The Chronicle Review

Vegans and the Quest for Purity

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July 04, 2010

In the 1970s, first in an article in The New York Review of Books, and then in Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, the philosopher Peter Singer seeded the dark clouds of the debate over human versus animal consciousness and the morality of eating meat. Singer wrote his book, he said in the revised second edition in 1990, "for all of you who have changed your lives in order to bring Animal Liberation closer." Singer does not call himself a vegan, that is, a person who goes beyond mere vegetarianism to eschewing any and all products derived from animals. But more and more people do, and precipitation from the debate continues to this day in scholarly circles and beyond.

Since Singer's 1973 shot heard round the world, environmental and Darwinian sciences have become two of the leading intellectual formulations of 21st-century culture. Organic growing of vegetables and animals and Darwin-inspired evolutionary biology and neuroscience have produced conflicting thoughts about the killing and eating of animals. Although restaurants increasingly have vegetarian sections on their menus, the philosophic issue—whether all consciousness, human and animal, is equal—has hardly been resolved. And Singer himself, in the persona of the protagonist of a short story he wrote in a 1999 response to J.M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals, concluded: "The value that is lost when something is emptied depends on what was there when it was full, and there is more to human existence than there is to bat existence," a reference to the philosopher Thomas Nagel's famous article on the inaccessible subjectivity of any consciousness other than our own.

In "Animal, Vegetable, Miserable," an op-ed piece in The New York Times last fall, Gary Steiner, a philosophy professor at Bucknell University, made a miserably weak case for living the life of a vegan. He criticized meat-eaters as "a self-righteous bunch" and pilloried those who satisfy their consciences by abstaining from consuming all but humanely raised animals for fooling themselves. Our uses of animals, Steiner wrote, are "so institutionalized, so normalized, in our society that it is difficult to find the critical distance needed to see them as the horrors that they are: so many forms of subjection, servitude and—in the case of killing animals for human consumption and other purposes—outright murder."

Steiner provided samples of everyday products derived from animals, but a "complete" list would extend far beyond gelatin, leather shoes, and Band-Aids, into infinity. Reading the insightful letters that the Times ran in reply, I was struck more by what was missing in this controversy than what was actually said. The unspoken concept behind the debate over vegans is "biocentrism."

Nobody, including the sainted Aldo Leopold (for all his stellar virtues as a conservationist) can even in theory turn out to be anything other than an anthropocentrist. We care about the planet because we are made from its materials. The planet, c'est moi! That deludes some people into thinking they can be disinterestedly "biocentric," having the interests of the planet (and nonhuman animals) as much at heart as those of human beings. But because the so-called environment is the same substance as ourselves, our concern for it is just a disguised case of looking out for No. 1. Biocentrism is little more than a type of self-congratulating anthropocentrism. If we all perished from global warming, the planet would continue to exist quite well without us. But not vice versa.

Our survival came about through evolution, a process of drastic environmental changes in which periods of vast destruction eradicated most complex life forms. When life started again from the survivors in the new ecosystem, those most attuned ("adapted" is the word) to the new environment produced offspring that could survive. Those survivors could themselves be victimized by other predatory survivors in the struggle for resources in changing ecosystems. Refined as some of our moral sensibilities may now be, there's nothing we can do to outwit this fact: To be alive is to be a murderer. Or to be murdered.

Our own pet-loving tenderness for cats and dogs is not very different from the "anthropocentric" nurturing of animals in zoos that animal-rights activists revile as disrespectful of the rest of the creation. And since I have never met a cat that ate butternut squash or tomatoes, even the cats of vegetarians and vegans need to eat meat and fish (unless one can justify cruel deprivation as a form of moral consideration). Many people's respect for creation is very selective indeed, an example of what used to be called the Bambi Syndrome. Only animals beautiful and large enough to be registered by the senses of Homo sapiens figure in their tender concern. E.O. Wilson some time ago alerted us to the millions of microscopic life forms found in a square inch of earth he cut from a rainforest. Life is everywhere. I squash millions of micro-organisms with each step and wash down the drain unnoticed multitudes with each shower. Brushing my teeth kills innumerable bacteria (it's them or my gums!). With every swallow, I destroy some of the bacteria in my gut that keep me alive by helping to digest my food. But even larger creatures like cockroaches and rats, do they enter into the purview of animal-rights activists? And the HIV virus, the swine flu, tuberculosis? Do I want to eschew antibiotics and vaccines that help my life out of respect for theirs?

The grandstanding of vegans for carefully selected life forms, to serve their own sensitivities—through their meat- and dairy-free diets, their avoidance of leather and other animal products—doesn't produce much besides a sense of their own virtue. As they make their footprint smaller and smaller, will they soon be walking on their toes like ballet dancers? And if so, what is the step after that? Pure spirit (a euphemism for bodily death)? If our existence is the problem—which it is—then only nonexistence can cure it. The supreme biocentric act is not to discover yet one more animal product to abstain from. The supreme biocentric act is dying, returning the finite matter and energy you have appropriated for yourself and giving them back to the creatures you stole them from. And what makes them so pure? Are they shedding tears as they tear you and each other apart? The real "crime" is existence, not being or using animals.

My own diet is very high in plants and low in meat, and my carbon footprint is very small indeed, but mainly out of concern for my own health and the planet that keeps us alive. Beyond that, I'm an admirer of J.M. Coetzee, Michael Pollan, and Singer, and I well approve of their revulsion at the brutal treatment of animals raised for our consumption. I think vegetarianism is admirable. I would recommend it. Unlike vegans, who are enlisted in an open-ended but futile metaphysic of virtue and self-blamelessness that pretends to escape from the conditions of life itself, vegetarians have more limited goals and have marked out a manageable territory with fewer cosmic pretensions. They are concerned about their health. Or they don't want animals to be raised expressly to be tortured and killed—especially in factory farms and slaughterhouses—for their dinner plates. Or they don't want to ingest the dead bodies of fairly complex creatures, which is apt to make them feel queasy. No doubt they would prefer all animals (whatever that might include) to be treated humanely, but they are not prepared to stop wearing leather shoes or eating Jell-O. At least vegetarianism—though it can't resolve the moral dilemma of the savagery of our lives—is more or less possible in both theory and practice.

Veganism, while perhaps harmless enough, especially if you don't care about being part of society or alienating potential friends who may find you more trouble than you're worth, fails on both counts. Furthermore, there are critics who explain that farming vegetables involves the killing of huge numbers of animals with plows, pesticides, and herbicides. And anyone who has grown a large home vegetable garden knows what raccoons, possums, rabbits, mice, birds, and deer can do to the veggies. Without a war on animals, there would be no vegetables for the vegans.

Behind their beliefs is the hopeless longing for innocence. Except that there is no innocence. However delicate our moral sensibilities, it still remains that to be alive is to be a murderer. Tiptoeing through the tulips (we might be killing the bees inside) won't solve the problem. And since we are carnivores ("omnivores," if that makes you feel better) from the moment of conception, we emerge from the womb already "guilty." Even if our parents eschewed meat, to have been born at all we must have been eating our mother during gestation, and after birth we need her milk, which is just another dairy product from animals.

We're compromised from the start. Evolution favored meat-eating primates, enlarging their brains and enabling them to live in more and more complex and survivalist societies that today extend our life spans, provide genteel habitats, and produce philosophers who have the wherewithal to object to the very components of their own existence. Death is the only form of purification. Alive, we have no choice but to accept our complicity, because life is a product of death. Do as much as you can to minimize the damage, because the "environment" is us. But as long as we are among the living, we should stop pretending to virtues possible only for the dead.

Harold Fromm is a visiting scholar in English at the University of Arizona. He is author of The Nature of Being Human: From Environmentalism to Consciousness (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009) and co-editor, with Cheryll Glotfelty, of The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology (University Press of Georgia, 1996).