Veganism, and "so long as we accept violence in any form, we accept violence in every form"

As I've talked about elsewhere on this blog, pretty much everyone is taught how to systematically value some people's equal needs more highly than those of others. By the time we're adults, this ability, and the moral logic that undergirds it are deeply rooted, though people obviously differ in how broadly they apply it, from radical egalitarian to arch-reactionary. As a result, only very few of us manage to ignore the distractions we are taught to focus on, and embody the kind of inclusiveness, egalitarianism and solidarity that, abstractly, we know is appropriate (and required). The question I want to talk about a little bit here, is how it is that we convince ourselves to believe such things about our fellow sentient beings, and argue that we should reconsider our behavior, both for the animals we harm, and because it's just inherently problematic to allow ourselves to devalue others, human or no.

As Marshall Rosenberg has explained, one of the most dangerous notions is that of anyone 'deserving' anything -- either because they have (or lack) certain characteristics, or because we (dis)like their behavior or beliefs. Very often, when we tell ourselves that someone 'deserves' something, what we mean is 'we are comfortable with the fact some benefit or harm came to them', even as others will look at the same outcome, and reach the opposite conclusion. Now, this fact is usually taken to suggest that we are insufficiently rigorous in applying the word. Following Marshall (who follows Kaufmann), I would take the opposite route, and point out that since there is no way of stopping people from making these subjective judgments, what we need instead is to become aware of the fact that this word doesn't mean anything, and that the real issue is that we basically blind ourselves to the incoherence of this thought -- and often to violence -- when we apply it. Because when we say 'someone doesn't deserve X', what we're saying is that we think that some people's (materially equal) needs* do not 'merit' equal treatment, or that we think someone doesn't 'deserve' to be included in the moral sphere we open the door to discrimination and (institutionalized) violence.** This can range from prejudicially focusing on or ignoring others' requests, to marginalizing and segregating people, to outright use of force against those who are devalued or marginalized, up to and including via imprisonment, enslavement and death.*** (Or, of course, vice versa: privileging the needs of some over those of others.)

Let's consider the most extreme case of this, namely how even the most considerate and gentle people talk about and treat those we deem the least of us, namely the other animals. Even though just about everyone who's ever seen or interacted with another animal knows that they also experience and value their own lives, enjoy freedom and play, and will do just about anything to stay alive, at the same time nonvegans consider it completely unobjectionable to use and kill other animals for food, clothing and entertainment (and any other purpose we come up with). And why? Because we've been taught to dismiss the harms we inflict on the basis of the 'fact' that the victims are 'just' animals; and because we 'can't know' that animals suffer and dislike it when we harm them; or because animals supposedly 'don't mind being used and killed' so long as they 'don't see it coming' and 'don't' suffer 'too much' (in our -- human owner's -- estimation). All of these statements presuppose, then build on the differences we identify and then stare at.

Needless to say, I believe the above to be a complete distraction, because circular. Other animals certainly experience their lives differently than we do, have different body shapes and skills, and most nonhumans indeed cannot reflect on their needs in the way most adult humans can. But what matters is not how they experience and value their lives, bodies and surroundings, but that they do so, and that they have the same basic needs (to live, play, rest, etc.). As such, I'd say that anyone who embraces egalitarianism or nonviolence, or who recognizes the similarity in how we devalue equal needs by distracting ourselves by how those needs are experienced, should stop using and harming other animals, go vegan, and start to unlearn to use the blinders we've been taught to wear, that make us dismiss the experience of those 'below' us as irrelevant, and that encourage us to see some as 'lesser' by focusing not on the similarities but on the differences. Because until we stop applying the meritocratic logic in all of its forms, we're highly likely to relapse into chauvinism.

To further explore the question why we should stop treating the other animals as property, I'd highly recommend watching the embedded video, and reading Francione and Charlton's Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach. They've developed the most lucid and powerful case for equal consideration of equal needs that I know of; and their six principles have greatly helped me in clarifying my thinking about moral issues, and my commitment to egalitarianism.

Other works I'd recommend on this topic are Eat Like You Care and Advocate for Animals, and Sherry Colb's Mind if I Order the Cheeseburger? (these works are especially useful if you want to engage in vegan advocacy). Francione's other academic works, especially Animals as Persons, and Introduction to Animal Rights, Gary Steiner's Animals and the Moral Community. 

David Nibert's Animal Oppression and Human Violence, and Bob Torres's Making a Killing are both very helpful in helping me understand more about the institutional aspects of animal use, and the ties between animals and human exploitation and devaluation.

For practical information about how to live without using animals, I'd recommend having a look at this or this page. This book contains a lot of useful information about how to live healthily. And as always, please feel free to ask any questions, provide feedback, and so on. :)


* Those equal needs include food, shelter, security, autonomy, play, rest; "comfort food", "apartments", or "beds" are devices with which you can meet those needs, but aren't needs themselves.

** If we want to allow for the use of (institutional) violence at all, it should be used only as a last resort, and not as our go-to response, as it is currently being treated (due to our having next to no faith in others good intentions).

*** Of course, I'm not arguing the use of force can never be justified, or that every request must be honored. I simply wish to point out the role that character judgments play in our own behavior, especially when it comes to 'justifying' not just those beliefs about superiority and inferiority, but also that it's legitimate to use violence, and to treat the claims and needs of those who you value less as mattering less than our own.

Permalink - Category: lecture - Group: Introductory Essays - Tags: veganism, egalitarianism, education

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