It is before noon on July 4 and I’ve already encountered a blue crab gutted of his/her innards by a tern, a yellow warbler separated from her head by a cat, a hawk picking sinews from a chipmunk, and a man in pink Bermuda shorts cooking what looked like a butterflied whole chicken on a gas grill the size of a Mazda. Such is the drama afforded by a long morning run on the heavily wooded Connecticut coast.
The way of the world, people might surmise, regarding this panoply of summertime violence. They would say this, in many cases, while conveniently eliding the animal-on-animal violence with the gentleman hovering over his grill like a king over his dominion. The world is red in tooth and claw, it is said. Animals kill and eat each other as a matter of course. It’s as natural as breathing, sleeping, and breeding. But yet . . .
What this elision obscures is the self evident truth that humans are the only species with the potential to conceptualize and consciously apply basic moral principles to the chaos of biological life. This is not to suggest that non-human animals cannot be altruistic or make decisions that appear to have a moral component to them. It’s simply to acknowledge the biological reality that humans are the only animals that can intentionally structure the patterns of our lives according to a basic set of self-aware moral ideals. This ability, which is generally premised on reducing unnecessary pain and suffering, happens to be the foundation of human civilization.
This distinction between human and non-human behavior is equally simple and daunting. It’s simple in that it reiterates, again, that self-evident truth that animal-on-animal violence by no means justifies human-on-animal violence, no more than animal mating or sleeping habits justify human mating or sleeping habits. It’s daunting in that it implies, if you think it through, that ethical veganism is about a lot more than just reducing intentional animal exploitation.
A lot more. As several guest bloggers and commenters have eloquently reiterated here, ethical veganism—in so far as it’s rooted in the unique ability of humans to live our lives according to collectively assumed and agreed upon principles—compels us to adjust our mentality to confront all forms of unjustifiable dominance and gratuitous exploitation. While liberating as a concept, and undoubtedly right, the idea that vegans are also required to address, through our activism, all concerns impinging on social justice can easily overwhelm the vegan who always thought veganism was easy because, you know, you just don’t eat animals and everything’s cool.
Logically extend the implications of ethical veganism into the myriad realm of social justice and you quickly find that veganism can be daunting. No longer can I think about my pink-shorted neighbor in terms of the flesh on his grill. What kinds of injustice and exploitation is obscured by this man’s clothing, his nice car, or the fancy house on the coast? Untold amounts, I’m sure. Oh yeah, and there’s me. What about my own clothes, my own house, my own car, and my own privileged existence as a professional person living more than comfortably in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world? I’ve no way of knowing the depth of my complicity in human injustice. Neither do you.
On July 4 we celebrate, in part, the Jeffersonian notion that all people were created equal. Reflect for a moment, though and you find that virtually every aspect of contemporary life in a modern capitalistic society demands some form of inequality, some level of exploitation, and some tacit acceptance of blissful ignorance. It’s a lot to get the mind around, much less act in accordance with. For now, for today, the best I can do is keep the flesh off the grill.
For more of James McWilliams’ work, please visit his Eating Plants blog.