Sunday, July 12, 2015

Veganism is Ethics in Action

Striking at the Root

I've seen a few people on social networking sites post this recent article by Ginny Messina, aka The Vegan RD. It's called "Preventing Ex-Vegans: The Power of Ethics" and stresses the importance of raising the issue of ethics -- the moral reasons we should not participate in animal exploitation -- when talking to others about veganism. Basically, Messina points out what has seemed to me over the years to be obvious. Unless we strike at the root and address speciesism and make our animal advocacy about the animals, other humans are less likely to take animals seriously enough to leave them alone in a meaningful and permanent way. If one was to skim over the article and was already convinced that talking about ethics is key when talking to non-vegans about what we owe other animals, the takeaway from the article could very well be that Messina reiterates this.

Whatchoo Eating?

Messina points out how using health or dietary arguments can fail. So many welfarist groups concern themselves with health-related arguments, stressing that a shift in diet will lead to improved health and appearance -- to weight-loss and to a sort of untouchable state of being where mosquitoes will never again gnaw on you and you'll never again experience the sniffles and will forever safeguard yourself against cancer and any number of chronic diseases. It only takes one experience refuting any of such claims, whether from an ordinary lapse in someone's immune system to stave off a bad seasonal flu, the failure to become sylphlike or a symptom of something more insidious perhaps passed down thanks to genetics, exposure or previous habits to leave someone rejecting such arguments. Worse is when vegans who actually do get sick (as humans are wont to do) are singled out as having gotten sick because, of course, they've been deprived of proper nourishment and of the magical benefits of consuming various parts of another sentient being's decaying body or secretions. Worst is when vegans start shaming other vegans for not being glowing-skinned exemplars of perfect health or for not being of a weight deemed ideal by mainstream society.

Veganism = Vegan Diets = Vegetarianism?
It's problematic to me that Messina uses the terms "vegetarian" and "vegan" interchangeably and that she seems to equate eating a plant-based diet to being vegan. The term "vegetarian" involves the likelihood of continued involvement in animal exploitation, so it seems weird to talk about how to motivate people to remain either vegetarian or vegan with a focus on ethics being key. Plant-based eating or following a so-called "vegan diet" also involves animal exploitation in other areas. The thing is that the animals who are exploited and/or killed don't care whether or not they end up in our bellies. Vegans realize that it's not that animals and their secretions are eaten that's the issue, but that animals are exploited and treated as things in the first place. Veganism isn't just a diet. So when Messina writes that "[o]ne of the reasons people abandon vegan diets is that they lose faith in its benefits" she's right in the sense that people's interest in fad diets waxes and wanes according to results and expectations, especially if those expectations rest upon claims which are "far-fetched". But it's when she equates following a plant-based diet to being vegan -- i.e. to losing one's interest in a plant-based diet as potentially leading one to become a purported "ex-vegan" that the article becomes a bit problematic for me. She writes that "health" arguments may motivate people to go "vegan", but the truth is that all health-based arguments do is motivate people to change what they put into their mouths, mostly. Vegans reject participation in animal exploitation. A health-based argument may lead someone to eschew -- to some extent or other -- eating animals and their secretions, but it won't convince anyone to stop buying leather shoes, wearing beeswax lip-balm, taking the kids to a petting zoo or to not buy a purebred puppy from a professional breeder.

Messina states that "the problem of ex-vegans and ex-vegetarians is a serious one". Honestly, I'm perfectly alright with ex-vegetarians and don't see them as a problem at all. I'd love vegetarians to become ex-vegetarians and to choose, instead, to reject their participation in animal use and to go vegan. There is absolutely no ethical difference between someone's eating and otherwise using other animals on all levels (e.g. your average non-vegan), someone's partially limiting the animal products they put in their bellies and otherwise continuing to use other animal products (i.e. your average vegetarian), or someone's completely limiting the animal products they put in their bellies and otherwise continuing to use other animal products (i.e. your average plant-based diet follower). They're all speciesist. They all involve complicity in the continued victimization of other sentient beings for humans' pleasure and convenience. So, yes, Messina is right that there needs to be a focus on the ethical arguments to not use those other sentient beings. Except that you can't really use ethical arguments in any sort of clear, consistent and unequivocal way to bring about permanent change to how humans view others in terms of their being ours to use when you lump in deliberate exploiters with vegans.

In her concluding paragraph, which seems to deliver the clear message that ethics should drive vegan advocacy, Messina unfortunately again focuses on variations of animal use, talking about "vegan and vegetarian diets'. Yeah, ethics is important. But so is figuring out where we should be consistent and unequivocal. It's stilly to talk about ethics when promoting a so-called "vegan diet" and even more so when talking about a "vegetarian diet". I mean, if you're going to talk about ethics, how on earth can you talk about propping up what are, honestly, choices which allow for animal exploitation? If Messina wants to deliver a message concerning how to get people to both go and stay "vegan", then it really confuses the issue when she focuses on diet or says "vegan or vegetarian" without explicitly emphasizing that what we need to accomplish in talking about ethics is educating folks that using animals at all, whether we're eating them or their secretions or otherwise contributing to their exploitation, is wrong.