There are several people who’s podcasts I admire and listen to regularly ( I even bung them a few quid via Patreon every now and then and so should you)
One of them is Stephen Knight, the Godless Spellchecker. On his latest podcast he “talks to Dr. Melanie Joy about ‘Carnism’. We cover the environmental and psychological impact of animal slaughter, the vegan movement, synthetic meat, myths about nutrition and much, much more!” it was fascinating and I urge you to listen to it. It raised lots of thoughts and questions in my mind, and one big doubt. So here we go.
When you look at the definition at the top of the page it’s hard to see why anyone could be anything other than vegan. After all who is in favour of exploitation and cruelty? And yet most of us stubbornly remain meat eaters.
Melanie Joy thinks it is because of a whole ideological belief system which she calls “carnism”. I don’t really buy that meat-eating is an ideology but she makes some very valid points about how so many of us continue to eat meat and wear leather while claiming to be caring, compassionate and even animal lovers.
Along the way Melanie & Stephen effectively deal with some of the myths and stories us carnivores tell ourselves. Among them are what Melanie called the three “N”s IE. It is Nutritious, Natural, and Necessary to include meat in a balanced diet
[Edit 02/10/2017] On re-reading I think I mis-remembered and mis-represented the three N’s. They weren’t Nutritious, Natural and Necessary but Normal, Natural, and Necessary. I have re-written the next three paragraphs
Normal: I think this is a weak part of Melanie’s argument she seems to think that people only treat meat-eating as normal because they are insulated from the brutal realities of what she calls an “atrocity” by the hidden ideology of carnism. In our society the brutal realities of the slaughterhouse are hidden away but this is a relatively new development and there are many societies where this isn’t so yet people still eat meat. On the other hand there are also many societies where vegetarianism is “normal”. My argument would be much simpler. Anything that 90% + of people do is, by definition, normal but, as with naturalness below. There are many “normal”s, and normal doesn’t equal good
Natural: I though they were less convincing here. All the evidence suggests that humans have always been opportunist feeders and have happily tucked into meat when it was available. I think that makes meat eating “natural”. I think they did hit this particular nail on the head later though, when they noted that natural isn’t necessarily good. Civilisation consists in no small part in resisting the urge to do what is “natural”
Necessary: This hinges on whether meat is required for a healthy, nutritious diet. It is perfectly possible to have a healthy fully nutritious vegetarian diet. Veganism requires a bit more care but can still be perfectly nutritious. The existence of many thousands of happy, healthy vegans demonstrates this.
The argument that meat-eating is bad for the environment is also pretty convincing. In pure energy, terms getting your calories from vegetables is much much more efficient than passing those vegetables through other animals first. It’s not quite as simple as that but the environmental case for at the very least reducing our meat consumption is pretty sound.
So having disposed of myths that veganism is unhealthy and shown that at least reducing our meat consumption is good for the environment we turn to the ethical issues.
I don’t think anyone can claim realistically that our methods of animal farming and slaughter are anything to be proud of. I think they could, and should, be dramatically improved but, in this discussion, that isn’t really the question is it. The question is does switching to veganism reduce or eliminate the suffering of farm animals?
The argument that “If we all became vegans overnight all those animals would be slaughtered immediately” was quickly dismissed in the podcast as a ridiculous hypothetical but I think that misses the point. whether it is overnight, in ten years, or in a hundred years, the endpoint is the same. and that endpoint is not farm animals that don’t suffer, it is the non-existence of farm animals. This is my big problem – the idea that veganism is a good thing for the animals as well as for the humans.
Farm animals are not pets, they are there to make money. If there is no money to be made they won’t be there. You could argue that their non-existence is in some ethical way “better” that their continued existence and continued suffering. I think that is a reasonable argument, I’m not sure I would support it but it is supportable.
During the podcast Melanie occasionally used our changing attitude to slavery as an analogy for our, hopefully, changing attitude to animal exploitation and suffering. Now calm down please don’t do the whole “how dare you compare X with Y” melt-down. She was using a perfectly reasonable analogy about changing attitudes. She wasn’t “comparing” farming to slavery – and neither am I. I am, however, going to extend the analogy though so, again, please don’t go into melt-down – it’s an analogy.
The elimination of slavery was unequivocally a good thing both for the slaves and the slave owners, but would it still have been a good thing if it had meant the genocide of the slaves themselves? In the end the ex-slave owners would be better people there would be less suffering in the world.
I suppose what my question boils down to is
The elimination of “exploitation and cruelty to animals” may well be good for humans but can it be considered good for the animals if it leads to their non-existence.
Comments welcomed – especially from Stephen and/or Melanie
The Godless Spellchecker podcast: EP#101 – DR. MELANIE JOY – CARNISM
Melanie Joys book: “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, And Wear Cows”
Beyond Carnism: https://www.carnism.org/
The Vegan Society: https://www.vegansociety.com/
[Edit / second thoughts about Veganism 03/10/2017]
Thanks to every who has commented. You have all made good points and I think they have helped me sharpen my thinking on this issue. I will try to summarise my thoughts now.
- Veganism is a rational, practical, safe, and healthy way of living that is a reasonable response to our “industrial” treatment of animals which entails much unnecessary suffering
- There are significant health & environmental benefits to a significant reduction in meat-eating.
However . . . .
- It would be possible, though expensive, to eliminate most of the animal suffering involved in livestock farming. The lives of farm animals could be made “better” than the lives of most wild animals in the “natural world”.
- I think my initial thought that Veganism is really for the benefit of humans is correct. Veganism does aim to reduce or eliminate the total amount of animal suffering, but only by reducing or eliminating the total number of animals.
- While many vegans/vegetarians are well aware that the aim of their actions is the elimination of farm animals I still have a feeling that many others think that their action will improve the living conditions of farm animals – which it wont. I don’t think they are consciously aware that they are signing up to the extinction of sheep, cows, pigs, hens, horses etc. See this from the Vegan Society’s web site
- I think the vegan ideology has a blind-spot when it comes the realities of life for wild animals and only really see the suffering caused by humans. They seem to have a rather romantic view of “the natural world” and think that the suffering of wild animals is somehow less painful than that of farm animals. See this from the Vegan Society’s web site
I think whether you consider the aims of veganism/vegetarianism to be morally right or wrong hinges on how you would answer this philosophical question
- Is non-existence preferable to suffering?
- To which the obvious answer is
- That depends on how bad the suffering is
This question actually crops up more than you would expect. Obviously, in questions of euthanasia, suicide, and assisted dying but also when you have to decide if it is time to put-down your old dog or cat and even in the justification for certain types of abortion.
So, no definitive answers but I’ve learned a lot about the question.
Thanks for all your comments – keep them coming if you want to.