"Cox makes some worthy arguments. I’m sure eating local oysters is (in an immediate, direct sense) more environmentally friendly than, say, eating vegan fake meat shipped from a factory halfway around the world. But that’s neither here nor there in regards to veganism."


Vegan Retreat

Is it just me, or is April 7, 2010 the day that veganism died? I’m pretty sure I’m not imagining this, and actually I’m a little pissed off about it. I wanted to kill veganism! Oh well. I’m just impressed that someone pulled it off. Here’s what did the trick:

Consider the Oyster, by Christopher Cox

Donald Watson, the inventor of the word “vegan,” once said that he and his Vegan Society cohorts had released veganism like a genie from the bottle and that it could never be put back in. But yesterday Christopher Cox accomplished exactly that. All it took was one little shell-bound technicality of an animal that is healthy to eat, doesn’t suffer, and isn’t bad for the environment — satisfying all the major supposed goals of veganism. Why the hell didn’t I think of that?

First, let me be clear. It is not compassion and caring for animals that is dead. Nor is someone following a diet that is almost free or even totally free of animal products completely out of the question. It is purity veganism — the strict avoidance of all animal products no matter what without exception, coupled with the belief that it is wrong for anyone else not to follow the exact same restrictions — that has been rudely shown the door.

If I’m caught snickering at the funeral of an ideology that many automatically conflate with compassion and caring, it is not because I believe people should be heartless. It’s because veganism was nutritionally self-destructive, psychologically alienating and not even necessarily in the best interest of animals. That being vegan was motivated by positive intentions and compassion only made it more depressing. Good riddance.

Caring about where your food comes from and attempting to make better choices, however, is great. People can and should concern themselves with what they’re eating and how it got to their plates. But it is now clear that it makes no sense to attempt to do this by being vegan.

I smiled a lot yesterday as I read the vegan reactions to Cox’s article, but these were not smirks of malice. I wasn’t happy to see vegans questioning the premises their ideology because I failed at veganism, and I feel guilty, and I want others to fall short of their noble ideals as I did. I was smiling because dogmatic veganism is in its death throes and we’ll all be better off without it.

Of course not every vegan agreed with Cox. But the nature of the vegan disagreement was more damaging to purity veganism than the substantive number of vegans who did agree. The vegans who shunned veganism plus oysters (“oystro-veganism” as one commenter put it) did so at the cost of making their lifestyle seem like a hypocritical, consistency-obsessed identity label that is more concerned with its own definition than the impact being vegan actually has on the world. VeganOutreach really has their work cut out for them now.

I haven’t yet been deluged with emails from ex-vegans ready for their close-ups, but give it time to sink in. Pretty soon I’ll be so swamped with hateful, bitter ex-vegans besmirching their old beliefs that I’ll only have time to ask one question: “You used to be vegan right?”

So what did vegans say, exactly?

After I read the Slate article, I was particularly curious how the “abolitionist” cell of veganism would respond, since abolitionist vegans are responsible for the worst excesses of vegan hyper morality. So far, most of Gary L. Francione’s followers are eerily quiet, waiting patiently for their leader to pronounce his verdict. Because it would sure look bad if an abolitionist blogger came out against oysters, and then Francione told everyone to dig in.

However, one abolitionist blogger — Vincent at “We Other Animals” — did jump the gun and speak out before Francione had time to think this through for him. But Vincent wisely avoided presenting a coherent stance on the matter.

Vincent wrote: “I am not defending Christopher Cox. He strikes me as a very misguided person who obviously enjoys pleasuring himself with oysters more than he concerns himself with moral questions.”

Hot. Vincent then changes the subject before addressing any of Cox’s points, parroting some Gary L. Francione lines about how vegans should be fighting for animal rights, not welfare, and then signs off with the standard abolitionist blog post conclusion: “If you are not vegan, you should go vegan today. If you are not an abolitionist, but want to learn more about the approach, feel free to read my earlier articles or visit www.abolitionistapproach.com to learn more.”

Is this the best the abolitionists can do? The vegans at Reddit.com were certainly not impressed:

mwryan: “Maybe I’m missing something but all that I see is more of the ‘animals have rights’ without any explication as to why, much less why ALL animals should have rights. Honestly, it seems downright insulting, insinuating that the only way to reach people is to provide an all or nothing framework (all animals have rights, there is no such thing as degrees, and so on), that they will be unable to understand a thoughtful, complex philosophy that actually takes into account why animals should have rights and why some animals may not need be included as moral persons. I really wish he would have gone on about the problems in Cox’s article, rather than calling him misguided because he actually has criteria besides ‘it’s an animal’ to determine moral standing.”

allergic: “But that’s what’s odd. It’s not like abolitionists typically say ‘they’re animals’ and leave it at that. It’s all based on sentience and this author completely ignores that. … If oysters aren’t sentient, calling them ‘animals’ doesn’t get around the core issue here.”

xmux: “No doubt. It makes all vegans look idiotic to be so arrogant and self-righteous about such an arbitrary set of rules. In the real world, people really do expect you to be able to explain to them WHY they shouldn’t eat animals. ‘Look at this guy who eats clams. He cares that animals can suffer. What an asshole! He should read Gary Francione’s website!’”

Luckily, most vegans don’t identify as Francione-philes, and were allowed to make their own conclusions. Many of them agreed with the Cox article, but three distinct anti-oyster, pro-vegan arguments came out of the vegan community yesterday:

1. Vegans don’t eat animal products and oysters are technically animals. 2. Oysters are gross. 3. Oysters aren’t perfect.

1. “Let’s rally behind the definition”:

Meredith M: "You [Christopher Cox] are not a vegan. You will never be a vegan. Stop talking about things that vegans should or should not do, since you are not one of them. It is not okay for vegans to eat oysters because they are animals. There is no such thing as a ‘strict’ vegan. It is a binary value. You are a vegan or you are not. You are not. Please shut up. You are doing nothing but damage to veganism."

Clyne: “Last time I checked, oysters were not plants. Vegans are plant-eaters. End o’ story.”

SuperVegan: “Cox’s basic thesis is that oysters don’t feel pain and that commercial oyster production/harvesting is far more ecologically friendly than most other industrial food production. He gets a qualified endorsement from Peter Singer. One can certainly argue with these things, but he’s basically done his homework. Except for seeming to have no clue what it means to be vegan.

"Because of our very consistency (foolish or not) there’s no gray area for vegans when it comes to eating animals. Cox is trying to be ethical about his consumerism, and that’s great. I just don’t understand how the hell anyone thinks the way he’s going about it can be described as any form of veganism. It isn’t. … Deciding to be vegan means you prioritize the avoidance of animal products over other concerns. That’s not what Cox is doing."

Fizziks: “As a non-bivalve-eating vegan, allow me to say that the problem with your choice is not that it may hurt the oysters, but that it will hurt me. Don’t use my label and muddy the meaning. Vegan means no animal products, period.”

Scott: "This made me roll my eyes like when i meet people that say they are veg*n except they eat chicken or fish. YOU’RE NOT FUCKING VEGAN, THEN, IDIOT! I just wanna smash these fashion vegans in the mouth when they say and do stupid shit like this no matter how well worded their reasoning is."

Steve: “I don’t have an ethical problem per se with the idea of eating oysters, but I do have an ethical problem with the idea of eating oysters and calling yourself vegan.”

Carey: "I am a vegan and I try to be a conscientious person in general. A very simple description of my behavior could be ‘Eat/Consume/Use no animal ingredients.’ Now I realize that there are several areas, like the one presented in this article, where such a behavior might be irrelevant to the goals of my behavior. However, I still choose to adhere to it for what I think is a really good reason: I’m lazy. 

"I don’t know for a fact that eating oysters causes more suffering than not eating them, but I don’t feel at any loss for not eating them. The time and effort required to come to a level of certainty that I would find ethically acceptable far outweighs any incidental benefit of eating oysters.  

"I feel the same way about cage-free eggs. The ideals of cage-free hen raising are consistent with my ethical beliefs. However, those ideals are rarely met and it is very easy to essentially lie about how happy one’s hens are. I could go to the effort of researching any specific farm to make sure that they live up to my ideals. But why go to the effort? Eggs aren’t that amazing. There is so much more food in the world that I don’t have to specifically research.”

MumblingMyna: “If science bred a cow tomorrow that didn’t feel pain, didn’t shit, and only ate excess CO2 emissions, I still wouldn’t eat it (not least of all because that’s creepy). And likewise I’ll continue to not eat oysters. Vegans who make weird exceptions like this are doing the cause and the meaning of the word a disservice.”

Jason: “There’s certainly room for debate about whether veganism is the best policy when it comes to ethical consumption, but eating [ethical animal products] on purpose = not vegan. No way around that.”

mungdiboo: “This is why I will never be caught eating oysters: it would suddenly devolve into an extended conversation about my ‘picky eating’. 'Are crabs ok?' 'Are worms ok?’ ‘Are starfish ok?’”

dyabetti: “Vegan, by definition, means that one does not eat animals or animal products, or use animal products. Claiming to be vegan while eating animals is very confusing to people, which is why they get these weird ideas about what vegetarians or vegans eat. My mother still has this idea that I will eat shrimp, even though I’ve explained it to her a few times… I just get tired of people saying they’re ‘vegan’ when they aren’t.”

Nicole K: “What’s with all the non-vegs who want to call themselves veg? It’s not a cool kids club or fancy badge: its a description of what you don’t eat.”

legacy5k: “Err… are [oysters] a member of the animal kingdom? They are? Well I guess vegans don’t fucking eat them. Wtf?”

Vegans who choose the “vegan by definition” route to address the oyster question will soon find themselves having many conversations like this:

"Why don’t you eat oysters?" "Because they’re an animal and vegans don’t eat animals." "But why are you vegan?" "Because it’s wrong to use animals in any way." "What about oysters?" "Those are animals."

This is like a meat eater defending their animal consumption by defining themselves as a meat eater. This is not a serious philosophy, this is a definition of a behavior. By opposing Cox’s logic on strictly definitional grounds, these vegans embrace a veganism that is nothing more than a consistent aversion to a certain kind of thing.

As SuperVegan implied, being vegan does not mean always making the right choice. It means always making the vegan choice — right or wrong. Which, to potential vegan recruits, is likely to make veganism seem kind of empty and unappealing.

But there’s another reason for vegans not to eat oysters…

2. “Yuck!”

cuberail: “Why would anyone want to eat an oyster?”

chaosopher: “Yeah, after reading the article I am mostly convinced, but still won’t eat oysters.”

Yst: “Personally, I simply couldn’t eat oysters because I can’t eat meat after 10 years or so as a vegan. And I don’t think I could make an exception to a no-meat rule for a single food which I might eat once per year. Nor am I interested in pushing myself to eat something (ie, animal flesh), which I have now long instinctively found disgusting, simply because it might not do any harm.”

rawrrrrr: “I was brought up as a vegetarian, so just the thought of eating meat (any meat) sickens me.”

Dean: "So, I’m a vegan, and I pretty much agree with the article in its entirety. I see no ethical concern surrounding shellfish in general. I don’t, however, eat shellfish, and for two reasons. One is I’ve simply never acquired the taste. The second is that I do see a *pragmatic* value in maintaining the ‘foolish consistency’ of avoiding the animal kingdom altogether. This means I avoid having to make decisions about marginal cases. It also means I avoid re-acquiring the taste for animal flesh, thereby making sticking to veganism in the obvious cases easier."

aaronisamazing: “It’s an interesting angle that I have never heard of before, but I still don’t feel right about it. I’ll give it some more thought, although I’ve never been a fan of oysters, even when I wasn’t vegan.”

Hah: "On the oyster front, [Peter Singer’s arguments] changed my way of thinking about mollusks. Fortunately, I’m allergic to all seafood, including mollusks. Thus I’ve never had to make the choice. I doubt very much, however, that I’d eat them. They react to a lemon squirt, and while that doesn’t indicate pain by a long shot, it would just make me queasy."

llieaay: “[Oysters] are not sentient. No emotion, no thoughts, no desires, no pain. So while eating oysters is denying a living creature, the same could be said about plants. … I don’t eat oysters because being veg since I was 6 has made me squeamish, but I think if pushed I might try (after more reading on oysters and the side effects of harvesting them).”

And then there’s the third, perhaps most plausible reason — oysters aren’t perfect. They may or may not cause environmental damage; there’s still a chance they feel pain; and something just seems wrong about eating them somehow.

3. “There’s gotta be something wrong with eating oysters.”

Dancealways: “I don’t care what the oyster feels or doesn’t feel. It’s alive, and I don’t feel its my right to eat it. Its life, as low functioning an animal as it may be, belongs to it, and not me.”

agnostictinman: “I don’t know whether they feel pain or not — to me that is inconsequential. I wouldn’t eat ANYTHING out of our oceans just because of pollution. Arguments for either side can be made, but I, for one, wish to err on the side of caution. Even if grown in a sterile farm environment, I still don’t think I would eat them (though pre-vegan I loved shellfish), on the off chance they do feel pain. That and we fuck with nature and ‘the circle of life’ to damn much already.”

Victor: "The oyster’s life and future prospects may be trifling compared to my own, or to a steer’s, but please do not pretend this issue is morally uncomplicated just because your conscience remains blissfully untroubled by bleating and struggling as you kill and eat the nutrient-sparse oyster."

Laura: “Your environmental arguments for vegan oyster-eating sound good to me, but I disagree that it’s okay for a vegan to eat them because they don’t mind being raised in captivity and they don’t feel pain when you kill them. If you painlessly anesthetized a humanely-raised pig before slaughtering it, that wouldn’t mean it was vegan-friendly. The problem isn’t the pain (although obviously it’s good to minimize the animal’s pain) or even the horrible conditions under which it was raised (although, again, those should be avoided), the problem is that you’re killing an animal that you don’t have to kill. Of course everyone has their own reasons for vegetarianism or veganism, and if your main objection is the pain of an animal’s death rather than the fact that it’s dying, then I can’t think of any problem with eating oysters.”

Vegansaurus!: “I am going to continue not to eat oysters, because they’re still animals; I don’t kill bugs unless I really, really have to (thankfully I don’t live in a place where bugs and I battle for supremacy). The line is fuzzy, fine, but I would rather be too careful and do as little harm as possible. We’re not just individuals, after all; we have a collective responsibility to our communities, our planet, and each other. Compared to that, what are a few moments of gustatory pleasure? Especially when there are so very many delicious, cruelty-free foods to enjoy.”

Kathleen: “As others have also questioned, how does it really make sense to say an oyster doesn’t suffer? Others here have mentioned various signs of oyster defense mechanisms and indications that oysters can feel pain, but I’m surprised that the most obvious one hasn’t been mentioned: oysters are known for making pearls precisely in an attempt to reduce irritation from embedded grit.”

roucoutant: "I generally have an issue with taking away any animal’s life for my pleasure. It feels like a more trivial concern the further you go down the food chain but for me there’s no strong impetus driving me to challenge it."

E: "All animal brains exist along a continuum of complexity. Since this sort of brain would be at the bottom of that continuum we could fairly assume that these animals have only the simplest form of pain and sentience. But I see no reason why would we assume they have none. … I make no claims on knowing whether oysters feel pain or not, but this article sounds an awful lot like justification to me."

sneakay: “Apart from being disgusting, I see no reason why a vegan would feel it is their right to deny a living creature its right to self-sustaining life. Just because it ‘doesn’t know’ what’s happening to it has never justified the consumption of an animal, by that respect we could then just as easily consume a human who had fallen into a vegetative state and was no longer conscious or even capable of feeling anything. Some people will go to great lengths to justify certain decisions — are oysters REALLY necessary for our survival? Buy some cookbooks if you’re running low on ideas for meals, don’t justify the deaths of some ‘inferior’ creature simply because it’s convenient.”

(In response to this, someone wrote: “I ask you a simple question, then. Why is it okay to eat plants?” The answer? “Eating plants is necessary.”)

ieshido: “They clearly do have a nervous system, otherwise what controls the heart and muscles? Maybe it’s a rudimentary one, but it’s enough to distinguish them from plants and [test tube] meat, and enough of a reason for me to refrain from killing them. … ‘Having a system of nerves’ (which an oyster does) is semantically identical to ‘having a nervous system’. I don’t mention pain, qualia or thought, since these are irrelevant to defining a nervous system.”

(In response to the above, someone wrote: “So you won’t eat anything that ‘has a nervous system’ regardless of whether the object is sensate? That is fucking ridiculous.” “No more ridiculous than refusing to eat an aborted 9-week foetus,” ieshido retorted.)

Though it may not be fully articulated yet, this third reason not to eat oysters — that doing so is more problematic than it seems — is the only one that has potential to go anywhere. But if this argument does evolve, it threatens to turn veganism into an even more perfectionist, absolutist lifestyle than it already is. 

The evolved third argument would have to go something like this: “Yes, eating oysters is ethically equivalent to, or even better than, some aspects of the vegan lifestyle. But there are still aspects of veganism that are ethically superior to eating oysters. Therefore, we will eliminate those aspects of veganism that are less ethical than eating oysters and only continue the aspects that are more ethical than oyster eating.”

In other words, “Let’s make veganism even more strict and ethically pure so we cannot justify eating oysters.”

This may be more logically convincing than “Donald Watson said no animal products whatsoever” or “Gross!” but it will not save veganism.

In a way, this third, uber-perfectionist rationale may be the worst one, because it takes the primary concern of veganism, the suffering of sentient creatures, and warps it beyond recognition. These vegans are saying that it’s not the experience of pain that concerns them, but the fact of physical pain in any form. If abstract pain flitting through the air with nothing to feel it — which is basically the situation if an unconscious creature with no central nervous system plays host to a pain reaction — should be cause for vegan concern, vegans are locked in a futile battle against the very notion of any physical discomfort happening anywhere.

These #3 vegans want to stamp out all instances of defense-inciting stimuli in the world, whether or not the possible pain sensation is experienced in any meaningful way by an actual subject. Pain is an ethical wrong just by being pain, whether or not there’s anyone there to feel it.

That makes no sense. Which is why I was glad to see so many vegans agreeing with Cox that perfect by-the-definition veganism isn’t necessarily the way to go.

Lindsay Bowlin: “I LOVE oysters but live the rest of my life as a vegan. I avoid meat, dairy and eggs. I haven’t worn leather or wool in years (and have never worn fur). Jeez, even my comforter is made out of fake down instead of the real deal. But I’ve never had an ethical issue with eating oysters, mostly due to the no central-nervous system thing.”

Jenna M: "The many, many rude responses to this article - which I believe is well-written, well-argued and sincere - are part of the reason why I will never label myself a vegan. I don’t use any animal products at all, so I could call myself one. However, I will point out that other vegans have also told me I can ‘never’ be a vegan for various reasons, including the fact that I eat yeast products, or the fact that I still respect and love my cattle-ranching family.

"There is never a need to tell someone else what you think they should eat: all you will do is put people off veganism, either because they feel attacked, or because they fear others will see them as the ‘obstinate, self-righteous’ vegan stereotype. I firmly believe more people will appreciate veganism without these arbitrary tests of ‘vegan purity.’ Isn’t the point, in the end, to reduce the suffering of animals and the damage to the earth?"

LostRiot: “Its all about where you draw the line, obviously you’re killing plants too, lots of them, you’re denying them the right to reproduce, to further their species, the right to die and live naturally. Even if you were to only eat the fruit that dropped from a tree you would still be essentially performing abortions on fruit trees. This article is saying that the arguments that apply to drawing the line at plants also apply to oysters. I happen to agree with it, although I have never eaten an oyster myself. Eat what you want and cause the amount of damage to the earth’s ecosystem that you are happy to (vegans are in no way guilt free).”

[Bolding mine, because that’s hilarious.]

Laura O: "I actually really like this article. And even though I’m a strict vegetarian, this really makes me want to broaden my horizons. If they’re not suffering and they’re tasty, sounds good."

brosephstalin33: “I have to have a legitimate reason for everything I exclude from my diet. Animals, fish, and animal products are no brainers. But there is some seafood that do not have the capacity to feel pain, nor does their cultivation or farming have any effect on the environment. So I eat oysters. Can I not call myself a vegan because I don’t follow the “rules” 1% of the time? I hate to confine myself to a “definition” or “standard” decided by someone else. It feels so… fake. I would be cheating my standards if I left oysters off the menu just because I’m supposed to, and not because I think it’s a good idea.”

Davin900: “The Monterey Bay Aquarium maintains a very nice guide to the sustainability of most seafoods. They claim that farmed oysters are fine, environmentally. I actually just started eating seafood after I found this guide. … Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with eating animals per se. I was a vegan for 4 years mostly because I didn’t want to do the research necessary to find out which meats were ethically raised/slaughtered/caught.”

Zelda: “For me being vegan is about my consumption choices not causing suffering. Period. It’s not about personal purity or some spiritual mumbo-jumbo about the idea of not consuming animals being a purer way of life. So for me the distinction with oysters is an important one. … Of course, the environmental impact of oyster farming would still be a huge concern, but to me that goes without saying - the environment should be considered for all our consumption choices.”

Deemer76: “A classic definition of vegan is a person who does not eat or use animal products. In which case NONE of us is vegan. To quote PETA: ‘Frankly, some not-quite-vegan food is more vegan than the streets and tires we drive on, the houses we live in, the petroleum products we use, and many other animal-based products.’ Stop focusing on labels of impossible purity and more on actions that reduce suffering.”

The reason Cox’s article is so important is not that he concocted a new argument. The bivalve question has been an issue for vegans at least since the original edition of Animal Liberation, in which Peter Singer admitted to eating them. But up until now, vegans could easily put it out of their minds. Yesterday Christopher Cox took the issue to Slate and forced vegans to face the contradiction. And those vegans who refused to own up to it ended up looking ridiculous.

For Cox the exceptions to veganism end with oysters, but once more vegans accept the notion that animal products are not always bad every single time, other grey zones may be explored. “What about delicious insects?” for instance. “Or eggs from a farm that I know has happy chickens?” It will be almost impossible now for vegans to justify not eating something purely because that thing is not vegan.

Nevertheless, veganism in its current form won’t completely vanish overnight (note that veganism still appears to exist today.) There are plenty of reasons for someone to maintain their purity veganism, even if these reasons can no longer be accepted as logical or compassionate.

After you go without animal products for long enough, it’s difficult to muster any enthusiasm for eating them, especially if you don’t have any health problems. There are vegans who have no ethical problem with eating meat out of a dumpster yet don’t because they are disturbed by it, or don’t see meat as food anymore. So there will continue to be vegans who have no problem with eating oysters but for various reasons (refusal to eat abominations, not liking the taste, fear of getting sick, identity clutching, allergies, abhorrence of flesh) choose not to.

Because it’s not like Cox made the case that vegans must eat oysters to be consistent with their ideals. True, eating oysters arguably causes less environmental destruction and death than harvesting grains, so maybe some vegans will feel ethically obligated to skip the rice and crack open a few shells. But there will still be vegans who see no need for ethical bivalve consumption. “Eating oysters isn’t necessary,” they’ll say, even if they don’t have an honest argument against it.

But whether or not vegans change their diets in reaction to Cox’s article is essentially irrelevant. Vegans have been forced to confront that their ideology is based on a serious misconception — that it is always better to eat plants than to eat animals. Sometimes eating animals is just as good as, or even better than, eating plants. The healthy, sustainable oyster proves it, even if the majority of vegans can’t be bothered to take oysters up on their delicious non-sentience.

It’s possible that veganism will just quietly rewrite its rules to include the option of oysters and go merrily on its way. Being an oyster-eating vegan could become as uncontroversial as being a vegan who eats honey. But a veganism that allows meat is not the veganism that exists today.

So, yeah. Veganism as we now know it is over.