply reinforce the erroneous but common belief that the two are totally diverse kinds of beings.

Arguments against Non-Procreation (and Replies)

Some common objections to the view that we should not bring anyone into existence, and why I believe they’re indefensible:

Life is good: This objection is as common as it is plainly naive, for anyone who is open-eyed can see that certainly not all life is good. Indeed, if we were honest in our evaluation of life as a whole, we would all likely come to the conclusion that there is much more pain in the world than pleasure. Moreover, the intensity of pain, most will readily admit, generally, far exceeds that of pleasure. Just imagine the worst pain and the best pleasure, and I think this will be more than clear to us. In addition, there is the challenge posed by Hume in his Dialogues, namely, whether anyone would, if provided the opportunity, wish to live the past ten or twenty years of their life again in its entirety, exactly as it was. Hume suggests, and I think correctly, that few would, and this again indicates the predominance of pain over pleasure.

Antinatalism is a pessimistic doctrine: Some seem to think that characterizing a position as pessimistic is to defeat that position, which is of course, absurd. Suppose I were to point out that torturing billions of sentient beings for no good reason is evil, and someone objects that this is a highly pessimistic view of farming, and that we shouldn’t be so concerned about it. Would any thinking person take this objection seriously? There is a difference between simply being pessimistic (i.e., seeking the negative in all things), and being realistic, or seeing things as they are.

Antinatalism is antihuman and nihilistic: Both of these claims are false. First of all, antinatalism is pro-human, inasmuch as its primary concern is with the suffering of humans (and other sentient beings). To be against the needless suffering and misery of future humans is not to be antihuman; on the contrary, it is to be deeply concerned about their suffering, and is the view that we ought to prevent more future harm done to them. The second claim that the position is nihilistic is also false, to the extent that by nihilistic, we mean the denial of any sort of value. Antinatalism is, in this sense, not nihilistic at all, for it bases itself on the recognition that suffering is undesirable.

We must face the tragedies of life. Not doing so is cowardly: This argument is often used to condemn suicide, and now we often see it used to justify procreation. In both cases, this type of assertion is vacuous, and should be dismissed as such. Essentially, the claim is this: Avoiding pain is cowardly, and therefore wrong. Now if this argument succeeds without exception, we should also be against any type of anaesthetic (just to give an obvious example). When a patient asks for anaesthetics, are they acting cowardly? When we choose to alleviate some deep emotional pain with medication, do we act cowardly? And if we do not impose this suffering on another by bringing them into existence, we are acting cowardly? If this is true, every single effort we have made to mitigate unnecessary harm and suffering in the world is an act of cowardice! Are we expected to take such ludicrous notions seriously? Such tactics as these clearly indicate want of arguments. It is really analogous to one saying, ‘Veganism is unmanly!’ or some similarly empty remark, as though they have thereby proven something; in truth, they have demonstrated only their ineptitude.

‘But I am grateful for having been born.’: Some people are admittedly more lucky than others. But one thing we know is that many people on this planet are not grateful for life, as is apparent from the number of suicides annually, and even more attempts of it. Accordingly, it seems to me palpably irresponsible to take the risk of bringing someone into a world of potential evils, on the assumption that their life will be more or less like theirs. There is no guarantee that the child will not be subjected to unacceptable pains and torments (both physically and emotionally); and when there is no harm in not existing, there is clearly (and fortunately) no need to take this risk.

By allowing the human race to die out, we are foreclosing all future (human) happiness: This is true; but it must be remembered at what cost we purchase this happiness. As I’ve already indicated, life can, and usually does, contain immense suffering. We pretty much know that in each generation, there will be some who will suffer unacceptably. By continuing to reproduce, we are essentially pursuing the happiness of future people at the cost of imposing terrible evils on some significant number of people, and I suggest that this is plainly unethical. All the happiness in the world cannot compensate for one individual subjected to some torture. If this is so, clearly no amount of happiness is worth all the suffering that will be imposed on future generations. One way to see this is to look over the past few centuries. Was the happiness contained in those years worth the sufferings? Was it worth all the genocides, all the individual instances of depression, terror, rape, kidnap, torture, enslavement, and the countless other kinds of violence and injustice? (Not to even mention the vast misery and agony we’ve inflicted on the other animals.) Was it worth it? In other words, if we could choose to replay the past centuries, should we? For my part, I think the question practically answers itself; and we have very good reason to believe that future centuries will be equally, if not more, horrific.


Incidentally, it should be noted that this list could, with some inessential modifications, just as easily have been called, arguments against non-harm; for to remove a being (metaphorically) out of the harmless state of nonexistence to the harmful state of existence directly violates the principle of non-harm and nonviolence.

For a recent and interesting defense of non-procreation, one might wisely begin with Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.