The New Inquiry published an article I wrote about whether it’s possible to be an ex-vegan.
The United States House of Representatives recently passed an abortion bill that does not bode well for the future of meat eating in this country. It’s called “The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” (H.R. 1797), and it would ban abortion after 20 weeks, based on the theory that fetuses might feel pain at that point in their development. A number of states have passed similar laws already, including Texas as of yesterday. Despite concerning only humans, these bills and laws have implications for animal rights because their proponents are using the same argument against abortion that many vegans use against meat.
Vegans who are motivated by ethical concerns object to eating animals in part because the animals are sentient. Animals feel pain and pleasure, and want to live, in contrast to plants, which apparently do not. There’s more to sentience than a capacity to feel pain — the standard proof of this are the humans who are born with congenital insensitivity to pain — but many vegans focus on pain since it seems to be the worst part of being an animal raised for food, although boredom and frustration are up there too. Richard Ryder, the writer who coined the term “speciesism,” grounds his defense of animal interests in their capacity to feel pain, and talks about “painience” rather than sentience:
All animal species can suffer pain and distress. Animals scream and writhe like us; their nervous systems are similar and contain the same biochemicals that we know are associated with the experience of pain in ourselves.
Our concern for the pain and distress of others should be extended to any “painient” - pain-feeling - being regardless of his or her sex, class, race, religion, nationality or species. Indeed, if aliens from outer space turn out to be painient, or if we ever manufacture machines who are painient, then we must widen the moral circle to include them. Painience is the only convincing basis for attributing rights or, indeed, interests to others.
“The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” and all its state equivalents mesh perfectly with this painist philosophy.
According to every informal online survey I’ve seen, most vegans are pro-choice. And of course most pro-lifers are meat eaters, since vegetarians are the minority. Yet pro-life legislators are sounding a lot like pain-averse vegans as they seek to ban abortions at the alleged moment of fetal sentience. The following comparison of “The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” and an article on PETA.org called “Fish Feel Pain,” illustrates some of the parallels:
H.R. 1797: “Pain receptors (nociceptors) are present throughout the unborn child’s entire body and nerves link these receptors to the brain’s thalamus and subcortical plate by no later than 20 weeks after fertilization.”
PETA: “Researchers have created a detailed map of more than 20 pain receptors, or ‘nociceptors,’ in fish’s mouths and heads—including those very areas where an angler’s barbed hook would penetrate a fish’s flesh.”
H.R. 1797: “By 8 weeks after fertilization, the unborn child reacts to touch. After 20 weeks, the unborn child reacts to stimuli that would be recognized as painful if applied to an adult human, for example, by recoiling.”
PETA: “For example, when [researchers] exposed fish to irritating chemicals, the animals behaved as any of us might: They lost their appetite, their gills beat faster, and they rubbed the affected area against the side of the tank.”
H.R. 1797: “In the unborn child, application of such painful stimuli is associated with significant increases in stress hormones known as the stress response.”
PETA: “Researcher William Tavolga, for example, found that fish grunt when they receive an electric shock … Dr. Culum Brown of Macquarie University explained that the stress that fish experience when they are pulled from the water into an environment in which they cannot breathe is ‘exactly the same as a person drowning.’”
H.R. 1797: “[R]ecent medical research and analysis, especially since 2007, provides strong evidence for the conclusion that a functioning cortex is not necessary to experience pain. … Substantial evidence indicates that structures used for pain processing in early development differ from those of adults, using different neural elements available at specific times during development, such as the subcortical plate, to fulfill the role of pain processing.”
PETA: “Even though fish don’t have the same brain structures that humans do—fish do not have a neocortex, for example—Dr. Ian Duncan reminds us that we ‘have to look at behaviour and physiology,’ not just anatomy. ‘It’s possible for a brain to evolve in different ways,’ he says. ‘That’s what is happening in the fish line. It’s evolved in some other ways in [other] parts of the brain to receive pain.’”
H.R. 1797: “It is the purpose of the Congress to assert a compelling governmental interest in protecting the lives of unborn children from the stage at which substantial medical evidence indicates that they are capable of feeling pain.”
PETA: “And Dr. Lynne Sneddon, who led a groundbreaking two-year study by scientists at Edinburgh University and the Roslin Institute in the U.K. proving that fish do feel pain, stated, ‘Really, it’s kind of a moral question. Is your angling more important than the pain to the fish?’”
Of course non-vegan pro-lifers will say the difference is that they’re protecting humans, instead of dumb slimy fish. But if we take these bills at face value, that distinction doesn’t make sense. Fetuses are no less human before they reach the 20-week mark – the only difference these bills posit is the alleged capacity for pain. So instead of banning abortions after 20 weeks because fetuses might be able to experience pain, why not just require that after 20 weeks, doctors use anaesthesia on the fetuses before aborting them? This would be the equivalent of knocking out animals before slaughtering them. If that alternative would somehow be missing the point, because the point isn’t that abortion is painful for the fetus, then why are these bills so focused on the capacity for a fetus to feel pain?
Perhaps what many pro-lifers might say at this point is that this bill is a political compromise, and really they wish to outlaw all abortion because human life (well, “innocent” human life) is precious. This would raise problems of a different sort: if all human life is precious even starting at conception – despite the zygotes having no awareness whatsoever – then shouldn’t we all be having the maximum number of babies that we possibly can?
But then, I suppose a few pro-lifers might agree with that.
Regardless of the endgame, by focusing on the capacity for pain, pro-life lawmakers are setting a precedent that strengthens the case for animal rights. Fetuses who can experience pain do not have most of the qualities associated with human rights. They are not self-aware, they don’t have friends or family members who truly know them and care about them as individuals, and they don’t have a conscious interest in living.
Admittedly, they do have potential for these things, as Jordan Sekulow and Matthew Clark point out in their Washington Post article, “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act: One baby step for humanity.” They wrote: “This bipartisan bill will prevent the unborn from experiencing the excruciating pain of abortion and having their lives cut far short of their potential, the ultimate assault on human rights and human dignity.”
Now of course their pain point is specious – nonhuman animals experience pain too, and doctors can anesthetize fetuses before aborting them. But what about all that potential? Okay, except nonhuman animals have the potential to grow up and enjoy life too, as the PETA article “Steer Chooses 5-Lane Traffic Over Slaughter" explains:
What a lesson in betrayal: This steer may have grew up being groomed, fed, cared for, and made to feel safe, and then suddenly his life was cut short―sold off to the highest bidder. As this steer proves, animals raised for food don’t want to die—given half a chance, they will fight for their lives until the very end.
Meat-eating pro-lifers could retort that humans have more complicated and interesting lives than animals do, so human fetal potential is more worth protecting than, say, bovine potential. But this logic would permit the abortion of humans who will have significant mental impairments, and that’s an exception that these bills and laws don’t grant.
Besides, this bill’s consideration is for fetuses at this particular 20-week stage of development. It’s not concerned with fetal future potential to experience life, since that would require the abolition of all abortion, given that fetuses at all stages have that potential. At 20 weeks, fetuses are less sentient, less rational, less self-aware, less able to fend for themselves and less attached to life than pigs are. Yes, they’re also human, but that was true even at conception. The focus in this bill is on the capacity for pain, which most nonhuman animals have too. The text of “The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” and its various state equivalents is clear: once you can experience pain, you deserve to be protected.
And if that’s true, we had better stop eating meat.
Note: Peter Young emailed me to correct a couple of my points. I added his corrections at the end.
The main page of the hot new website that dedicates itself to listing the names and locations of ex-vegans — along with chiding, snarky commentaries on why they stopped being vegan — now redirects to the Alec Baldwin-narrated PETA video “Meet Your Meat.” This happened the day after I emailed animal liberator Peter Young to ask if he created the site.
A couple of days ago, Nathan Porter and Melissa McEwen tweeted at each other about how Peter Young was probably behind Exvegans.com:
Peter Young doesn’t have the patience to wait for a vegan world. He is a vegan who advocates liberating animals now, through direct action. He spent two years in prison for the crime of freeing minks from fur farms. One of the sad realities of devoting your life to animal liberation is that animals do not have the ability to return the favor; it would have been awesome if some of those freed minks had come together to bust Young out of prison.
Young is still involved with the vegan straight-edge scene. If he’s the person behind Exvegans.com, that might explain why there are so many ex-vegan straight-edgers named and shamed on the site.
Young has excoriated ex-vegans in the past, although only once that I know of. He was working for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office when he quoted himself bashing Vegetarian Myth author Lierre Keith in their press release confusingly titled, “Animal Holocaust Denier, Author Lierre Keith Pied at Conference Speech of anti-vegan antagonist shut down by masked pie throwers in San Francisco”:
Peter Young, a NAALPO press advisor wrote immediately after the attack: “Predictably, the choir of opposition to this action so far is a collection of vegan regressors, ‘rewild’ fetishists / weekend-warrior primitivists, and those who hide behind an ‘anything goes’ nouveau-anarchist critique – all of which breed the culture of degeneracy and hedonistic caveman role-playing that give Lierre Keith her only audience. A disrupted speech is trivial in comparison to the billions of deaths this woman promotes, but yesterday’s resistance to this death-merchant will undoubtedly give Keith some (vegan) ‘food for thought’ while she travels the country, promoting the consumption of animals.”
I emailed Peter Young yesterday. It was short:
The response I was hoping for was something like this: “Yes, Rhys, and I’m more than happy to answer any additional questions you have about it.” Instead, not long after I emailed him, Exvegans.com became password protected. Today I looked at it again and saw that it was no longer password protected, and instead redirects to “Meet Your Meat.” However, that’s only if you go to the main page. The individual pages still work if you visit them separately. Here, for instance, is the entry with my name on it, which erroneously puts me in Washington, DC and confuses me for ex-vegan butcher Andrew Plotsky:
Exvegans.com sure hates fake me! Nice hair, though.
To be honest, I kind of enjoyed the site. I didn’t like that it was mean, sloppy and threatening, but it could have functioned (however inadvertently) as an ex-vegan networking tool. If Peter Young is indeed the creator of Exvegans.com, I can only hope that he’ll become an ex-vegan one day and will resurrect Exvegans.com as the ex-vegan fun zone it was always meant to be.
Update — Peter Young emailed me to correct a couple of points:
There is no relationship between your email (which I just received) and the URL redirect. The article I posted covers the motive behind this.
It’s not accurate to say that I created or launched the site (the article also covers this). My role was mostly a conceptual and strategic one. Content was not my doing.
Although we disagree on some fundamental things, I’ll say your coverage was by far less hostile and tantrum-ish than any coverage the site received in the vegan sphere during its brief existence.
When English carpenter Donald Watson defected from The Vegetarian Society to co-found The Vegan Society in 1944, he was rebelling against vegetarians’ refusal to disavow the consumption of dairy and eggs — foods that Watson and the newly coined “vegans” claimed were just as inextricable from cruelty and animal exploitation as meat. In their first issue of “The Vegan News,” they made no reference to the conflict between humans and wild animals over habitat, and why would they have? They wanted to end animal agriculture and hunting, and the obvious means to that end was for everyone to stop consuming all animal products. They weren’t making grand claims about respecting the rights and interests of all animals; the word “speciesism” hadn’t been coined yet. Veganism was simply a consumption pattern with a particular goal, and you either shared that goal or you didn’t. (Most of course didn’t.) But unless you thought that animals were in fact plants, or that humans desperately needed bovine milk as adults or they would instantly die, there wasn’t that much to argue about.
Starting in the 1970s, veganism got philosophical and intellectual, and there has been plenty to argue about ever since. If you don’t already feel the sort of compassion for animals that inspires you to give up cheese, there are plenty of vegan philosophers who’d like to logically argue you into that compassion. But since an emotion or even an ethical position is not the sort of thing that can be proven objectively correct, vegan philosophers often rest much of their case on logical consistency. That’s true to some extent of Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka, the authors of Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights. In their first chapter defending the basics of animals rights, they write:
[W]e have presented our account of animal rights as a logical extension of the doctrine of human rights, and as sharing in its aspirations to universality. To say it aspires to universality is to say, amongst other things, that it is not offered simply as the interpretation of a particular cultural tradition or religious worldview, but as a global ethic, based on values or principles that are accessible to and shared by the world as a whole. (44)
In other words, you may not believe in animal rights, but if you don’t, you’re not being true to your own ethics.
--Tagged under: Book Reviews--
I brought this point up in a larger entry I wrote last year, but maybe it’s worth repeating and updating because that entry was called “Animal Rights Philosophers on Animal Habitat, Part One: Tom Regan,” and I kind of suspect that no one read it. I wouldn’t have!
The basic point was this: one of the problems with saying that animals have rights is that doing so would create a massive class of beings whose rights we may potentially violate, but who cannot violate ours no matter what they do. This class already exists to a lesser extent with babies and other humans who are thought not to be responsible for their actions (and thus are potentially victims but can’t be criminals), but that’s not a major problem because there’s not typically a huge sacrifice involved in giving rights to humans who are incapable of returning the favor. But animal rights would surround us with beings who would suddenly have this asymmetrical advantage over us, this one-way obligation from us to them. Humans are held responsible for violating human rights, and vegans would hold humans responsible for violating animal rights, but animals cannot violate animal or human rights. As far as the rights argument is concerned, animals can hit each other, and they can hit us, but we can’t hit them.
Now, plenty of animal rights philosophers say we have a right to self defense and that we don’t have to be pure pacifists in our relations with other animals, but this only works if they’re putting the same ethical demands on other animals that they want to put on us. For a dispute between humans and other animals to be a dispute between ethical equals, we’d have to say that a lion eating an antelope (especially when the lion wasn’t about to die of starvation) is as much of a rights violation as a human doing the same. Few vegans want to say this because they recognize that other animals can’t be expected to understand our concept of rights. Fair enough, but the problem remains that humans overriding animal interests under any circumstances is always a rights violation, but animals doing the same to us is not. And if we are seeking to prevent rights violations, which is sort of the idea behind rights theory, animal rights would demand that we give animals the upper hand any time our interests come into conflict.
If we followed this consistently, and actually tried to give animals rights based on all their interests, this would straightjacket humans and give other animals free reign. That doesn’t sound too ominous if we’re imagining sheep unapologetically nudging against us. But in a potentially fatal confrontation between a truly rights-conscious human and a nonhuman animal — which I recognize is unlikely if you’re in New York City, London, Toronto, or Los Angeles — the death of the animal would signify a rights violation, but the death of the human would not. (The animal didn’t lose its right to life just because ours may have been in danger, and it doesn’t make ethical sense to punish an irresponsible being.) Therefore, the honest rights approach would say that if humans cannot run from such conflicts, the humans should honorably accept death.
That’s an obscure hypothetical concern for most people likely to read this, but the question of habitat dispute is not. If we were to consistently give animals rights based on their interests, we would have to give them a right to habitat. Habitat rights is something like property rights for animals (or right to sovereignty, as the authors of Zoopolis put it) and the fact that so many animal rights philosophers overlook it is a bit surprising, because habitat is vital for animals to be able to eat, mate and live — all things that appear to be very much in their interests. Doing anything to land that animals inhabit other than cautiously tip-toeing through it (and even that might be trespassing and infringing on animals’ privacy) is a violation of animals’ interests, and thus (according to animal rights theory) also their rights.
It would not, however, be a violation of our rights for animals to invade our settlements and homes. That’s because animals would have rights against us, but we would not have rights against them. What would our ethical basis for removing animals such as mice, rats and opossums from our basements and attics be? We can evict uninvited humans off our property because we say the trespassing humans have a mutual obligation to respect our rights, even though they have rights themselves. (Unless it’s a swarm of colonizing babies, in which case you’re screwed.) But our animal-rights-granting hands are tied if animals choose to make the same play, because they have no obligations to respect us. Human towns would become like a nation that opens its borders to every other citizen in the world, but whose own citizens are not accepted anywhere else in return.
It is not a violation of our rights to not usurp or otherwise use animal habitat to our own ends. Therefore, the rights-committed humanity would need to not do anything that would in any way damage land occupied by nonhumans, or anything else that would violate animal interests. Any time our rights conflicted with the rights of other animals, animals would have priority because we can violate their rights and they can’t violate ours. We would always need to sacrifice for them, and they would never need to sacrifice for us. All disputes would need to be resolved in their favor.
I don’t see how it would be possible for us to manage this and still survive, which would leave a vegan humanity (if professing a rights standard) having to admit that they weren’t actually out to abolish animal rights violations, but rather to reduce certain kinds of rights violations; this would reveal animal rights rhetoric as nothing but a mitigated utilitarianism in disguise. And the problem with utilitarianism — aka “suffering reduction” in the usual vegan interpretation — is that the best way to reduce suffering is to end all sentient life on the planet. You wouldn’t have to go that far with animal rights, though, because to reduce rights violations to nil, you’d only have to get rid of the rights violators: pretty much all humans. Only the very severely mentally impaired humans could stay.
I don’t know, maybe that’s a contradiction we could live with, because you could say the same of human rights — realistically, we’re never going to abolish all human rights violations, so the best we can hope to do is reduce them. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, right? But I think the problem runs deeper with animal rights because giving animals rights based on their interests isn’t even theoretically possible since (assuming we were consistent about it) it would force us to surrender and lose in any interest dispute with animals, whereas rights agreements between humans tend to work out as mutual obligations that are often at least somewhat mutually beneficial. Animal rights’ one-way obligation from humans to animals, which would be mostly detrimental to the humans respecting them (but could have beneficial side-effects, like to the environment), is either hopelessly impractical or suicidal.
If the way you’re phrasing your goal is impossible without human extinction, shouldn’t the goal be phrased another way?
Another way for vegans to phrase it could be to take away the middleman signifier of “rights” and just say “interests.” This way, we abolish the asymmetry of “rights” that gives animals so much more freedom than us; animals can’t violate our rights, but they can violate our interests, and making sacrifices for animals for their interests could go against our own. For instance, it doesn’t violate our rights to voluntarily refrain from doing anything that might destroy animal habitat or infringe on animal interests in any way, but such severe self-constraint could violate our interests. And if we’re allowed to care about our own interests again, we now don’t have to commit suicide every time nonhumans would be better off without us — which is most of the time.
But this plays right into meat eaters’ greedy hands. Since the ability of humans and nonhumans to cooperate is limited (especially in the case of wild nonhumans), saying that human and animal interests are all worth considering leaves us with no definitive standard of where to draw the line between our self-denial and egoism. Without rights, where do our interests end and our obligations to other animals begin?
Unless we’re going to cave into animal interests every time (as we would have to when phrased as “rights”), our weighing of animal interests versus our own can’t help but be arbitrary and self-serving. Does our interest in having highways, books and furniture trump the animals’ interests in the land those highways cut through and fragment? Most vegans seem to think so, or act like they think so, but why? Because it would suck to give up land transportation, books and furniture? But how is that different from meat eaters who think we can violate animals’ interests because it would suck to give up meat?
Oh, “because veganism is about intent and ending exploitation”? But why is veganism about those things when animals cannot distinguish between intentional harms and unintentional harms, or between exploitative harms and non-exploitative harms? And anyway, how is destroying animal habitat for our own desires despite knowing how much this will harm animals well intentioned and non-exploitative?
This is not to say that it’s impossible to argue against animal agriculture without demanding that humans become utterly self-sacrificing (and ideally nonexistent) pacifists. It’s just that there may not be any consistent set of principles that can explain what vegans want to allow and not allow. Animal rights appears to be one of vegans’ failed attempts to logically explain and justify what they want all of us to feel and to do.
— In the next entry, I’ll look at whether the book Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights resolves this problem with animal rights. I’d give you a hint, but I’m not done reading it yet.