Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Speciesism of So-Called 'Ethical Eating'

"But It's Better Than Nothing."

Never has a sentence left me scratching my head in confusion as much as this one, which is oft-repeated by these recent trend-hoppers who omit one or a half-dozen items from their diets and insist: "It's better than nothing!" and go on to proclaim themselves 'conscientious consumers'. These are the same folks who will list off any number of reasons they simply "cannot" be expected to do more. Take, for instance, foodie writer Alicia-Azania Jarvis and her recent article in the UK's The Independent ("My year of eating ethically") in which she goes to great lengths to a) justify the moral "sufficiency" of her decision to continue to consume animal products, although readily admitting that she is aware of the suffering this consumption entails, b) insist that taking any sort of ethical stance when it comes to the consumption of non-humans or their products inconveniences other humans and leaves you perpetually socially embarrassing yourself, and c) make it clear that omitting any animal flesh from your diet at all will lead to serious nutritional deficiencies. Surely, wringing one's fingers while trying to make strong arguments against not eating animals is not "better than nothing" for those animals?

Is Hypocrisy "Better Than Nothing"?

While alternating between calling herself a vegetarian and a pescetarian (as well as a pesc
atarian), Jarvis makes it clear in her article that she feels that although there is really no justification for eating fish, she... er... has justification to do so.

The ethics of vegetarianism are far from straightforward – particularly for a hypocritical pescatarian like myself. There's no doubt that if your motivations are animal welfare-related, there's little defence: fish, as people endlessly remind me, have feelings too.

My first strand of reasoning is that it's a matter of degree. You do what you can; pescetarianism is an extension of buying all-organic or free-range-only. It's better than nothing. It's a convenient argument, but also one that I actually believe.

I suppose that one could easily agree that pescetarianism is indeed "an extension of buying all organic or free-range only" (assuming that by "organic", she is referring to animal flesh). After all, eating one species of animal is no different from eating another species. Taking an animal's life for the sake of human pleasure, whether that animal spent most of his or her life in a lake, in the ocean, in a stall or in a field is still taking a life for the sake of human pleasure. I suspect, however, that what Jarvis is trying to say is that consuming non-humans raised according to organic or free-range "standards" (i.e. "happy meat") is somehow more ethical than consuming non-humans who are not, and that consuming fish is more akin to consuming the flesh of "happy" slaughtered animals. Use is use, though, however you qualify it.

Although once upon a time I might have taken issue with a foodie's lumping in the eating of animals (i.e. fish) with vegetarianism, I think that in many ways, the time has come to shrug off that inclusion, since there is no moral distinction between eating animal secretions such as dairy and eggs and eating the flesh of others -- whether or not they spend their lives underwater. Basically, if I'm going to nitpick, I'm not going to waste my time trying to argue over the semantics of a word (i.e. "vegetarianism") that in most of its incarnations is essentially no morally different in describing one's consumption from the word "omnivore". As Jarvis, herself, points out:

[E]ating fish but not meat is no more hypocritical than eating neither but continuing to consume eggs and mass-produced milk.
She's right about that. However, does calling yourself a hypocrite really absolve you of the the problematic nature -- the inherent dishonesty -- of hypocrisy? I mean, it may show that you're not completely self-delusional (although even that's arguable), but is there really anything respectable about admitting that you're too self-important to care that you unapologetically indulge in behaviour that involves doing something you acknowledge knowing is morally problematic? Something you know involves harming other sentient creatures? People often say that ignorance is bliss; when did admitting that you know you're doing harm suddenly become worthy of earning the respect of others? When did people become convinced that admitting you've done something wrong changes that what you're doing is wrong? It doesn't.

The fallback position assumed by most who are called on this is to say that "it's better than nothing". In Jarvis' case, she dismisses the harms imposed on non-human animals with her admitted hypocritical consumption of their flesh and secretions by saying to those who make choices like hers: "[A]t least you're doing your bit for the planet."

On Martyrdom

I want to make a few things clear. First: There is no shame in taking a stand and refusing to participate in animal exploitation. Some, like the unfortunately misnamed Vegan Outreach's Matt Ball might try to convince you that authentically going vegan and actually being consistent about your everyday choices makes veganism seem too hard. Worse, you'll embarrass yourself in front of those who refuse to acknowledge the interests non-human animals have in not being used as things. Jarvis, essentially an omnivore who chooses not to eat the flesh of certain species of animals, steps forward as the spokesperson for the "social nightmare" (her words) of being either vegetarian or vegan:

Become a vegetarian, or pescetarian, or – in fact, especially – become a vegan and suddenly you find yourself Socially Awkward. As far as I was concerned, making some kind of public announcement (aside from via the informal channels of Facebook or Twitter) was not an option. It was too self-important by half and horribly embarrassing.

Obviously, though, you need to let people know – if at no other time then at least when they invite you for dinner. In the case of long-standing friends, it can all feel a bit ridiculous. "By the way," you nonchalantly add, while mentally running through all the times you have served them meat, "I'm a vegetarian these days. Um, you can un-invite me if you like." I did, once, neglect to do this.

The result was my only carnivorous divergence so far. At least I think it was; in the event, I decided it was best not to ask what else was in the suspiciously-bacon-y fishcakes my friend served.

So basically, according to Jarvis, it is (OMG!!!) embarrassing for people to evolve and to incorporate changes into their lives that both make them better people, and that make a difference for non-human animals? Furthermore, if you do end up with something on your plate that belonged to someone you've purportedly decided to refrain from eating, just turn a blind eye to it all and carve away? And yes, according to Jarvis, fish are plants and don't count as a "carnivorous divergence", but that's straying from my point...

Let's be Honest

We live in a society where there is a fair bit of familiarity with the concept of not eating animal products for ethical reasons. It's a bit melodramatic to present making it clear to family and friends that you've set boundaries for yourself with regards to your consumption habits as being akin to self-humiliation. I mean, we also live in a society where it's become commonplace for people to assert their food requirements with respect to their allergies and various intolerances (think peanuts, lactose, gluten -- those sorts of things). Those who cannot eat certain food items are not made to feel shame when asserting that they cannot eat those items. Why should someone be made to feel ashamed when asserting that he or she chooses to not eat those items? In Jarvis' case, I can see where there would be much confusion and much eye-rolling, since she identifies herself as both a vegetarian and an omnivore. I'd personally be feeling heaps of social awkwardness if I were Jarvis' friend and on the receiving end of this contradictory information and had to respond to her. But of course, self-flagellation and self-identification as a hypocrite somehow take care of this for Jarvis:

Fingers crossed, meanwhile, that no one finds out you eat fish. Not only have you become the difficult one at the party; the one that caused the chef all that trouble and then tried to convert the guests, but you're a hypocrite. The only solution here, I'm afraid, is full-on retaliation (see above defence of my ethical stance). Hopefully, by the time you've finished, conversation will be have been killed so thoroughly that no one will bother to argue. Or invite you out ever again. In a way, problem solved.

Maybe Jarvis could benefit from reading my blog post from this past February about how effective communication is actually how to avoid social blunders?

Shame, Shame!

Unfortunately, it's not just the fish-eating faux-vegetarians trying to lump themselves into some big ol' "animal people" family with vegans who seem bent on perpetuating the stereotype that talking to others about not using animals is socially unacceptable proselytizing. I can understand how completely emotionally twisted up inside someone like Jarvis must be; she uses animals while pretending to be making choices significantly different from any omnivore's and does so while publicly labeling herself a hypocrite. How could she not want to rip those who talk to people about not using animals a new one? She wears her speciesism like a badge of honour. What's sad, though, is when other vegans perpetuate stereotypes and try to shame their fellow-vegans into staying "in the closet".

Vegan Speciesism

I think that there needs to be acknowledgment and discussion of the fact that many of us, as vegans, are still dealing with our own speciesism. While comfortable on our own turf with our decisions not to participate in the cycle of animal exploitation, some of us are still uncertain of how--or if--that should extend outside of our own bubbles.

"It's a personal choice."

"I don't want to get laughed at."

"But I once used animals, so who am I to judge?"

The truth is that if someone at a social event asks you about your veganism, you're not left to "face the horrifyingly anti-social prospect of wittering on like some sanctimonious evangelist" -- you're answering a question. I find that sometimes the best thing to do while participating in a meal and when asked about being vegan is to keep my answers short and to the point and to suggest elaborating after the meal if the person asking is interested. It's not so much that (as Jarvis brings up) I would be afraid to put someone "off their food", but rather that people are generally less defensive hearing about why I choose to not use animals when they're not slicing into various animal parts at the time.

Let me say it again:
There is no shame in taking a stand with regards to refusing to participate in animal exploitation. There is also no shame in communicating to others why it is that you refuse to participate in animal exploitation, or in talking to them about what it means to be a vegan. Given the misinformation that gets passed around by people, like Jarvis' fearmongering about nutritional deficiencies in the rest of her article (even though she consumes most animal products aside from the flesh of land mammals!) and her wishy-washiness concerning "compassionately-informed omnivorism" versus veganism, shouldn't someone be talking to non-vegans about not using other animals? Ideally someone who actually doesn't use animals?

If you won't, then who will?


Meg said...

Right on!

I'm so sick of hearing the "it's better than nothing". The problem with "nothing" is that it's not nothing -- it's unnecessarily exploiting animals, inflicting suffering for pleasure. That is NOT nothing. Trying to dress up giving up a little bit less of exploitation as some sort of huge ethical stance is like saying that people are saints if they only kill a few people occasionally and not all the time because, well, they could do worse.

And I am thoroughly saddened by what people tell themselves and others they "can't" do. I know there is more that I could be doing, too, but let's at least try to be honest and say "won't" instead of "can't", especially when we're talking about passing up grandma's cake or putting honey in your tea or cream in your coffee. We're not talking rocket science or martyrdom here, so let's keep things in perspective!

As far popularity, well, I'd rather do the right thing than be popular. I made that choice a long time ago growing up in an often very racist, sexist, homophobic, and generally intolerant area. But what I've been fortunate to find out is that you can do the right thing and still have friends -- and much better friends than the ones you leave behind.

Danielle Savoy said...

Another great post.

UrbanCritter said...

Good post. I feel as a vegan that it's my responsibility to joyfully, and without embarrasment, represent the educated and ethical stand. When people ask me why I chose this path, I tell them I reached a point where I was uncomfortable with my own hypocrisy and that I couldn't honestly say I love animals as I continued to tacitly support their exploitation. I leave it at that and if they want to discuss further, I'm happy to. If not, I remain a standing reminder of their own cognitive dissonance. I try not to take the bait when people make the inevitable bacon jabs, although I will ask them to respect my (religion - it underscores how important this is for me). I also make a point of cooking AWESOME vegan meals for friends who come over :-)

LiveVegan said...

Great post Mylene

Vanilla Rose said...

I wrote to "The Independent". I also updated my blog post on barbecued cupcakes to quote her re the vegan potential love interest. Not the first time I have mentioned this blog in my blog, although most of my posts aren't about other people's blogs.

Joy Clendening said...

I recently went vegetarian and I continue to cook with eggs and milk. For me it was a transition. I started buying local free range eggs and organic milk from a local dairy. I could no longer eat scrambled eggs for breakfast but making some cookies was a different matter. Now I have started meddling in vegan baking. I plan on becoming a full fledged vegan but was trying to not overwhelm myself so much that I would just freak out and walk in to Burger King and order a whopper or something. I feel like taking the journey in stages instead of just a full on cannon ball has helped a lot. I had to learn how to cook without meat. Then I needed to learn how to nake without dairy. I know that eating dairy is jsut as bas eating chicken or beef and that is why I am working my way towards being a vegan. I applaud you all who are already where I hope to be soon. I love reading your blogs it just helps instill in me that what I am doing is the right thing. You might not think much of me because I still eat cheese but know that I am on my way. I haven't purchased eggs or milk in well over a month and feel very good about the choices I am making.

Mylène Ouellet said...

You might not think much of me because I still eat cheese but know that I am on my way.

Joy, I applaud you for taking steps towards going vegan. I know that it can take some time to adjust. I didn't go vegan overnight and suspect that very many others didn't, either. Good luck with everything and if you ever have any questions, please don't hesitate to drop me a line at m.of.the.maritimes at I'd love to help, however I can.

Cortney said...

I just think that since no diet will ever be perfect, we can chase each other down rabbit holes of "how could this be *more* vegan/more perfect/inflict less suffering" all day long. Tires are not vegan, most magazines are coated in gelatin-like substances, when I buy vegan food from restaurants or grocery stores that sell meat, I'm supporting an institution that sells meat...when I buy my local, organic produce it is fertilized with manure from cows who are probably going to be slaughtered. Bees are just as exploited by using them to pollinate our crops as they are by using them for their honey, and the list goes on of how we could ALL be shamed for not doing "better"...

I applaud anyone's efforts to do better. If this woman only eats fish, that is millions of times better than the average meat three times a day person. She is being shamed for not giving up her pleasure of eating fish, but haven't we all, as veg*ns, had the unfortunate conversations where we were shamed because of all the reasons I mentioned above? Where someone scoffed and mentioned ways in which we were "hypocrites" because we weren't perfect? Honestly I wish we would cut one another some slack and support the changes we make. I'm tired of vegans treating vegetarians like shit. I'm tired of vegans and vegetarians looking down their noses at someone who eats meat maybe once or twice a week. Some people are never going to be vegan, or even vegetarian, but if they cut substantially down on meat, if they are at least buying from local, organic farms and not CAFO's, that *is*, most definitely, in my mind, better than nothing. My personal motto is not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The bottom line is that she is most definitely cutting down on her impact, and substantially reducing the suffering she causes others. If the litmus test of a true "ethical eater" is someone who has removed themselves from causing suffering, then none of us can claim such a title.

Mylène Ouellet said...

Cortney wrote: I just think that since no diet will ever be perfect, we can chase each other down rabbit holes of "how could this be *more* vegan/more perfect/inflict less suffering" all day long.

Cortney, veganism isn't a "diet". It's a commitment to rejecting the exploitation of non-human animals. It's not about perfection. It's not a contest. To the animals who are either used or not used, however, it's a matter of life or death.

You list off a number of things to (I think?) try to prove that not exploiting animals is impossible, but some of the things you list off are mostly unavoidable in day to day living. For instance, you mention that vegans buy food from stores that sell animal products. Well, aside from the fact that I encourage everybody (including my fellow vegans) to grow as much of their own food as they can if they can, what would you propose that people do? Not eat? That's ridiculous, right? There are those who are fortunate enough to be able to afford to buy most of their food and goods from online vegan retailers, of course, but the bottom line is that almost all grocery stores sell animal products. There are things that are unavoidable. Eating fish, as the writer of this piece chooses to do, is not unavoidable. You're suggesting that there's no significant moral distinction between buying animal-free food in a store that sells animal products and buying and consuming animal products themselves and quite honestly, that's unreasonable.

Other things you listed off like magazines are completely avoidable. Most magazines such as you describe are available online, anyway. You do what you can to avoid animal use where it is avoidable, is all.

I applaud anyone's efforts to do better. If this woman only eats fish, that is millions of times better than the average meat three times a day person. She is being shamed for not giving up her pleasure of eating fish.

So if instead of beating his kid seven days a week, your neighbour told you that he only beat his kid two days a week, would you applaud his so-called efforts, as well? If I told him that it's wrong for him to not stop beating his kid for pleasure, would you accuse me of "shaming" him and disapprove of this so-called "shaming", as well? Would you say to me that "every little bit counts"?

I believe that animal exploitation is wrong. I believe that all sentient animals--human or non-human--aren't ours to use as things. I live my life in such a way that wherever I can avoid to be involved in exploitation, I do so. As an abolitionist vegan, I want to change people's minds about speciesism to work towards a world where non-human animals are no longer enslaved, are no longer viewed as human property. I think that we owe this to them. You are suggesting to me that it's too demanding to ask of others that they take the rights and interests of non-human animals seriously and stop using where it is avoidable for them to do so. You are suggesting that asking them to do so is "treating them like shit" and are insisting right off the bat that there are some who will "never" be vegan.

Mylène Ouellet said...


What I am sussing out from this is that you you believe that there is more harm in asking someone to stop using animals than there is in their harming them in the first place. The sad thing is that in an overwhelmingly speciesist society such as ours, this mindset is the norm.

I am guessing that you are possibly vegan (or at least a strict vegetarian) from your food blog. Consider that there are over 53 billion land animals raised for slaughter in the world every year--53 billion. Who will speak out for their rights and interests if not those who choose not to exploit them?

You're suggesting that the onus is on vegans to applaud others' animal use rather than be unequivocal in educating others about not using the non-human animals who can't speak for themselves--the billions killed every year for human pleasure.

If vegans won't speak up for them, who will? Please think about that as you shame other vegans for attempting to educate their fellow human beings about the immorality of deliberately choosing to participate in this cycle of exploitation. Please think about this as you tell other vegans that they're wrong to not applaud others for continuing to deliberately use and consume non-human animals.

Mylène Ouellet said...

An essay by Tim Gier that's well worth reading:

Cortney said...


I am aware of what veganism is about, and I am aware that it is not just a diet, my apologies for the poor and thoughtless word choice. My point is that I know many, many people who have been completely turned off by the methods employed by many vegans or AR activists. And I believe a lot of this is due to the "it's not good enough unless you're vegan" mindset. While I agree that I'd rather people, at the very least, not eat meat, and hopefully not eat other animal products, there is, undeniably, a positive impact just from reducing one's intake or meat or other animal products. But vegans seem unable to admit that there is ANY positive in this act. Most seem to treat the once a week meat eater with the same disdain as the three times a day meat eater. Or the vegetarian just "doesn't get it" or is being "hypocritical". I've thought those things *myself*, certainly, but if someone decreases their participation in suffering by any sizable amount I cannot deny that that is better than before. The all or none math doesn't work for me because it is simply not logical- if the consumption is intrinsically linked to the suffering, and if I've significantly reduced the consumption, I've reduced my participation in that suffering. If someone went from eating meat three times a day and cheese every day, and now they only eat cheese now and again and meat once a week, that is, logically, and unequivocally, better than what they were doing before. It's not perfect, but from my experience many changes in this area are gradual, as you yourself stated. I first gave up all meat save fish, then fish, then milk and eggs, then dairy. If someone has "only" gone vegetarian, and they are constantly being berated for not doing "enough", I just don't see how that facilitates more enlightenment on their part. In my personal experience- anecdata, I know, but it's been my experience- most of my omnivorous friends were specifically turned off to making changes to what they ate because of being badgered by "self righteous" and "judgmental" veg*ns. And I know many, many vegetarians in my life who have gotten more grief from vegans than from omnivores about what they eat.

I think all of this is on my mind because of a recent experiences I have had. My friends came up for a week and we served vegan, made from scratch food all week. No lectures, no morality stance, and I didn't say anything when we went out to eat and they ordered chicken. But at the end of that week, they were both raving about how much better they felt, and they texted me upon their return home to say "we've decided not to buy anymore meat, the only time we'll eat it is when we eat out". They eat out about 3 times a week each. I could have been disappointed that they didn't at least go full on vegetarian, or sad that they did it for health reasons instead of animal welfare reasons, but instead I saw it as a start. Another example is that after I lived with my ex-girlfriend for a month last fall, and my current boyfriend and I cooked vegan food and shared it every night, she decided that she would stop eating all meat except fish, which she eats about once a month. In both of those situations, I do believe it's "better than nothing" because they're trying, and they've made huge changes in their day to day lives. And that trying might lead to something even better.

I am most certainly not trying to undermine or dilute the primary reasons one should be vegan, but because I have personally had so many positive experiences from people making small changes, that lead to other changes, I can't help but cringe at the "all or nothing" approach. Perhaps you have had better success with such an approach than I have, but it has just never been a positive outreach tool for me. I admit that because of those bad experiences I may have an unfairly skewed negative opinion.