Today I read and commented on a post on James McWilliams’ blog about the issue of sentience in insects. James urges us to take the possibility of sentience in insects seriously and consider what implications this could have on the vegan position of non violence to sentient beings. I agree. One commentator prompted me to think and respond more than the others. Here is our exchange:
“If vegans have to consider the lives of insects as much as they consider the lives of mammals, why is it better to kill insects (and other small animals) to protect food we’ve grown than to kill wild animals to make them food? If insects and other animals need to be equally considered, this would be like saying it’s okay to kill rabbits to stop them from eating our cabbage (since we need to eat to survive, and cabbage provides nutrition), but not okay to kill rabbits in order to eat them (even though rabbits too provide nutrition). What’s the difference? Both killing animals to protect crops and killing animals to eat them are examples of killing in order to feed ourselves — which we need to do to survive.”
Your questions suggest that vegans must be held to an impossible standard of doing no harm. This is a reductionist way of framing the issue that ignores the principle of “most good – least harm” that I think is central to veganism. (1) It also ignores the importance of intention. If I grow crops that I need to survive and use fencing as a humane way to keep out rabbits rather than killing them, that would be a solution based on the principle of Ahimsa. If, on the other hand, I hunt and kill rabbits when I have other options from plant foods for meeting my nutritional needs, then I would be violating this principle.
In the end, vegans require less acreage to cultivate the food they eat which means less resources being used (less water, land and pesticides) and none wasted on feeding domesticated animals which in turn minimizes — not eliminates — the harm we do to wildlife, insects included. Eating a vegan diet is a practical application of the principle of most good – least harm that we can practice every time we sit down to eat.
(1) Zoe Weil, Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life, Atria Books/Beyond Words (January 6, 2009)