The prolific James McWilliams recently wrote a piece about humans who use intelligence and then "potential intelligence" as criteria to assess whether it's moral to exploit others. You know the ones. Upon your bringing up the argument from marginal cases in response to their trying to assure you that they only eat "dumb things", they'll sometimes veer off in a slightly different direction to justify their continued use of others. They'll insist that regardless of being a toddler or in a coma that a human still has the "potential" to be more intelligent. McWilliams deals with the veering with ease, both bringing up that one could argue against this line of reasoning when discussing someone with Alzheimer's, for instance, whose potential in this sense -- at least in terms of being a rational agent -- isn't assured. Beyond this, McWilliams writes:
Potential hardly ensures the achievement of it. I have the potential to be the President of the United States, but this doesn’t mean that I should now be granted security detail and access to Air Force One. My potential to reside in the Oval Office, much less learn calculus, by no means ensures its fulfillment. In this sense, a potential right to something is, in effect, not a right at all.He's right, of course that it's a failed stretch to try to hinge another's moral worth or value to us on that other's potential.
On Other Potentials
McWilliams also brings up in passing in his article that he views all non-vegans as potential vegans. It's not an uncommon assertion for those engaged in vegan advocacy to make. I think that in this sea of speciesism, most of us would like to cross our fingers and believe that friends, family and other loves ones -- that neighbours, coworkers and strangers alike -- will eventually "get it" and reject the violence inherent in the exploitation of others animals. After all, we each came around. We each came to view other animals as persons with their own wants and needs existing outside of their use to us so why shouldn't others? The thing is that some of them very well may.
Off on a slight tangent (and ramble), I guess that on one level, I would like to view all non-vegans as potential vegans as well. Of course, asserting this doesn't always sit well. I've had loved ones who've overheard me mention it (or who've read something in which I've written it) who have felt that this was patronizing. In a few cases, some told me that this sort of mindset left them feeling as if their being accepted -- whether by me, or by other vegans -- felt conditional, as if they were only being welcomed in to this or that vegan's life with the expectation that they will eventually go vegan. Of course, as McWilliams argued in his aforementioned article, someone's having a potential to be something hardly assures its achievement. I bring this up because I do worry about those vegans who cling too tightly to viewing their decidedly nonvegan loved ones as "potential" vegans and who end up disappointed when things don't fall into place.
On the Mingling
I've written quite a bit about vegan-nonvegan relationships over the years. Almost three years ago, a discussion with a vegan advocate I know and respect led to his stating to me that he would no sooner go out with a speciesist than he would a racist. Considering the fact that the context of our discussion involved my own relationship at the time with a nonvegan who was adamant that, although he would happily -- and voluntarily -- avoid consuming animal products in my presence, he would never come around to recognizing that other animals have a right not to be used by us, the comparison left me feeling that my own judgment had been questioned. In a post called "Being an Abolitionist Vegan in an Omni World" I wrote the following about my reaction to the discussion:
On a plain and ordinary level, I've always found myself agreeing with others that racism=sexism=speciesism. However, the association made concerning this person for whom I'd come to care didn't sit well, especially where I felt myself being judged for having allowed myself to accept this person regardless of his speciesism. I'd felt I'd been deemed inconsistent--a bad abolitionist.
So why the disconnect? I felt like a hypocrite. But then I didn't. I have an omnivorous mother. I have an omnivorous sister and two omnivorous nephews. I've explained to them my reasons for going vegan and those reasons have bounced off of them. Should I feel shame for continuing to love them or continuing to associate with them? Is the onus somehow on me to keep pressing them to change, however uninterested they've seemed thus far? Where does one draw the line with regards to one's obligation to educate others about veganism? Particularly when it comes to your personal relationships? And what of the aftermath? What if you fail? Do you "tsk-tsk" and walk away? Or do you acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of humans--whether strangers or loved ones--don't view nonhuman animals as anything other than things to be used? Does compartmentalizing this make you a bad abolitionist? Does it make you a hypocrite? Does it make you a realist?As I soon discovered, I was far from the only vegan with these questions weighing on her. The truth is that, with very few exceptions, most of us weave our lives around nonvegans around us. We do this on various emotional levels and in the end, it really is up to each of us how far we wish to take it. We're each left examining our own boundaries and sussing out how to sort out out our perhaps conflicting emotions and to hammer out a rationale with which we can be happy.
I won't revisit the whole "should or shouldn't" debate that some occasionally try to rekindle concerning whether vegans should (or shouldn't!) seek out romantic relationships with nonvegans. It's not my place to make up someone else's mind about who she welcomes into her life. Even less so do I have any business admonishing or even chiding another over the whole affair of how she goes about falling in love. What I have done in the past, though -- what I will continue to do -- is to take issue with those animal advocates who do shame others in the vegan community for how they set their own boundaries, whether or not the setting involves opting to involve themselves with nonvegans. Dealing with others is often the hardest part of being vegan and I think it's complicated enough for vegans to navigate an overwhelmingly nonvegan world without having to deal with antagonism from fellow-vegans on a matter which already weighs heavily on our hearts and minds.
Where Factoring in Potential Can Become Problematic
You've heard it before: "I won't be there to hold your hand if she doesn't go vegan!" Tantamount to a heads-up to an impending I-told-you-so, this sort of statement is made every so often by advocates chiding others for their romantic involvement with nonvegans when those others end up trying to defend their decision or choice to be with a nonvegan. Now, you'd think that it would be the threat of withholding support that might get my attention when such a thing is uttered. In fact, what troubles me more is what invariably leads to such a statement's being made in the first place.
"He really likes animals. I know that if I give him a few books to read, he'll come around."The translation? "S/he has the potential to go vegan, so I just need to cross my fingers and wait for it to happen." But as James McWilliams points out in that somewhat different context in the article mentioned at the beginning of this post, "[p]otential hardly ensures the achievement of it. I have the potential to be the President of the United States, but this doesn’t mean that I should now be granted security detail and access to Air Force One". I bring this up because, as I mentioned above, I do worry about vegans who do choose to involve themselves with nonvegans and who -- whether they're fully aware of it or not -- do so with strings.
"She's already a vegetarian; after enough time with me, I'm sure that she'll see that consuming dairy and eggs and other animal products is no different from consuming meat."
"He's really involved in social justice issues; I just need to open his eyes to justice issues involving nonhumans, as well."
"If she eventually loves me enough, she'll go vegan for me."
What? Is she saying that it's wrong for me to hope that my new boyfriend might become vegan?
The answer to this is a jumbled yes and no. You see, as mentioned earlier, I'd certainly like to believe in the possibility that many of the nonvegans around me could one day go vegan. Someone in whom you sense and see moral concern for other animals and whom you think may very well follow through with the moral impulse to act upon this concern would surely benefit from receiving that additional information and hearing those sound ethical arguments. But what if this doesn't pan out and you'd hinged everything upon it? Then what?
Isn't it incredibly problematic to walk into any relationship keeping your eye on an ideal? Does it honestly make sense to choose to be with someone with the expectation that this someone will one day, hopefully sooner than later, be significantly different in both outlook and action? Think about it for a second and also think about it outside of the context of animal use. Can you really expect to fall in love -- truly, madly and deeply in love -- with someone you expect someone to be, rather than with the someone that individual already is? Is it fair to you or to that individual to have some sort of unspoken condition tucked in-between the lines from the very beginning?
Hope as an Obstacle
Here's the thing: Hope should never be an obstacle to your own self-awareness, nor should it ever be a replacement for effective communication. The bottom line is that vegans who choose to swoon alongside nonvegans have two clear options: One is to come to terms with the fact that the relationship into which you wish to enter with a nonvegan could very well end up being a relationship which will always be with a nonvegan. The other is to be honest with yourself about what you think you can -- or can't -- live with and to pile your expectations excruciatingly clearly on the table early on. This doesn't mean that change won't or can't happen, but it's a good earnest and authentic starting point in terms of keeping things as uncomplicated as they can be. Is it any sort of guarantee that things will remain uncomplicated? Of course not! We're talking about relationships, after all. If you truly cannot come to terms with the first option, though, and then don't feel "comfortable" following through with the second option -- to lay it all out on the table for discussion early on, I can guarantee you a whole heap of complications. And you know what? Those complications aren't just in terms of juggling a vegan-nonvegan romance, but involve problems reflecting a lack of the sort of basic communication needed to juggle any sort of relationship at all. Think about it.