Imagine that you are talking with a group of people who are classic car enthusiasts and who drive just for the pleasure of driving and not for any particular purpose. In fact, these people believe that driving classic cars for pleasure is an important tradition; a crucial part of their culture and every day, they get into their cars and drive just because they enjoy it so much and regard it as integral to who they are.
If you were try to argue to such a group of people that it is morally wrong to use their cars to drive to a physician’s office for a medical examination or test, or to drive an injured family member to the emergency room, they would most certainly think that your position made no sense. After all, they think it’s acceptable to drive purely for pleasure. Indeed, driving for pleasure is an important aspect of their lives. Why would they accept that driving for an important reason is a bad thing when they think that driving just for the pleasure of driving is a good thing?
Imagine a second scenario. Instead of trying to persuade this group of people that driving for an important medical reason is wrong, you maintain that driving for pleasure to a particular destination, which is no different than any other destination, is wrong. Again, the group of pleasure drivers would find your position to be bizarre because it is entirely arbitrary. Why is driving for pleasure to one place any different from driving to another place? And if they were to accept that driving to some arbitrarily chosen destination was wrong, that would leave open whether driving for pleasure as a general matter was wrong. Their treasured activity would be threatened.
This simple hypothetical helps us to understand the moral, logical, and psychological reasons why veganism must be the baseline of the animal rights movement and why single-issue campaigns make no sense whatsoever.
Eating Animals: Suffering and Death for Palate Pleasure
Most people eat animal flesh and animal products. No one maintains that we need to eat these products for optimal health; on the contrary; mainstream medical people are, with increasing frequency, arguing that animal products are detrimental to human health. But whether or not animal foods are detrimental, they certainly are not necessary. Even the conservative American Dietetic Association acknowledges this:
It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life-cycle including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence and for athletes.
And we know that that animal agriculture is an ecological disaster.
The only justification we have for imposing terrible suffering (under the most “humane” conditions) and death on 56 billion land animals and an unknown but probably equally staggering number of fish and other aquatic animals, is that they taste good. We engage in this mind-boggling slaughter of animals for reasons of pleasure, amusement and convenience. Consuming animals for no good reason is an important part of the daily life of most people. In fact, many people regard this completely unnecessary infliction of horrendous suffering and death as an important tradition; something that is integral to our supposed “human exceptionalism.”
Now imagine taking the position that the use of animals in biomedical experiments is wrong. As I have argued, there are serious questions concerning the necessity of vivisection as an empirical matter and there is no moral justification for vivisection. But the public overwhelmingly believes that vivisection is important for human health.
Why would people who think that it is acceptable to impose suffering and death on animals for reasons of pleasure think that there is anything morally wrong with using animals for a purpose that they actually think (wrongly in my view) is necessary and beneficial? Why would people who are willing to line their arteries with animal fat because they like the taste of animal foods be unwilling to support killing more animals because they think (again, wrongly in my view) that the additional deaths will result in a cure for their health problems?
The answer is clear: they won’t. They can’t.
Arguing to people who eat animal products that vivisection is morally wrong is like arguing to classic car enthusiasts that driving for an important reason is morally wrong. These enthusiasts think that driving for the trivial reason of pleasure is just fine. Why would they think there’s something wrong with driving to a doctor’s office for a medical examination or to the emergency room? And if they were to accept that driving for an important reason was wrong, their treasured activity would be in serious jeopardy as a general matter.
This is why, despite 200 years of campaigning against vivisection, the practice not only continues but the number of animals used in biomedical experiments is actually increasing.
Other Single-Issue Campaigns
Now consider non-vivisection single-issue campaigns, such as campaigns against particular sorts of sport hunting, or campaigns against the use of wild animals in circuses, or the campaign against fur. These campaigns are analogous to arbitrarily selecting a destination and telling our classic car enthusiasts that driving to that location is wrong or worse than driving to another destination. They think it’s fine to drive for pleasure so why would they think that driving to an arbitrarily selected destination is wrong?
Again, they wouldn’t. They couldn’t.
Similarly, those who consume animal products think it’s morally acceptable to impose suffering and death on animals for palate pleasure and they participate in this animal use every day, several times a day. Why would they think that hunting is wrong when they go to the supermarket and buy products made from animals who have suffered every bit as much, if not more, than animals who are hunted? Why would they think that using animals for other trivial reasons is morally unacceptable? They eat animals for pleasure. And they go to zoos and to horse races; why would they think that wild animals in a circus presents any particular problem? They wear wool and leather, both of which account for tremendous amounts of animal suffering. Why would they have a particular problem with fur?
This is why despite decades of single-issue campaigning against hunting, the “sport” persists; this is why the longest-running single issue campaign in the history of animal advocacy–the anti-fur campaign–has been a complete failure. Although such campaigns may generate some interest, the reality is that as they must ultimately fail in a culture that regards the consumption of animals as food to be acceptable.
As long as we live in a culture that does not question the use of animals for food–again, not just the treatment of animals but the use of animals–people are never going to generally embrace single-issue campaigns in any widespread way. Most people will see these campaigns as arbitrary. Most people will recognize that the animal uses that are the subject of single issue campaigns are no worse than the uses that they regard as acceptable. And they are willing to engage in unnecessary animal exploitation everyday of their lives; why would they they have any problem with another animal use that is also unnecessary?
I was talking with someone recently who was involved with a campaign against hunting in a particular park. He withdrew from the campaign and explained to me that he decided that what the hunters were doing was really no different from what he was doing in buying and eating meat from his local supermarket and since he certainly was not about to give that up, he couldn’t see the logic in opposing hunting.
And, of course, he was right. Hunting is a dreadful activity and it is very disturbing that anyone actually enjoys killing a deer or a rabbit. But what is the difference between eating animals who are hunted and those whose corpses are purchased at the store? The answer: there is no difference. Indeed, the animal whose corpse was purchased at the store may have actually had a worse life and death–even if that animal was a “happy” animal raised on a “happy” farm and slaughtered at an abattoir designed by Temple Grandin–than the animal who was hunted.
I was talking with another person who had, for years, been involved in the campaign to stop the clubbing of seals. She withdrew from that campaign because she decided that there really was no difference between seal fur and the fur, wool, or skin of any other animal and since she wasn’t going to give up all animal clothing, the seal campaign was really just based on the fact that animal groups could cash in on the fact that seals were adorably cute and that really was not a good basis for a moral position.
And, of course, she was right. Seal fur is no different from any other sort of fur and fur is no different from wool or leather. It’s all terrible and we should not wear any animal clothing. It’s simply not necessary. But then, neither is eating flesh, dairy, eggs, etc. And as long as we think that eating animals is acceptable, questioning other unnecessary uses, or characterizing one sort of use as worse than another use, will appear to be arbitrary because it is arbitrary.
In 2007, I wrote a newspaper editorial, which was republished in 2009, arguing that Michael Vick’s dog fighting was, as a moral matter, no different from our consuming animal products. I have received literally thousands of responses to that editorial. Many people agree with my position; many people have said that the editorial provoked them into thinking about veganism; many have said that they have become vegans after thinking about my argument. But no one–no one–who disagreed with my position has been able to articulate why what Vick did was any worse than what the rest of us do. That is because there is no coherent way to distinguish what Vick did from what everyone else does.
In 2009, when Vick came out of prison and signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, I spoke with a man who said to me that although he was a big Eagles fan and would continue to go to their games, he could never enjoy watching Vick play because of the dog fighting issue. I asked him whether he ate hot dogs and hamburgers when he attended football games. He said “yes.” I pointed out to him that the animals used to make the products he enjoyed had worse lives and deaths than did Vick’s dogs.
He did not have an answer. That’s because there is no answer.
The bottom line is clear: unless and until we get people to question and reject their daily and wholly unnecessary consumption of animals, we will have no success in getting them to oppose in any serious ways animal uses that they regard as necessary or non-trivial, such as vivisection, or other unnecessary uses that they quite correctly view as arbitrarily chosen by animal advocates and no worse than the uses that they themselves support and engage in every day of their lives.
Veganism must be the baseline if we are to have any hope of shifting the paradigm away from animals as things and toward animals as nonhuman persons.